Democracy Politics in the Wake of the Paradoxes of the Democratic – Essay by Peter Fuchs

‘Democracy politics’ refers to measures and programmes whose aim is to strengthen democracy in its Western understanding. Various organisations and institutions in the West pursue democracy politics, in Germany for example the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Political scientist Heinz Kleger has defined democracy politics as politics that aims to create equality of conditions in the population for participation in thinking about relevant issues of public interest and that seeks to prevent technocracy and populism, which are mutually reinforcing.

This text by Peter Fuchs – an authorised exclusive English translation of his book contribution on this subject – understands the form of democracy and of democracy politics as essentially paradoxical. It is not only an essay. According to Fuchs, it is also an attempt to show that systems theory can be understood as ‘critical theory’: “Critique, when related to the Greek ‘krinein’, is the art of distinguishing, of separating, of dividing, of reconstructing the different and its possibilities of connection. Democracy and democracy politics are not the same thing from this perspective, not even: similar to each other. Democracy in modernity is linked to the system of politics, to the difference of government/opposition; democracy politics is parasitic to this. But precisely this distinction could serve to de-trivialise the usual (morally associated) relation between the two phenomena.”


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Democracy Politics in the Wake of the Paradoxes of the Democratic

This text was not written with the intention of disavowing democracy politics per se. It is not about a dismantling, but rather about enabling de-naivisation in ways that are perhaps theoretically unusual – by excluding pathos, emphasis, ethical conventionality of argumentation, but including approaches that might help to substitute concepts for well-meaning assessments of the democratic-political. One can hardly expect anything else when a systems theorist is invited to write on such a topic. This theory, which relies on consistency and contingency, i.e. co-observes itself in its own limitationality, by no means compels one to adopt its orthogonal perspectives, but it does provide something: “le don de vision étrange” (Valéry 1973, 90), the gift of an alien view.


The term ‘democracy’ is commonly understood to mean ‘rule by the people’. The paradox embedded in it, which has been known for a long time, arises from the impossibility of determining who rules over whom when the same rules over the same: the people over the people. Since paradoxes suspend the logicality of concepts, democracy is therefore not a concept but a kind of ‘sign’ for maximum self-reference, for the in-circulation of a distinction, a permanent oscillation between rule and people. The concept of ‘democracy’ would have to be discarded as nonsensical.
There is no logical way out of this trap, only an ‘unfolding’ of the paradox, which at the same time makes the logical problem invisible. In the case of democracy, this is done by enriching or super-encoding its idea with historically acquired motifs, with meanings that are not inherent in its ‘concept’ but increase its plausibility. For example, it is then no longer just about the equality of all people or the fair distribution of power opportunities, but “about reason and freedom, about emancipation from socially conditioned immaturity, about hunger and need, about political, racist, sexist and religious oppression, about peace and about secular happiness of every kind” (Luhmann 1987, 126).
It is easy to see that this augmentation of motives would turn any intention of political influence into a Sisyphean task. That is why it becomes necessary:

” …to still make containment decisions if one wants to get ground under one’s feet. And here, too, it is necessary to exclude impossibilities or extreme improbabilities from the concept. Democracy is not: 1. rule of the people over the people. It is not short-circuited self-reference in the concept of rule. It is therefore not: annulment of domination, annulment of power by power. In a language fixed by the theory of domination, this is the only way to express self-reference; and this is probably also the reason why the word ‘democracy’ has survived. Theoretically, however, the assumption that the people can rule themselves, is useless. Democracy is also not: 2. a principle according to which all decisions must be made participatory; because that would mean: dissolving all decisions into decisions about decisions. The result would be an endless multiplication of decision-making burdens, a huge ‘tele-demo-bureaucratisation’ and a final intransparency of power relations favouring the insiders who can see right through this and see and swim in these murky waters.” (Luhmann 1987, 126f.)

