Niklas Luhmann, born in 1927 and originally a legally trained civil servant, discovered Talcott Parsons in the early 1960s and fell deeply under his influence. In the 1980s he began to develop a new type of systems theory, a school which was in free fall under the anti-positivist onslaught. His magnum opus, The society of society (Berlin: Suhrkamp), was published in 1997 and translated subsequently into English, under the title Theory of society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013). This was a somewhat heroic effort since even German sociologists find Luhmann's work challenging. An author who deliberately keeps his prose enigmatic to prevent it being understood ‘too quickly’ is not likely to recommend himself to an Anglo-Saxon audience. It is fortunate, therefore, that we have Mathias Albert's transformation of Luhmann's work into a theory of world politics. The book is to be recommended for those curious about Luhmann's brand of systems theory—but not merely on this account. Luhmann-style systems theory owes more to evolutionary biology than to the mechanical metaphors used by Parsons. Societies are bounded entities, operating in an environment and responding to it. They are held together by communications—societies are, in short, communication systems, and they split and differentiate as they develop internally. Seen in relation to one another, they may be understood in different ways: they may be stratified, segmented or functionally differentiated. They may also be understood in interaction. There is one big ‘world society’ but it splits, segments and differentiates across time and in time. Chapters three and four especially will recommend themselves to those interested in world politics. Here, Albert introduces the idea that world politics is a specific form of political communication system, within world society that splits and differentiates in different ways. He joins the current trend—as seen in Barry Buzan and George Lawson's The global transformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015; reviewed in International Affairs 91: 4, July 2015), C. A. Bayly's The birth of the modern world, 1780–1914 (Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004) and Jürgen Osterhammel's The transformation of the world (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014; reviewed in International Affairs 91: 3, May 2015)—in distinguishing the Westphalian system, an ‘interaction’ system of segmented parts, from the truly global system (‘the structural contours of world society’) that we live in today. The latter began to emerge in the early decades of the nineteenth century and its forcing elements were the global empires, white ascendancy and internationalized nationalism. It is during this time that the contemporary image of global space was imagined and that the comparison of units—in particular their power—became a dominant form of understanding relationships. Finally, chapter four is also concerned with the different ways political authority can be organized in the world political system. Overall, Albert's case-studies are more suggestive than fully argued. For example, he could have used map-making to analyse whether the image of the system as truly global only emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the author's insistence on segmentation and stratification gives a very fuzzy direction to his argument. But then he makes a very strong case for the ‘lots of activity but little progress’ view of international relations. His main target, in that sense, is the Whig history of international relations as a unidirectional story of increasingly liberal societies ‘coming of age’. Viewed in that light, A theory of world politics is a revealing way of mapping the activity, and the differentiation. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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