Read Base and Superstructure by Daniel Chandler

  • What did Marx mean by Base and Superstructure
  • Of the different ways of looking at the subject outlined by Chandler, which makes most sense to you and why?
  • Does your understanding of base and superstructure vary depending on whether you are looking at society in general of the media and the arts?

It has taken me a while to get my head around the subject for this third exercise. Every time I looked at it I despaired at the thought of how vast and overwhelming Marxist theory felt – (although thinking back I was only asked to look at one element).

However, ever since first reading the notes and listening to a couple of videos on YouTube about Base and Superstructure, I have thought to myself, I recognise this. There was definitely something more than faintly familiar. The following paragraphs are therefore an attempt to connect my own experiences and understanding with what I was reading, and make it relevant and real.

The entry point for me into anything resembling formal thought was triggered by the birth of my first child. Prior to that I certainly thought a lot about this and that, but in the time between leaving University the first time round in 1994 and at about 8 months into motherhood, mostly it was pretty random and sporadic.

Less than a year after having my first child I was plagued with questions; why I am mothering in a certain way? Why is it different to the way other people around me are doing so? What is prompting others’ choices and mine? Why was I parented, or not parented as the case may be, in a certain way?

All of those questions made me start reading with alacrity.

One of the books I read which I have mentioned before here and in TAOP is Our Babies Our Selves by Meredith Small which explores the science of Ethnopediatrics, a hybrid of anthropology, psychology and sociology which, put very simply, studies various child care practices cross culturally.

Early on in the book Small looks at particular “agrarian and urban-industrial societies”[1] and compares some of the ideas behind parenting practices. She quotes anthropologist Robert LeVine who suggests “these goals (parental goals) have little to do with the immediate situation of the child, but more to do with the entire social system and its institutional goals – especially in the areas of interpersonal relationships, the level of personal achievements expected, and the degree and manner of social solidarity that is favoured in that particular society.”[2] LeVine goes on to discuss how economic systems inform our social patterns of child rearing, whilst Small talks about how our parenting goals which translate into “daily routines and trivial interactions insidiously and unconsciously make us who we are”.[3] The section from which these quotations are taken are really interesting (pages 52-57) in relation to how social structures might inform the way we behave without us realising, and about how the economic base of a society has such a profound influence of the resulting structures which evolve out of that base.

What I would say, however, is (as far as I understand them) the thoughts informing the arguments of Small and LeVine are complex and sophisticated, absorbing ideas from a variety of disciplines and not based wholly on a simplistic deterministic approach.

I recognised what I was reading around Marx’s metaphor of base and superstructure because his ideas have had a profoundly significant influence on all the social sciences, being absorbed into the language and thought processes of each of them, and those ideas have informed much of what I have been reading over the last decade. And even though Chandler’s academic language looked somewhat impenetrable to me at first, it appears that I have already been thinking about how the economic base of a society might inform, interact with and relate to the social structures that shape us, and through which we mediate our realities.

In fact, when I first read The Continuum Concept, it seemed to me that one might need to be extremely careful about trying to emulate the parenting ideology of the Yequana tribe too dogmatically since that tribe’s social structure, its internalised grid of laws and customs, was perhaps subject to less diverse or possibly less fragmented situations than the one in which I was parenting, simply by dint of the fact it had been sheltered from all the historical processes that our own Western cultural history contains. I think this is what Marx refers to as historical materialism. (Please note that I have very consciously done my best to refrain from using language that suggests any kind of value judgement of one society over the other. I certainly don’t romantacise either.)

Ron Strickland’s video on Base and Superstructure[4] was a good enough starting point for me to try and tackle this subject although I have had to return to it several times in order to absorb its meaning, and know I will need to look at it more vigorously over time.