These conceptual negations would be of little use if it were not possible to determine the form of democracy differently, i.e. to transform it into a clear distinction whose sides are antagonistic to each other. This presupposes the modern transformation of the political into an autonomous functional system that binds only itself (closedness, autopoiesis) in its own operativity, its own exclusive medium (power) and – important for our topic – in a two-valued code that Luhmann understands in many works (including the one just cited) as the difference between government and opposition, combined with elections, which, however, are only effective in politics as political elections, not, for example, in the economy, religion, art, science, sport, social work, etc.

According to Luhmann, this dual government/opposition is precisely the form of democracy. It takes advantage of the lack of unity in world society to thwart the hierarchy of the stratified social formation of the Middle Ages and permanently dissolve it (as the one sacred ground of rule).
Democracy, seen in this way, further prevents politics from completely influencing the totum of society, which can only be had phantasmatically. The political system singularises itself against other singularised functional systems (such as the ones just mentioned), thus observing under the aegis of its own code what comes into consideration for itself as a world – precisely everything that can come into view with this distinction.
Since the system of politics, like the other functional systems, operates universally in this sense, it is difficult to say that there are political districts in society that are capable of safeguarding themselves against this code. Dictatorships, too, have to be observed in terms of how they deal with the difference between government and opposition, how they handle it, hide it or tolerate it in a minimalised way.
A variety of analyses can be linked to this. However, I focus on the question of what democracy politics has to do with the differentiated political system.


According to what has just been discussed, democracy is not an ideal type; it would fail because of its paradoxes. Instead, it is the decisive form of the political system, i.e. politics in its most precise understanding. One can also say that democracy can be thought of as the unity of the difference between government and opposition, and that in this respect it is not a constellation to which one can align oneself, even though an incalculable amount of relevant phraseology suggests this possibility.
If one follows this thesis, then democracy politics is prima vista a tautology, because in order to be called ‘politics’ it would have to be politics, i.e. ‘more of the same’. It would be integrated into the power game of the government/opposition code, i.e. it would not be a quasi external (meta-democratic or meta-critical) observation instance of the system, to which it would have to attribute itself by its very name.
Secunda vista, however, one will not want to deny that democracy politics occurs; it is thematically present, it is discussed, there are corresponding instances and initiatives. The tautology, which we have attested to it, does not thwart the phenomenon, otherwise one would reify concepts.
The question then is that of an ‘appearance’ of democracy politics that de-tautologises the tautology. What form, what function does what is signed with the word democracy politics? Or more pointedly: how does the phenomenon manifest itself as apolitically political, as politically apolitical?
An initially very general answer can be found if one allows for hybrid communication formations between the functional systems. A case for comparison would be organisations that organise the communication flows of all functional systems in their own way and relate them to each other. Organisations are not functional systems and it would be negligent, although this is often done, to attribute them to certain functional systems. This does not preclude thinking about the organised nature of democracy politics, but it then implies that research relating to it would require a change of system levels: from society to organisation. And since politics is understood as a functional system, one would have to accept that democracy politics could not itself be observed as political, i.e. would not deserve its name.

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Nevertheless, the metaphor of the hybrid can be adhered to it if democracy politics is provisionally understood as a hybrid resonance space of the political system. This is certainly unusual, but it opens up the heuristic opportunity to conceptualise democracy politics as a sui generis phenomenon. In any case, a remarkable example can be identified, namely the structural coupling between politics and the mass media. 

The movement of difference between government and opposition is, if you will, massively orchestrated or incited by the echoing and scandalising effect of the mass media, which gain their own subsistence by observing the possible exchange of power between government and opposition and the conflicts, competitions, promises, etc. attached to it. The mass media essentially fulfill this function by referring to persons who attract general interest and give the recipients the impression: Mea res agitur. In any case, it is about a reciprocal assistance of politics and mass media, about coupling favourites in which democracy politics ‘somehow’ participates. The theoretical term for this is: parasitic.


