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Systemic Power
Luhmann, Foucault, and Analytics of Power Christian Borch
Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark abstract: Niklas Luhmanns theory of power is based on two fundamental pillars. First, he analyzes power functionally as a symbolically generalized medium of communication, which endows his conception of power with a strong evolutionary foundation. Second, he claims that power is constitutively tied to negative sanctions. Drawing upon Michel Foucaults analytics of power, the article is a critical examination of Luhmanns theory of power. In particular, Foucaults critique of the so-called discourse of sovereignty is transformed into an immanent critique of the second pillar in Luhmanns theory of power. The argument is that this pillar is converse to Luhmanns evolutionary theoretical objectives, as it reinstalls an OldEuropean semantics of power. The article contends that systems theory would better redeem its historical goals if it focused primarily upon the functional dimension of power. It is argued that this conceptual revision endows systems theory with a more exible perspective on power that is both attentive to historical transformations of how power is exercised, and which still carries a strong link to a general theory of society and its evolution. In the article, this openness is demonstrated through a systemic reconstruction of Foucaults notion of subjectication which, in its Luhmannian version, is coined semantic intrusion. keywords: communication evolution functional analysis government media sanctions subjectication

The reception of Niklas Luhmanns systems theory has mainly pivoted around the implications of the many conceptual innovations that are closely tied to his sociology, e.g. autopoiesis, self-reference, operational closure, etc. Only rarely, however, has Luhmanns theory of power been scrutinized, although he did publish one book and several articles and chapters on the subject (a few exceptions include Brodocz, 1998; Esposito, 1999; Sand, 2000; Guzzini, 2004). In this article, I propose a critical examination of Luhmanns theory of power, in particular of what I take to be its two fundamental pillars. The critical dimension is based on Michel Foucaults analytics of power.1 Basing a critique of Luhmann on Foucault may be surprising at first glance, as Foucaults deliberately non-sociological genealogies of concrete historical phenomena are indeed quite different from Luhmanns general and very abstractly formulated sociology. Yet their similar epistemologicalanalytical perspectives on difference rather than identity, on second-order observation rather than positivism, on communication rather than subjects place the two approaches close to one another and suggest that, despite apparent differences, Luhmann and Foucault may be confronted productively with each other. In this article, no extensive comparison of Foucault and Luhmann is offered. The aim is more modestly to show that Foucauldian insights on power may generate an
Acta Sociologica June 2005 Vol 48(2): 155167 DOI: 10.1177/0001699305053769 Copyright 2005 Scandinavian Sociological Association and SAGE (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)

Acta Sociologica 48(2) immanent critique of systems theory, and to suggest how systems theory may cope with this. The article is divided into four sections. In the rst section, I outline those conceptions of power that Luhmann and Foucault dissociate themselves from and against which their own positions are formulated. According to Luhmann, what must be overcome is a causal notion of power. Foucault, on his side, is critical of the so-called discourse of sovereignty where power is understood negatively, reecting a basically pre-modern social structure, and which he believes to be inadequate for contemporary power analysis. After this negative positioning, I then discuss the positive content of Luhmanns theory of power, above all the two pillars on which it is based. On the one hand, Luhmann conceptualizes power functionally as a symbolically generalized medium of communication (section II). This medial notion of power is conceived within a theory of societal evolution according to which the exercise of power is one among several functionally equivalent means of coping with increasing societal complexity. On the other hand, Luhmann sees power as being constitutively tied to negative sanctions (section III). It is precisely towards this latter pillar that a Foucauldian critique may be directed. Thus, Foucault would argue that accepting the negative conception of power tends to endow power with a pre-modern bias and to ignore its possible historical transformations. Consequently, tying power to negative sanctions runs contrary to the evolutionary objectives of Luhmanns theory. It is therefore suggested that systems theory should downplay the a priori importance it attributes to sanctions, and instead focus on the functionalmedial denition of power a denition that is more openly formulated in regard to what forms the exercise of power may take. In section IV, I proceed by illustrating how this functional view on power would enable systems theory to incorporate one of the crucial dimensions of Foucaults analytics of power, subjectication, which, in the present reconstruction, is presented as a matter of semantic intrusion. Contrary to what this might suggest, the aim of the article is not to subsume systems theory under Foucaults analytics of power. Rather, the intention is, via Foucault, to point to tensions in Luhmanns conception of power especially in regard to the problem with negative sanctions and to show how systems theory may come closer to its own objectives by dealing with these tensions. The constructive contribution of the article thus aims at providing systems theorys unique way of conceptualizing power within a general theory of society (which is not to be found in Foucault) with greater diagnostic and analytical powers that are more attentive to possible historical transformations in the exercise of power.

