The Self-Organisation of Society- Part II

2.1.2 The Synchronous Description of Society. 1

2.1.3 The Diachronic Description of Society. 9

2.2. Society as the Unity of Different Qualitative Systems. 10

2.1.2 The Synchronous Description of Society

There is a difference between employing words for a curtate description of empirically given phenomena and employing words as a sort of “glasses” for viewing the world (categories).

The notion of “society” first of all means thinking about human beings and imagining “all human beings together” as society. This is the empirical concept of society. Unity here is considered as a unity of many human beings and can be described in two different ways: on the one hand in its systematic structure (synchronous) and on the other hand as temporal process (diachronic). Concerning the philosophical concept of dialectic we employ, the first approach refers to the dialectical logic (logical relationships of categories) and the second to the historical logic (temporal evolution) – here still within the logic of essence[i]. We first deal with the synchronous description of society.

Sociological theories can be categorised by the way they relate structures and actors (see Fuchs/Hofkirchner/Klauninger 2002). Individualistic and subjectivistic theories consider the human being as an atom of society and society as the pure agglomeration of individual existences. Structuralistic and functionalistic theories stress the influence and constraints of societal structures on the individual and actions. Dualistic sociological theories conceive the relationship of actors and structures as independent, arguing that actors are psychological systems that don’t belong to societal systems. Finally, dialectical approaches try to avoid one-sided solutions of this foundational problem of sociology and conceive the relationship of actors and structures as a mutual one.

Functionalist and structuralistic positions are unable to see human beings as reasoning, knowledgeable agents with practical consciousness and argue that society and institutions as subjects have needs and fulfil certain functions. This sometimes results in views of a subjectless history which is driven by forces outside the actors’ existence that they are wholly unaware of. The reproduction of society is seen as something happening with mechanical inevitability through processes of which societal actors are ignorant. Functionalism and structuralism both express a naturalistic and objectivistic standpoint and emphasise the pre-eminence of the societal whole over its individual, human parts. Mechanistic forms of stucturalism reduce history to a process without a subject and historical agents to the role of supports of the structure and unconscious bearers of objective structures (Althusser).

In individualistic social theories structural concepts and constraints are rather unimportant and quite frequently sociality is reduced to individuality. There is a belief in fully autonomous consciousness without inertia. E.g. methodological individualists such as von Mises, Schumpeter and von Hayek claim that societal categories can be reduced to descriptions of the individual. “If interpretative sociologies are founded, as it were, upon an imperialism of the subject, functionalism and structuralism propose an imperialism of the social object“ (Giddens 1984: 2).

In Hegelian terms, individualism reduces society to individual being-in-itself or abstract, pure-being, whereas structuralism and functionalism consider the role of the human being in society merely as being-for-another and determinate-being. Only dialectical approaches to society consider the importance of both aspects, unity as being-in-and-for-itself. Already Hegel criticised atomistic philosophies (Hegel 1830I: §§ 97, 98) by saying that they fix the One as One, the Absolute is formulated as Being-for-self, as One, and many ones. They don’t see that the One and the Many are dialectically connected: the One is being-for-itself and related to itself, but this relationship only exist in relationship to others (being-for-another) and hence it is one of the Many and repulses itself. But the Many are one the same as another: each is One, or even one of the Many; they are consequently one and the same. As those to which the One is related in its act of repulsion are ones, it is in them thrown into relation with itself and hence repulsion also means attraction.

Also Marx criticised the reductionism of individualism in his critique of Max Stirner (Marx/Engels 1846: 101-438) and put against this the notion of the individual that is estranged in capitalism and that can only become a well-rounded individual in communism. Stirner says that the individual can only be free if it gets rid of dominating forces such as religion, state, and even society and humankind. He argued in favour of a “union of egoists” and stressed the superiority of the individual and the uniqueness of the ego. Societal forces would be despotic, they would limit and subordinate the ego of the individual.

Marx interposes that: 1. individualism doesn’t see the necessarily societal and material interdependence of individuals and doesn’t grasp their process of development because it limits itself to advise them that they should proceed from themselves.  “Individuals have always and in all circumstances “proceeded from themselves”, but since they were not unique in the sense of not needing any connections with one another, and since their needs, consequently their nature, and the method of satisfying their needs, connected them with one another (relations between the sexes, exchange, division of labour), they had to enter into relations with one another“ (Marx/Engels 1846: 423).

2. Individualism wouldn’t adequately reflect the real conflicts in the world and due to an idealistic inversion of the world it would replace political praxis by moralism. Stirner wants do away with the “private individual” for the sake of the “general”, selfless man, but consciousness is separated from the individual and its existence in the real, material world. “It depends not on consciousness, but on being; not on thought, but on life; it depends on the individual’s empirical development and manifestation of life, which in turn depends on the conditions obtaining in the world. If the circumstances in which the individual lives allow him only the [one]-sided development of one quality at the expense of all the rest, [If] they give him the material and time to develop only that one quality, then this individual achieves only a one-sided, crippled development. No moral preaching avails here“ (Marx/Engels 1846: 245f).

