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Understanding Modern Society: Why Luhmann Matters

On the welfare state:

Luhmann once wrote that the welfare state is a formula to describe a political system where the elites are obliged to take decisions on matters they would prefer to ignore. Most people do not think of the welfare state in that way, but his observation is quite accurate. Rather than conceive of the welfare state in terms of social benefits for the more disadvantaged members of society, Luhmann draws our attention to functional aspects of the welfare state that go far beyond old age security, unemployment insurance and publicly funded medical care. One such aspect pertains to the ever-growing areas in which government feels impelled to act, either by legislating rules governing behavior therein or by spending money on programs in response to problems. That the government feels impelled to act has little to do with the ideological agenda of the government in power and much to do with the functioning of democracy itself. As the people in all their diversity get included in the political process, they have the power to make their voices heard on those issues that concern them. It is, of course, the presence of the opposition that gives them this power, but there it is and the government knows it. On top of that, the very functioning of a modern society produces an ever-increasing number of problems. Some of them, like medical progress, are even good problems. Others, like nuclear energy or deep sea oil drilling, can have more negative effects. But the problems often wind up on the doorstep of governments, thereby expanding the scope of public involvement in social life. Which is why the welfare state keeps growing in spite of all the grumbling, with no end in sight. Modern society is a busy society, and the welfare state is testimony to that.

That is why the welfare state is not only concerned with the disadvantaged. Its agenda is potentially limitless. The government has to make sure that air travel is safe and that eating in restaurants does not lead to food poisoning. It has to ensure that new drugs are reliable, toys are lead free, and car seats are up to scratch. It tries to make sure the economy functions smoothly, social security programs will be solvent, and car emissions will be efficient. Sometimes it thinks it should promote home ownership, discourage racism, and prevent bullying. It oversees national parks, declares certain places national heritage sites, and ponders

the wisdom of banning pit bulls. And this only scratches the surface. Small wonder that its capacity to deal with problems is quickly outstripped by the available resources. The problem lies not, as the left-wing critics would have it, with the contradiction between the needs of the people and those of private capital. The problem lies with the very success of modern society itself. The more it evolves, the more problems arise, the more demands emerge to address them. In that sense, the crisis of the welfare state these critics love to write about is endemic to modernity. Which makes it not a crisis, but a fact of life in the modern world.


On love:

But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?

If ingratitude fuels the welfare state, disappointment does much the same for intimate love. Which makes the question in the title of this chapter the central dilemma of love relationships. Not surprisingly, the question is also the title of a pop song, for when everyone can fall in love with someone somehow, as another pop song puts it, everyone wonders how to make it last.

Of course, love could always get out of hand. That’s what Socrates tried to explain to young Alcibiades.  One doesn’t want to wind up at the mercy of one’s passions and play the fool. Better to keep your love for God, or wisdom. Nearly two millennia later Spinoza, writing on the cusp of modernity, said much the same thing. Our passions, especially love, subjugate us. Defined as joy accompanied by the idea of an external cause, love affects us strongly because it impinges on us through our bodies, and the body, for Spinoza, was the first idea of the mind. It took a wise man to get a handle on that and learn to master the passions that buffeted us, all of them being but variations of joy, sadness and appetite. When a man did that he achieved understanding. Then he knew what was called God’s glory.

From Socrates to Spinoza love was socially channeled toward God. Even when fixated on another human being, the ideal was that of courtly love, noble and unattainable. If love overflowed those boundaries, it quickly degenerated into the realm of the devil. Sexual love inevitably wound up as frenzy and threatened the social order; hence its frequent association with witchcraft. With the advent of modern times, erotic love entered the social marketplace. One might even say it helped to usher them in. True, from 1500 on a market economy was gaining ground in Europe. The Protestant Reformation had left its mark as well. But everywhere the old order still seemed well in the saddle. England had overthrown a king, but restored his son. Absolutism reigned in seventeenth century France, and it would take another century for the fissures in that order to crack wide open. What effect could a handful of novels have on the way love would be experienced?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. For in his masterly dissection of French, British and German novels on love from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Luhmann showed how people, especially women, learned to love from reading those novels. What they contained was the modern codification of intimacy.

On art:

What is key now is how objects – events, life, reality – are presented. How do color and line combine to give us form? How are words strung together to produce thoughts and images? Notes and chords follow each other and the world we hum is different. Everything changes, the body, even time itself. What is a scream, after Munch’s painting? What is time, after Eliot’s Prufrock? What is a song, or a day in the life, after Sergeant Pepper and A Magical Mystery Tour? Art is beyond intention, beyond the individual artist’s struggle to represent reality or his relationship to it sincerely. Authenticity turns out not to be an adequate criterion to judge a literary work. When Joyce’s Ulysses first came out, it was hauled before the courts on obscenity charges. But more to the point, people thought: who talks or thinks like that, so who can write like that? But stream of consciousness entered the modern novel and never left. Now people do talk and think like that. As well him as another, says Molly Bloom to herself at the end of the novel, and intimate life has caught up with that phrase.