I. Common starting-points
Luhmanns analysis of power takes off from a critique of what he calls classical theory of power. The most important common trait of theories within this category is their reliance on a number of problematic assumptions about causality. As one of the most prominent examples of how power and causality are conceptualized in classical power theory, Luhmann cites the following claim by Herbert A. Simon, . . . for the assertion, A has power over B, we can substitute the assertion, As behavior causes Bs behavior (Luhmann, 1969: 150, n. 3). The central implication not only in Simon, but in the entire classical theory of power is that power is conceived as the decisive event that makes the power subordinate act the way s/he does and that s/he would have acted differently had s/he not been subject to the exercise of power (Luhmann, 1969; Brodocz, 1998). Luhmann is critical of this causal framework. First, he says, an examination of the causes of power does not tell us where power originates (Luhmann, 1969: 150).2 Second, and more in line with Luhmanns general critique of causal explanations, every effect has an innite number of causes just as every cause produces an innite number of effects (Luhmann, 1970a: 156

Borch: Systemic Power 16). The determination of a causal relation is, thus, a contingent enterprise, an observerdependent ascription or attribution that could have been different. In the same vein, Luhmann refuses to seek specic intentions or motives behind the exercise of power. Motivation, he states, is not a cause of the action, but an attribution, which makes possible the socially comprehensible experience of action (1979: 120). The point of attribution is illustrated by a third problem, the question of whether one can envisage the exercise of power as being decisive for the subordinates actual actions. Is it possible causally to preclude that the subordinate would not have acted the way s/he did under all circumstances or, at least, that there were no other reasons for his/her action than the exercise of power? Finally, a time issue is at stake: The classical theory of power . . . implies a conception of time in which the future is seen as a determined, objective and already xed projection of the past, it is at any rate a future poor in alternatives (Luhmann, 1969: 1512).3 This is particularly apparent regarding the subordinate whose future actions are presumed to be pre-determinable before power is exercised. However, when focusing on the present, as Luhmann does, the causal thinking of classical power theory must be abandoned, since actual entities in the contemporary universe are causally independent of each other (Whitehead, 1978: 123). Additionally, Luhmann criticizes the classical theory for imaging power as a substance that can be possessed (1969: 1589). The problem is, he says, that a simple reference to the possession of power, where power is transferred from one person to another and from one situation to another, altogether conceals the systemic conditions of such a modality of power. Furthermore, it assumes that the exercise of power is a zero-sum game where, for example, increasing bureaucratic power is said to take place only with a corresponding loss of parliamentary power. Luhmann questions this assumption and argues that an adequate theory of power must be able to take into account that power often increases one place without leading to a parallel loss elsewhere. Indeed, as Luhmann demonstrates, organizational power increases simultaneously among both superiors and subordinates when their internal relations intensify (Luhmann, 1969: 163; 1979: 17982). Before proceeding with Luhmanns alternative, non-causal route into the power question, i.e. before examining how he replaces the classical theory of power with a systemic notion of power, we may reflect for a moment on Foucaults analytics of power, as it deals with problems that are strikingly similar to those of Luhmann. According to Foucault, what needs to be overcome is the discourse of sovereignty or the juridico-political conception of power. Thomas Lemke has identified three main assumptions in this image of power (Lemke, 1997: 99; cf. also Foucault, 1990: 946). First, he points to an assertion of possession. Power is conceptualized as a substance that can be possessed, exchanged, etc., which simultaneously implies an idea of power as a zero-sum game. Second, there is an assumption of location. Power, typically political power, is concentrated in a center or headquarter, the monarch or the state apparatus, from which it flows (causally and top-down) to the rest of society. Finally, the discourse of sovereignty relies on the contention that power serves purposes of repression. This is particularly apparent in the importance attributed to prohibitions and law so that power, still according to the juridico-political model, is essentially in opposition to freedom. To exercise power is to limit freedom (a reiteration of the zero-sum supposition). According to Foucault, this discourse of sovereignty emerged in a specific historical context:
Through the development of the monarchy and its institutions this juridico-political dimension was established. It is by no means adequate to describe the manner in which power was and is exercised, but it is the code according to which power presents itself and prescribes that we conceive of it. The history of the monarchy went hand in hand with the covering up of the facts and procedures of power by the juridico-political discourse. (Foucault, 1990: 878)


