Helmut Willke

Atopia, the Plus ultra of the nation-state’s self-encirclement*

The utopia of the market

The utopia of the pure market is more obscure and more modern, more amoral and more boundless than any other utopia has been so far. It is upheld not by revolutionary dreamers but by established institutions. It is the utopia of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, of GATT and WTO, of The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation, of transnational corporations and globally operating investment funds. It is the utopia of the pure market. Adam Smith’s invisible arm is picking up strength to become the lever arm of a global transformation that transports the wealth of the nations and the welfare of the shareholder toward a global bliss (“pursuit of happiness”) in which the boundaries between rich and poor are drawn solely according to how unconditionally companies and locations abandon themselves to the rules of the pure market.

The overwhelming strength of the utopia of the pure market becomes obvious only if one comprehends it not just as a model but indeed as a utopia and if one realizes that, in contrast to all other utopias, it is able to do without trying to influence people. So far all utopias have failed because of the stubborn resistance of people against any alteration, in their own nature, toward the good and magnificent. The market utopia, on the other hand, does not have to care about man. Its sole interest is directed at the institutions and their rules. Once these are in operation man follows. No mobilisation, no education programmes, no rallies, no agitprop. Just as, for centuries, people have entered schools and universities, hospitals and churches, courts of law and lawyers’ offices, and have submitted to these institutions’ rules, regardless of their own ideas and dreams, and have assimilated their natural resistance in a patient learning process, so the pure market establishes the rules and restrictions which people only have to entrust themselves to in order to be a player like everybody else.

Except for the fascist perversion a main feature of all utopian thinking, from Morus and Bacon, Campanella or Marx, up to Bloch or McLuhan has aimed at promising the equality of people, sometimes equality and freedom, and also, as an apotheosis, equality, liberty and fraternity – in any case, there’s always equality. And every utopia has failed because of this unrealistic fixation on equality. Once people are left to themselves they seem to do everything in their power to stand out, to mark differences, to desire inequalities that is, even though many consequences of inequality may be painful in the process. All educational ideas, from Rousseau to Mao, have come to naught in the face of the inner hydra of man bringing forth all the more reasons for inequality the more brutally such reasons have been taken from him.

The market utopia frees itself from this dilemma and in this way gains an astounding strength. It is not interested in the equality or inequality of people. It postulates a much more radical equality, although not of people, but an equality of action parameters for the market place instead. As far as the two exclusively relevant roles in the market place are concerned, as supplier and consumer, people in a remarkable humaneness are regarded as equal there – regardless, that is, of religion or skin colour, sex or origin, strength or beauty. This idyll is tarnished somewhat by the fact that people have to step out on yet another market place offering up their labour and that on this labour market equality depends on certain qualifications. But this may be defined as nothing but a characteristic feature of a special market and in the larger picture of the basic equality of market conditions may be pushed to the side; the more so as everybody is free to act as entrepreneur rather than as employee.

Much more than on the equality of people the market utopia relies on equality in relation to the rules of the market. And indeed these rules know of no privileges. Bill Gates is subject to these rules just as the little corner shop is, General Motors just as the garage down the street. And not only that, whenever and because this majestic equality is in place, regardless of a person’s standing, it creates, without any further effort by the players, a derivative equality of the possibilities of development and innovation. Past merits and achievements count little when superior products or services are offered. More radically than any revolution the rules of the market see to it that established advantages, privileges, differences in status, or traditional claims are swept away as soon as a more attractive product, a better price, a superior service appear on the market. Up to the seventies IBM held a singular, seemingly invincible position on the computer and software market. The company became the shining example held up in business schools and the standard for national development and promotion strategies. Corresponding claims may be made for other market leaders such as Kodak, Daimler-Benz, Phillips, and many more. They all have been mercilessly pushed off their pedestals because new products and better offers entered the market. Josef Schumpeter’s “productive destruction” has gotten to them all and only by submitting unreservedly to these market rules, and with more innovative products and cheaper offers they have been able get back on top.

