work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

base/superstructure 1 – gramsci and the demise of the casanova

09.17.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

Starting to evaluate what, if anything, is to be gained from an application of the Weber theses on the Protestant ethic and ‘the spirit of capitalism’ – it turns out that it is impossible to engage with them without a also undertaking a reevaluation of the theorem they have formulated against: the Marxian/Marxist base-superstructure (Basis – Überbau) concept. Of course, that has been long declared dead as either indefensible economic determinism or irrelevant platitude – paid for by introducing an unnecessary dualism into the totality of praxis.I will argue, in a subsequent post, that it is precisely this dualism that renders an attempt to salvage this ‘dead, static, architectural metaphor’ (Lukes 1982: 222) by redefining not only what is meant by “determines” in “the basis determines the superstructure”, inversing the traditionally imposed direction of causality, but also, most importantly, by the notion of “basis”, redefining it in such a way that it no longer is congruent with “the economy”.

To begin with the notion of determination, Raymond Williams points out the ambiguity of the concept at least in the foundational texts

‘There is, on the one hand, from its theological inheritance, the notion of an external cause which totally predicts or prefigures, indeed totally controls a subsequent activity. But there is also, from the experience of social practice, a notion of determination as setting limits, exerting pressures. Now there is clearly a difference between a process of setting limits and exerting pressures, whether by some external force or by the internal laws of a particular development, and that other process in which a subsequent content is essentially prefigured, predicted and controlled by a pre-existing external force. Yet it is fair to say, looking at many applications of Marxist cultural analysis, that it is the second sense, the notion of prefiguration, prediction or control, which has often explicitly or implicitly been used.’ (Williams 1973: 414)

This ambiguity is there from the start as Marx tries to steer between his anti-idealism against whose claim of the world as objectivation of the spirit (to which he responds with the opposite claim: spirit as resulting from the material process of life) and his dialectical/historical materialism which is designed to transcend the crude materialism of Feuerbach, emphasising the transformative role of human agency as it takes place under material conditions, but also as changs those conditions. So he ends up using “to determine” in the sense of “setting limits and exerting pressures” (bedingen) and in the sense of “predicting, prefiguring, controlling” (bestimmen) in close proximity and interchangeably – as here in the famous formula in the 1859 Kritik der politischen Ökonomie.

Die Produktionsweise des materiellen Lebens bedingt den sozialen, politischen und geistigen Lebensprozeß überhaupt. Es ist nicht das Bewußtsein der Menschen, der ihr Sein, sondern umgekehrt ihr gesellschaftliches Sein, das ihr Bewußtsein bestimmt.‘ (Marx 1985: 8f. – emphasis added) ‘ The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

Despite this ambiguity I find myself agreeing with Castoriadis’ (1975) damning critique of Marxian economism – as not even the most subtle Marxists, even the one often considered as saviour of historic materialist acknowledgement of the autonomy of culture: Antonio Gramsci, were able to shake off the notion the basis having the last word. In my reading, Gramsci allows for relative independence of the superstructure (ideology, law, political struggle…) from the basis (which he calls “the structure” – and which he understands very closely along the lines of “forces and relations of production”, “the economy”), but independence only comes in the form of errors, accidents, deceleration and acceleration – the basis sets “tasks” that the historical actors can carry out well, or badly (in this Gramsci veers towards totalitarianism and his rejection of mechanism is as hollow as that in Stalin’s later Marxism and Problems of Linguistics (see Kofler 1970) and could even be said to be responsible for the libertarian/left communist Rossanda’s (1970) misguided endorsement of the Maoist Cultural Revolution). The superstructure can only effectively transform the structure if it does so in line with the tasks set by that very structure that is to be affected by political, cultural, ideological activity – the following is a rather typical statement from the Quaderni del Carcere (Q10 §41 XII)