Acta Sociologica 48(2) This is Foucaults real concern. Despite the fact that the social structure, which bred this conception of power, passed away long ago, the negative-hierarchical notion of power nevertheless prevails in contemporary mainstream social thought, including both liberal and Marxist positions. In a famous and much quoted statement, Foucault thus complains that in our present way of conceptualizing and analyzing power, we still have not cut off the head of the king (Foucault, 1990: 889). Consequently, Foucaults approach to power aims at developing conceptual tools that enable us to seize the powers of our time more adequately. Interestingly, Foucaults suggestion that we should leave behind the negative-hierarchical notion of power is not based on sociological arguments. Rather, he attempts to add plausibility to his proposal through detailed historical analyses. However, drawing upon Luhmanns systems theory, we may, in fact, supply Foucaults claim with a sociological line of reasoning. Thus, according to Luhmann, modern society is primarily functionally differentiated. Its differentiation into operationally autonomous subsystems of politics, law, art, etc. implies that modern society is without an apex or center (Luhmann, 1990: 31). This characterization suggests the need for replacing notions of power that reinstall a conception of a hierarchically differentiated society. In short, Luhmanns description of functional differentiation provides a radical sociological argument for decapitating the king, both theoretically and analytically. It suggests that the contemporary semantics of power should not reect a pre-modern social structure. Foucault puts forward several alternative notions of power that do not subscribe to the discourse of sovereignty. The trajectory of these notions is complex, as Foucault continually corrects and revises his own earlier accounts (for an excellent overview of this development, see Lemke, 1997). In the present context, it is neither necessary nor possible to esh out the development of Foucaults power analytics. Instead, I limit myself to sketching only the four main currents. Initially, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1977) introduces his analysis of power as discipline (thereby stressing the productive, creative, and positive aspects of power in contrast to the negative ones emphasized by the juridico-political model). Later on, he endorses Nietzsches hypothesis (Foucault, 2003: 16) according to which power is a continuation of war with other means. Soon after that, he introduces the concept of bio-power (including partly a political anatomy of the body, i.e. discipline; and partly a regulation of the population, bio-politics), which leads him to recognize the need for a more general analytics of power. This whole conceptual development nally ends with the notion of government. Conceptualized as government, power is dened as conduct of conduct, or action upon action. According to this view, to exercise power is to structure the possible eld of action of others, or of oneself (Foucault, 1982: 221).4 Here power is intimately associated with freedom; power is only power insofar as it conditions conduct that could have been different. Or, in the words of Foucault (1982: 221), [p]ower is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free. Additionally, no nave assumptions of causality are imbedded in this notion of government. Power is no cause of behavior but basically a mechanism for regulating contingent selections. In the same vein, government is not located in a headquarter and it is not possessed by any subject. Rather, governmental power is non-subjective and comprises no hierarchy (cf. also Foucault, 1990: 945). Methodologically, Foucault resists the temptation to outline a new theory of power, since that would amount to associating power with essentialism and to ignoring its historical transformations. What is needed is an analytics of power that enables us to analyze power in actu. Hence, Foucault, similar to Luhmann, establishes a shift from what questions to how questions, from examining what power is to investigating how power is actually exercised. In sum, Foucaults entire project on power is an attempt to undermine a particular image of power, the juridico-political schema, one that wrongfully extrapolates a specic historical 158

Borch: Systemic Power representation of power into the present. This discourse of sovereignty is counter-posed with historical analyses that delineate two alternative dispositivs of power, discipline and government. According to Foucault, however, this does not imply
the replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society [as it was previously claimed in Discipline and Punish, CB] and the subsequent replacement of a disciplinary society by a society of government; in reality one has a triangle, sovereigntydisciplinegovernment. (1991: 102)

Nonetheless, in spite of the simultaneous workings of these three forms of power, government must currently be attributed pre-eminence (Foucault, 1991: 102).