The utopia of the pure market, therefore, is a genuinely modern utopia. It does not, like the old utopias, and like Marxism still did, rely on tangible content matter of utopian bliss, on certain end time conditions of history as the utopian fulfilment of a human dream. The market utopia, much rather, is satisfied with postulating procedures and basic conditions that consequently bring forth, like a deus ex machine, a process whose complexity may be increased at will, a utopian continuity of change putting, while being self-referential and self-adjusting, people under the spell of a model of order that does not depend on noble motifs but on elementary egoisms.

“The market economy,” Karl Polanyi defines the utopia of the pure market (1984: 102ff.), “is an economic system that is controlled, regulated, and steered solely by markets. The organisation of the production and distribution of goods is left to this self-regulating mechanism. … Moreover, there must be no intervention in the adaptation of prices to changed market conditions, no matter if the price of goods, labour, property or money is concerned. Consequently there must not only be markets for all elements of the economy, but equally no measures or politics must be admitted that might influence events on these markets. Neither price nor supply and demand must therefore be determined or regulated; the only directives and measures permitted are those that insure the self-regulation of the market by creating conditions that make the market the single effective power in the economic domain.”

Thus the market utopia does not need to postulate a revolution and to hammer it into the heads of people. It replaces the one big revolution by a myriad of small local adjustments. These, too, may accumulate into cataclysms but in this case no revolutionary guards are required, only self-interested buyers. What a relief for revolutions. The legitimacy of current changes is out of the question. Success brings legitimacy. Just as electoral success creates political legitimacy, success on the market puts aside all further questions, particularly as both sides of the market transaction enter into relations voluntarily, as no buyer is forced into a particular purchase, and no seller is forced to sell. As long as the market offers alternatives it brings forth, with astonishing naturalness, legitimacy and effectiveness.

This built-in mechanism proves the paradoxical inhuman modernity of the market utopia. It stakes everything on the card of the rational protagonist, on the card of interest-led decisions of single persons, and in this way seems to take nothing more seriously than this single human. Yet at the same time it turns out that these individual decisions matter only marginally. What really matters are abstract aggregates of decisions winning through against other aggregates: e.g. Harrison White’s “tangible cliques of producers watching each other” (1981: 543). For protagonists, as market observers, relevant market data only ever result from the aggregation of a large number of transactions coming together to form a trend or pattern (Hayek 1972: 16ff.). In the process man, formerly positioned so prominently, vanishes behind a veil of irrelevance. The individual action of choosing per se is as insignificant as the individual vote in mass democracy. Individuals cannot claim their significance as such; they are only able to do so as elements of different aggregates, groups, collectives, etc. of voters or buyers designating majorities or market shares (Saul 1997: 148).

It might be instructive to look a little more closely at the ambiguous relation between market utopia and individuality. The market does not need any individuals, only protagonists able to observe and decide. The purity of the market and consequently the brightness of the market utopia grow with the numbers. The mass markets of the industrial age already were fairly advanced manifestations of a market logic of bartering relations made anonymous. They could do without any reference to individuality as only large numbers of transactions, “regardless of a person’s standing”, could bring to bear this logic of the translation of generalised observation into individual decision. Today, in the age of a renewed, more radical phase of globalisation, world markets are established, markets without boundaries and isolation, asymptotically approaching the utopia of the pure market. It would be mere romanticism to ascribe individuals an enhanced status on these markets. There are so many individuals that they do not count anymore. From the perspective of the market they are observable and thus real merely as masses and market shares.

At a medieval town market, an oriental bazaar, or at an Indian village market persons are of decisive importance for the successful market transaction. In the course of modernisation this is no longer the case. On established world markets those are no more than pale memories of past idylls. The assumption that modernity promotes individualism or even creates it, therefore, is no more than wishful thinking on the part of the apologists of postmodernism, as is demonstrated e.g. by the pseudo-individualisation through “individualised mass production”. Above all, and where it counts, modernisation in economy and education, politics and health system means a cutting down of individual features to quotas, averages, statistically relevant patterns, and global trends.

