The Self-Organisation of Society - Part I

Acknowledgement: This paper is a result of research undertaken
in the INTAS-research project “Human Strategies in Complexity“
(contract number MP/CA 2000-298)

Christian Fuchs
Institute of Design and Technology Assessment
Vienna University of Technology
A-1040 Vienna, Austria

Annette Schlemm
Interdisciplinary Study Group
on Philosophical Problems of Foundation
University of Kassel
c/o Saalbahnhofstr. 6
D-07743 Jena, Germany
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1. Introduction. 1

2. Society as a Dialectical System.. 2

2.1. Human Action Systems – The Relationship of Society and Individuals. 2

2.1.1 What is Society?. 2

Abstract (English)

The aim of this paper is to outline some aspects of the self-organisation of society based on a dialectical methodology. On a very general level, society can be characterised as a re-creative system: By mutual productive relationships of social structures and actors, society can based on human activity and creativity reproduce itself. Social structures are medium and outcome of social actions. This is a synchronous description. Describing society in a diachronic way, one can say that new order emerges in phases of instability and crisis. Society can also be described as the unity of different qualitative moments such as production, consumption, distribution, politics and culture because human activity results in more permanent qualitative moments. A dialectical analysis of society means to consider societal existence as a development process. Dialectics means concretisation and speculation. Hence by ascending from the abstract to the concrete (from the logic of essence to the logic of notion), we discuss the economic self-organisation cycle of capitalism. This process of capital accumulation results in the estrangement and exploitation of the human being by the human being. Capitalist society is not a naturally given pattern, but a historical system. The human being has the ability to consciously behave towards the world, hence it’s possible to change the societal conditions in such a way that true, well-rounded individuality can fully unfold.

Abstract (Deutsch)

Ziel dieses Aufsatzes ist die Erläuterung einiger Aspekte der Selbstorganisation der Gesellschaft auf der Basis einer dialektischen Herangehensweise. Auf einer sehr allgemeinen Ebene kann Gesellschaft als re-kreatives System charakterisiert werden: Durch wechselseitige, produktive Verhältnisse von Gesellschaftsstrukturen und Akteuren kann sich die Gesellschaft basierend auf menschlicher Aktivität und Kreativität selbst reproduzieren. Soziale Strukturen sind Medium und Resultat des Handelns. Dabei handelt es sich um eine synchrone Beschreibung. Wird Gesellschaft diachron beschrieben, so kann gesagt werden, dass neue Ordnung in Phasen der Instabilität und Krise emergiert. Gesellschaft kann auch als Einheit verschiedener qualitativer Momente wie Produktion, Konsumtion, Distribution, Politik und Kultur beschrieben werden, da menschliche Aktivitäten in dauerhaften qualitativen Momenten resultieren. Eine dialektische Analyse der Gesellschaft zu betreiben bedeutet, das gesellschaftliche Sein als Entwicklungsprozess aufzufassen. Dialektik bedeutet Konkretisierung und Spekulation. Durch Aufsteigen vom Abstrakten zum Konkreten (von der Wesenslogik zur Begriffslogik) können wir den ökonomischen Selbstorganisationszyklus des Kapitalismus beschreiben. Dieser Prozess der Kapitalakkumulation resultiert in der Entfremdung und Ausbeutung des Menschen durch den Menschen. Die kapitalistische Gesellschaft ist nicht natürlich gegeben, sondern ein historisches System. Der Mensch hat die Fähigkeit, sich bewußt gegenüber der Welt zu verhalten, daher ist es möglich, die gesellschaftlichen Bedingungen derart zu verändern, dass sich wahre, allseitige Individualität voll entfalten kann.

1. Introduction

In the older natural sciences one can still ignore that the topic are not only some things “on the outside“, but things in “a world for us“. All objects are objects of human practice. In quantum theory the neglect of the human being had to be given up and also in the concept of self-organisation humans can’t simply be considered as outside observers, they must be considered as participants in the process.

