If we agree that societies are not grounded in basic norms or shared values yet still feel the need for a theory of society, we need to ask how social order comes about. If we assume that there is nothing inevitable or natural about social order–that it is contingent–and that social order as we know it has not always existed on this planet, we must continue asking the question, “How is social order possible?” According to Luhmann,
In the tradition before Kant, this question was answered with reference to assumptions concerning human nature. . . . To be more precise, the reference was to the social nature of man . . . [H]uman nature was conceived of as depending on communal or city life. . . . [Yet] communal life does not just happen . . . It is possible only on the basis of social regulation that is formulated in political-ethical terms or allegedly decreed by God”
(Introduction to Systems Theory, 234).
In other words, society was assumed to be held together by rules formulated politically or handed down by God, as in the a list of Commandments. If these rules or norms were violated, some form of corrective response was called for. And despite the fact that social norms and divine commandments were continually violated, people maintained hope that they could live up to their aspirations, “become better,” be reformed, or bring the Augustinian City of God to this world. But this never happened. Then, according to Luhmann,
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, after the religious wars, a massive shift took place. . . The idea of the social contract seemed to be necessary. Man was seen in more skeptical terms as far as his desire for battle and bloodlust was concerned. . . As a consequence, they agree on a contract . . . and submit to a sovereign who can do everything necessary or everything he considers necessary. (Intro 234).
The sovereign is supposed to represent the indivisible unity in a system that is constituted by difference–the system/environment difference. Thus, the sovereign represents something that is not present, something that cannot be.
Politically, the sovereign came to embody the state. Thus the young Louis XIV is reputed to have declared, “L’etat, c’est moi.” But the problem with the social contract is that a “contract already presupposed an established social order” (Luhmann, Intro 234). But social order is not the same thing as peace or social harmony. A social contract does not presuppose social harmony, but it does presuppose some kind of social order, even a social order founded on tyranny or slavery. No social contract can be formed unless some kind of social order is already in place. Otherwise, how do we determine who or what is to be bound by the contract?
So if some kind of social order existed prior to the formulation of the social contract, how did this social order come about? The answer put forth was that there must have been violence or the threat of violence to keep people under control. Thus, after the social contract theory was dropped, political theory went back to the old idea of social order imposed through violence or the threat of violence. As Luhmann argues, “From the eighteenth century onwards, one reverted to the position that the establishment of order was effected by violence. One actor overwhelms all others. Over time, a modicum of reason helps to civilize this structure of domination somewhat” (Intro 234). So even if the structure of dominance is regulated or rationalized to some extent, it remains a structure of dominance.
This model is still generally accepted. On this view, individual people must simply learn to adjust to this social order and make the best of it. But from a systems theoretical perspective, this model cannot explain modern society. For one thing, if society does not consist of human actors (that is, if those actors must remain in the environment of society), then “adjusting” or conditioning human beings to social life is not enough to reproduce social order.
For Luhmann, a social order comes about through communication, which, following communication theory, he defines as the synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding. He argues that
sociality comes about only in the fusion or synthesis of these three components. In other words, the social comes about whenever information, utterance, and understanding are produced as a unity that has feedback effects on participating psychic systems. (Luhmann. Introduction to Systems Theory, 190-91)
More specifically, communication systems emerge and are reproduced through “double contingency.” The model of double contingency “includes an ego and an alter that oppose one another. Each of them can be viewed as an individual or a group and has its own needs and effective abilities. The former depends on the successful performance of the later, and later on those of the former. Each one is able to perform the required task or to refuse it” (235). The last point is key: “Each one is able to perform the required task or to refuse it.” The “required task” in this case is communication. At any time, an individual or group can stop communicating; they can walk away. In other words, communication is reproduced–and thus social systems emerge–when one communicative event (a synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding) is connected to another. And a social system can only survive as long as communicative events continue to be strung together.
Once a basic social order is established through communication, it tends to gets better at reproducing communication. It produces more complex communication, and this creates the need for functional differentiation because if a system cannot control its own complexity it breaks down. Thus the system evolves through functional differentiation. Functional systems like law, politics, religion, education, and art emerge to deal with different kinds of communication. These functional subsystems of society mark off their own boundaries so that they can reproduce themselves. The only raison d’etre of any system is autopoiesis, or the reproduction of it system/environment different. And in a social system every communicative event reproduces the system/environment difference.
Communication, then, happens in time. As communication theory has shown, information ceases to be information once it is understood; therefore, new information must be continually added. As soon as an utterance is understood (or made into meaning), a void open up for more information.
Thus, as it relates to the emergence of social order, Luhmann replaces social norms and the threats of violence with a temporal analysis of communication. Communication is a temporal, not a hierarchical, operation. There is a “temporal asymmetry” in which “[o]ne actor acts first and thereby marks a date that imposes on the other the alternative of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ of accepting or rejecting what is on offer” (237). If the other says “yes,” even if only to say “I disagree” or “I don’t understand what you mean,” the communication may continue. In other words, the other accepts the utterance as a legitimate communicative act; she turns it into meaning. Thus, our values, beliefs, or goals can be totally opposed, but as long as we keep communicating (even if that means only shouting at each other), then we reproduce a social system.
To sum up, a great deal of theory rests on the assumption that in modern society norms or consensus values ground “the exercise of power” (Bonds and Heep). The theory is that if brute force or threats of violence cannot maintain a social order or explain how a social order emerges to begin with, then values and norms can. But a systems-theoretical analysis shows that norms, shared beliefs, etc., are produced and reproduced temporally within communication.