In contemporary political theory there is a remarkable readiness to adopt a Hobbesian view of liberty as the absence of impediment as the normative basis for theorizing about politics. This normative starting point goes hand-in-hand with a Hobbesian view of political authority, according to which loss of liberty is the price paid for accepting the obligations authority imposes, even when this is done willingly in the interests of peace and self-conservation. I seek to challenge such a view of political authority; furthermore, to show that it is not confined to those who explicitly endorse a Hobbesian position, but is rather the logical implication of the view of subjectivity underpinning Hobbes’ conception.
Against those who subscribe to the Hobbesian view of political authority, I endorse Hannah Arendt’s view that authority is conceptually connected with freedom. Taking seriously this conceptual connection allows for important distinctions between authority and domination and casts light on the relationship between authority and authoritarianism.
But what exactly is the nature of the conceptual connection that Arendt asserts? My answer diverges from Arendt, who speaks of subjects retaining their freedom. Instead, I conceive of the relationship between authority and individual freedom as mutually constitutive: authority engenders freedom and vice-versa. In the first part of the paper, I make a connection between the Hobbesian view of political authority and a view of subjectivity I find problematic. In the second part I present the main elements of a re-articulated conception of individual autonomy, as the core of a reconceptualised idea of individual freedom. In the third part, using Habermas’ writings on law and democracy as a point of reference, I confront the question of the mutually constitutive relationship between political authority and autonomy.