Like many another utopia the market utopia awards the individual such a prominent position, even still as a rational and selfish one, because it wants it to be visible as a figurehead. The market utopia can afford this romantic weakness precisely because individuals count only superficially, in so far as they finally decide to buy or not to buy. But deep down the market logic and its laws work as an architecture of a market institution and a system of market transactions still in need of individuals as the house needs brick stones. All of which, however, ties them into a form they can no more escape from than the brick stone can escape from the wall. The person is “just another brick in the wall”. The individual may behave rationally and selfishly, but by doing so he or she fulfils a system logic that is not his or her own and that cannot worry about collateral damage.

The atopia of globalism

Today the end of the world is not marked by the Pillars of Hercules both sides of a strait. Place, space and distance increasingly are becoming negligible quantities for economic transactions. The term for placelessness, atopia, describes this moment of the market utopia that, in the idea of the utopian, heightens the nowhere to a somewhere. Utopia describes a place that does not exist. Atopia describes the irrelevance of the place, global placelessness. Global infrastructure systems of telecommunication and of traffic telematics, globally operating mass media and transaction networks make irrelevant the place which one communicates from, make irrelevant locality that is (Willke 2001). In an atopian society with a global radius the market utopia finds the conditions for its self-fulfilment. Even if market economists habitually tend to ignore this, their idealised markets so far suffer from the territorial, localised and locally binding guardianship of the state.

For humane reasons the self-description of the politics of our modern age may entail the civilising of power, and as a historical caesura may have done so for a good reason. But the practical task of civilising was accomplished by politics primarily by way of the taming of the anarchy of the markets. These were just as much a serious and direct danger to life and limb of the citizens of the burgeoning modern age as domestic and international strife was. Impoverishment and proletarianisation of the rural masses were the result of a market logic let loose. Only when the consequences of this barbarianisation confronted the political systems themselves with the possibility of revolutions, especially under the influence of the competing utopia of communism, politics found itself obliged to call a halt to the devastating work of free markets. This can most clearly be observed with Bismarck in Germany and in England with the influence of reformers like Robert Owen and William Beveridge.

Since then the market utopia has been suspected of postulating a profoundly inhumane order, which may optimise the production and distribution of goods from the point of view of cost, yet ignores the human cost of this regime. The more successful individual societies have been in combining, in the forms of the welfare state, the political taming of the free market with a nevertheless functioning industrial capitalism, and the more threatening the implementations of extant socialist utopias, the more powerfully this suspicion prevented the unfolding of the utopia of the pure market.

These days nothing restricts the possibilities of political control more effectively than the two complexes of revolutions currently taking shape in the dynamics of the so-called knowledge society and world society. The driving force of knowledge society is organised complexity, based on specialised knowledge and at the same time recursively enhanced by the more and more ubiquitous rooting of all social processes in questions of know-how. The driving force of world society is globalisation understood as a process that, on the basis of new global infrastructures for communication processes and transactions, undermines and perforates national frontiers and with every functional global sub-market feeds a recursive self-enhancement.

To the extent that organised complexity and globalisation push back a political control of society, but above all of the areas economy and financial markets, structured in conjunction with nation-states, the market makes a name for itself as the only alternative model for the control of complex systems of bartering relations. The more advanced socialist societies have seen this differently and they have failed because of this misjudgement. Today especially China is the prime example that even a developing country, with a mostly agrarian population and an economic output that is less than 15 per cent of the Japanese, commits itself in its economic transactions to the idea of the market, despite and beside a socialist political utopia, in order not to miss out on a future based on knowledge and globalisation.

Strangely enough, the prophets of the market utopia have only very surreptitiously hinted at the civilising and cosmopolitan explosive force of their utopia. For Smith just as for Ricardo, for Marshall just as for Samuelson it might have been too fantastic and altogether unimaginable to call into question the state’s containment of people and markets and to resist the Hobbesian primal fear of impending anarchy. It is even more remarkable that it was Hegel, usually labelled as an apologist of the authoritarian state, who built his philosophy of history on the imminent coincidence of rationality, liberty and liberal statehood and who, as a consequence, had world history, as a development process, end with the Battle of Jena in 1806 because there the cosmopolitan ideals of the French Revolution had been wrested from their nationalist appropriation through Bonapartism. On this fact, at least, Francis Fukuyama was right to insist (1992: 60ff.) and he expanded this Hegelian idea into the praise of a universal consumer culture rooted in liberal economic principles.

