Volume 9 Number 1 1996

Political Theory in the Welfare State, Niklas Luhmann, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1990, 239 pages, hardback, DM 78:00, US $44:95, ?3.10

This is an English translation of an earlier work (Politische Theorie im Wohlfahrtsstaat), plus some later material, by the eminent German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann. The additional material, however fits neatly into the original text so that the book constitutes a coherent, if not very lucid, whole.

It is in many ways a puzzling book, the main message of which is not all that clear, partly because of a somewhat clumsy translation but mainly because of the excessively abstract style of the author. There is some pretty heady theorising here, and Luhmann has an annoying habit of dressing up some rather obvious points in such an arcane manner that their obviousness is likely to become lost on the unsuspecting reader. Also, some familiar issues, such as the 'crisis of legitimacy' in modern society, are handled in such a heavy-handed way that they quickly lose their familiarity.

It might be thought from the title that the book would be about some of the problems of welfare policy, and the way political theorists have approached them, but this is far from being the case. Although there is some discussion of welfarism, there is certainly no analysis of particular policies and least of all are there any facts. Yet there are, interestingly enough, many elusive and convoluted sentences that express the author's disquiet at some of the consequences of modern welfare states.

However, the book is essentially a work of general social theory in the manner of systems analysis: an attempt to capture those salient features of modern industrial societies that distinguish them from their historical predecessors. Commitments to welfare goals and to democratic procedures are, of course, unavoidable, and presumably, unalterable, characteristics of advanced industrial societies.

The key feature of modern societies is functional differentiation: they consist basically of groups that are interconnected through their specialised roles in the reproduction of the systems in which they are identified. Early societies were differentiated by means of segmentation, and the principles of approximate equality underlay whatever organisational structure they possessed. They were, indeed, unstratified. The emergence of traditional, hierarchical societies (a development which is not given a full explanation in the book) introduced stratification: a 'top-down' authority structure based upon centralisation and inequality.

According to Luhmann, such hierarchies survived until the end of the eighteenth century (in Europe). It was then that functional differentiation (presumably brought about by the development of the market and the division of labour, though these are not really discussed by the author) emerged: a process that combined inequality, ie the persistence of hierarchical political structures, and equality, a more or less equal access to opportunity which is brought about by property, the market and private law. The separate 'function systems' develop and persist through self-reflection and the emergence of codes and programmes (eg differentiation by reference to 'progressive' and 'conservative' semantics). The political system is merely one of these systems: it is characterised not by an over-arching sphere of hierarchical authority, as in traditional societies, but by constitutional principles. The modern political system is not an arbitrary state but a Rechtsstaat. It delivers its policies through the 'communicative media' of money and the law. The modern political system has no centralised spokesman or force; it is an equilibrium arising out of a plurality of function systems.

However, as Luhmann points out, the form in which the modern political system actualizes itself is democratic, and the pressure exerted by the democratic system, coded by the rival claims of government and opposition, competitive parties and so on, made the welfare state inevitable.

Of course, all of this has been pointed out before, and with greater lucidity, by the economic theorists of democracy. The emergence of democracy made the decline of the limited state of classical liberal theory inevitable. Although he never actually says so, Luhmann implicitly disapproves of some aspects of this transformation, this development through reflexivity of function systems. As he points out, the welfare state has an inclusive goal. It goes beyond the payment of compensation to those injured by industrial change and development towards a system that threatens to embrace all aspects of the individual's life. It indeed generates its own problems so that the idea of welfare is the exact semantic correlate of political self-reference: 'It pre-supposes itself for the production of its possibilities and problems (p. 42).

If the reader is prepared to penetrate the not always meaningful technical jargon, he will discover that Luhmann has some quite interesting things to say about all this. Operating through the media of money (which I assume to be a code for taxation) and the law, the welfare state makes public an ever-increasing range of what were hitherto private actions; problems which pre-date the modern welfare state. Yet he seems to be a little mystified as to why exactly this has occurred to the extent that it has. It seems to be the case that 'while the constitutional state can be considered a product of theoretical reflection, the welfare state is a result of evolutionary development' (p. 143). But did not mechanics of modern constitutionalism produce the welfare state?

The argument here might have been helped by illustrations from Luhmann's own country, Germany. How was it that the post-war 'social market economy' (a code phrase if ever there was one) of West Germany, which was originally very different from Scandinavian welfare systems, developed into one that was similar to them? It would be more interesting to discuss particular systems, and the causes of variations between them, rather than waffle on about reflexivity and system differentiation.

Luhmann tries to avoid normative theorising. Fortunately, he is not always successful. In addition to his coded critique of welfarism he has some instructive things to say about democracy. As he rightly points out, democracy involves a bifurcation at the top of the political system: a division between government and opposition through which the political elites compete for the favour of the electorate with moral slogans. Rivals for office become 'drunk' with morality and a form of political argument develops in which one side banishes the other from the moral community by an imperialistic use of 'right' and 'wrong'. Against this, Luhmann recommends that political action should take place at a 'level of higher amorality' which allows an electorate to make a reasoned choice that does not endow the successful party with unsullied virtue and condemn the defeated to moral oblivion.

A suggestion such as this seems eminiently sensible, but it is difficult to see what it has to do with Luhmann's sociological, quasi-scientific analysis. Indeed, this account of the encroachment of the welfare state driven as it is by democracy, implies that such a happy outcome is objectively impossible. Perhaps that is an example of the difficulty with this book: it is partly an ill-concealed normative account of contemporary social problems and partly an explanation (which is occasionally baffling) of why they occur.

Norman Barry
University of Buckingham


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