A central assumption in much contemporary scholarship is that a central shift has taken place over the course of the last four decades: a shift from a world largely centered on public authority to a world that is increasingly dominated by private authority. The central expression of this shift is seen to be a concurring move from public to private law and thus from legislation to contract as the central legal instrument structuring economic as well as other social processes.
While developments in this direction can certainly be observed, this article provides a more nuanced perspective. Outlining a long-term historical perspective, this article reconstructs the manifold and volatile dynamic between institutionalized forms of public and private authority. It does so on the basis of the argument that, in the course of this evolutionary process, the very function and meaning of both public and private authority has been fundamentally altered. This alteration implies the transformation of both dimensions into functionally limited and more specific phenomena. With this background, it becomes possible to argue that societal evolution is characterized by a dual expansion of both public and private forms of authority.
The starting point is an understanding of authority as condensed power. Asymmetric relations implying either direct or indirect forms of domination are observable throughout society and are as such an intrinsic element of all social relations and processes. Authority is, however, based on a particular institutionalization of power, typically delineated and condensed with the help of legal instruments. Under radical modern conditions, law becomes constitutive for authority to the extent that one might argue that no form of authority exists outside its legal form.
With this background, the article argues that the pre-1945 world at the local, national, and transnational level of world society was characterized by a relative dominance of private forms of authority. The process leading to state-based modern public law gaining not only a formal but also a factual capacity to structure societal processes was a century-long process: a process which implied an epic struggle aimed at undermining and eradicating alternative centers of public and private authority in society. It was, however, a first in the mid-twentieth century that an outright breakthrough of this claim and aspiration could be observed. This implied a respecification of public and private authority that remains central to our understanding of authority to this day.