First of all, I am really sorry for trying to start every blog with a punny title. Help is being sought.
So I really enjoyed Williams’ analysis of Marx, because his reading of Marx’s interpretations of base and superstructure helped to clear up a lot of the murky area that happens when interpreting the two in relation to one another. As a matter of fact, our discussions about this in class – especially using the skyscraper model – threw me off a little bit, as I kept thinking, “Couldn’t you say that economic exchange is a set of practices? Couldn’t ideologies be manufactured on that ground level, through the dynamics of production and challenges that consistently arise?” And so on and so forth.
It was difficult for me to think of the base as an object, and that is exactly what Williams first addresses in the first part of Base and Superstructure, etc. He reiterates often that we must think of base and superstructure as fluid categories – or not even categories at all, but arbitrary designations. However, I want to discuss one small chunk of the second part of this work, on page 81, in which Williams elaborates on the (misguided) concept of the base as something static and stolid. He rightfully says that the superstructure is perceived as more “varied and variable,” and thus it is easier to contextualize the structures within it historically – i.e. the legal system, or education, and especially ideologies. It comes more naturally to relate these different “limbs” to each other and to the general human moment in time from whence they arose. The base, however, is “given uniform properties,” such as “modes of production” or the economic system of social exchange. However, this detracts from Marx’s original insistence that the base is, in itself, a series of practices or “activities.”
This is where it got really interesting for me. Williams subsequently quotes Marx: “It is above all essential to perceive [material production] in its determined historical form and not as a general category.” Marx then cites the marked difference in the actual idea of production itself as it changed from a medieval to a capitalist mode. As we move through history, not only do our systems and objects change, but so does our very understanding of what it means to produce, and why we are doing it, and which superstructures correspond closest with the process of production. For example, young students may not have been thought of as commodities in ancient times, but they surely are now. Everything education-related, from “Hooked on Phonics” to the GRE, is regularly viewed as a collection of processes and activities which churn out a product, which will then be reabsorbed into the workforce or intelligentsia. The same principles may have been at work centuries ago, but this kind of relationship has only become part of our collective understanding of economics with the rise of capitalism.
Marx’s ability to hypothesize about such changes in the relationships between base and superstructure is really mindblowing to me. Although this small quote may seem like a caution – don’t get swept up by the simplicity of these terms – the idea really has huge ramifications for theorists at any historical moment. We should not be shoving all the rules of our current economy into the category of “base,” but taking the time to review what exactly led us to follow our complex system of economic activities. Recognizing connections that pop up between the so-called base and superstructure, and then historically exploring why they happened, can shed more light on what exactly drives a society than fitting pre-defined activities neatly into Marx’s boxes.