II. The mediality of power

As should be clear from this brief sketch, similarities can be identied between Luhmann and Foucault concerning the problems of power and, to be more precise, the assumptions in need of replacement. Whereas the late Foucault suggests studying power in the form of government, Luhmanns solution consists of a double-pillar conception of power, inspired by Talcott Parsons. In this section, the rst pillar is discussed, which concerns the functional or medial notion of power. In the following section, I turn to the second pillar, according to which power is constituted by negative sanctions. Luhmanns non-causal starting-point is the problem of double contingency, that is, an interactive situation in which both alter and ego have the generalized potential to conceive of facts as selections implying negations, to negate these negations and to reconstruct other possibilities (1976: 509). Historically, Luhmann says, a number of so-called symbolically generalized media of communication (truth, love, money, etc.) have emerged which, in a functionally equivalent way, deal with this Urproblem of sociality. Power is one of these media, as it offers a mechanism to coordinate alters and egos selections. Luhmann differentiates symbolically generalized media of communication according to how they link the action and/or experience of ego and alter. In the case of power, it is the coordination of alters action and egos action that is of interest.5 Thus, the function of the medium of power is to render probable that ego uses alters action as a premise for his/her own action, or, to put it differently, to motivate ego to condition his/her action by alters action (Luhmann, 1997: 355; 2000: 60). This conception of power, as a relation between action and action, is equivalent to the Foucauldian denition of power (in the form of government) as conduct of conduct with the specication that Luhmann is explicitly concerned with the regulation of selections, of selected action upon selected action (Luhmann, 1976: 517). Further similarities with Foucaults power analytics can be identied. This goes, for example, for the intimate relation between power and freedom, which in Luhmann is implied by the concept of selection. If ego cannot act in discrepancy with alters requests there is no need for power at all. In contrast, power terminates the very moment that ego is coerced to obey. Coercion is equal to a lack of (trust in the) regulation of contingency. Consequently, coercion can only be exercised at a specic cost: The person exercising coercion must himself take over the burden of selection and decision to the same degree as coercion is being exercised . . . the reduction of complexity is not distributed but is transferred to the person using coercion (Luhmann, 1979: 112).6 Luhmann shares another important point of departure with Foucault that is worth highlighting. As previously mentioned, Foucaults power analytics can be read as an explicit critique of the discourse of sovereignty and its claim that power can be possessed and transmitted as a substance. One of Foucaults attempts to escape this conception of power is to focus on the strictly relational character of power (Foucault, 1990: 95). Luhmann also dissociates himself from understanding power substantially and ontologically and he is not far from Foucault when he refers to the medial character of power. Conceived as a medium, power 159

Acta Sociologica 48(2) is nothing but a code-guided communication (Luhmann, 1979: 116) or, to paraphrase Foucaults (1990: 93) nominalistic point, power is nothing but the name that is given to this communication. However, even though Luhmann repudiates an ontological denition of power, many of his power analyses are actually encumbered with ontological formulations. Up to the 1980s, his theory of symbolically generalized media of communication drags along with it a heavy ontological baggage. In his book on power, for example, Luhmann states that: The function of a communication medium lies in transmitting reduced complexity. . . . In the case of power too, it is this transmission of selection which is the main point of interest (1979: 113; cf. also 1975, 1976, 1977). Power is thereby presented as a question of transmission of selections, as if these were tangible entities that could be mailed.7 In the famous debate with Jrgen Habermas, Luhmann species that what is transmitted must not be confused with particles or the like; rather, it is a transmission of premises that is at stake (Luhmann, 1971: 344). However, this redenition poses new questions itself. What should we understand by premises (Gbel, 2000: 82, n. 110)? And is it not, in fact, the whole idea of transmission rather than what is transmitted that is problematic? Eventually, Luhmann realizes the drawbacks that come with the metaphor of transmission. Therefore, he nally settles with it in Social Systems with the argument that:
The metaphor of transmission is unusable because it implies too much ontology. It suggests that the sender gives up something that the receiver then acquires. This is already incorrect because the sender does not give up anything in the sense of losing it. The entire metaphor of possessing, having, giving, and receiving, the entire thing metaphoric is unsuitable for understanding communication. (Luhmann, 1995: 139)