Even more obvious is the fact of participation, the impossibility of only an external position, in the scientific analysis of the societal[i] being of humans. If we took the position of only an external observer in sociology, we wouldn’t be able to explain human behaviour adequately – but we also don’t assume that human behaviour can only be understood by a single actor, not by others. Human life is free – but always also limited in its possibilities. There is neither absolute arbitrariness of behaviour nor absolute arbitrary interpretation of human behaviour – but the comprehension of society can’t simply copy methods from the natural sciences. Also an adoption of modern concepts from the natural and general sciences which include the subject of cognition is not sufficient. 

In this work we will use different approaches to the problem. The chapters 2 and 3 vary in the way that we describe society, this is done in chapter 2 according to rather traditional sociological analysis as we consider society and the relationships of individuals as object of analysis. In chapter 3 we acknowledge that also another approach is needed for the subject as an object of cognition. We accept both approaches and point out their mutual complementation. In chapter 2 we point out two possibilities of subdividing the total system of society. On the one hand society is considered as the unity of human beings or their actions (empirical concept of society in chapter 2.1) and on the other hand society is considered as the unity of different qualitative moments (society as category in chapter 2.2.). The two conceptions are connected by the fact that qualitative moments of society such as the economy, politics and culture are based on human actions and social relationships. The second conception shows that the specific definiteness of quality (that changes historically) must result in a concretisation of the various societal formations. This dialectical way of cognition “from the abstract to the concrete” opens the way to a historical approach and justifies the synchronous (systematic) and diachronic (historical) descriptions of the structure of societal systems in the subchapters 2.1.2. and 2.1.3.

2. Society as a Dialectical System

2.1. Human Action Systems – The Relationship of Society and Individuals

2.1.1 What is Society?

Various meanings can be employed for the term “society“. We use it in a specific way that shall be outlined. We consider society the characterisation that delimits that which is specifically human from other organic modes of organisation. All other characteristics of the human being such as consciousness, labour as the foundation of reproduction etc. are bound to sociality. Hence we also distinguish social from societal. Social relationships and communities (Gemeinschaft) can already be found in the world of animals – but no societies in the way we employ the term.

A more specific definition of what societal being is can be given if we compare it to historically older forms of sociality which have resulted in society. We can’t cover anthropogenesis in depth here (see Schlemm 2001a for more details), but we want to summarise some important points:

-     Although the emergence of the human being from the animal world took many hundred thousands or million years (“animal-man-transition field”), human beings differ from their animal ancestors and other animals qualitatively. An appreciation of those qualities and abilities that animals don’t have, is not a negation of the intrinsic value of other life-forms.

-          Constitutive for the qualitative difference of the way of organising life has been that human beings e.g. for scavenging no longer simply used means (stick) for achieving immediately given ends (catching of a fruit on a tree), but that they also produce and preserve the means independent from immediate means, i.e. indirect precaution, production and preservation (for details on this reversal of ends and means see Holzkamp 1985, p. 173 and Zukunftswerkstatt 2002, see also Leontjew 1985, pp. 149ff[ii]). Such a reversal of ends and means has (thus far?) only taken place once on planet earth, namely by the pre-human becoming human. Humans begin to distinguish themselves from animals by starting to produce their means of subsistence by which they are indirectly producing their actual material life (Marx/Engels 1846: 21).

