US Dept of Justice versus Apple: The Law and the Economy as Autonomous Systems

I’ve been thinking about the controversy between Apple and the US Department of Justice.


The first thing to recognize is that when a state, which is a huge organization that operates by accessing the political and legal systems, attempts to exert power on another autopoietic organization, it puts its own autonomy at risk. It introduces a new risk. In other words, it increases the complexity/unpredictability of its own environment.

Function systems (e.g., politics, the economy, the law, science, mass media, education, art, medicine) all have access to the comprehensive communication system known as society, and they can only access society through communication. As such, function systems brush up against each other, or, in other words, they irritate or “perturb” each other like people who gain access to the same elevator.

For instance, from the position the self-observing economic system (the economy), all of the other subsystems reside in its environment. Politics can perturb the economy, but it cannot cross the boundary marking the inside/outside of the economy. (The two-sided form of the distinction, however, is not some kind of membrane. When it comes to social systems, it doesn’t help to use membrane metaphors, according to which the membrane protects the system from environmental factors. This metaphor is too closely based on biological systems.)

Although the law, for example, cannot directly cause a particular event to happen in the economy, it can irritate the economy; that is to say, the law can destabilize the economy, and the economy, if it is to continue its autopoiesis, must restabilize itself through its own operations–and its only autopoietic operation is to differentiate between economic and noneconomic communications.

A state–an organization that communicates politically and legally–can perturb the economy by using law to regulate an economic process. But this is not a unidirectional influence, because the the state’s environment changes at the same time. In other words, from the self-observing position of the state, the economy is part of its environment. So anytime the state irritates a system in own its environment in a way that causes the other system to restabilize itself (or disappear if it fails to restabilize itself), the state’s environment changes. This then increases the risk that something in the environment can perturb the state. This is how unintended consequences occur. Once one system perturbs another system, the consequences are beyond the control of the perturbing system. the pebble has been tossed into the pond and it can’t be taken back.

The economy is not a trivial machine that functions according a predictable input-output model. Restabilization occurs according to the economy’s own code–a binary code of buying and selling. The economy is a kind of machine for circulating payments.

Luhmann speaks of different kinds (or a typology) of social systems–e.g., interaction systems, organizations, protest movements, function systems, and society. Companies, firms, and corporations that operates in the economy are classified as organizations. Organizations make decisions, including who is allowed access to the decision-making process–or who is hired, promoted, and fired. Organizations are decision-making systems. They use decisions to make more decisions. Consider a departmental committee in a university.

A particular corporation, like Apple, is an organization that has access to the economy through money. And the state is a giant organization that has access to the political system by virtue of its capacity to make collectively binding decisions, but the state is not the political system itself, and Apple, no matter how rich it is, is not the economy itself.

We also need to take care when using words like “part,” because autopoietic systems are not wholes consisting of parts. So Apple is not a part of the economy, and the state is not a part of politics, and people are not part of society. Rather, Apple is an organization that accesses the economy by spending money, and a state is an organization that accesses politics  by making collectively-binding decisions.

Each function system of society (politics, law, mass media, etc.) has two environments. One is the intra-systemic environment where every other functional subsystem of society “resides.” For example, the law (along with politics, mass media, education, science, etc.) counts as the environment of the economy, but the law and the economy co-exist within society.  As such, the law and the economy can (and do) perturb and destabilize each other.

(Though I have used this language myself, we should be careful about using language like a “resides in,” as saying that one system resides in the environment of another system, because this language implies what are dealing objects in within a space.  The reality is more abstract. We’re actually dealing two a two-sided form.)

The second environment that can influence a function subsystem is society’s environment, i.e., the world “outside” of the two-sided form of society. This outside includes things like human beings, mountains, planets, rain, mosquitoes, etc.–in other words, everything that can possibly destabilize or possibly destroy society, but, short of destroying it, cannot  cause a particular event to occur in society. That is to say, an earthquake can certainly destabilize society, or destroy a city (along with other organizations, like schools and hospitals and businesses), and an asteroid can destroy society itself, but the environment cannot directory cause a particular effect in the manner of a predictable, trivial input and output relationship.

In the economy, a company (which, again, is a kind of organization) reproduces the border between itself and the intra-systemic environment of the economy, meaning it reproduces the separation between itself and every other organization that has access to the economy. And it does this by continuing to circulate money. This is a “dynamic stability.”As soon as a company can longer spend money, it ceases to exist. It’s autopoiesis has failed, and the system dissolves into its environment.

A company that wants to retain its access to the economy must continually replace spent money. But companies are not the only things that can access the economy. A person, as consumer, accesses the economy by spending money, and consumers must continually replace spent money with new money–just as the mass media must continually replace old news as “new news.”  So earning a living is not simply about earning money; it’s about replacing spent money so that one can keep spending money.

As far as consumers are concerned, a human being can only access the economy as a spender of money. The economy, as a system, only recognizes payments; so it doesn’t matter how “nice” you are, or how vulnerable you are, or how much you pray; the economy only registers your existence when you spend money.