In medieval thinking individual meant inseparability and identity, it was a concept that denoted the relationship of a private human being to God (mediated by the church). An individual was defined as a fixed member of a certain group, as inseparable from its social role. The possibility of becoming something else was very limited in medieval times. The term individual was connected to the religious idea of the unity and indivisibility of the Trinity (God, Jesus, Holy Ghost). Until the 18th century the term individual was rarely used without explicit relation to the group of which it was the ultimate indivisible division. With the rise of capitalism mobility increased, at least some men could change their status. The understanding of the term individual changed and the individual was considered as being separable from its social role. With the movement against feudalism and traditional religion there was a stress on a man’s personal existence over and above society. Individualism has had its rise with the emergence of modern, i.e. capitalist society and is related to ideas that have been developed during the course of the enlightenment such as a free will as well as rationally and responsible acting subjects. The enlightenment formed an integral element of the process of establishing modern society. The concept of the modern individual is also one that has been made possible by questioning religious eschatologies of an unalterable and God-given fate of humankind. The rise of this modern notion of the individual has also been interrelated with the rise of the idea of “free” entrepreneurship in market society. Freedom has been conceived in this sense as an important quality and essence of the modern individual. The idea of the modern individual can be seen as a logical consequence of the liberal-capitalist economy. According to this concept, morally responsible and autonomous personalities can develop on the basis of economical and political freedom that is guaranteed by modern society and trade is considered in a model which postulates separate individuals who decide, at some starting point, to enter economic relationships and produces a collective result due to their egoistic interests (theorem of the invisible hand). It also stresses that society guarantees individuality by removing obstacles to individual freedom and to rational and reasonable actions. In the ideology of individualism, individuality is clearly identified with following self-interest economically. Egoism and selfishness are often fetishised by assuming that they are natural characteristics of all individuals and that they emerge from rational and autonomous thinking. But it can also be argued that our modern society is not reasonable because it does not guarantee happiness and satisfaction of all human beings, in fact these categories are only achievable for a small privileged elite.

Nowadays individuals are not only seen as owners of a free will, it is also generally assumed that this free will can be applied in order to gain ownership of material resources and capital which make it possible to realise individual freedom. So freedom is seen as something that can be gained individually by striving towards individual control of material resources. This shows that the concept of the modern individual is unseparably connected with the idea of private property. The idea of the individual as an owner has dominated the philosophical tradition from Hobbes to Hegel and still dominates philosophical ideas about the essence of mankind. But this concept could never be applied to all humans that are part of society because the majority of the world population still does not possess all these idealistically constructed aspects of freedom and autonomy, this majority is rather confronted with alienation and the disciplinary mechanisms of compulsions, coercion and domination. Hence the modern idea of the individual can be seen as an ideology that helps to legitimate modern society. The idea of already existing autonomous individuals may be a nice ideal, but nonetheless it can today be seen as nothing more than imagination and self-deception.

Besides individualism and structuralism, there is also dualism. In sociology, the main representative of the sciences of complexity is Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann argues that action-based conceptions of society are reductionistic because they reduce societal order to rational human beings and that they can’t adequately explain the increasing complexity of modern society as well as emergent properties of societal systems (Luhmann 1984: 347). Luhmann wrongly infers from this that the explanation of societal relationships should neglect acting subjects. This results in a dualistic theory that due to the neglect of human subjects itself can’t adequately explain the bottom-up-emergence of societal structures and the top-down-emergence of actions and behaviour.

Luhmann’s theory has been criticised as deterministic one because he doesn’t adequately reflect the wide contingency of societal systems that is due to the fact that action involves the realisation of one of several possibilities in a specific societal situation. Luhmann argues that self-reproduction is a necessity of a societal system that is not based on human actions (Luhmann 1984: 395, 655), conceives society in functional terms, applies Maturana’s and Varela’s autopoiesis-concept sociologically and sees society as a self-referential system with communications as its elements. He argues that individuals are (re)produced biologically, not permanently by the societal systems. If one wants to consider a societal system as autopoietic or self-referential, the permanent (re)production of the elements by the system is a necessary condition. Hence Luhmann says that not individuals, but communications are the elements of a societal system. A communication results in a further communication, by the permanent (re)production of communications a societal system can maintain and reproduce itself.

Luhmann can’t explain how one communication can exactly produce other communications without individuals being part of the system. An autopoietic conception of society must show consistently that and how society produces its elements itself. Luhmann does not show how communications are produced, he only mentions that communications result in further communications. He can explain that society is self-referential in the sense that one communication is linked to other ones, but he can’t adequately explain that it is self-producing or autopoietic.