Per la filosofia della praxis le superstrutture sono una realtà (o lo diventano, quando non sono pure elucubrazioni individuali) oggettiva ed operante; essa afferma esplicitamente che gli uomini prendono conoscenza della loro posizione sociale e quindi dei loro compiti sul terreno delle ideologie, ciò che non è piccola affermazione di realtà; la stessa filosofia della praxis è una superstruttura, è il terreno in cui determinati gruppi sociali prendono coscienza del proprio essere sociale, della propria forza, dei propri compiti, del proprio divenire. ‘For the philosophy of praxis the superstructures are an objective and operative reality (or they become so, when they are not pure products of the individual mind). It explicitly asserts that men become conscious of their social position, and therefore of their tasks, on the terrain of ideologies, which is no small affirmation of reality. The philosophy of praxis itself is a superstructure, it is the terrain on which determinate social groups become conscious of their own social being, their own strength, their own tasks, their own becoming.’ (Gramsci 1988: 196) (emphases added)

So even where the active role of the superstructure, its reality in the Marxian sense of “operative” (Wirklichkeit – reality – as wirkend, as having an effect – see Marx/Engels 1962: 25), it is the structure that sets the tasks. But Gramsci opens a line of enquiry which is more productive in that recalls the only possible or rather: the only plausible use of the structure/superstructure metaphor (in the sense of bedingen rather than bestimmen, but not only in terms of setting conditions, but also facilitating actions) – and he arrives at it by considering some of the metaphors that Marx and Engels use (again in Q10, §41, XII)

Le stesse immagini e metafore cui ricorrono spesso i fondatori della filosofia della praxis danno indizi in proposito: l’affermazione che l’economia è per la società ciò che l’anatomia nelle scienze biologiche; ed è da ricordare la lotta che nelle scienze naturali è avvenuta per scacciare dal terreno scientifico principi di classificazione basati su elementi esteriori e labili. Se gli animali fossero classificati dal colore della pelle, o del pelo o delle piume, tutti oggi protesterebbero. Nel corpo umano non si può certo dire che la pelle (e anche il tipo di bellezza fisica storicamente prevalente) siano mere illusioni e che lo scheletro e l’anatomia siano la sola realtà, tuttavia per molto tempo si è detto qualcosa di simile. Mettendo in valore l’anatomia e la funzione dello scheletro nessuno ha voluto affermare che l’uomo (e tanto meno la donna) possano vivere senza di essa. Continuando nella metafora si può dire che non è lo scheletro (in senso stretto) che fa innamorare di una donna, ma che tuttavia si comprende quanto lo scheletro contribuisca alla grazia dei movimenti ecc. ecc.  ‘The very images and metaphors on which the founders of the philosophy of praxis frequently draw give some clues in this direction: the argument that the economy is to society what anatomy is to biological sciences – one must remember the struggle that went on in the natural sciences to expel from the scientific terrain principles of classification that were based on external and transient elements. If animals were classified according to the colour of their skin, their hair or their plumage, everyone nowadays would protest. In the human body it certainly cannot be said that the skin (and also the historically prevalent type of physical beauty) are mere illusions and that the skeleton are and anatomy are the only reality. However for a long time something similar was said. By highlighting the anatomy and function of the skeleton nobody was trying to claim that man (still less woman) can live without the skin. Going on with the same metaphor one can say that it is not the skeleton (strictly speaking) which makes one fall in love with a woman, but that one nevertheless realizes how much the skeleton contributes to the grace of movements etc.’ (Gramsci 1988: 197)

If we think of the material basis (the immediate production and reproduction of life in ordinary routines – more on that later) as an anatomy of society then, as Gramsci points out, we need to understand this basis in order to understand what further development is possible and what is not – but we cannot derive from that study what direction future development will take. The active, transformative part is all in the (embodied) mind. The superstructure rules – and that is, to anticipate my claim in my next post, why it has been set apart in the first place: to gain consciousness of our natural and social existence and as a consequence enable us to master that existence (and hence, also, is the hegemonic dominance of the superstructure key to social dominance as such).

So, to stay with Gramsci and in Italy for a little bit longer – and to follow the amorous twist he gives to the Marxian anatomy metaphor – according to BBC Magazine the superstructural phenomenon that is Milanese upper middle class culture of seduction has encountered a structural problem and seems, to the delight of Italian feminists, at the brink of collapse

The economic crisis has hit Italian men where it hurts most. With their country still in recession, with unemployment climbing above 12% and with the cost of living soaring, the Latin lover has had to rein in his appetite. The traditional kept mistress, secretly hidden away in her fully paid-up flat, and lavished with furs and jewels has been consigned to history. “Who can afford a double life today?” asked journalist Terry Marocco from the Italian news magazine Panorama. “Think about it – two Christmases, two apartments, two dinners, double holiday – it’s impossible,” she laughed.

