The Limits of Political Power

Mathias Albert in “On the Modern Systems Theory of society and IR,” discusses research that shows

that international politics can no longer be described as the mere interaction of foreign policies, but can be conceived as functional politics in the sense that it orients political processes towards the processing of functionally defined problems–and not towards the pursuit of interests ascribed to actors.

(Observing International Relations: Niklas Luhmann and World Politics, edited by Mathias Albert & Lena Hilkermeir, 2004. page 25)

The actors here may be states or organization like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. But what does “the processing of functionally defined problems” mean? Politics constructs meaning; it defines problems according to its own code and programmes. International relations is not about the interaction of states or  other political actors; it about how politics meaningfully communicates.

Rather than conflating the operations of the political and economic system into an “international political economy” or juxtaposing economics and politics as sphere of contending “interests,” a focus on the operative autonomy of politics and economics as self-referential systems allows a sharper focus on the limits of politics under the conditions of economic communication being produced by an observation within the economic system alone. ( Albert 26)

The economic and political systems do not directly conflict or compete because they do not communicate in the same way or through the same medium. The systems are operationally closed, which means that the political system cannot directly regulate the economy. All the political system can do is perturb the economy.

Theories of neoliberalism conflate the political and the economic function systems, and critics of neoliberalism ascribe too much power to politicians and  politics. Political power just doesn’t extend that far.

Neoliberal economic theory seeks to transform societies (or individual nations as happened in Chile in the 1970s-80s) through economic interventions, but there are always unintended consequences. The Chile experiment produced major unintended consequences. The same things happens whenever The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, or World Trade Organization tries to regulate some aspect of the global economy. The results are never predictable because the rest of society–the economy’s environment–cannot be held stable or controlled while economists play with economic variables.

There is no power in economics. Power, as a communication medium, belongs to  the political system alone, and rich people and organizations only can gain power by tapping into (or structurally coupling with) politics. Moreover, politics can only regulate politics. It can regulate how it observes other systems, such as the economy.

While MST [Modern Systems Theory] in no way  denies that political regulation continually takes place and has effects, it offers a strong theoretical argument regarding the impossibility of regulating the operations of one function system (e.g. economics) by another (i.e. politics) if regulation is seen as an activity in which certain ends are to be achieved causally by certain means. All regulation of the operations of function systems is self-regulation; a political action is only observed by the economic system on the basis of its own operational code, i.e. monetary value. The only question then is whether a complex strategy of regulation can condition how the economic system observes political communication. (Albert 26, emphasis added)

In fundamental opposition to most concepts of power employed in IR [International Relations], MST points out that power can not be understood as a capability of something or someone, but needs to be conceived as code-driven communication. (Albert 27, emphasis added)

Politics communicates power by showing that is capable of exerting physical force, as in war and law enforcement, but it’s essential that it only  deploy that force infrequently. Political power is most effective when it is kept in reserve. Politics must maintain a surplus of power so that the exercise of power is always known to be a possibility. Going to war and putting people in prison or shooting someone are actually evidence of the failure of political power–a communication failure. Power is effective when those subject to it know that power can be deployed but they don’t know when or how it will be deployed. Once the political system has shown its cards, so to speak, it loses its advantage.

War also puts political stability at risk. It unleashes forces that cannot be controlled politically.

[A] constant deployment of force, a regular resort to military intervention interrupts the functioning of the political system’s symbolically generalized medium of communication. War is not the continuation of politics [by] other means, it is a potential disruption of the political system’s autopoiesis. (Albert 27)

Putting military hardware on parade or flying fighter jets over sports stadiums reminds observers that the exercise of force is a possibility. The same applies to the cop with a weapon visible on his hip. But once the cop fires that weapon at someone, all kinds of uncontrollable consequences are unleashed, and the cop’s (and the police force’s) subsequent freedom to act is limited. The mass media system, the law, the healthcare system, and other systems can all respond in their own ways to the event–and none of this is controllable by political power.


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