Base-superstructure, or: the concept of capitalist society

Julian Mueller JulianPorto at
Thu Apr 11 05:33:42 MDT 2002

In my M.A. thesis I am dealing with the crucial and time-honoured topic of
relating the economic base of society to its superstructure. This problem,
however, needs to be restated in order to make work on it possible, for the
concepts of "base" and "superstructure" are strongly metaphorical and are
taken from a text by Marx that is not, strictly speaking, a scientific or
theoretical one (the preface to "Contribution to th Critique of Political
Economy"/"Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie"). This well known statement
of historical materialism was explicitly considered by Marx to be a mere
guiding rule to scientific research, rather than a complet theory about the
relations of different spheres in society. So I chose as a starting point
the very concept of capitalist society. It designates a type of society in
which the capitalist economy is the dominant structuring principle of
society as a whole to the effect that it can be described as essentially
capitalist and all its institutions as primarily capitalist institutions.
I´m not asking: Do we really live in such a society? I take for granted
that we do.
However, I do not mean to say that everything in society is completely
determined by the economy, the "logic of capital", or by the
class-relation. One has to concede that there is social differentiation to
a considerable degree. The family, for example, is not a capitalist entity,
nor is every single action taken in the political sphere, or every work of
art of immediate economic significance; and above all: they are not of
exclusively economic significance, for there are other aspects to them.
These extra-economic spheres/systems of society operate, at least
partially, according to their own values, operational logics, and so on.
Economic reductionism is therefore out of question.
Hence, the relations between the different spheres of society, that Marx
described as a relation between "base" and "superstructure", can now be
described less metaphorically: relative dominance of the economic sphere in
society and, simultaneously, relative or partial autonomy of non-economic
spheres. This formulation, far from being a solution, raises some important
questions, just like the base-superstructure-metaphor did. But it should
make work on the questions arising a lot easier.
One of the most important tasks would be to clarify the interactions gong
on between the relatively dominant economic "base" and the partially
autonomous "superstructure(s)", for they are much more complex than a
simple reductionist model would make you believe. Also, the
non-reductionist model is more open to reactions by the "superstucture" on
the "base". Of course, this increases complexity even more.
Another important question immediately arises: What about classes? Does
"capitalist society" signify the same thing as "class society"? Do we live
in a capitalist society because and inasmuch as we live in a class society?
Or is the existence of classes pretty much irrelevant to the existence of a
capitalist society because the economic sphere can exercise dominance
without them? This seems especially interesting at a time when the
assumption is widespread that classes are a thing of the past (I do not
think so!) while at the same time the capitalist economy is undeniably
changing people´s lives all over the world more radically than it did a
couple of decades ago. Let me remind you that Marx, in the preface to
"Contribution..." did not mention classes. He only talked about the
different spheres of society and the relations between them.

I have not yet gone beyond the initial stage of my work, that is: properly
phrasing the problem to be dealt with. So I´d be grateful for any thoughts
on the topic, be it the formulation of the problem, implications following
from it etc. Also, I´d be grateful for advice concerning literature (I´m
already aware of Althusser and Poulantzas.), especially recent books and
articles in English because quite often these are hardly known where I

Cheers, Julian

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