Necessity and Contingency

In the West, we tend to believe that things like democracy, civil rights, and free markets are natural and inevitable, as if this is the natural course of social evolution. But this kind of thinking is no different than Marxism that says that communism or socialism is inevitable. Both views assume a telos, a natural end, as with the acorn become an Oak. We might, for example, talk about China and the communist party and say that the free market economy will, of course, ultimately undermine the Chinese Communist Party; it’s only a matter of time. But it is this “of course” that is the problem, because all of these things are contingent, not necessary.  There is no natural law that says free markets and democracy will spread throughout the world. Things can always be otherwise.  And there is no natural human nature that makes the huddled mass yearn to breathe free.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the “myth of time,” the illusion that equal rights will be granted to everyone if we just wait long enough. There was nothing inevitable about the success of American Civil Right movement. Things could have gone the other way, back to slavery. The US legal and economic function systems, along with the mass media (TV and newspapers, especially), just happened to be powerful enough to massively destabilize the old South.

This is what complexity is all about. In The Radical Luhmann, Han-Georg Moeller writes,

Contingency, for Luhmann, does not simply mean “anything goes” or “pure coincidence.” It means that whatever happens is connected to many other things. At the same time, however, it is extremely unlikely that any given things should happen because of all the contingencies involved. (45)

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