The historical irony of this situation is that the emancipation of the market toward its very own framework of pre-conditions takes place at the very moment of its history that marks the beginning of the end of the importance of locality in general. The utopia of the market is confronted with the atopia of transactions. The atopian society begins to take shape in the wake of the assumption that the difference of places merges in the unity of global accessibility, without noticeable costs and with no noticeable time delay, and yields to the new criteria of access/no access to the respective networks of digitalised transactions. Atopia as the utopia of placelessness, as the utopia of the irrelevance of diverging locality, finds its strongest arguments in the almost real-time and free digital transactions of the Internet and in the simultaneous global range of satellite-based communication infrastructures.

The atopia of transactions also manifests itself in the competitive and possibly creative destruction, in the context of an economic society no longer determined by locality, of the regulation regimes monopolised by nation-states as the pillars of public supra-structures. Standards, taken as collective systems of rules for private economic transactions, may be perceived locally or nationally as long as the corresponding markets, on their part, contend themselves with a local or national range while being subject, as “political economies”, to the political dictum. Once this assumption has become invalid with the globalisation of markets locality and local specificity of the standard are equally irrelevant. They are replaced by an atopian vastness and universality that on the one hand, no doubt, becomes apparent in the ubiquity and uniformity of McDonald’s and Coca Cola, of GSM and CNN, yet on the other hand also in the fact that the pompousness of local sovereignty and arbitrariness, for the first time in history, gives way to a cosmopolitan liberality breaching the despotism of local ties and restrictions in order to realize, in the freedom of an atopian market, locality as a mere contingency. With the help of cable networks, modems and satellite receivers this also goes for seemingly still closed systems like China fighting – “like the church fought the printing press five hundred years ago” – desperately as well as hopelessly against an opening respectively openness (Wright 2000: 6). Only if, in this sense, locality becomes a freely chosen option, instead of a mortgage prescribed by birth and tradition, the myth and the overestimation of locality, as witnessed in Germany even when it comes to the wages of lord mayors, will be tamed and exposed to the disciplining liberty of an explicit choice.

Atopia and the features of an atopian society are not an argument against the necessity of supra-structures. An atopian society, too, needs contextual rules for the controlling of its transactions and communication acts. Yet atopia underlines the fact that the appropriation and monopolising of supra-structures through the politics of the nation-state remains a part of history, like everything else. The question is which protagonists and bodies can and will take the place of the nation-state in order to create the required supra-structures, and which protagonists and bodies decide on which supra-structures are required.

In all its power-based sovereignty the politics of democracies is exclusively about creating the pre-conditions for the operational possibilities of social functional systems and to work off their negative externalities in a socially acceptable way. The only exceptions are the collective goods for the protection against external and internal enemies, for peace and stability of the law that is. Apart from that, though, politics is the repair workshop of a highly complicated, perilous and in many regards no longer controllable social machinery powered by the operational logics of functionally differentiated sub-systems. The most clear-sighted politics, therefore, may be observed where it does not simply wait for the usual breakage quota of functional systems but where it foresees that there is a self-destructive dynamic built into the operational logic of autonomous social systems that, paradoxically enough, depends on their very success. The invention of the welfare state is founded on just such a case of clear-sightedness. The fundamental revision of the welfare state, as it seems necessary today, presupposes a comparable deed of political shrewdness.

The sociological problem of globalisation and globalness consists in the fact that the hitherto nation-state-based societies are rocked in their foundations because of the removal of certain functional systems – like economy, science, or art – from the context of territorial fixation and social self-control while new means of re-stabilisation are not yet in the offing. The emerging global context, in particular, does not yet accomplish this re-stabilising for the simple reason that capacities for a global self-control are not even rudimentarily institutionalised so far.