Consequently, it is also unsuitable for understanding power. Luhmanns famous foundational move is now, in light of this problem, to reconstruct systems theory in a way where its basic concept, communication, is detached from the idea of a sender and a receiver. Instead, he conceives of communication as a triple selection of information, utterance, and understanding. This shift in conceptual perspective has consequences for the notion of power as well. Most importantly, power must now be understood without an ontological notion of transmission. This is realized not through the general linguistic turn of Luhmanns theory but rather via Heider (1926), by observing power through the distinction between medium and form. Hence, the medium of power is described as a loose coupling of power objectives and sanctions, whereas the form of power is constituted by the distinction between the execution of a command and the alternative to this, a negative sanction (Luhmann, 1997: 356). Before moving on to this notion of negative sanctions, I should note an important consequence of Luhmanns insertion of power in a media register. By this conceptual strategy, he undermines the idea that power occupies a societal primacy or that power should be deemed the key notion in a theory of society. But more than this, as a medium, i.e. as an evolutionary product, power is conceptualized within an evolutionary framework and not within a general (a-historical) theory of power. Power is observed as an emergent solution to a specic evolutionary problem, that due to escalating societal complexity, it becomes increasingly difcult to rely on a situational congruence of interest for the regulation and conditioning of contingent selections. In this situation, the development of power as a way of regulating contingency becomes an unavoidable priority for further evolution (Luhmann, 1979: 116).

III. Negative sanctions

Whereas Luhmanns functional-medial perspective on power creates a link to his general interest in societal evolution, I shall claim that the second pillar of his theory of power the 160

Borch: Systemic Power constitution of power through negative sanctions endows his conception of power with an Old-European bias that is not only unnecessary but also in conict with the general evolutionary objectives of his theory. Similar to the case of symbolically generalized media of communication, the inspiration to Luhmanns notion of negative sanctions arises from the work of Parsons. However, while Luhmann modies the media theory, he does not rework the idea of sanctions sufciently critically. Like Parsons (1969), Luhmann thus establishes a constitutive link between power and negative sanctions. At one point, for example, he states that the concept of negative sanction is inevitable for the characterization of power as a symbolically generalized medium of communication (Luhmann, 1987: 119). In a different context, Luhmann stresses that [p]olitical power is essentially a threatening power [Drohmacht]. At any rate, one cannot conceive of it without this component (Luhmann, 1988: 45). The reference to sanctions does not mean that power is realized through the actual use of sanctions. Instead, it refers to an alternative, the realization of which both ego and alter prefer to avoid (a so-called Vermeidungsalternative), but which it may be necessary for alter to carry out if ego dees alters command and does not use his/her actions as a premise for his/her own.8 I would like to question how evident this linkage of power and negative sanctions is.9 Indeed, I will argue, the claim that power relies on negative sanctions reveals a semantic shortcircuit in Luhmanns theory. Recalling Foucaults analytics of power, we may observe that Luhmann, in fact, reinstalls one of the central characteristics of the juridico-political image of power (its negativity) which Foucault attacks by demonstrating its pre-modern foundation. The second pillar of Luhmanns theory of power the supplement to the strictly functional pillar is thus embedded in an Old-European semantics of power where power relies on the possibility of sanctioning non-compliance. As Foucault stresses repeatedly, this notion of power is not necessarily false. However, it is highly inadequate for describing how power is exercised nowadays where the subtle operations of power, so Foucault argues, should rather be analyzed in terms of discipline, government or, drawing upon Deleuze (1995), control. The negative sanctions pillar of Luhmanns theory of power is thus in a double sense converse to his own evolutionary objectives. On the one hand, it is at odds with his theory of functional differentiation because the constitutive notion of sanctions suggests that his conception of power corresponds to a hierarchically differentiated society. Hence, the second pillar ultimately points to a divergence of semantics and social structure in Luhmanns theory. On the other hand, the constitutive tie between power and negative sanctions a priori forecloses the possibility that power could be exercised in ways that differ from what the Old-European semantics implies. By deducing the actual operations of power from the prevailing semantics of power, as Luhmann tends to do, one runs the risk of ignoring historical transformations of the forms of power. How should one deal with this tension between the two pillars in Luhmanns theory of power? The answer that I opt for in this article is to consider the reliance on negative sanctions as only one among many ways of conditioning action through action. That is, rather than deeming negative sanctions compulsory for the exercise of power, I suggest that we view their use as being contingent. This proposal thus emphasizes the purely functional notion of power as an evolutionary outgrowth of the need for regulating the contingencies of alters and egos actions. What is gained by highlighting only this rst pillar? First of all, we acquire a subtle, open, and exible perspective on power. Second, and contrary to the Foucaldian position, the perspective acquired adheres to Luhmanns explicit emphasis on both societal evolution and functional differentiation. It is, however, important to stress that, just as Foucault is cautious to observe the simultaneous operation of sovereignty, discipline, and government, focusing on the functional dimension of power should not altogether lead us to ignore sanctions. In some situations, of course, the exercise of power may be supported by negative sanctions. At 161