-          Marx pointed out that man like animals lives from inorganic nature, he must remain in a continuing physical dialogue with nature in order to survive. Nature can be considered as man’s inorganic body in the sense that nature is “a direct means of life“ and “the matter, the object, and the tool of his [man’s] life activity“ (Marx 1844: 516). Animals produce only their own immediate needs, “animals produce one-sidedly, whereas man produces universally; they produce only when immediate physical need compels them to do so, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need; they produce only themselves, while man reproduces the whole of nature; their products belong immediately to their physical bodies, while man freely confronts his own product. Animals produce only according to the standards and needs of the species to which they belong, while man is capable of producing according to the standards of every species and of applying to each object its inherent standard; hence, man also produces in accordance with the laws of beauty“ (Marx 1844: 517). In the production of his life which includes the metabolism between society and nature and societal reciprocity, man as the universal, objective species-being produces an objective world (gegenständliche Welt) and reproduces nature and his species according to his purposes. "The activity of the animal is not directed at the totality of these conditions [of a situation], but only at certain objects of its biological needs. This is different with the human being”[iii] (Leontjew 1985: 163, emphasis added). With the human being, history emerges: “the more that human beings become removed from animals in the narrower sense of the word, the more they make their own history consciously, the less becomes the influence of unforeseen effects and uncontrolled forces of this history, and the more accurately does the historical result correspond to the aim laid down in advance“ (Engels 1875: 323).

-          All generally known specific characteristics of the human being such as consciousness (based on a “Gnostic distance”, Holzkamp 1985: 236, towards the given), language and labour are based on this “breakage of immediacy” (“Durchbrechung der Unmittelbarkeit”; Leontjew 1987: 126; Holzkamp 1985: 193).

-          With the “breakage of immediacy” emerged a new form of socially mediated activities, the societal form of mediation of the life process. This means for the single individual that the maintenance and development of his/her life is no longer only confined to biological processes (including the ones of societal realms), but takes place within societal structures. No human being can live without this mediation by society because his/her individual-cognitive abilities can only develop in mutual relationship with societal conditions.

-          As Friedrich Engels (1875, 1876) has shown, this breakage of immediacy started with the erect posture in walking which resulted in the specialisation of the hand which implies tools, tools imply production as human activities that transform nature. A differentiation of certain bodily forms can result in other organic differentiations. The specialisation of the hand resulted in labour and the utilisation of nature. The emergence of labour and production resulted in a co-evolution of society and consciousness. The genesis of man is due to a dialectic of labour and human capabilities (hand, language, increase of brain volume, consciousnes etc.) which have resulted in developments such as hunting, stock farming, agriculture, metal processing, navigation, pottery, art, science, legislation, politics etc. Idealistic conceptions of the development of man argue that consciousness existed prior to human, societal beings, that’s e.g. the case in traditional philosophy of consciousness. Symbolic interactionism (e.g. George Herbert Mead) on the other hand has pointed out that the development of consciousness can only be explained by assuming societal interactions mediated by the usage of symbols. Both explanations are reductionistic, they assume either consciousness or society as determining the historical process. The emergence of the individual as a societal being can only be explained adequately by a dialectical co-evolution of society (especially categories such as labour and production) and human abilities.

-          The specific characteristic of life maintenance in society is the “conscious, precautious disposal over common conditions of life by collective labour etc.” (Holzkamp 1985: 184)[iv]. The existence of society is not an end in itself, but the maintenance of the existence of the individuals is the only sense of society.

-          Society exists mediated by the activities of human beings (where it doesn’t definitely and fully determine thinking and actions – for more details see chapter 3 of this essay and Fuchs 2002a, b; Schlemm 2001c), and constitutes its own sphere that has its own logic of development (among other things by the means gaining their societal meaning independent from the single human being). This sphere can no longer be changed by the actions of single individuals directly. Society exist always when human beings exist, also for those and in those who don’t participate in its reproduction. One can say that society reproduces itself and differs in this type of independence from immediate human actions in co-operations. Co-operations only exist as long as the process lasts and only for the participants. Part of a co-operation are only the participants, whereas part of society are also those who don’t actively participate. Co-operations are a different type of emergence than society. Co-operation is always goal-directed, in society as such there is not a goal. Not only the capitalistic valorisation-machine does have a systemic character, all types of society have.