Luhmann’s abandonment of the human subject in society results in functionalist descriptions that have no room for critical considerations of how society could or should be in. He says himself that he does not have an agenda of a societal problems-approach and it has been criticised that he wants to deny critical and oppositional thinking their legitimacy. Things only have to function, Luhmann sees the task of sociology in locating disfunctionalities and eliminating them. This theory is only critical in the sense that it is critical against all oppositional movements and of opposition. Warnke (1977) argues that with relativism and perspectivism Luhmann and other system theorists try to eliminate the philosophical categories totality, concrete-universal and essence and replace the dialectical-materialist demand for concretness by an abstract philosophical body. Contrary to pausing at the abstract thing-in-itself or the abstract being-for-another dialectical philosophy would be in a mediation of both in the being-in-and-for-itself which means concretisation. Luhmann’s concept of a system would see a whole as something complete and finished, whereas the dialectical concept of totality would consider a whole as developing and becoming as well as an endless process of parts and wholes sublating their difference by each moment passing over into the other and again composing their difference through unity.

A consistent alternative that bridges the shortcomings of individualism, structuralism and dualism is a dialectical theory of society. By saying that societal self-organisation means the self-reproduction of a societal system, one must specify what is being reproduced. Applying the idea of self-(re)production to society means that one must explain how society produces its elements permanently. By saying that the elements are communications and not individuals as Luhmann does, one can’t explain self-reproduction consistently because not communications, but human beings produce communications. One major problem of applying autopoiesis to society is that one cannot consider the individuals as components of a societal system if the latter is autopoietic. Applying autopoiesis nonetheless to society will result in subject-less theories such as the one of Luhmann that can not explain how individuals (re)produce societal structures and how their sociality is (re)produced by these structures. Another alternative would be to argue that society can reproduce itself by the biological reproduction of the individuals, but doing so will result in the neglect of the differentia specifica of society.

Neither assuming society is a self-referential communication system, nor describing society in terms of biological reproduction provides us with an adequate idea of how the self-reproduction of society takes place. Society can only be explained consistently as self-reproducing if one argues that man is a societal being and has central importance in the reproduction-process. Society reproduces man as a societal being and man produces society by socially co-ordinating human actions. Man is creator and created result of society, society and humans produce each other mutually. Such a conception of societal self-organisation acknowledges the importance of human actors in societal systems. Saying that man is creator and created result of society corresponds to Giddens’ formulation that in and through their activities agents reproduce the conditions that make these activities possible (Giddens 1984: 2).

The individual is a societal, self-conscious, creative, reflective, cultural, symbols- and language-using, active natural, labouring, producing, objective, corporeal, living, real, sensuous, anticipating, visionary, imaginative, expecting, designing, co-operative, wishful, hopeful being that makes its own history and can strive towards freedom and autonomy (see Fuchs 2002f).

In the societal production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are partly dependent and partly independent of their will. By societal actions, societal structures are constituted and differentiated. The structure of society or a societal system is the totality of behaviours. A specific structure involves a certain regularity of societal relationships which make use of artefacts. Societal structures don’t exist externally to, but only in and through agency. In societal formations such as capitalism societal structures are alienated from the human being and the human being estranges itself from the societal structures because certain groups determine the constitution and development process of these structures and exploit others for facilitating these processes. Alienated societal structures still exist only in and through agency, but some groups have privileged access to and control of these structures, whereas it is much harder for others to influence them according to their own needs and interests. Societal structures in alienated societies are an object and realm of societal struggle.

By societal interaction, new qualities and structures can emerge that cannot be reduced to the individual level. This is a process of bottom-up emergence that is called agency. Emergence in this context means the appearance of at least one new systemic quality that can not be reduced to the elements of the systems. So this quality is irreducible and it is also to a certain extent unpredictable, i.e. time, form and result of the process of emergence cannot be fully forecasted by taking a look at the elements and their interactions. Societal structures also influence individual actions and thinking. They constrain and enable actions. This is a process of top-down emergence where new individual and group properties can emerge. The whole cycle is the basic process of systemic societal self-organisation that can also be called re-creation because by permanent processes of agency and constraining/enabling a societal system can maintain and reproduce itself (see fig. 1). It again and again creates its own unity and maintains itself. Societal structures enable and constrain societal actions as well as individuality and are a result of societal actions (which are a correlation of mutual individuality that results in sociality).



Re-creation denotes that individuals that are parts of a societal system permanently change their environment. This enables the societal system to change, maintain, adapt and reproduce itself. What is important is that the term re-creation also refers to the ability of all humans to consciously shape and create societal systems and structures, an ability that is based on self-consciousness and, in Giddens’ terminology, the reflexive monitoring of action. Societal systems are re-creative ones because they can create new reality, the socio-cultural human being has the ability to create the conditions for his further evolution all by himself. Creativity means the ability to create something new that seems desirable and helps to achieve defined goals, it’s a central feature of communicative action (see Fuchs/Stockinger 2002). Man can create images of the future and actively strive to make these images become societal reality. Individuals can anticipate possible future states of the world, society as it could be or as one would like it to become; and they can act according to these anticipations. Man has ideals, visions, dreams, hopes and expectations which are based on the ability of imagination which helps him to go beyond existing society and to create alternatives for future actions. Based on creativity, man designs society: Design is a future-creating human activity that goes beyond facticity, creates visions of a desirable future and looks for a solution to existing problems. Design creates new knowledge and findings. Man designs machines, tools, theories, societal systems, physical entities, nature, organisations etc. within societal processes. Such an understanding of design as a fundamental human capability takes into account man’s ability to have visions and utopias and to actively shape society according to these anticipated (possible) states of the world. It is opposed to an understanding of design as a hierarchical process and as the expert-led generation of knowledge about the world and solutions to problems. As Ernst Bloch (1986) pointed out, desires, wishes, anxieties, hopes, fantasies, imaginations play an important role in society and hence one should also stress the subjective, creative dimension in the constitution of human and societal experience. Bloch has shown that hopes and utopias are fundamental motives in all human actions and thinking. These are also important differences between animals and humans.


