One of the most comforting images we have inherited from the nineteenth century is of authority: a sentimental picture of a kindly father, superimposed on the face of a boss or a political leader. This notion of authority was based on paternalism of a literal kind—the paternalism of fathers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who were, in effect, the bosses of farms and businesses run as family enterprises. But in the more fragmented and disorderly families of the nineteenth century, few fathers had such secure control over either their children’s work or their behavior. This did not change people’s need to imagine fathers as benevolent authorities; nor did it prevent such desires from being converted into metaphors of the leader as a father, and the boss as a father. These new images, based more on longings than on the realities of social or economic life, concealed the fact that employers were anything but protective and loving in their relations with their employees.
The history of paternalism in the nineteenth century is pervaded by disappointment and confusion. When people looked to their employers for the guidance they once received from their fathers, and didn’t get it, they found their idea of the authority figure had to change. But no new image of authority was clearly suggested by this disappointment. Under modern industrial conditions, what a boy learns about his father’s protectiveness is not what a young adult learns about a boss. Relations at work are hardly a natural extension of relations in the family. As a child leaves the family, he or she can only see the primary relationships there reflected in work or politics as in a distorting mirror. This distorting mirror of authority is a legacy from the last century which still troubles our society.
In the earlier part of the nineteenth century workhouses, asylums, and prisons were described in paternalistic imagery more frequently than were factories. These corrective institutions not only punished their inmates but also attempted to “reform” their characters—a duty that the institutions claimed for themselves “in loco parentis.” It was believed that there were certain moral diseases which the normal family was too weak to cope with: insanity, sexual perversion, and the like. Other diseases, it was thought, were caused by abnormal family life: indolence, “despairing alcoholism,” prostitution. Moreover, it was assumed that if the authority which replaced the parent were to succeed where the natural parent failed, the liberty of the person being treated would have to be radically curtailed.
In the famous Panopticon model prison designed by Jeremy Bentham, for instance, the cells are arranged in a circle around a central observation tower, so that the inmates can be constantly observed by doctors, workhouse managers, or prison guards. The inmates cannot talk to each other, nor can they see whether the guards are observing them, since Bentham designed an ingenious set of louvers and blinds for the central guard tower. (The plan of the Panopticon, published in 1843, was later used…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.