I learned from the Strickland’s video that Marx constructed a metaphor to describe the social and historical processes that could describe the way in which the world was evolving following the decline of Feudalism and the development of Capitalism – this metaphor is realised as Base and Superstructure. His thoughts were a continuation of and an argument against some of the inherent foundations espoused by his predecessor in philosophical terms, Hegel. Prior to Marx’s theories, Hegel argued that thought alone governed the way in which mankind existed (according to Marx). However, he and his friend, Friedrich Engles, (supporter of Marx both financially and otherwise) stated that man’s social situation determined his conscious thought, which in turn determined the phenomena of his existence.   He believed that modern man and the new civil society, the political and economic processes by which he existed, was a direct consequence of a departure from the old ways, the Middle Ages, giving way to the beginnings of modernity.

Historians and teachers have latched onto the phrase “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness”. [5] I can see why this phrase taken out of context would lead to the sort of deterministic theories that subsequently evolved and which have been referred to as vulgar Marxism or Economism. Briefly, by vulgar Marxism I mean that the economic base, i.e. the way in which people produce things in a society, alone contributes to the way in which its politics and culture manifest and exist.

I am always surprised by the very literal way in which theories and ideas are often interpreted by generations who then go on to criticise and often defame the people whose ideas they have misinterpreted or grossly simplified. I’m not alone in this. Marx himself, according to Peter Singer, and before that Engels, in A Very Short Introduction to Marx, says “Marx grew so irritated at misinterpretations of his doctrine that towards the end of his life, he declared, ‘All I know is I’m not a Marxist.’”[6]

In fact, I find it quite hard to not to ignore Vulgar Marxism altogether and simply look at a more complex reading of Marx’s base and superstructure.   One where as Chandler quotes, there is a “reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base”. I am far more interested in finding out more about the more complex understanding, even if there it is less easily defined and less tangible to get hold of intellectually.   (And I am as ever frustrated by the lack of group discussion that would be possible in a classroom setting, as that is really how I learn best.)

If I understand it correctly then Vulgar Marxism or economism doesn’t account for history, experience, psychology, institutional conditioning or diversity.  Although I have looked briefly at Althussar and Stuart Hall I know we will go into their thoughts more in the next section, as well as Derrida whose theory of Deconstruction I have also taken note of.  It is certainly these (seemingly quite tricky) concepts that interest me more than straightforward Economism.

However, going back to Marx and his Base and Superstructure I did very much appreciate Alain de Botton’s accessible School of Life film in which he states:

“An important aspect of Marx’s work is that he proposes that there is an insidious, subtle, way in which the economic system colours the sort of ideas we end up having. The economy generates what Marx termed an ‘ideology””…and that we end up having ideas “that are really just value judgments that relate back to the economic system; that a person who doesn’t work is worthless, that leisure (beyond a few weeks a year) is sinful, that more belongings will make us happier and that worthwhile things (and people) will invariably make money.” All beliefs that help to feed and sustain an ongoing capitalist society. “

I think that this is echoed in Peter Singer’s book, A Very Short Introduction to Marx when he refers to the, “more pliable conception to be found in the Grundrisse, where Marx describes society of as ‘totality’, an ‘organic whole’ in which everything is interconnected (G99-100).”[7]

By this I understand the base and superstructure interact which each other rather than one being the source of the other’s material expression.

Given this statement I think it will be difficult to claim that one’s understanding of Base and Superstructure would vary depending on whether or not we are looking at society in general or just the media and arts. I would suggest that the arts and media are an expression of the society from which it stems, so to say we could look at it differently seems to me strange at the moment.  However, the media is said to be one of the most powerful expressions of control, openly at times and more covertly otherwise, so perhaps looking at the way in which the media functions requires particular attention, or rather a specialised way of investigating how it operates.

Saying that, my understanding is that everything we do, think, feel and produce is expressive of some aspect of ourselves, individually or collectively. I guess the question is what is informing that expression.

