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December 6th, 2011 at 7:58 am

Hans Georg-Moeller: Niklas Luhmann, the Radical and Occupy Wall Street

The Radical Luhmann, Hans-Georg MoellerThe following is a post by Hans Georg-Moeller, author of The Radical Luhmann:

Unfortunately, the radicalism of Niklas Luhmann’s theory of society has often been ignored, misunderstood, or watered down. This is unfortunate because the theory is probably the most powerful one out there right now for explaining how society works. Its radicalism is much needed. And why is that?

Simply put, because the dominating ideologies currently available still operate with the humanist vocabulary of early modernity, with all its notions of freedom, rights, recognition, the other, justice—you name it. These concepts may sound appealing, but they are theoretically shallow—for instance, with respect to understanding the social phenomena connected with the recent financial crisis. It happened because of “greed”? Is this all that the “Occupiers of Wall Street” can offer us as an explanation? We need a radical theory so that those protesting in the streets will begin to comprehend what it is that they are protesting against, and so that they may begin to drop their moralistic jargon (which they share with the Republicans, by the way).

In his 1997 essay “Globalization or World Society? How to Conceive of Modern Society?” Luhmann already described the “new centrality of international financial markets; the corresponding marginalization of production, labour, and trade; and the transfer of economic security from real assets and first-rate debtors to speculation itself,” which created an economy focusing on “financial products” rather than goods and undermined traditional economic couplings with, for instance, infrastructure, means of production, or the legal system. Luhmann understood that the “volatility of the financial market with its new derivative instruments for simultaneously maximizing security and risk with unpredictable effects” had led to the following situation: “He who tries to maintain his property will lose his fortune, and he who tries to maintain and increase his wealth will have to change his investments one day to the next. He can either use new derivative instruments or trust some of the many funds that do this for him.” For Luhmann all this cannot be explained on the basis of the traditional vocabulary of “exploitation” or tackled with ethical appeals.

What we need is a radical departure from seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century thought, and the guts to look into the mirror without old wigs and fancy dresses that show us in all our assumed human dignity and moral beauty. Most disappointingly, in the course of the “Dialectics of Enlightenment,” the radical options that were once available, like Marxism, have now become the opium of the bourgeoisie. Luhmann’s theory is “radical” in the sense that it provides an entirely new framework for understanding how global society operates on a basic level, how social complexity emerges, how we are immersed in a relentless matrix of communication that has swallowed us and that provides us with a variety of comfort and illusions. Marx had meticulously and coldly described how the capitalist mode of production had shaped a society of industrialist production of goods and, in line with that, a merciless dictatorship of money. Luhmann, equalling Marx in meticulousness and coldness, describes how, in “postindustrial” times, communication systems have taken over and allow for a rich variety of modes of “exchange,” in which any claim for human control or for “making a difference” that the Wall Street occupiers hope for must seem absurd.

If society actually evolves, and this is one of Luhmann’s most basic premises, then it cannot be steered. The main difference between evolutionism and creationism is that the latter believes in “intelligent design” and “guidance from above.” Evolutionism, however, does not. Unfortunately, the illusion of intelligent design and guidance from above still dominates “postenlightenment” social theory, only in a secularized version. Once this was the job of God and His helpers on earth. Now the helpers claim that they can do the job alone. But this is not how the real world has ever operated. Perhaps we should finally liberate ourselves from the liberal premises that we can determine basically whatsoever on the basis of our “free will.” The free will and the free market are specters that still haunt contemporary society. To exorcise them, a little radicalism may be needed, and this will imply, as was the case with Marx, a radical departure from the values and ideas of bourgeois moralists, leading far beyond what is currently offered by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

We do not need to despair, however. Just as we survived the insights of not being at the center of the universe, of not being the crown of creation, and of not being the master of our unconscious drives and social constraints, we can also survive Luhmann’s sociological insult. The sociological insult finally liberates us from the illusion that we can, and therefore must, control society (or communication). It may be at first disappointing to let go of illusions of control and controllability, but it can turn out to be a relief. In a surprising turn, Luhmann offers us a new form of radical theoretical stoicism and thus enables us to find a degree of intellectual tranquility in the midst of the follies and the frenzy of a globalized world.


  1. El dilema de los clásicos y el lugar de Niklas Luhmann en la teoría sociológica: Apuntes para una biografía intelectual. : Sistemas Sociales says:

    [...] sería si la propia enseñanza de la teoría sociológica ha llevado a, en palabras de Moeller (2011), ignorar, malentender o aguar la teoría de sistemas y su radicalidad. (Sociología Para [...]

  2. William N. Weaver says:

    Your connection between Marx and Luhmann is a bit disturbing. Marx’s influence on events in the twentieth century, after all, can hardly be called benign. I cannot claim to have yet read all of Luhmann’s work. I read his book on law recently, and am currently reading his book on art. Here he does not entirely ignore “psychic systems” as he calls us. Luhmann is hardly unique in his call to give up control – this is an old idea in Zen or Taoist thought. Finally, I would say that my current difficulty / problem with Luhmann’s theory, and perhaps all of sociology (I’m not a sociologist, so please forgive), is that I believe he cannot account for society according to his own theory. Fine, on a theoretical level, we can discuss it. But it seems to me that society does not exist. Yes, Margaret Thatcher also said that. So perhaps this is not the type of “radicalism” you have in mind. Nonetheless, by my reading so far, Luhmann fails to define society, or the larger “environment” of the system in a real or meaningful way. There is no such animal. We do have perhaps, “subsystems,” as Luhmann defines it, moving about and bumping up against one another at various points, which also could be called “structural coupling” – another concept of Luhmann’s which I think is very powerful. Yet nonetheless, there must be a larger entity, an environment or container for these subsystems, in order for Luhmann’s theory to work. Also, I don’t see how you can completely ignore human “psychic systems,” when Luhmann clearly does not ignore them; he just chooses not to talk about them when it suits his purpose. And how is this shift away from humanism truly different in any meaningful way from the rest of sociology? After all, “the insight that societies have their own reasoning and logic that does not correspond to those of the individuals who inhabit them virtually defines sociology.” This is a “premise . . . basically unchanged since the days of Marx and Engels[.]” Thomas O. Beebee, Can Law-and-Humanities Survive Systems Theory?, 22 Cardozo Stud. & Lit. 244, 249 (2010). Which leads me back to Marx’s influence on the evolution of systems, especially many millions of psychic systems whose operations ceased as a result of those ideas put into practice. Hopefully Luhmann’s influence will be a bit more benign.

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