Superstructure In Marxist Cultural Theory

The oft-cited passage from Marxs preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in which he states that the economic structure, or base, of society is its “real basis, on which arises a legal and political superstructure” (source); contains perhaps the most contentious aspects of Marxist theory. The implicit ideas within these few sentences concerning the relationship between the base and the superstructure have excited scrupulous analysis and fervent debate from within the Marxist school of thought and by critics and opponents alike. The passage proclaims that it is upon the economic base that all other institutions, norms and practises are constructed. This perception was confronted by those who suggested that the base and the superstructure were best interpreted as having a reciprocal, dialectical relationship in which the base conditions the superstructure but is in turn affected by it. The metaphor was insufficient for later Marxists, such as Gramsci and Lukacs, who represent a shift away from the rigid dichotomy of the classical position by placing focus on the realm of the superstructure through concepts such as hegemony and totality. Further still, there were those who proposed a functional reading of base and superstructure (Cohen). Throughout this narrative, the problems with the relative understanding of base and superstructure have been consistently exposed, either by those who attempt to navigate around them through reformulation, or by those who suggest that they cause the metaphor to collapse. Most notably, the notion that the base determines the superstructure is particularly troubling for many critics. There has been a persistent effort to suggest that the relationship between the base and the superstructure involves an element of economic determinism, which represents the most significant problem due to its simplicity. A second problem is the difficulty of separating the base from the superstructure, and defining what constitutes the ‘relations of production.’ It is the purpose of this essay to make two assertions. The first is that the troubling cause and effect logic is stubbornly common to all formulations of the model, making both practical and analytical application indefensible. The second uses this as the basis for the suggestion that Marxian claims concerning the relationship between base and superstructure are reductionist and that a multi-dimensional approach that respects ideas of complexity would be preferable.

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According to Marx, in any given historical epoch men collectively organise to produce the goods and amenities that will ensure their survival. In doing this they enter into class-based social relations independently of their will. The economic ‘base’ is comprised of the sum total of these socioeconomic relations, termed as the ‘relations of production’. The base ‘corresponds’, or is conditioned by, the ‘forces of production’ which we may define as the means at the disposal of the actors involved in said relations. Since the cultural and political superstructure ‘arises’ upon the economic base, it is therefore the historically specific mode of production that determines and characterises the rest of society – social, cultural and political processes, ideas, institutions and so on. As the forces of production advance, through technological innovation for example, strain is placed upon the relations of production. Eventually the base is forced to change and since all other aspects of society are determined by the base, the superstructure must accommodate this change through change of its own. The superstructure is said to normalise the antagonism inherent within the class-based social relations since they are expressed through political and legal means, thus preventing the masses from recognising the oppression and exploitation that they are subjected to. This conception is the basis for the wider perspective of cultural materialism, which itself is part of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. To quote Plamenatz, “If the Marxian theory is to be called materialist, it is because it asserts that it is how men produce what satisfies their needs, which determines the general character of the moral, political and legal order” p. 277 It is the suspect way in which Marx states “not only that but how” (Antonio Gramsci – Beyond Marxism and Post-Modernism) base and superstructure are related which shall be the main focus of this essay.

Before the problems with the relationship are discussed, it is relevant to briefly outline why such an endeavour is of importance, in light of the argument that the “spatial image is a convenient way of discussing society from a methodological and analytical point of view; it is not meant to represent the actual complexity of the ‘real world’.” (Jakabwski, 1976 – quoted in Gramsci new introduction) Whilst it is fair to claim that the base and superstructure metaphor can be a useful analytical tool; it also seems fair to suggest that the validity of the model should be rigorously examined against the complexities of reality. It is only by defining the limits of the metaphor that we can know its ability to shed light on relationships between social phenomena, as Marx claims it can.

