The Tug of War between Functional Differentiation and De-Differentiation

Functional differentiation, as I’ve discussed throughout this blog, is a vast social division of labor. Since the late 17th century, beginning most notably in the Dutch Republic, the functions of politics, economy (or commerce), law, science, education, religion, art, healthcare, and journalism (the press) have differentiated themselves into functionally autonomous social systems. When Enlightenment thinkers spoke of the separation of church and state, freedom of the press, and similar issues, they were talking about functional differentiation. But we might also think of centuries-long game of tug of war between functional differentiation and functional de-differentiation.

Whenever people try to undercut the independence of science or journalism, for example, we see the countermovement of functional de-differentiation. The battle between creationism (or the more respectable “intelligent design”) and the theory of evolution has been a battle over the functional differentiation of science, as the countermovement has tried to subordinate science to religion. A closely related battle has been the movement away from public schooling in the form of fundamentalist schools and religion-based homeschooling, which seeks to subordinate education to religion.

Trump’s attacks on the press, which he calls “the fake news,” is another attempt at functional de-differentiation. Trump has tried to use social media, political rallies, and right-wing media to undercut the functional autonomy of journalism. Millions of Trump supporters will tell you that they only trust what Trump says. But the founders of the United States tried to establish freedom of the press for a reason–it is the primary safeguard against tyranny. Trump has also tried to subvert the functional autonomy of science by denying climate change science and Covid-19 science. He has presented himself as the fount of all knowledge, as he claims to know more than any of the specialists who are paid to advise him.

Trump offers a vast oversimplification of a world that actually consists of “wicked problems.” Rather than going to the separate areas of science or real journalism, his supporters can save time and effort by just reading his twitter feed. Trump presents himself as the “very stable genius” who understands everything.

In a hyper-complex world, such rhetorical appeals, combined with the Trump’s near-takeover of the mass media, can be very powerful.

Like a true fascist, Trump has also attempted to subvert the separation of powers in the US government, as in his attacks on the federal judges that he doesn’t like and his nomination of unquailed candidates to federal judgeships. Likewise, he attacked the pubic education system by appointing Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Trump has effectively replaced Anthony Fauci with Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and conservative “health-care policy expert.” The specialists in education, law, science, and the rest have been replaced by amateurs or people working outside the field of expertise.

A big part of Trump’s appeal has been his presentation of himself as a “non-politician.” Millions of Americans, apparently over 70 million, have lost faith in the US government; therefore, they voted (twice!) for someone who has attempted to destroy that government. These people want a businessman to “run the government” like a CEO runs a business. This amounts to the de-differentiation of politics as a function system, or its subordination to commerce or the mass media system.

The education system plays a vital role here as it teaches students about functional differentiation. Children begin to learn about functional differentiation as they move between different subjects; they learn that there are experts in different fields. One teacher doesn’t teach all subjects, as in an old one-room schoolhouse. An insofar as education offers knowledge founded on actual research and logic, it counteracts the lies offered by charlatans and con artists. But of course the education system has to complete with the mass media, which is where charlatans and con artists thrive.

Function systems (e.g., science, commerce, law, education) are different and equal. They are different in kind not merely in degree, which means one system cannot take over another system. If one system does try to control or take over another system, unpredictable consequences will arise.

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