This historically singular coincidence of sociality and territoriality is currently breaking up in the “post-national constellation” (Habermas 1998) of a multi-faceted and by no means homogeneous disintegration of social prerogatives of self-control on the level of the nation-state. Without going into detail we might nevertheless record the fact that the somewhat fruitless debate among the heralds of an end of the nation-state by and by is giving way to more differentiated analyses tracing back the loss of nation-state-based controlling expertise and skills to specific factors in the development of trans-national controlling regimes for very specific functional systems.

In any case, the emerging lateral world systems are challenging the territorially rooted, modern societies constituted as nation-states exactly where the responsibility that makes them societies in the first place is concerned: in the sovereignty of self-control.

In the case of socialism the absurdity of trying to trivialise complex social systems, repeatedly criticised, among others, by systems theory, could not be upheld despite an increasingly repressive code of practice. And in the context of hierarchical-centralist organisations it could not be saved by means of technological resources. This practical failure of a theory of system control will have an impact on “western” ideas of social control through politics and the control of organisations through management. Fantasies of feasibility, or even enforceability, of organisational reforms and restructuring, that still characterise, above all, the thinking of the welfare state, will continue to be forced onto the defensive. Human happiness prescribed from above through welfare society and a benevolent hierarchical management will become more questionable still.

The dystopia of symbols – the function of art?

The split between the symbolical and the real world has accompanied human thinking from its very beginning and in Plato’s allegory of the cave has found its first lasting expression. Knowledge society, in this respect, introduces a strange inversion of priorities. Earlier forms of society, and most clearly industrial society, concede real meaning only to material facts and insist on an empirical provability of all ideas. Thus ideas are drawn into the maelstrom of an enlightenment that, together with religious myths, also discredits the worldly imaginations erected by philosophers and visionaries in order to bring order and explanation models to the chaos of reality.

Knowledge society, in this sense, returns to Plato and helps the world of symbols to a primacy, once again, over the world of things. The symbolic levels control the material ones, just as the global financial system controls the fate of real economy, or as the models of pedagogy control real education. But in contrast to Plato’s world of ideas knowledge society has to be aware that its systems of symbols are anything but benevolent and harmonious forms of the ideal. They have, much rather, piled up into complex and opaque architectures that may appear ingenious today and collapse tomorrow – “like the risk models of the Long Term Capital Management Fund”. The knowledge society’s systems of symbols are made up of forms carrying their “other sides” with them at all times. All of which brings discontinuities into play that cannot but disappoint linear expectations and thus add to the impression that the world of ideas of knowledge society not so much mirrors a cosmic order but rather the structured chaos of symbolic anarchy.

In general, systems of symbols, with their separation from the real things, tend to proliferate to become constellations of “complexity without hold” (Luhmann) revolving within and around themselves. Certainly systems of symbols only come to life when they are activated by persons, made use of in communication and thus integrated in the operational mode of social systems. But in this potentiality they are not dependent on actual persons and systems. Nobody switches systems of symbols on or off, nobody controls them, and they belong to nobody. Nobody creates or changes them and nobody defines the rules of their use single-handedly. They follow a logic, a grammar of how to combine elements, that starts out independently of actual persons and has its origins in social codes of practice. A paradigmatic example here, once again, is the operative primacy of language, as a symbolic system, over the respective individual act of speaking. The rules of the language prescribe the possibilities of speaking, even though only the speaking allows the language to become operational. The social codes of practice lay down the initial conditions for the specific logic of a system of symbols which – with growing anonymity, evolvement and inner complexity – it can distance itself from to the point where the constituting circumstances are reversed: While in the first instance people set in motion certain systems of symbols in order to solve certain problems, what emerges in the process are generalised forms for the definition of conceivable solutions prescribing the problems people might encounter when they activate systems of symbols. The garbage can model for organisational decision processes, according to which it is not problems that search for solutions but existing solutions that look for problems, grasps this logic perfectly.