Acta Sociologica 48(2) other times, it will not. When and how this is the case is ultimately an empirical question to which no answers will be provided here. Instead, I attempt in the following to demonstrate how the openness and exibility referred to may be redeemed. More specically, the suggestion is that the functional denition of power may enable us to incorporate into systems theory what Foucault analyzes as exercise of power through subjectication.10

IV. Subjectication as semantic intrusion

According to Foucault, the ways in which individuals are constructed as specic subjects, e.g. as delinquents, consumers, enterprising citizens, etc., may be observed as techniques of exercising power. This form of power, Foucault says:
. . . applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. (1982: 212)

Actually, Luhmann and Foucault agree to repudiate the idea of an a-historic, constitutive subjectivity, but this common point of departure leads them in different directions. Whereas Foucault examines the power effects of how the subject is constructed in different social settings, Luhmann entirely excludes the subject from his theory in order to understand sociality purely in terms of communication. The question is now whether Luhmann thereby precludes himself from analyzing those ways of exercising of power that Foucauldian studies of contemporary political power are so successful at diagnosing. In positive terms, the question is: Is it possible within systems theory to conceive of subjectication as a form of power? This is, in fact, possible, I will argue, but it requires that power is detached from negative sanctions. Before arguing for this, I should emphasize that the following reconstruction is not an attempt to nd a place for the subject in Luhmanns work since that would amount to a renunciation of one of the theorys strongest points. What is at stake is merely an attempt to show how systems theory can be opened towards an analysis of subjectication. Here, I draw upon Urs Stheli (2000b) and a problem he has identied within systems theory concerning Luhmanns attempt to overcome the sociological action theory of Weber, Parsons, etc. Luhmann convincingly argues that action must be secondary to communication; hence action also cannot be considered the fundamental sociological unit a status that should be given to communication. Now, what makes the relationship between communication and action a crucial, but simultaneously precarious, theme in systems theory is not so much the dismissal of action as the ultimate unit of the social but rather, that actions are still ascribed a very important in fact, constitutive role in social systems. The problem is situated between the following two assumptions. On the one hand, social systems can carry out their self-reproduction only with the help of self-observations and selfdescriptions (Luhmann, 1995: 167). On the other hand, Luhmann claims, communication cannot be observed directly, only inferred (1995: 164). Communication itself is invisible. But if communication is invisible the system cannot observe itself, hence self-reproduction, autopoiesis, and ultimately the system itself is impossible. In order to overcome this tension, communication must be made visible, which is accomplished when the system is agged as an action system (Luhmann, 1995: 164). Thus, even though the system is actually a system of communications, it has to bypass this fact and present itself as a system of actions. In practice, this is realized by observing communication in a simplied way, namely by interpreting utterance as action, describing it in an available semantics as rational, free, etc. Stheli is critical of this resurrection of action in the theory of communication and he questions the necessity of binding communications to actions (Stheli, 2000b: 42). In the 162

Borch: Systemic Power present context, I leave this part of his argument aside and, instead, focus on what power theoretical consequences it has if one accepts Luhmanns conceptualization. For then it turns out that the way in which actions are attributed can be conceived as a systemic counterpart to the Foucauldian forms of subjectication. Take, for example, the governmental studies of advanced liberal modes of subjectication, where individuals are constructed as active, responsible subjects (see Rose, 1999). This may be interpreted as a strategy of power which, so to speak, seeks to inltrate the very reproduction of social systems in that it provides and advances a semantics (of rational choices) which the systems may use to reproduce themselves as (rational) action systems. In short, the political promotion of the active, responsible subject facilitates one particular way in which communications could be agged as actions (Stheli, 1998: 3245). This attempt to steer not only endeavors to designate or indicate actions as, say, rational choices, it also produces expectations to connecting communications and, often, to particular technologies of the self, i.e. specic ways in which individuals or social systems are to conduct themselves. In the words of Luhmann (1995: 168):
The right kind of self-attribution may then be taught more or less successfully to an actor, so that in time, perhaps even in advance, he can tell if he is acting and relieve the pressure on social controls by self-control.