constraining and















Fig. 1.: The self-organisation/re-creation of societal systems



Terming the self-organisation of society re-creation acknowledges as outlined by Giddens the importance of the human being as a reasonable and knowledgeable actor in sociology. Giddens himself has stressed that the duality of structure has to do with re-creation: “Human social activities, like some self-reproducing items in nature, are recursive. That is to say, they are not brought into being by social actors but continually recreated by them via the very means whereby they express themselves as actors“ (Giddens 1984: 2). Saying that society is a re-creative or self-organising system the way we do corresponds to Giddens’ notion of the duality of structure[ii] because the structural properties of societal systems are both medium and outcome of the practices they recursively organise and both enable and constrain actions. Societal systems and their reproduction involve conscious, creative, intentional, planned activities as well as unconscious, unintentional and unplanned consequences of activities. Both together are aspects, conditions as well as outcomes of the overall re-creation/self-reproduction of societal systems.

The mutual relationship of actions and structures is mediated by the habitus, a category that describes the totality of behaviour and thoughts of a societal group (for the importance of Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptions such as the habitus for a theory of societal self-organisation see Fuchs 2002b). The habitus is neither a pure objective, nor a pure subjective structure, it means invention (Bourdieu 1977: 95, 1990b: 55). In society, creativity and invention always have to do with relative chance and incomplete determinism. Societal practices, interactions and relationships are very complex. The complex group behaviour of human beings is another reason why there is a degree of uncertainty of human behaviour (Bourdieu 1977: 9, 1990a: 8). Habitus both enables the creativity of actors and constrains ways of acting. The habitus gives orientations and limits (Bourdieu 1977: 95), it neither results in unpredictable novelty nor in a simple mechanical reproduction of initial conditionings (ibid.: 95). The habitus provides conditioned and conditional freedom (ibid.: 95), i.e. it is a condition for freedom, but it also conditions and limits full freedom of action. This is equal to saying that structures are medium and outcome of societal actions. Very much like Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu suggests a mutual relationship of structures and actions as the core feature of societal systems. The habitus is a property “for which and through which there is a social world” (Bourdieu 1990b: 140). This formulation is similar to saying that habitus is medium and outcome of the societal world. The habitus has to do with societal practices, it not only constrains practices, it is also a result of the creative relationships of human beings. This means that the habitus is both opus operatum (result of practices) and modus operandi (mode of practices) (Bourdieu 1977: 18, 72ff; 1990b: 52).

In the Liberal-individualistic tradition (e.g. Hobbes, Locke) the individual was postulated as an axiom and society derived from it. In the collectivist tradition (e.g. Rousseau, Hegel) one starts from society or the State and derives the individual from it. The founder of Cultural Materialism Raymond Williams (1961) says that there must be mediating terms between individual and society such as relationships, class, association or community in order to avoid reductionism. Erich Fromm suggested the mediating term ‘social character’, in anthropology one speaks of a ‘pattern of culture’. Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus is also a mediating category, Williams already pointed out implicitly the necessity of the notion of the habitus at the beginning of the 1960ies. Williams wants to avoid both an absolute totalisation of society and the individual. He considers the individual as a societal being and each individual as unique. “The conscious differences between individuals arise in the social process. To begin with, individuals have varying innate potentialities, and thus receive social influence in varying ways. Further, even if there is a common ‘social character’ or ‘culture pattern’, each individual’s social history, his actual network of relationships, is in fact unique” (Williams 1961: 74). The individual is unique for Williams due to a particular heredity expressed in a particular history. Society is not a uniform object, individuals enter various groups and hence Williams says that due to the fact that the individual encounters tensions, conflict as well as co-operation in these relationships and as a result of the interactions in groups and between them, new directions emerge in society. Williams distinguishes several types of individuals: members, subjects, servants, rebels/revolutionaries, reformers, critics, exiles, vagrants and self-exiles/internal émigre[iii]. We would need such descriptions in order to get past the impasse of the simple distinction between conformity and non-conformity. For Williams these forms are forms of active organisation (action, interaction), he considers the relationship of the individual and society as a complicated embodiment of a wide area of real relationships where certain forms may be more influencing than others. Society would not just act upon the individual, but also many unique individuals through a process of communication create the organisation by which they will continue to be shaped. The uniqueness of the individual is “creative as well as created: new forms can flow from this particular form, and extend in the whole organization, which is in any case being constantly renewed and changed as unique individuals inherit and continue it” (Williams 1961: 82). The relationships individuals enter are creative, social change and emergent properties result from it, and these resultant patterns create, i.e. enable and constrains, the individual’s history of thinking and actions. Williams’ concepts corresponds to (and in fact anticipated) the reflexive categories of Giddens and Bourdieu. Saying that the uniqueness of the individual is creative and created complies with Giddens’ formulation that in and through their activities agents reproduce the conditions that make these activities possible as well as to Bourdieu’s formulation that habitus provides conditioned and conditional freedom and is a property for which and through which there is a social world. “If man is essentially a learning, creating and communicating being, the only social organization adequate to his nature is a participatory democracy, in which all of us, as unique individuals, learn, communicate and control. Any lesser, restrictive system is simply wasteful of our true resources; in wasting individuals, by shutting them out from effective participation, it is damaging our true common process” (Williams 1961: 83).