All the autonomy notwithstanding there are, accordingly, structural couplings between the symbolic and the real worlds whose balance may be subject to historical, ideological, and technological change. One of the reasons why the prevalence of symbols is also possible today outside language lies with the technological innovation of digital computers described by John von Neumann as early as 1945. Digital computers open up a new dimension of symbolisation, as they no longer merely are able to store data, like inscriptions or books, but also instructions on the handling of the data and instructions on the use of instructions. In this way a symbolic architecture of different language levels is made possible, from the simple machine-friendly language to programming languages and on to highly aggregated operation systems and integrated software (Evans and Wurster 2000: 34).

What emerges here, in the deep structures of the digital revolution as a real revolution, is the self-referential progression of symbolic systems to conglomerates of networked functional chains. These rely on the possibility, described by John von Neumann, to autonomously link data and instructions in digital programmes and thus to generate architectures of automatised links, to be extended at will, no longer depending on the motifs and interests of single persons but, if at all, only on persons as contextualising constraints of the operational mode of symbolic systems.

A corresponding argument, according to Norbert Elias’ theory of the process of civilisation, forms the basis for the ability to set up long chains of action. In this case it is the increase in the expectability and the bindingness of actions – through the validity of anonymised and (relatively!) disposable symbols of power, money and knowledge – that symbolically broadens the reality-bound actions of persons and expands them, in a first wave of globalisation, into chains of action spanning the world. The question whether this has actually contributed to the civilising process or not shall not be answered at this point. Thus, in any case, chains of action relying on symbols and complex constellations of action are gaining a significant influence on the real everyday actions of people and organisations. Symbols become the glue holding together individual actions and allowing the creation of patterns and constellations of actions otherwise doomed to fail in the face of the real restrictions of time and space.

The split between the symbolic worlds of lateral world systems and the real world of territorially rooted society calls for a politics that brings into play understanding beyond mere reason and system rationality surpassing knowledge by orchestrating the multi-layered decentral clamour of the specialists into a halfway bearable concert – without being able, though, to take on the role of the conductor. Only in this way would it be able to lift the “fatal difference between problems of controlling and of understanding” (Habermas 1985: 421) which, unlike Habermas believes, has nothing to do with the idylls of the world we live in but a lot with the inability of politics to comprehend, as its actual job, a new form and constellation of society.

“When the power of unification vanishes from the life of people and the contrasts have lost their living correlation and reciprocity, gaining autonomy instead, then the need for philosophy arises,” Hegel had formulated against the background of a comparable constellation of change (Hegel 1986: 22). When the power of unification disappears from the life of society, and the contrasts of the operational logics of functional systems have lost their living relation and reciprocity and are gaining autonomy, “the need for politics” arises. Building on Hegel, though, we might say that what we have in mind is a politics envisaging indeed the general, and the relations and interrelations of the parts, and paying attention to the difficult balance between the possible autonomy of the parts and the necessary control of their interrelations.

Politics will not be able to fulfil even this task without help. It will have to fall back on the skills of many diverse organisations and institutions and on the reputation of regimes of “private authority” and, here too, will have to press ahead with the transition from “government to governance”. Yet in the mediation of communication processes between these diverse protagonists and systems, in the controlling of the anarchy of symbolic systems, the one specific competence of politics could mature which no other system brings forth. “Insofar it is a randomness,” we might hark back to Hegel once more. But in view of the given split between symbolic and real world, between functional systems and society, between organisational ends and system rationality, between innovations in the symbolic systems of the parts and system risks of the whole, between cyclopean visions of the specialists and the collective reason of a society, politics should be the necessary attempt “to abolish these splits and to comprehend the having become of the intellectual and of the real world as a becoming” in need of the mediation and supervision of politics because a natural evolution today closes off more contingencies and options than it opens up and thus forces too much order and allows for too little anarchy. Evolution alone is not enough anymore: “Only that obscurity is a chaos from which a world can spring.” (Schlegel 1958ff.: 263)

For the first time in their history people are confronted with the challenge to face unprotected a skill biological evolution happened to equip them with and which they may have made use of in marginal areas and brought to perfection in their thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and inventors in generally secondary fields of expertise that never, though, were able to impress the course of history in any significant way but instead, in case of doubt, always had to submit to the want of hunger or the violence of the stronger: the ability of thinking and imagining, that is, which now, after a long warm-up time, allows us to make knowledge, via an extremely accelerated continual learning, the basis of all life processes, consequently turning even living and surviving into projects of knowledge-based strategies and submitting them to a controlled development.