A central issue of the debate surrounding base and superstructure is what our understanding of ‘determination’ should be. The inescapable criticism that the base and superstructure metaphor reduces cultural theory to a linear form of economic determinism was prevalent from its very inception (olssen), and I would argue that the persistent, simplistic economic determinist logic is a major problem with the base and superstructure relationship. To focus first on the language of Marx’s passage, Marx and Engels could have used moderate terminology to merely suggest that there is a relation between production and social activity. However, as Plamenatz notes, Marx and Engels clearly felt it important to say, as they did so repeatedly, that the character of production determines social life. This is characteristic of much of Marxist theory. That history follows a determinable path in which the changes and developments of society can essentially be predicted is a common theme. There is however much rhetoric from both Marx and Engels to defend their position by acknowledging that “quote from Gramsci that superstructure influences base). As such most modern scholars do not accept such a determinist perspective. Raymond Williams for example, describes it as being the simplest and most basic understanding of the relationship. (source) It may therefore be contentious to state that Marx was strong in his conviction that there is a specifically determined relationship between base and superstructure in its simplest (Williams) form, since he and Engels both expressed ideas to the contrary (source). However what is clear is the primary status of the base (which is also reflected by the centrality of economics in much of the Marxist canon) and the implication of the secondary or subjugated status of the superstructure. Whether or not Marx intended to allow for the idea of reciprocal influence, it is clear that “the metaphor tended ultimately to posit primary or first causes in historical motion, which would relegate the rest to a secondary, accidental, contingent, dependent status.” (Antonio Gramsci – Beyond Marxism and Post-Modernism) It is from this that we may confidently argue that the position of classical Marxism is that which favours economic determinism to a significant enough extent to be subject to scrutiny, despite the neo-Marxist claim that economic determinism is not the intended understanding of the base and superstructure concept.

The interpretation of determination between base and superstructure as being reciprocal is a common departure from the “simple” notion of “prefiguration, prediction and control”. (Williams) Althusser speaks of the “relative autonomy” and “reciprocal action” of the superstructure. (Althusser, cited in Lapsley & Westlake 1988: 5) The notion that areas in the superstructure can be relatively distant from the base, and retain a ‘relative’ autonomy from economic determination is the key feature of the Althusserian understanding of base and superstructure. Shifting emphasis away from the base allows for the interpretation that it is in fact not the economic base that is the basis for society but the superstructure, which exercises autonomous influence, in that it exerts pressures on its own terms. In spite of this, to remain true in part to Marx’s original thought, Althusser downgrades the concept of autonomy by stating that there is ‘determination in the last instance by the economy’. Hall, influenced by Althusser, cites the variety of language in Marx’s description of base and superstructure in The German Ideology which varies from “connected with” to “created by” and “in its action as” to suggest that “the relationship between economic and non-economic activities need to be seen as interactive and circular.” Williams exertion of pressures. Reformulations of the spatial metaphor such as those outlined above are curious in that they seek to account for variety within the superstructure by assigning the idea of autonomy, yet then retrace their steps in a contrived effort to remain true to the original Marxist doctrine. Althusser, Hall and Williams all nod to the complexity of the superstructure and either explicitly or implicitly acknowledge that deterministic attempts to trace clear causal influence between it and the base is problematic, which seems to be the driving influence in their reformulation of the concept of determination, yet the desire to maintain the primacy of the base is paradoxical in that it undermines the acknowledgement of a complex, autonomous superstructure by yet again suppressing its autonomy through simple notions of economic practise. This is merely sidestepping the issue and is a ‘fragile’ (Hirst, On Law and Ideology, London 1979, pp. 75-95) attempt to rescue Marx. If we accept the argument that economic determinism is reductionist, then the circular and reciprocal interpretation may be said to be only partially less simplistic.