I agree that media professionals are ‘socialised into and interalise the norms of the dominant culture’ (as do we all) but I am not sure there is an unquestioned illusion of autonomy. Perhaps I am too skeptical but I suspect there is a great deal more cynicism within the press and political classes at any rate. The political machinations and press complicity that is satirised in programmes such as In The Thick of It are I suspect extremely close to the bone.   How much autonomy do any of the foot soldiers feel within the great institutional machines of media and politics? Even Cameron, is has been suggested in some recent editorial, is little more than a front man chosen by and placed in position by an old guard who are actually running the Conservative party, and who are really rather ready for their chosen successor to his place.  I think there may be more than a grain of truth in this although it’s likely more complex than that.  In Marxist terms the capitalists, or those behind-the-scenes-old-guards of media and press, are quite consciously maintaining a status quo, which suits their perceived needs.   Needs which I can’t help feeling are so steeped within our internalised British history and which forms the very core of who we all are, that it is very difficult for any of us to recognise it clearly. That history goes beyond the industrial revolution and the beginnings of modern philosophy/thought or economics.

We’ve all internalised that. And the media professionals and civil servants are amongst the ‘we’.   We are complicit through little fault of our own I would say, in maintaining a meaning-system that harks back to before the Middle Ages because it so pernicious. It is a paternalistic, archaic and creaking status quo that clings to whatever social developments we collectively strive for and make, such as better and more equal working conditions for women as one example.

Parliament and prime minister’s question time is one example I can think of that demonstrates how an ancient status quo persists and continues to affect our very being. Why is it that in today’s modern times, we are still being ruled by men who are encouraged to behave like boarding school children (boys certainly) from a novel set in the 15th century? Ritual is so much part of our human heritage and is universal culturally but why have our own leaders clung so doggedly to rituals that seem so out of place in modernity?

I only have experience of the family courts but I would certainly say that the people working in that realm ‘lack ready access to alternative meaning systems’ and are trapped in narrow, paternalistic, unhelpful and even redundant ways of going about things. And that leads to alienation and frustration for all concerned.

I would say, we all lack ready access to alternative meaning systems, not only the media or the politicians.

So does my ‘understanding of Base and Structure vary depending on whether I’m looking at society in general or the media and the arts’? Yes and no, is the answer. The media is one aspect of our society, one that is extremely powerful.  In fact I would argue that the press are guilty of telling us constantly what we should think about people in charge, as so clearly demonstrated recently with the election of Jeremy Corbyn. However, the media acts as a reflection as well as an informer and influence on all of us. We interact with it. It is us and we are it. We make demands of it and it reassures us, or scolds us, or feeds our terrors, therefore justifying our actions especially when those actions aren’t very nice. It tells us who to be and how to be while we are being (forgive the blatant misquotation from Janice Ian – Between the Lines).  But we position the media and give it its strength with our complicit collective actions.

And even if we’re vaguely conscious of all that I wonder it it’s just about impossible to avoid any of that one way or another, unless perhaps one chooses to opt out entirely and live in the woods without any amenities… But even that is a reaction in relation to the fact that it’s impossible to operate outside of the culture within which you exist so it’s not really opting out – you’re still part of it; and rather uncomfortable too, I’d imagine.

I also should mention briefly that the photograph at the top for me illustrates just how bizarre the forces that we live by can be. Who designed this advert which exists today in South London? Who’s it aimed at?  What did the people in the presumably long chain of production think when they saw an over Photoshopped woman bending over with her arse in the air and that odd look on her face as she puts away some towels think they were selling and why?  Where does this peculiar harkening back to the 50s come from?  Where in our consciousness is this appropriate?  Did we demand that sort of image or it is being foisted upon us?  Is it reflective of something we are, want or dream about? To whom does this have any relevant meaning? I suppose someone must want to live up to that utterly outdated model of being for some reason?  I really can’t say I know the answer at all.

[1] Page 54 Our Babies Ourselves Meredith Small Anchor Books, 1998 Small quotes Anthropologist Robert LeVine who divides current cultures in to ‘two types. Agrarian and urban-industrial. In both kinds of societies, parents want various things from their children, and other things for their children”

[2] Page 54 as above

[3] Page 55 as above

[4] Ron Strickland Cultural Theory: Base and Superstructure

[5] Contribution of the Critique of Political Economy 1859

[6] Page 52 of 100, 52% Marx: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Oxford, Kindle Edition, 1980 and first published as a Very Short Introduction in 2000

[7] Page 53 of 100, 53% Marx: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Oxford, Kindle Edition, 1980 and first published as a Very Short Introduction in 2000

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