In modern sociology, Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens have devoted their work to bridging the traditional, strict oppositions between subjectivity/objectivity, society/individual, structures/action and consciousness/unconsciousness dialectically. They both want to solve the problem of relating societal structures and actions dialectically. Bourdieu has introduced the dialectical concept of the habitus that mediates between objective structures and subjective, practical aspects of existence. The habitus secures conditioned and conditional freedom, it is a structured and structuring structure that mediates the dialectical relationship of the individual and society. For Bourdieu, in the societal world we find dialectical relationships of objective structures and the cognitive/motivational structures, of objectification and embodiment, of incorporation of externalities and externalisation of internalities, of diversity and homogeneity, of society and the individual and of chance and necessity. Bourdieu’s suggestion that the habitus is a property for which and through which there is a social world means that habitus is medium and outcome of the societal world and that societal structures can only exist in and through practices. Such formulations very much remind us of Giddens’ main hypothesis that  the structural properties of societal systems are both the medium and the outcome of the practices that constitute those systems.  Although Bourdieu’s theory might be considered a more “structuralistic” conception than Giddens’, the similarities concerning aims and certain theoretical contents are very striking and aspects from both theories can enhance a theory of societal self-organisation (see Fuchs 2002a, b).

The notion of the re-creation of society suggest a dialectical relationship of structures and actors. Saying this, one should clarify why exactly this is a dialectical relationship. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has outlined that the purpose of dialectics is “to study things in their own being and movement and thus to demonstrate the finitude of the partial categories of understanding” (Hegel 1830I: Note to §81). The dialectical method “serves to show that every abstract proposition of understanding, taken precisely as it is given, naturally veers round its opposite” (ibid.). The negative constitutes the genuine dialectical moment (Hegel 1830I: §68), “opposites [...] contain contradiction in so far as they are, in the same respect, negatively related to one another or sublate each other and are indifferent to one another“ (ibid.: §960) Opposites, therefore, contain contradiction in so far as they are, in the same respect, negatively related to one another or sublate each other and are indifferent to one another. But the negative is just as much positive (§62). The result of Dialectic is positive, it has a definite content as the negation of certain specific propositions which are contained in the result (§82).

An entity as pure being is an identity, an abstract empty being. Being is dialectically opposed to Nothing, the unity of the two is Becoming. In Becoming, Being and Nothing are sublated into a unity. This unity as result is Determinate Being which can be characterised by quality and reality. Quality is Being-for-another because in determinate being there is an element of negation involved that is at first wrapped up and only comes to the front in Being-for-self. Something is only what it is in its relationship to another, but by the negation of the negation this something incorporates the other into itself. The dialectical movement involves two moments that negate each other, a somewhat and an another. As a result of the negation of the negation, “Something becomes an other; this other is itself somewhat; therefore it likewise becomes an other, and so on ad infinitum” (§93). Being-for-self or the negation of the negation means that somewhat becomes an other, but this again is a new somewhat that is opposed to an other and as a synthesis results again in an other and therefore it follows that something in its passage into other only joins with itself, it is self-related (§95). In becoming there are two moments (Hegel 1812: §176-179): coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be: by sublation, i.e. negation of the negation, being passes over into nothing, it ceases to be, but something new shows up, is coming to be. What is sublated (aufgehoben) is on the one hand ceases to be and is put to an end, but on the other hand it is preserved and maintained (ibid.: §185).

In society, structures and actors are two opposing moments: a structure is a somewhat opposed to an other, i.e. actors; and an actor is also a somewhat opposed to an other, i.e. structures. The becoming[iv] of society is its permanent dialectical movement, the re-creation or self-reproduction of society. The Being-for-self or negation of the negation in society means that something societal becomes an other societal which is again a societal somewhat and it likewise becomes an other societal, and so an ad infinitum. Something societal refers to aspects of a societal system such as structures or actions, in the dialectical movement these two societal moments in their passage become an other societal moment and therefore join with themselves, they are self-related. The permanent collapse and fusion of the relationship of structures and actors results in new, emergent properties or qualities of society that can’t be reduced to the underlying moments. In the re-creation-process of society, there is coming-to-be of new structural and individual properties and ceasing-to-be of certain old properties. “Becoming is an unstable unrest which settles into a stable result” (Hegel 1812: §180). Such stable results are the emergent properties of society.