So what about Apple versus the US Dept of Justice? The case is currently destabilizing Apple, though it’s hard to say how much.  It is causing Apple to respond in some way; it has to spend money to defend itself and spend time making decisions.

If the Justice Dept wins, then Apple will have to respond in new ways. But exactly how Apple responds is up to Apple; the nature of its response cannot be directly determined by the state, or an organization within the state like the Justice Department. Also, if the state destabilizes something in its environment, then it will have to deal with that new environment, with all its risks for perturbation. In other words, the state increases the risk of being destabilized. A noted above, system perturbation is not unidirectional. Anytime a state irritates or throws off balance an organization in its environment, the state’s environment changes. The lesson is a that a state should “think twice” before it attempts to exert influence on another organization. 

We could explore other elements of this case, such as how Apple and the Justice Department both access the mass media. But that will have to wait.



  1. What a well-written piece of Luhmannian text! Here is some background literature the questions of what a function system is and how many there actually are:

    Roth, S. and Schütz, A. (2015), Ten systems. Toward a canon of function systems, Cybernetics and Human Knowing, Vol. 22 No. 4, pp. 11-31.


  2. I’m sorry but where exactly does he speak of protest movements as a form of social systems? I’m currently reading/working on Luhmann as a student, but as far as I know, he tried to install protest movements in his theory, but the exact form is not quite clear since he didn’t work systematically on that theme. As I see it, stating that protest movements as a specific kind of social systems as organizations, function systems etc. is a bit complex. Or did you perhaps read something I haven’t? A reference would be nice :-).
    It’s still a very fine article/blog, I’m enjoying this a lot!


    1. Thanks for the question. In volume two of Theory of Society, pages 154-65, he discusses protest movements. It follows sections on interactions and organizations. He writes, “These movements, alone through their openness to ever-new supporters, seek to mobilize society against society.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are like a fourth kind of social system? Luhmann opts that the protest movements have a lot in common with organization and interaction systems, and he even tried (but didn’t really succeed) in defining them as a functional system. The latter is kinda important because he recognizes that protest movements could produce resonance, and that other function systems like politics could ‘react’ to that. And as far ass I understand it, that’s a charactaristic that only belongs to function systems, so protest movements can’t be a fourth kind, but are just a function system (probably).
        Or do I understand it wrongly?

        Kind regards

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There are certainly more than only 4 (types of) social systems, however, as you are referring to interaction, organization, and society, one way to get closer to your – desired – answer may be to have a closer look at value communication (eg. Luhmann: The code of the moral). Value communication is not communication on values by the way (eg. Roth: The things that go without saying).
        Talking about social movements as function systems: André Reichel (Civil society as a system) say they actually are function systems. I do not agree for reasons given in Anton Schütz’s and my article “Ten systems” (
        Yet, the general approach in social systems theory is not to ask “What is …?” or “Is X a Y?”, but rather to wonder “As what can we observe …, X, Y, or anything else? And who actually is we?”. Social systems theory is about (the) observation(s) of observers.


      3. I like this. It helps me refine the argument:

        Yet, the general approach in social systems theory is not to ask “What is …?” or “Is X a Y?”, but rather to wonder “As what can we observe …, X, Y, or anything else? And who actually is we?”. Social systems theory is about (the) observation(s) of observers.

        So instead of saying “X is a function system” or “Y is a protest movement,” we might state it is an injunction: “Call Occupy Wall Street a protest movement.” If we call Occupy Wall Street a protest movement, where does that lead us? If the science system observes Occupy Wall Street as a protest movement, what follows from that?


  3. More than four sorts of social systems? Can you give some examples? As I see it, every social system is either a interaction, organization, function, or society system. Maybe I was unclear about what I meant with “kinds of social systems”. I didn’t mean kinds of function systems.
    I understand the arguments you have given in the paper regarding social movements, and not defining them as a function system. However, to me, they do have a functional orientation since they rase awareness regarding the functional differentiation of society and they strive to the all-inclusion, which is functional for society. Also, in ecological communication, where L analyses the Green Movements, he observes that the latter could produce resonance which can trigger other function systems, and isn’t it so that only function systems can produce resonance? But that’s just the orientation, putting the finger on what precisily the code/program is, is very hard, but still?
    Lastly, I don’t understand the argument that it’s very hard to give examples of social movements without referring to the political system, can you maybe give some examples for that argument?
    And if social movements are not to be defined as interaction systems, organization systems, nor function systems. As what can we observe social movements?


    1. I appreciate the comments. I wrote that post back in March, when I was just getting started with this blog, and I was trying make sense of the Luhmann I had been reading. And I continue to do this. Since I’ve never taken a course in systems theory and am not a sociologist (I’m an English professor), this is basically an autodidactic endeavor. I am now rereading the section on Protest Movements in Theory of Society so that I can better address your comments.

      Do you access to Theory of Society, volume 2?


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