-          On the societal level the fundamental possibilities of human actions and the goals of interactions and co-operation are determined – fundamental societal change can only be achieved on this level. On the societal level, human beings can consciously influence and change the conditions of their own being and development.

-          The necessity of integrating individual reproduction into societal processes results in the fact that each human being itself is a societal individual (“societal nature of the human being”, see Schlemm 2001b). There are no “humans without sociality” who are later socialised. Even the existence as single producers of commodities and as egoistic competitors is their specific societal way of existing. Individualisation does not firstly show up when individuals enter market relationships, it is a societal process (and doesn’t correspond to the “nature of the human being”). Hence Marx says that societal analysis has to begin with “individuals producing in a society“ (Marx 1857: 615), these individuals are “dependent and [...] belong to a larger whole“ (616). He considers man as a zoon politikon (political animal) that is not only a societal animal, but an animal that can be individualised only within society. Man would be a societal being, the concept of a “solitary individual outside society“ would be preposterous.

-          The sociality of the human being is not a causal or functional determination, it enables and restrains his/her individuality.

Each single individual can only become a subject of its life by having possibilities of acting from which he can select certain alternatives. These possibilities of actions are enabled by the societal form of life processes. “From the outside” the structures and functions of society can be described just like any other system, but then one can’t explain why it is not just “a large community or co-operation” or the “sum of its individuals”. From the point of view of the subject the difference becomes clear: A large community or co-operation, a set of individuals, can produce synergies and if necessary it can change scopes of action – but the existence of specific human (individual) possibilities is due to the societal mediation of human life (and the communities embedded in it). Without societal embedding also an arbitrary sum of organisms couldn’t live in a human way.

With this characterisation of the human being and society we deepen the understanding of what should be considered as “natural”. For human beings their sociality is natural. All human beings are “naturally societal” (see Schlemm 2001b). Within the relationship unnatural/supernatural – natural the societal is part of the natural. But within nature there are qualitative differences levels which allow us a division into levels such as physical-chemical, the living and societal. In this relationship frequently only the physical-chemical and biologically living is seen as “nature” opposed to human society. We – as dialecticians – stress the unity in which the diversity is sublated, hence also preserved. Societality is our nature. There can be no “back to nature without sociality”. The mode of our sociality, the mode of the treatment of the non-societal natural “environment” can be designed in different ways. Sociality has its own momentum that is relatively autonomous from the other moments of nature. Also the other moments are in constant movement and change. “Nature is not the past”[v] (Bloch 1985: 807). 

We have to take into account that the capitalistic societal formation results in a destruction of natural resources that shouldn’t be tolerated. The solution to this problem is not the abandonment of appropriating nature because this would be the end of human life.

It is true for society that the single individual can only develop itself freely if all others can also develop themselves freely (although this is harmed in certain societal formations). This is also true for the relationship of society and nature: Society can only develop if it reasonably develops its relationship to nature – nature can only prosper if it is enriched by the forms produced in society (so called cultural landscapes).


[i] In this paper we make a terminological differentiation between ‘social’ and ‘societal’. There are social animals that act instinctively together in order to achieve something, but there are no animal societies. With the term societal we refer to the (necessary) existence of the human being in society. Humans are social just like certain animals are. But they are even more than that, they are societal beings, i.e. they have the ability to consciously behave towards the world, to select from different alternative actions and to actively change the conditions of their existence which enable and constrain their choices and actions.

[ii] “The animal merely uses external nature, and brings about changes in it simply by his presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction” (Engels 1876: 452).

[iii] Translation from German

[iv] Translated from German

[v] Translated from German. „Die Natur ist kein Vorbei“.

This paper is published: Christian Fuchs, Annette Schlemm: The Self-Organization of Society. In: Zimmermann Rainer E.; Budanov, Vladimir G. (Eds)(2005): Towards Otherland. Languages of Science and Languages Beyond. INTAS Volume of Collected Essays 3. Kassel: kassel university press. p. 81-109.

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