James' Essays: Base-Superstructure

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Does the suggestion that Marx conceived the relation between base and superstructure in relational terms render his view more defensible, or less so?

'In the social production of the their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis, on which rises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness' (1)

The above quote contains some of the most contentious points of Marxist theory; the exposition of the base/superstructure distinction and the clear use of functional explanation, capture the essence of the question. Modern scholars disagree over these two points: They ask, how appropriate is the base/superstructure distinction, and how valid is the use of functional explanation. Steven Lukes suggests that it is time to 'consign the distinction to the scrapheap'. In this essay, the authority of this condemnation shall be assessed, and it shall be found that it is still possible to salvage the distinction from the trashpile of social and historical theory.

First, some definitions. The base is made up of the relations of production in a society, which is above pointed out to be 'indispensable and independent' of the wills of the actors in these relations. The typical example used to describe relations of production is property relations. A capitalist economy functions due to the property relations which organise labour, capital and resources. This base 'corresponds' to a stage of the development of productive forces, or the level of technology. These productive forces are what determine the relations of production, and thus the economic base. If technology proceeds to the extent that production is hampered due to the relations of production, then the economic structure must change.
     The superstructure is the set of 'non-economic institutions whose character is explained by the nature of the economic structure (the base).' (2) These institutions include the legal, political, moral and ideological aspects of society. As the initial quote suggests, this superstructure 'rises' from the base, implying that the relations of production determine the characteristics of the superstructure. This is shown clearly in the original texts:

'Society is not founded upon the law; this is a legal fiction. On the contrary, the law must be founded upon society, it must express the common interests and needs of society...which arise from the material mode of production prevailing at the given time.' (3)

The superstructure stabilises and strengthens the base by providing social norms consistent with the relations of productions. The above description gives a vague outline of the pattern of social change. Driving everything is technology, which improves the forces of production. Relations of production and social norms will be defined by any particular level of technology at the time. When the development of productive forces begins to be hindered by the relations of production, there is mounting pressure for the economic base to change. This may be awkward due to the superstructure's resistance to change. Marxism predicts the eventual change in the economic base, followed by a revaluation of the superstructure.
     G. A. Cohen shows an example of how the superstructure can catch-up with the relations of production. He quotes Mantoux, and shows that at the dawn of industrialisation, the laws of settlement were repeatedly violated to meet the demands of the new technology, until they were eventually repealed. The laws of settlement restricted the mobility of workers, and in order for the first factories to succeed, the workers broke these laws to produce in the factories. During the period while the laws existed, but were being flaunted, there had been changes in the economic base, but not in the superstructure. Only when the laws were repealed did the superstructure catch-up with the base. Also, with the change in law, the superstructure and the economic base have both adjusted to allow for further development of productive forces. This shows how one level led to another, until the increase in technology had manifested itself in a change in social norms.

'Bases Need Superstructures.' Probably unwittingly, G. A. Cohen expresses in this one chapter sub-heading what is at the root of the problems facing the base/superstructure duality. The suggestion that the base requires the superstructure seems to be a reversal of the architectural analogy - surely a superstructure must rest on its base, and not vice versa. This apparent reversal is due to the use of functional explanation in both Marx's and Cohen's argument. Functional explanation, simply put, is to explain an object in terms of its function. The explanation of the characteristics of the superstructure is its function of creating social norms and stability conducive to the economic base and therefore the development of forces of production. The superstructure is as it is because of its function. It is the success of a particular superstructure in fulfilling this function which explains its survival.
     This makes the relationship between the material world of production and the normative social world a highly complex one. I must clarify a confusion in my previous definitions. In the above definition of the economic base, property relations were used as an example of relations of production. This conflicts with the base/superstructure distinction, as property relations fall under the legal code, which dwells high within the superstructure, and therefore can not be part of the economic base. G. A. Cohen resolves this problem by differentiating between the legal relations and the relations of power and rights. He claims that the relation of production is not simply the legality of ownership, but the power that ownership entails. An example of this would be a comparison between an illegal squatter and a legal owner of a building. The first may have the power to use the premises for whatever purpose he so wishes, by simply employing force or coercion to remain on the premises. For the legal owner, the power comes with the legal ownership. Both have the power to use the premises, and so both are examples of production relations. This also shows how the superstructure may strengthen the economic base. By providing additional power for property owners, the legal system further enhances what is a useful relation of production, that of tenant and landlord.

Steven Lukes, however, takes issue with the use of functional explanation, and suggests that the base and superstructure intermingle to such an extent that the distinction is no longer valid. This is a reassertion of John Plamenatz's argument, that it is impossible to separate relations of production and moral or normative statements, which are supposed to apply only to the superstructure. He turns Cohen's examination of the property relation against its author, and shows that even the rights and powers that constitute the relations of production have to involve some normative part. His argument is thus: In order for anyone to have a degree of power, there must already be social and/or moral convention that the rights associated with the power have to be respected. In other words, duty must already play a role in society in order for power to have affect. He concludes that relations of production must presuppose some normative characteristic. The base is supposed to be influenced by nothing other than simple material production, and the superstructure comprised of all that is normative. The line separating base and superstructure is thus seen to be more or less completely broken down.
     Before the Marxist distinction between base and superstructure is totally dismissed, it must be noted that Lukes' criticism stems from a misunderstanding about the nature of relations of production. He claims that if relations of production contain any kind of normative assumption, then they violate the base/superstructure dualism. If we consider actual definition of the economic structure, then it becomes clear that this does not rule out the distinction. Marx repeatedly shows that the economic structure or base is not a structure of people. It is an abstract and empty structure of the relations between the productive forces in the economy. The actual persons or forces play no part of the structure. Neither do the superstructural areas of legality etc. As Cohen and Marx point out, the relation is not law, but the power an actor has. Taken out of the actual world, and into the empty, abstract domain of the economic structure, a power is simply the ability to perform a particular action. Taken in aggregate, the economic structure would be a set of these abilities, and the positions with more abilities (i.e. fewer restrictions) consequently become the dominant class. Looking at this structure, in the abstract sense in which Marx desired, there are no normative constraints, simply material possibilities, and enabling powers. The normative image of relations of production only appears after the actors and forces are placed in the structure, and the superstructure is placed over the top.

This final argument above rescues Marxist theory to the extent that it was threatened by the arguments of Plamenatz and Steven Lukes. By reiterating the very abstract nature of relations of production, it is possible to see how the base and superstructure can be kept separate. The base is an empty thing, filled in reality by productive forces and people. The superstructure keeps the economy stable by making the abstract nature of the base seem more real. The architectural analogy chosen by Marx has been stretched to the limit. The above argument pictures his building as a cavernous roof of social, moral and legal norms, supported by the invisible Atlas of an empty and abstract structure of production relations. Not only does Atlas provide support for the roof, but the roof helps to further strengthen him, in a system a reciprocal support.

  1. K. Marx in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
  2. G. A. Cohen Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence pp 216.
  3. K. Marx from 'Speech at the Trial of the Rhenish District Committee of Democrats'.

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