First of all, the terms ‘parasitic, parasite, parasitic system’ do not refer to a fact that is to be condemned in principle (parasitism), nor do they assert a systemic secondary nature. This is replaced by the reference to binary codes:

“Binary codes … can be seen as a highly successful achievement that has only reached today’s level of abstraction and technical performance in the course of a long development … Codes are total constructions, they are world constructions with a claim to universality and without ontological limitation. Everything that falls within their sphere of relevance is assigned to one or the other value to the exclusion of third possibilities. Just as God excludes himself from creation by creating the difference between heaven and earth, so in relation to an encoding third things can exist at best as parasites – parasites in roughly the sense that Michael Serres has given to this metaphor.” (Luhmann 1986, 78f.)


“It must be remembered that every either/or must be artificially introduced over a ground to which it does not apply. Every difference is a self-imposing difference. It gains its operability, its ability to stimulate information gain, by excluding third possibilities. Classical logic follows this principle. World logic, on the other hand, can only be a logic of the included excluded third. What logics might look like that take this into account is a much-discussed problem since Hegel.” (Luhmann 1984, 285)

Peter Fuchs (*17 May 1949 in Dinkelsbühl) is, together with Dirk Baecker and Armin Nassehi, one of the leading German systems theorists in the succession to Niklas Luhmann. Fuchs was initially a geriatric nurse, then studied sociology in Bielefeld, where he was Luhmann’s assistant for many years. From 1992 to 2007 he was professor of general sociology and sociology of disability at the University of Applied Sciences in Neubrandenburg. Published by Velbrück Wissenschaft, among others: Das Gehirn ist genauso doof wie die Milz (The brain is as dumb as the milt, with Markus Heidingsfelder, 2005); Das System SELBST. Eine Studie zur Frage: Wer liebt wen, wenn jemand sagt: »Ich liebe Dich!«? (SELF System. A study on the question: Who loves whom when someone says: “I love you!”?2010); Der Papst und der Fuchs. Eine fabelhaft unaufgeregte Unterhaltung (The Pope and the Fox. A fabulously unexciting conversation, 2012); DAS Sinnsystem (THE System of Meaning, 2015); Der Fuß des Leuchtturms liegt im Dunkeln (The Foot of the Lighthouse Lies in the Dark, 2015). Photo: M. Heidingsfelder

The parasite, so observed, denotes the excluded third of binary distinctions. The best known and clearest example is the tertium non datur: either something is, or it is not. A third possibility does not exist, except: the ‘possibility’ itself, which neither is nor is not. It is confronted in this logic with the same figure, the question of whether possibilities exist in the world or not, and again the result is a neither-nor, a ‘ninisme’, and precisely this is not possible (!) and not permissible in the ‘logos’ of premodernity.
A millennia-old tradition deals with this problem, which goes by the name of ‘contingentia’. This is not surprising, since the form of ‘meaning’ itself is defined by the distinction between reality/possibility or actuality/virtuality.
For this reason, all social structures are parasites when they endow the world with subjunctives as if possibilities were indicatives (actualities). They parasitise on the ‘ontology’, on the generalised ‘tertium non datur’ of binary codings, subvert them and exploit them at the same time.
Democracy politics would thus be (in the heuristic game we allow ourselves) a parasite, an excluded third party in relation to the difference between government and opposition. It assumes for itself political scope for action, decision-making and freedom, although it does not belong to either side of this distinction, comparable to protest movements, which play a game of their own in the particular way of their extimacy to the code of politics, at least then,

“…if one understands protest movements as autopoietic systems of their own kind and protest as their catalysing element. The protest that singles out a theme is its invention, its construction. … You cannot protest against complexity. In order to be able to protest, one must therefore flatten the circumstances. The schemes and above all the scripts that can be imposed on public opinion with the help of the mass media serve this purpose. … The protest stages ‘pseudo-events’, that is: events that are produced from the outset for reporting and would not take place at all if the mass media did not exist. … Already in the planning of their own activities, the movements adjust themselves to the readiness of the mass media to report and to televisibility. … Resistance to something – that is their way of constructing reality. … There is nothing to suggest that protest movements know or judge the environment, be it individuals, be it ecological conditions, better than other systems of society.” (Luhmann 1997, 860)

Now, one will not want to go so far as to equate democracy politics with social movements of this type. It is, if you will, more civilised, but it also feeds on these motive pools of wanting things to be different, of wanting to make society better, often uncovered by a solid ‘better knowledge’.

