Base & Superstructure
Base & Superstructure
Base & Superstructure
Base & Superstructure
Base & Superstructure
Base & Superstructure

Base & Superstructure

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Marx and Engels investigate the question of whether humans are the same as animals. They decide that the status of independence is a question of production and the means of production. This means that there is a connection between the division of labor and one's autonomy. While owners of businesses function autonomously, the working class functions more as a body. 

Therefore, the ruling class dictates the intellectual shape of a society by the regulation of industry. This creates a dynamic of ideals, where the moral beliefs of the ruling class differ from the belief patterns of the lower class. So long as the ruling class can manipulate the general public's opinion of their interests, the system is stable and fixed. But, when the ruling class fails to convince the lower class that their interests are communal, the system becomes unstable.

1 the base is the whole of productive relationships, not only a given economic element, e.g. the working class

2 historically, the superstructure varies and develops unevenly in society's different activities; for example, art, politics, economics, etc.

3 the base–superstructure relationship is reciprocal; Engels explains that the base determines the superstructure only in the last instance.”

Marx then turns to explain more about these ideas by showing the dynamic as a system comprised of a base and a superstructure. Base and superstructure are two linked theoretical concepts: Base refers to the production forces, or the materials and resources, that generate the goods society needs. Superstructure describes all other aspects of society including the culture, ideology, norms, and identities that people inhabit. In addition, it refers to the social institutions, political structure, and the state—or society's governing apparatus. Marx argued that the superstructure grows out of the base and reflects the ruling class' interests. As such, the superstructure justifies how the base operates and defends the power of the elite. 

Neither the base nor the superstructure is naturally occurring or static. They are both social creations, or the accumulation of constantly evolving social interactions between people. So when a society topples and a revolutionary interest rises to the top, a new base will appear, and therefore a new superstructure will be created, until the new ruling class fails to sway public opinion. The superstructure also implies the obfuscation of the proletariat. Essentially, Marx argues that the social glue that holds societies in a state of stability is that the proletariat is hypnotized by rhetoric that prevents them from seeing that the economy is designed to prevent them from succeeding, while higher powers use their resources.

Marx believed that the shift to a capitalist mode of production had sweeping implications for the social structure. He asserted that it reconfigured the superstructure in drastic ways and instead posed a “materialist” way of understanding history. Known as “historical materialism,” this idea posits that what we produce in order to live determines all else in society. Building on this concept, Marx posed a new way of thinking about the relationship between thought and lived reality.

Importantly, Marx argued that this is not a neutral relationship, as a great deal depends on the way the superstructure emerges from the base. The place where norms, values, beliefs, and ideology reside, the superstructure legitimizes the base. It creates the conditions in which the relations of production seem fair and natural, though they may actually be unjust and designed to benefit the ruling class only.

This leaves an interesting question for Marx and Engels, and they turn to face it in the final portions of the essays. Suppose that morality, religion, political beliefs, all possible belief templates, are designed to interact with the superstructure. Could it be the case that what the proletariat regards as "education" is actually more like indoctrination? Could it be that collective thought is inherently manipulative? This raises an interesting suspicion around the idea of religion.

Marx argued that religious ideology that urges people to obey authority and work hard for salvation is one way the superstructure justifies the base, as it generates an acceptance of one’s conditions as they are. After Marx, philosopher Antonio Gramsci elaborated on the role education plays in training people to obediently serve in their designated roles in the workforce. As Marx did, Gramsci wrote about how the state, or political apparatus, functions to protect the elite's interests. For example, the federal government has bailed out private banks that have collapsed.

This reminds us of John Dewey's claim that, 'As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.' In the US, the two-party political system has proven extremely effective in this regard. Aside from differences on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as socioeconomic issues like unemployment insurance and public assistance, both parties ultimately embrace capitalist/corporatist interests in that they both serve as facilitators for the dominant classes: The Republican Party in its role as forerunner, pushing the limits of the capitalist model to the brink of fascism; and the Democratic Party in its role as governor, providing intermittent degrees of slack and pull against this inevitable move towards a 'corporate-fascistic state of being.”

Art then is part of the superstructure of society, influenced by the mode of production. But no work of art exists in glorious isolation — it is also influenced by other things, such as other parts of the superstructure. Trying to trace every causal thread that links a work of art through the law, philosophy, religion, aesthetics and so on would be impossible, but criticism must try to see art as a totality — causality in art, as in everything, is not a straightforward linear process but a sum of processes, some of which are in contradiction. As Marx put it, “the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.”

Our own history as a species illustrates this very well. Humans evolved because of the rise of the mammals made possible by the great extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic era 65 million years ago; this extinction followed the crashing of a huge asteroid into the earth at what is now the Yucatán peninsula; this asteroid was probably influenced by the tremendous gravitational pull of Jupiter, half a billion miles from Earth, which nudges cosmic objects towards us. Thus the very existence of human beings is part of an immense, complex system of interlinked cosmic processes — like the Earth itself, the ‘Goldilocks’ planet where everything is ‘just right’ for life to prosper, we are one tiny, fortunate accident.

So art too is complex. It is partly a product of the psychology of its creators, but it is also a product of a dominant ‘way of seeing’, in John Berger’s phrase, which is conditioned by the most profound structures of society.

In his early writing, Marx committed himself to the principles of historical materialism and the causal relationship between base and superstructure. However, as his theory grew more complex, Marx reframed the relationship between base and superstructure as dialectical, meaning that each influences the other. Hence, if the base changes so does the superstructure; the reverse occurs as well.

Marx expected the working class to eventually revolt because he thought that once they realized how exploited they were for the benefit of the ruling class, they would decide to change matters. This would lead to a significant change in the base. How goods are produced and under what conditions would shift.