How are we to characterize this kind of power within systems theory? Since Luhmann abandons the subject tradition, I shall for want of a better notion entitle the kind of power that is exercised through subjectication semantic intrusion, or semantic power. The purpose of introducing this notion is explicitly to stress that the semantics is not external to the governed systems; rather, it is essential to the constitution of social systems and their reproduction, the point at which communications are agged as actions. To put it as clearly as possible: All social systems must describe themselves as action systems, otherwise they cannot observe and thereby reproduce themselves. Providing and promoting a particular semantics of actions may be interpreted as an attempt to condition the basis of the communicative reproduction, that is, the very way social systems ag and describe their utterances as actions. Semantic intrusion, then, is a type of action by which alter aims to condition egos action, a systemic mode of governing at a distance (cf. Rose, 1999). It is important to notice that this form of power operates purely functionally without any reference to negative sanctions. Nevertheless, sanctions will often support the subjectications or semantic intrusions usually through a power of withdrawal if one presumes not to behave in accordance with the expectations that are associated with the semantics. In his analysis of advanced liberal modes of government, for example, Nikolas Rose refers to a particular welfare reform program which required that children of welfare recipients attend school as a condition of their parents receiving benets (1999: 264). Here, the possible use of sanctions serves to buttress the subjectication of active, responsible citizens. One important issue must be touched upon concerning semantic intrusion. For does not this notion run contrary to Luhmanns very idea of operationally closed systems? Does it not imply that systems are determinable from the outside? To caution against this impression, I should stress the element of freedom that both Luhmann and Foucault regard as the condition for any exercise of power. Hence, there is no guarantee that systemic power will succeed any better than other ways of exercising power. Promoting a particular semantics does not warrant compliance. On the contrary, every system is left to decide on its own premises how it selects its operations and how it connects to them. As Luhmann states:
The semantic expenditure required for the communication system to describe itself as an action system is in part a problem of cultural history, in part a problem of a specic situation. Whether a


Acta Sociologica 48(2)

semantics of vital forces is all that is needed or interests must be taken into consideration . . . all this depends on circumstances at the social systems disposal. (1995: 168; italics added)

Indeed, Luhmann warns against overestimating the reach of power. As systems are autopoietically organized, one system cannot interfere in another systems internal operations. Luhmann thus offers a sociological perspective that, more clearly and profoundly than Foucault, explains why the exercise of power often contains a strangely utopian element (Dean 1999: 33).

V. Conclusion
Symbolically generalized media of communication are, Luhmann says, differentiated according to how they connect the action and/or experience of alter and ego. As one of these media, power is characterized by providing a regulation of alters action and egos action. This part of Luhmanns theory of power is indeed intriguing because it combines a sophisticated, exible, and non-causal perspective on power with a general theory of society and its evolution. Here, power is viewed as a byproduct of societal evolution or, more accurately, as an effective means of dealing with increasing complexity. What is at once fascinating and, to some perhaps, provocative is that this conceptualization eludes a widespread tendency in social and political theory of ascribing power a predominant societal status. In Luhmanns analysis, power is placed on a par with other symbolically generalized media (money, truth, love, etc.), inviting comparisons of their functional contributions. According to Luhmann, the functionally differentiated subsystems of modern society are themselves organized around the differentiation of the symbolically generalized media of communication. In this article, I have argued that this analysis of functional differentiation offers a profound sociological basis for Foucaults critique of the discourse of sovereignty and its negative-hierarchical notion of power. All the more surprising is it that Luhmann himself, as a second pillar of his theory of power, emphasizes the constitutive import of negative sanctions on power. Drawing upon Foucault, I argued that the signicance attributed to negative sanctions is converse to Luhmanns self-proclaimed focus on evolutionary processes. I have therefore asserted that systems theory would keep better in line with its evolutionary objectives by paying primary attention to the functional aspect of power. More accurately, a sophisticated analytics of power, combining a complex theory of society with an evolutionary dimension, would prot from using Luhmanns functional denition of power as analytical starting-point, examining how action in the concrete is regulated through action, that is, studying what forms the exercise of power takes in actu. Such an approach would be open to Foucaults argument that in modern society we may observe simultaneous workings of different forms of power. In other words, even if we stress the functional pillar of Luhmanns notion of power, this does not preclude that action is often conditioned by action with the help of negative sanctions. However, sanctions are not required in the exercise of power. In this article, this was demonstrated in the systemic reconstruction of subjectication, for which purpose I invented the notion of semantic intrusion. In sum, through a Foucaldian critique, an immanent problem in systems theory was identied. In dealing with this problem, a more open systemic conception of and approach to power has been suggested in which Luhmanns main contributions to sociology come more to the fore.