In respect to Hegel, the term societal self-organisation also gains meaning in the sense that by the dialectical process where structures are medium and outcome of societal actions a societal somewhat is self-related or self-referential in the sense of joining with itself or producing itself. By dialectical movement, societal categories opposing each other (structures and actions) produce new societal categories. A societal something is opposed to an societal other and by sublation they both fuse into a unity with emergent societal properties. This unity is again a societal somewhat opposed to a societal other etc. By coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be of societal entities, new societal entities are produced in the dialectical societal process.

For Marx the individual is of great importance in his social analysis, not as an isolated atom, but as a societal being that is the constitutive part of qualitative moments of society and has a concrete and historical existence. “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals“ (Marx/Engels 1846: 20). He considers the individual in its abstract being-for-self, its connectedness to others and its estrangement in modern, capitalist society. The individual as a societal, producing being (“individuals co-operating in definite kinds of labour“) results in phenomena such as modes of life, increase of population (family), forms of intercourse (Verkehrsformen), separation of town and country, forms of politics (nation state), division of labour, forms of ownership (tribal ownership, ancient communal and State ownership, feudal or estate property (feudal landed property, corporative movable property, capital invested in manufacture), capital as pure private property), production of ideas, notions and consciousness. For Marx, a certain mode of production is combined with a certain mode of co-operation (ibid.: 30) and the history of humanity is closely connected to the history of the economy. Opposing the atomism of Max Stirner and Bruno Bauer, Marx writes that the “individuals certainly make one another, physically and mentally, but do not make themselves“ (ibid.: 37).

In the German Ideology (Marx/Engels 1846), Marx speaks of societal relationships as forms of intercourse, whereas he later replaced this term by the one of relationships of production. He says that with the development of the productive forces, the form of intercourse becomes a fetter and in place of it a new one is put which corresponds to the more developed productive forces and hence “to the advanced mode of the self-activity of individuals” – a form which in its turn becomes a fetter and is then replaced by another etc. The history of the forms of intercourse would be the history of the productive forces and hence the history of the development of the forces of the individuals themselves (ibid.: 72).

Marx considers man in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx 1844) as an universal, objective species-being that produces and objective world and reproduces nature and his species according to his purposes. Human beings are societal beings, they enter societal relationships which are mutually dependent actions that make sense for the acting subjects. Individual being is only possible as societal being, societal being (the species-life of man) is only possible as a relationship of individual existences. This dialectic of individual and societal being (which roughly corresponds to the one of individual and societal existence or of actors and structures) was already pointed out by Marx: “The individual is the social being. His manifestations of life – even if they may not appear in the direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – are therefore an expression and confirmation of social life. Man's individual and species-life are not different, however much – and this is inevitable – the mode of existence of the individual is a more particular or more general mode of the life of the species, or the life of the species is a more particular or more general individual life“ (Marx 1844: 538f). Marx said one must avoid postulating society again as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual as e.g. today individual/society-dualism does. “Man, much as he may therefore be a particular individual (and it is precisely his particularity which makes him an individual, and a real individual social being), is just as much the totality – the ideal totality – the subjective existence of imagined and experienced society for itself; just as he exists also in the real world both as awareness and real enjoyment of social existence, and as a totality of human manifestation of life“ (ibid.). Saying that man is creator and created result of society as well as that in and through their activities agents reproduce the conditions that make these activities possible, corresponds to Marx’ formulation that “the social character is the general character of the whole movement: just as society itself produces man as man, so is society produced by him“ (ibid.: 537).

Up until now we have only considered the systematic aspect of the self-reproduction of society as a whole towards its parts. It is also an important question how these systematic relationships develop temporally. We will have different results depending on which approach we choose: one that is based on concepts of self-organisation and systems theory, or one that is based on a historical-concrete analysis of societal forms.


2.1.3 The Diachronic Description of Society


Society is not a static state, but a permanently self-maintaining and self-renewing process. In a first approximation, a living organism can be used as an analogy for this process. The living is characterised by self-maintenance: “We recognise that a dispensing order has the power to maintain itself and to produce ordered processes”[v] (Schrödinger 1987: 74). The individuals however are in this concept only indifferent against each other, the parts are not defined as inner qualitative difference to each other (Hegel 1830II/1986: 373, § 343 corollary). Such a neglect of the individual distinctiveness as subjects of society is connected to the point of view which tries to primarily describe the identical self-reproduction of society. Such descriptions can mainly be found in old systems theory (1st order cybernetics) which are based on equilibrium theories (e.g. the social systems theory of Talcott Parsons). The concept of autopoiesis, which not accidentally stems from biology, is transferred by one of its main proponents, Humberto Maturana, to society, whereas Francisco Varela opposes such an application. Also the newer concepts of self-organisation stress first the emergence of systematic wholes from interactions of their parts. Self-organisation as “irreversible process which results from the co-operative interaction of subsystems in complex structures of the whole system”[vi] (Ebeling/Feistel 1986) or as synergetics where a “cyclical causality” (Haken) between whole and parts is assumed, correspond to this idea. However the concepts of self-organisation have new potentialities: they refer to qualitative changes. As “new systems theory” they also refer to the unpredictability of structural breaks. Maybe not accidentally this thinking has become modern at the time when the limits of steering in the manner of the “welfare state” first showed up (see Müller 1992: 343). These concepts which are based on non-equilibrium, non-linearity and the existence of fluctuations, show at least the inappropriateness of the old equilibrium models and are meanwhile also used in economics and management theory. However, most of the existing concepts of economic self-organisation legitimise neo-liberal politics by arguing that human beings can’t at all intervene into the capitalist economy in order to solve social problems and that hence market-based regulation will do best (see Fuchs 2002g). That this is not the case is clear due to the worsening of the global problems in the last two decades of neo-liberal politics in the world system.