In their battle to defeat the obscenity charges, Joyce’s defenders had recourse to the rallying cry of modern art: art for art’s sake. How a work of art informs its audience is a matter for aesthetic judgment, not moral opinion or preconceived social purpose. But such an argument only carried conviction once art had emancipated itself from society and became what is now called the art world. In other words, art had become functionally differentiated from other social spheres. One of the signs that this had happened was, paradoxically, its further internal differentiation. If Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon wrecked traditional representation and inaugurated cubism, it also heralded, albeit unknowingly, painting’s future explosion into so many different directions: Dadaism, Surrealism, Kandinsky and Pollock, Mondrian and de Kooning, Dali and Lichtenstein. The spinoffs were endless and have continued to this day; and not only in painting. Which raised a perplexing question in every domain that generated heated debate: if all this is art, then what is art?


If modern art has shown us that the canvas presents rather than represents, we might extend that insight to modern politics. Democracy is not to be understood for the adequacy with which the government represents the electorate and condemned for failing to do so. There are simply too many issues to deal with that set it up for failure in this regard.

Instead, the task of a modern politician is first to select the issues he or she judges important enough to deal with and much like the artist, present his or her case to the electorate. Indeed, the modern politician is doing this all the time, even between elections. Understandably, he or she must also be a good actor, and always on. We judge our politicians by how well they present their case, just as we judge our artists by the works they present. We do not judge their intentions, almost impossible to divine, nor their authenticity. Why should we do so with our politicians? Unless, of course, we are on the hunt for culprits, which draws our attention away from how things work and directs it to the moral concern of how we think things ought to work. But intention, which we recognize is of little use in love or art except to get on our moral high horse, is of no more use in politics.

By your works you shall be known, the Bible has it. It is still true, and signals the often-remarked affinity between the artistic and religious experience. For what is revelation other than the insights which arise after pressing your mind up against experience? We look at Magritte’s painting and ponder and wonder what the artist is trying to tell us. We talk to ourselves and others, read up on what they have written, watch television programs about ways of seeing.  Just as we read the Bible, wonder what the people are up to, wonder what God means when He tells Cain sin coucheth at the door but you shall master it.  We listen to sermons, consult exegeses, read modern novels that retell the stories of Genesis. Oddly enough, it is one of the last to emerge functionally differentiated social spheres – modern art – that reveals to us the enduring appeal of that social system – religion – which embodied traditional society and against which the former rose in revolt. But that can only be seen when you are no longer tilting against windmills.

On theory:

Because a system has to maintain its difference from its environment, all systems for Luhmann are both autopoietic and self-referential. These fancy words mean that firstly, a system is composed of those specific elements which maintain its difference from its environment. Secondly, the first function of these elements is to reproduce the system. Otherwise, the system would collapse. In the case of societies, or social systems, this means that a society that organizes difference in a certain way will continue to maintain the same patterns of difference, because, like any system, it has no interest in generating its own destruction. So societies that organize difference in order to avoid any emergence of rank will, as Lévi-Strauss pointed out, bend all their energies to prevent the emergence of chieftainship. These are societies where the principal line of difference in society is kinship.

Traditional societies, by contrast, organize themselves according to the principle of hierarchy. The generalized symbolic media of exchange circulate accordingly, which means they are restricted to enjoyment by the upper stratum of society. Indeed, the upper classes of traditional societies are society. Only they count. Only there does society sparkle. An echo of what this means could still be seen in the practice of coming out, where the daughters of those considered in society made their appearance at a debutante’s ball. By then modern society had been well underway, but the vestiges of tradition still lingered in the expression, high society.

In modern society, where difference is organized according to function, the generalized symbolic media of exchange circulate much more widely and democratically. Understandably, a society which organizes difference according to rank has no desire, so to speak, in becoming modern, because that would spell its end. And every society, like any system, is designed first and foremost to reproduce itself.

Societal change, therefore, is somewhat like natural selection in biology. Societies do change, as we know from history, but it is very hard to predict when they will and pinpoint when that happens or happened. What we can do is note that this in fact does occur and record the differences between one form of society and another, just as we note the differences between one celled life forms and mammals. Again, as in biology, we can see that certain forms are more highly adaptable to the environment, and as such constitute more complex forms of organization than previous ones. In sociology as in biology, therefore, we can talk of evolution. Luhmann would argue that modern society constitutes a higher degree of complexity than its predecessor. And indeed, this is what we mean when we say modern society is a richer or more powerful form of society than traditional or primitive society. It is more adaptable, possesses greater flexibility, is better equipped to deal with the problems that face it, even if the problems are the kinds of problems produced by modern complexity. This would also explain the attractive force modernity exerts on traditional societies, however much they resist it. What other observers have called the universal drive or tendency of modern society to gobble up and transform traditional societies and remake them in its image.

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