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.
'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.
'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.
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.
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.