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 through political communication and legal communication (along with mass media communication), 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 influence society through communication. As such, function systems brush up against each other, or, in other words, they irritate or “perturb” each other like people sharing an 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.

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.

Rather than talking about “the state,” we can get more precise by talking about, in this case, The Department of Justice, which is a sub-organization of the state. The Department of Justice (DOJ) can perturb the economy by using law to regulate an economic process or exchange. But this is not a unidirectional influence, because the DOJ’s environment changes at the same time. In other words, from the observing position of the DOJ, the economy is part of its environment. And any time an organization irritates a system, including another organization, in own its environment in a way that causes the other system to change itself, the the irritating organization’s environment changes. This then increases the risk that something in the environment can perturb the DOJ. 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 response is determined by the structure of the pond, not the pebble or the pebble tosser. The event is irreversible. 

The economy is not a trivial machine that functions according a predictable input-output model. Nor is Apple, Inc. Restabilization occurs according to the economy’s own code–a binary code of buying and selling.

So what about Apple versus the DOJ? The case is currently irritating Apple, though it’s hard to say how much.  It is causing Apple to respond in some way, according to its own structure. If the DOJ 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 DOJ. Also, if the state destabilizes something in its environment, then it will have to deal with that new environment.




  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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