To say that a person or a class or people is oppressed by society is too simplistic. If we think of society (in the old way) as the totality of human beings, plus maybe institutions like schools, churches, and businesses created by human beings, we are using individual/society distinction, rather than thinking of society as global communication. In the traditional (“old European”) view, the individual is understood as the irreducible unit of society. Society is the whole and individual people are the parts. The individual can then be understood as alienated from society, oppressed by society, indoctrinated by society, struggling for liberation from society, an integral member of society, or placed in some other relation to society. Each individual also has a “place” in society, even if it’s a horrible place.
But these are all observations. So the question becomes, What observer observes the individual as X? What observer observes the individual as alienated, oppressed, seeking liberation, or in some other relation to society?
We might say that a critical theory, religion, or some other kind of system observes the individual in various ways based on distinctions that the system draws.
According to Luhmann,
One must . . . always observe an observer, name an observer, and designate a system reference if one makes statements about the world.
As soon as this theoretical threshold has been crossed, there is no more pure and simple way of doing things. From now on, no world exists without observations. Instead, the one who states that the world exists is the one who says that this is so. It is necessary to know, then, that a theory, a system, a mode of communication, a consciousness, or whatever else could do so, claims that the world has such and such qualities. In comparison with the tradition . . . ontology is no longer the assumption of a reality that is shared, and of which it can be assumed that everyone sees the same facts, as long as he or she gives the matter enough thought. Instead, ontology itself becomes a schema of observation–namely, a schema of observation on the basis of difference. (Introduction to Systems Theory, p. 99)
Observers are not limited to consciousness systems or sentient beings. As Luhmann argues, the observer could be “a theory, a system, a mode of communication, a consciousness,” or something else. So a theory, such as Marxism, can observe and construct a reality. A social system such as religion can also observe its own reality. This implies that Marxism or religion can think. A theory or a theology is a schema of observation. Theories or social systems do not have to think in the same way that human beings think. (Also, no two human beings think the same way or experience the same reality because they don’t use exactly the same distinctions.) There is no reason to limit thinking to human beings or to take human thinking as the model for all thinking or cognition. Computers think, cats think, cells think, etc.–if we equate thinking with cognition.