Legitimate & Illegitimate Authority

On Thursday evening the widely acclaimed author Susan George presented the Ted Wheelwright Memorial Lecture at the University of Sydney, on the difference between legitimate and illegitimate authority. These are some of my scribbles.


Susan George started by reminding us that democracy is and will always be a work in progress—something you do not something you get.

The Problems with Neo-liberalism

She put into perspective the new neo-liberal model of politics, which continue to get stronger even after the last financial crash. Financial markets continue to be deregulated, more derivatives are being traded now than ever, the fortunes of those at the top are greater than 2008 and the poor are poorer.

Neo-liberalism has spread around world. It is propagated by those in power for whom it is in their own interests to spread those ideas.

Gramsci said that one cannot rule through force and oppression alone, one has to to penetrate minds. One must take a “long march through institutions”. In the last forty years, the propagators of the neo-liberal model have done just that. They started in the place where ideas are developed and disseminated—in university research—and they have spread out from there.

Large Corporations are in Power

Neo-liberals want to privatise medical and education. They take no care for small and medium business. Why? Because they are run by Trans-National Corporations (TNC).

TNC are in power. It is the TNC that are making government decisions. They are exercising their power without responsibility. It is difficult for citizens to intervene.

Is this power legitimate? In the legal sense: yes. In a valid/justifiable sense: no, I don’t think so. It seems to me that in democratic countries people and those they elect should have power to make decisions in the interests of citizens without TNCs guiding those decisions in the interests of the global corporate class.

Sectoral lobbyists, funded by major organizations, come in guise. Susan George gave an example:

The “Global Food Information Council” pose themselves as the protectors of industry. They pay scientists to create doubt, to publish in respectable journals and papers, and to create debate where there isn’t any. They create fake consumer groups, posing that citizens want freedom of choice in food, even when it’s almost poison. They use scare mongering. They work to prevent legislation that they don’t want.

Private ratings agency are paid by the security companies they are rating. The TNC take advantage of every country without contributing the tax. They try to create regulations that weaken the control of governments.

The big one for Australia is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPPA) – which will allow TNC to sue the State if they think that their “expected profits have been jeopardised”. This could cost millions or billions to tax payers. TNCs do not want limits on Co2. This is an illegitimate use of authority. It is manipulative, deceitful, and serves only a small group of people at the top of The Pyramid of power.

What do the TNC want?

It’s not a conspiracy – its just interests. The TNC can do without democracy. Facts are not enough. Their narrative is very powerful.

Susan George called it “expansionary austerity”. The government cuts budgets and increases taxes in order to essentially take from the poor and give to the rich.

Why do government’s agree to the TNC proposals? Is it because they like to be chums with those at the top? Most of all it is because the neo-liberal narrative is all consuming.

What can we do?

We need to create another story that is more powerful than theirs. We need to insist on legitimate authority, with responsibility.

Media has been manipulated but neo-liberalism has been discredited. Even the IMF says that neo-liberalism doesn’t work, admitting they “made a mistake in the math”.

The media need to understand it. Citizens need to understand it.

And the new story needs to take a “long march through the institutions” just as neo-liberalism did. It needs to evolve into a new cultural hegemony—one that is more peaceful, socially just and environmentally sustainable.

The international political-economic-social system has to see where it is heading. It is running toward a cliff. Unless we can abort!


Stuart Rees (my boss) and my lovely friend Sarah Shores at the after-party at Hermanns Bar.


Emeritus Professor Frank Stilwell, a mastermind behind more socially just and ecologically sustainable economics, legend lecturer at University of Sydney (with a Facebook fan club to show it), organiser of the Ted Wheelwright Memorial Lecture, and dear friend who I was so fortunate to have many-a lunches with while assisting his and Jake Lynch’s Political Economy of Conflict and Peace class in 2011.

More on the Global Pyramid:

Preserving “The Pyramid”: Why Things Are The Way They Are

YouTube and the Global Pyramid

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  1. Patricia Hefferan RN MA
    19 Jan ’17    

    This presentation was supposed to address legitimate and illegitimate power. No where were these words used. Were they to be inferred of were they implied?

    • 19 Jan ’17    

      Hi Patricia, good point! I mentioned it at the end (now italicised), and the rest was inferred. The notes are kind of rough, sorry, but Susan George’s talk was great – check her out on YouTube if you’re interested in more on this topic. I’ve added a paragraph to make the relationship to legitimate and illegitimate power more explicit – starting with the words in italics “Is this power legitimate?” Hope that helps clarify!

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