vol.8, no.1, (March 2002)


Social stratification-consensus-participation.

A reply to Takis Fotopoulos’ critique of systems theory




I would like to take the occasion of this response to assess the sociological importance of a few of the arguments offered as criticism by Takis Fotopoulos, in his essay dedicated to systems theory. I am referring in particular to the differentiation of society and the relationship between democracy and participation-consensus. Other theoretically central questions such as the relationship between history and evolution are too complex to be discussed in such a short space.

The first point revolves around a misunderstanding. That modern society is an inexhaustible source of social inequality and that there are “elites, overclasses and underclasses” is quite evident and can’t seriously be thrown into question. Modern society is anything but “an undifferentiated society”. The economy, just as any societal subsystem, constantly produces differences and therefore inequalities. But the problem isn’t in the affirmation or denial of this evidence: the problem is rather in the way these inequalities get described.

The simple fact that there is more than one criterion for describing the modern forms of inequality is instructive. Is a higher degree of education more important than accumulating money? Is holding an high-level position in public administration more important than a similar position in academia or in the ecclesiastic hierarchy? Weber, Bourdieu and Marx would probably offer different answers, as would Luhmann, of course. Distinctions such as “stronger/weaker economic power”, “domination/liberation”, “victory/loss in the competition” etc. are, in my opinion, too simplistic. One fails to take into consideration, for example, that the lives and destinies of individuals are characterized by “loose coupling” and not by causal chains predefined by power relations: an advanced level of study doesn’t in itself guarantee an equally high job level. Being rich is no longer a sign of social distinction or of a higher future quality of life.  One may or may not be religious, have a family or remain single, without compromising other aspects of his/her life. At this point even gender differences don’t play a central role in the discrimination processes. This “loose coupling” has been considered (not only by sociologists) as one of the greatest progresses of modernity; and yet it leaves much more space for inequalities and differences than did the old stratified structures of past centuries. It is in such a context that systems theory makes its proposal: the fact that modern society is no longer primarily based on stratification but rather on a functional differentiation, if nothing else allows us to understand surprising phenomena of this type better.

At the basis of this argumentation, however, there is a theoretical problem that critical theory can’t resolve in practice: the critic’s position. Is s/he in the upper or underclass? Or should we think that society is divided into dominators, dominated and “neutral-engaged” critics? The paradox is in the fact that the non neutrality of the “politically engaged” critic assumes her/his neutrality with respect to the social classes. Perhaps it is precisely here that we need a bit of  “creative Imagination”.

Then there is the question of participation and consensus. In the past – especially in the seventies - it was in the center of considerable debate. Now the problem is above all practical: what does getting included in the process of decision-making mean? Who should be included, not to mention how and why? It seems to me that having all employees of a company participate in the decisions that involve it would be problematic; I can’t imagine what would happen with international decisions. In addition to problems of space there would be enormous problems of time. We all have other things to do. The fact that in the economy there is an ever-present risk that a strong lobby represents the interests of some and not others is clear, and I, as all of us, want to be protected as citizen, as consumer, as voter, (as “human being”…) etc.. The ecumenical solution, however, seems to me to be worse than the problem. Moreover, it seems curious to me that there should be a strong insistence on participation and little to none on the content of the decisions made. I’m not in the least convinced about what an eventual majority of humanity would decide on themes which go from the distribution of economic resources to armaments, from political cultures to the language to use in debates (Chinese?). At the basis of much of the misunderstanding within sociology with regard to these themes there is also what is understood by “democracy”. A “radical analysis” would really be necessary in this case: democracy doesn’t mean either the consensus or the participation of everyone in all the decisions. Even less does it involve an unimaginable, equal distribution of power. Who should then be the decision-maker and with what responsibility? Democracy, just like market economy, public education, etc. signifies the production of differences, of opinions in this case, without moral discredit. The participation of all of humanity in a consensual decision-making process would mean the end of politics and democracy. But even if this terrible and surreal idea of universal participation and total consensus should somehow come to be, there is no need for the partisans of democracy to worry: there will be at least one dissenting vote of protest – mine.