This cognitive turn of human history does not presuppose that the biological dependencies on food, territoriality, and family will vanish altogether – only that they will become menial occupations. Once the supply of food is guaranteed thanks to two or three percent of the working population, territoriality suspended through global interdependence and networking, and family made up for with the proliferation of family-like alternative forms of infantile socialisation and of intimacy, then a degree of independence from the organic constraints of man will have been achieved that will make a human quality going beyond the animalistic, the quality of cognitive reconstructions and projections of people’s worlds, the paramount basis of their material, personal, and social existence.

The crisis of a politics, having to reinvent governing in the context of an atopian knowledge society by redefining and constructing its core competences against the hysteresis of past successes, creates an inevitable confusion in its traditional systems of symbols, above all in the legal control system, the distribution and re-distribution logics of the welfare state, and in the deep structures of symbolic fixation. On the surface the rules appear to be the same and they still seem to be in operation, yet in the deep structures of their logic and in the grammar of their concatenations a virus of atopian dissolution is running riot. The established fixed allocations give way to a decentralised logic of contingent, situational re-combinations. Thus, for example, dissolving tariff regulations, local operating agreements, employment initiatives, regulations on Green or Blue Cards, local subsidies, and EU regulations on the prohibition of subsidies etc. collude, a process pushed forward by a perceived global competition of locations. The logic of legal systems of symbols is exposed to a pressure to adapt that threatens their innermost principles, the “normativity of norms”, and confronts them with the alternative of a symbolism of cognitive expectations of expectations. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that an anarchic whirlwind is sweeping through the legal systems of symbols. In their grammar symbolic systems, being operatively closed and non-intentional systems, reproduce an analectic of thesis, antithesis and hysteresis running contrary to the harmonistic dialectic of human perception (resolution into synthesis and the avoiding of cognitive dissonances) and here also deepens the discontinuities between man and society.

In art’s favour Luhmann brings to bear that it were its social function to show “that in the sphere of the possible order is possible” (Luhmann 1990: 38). Adorno puts it a little more adventurously: “The task of art today is to carry chaos into order.” (Adorno quoted in Welsch 1994: 25) In the same spirit, what the art of global politics and global governance regimes is about is to show that in the sphere of the possible (i.e. the controlling of contingent options) disorder is possible. From this perspective, what is to be expected from art itself is that it makes, more so than it has done hitherto, the business of creating systematic disorder its very own. Considerations on the changes of politics under the conditions of globalness here can supply certain stimuli but the rest is up to art itself.

Plus ultra posse nemo obligatur?

The old rule of law that nobody must be asked to do what he or she is not able to do is turned upside down in atopian constellations. The systemic conditions adamantly keep demanding what persons, as individuals, are not able to accomplish. Persons, therefore, need allies. Contrary to the supposed trend toward a radical individualisation they have to ally themselves with the very instances they perceive as the cause of their plight: the big systems of symbols of atopian knowledge society, including art.

Whether this is asking too much of art can only be answered by art itself. Whether the latter becomes moralistic in the process it can only decide on itself. The dissolution of the habitual orders of a utopian market, a territorially organised politics, and an edifying art opens up new perspectives onto an art playing along the edges of the world and of chaos: plus ultra!

*Stefan Bidner, Thomas Feuerstein (Eds.), Plus ultra. Beyond Modernity?, Frankfurrt/Main 2005, p. 225 - 235, translated by Daniel Ostermann.



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Thomas Feuerstein
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F. E. Rakuschan
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Helmut Willke
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Thomas Rainer
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