A number of authors have tried to conceive sociological models in analogy to Ilya Prigogine’s abstract principle of order through fluctuation. They see society as a system where not equilibrium and stability is the normal state, but non-equilibrium and instability. Modern society is described as process-like and evolving through phases of crisis and instability.

Ervin Laszlo (1987) argues that Prigogine’s principle is a general one that applies for the evolution of all complex systems, also for society. According to this hypothesis systems do not remain stabile, if certain parameters are crossed, instabilities emerge. These are phases of transition where the system shows high entropy and high degrees of indetermination, chance and chaos. Evolution does not take place continuously, but in sudden, discontinuous leaps. After a phase of stability a system enters a phase of instability, fluctuations intensify and spread out. In this chaotic state, the development of the system is not determined, it is only determined that one of several possible alternatives will be realised. Such points in evolution are called catastrophic bifurcation (Laszlo 1987, Schlemm 1999, Fuchs 2002c, d). In a very abstact form we can say: It is determined that this evolutionary process will sooner or later result in a large societal crisis, but it is not fully determined which antagonisms will cause the crisis and how the result of the crisis will look like. There can be no certainty, the sciences and hence also the social sciences are confronted with an end of certainties (Wallerstein 1997). There could e.g. be the emergence of a new mode of development, the ultimate breakdown of society due to destructive forces or the emergence of a new formation of society caused by social agency of intervening subjects. If a certain threshold in the development of concretely existing antagonisms is crossed, a new, not pre-determined quality will emerge. This is what Hegel has discussed as the measure or the turn from quantity into quality (Hegel 1830I: §§107f).

Arguing only abstractly doesn’t take into account the different qualities of societal formations[vii]. In one or the other manner the first humans organised themselves and this organisation dissolved, somehow large city states, the Greek republic, Asiatic nomads, capitalism, actually existing “socialism” organised themselves. We need also more concrete analyses which are not only abstract-general, but also don’t simply list the sum of all observations and singular phenomena. 

2.2. Society as the Unity of Different Qualitative Systems


For such an approach dialectical-speculative thinking is needed[viii]. Whereas in usual thinking (within the logic of essence) a starting point is considered as being already given/posited and further implications are deduced, in dialectical-speculative thinking (within the logic of notion) the posited (das Gesetzte) must be given grounds for and hence all thinking must be integrated into a context of justification and mediation.

We distinguish an abstract generality (“humanity”) from a concrete generality[ix] where we are referring to concrete societal formations. On such a concrete level, one can qualitatively describe the mediations which determine the development of the societal formation in question. We want to outline this shortly for the concrete-historical societal formation of capitalism:

First we have to distinguish different societal spheres, such as production, consumption, distribution, politics, culture, etc. In society all spheres are mediated – in order to know later what is concretely mediated with each other, the single moments must also be analysed separately. We here concentrate on the capitalist economy. Like in all societal formations, goods are produced in capitalism that satisfy human needs. The specific ways this is done distinguish different societal formation. In capitalism the production process is based on the fact that single economic actors produce goods which are sold on the market after their production in order to achieve a profit that allows re-investment, more production, more selling, again more profit etc. Marx called this process the accumulation of (money and commodity) capital. Capitalist production doesn’t satisfy immediate needs (as was e.g. the case in the production of the medieval craftsman), but each capitalist is in need of the so-called “anonymous market” for the socialisation of the products. That the single capitalist enterprise produces in an isolated way, is of course not something biologically given, but a societal relationship. Marx is speaking of private labour that produces commodities. Another foundation of capitalism has been the detachment of the means of production from the workers. Marx is speaking of “double free wage-labour”, the workers don’t own the means of production and the produced goods and they are forced to sell their labour power (Marx 1867: 181-183). Wage labour and the industrial division of labour (which has been enabled by machine technologies, Marx speaks of machine-systems, large industry or the co-operation of many similar machines that are powered by a motor mechanism such as the steam engine, see Marx 1867: chapter 13) are necessary conditions for the full development of capital accumulation.