Borch: Systemic Power

I am deeply indebted to Garrett Batten, Reka Prasad, Urs Stheli, and three anonymous reviewers for valuable comments. 1. Previously, Alain Pottage has analyzed power in Luhmann and Foucault, but whereas Pottage uses systems theory as a sort of critical complement to Foucaults project (Pottage, 1998: 2), the aim of the following is the reverse: to use Foucault as a corrective to Luhmann. Possible relations between Luhmann and Foucault are also identied by Brunkhorst (1990), Kneer (1996), Andersen (2003), and in the contributions in Borch and Larsen (2003). 2. A NietzscheanFoucauldian critique would problematize this search for an origin (Ursprung), because it is an attempt to capture the exact essence of things, their purest possibilities, and their carefully protected identities (Foucault, 2000: 371). In other words, to criticize the classical theory of power for not being able to uncover the origin of power amounts to an identity position that Luhmann himself, in his later writings, would reject. 3. All translations from German are by the author. 4. The notion of government has a dual role in Foucaults historical writings. On the one hand, it is associated with the problematization of acts and practices in the Ancient World. On the other hand, it is used to describe the process, or rather the result of the process, through which the state of justice of the Middle Ages, transformed into the administrative state during the fteenth and sixteenth centuries, gradually becomes governmentalized (Foucault, 1991: 103). 5. Against Luhmanns theory of differentiation, a radical Foucauldian critique would argue that all symbolically generalized media are fundamentally media of power because they reproduce a normalization of communication (cf. Stheli, 2000a: 177). 6. This basically economic perspective on power associates Luhmann with Foucault as well. Like Parsons, Luhmann applies the economic concepts of ination and deation in the theory of symbolically generalized media. Power is inated by empty threats and it is deated if one relinquishes the possibility of conditioning action through action too often (Luhmann, 1979: 166). Foucault expresses similar power-economic considerations: Power is only exercised at a cost. . . . If power is exercised too violently, there is a risk of provoking revolts; or if the intervention is too discontinuous, there could be resistance and disobedience (Foucault, 1989a: 232). 7. In his early work, Luhmann presumes that the idea of transmission of selections can replace the assertion of possession (see Luhmann, 1970b: 135, n. 55). Not until much later does he acknowledge that not even this escapes an ontological framework. 8. According to Luhmann, the sanctions have a negative value to the powerful as well as to the subordinate. They are immediately painful to the latter who is the target of them but they are unpleasant to the powerful too, as the preferred actions must now be provided in a more difcult way, for example, through coercion and then the power ends. Power is only exercised as long as the negative sanctions remain a possibility. Even though both ego and alter prefer to avoid the sanctions, they appraise them differently. Thus, the powerful can better live with the sanctions than the subordinate can. It is precisely this difference that institutes the power of the powerful, Luhmann says. 9. Granted, Luhmann also emphasizes the importance of positive sanctions in modern welfare states where the exercise of power cannot be based on the most radical negative sanction, physical violence. But even here, power exists in transforming positive sanctions (social benets, etc.) into negative ones; a power of withdrawal relying on the possibility of cutting or entirely withdrawing expected welfare benets (Luhmann, 1987: 1201). 10. One might also consider whether spatial arrangements could be interpreted as another way for alter, through action, to condition egos actions that does not rely on negative sanctions. This is Foucaults position when he argues that space is fundamental in any exercise of power (Foucault, 1989b: 345).

Andersen, N. . (2003) Discursive Analytical Strategies: Understanding Foucault, Koselleck, Laclau, Luhmann. Bristol: Policy Press.


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Biographical Note: Christian Borch, PhD, is post-doctoral research fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. His current research focuses on the sociology of crowds. Address: Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen, ster Farimagsgade 5, P.O. Box 2099, DK-1014 Copenhagen K, Denmark. [email:]