Perhaps one could speak of an intellectual climate coagulating into a structure that is taken up by politics: in the sense of an irritation that is difficult to control, but perhaps stimulating because of it. The expression ‘intellectual climate’ also refers to the fact that it seems to be complicated to reconstruct or negate the boundaries of democracy politics and thus its ‘systemicity’.


The concept of ‘boundary’ occupies a key position in systems theory. Whoever speaks of systems and thus means the unity of the difference of system/environment must be able to construct boundaries between system and environment.

“Boundaries mark … do not mark a break-off of contexts. Nor can one generally claim that internal interdependencies are higher than system/environment interdependencies. But the concept of borders means that cross-border processes (for example, of energy or information exchange) are placed under other conditions of continuability (for example, other conditions of usability or other conditions of consensus) when the border is crossed. This means at the same time that the contingencies of the course of the process, the openness to other possibilities, vary depending on whether it takes place for the system in the system or in its environment. Only insofar as this is the case do limits exist, do systems exist.” (Luhmann 1984, 35f.)

Boundaries are thus in play when changes in the continuation conditions of communications are registered. The central point here is that these changes are permanently expectable. This is guaranteed in functional systems by their binary codes, in politics then by government/opposition – or holding of state office/not holding of state office – together with the implied interchangeability of the persons involved, staged through elections.
A limit to democracy politics in this understanding cannot be discovered either theoretically or empirically. At this point, a ‘replacement’ of systemicity occurs through reference to the metaphor of the ‘field’, which points to the absence of sharp boundaries, but also to the ‘resumption’ of the idea of a democratic-political discourse, which also and by definition plays its centreless game without borders.

The context of the disparate, the dissemination of democratic political intentions must be founded differently. Exemplary candidates for this would be, among others:

  1. A generalisable, in principle linkable skepticism directed at democratic politics, combined with the generalisation of influence interests that relate to the improvement of democracy.
    2. Exclusion of the thesis that politics could be a closed, autopoietically operating system.
    3. Binding effects of a moderate ‘protestism’.
    4. Consensus on the urgent need for change in democracy.
    5. Consensus on the possibility of changing democracy – from the outside.
    6. Consensus on the possibility of installing a discursive ‘community’ of otherwise heterogeneous ‘groups’.   

And most importantly:

7. Consensus on the chance or existence of an overarching, ethical-moral identity of the discourse.

The reference to ethics is likely to be central. Luhmann offers two possibilities. The first can be understood as a new opportunity for reflection on the ‘field’ of democracy politics; the second formulates an occasion for internal reflection on this ‘field’.

1. Ethics “can be understood … as a parallel action to the contingencies and imponderables, the career games and the consent calculations of party democracy, as a second way of dealing with problems, reducing uncertainty, seeking consensus …

2. “The respectful concept of ethics then has the function of legitimising distance and at the same time cultivating the appearance that it is not about interests. Understood in this way, ethics is part of the higher amorality of a democratic political culture.” (Luhmann 2008, 195)

That ‘parallel action’, which so far cannot be described as a homogeneous operative unit, should be able to pull together irritation, prevention, intervention with regard to democratic politics in a dislocated form – without revolution and from the point of view of the (re)stabilisation of respectively changed conditions.
The admittedly seductive word ‘parallel action’ points in the word component ‘action’ to deed and doing, to operation. In view of the borderline blurring of the democratic-political discourse, the question is inescapable: Who carries out the action? To whom can it be attributed if there is no centre, no self-describable instance available, no social address that provides the discourse with a place that would be accessible to all people or would offer a function of responsiveness?