On this foundation a functional circle takes place (according to Fuchs 2000): The capitalist buys with his money (M) the commodities (C) labour power (L) and means of production (Mp) (these two commodity types are separated – in another societal formation without the same base the cycle of production takes place in another way). The means of production are considered in their value form as constant capital (c) and can be subdivided into circulating constant capital (the value of the utilised raw materials, auxiliary materials, operating supply items and semi-finished products) and fixed constant capital (the value of the utilised machines, buildings and equipment) (Marx 1885: chapter 8). The value of the employed labour power is termed variable capital (v). Constant capital is transfused to the product, but it doesn’t create new value. Only living labour increases value – labour produces more value than it needs for its own reproduction. In production due to the effects of living labour onto the object of labour surplus value (s) is produced. The value of a produced commodity C’ = c + v + m, this value is larger than the value of the invested capital (C = c + v). The difference of C’ and C (Dw) can exist due to the production of surplus value and is itself surplus value. Surplus value is transformed into profit (surplus value is “realised”) and value into money capital by selling the produced commodities on the market. It is not sure if all produced commodities can be sold, hence not all surplus value is necessarily transformed into profit. But normally after the whole process there is more money capital than has been invested into production, and such “surplus value generating money” is termed “capital” and is partly re-invested into new production (accumulation).



Fig. 1.: The economic self-organisation of capital: The expanded reproduction cycle of capital


Whereas in all societies humans produce, the way they do this is typically different in different societal formations. It’s a false inference to generalise the form of production just described as something that is typical for all types of societies. In reality this is not and doesn’t have to be the case. There are again at least two approaches: We can positively describe how the expanded reproduction of capital (and the reproduction of the economic base of society) takes place. This would mean to assume the positing of its moments (e.g. labour as private labour of isolated producers that is socialised by the market after production and the separation of the main means of production and labour power) and to not further question the moments. There would simply be capital, the production of commodities, the selling of labour power etc., but it wouldn’t be argued why that’s historically the case and how this capitalist situation could change or be overcome. Or we can question from where these moments come from, whether they can be changed, i.e. if they have developed historically and can be sublated. Or we analyse the foundations of the existence of these conditions and hence also the possibility of changing these conditions.

Both approaches are scientific – the first form corresponds to a positive science of the given (e.g. of the political economy of capitalism), the second is critique (e.g. as the critique of the political economy of capitalism). These forms represent typical examples for Hegel’s logic of essence and logic of notion. In capitalism these relationships are especially confusing: The driving power of production are not the needs of the humans, but the “need of capital” to increase itself (“Everything must be profitable!”, “Capital is shy like a roe deer – where it can’t make profit, it won’t invest”). In capitalism goods are only produced because they are a means to generate surplus value and profit – and possibilities to avoid production and to increase capital nonetheless are welcome (stock-market!). It seems like capital is the “subject of development” itself, it turns itself loose and dominates and coins all human relationships. In its different forms such as money it becomes a fetish which can’t simply be shrug off as an illusion, but exists as “necessary appearance” as long as the foundations which can only be recognised by the second form of thinking (critique, logic of notion) are given. Something abstract, not concrete needs and concrete actions determine social life! Such a “real abstraction” can induce one to use as methodology an abstract level such as systems theories that remain purely abstract. Such theories in fact map real relationships (the “necessary appearance”) of this society, that’s why they are very convincing. Theories of self-organisation even map the internal states of crisis and hence can be used to avert and abandon political and political-economical intervention that is necessary for realising social and ecological interests. An analysis whether crises are only crises of renewal or which perspectives of sublation there are, is only possible in a concrete-general manner by researching the concrete qualitative moments of capitalist development (for the relationship of crisis theory and self-organisation theory and a concrete analysis of Fordist and post-Fordist capitalism as well as the societal crisis of Fordism see Fuchs 2002g).  



[i] For the relationship of logic of being, essence and notion see Hegel 1830I/1986, p. 179 (§83), pp. 304ff (§159); see also Schlemm 2002

[ii] “According to the notion of the duality of structure, the structural properties of social systems are both medium and outcome of the practices they recursively organise” (Giddens 1984: 25) and they both enable and constrain actions (26).

[iii] “To the member, society is his own community. […] To the servant, society is an establishment, in which he finds his place. To the subject, society is an imposed system, in which his place is determined. To the rebel. a particular society is a tyranny; the alternative for which he fights is a new and better society. To the exile, society is beyond him, but may change. To the vagrant, society is a name for other people, who are in his way or who can be used” (Williams 1961: 81).

[iv] We don’t mean the temporal becoming, but the systematic-logic one.

[v] Translated from German

[vi] Translated from German

[vii] Concerning the critique of an absolutised abstract view see Schlemm (1999: 25f), Schlemm (2001d: 17f).

[viii] Whereas the “pure“ dialectical is the transition of one moment into its opposed moment and the other way round, i.e. it creates nothing new (Hegel 1830I/1986: 172 (§81)), the “speculative-dialectical“ in Hegel’s philosophy means that this movement leads to a higher unity (Hegel 1830I/1986: 176 (§82)).

[ix] See Schlemm (1997/1998)

This paper is published: Christian Fuchs, Annette Schlemm: The Self-Organization of Society. In: Zimmermann Rainer E.; Budanov, Vladimir G. (Eds)(2005): Towards Otherland. Languages of Science and Languages Beyond. INTAS Volume of Collected Essays 3. Kassel: kassel university press. p. 81-109.

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