A second significant problem with the base/superstructure distinction is the inability to theoretically separate the base from the superstructure, and the inferiority of the term ‘relations of production’ to describe clearly what it is that constitutes the base. If it is unfeasible to overcome these problems, any proposed interpretation of the base and superstructure relationship ought to fail. The debate between G. A. Cohen and John Plamenatz is a useful way of navigating these difficulties. Cohen is a proponent of a functional understanding of the base/superstructure relationship. The argument develops from the idea that the superstructure is constructed as a result of its function, which is to maintain the base. The existence of the superstructure is therefore dependent on its ability to develop social norms and practises that are conducive to the base and provide social stability. As part of this interpretation, Cohen seeks to overcome what he calls ‘the problem of legality’, which is a reassertion of one of the criticisms put forward by John Plamenatz (Karl Marx’s Theory of History p.235). As Plamenatz (man and society) notes, detailed analysis of the relations of production reveals that the relations are essentially legal in nature, making the base indistinguishable from the superstructure since the superstructure is supposedly the dominion of legality. Similarly, since the base may only be described normatively, it is difficult to assert the sense in which it is separated from the superstructure, as is indicated by the spatial metaphor. Furthermore, Plamenatz identifies that relations of property are supposedly superstructural, yet have considerable influence over the workings and structure of the economic base. He also states that large ‘sides’ of social life, such as religion or the sciences, cannot be shown to be derivative of the base. Cohen’s attempt to overcome this is through a reformulation of the base, an ambition which shares parallels with Williams, centres on whether or not it is possible to arrive at a conception of the base which excluds any normative involvement from law, morality or politics. He therefore sought to “purge the base of normative elements, or seek to identify a ‘rechtsfrei’ economic structure” (Lukes) Cohen’s non-normative base is built upon the distinction between relations of power, which can exist without superstructural interference, and relations of rights. However, Lukes finds his conception unconvincing. According to Lukes, power relations are based on social and moral senses of duty that must exist before power relations can be established. In summary of the debate Lukes proposes that Cohen fails through his inability to present reference to roles within his “rechtsfrei” that do not presuppose the existence of rights of some kind. For Lukes, then, there is no viable distinction between base and superstructure, rendering the metaphor useless, urging that it is high time that the distinction be “consigned to the scrap heap.” If we are to involve Williams’ urge to reconfigure our understanding of the base as a dynamic force, constantly occupied and defined by human activity, and not take the base as an abstract entity that is not necessarily defined by human action, then we must accept Lukes’ argument and the collapse of the distinction.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and Lukacs’ of totality represent Marxist conceptions of society that are altogether more holistic and need not necessarily be interpreted in terms of a base and superstructure separation. For Gramsci, the sharp separation between the economic sphere and the political sphere was unsatisfactory, since “social relations of civil society interpenetrate with the relations of production.” (gramsci’s political thought p.30) He saw the superstructure as being divided into two parts, political society and civil society and argued that “political society organises force, civil society is the organiser of consensus.” (Canadian journal) Gramsci asserted that the bourgeoisie maintained control in society through ideology, rather than by economic or coercive means. The norms and values conducive to bourgeois control became entrenched as the limits of ‘common sense’ of the working class, who were therefore distracted from revolution by falsely interpreting their exploitation as a common good. Still, it is the bourgeois control of economic production that allows them to become the hegemonic class in civil society. Similarly, for Lukacs, the economist assumption that consciousness and ideology were determined by the economy could not be shown to be so, since crises that developed in the economic sphere were not reflected in the consciousness of individuals (Lukacs – history and class consciousness 1923). Gramsci and Lukacs were both attempting to mend Marxism in the area in which they felt was most deficient. Economic determinism, for them, did not privilege an understanding of the vast complexity of the superstructure, which as the realm of consciousness and ideology was greatly important to the cause of initiating historic change. As a model, “beyond simply calling this relation dialecticalaˆ¦ it was deficient in examining the multiple ways in which culture and politics or the state produce ideology, authority and power” (beyond Marxism and post modernism) They therefore attempted to challenge bourgeois dominance through means that were not strictly economic. While it is more accurate to suggest that the complexity of the superstructure should not be underestimated, in Gramsci and Lukacs ambition to loosen the rigid nature of orthodox Marxism through reformulation, what results is a similarly reductionist or one-dimensional view of society.( The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities T. J. Jackson Lears p.569) A total, holistic view of society will always by nature be insufficient to deeply analyse the variation and complexity of culture, particularly if one seeks to study it through the rather narrow lens of historical materialism, with its association with cause and effect history that has yet to manifest itself.

The economic determinism present in the orthodox Marxist interpretation of the relationship between base and superstructure is a problem that is difficult to evade. In attempting to do so most ‘neo’ reformulations seem hampered in some way, as they seek to transcend the oversimplified nature of the linear perspective but never quite manage to explain or predict the complexity of cultural processes and institutions. The circular interpretation of the relationship is admittedly more attractive than the basic understanding, yet crucially still denies the superstructure the complexity and autonomy that it must be said to have. The work of Gramsci and Lukacs is a significant step forward towards a theory of complexity but is still hampered by the simplicity of seeking to define culture and society through holistic, all-encompassing terms. All formulations seem crude in that they either imply a causal influence strong enough to suggest that the superstructure is mechanically reproduced by the base, or a causal influence that is not strong enough to strictly retain Marx’s original meaning. To overcome this by speaking in terms of the convenience or usefulness of the metaphor as an analytical device seems dangerous to the integrity of the conclusions that may be drawn from it, since it repeatedly has not and cannot stand up to detailed analysis. What should be sought is a view of culture that analyses it without having to refer to a specific agenda, economic or otherwise. It is only by viewing culture on its own terms that we may we hope to go some way to dealing with its complexity.