This is first of all a non-place, an ou-topos, a utopia, which – classically – is paired with a special time structure, with a structure of the dominance of the anticipatory, of prophecy, which shifts the desirable into the (unattainable) future, which is fed by the past, projected as the as the incomplete or imperfect.
Democracy politics thus becomes a project, but precisely in this it can again be counter-observed as something that would be possible otherwise. This explains the feuilletonism rampant in the ‘community’, but also the predominance of intellectual prominence or celebrity, as prototypically exercised by Jürgen Habermas – in the idea of a reasonable consensus, which was then driven by Niklas Luhmann into the figure of paradoxical dissent about consensus, a figure that presupposes consensus about dissent.


All this could be discouraging, but there is another theoretical constellation in use under the term ‘penetration’ that could be useful for a different look at democracy politics.

I speak of penetration when a system makes its own complexity – and thus: indeterminacy, contingency and selection constraint – available for the construction of another system. What is crucial is that it is about “pre-constituted self-complexity”. For at this point I want to introduce a small variation. Luhmann speaks only of systems: “In the case of penetration, one can observe that the behaviour of the penetrating system is co-determined by the receiving system (and possibly takes place outside of this system in a disorientated and erratic manner, like that of an ant without contact with the anthill).” (Luhmann 1984, 290)
The variation refers to admitting for this process of penetration not only systems but also, as we might provisionally call it, oriented structures, among which we would count democracy politics. Under such structures, one can metaphorically imagine ‘magnetic fields’ that align iron filings to a greater or lesser extent without a sharp border emerging. More theoretically formulated: structures open up a not complete scope for possible events. Therefore, they cannot offer ‘inherent complexity’ in the exact sense, but instead a fluctuating selectivity that tends towards aberration.
The special point now is that we can speak of specific structures when they pass over into processes whose characteristic is to restrict freedom of choice and thus to generate a self-reinforcement by way of the reduction of degrees of freedom that drives that oriented structure of democracy politics towards system building. This can (but does not have to) lead to interpenetration. “In the case of interpenetration, the receiving system also has an effect on the structure formation of the penetrating systems; it thus intervenes on the latter twice, from the outside and from the inside. Then, despite (not: because of!) this reinforcement of dependence, greater degrees of freedom are possible. This also means that in the course of evolution, interpenetration individualises behaviour more than penetration.” (Luhmann 1984, 290)
This thesis, related to democratic politics, of course requires elaboration of the theory at this point and underpinning by empirical research. I myself would be satisfied if the expression oriented structure would reduce the diffuseness of the field and discourse metaphor.
It would then also be possible to ask about the function of this orientation. As a solution to what problem could democracy politics be constructed? The assumption (beyond all arrogance and hysteria) is that this phenomenon could be placed in the large context of the high-temporalisation of modern society. It acts as an antidote to the acceleration of the political system. Democracy politics would provide deceleration services, comparable to bureaucracy or counseling.
But this assumption is another field for discussions that strive to create clearer conditions.


Luhmann, N. (1977), Interpenetration: Zum Verhältnis personaler und sozialer Systeme, ZfS 6, pp. 62-76.

Luhmann, N. (1978),Interpenetration bei Parsons, ZfS 7, pp. S.299-302.

Luhmann , N. (1984), Soziale Systeme, Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt a. M. 

Luhmann, N. (1987), Die Zukunft der Demokratie, in: Soziologische Aufklärung 4, Beiträge zur funktionalen Differenzierung der Gesellschaft, Opladen.

Luhmann, N. (1986), Ökologische Kommunikation, Kann die moderne Gesellschaft sich auf ökologische Gefährdungen einlassen?, Opladen.

Luhmann, N. (2008), Die Moral der Gesellschaft (edited by D. Horster), Frankfurt a.M. 

Valéry, P. (1973), Cahiers I, Paris.

Translation: Markus Heidingsfelder/DeepL