Gramsci would, I think, have liked this – and probably he would have speculated about some parallels between the Berlusconi years (and the turn from intellectual and productionist aspiration to a casino-capitalist economy of entertainment) to the Settecento when Italy’s decline was sealed in the final turn to tourism and operatic entertainment – as he writes in Q5 §93:

L’Italia ormai dava all’Europa solo avventurieri e anche avventuriere e non più grandi intellettuali. Né la decadenza dei costumi era solo quella che risulta dal Giorno del Parini e dal cicisbeismo: l’aristocrazia creava scrocconi e ladri internazionali accanto ai Casanova e ai Balsamo borghesi).

Once the financial means are gone, so is the possibility of figures like Casanova and Cagliostro – which does not mean it is the money that explains those figures in the first place. Silvio Berlusconi, whose appeal to women, as David Gilmour (2011: 380) puts it, was that of ‘a seducer and a caresser, an archetypical giver of chocolates and pearl necklaces’ and to men ‘was equally simple: I am like you, and you can be like me if you try; you too can be famous, rich and seductive even if (like me) you are small and not very handsome.’ – the communist leader and intellectual would have booked him into the same category of decadent scrocconi e ladri who live of the magic potential of money:

‚Das was ich bin und vermag, ist also keineswegs duch meine Individualität bestimmt. Ich bin häßlich, aber ich kann mir die schönste Frau kaufen. Also bin ich nicht häßlich, denn die Wirkung der Häßlichkeit, ihre abschreckende Kraft, ist durch Geld vernichtet.‘ (Marx 1971: 298) ‘Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money.’

Of course – Berlusconi himself was hit more indirectly after the contradictions in the basis “expressed themselves” in changes in the “superstructure” – i.e. he was caught up in the legal system… and of course the fact that seductive powers have, at one point, become an economic factor, too, is a cultural phenomenon. Incidentally – Marx’s statement also illustrates not only his concept of reality as efficacy (if ugliness does not have a repellent effect – it is not ugliness), but also the way cultural practices (money exchange) transform and modify, socialise initially purely biological facts (sexual attraction).

But what this example also shows is that, if the “structural determination” is taken to make sense only as bedingen and not as bestimmen – the whole theorem becomes pretty flat and simple. It boils down to the one truth of Marxism that, as Castoriadis (1975: 28) writes, has come to be nearly universally accepted:

‘C’est une chose, de reconnaître l’importance fondamentale de l’enseignement de Marx concernant la relation profonde qui unit la production et le reste de la vie d’une société. Personne, depuis Marx, ne peut plus penser l’histoire en « oubliant » que toute société doit assurer la production des conditions matérielles de sa vie, et que tous les aspects de la vie sociale sont profondément reliés au travail, au mode d’organisation de cette production et à la division sociale qui lui correspond’

But as such, this leaves us with a very diminished utility of the theorem – trivialities very much along the lines of the decline of Casanovism due to a lack of financial resources – hardly worth a specific name. Any gains made from retaining the base/superstructure metaphor are to be expected not on the side of causal explanation, but, I will argue later, from its being a bold statement about a dualism of routine and reflective practices and its institutionalisation. As such, I will claim, it is a useful antidote to the cult of immediacy and totality that is currently dominating much of the social sciences.

to be continued



Castoriadis, Cornelius (1975): L’institution imaginaire de la société, Paris : Éditions du Seuil.

Gilmour, David (2011): The Pursuit of Italy, London: Penguin

Gramsci, Antonio (1988): A Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, London: Lawrence and Wishart (ed. By David Forgacs)

Kofler, Leo (1970): Stalinismus und Bürokratie, Neuwied: Luchterhand

Lukes, Steven (1982): ‘Can the Base be distinguished from the Superstructure?’, in: Analyse & Kritik, Vol.4, pp.211-222

Marx, Karl (1971): ‚Nationalökonomie und Philosophie: Über den Zusammenhang der Nationalökonomie mit Staat, Recht, Moral und bürgerlichem Leben (1844)‘, in: Karl Marx: Die Frühschriften, Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, pp.225-316

Marx, Karl (1985) [1859]: ‘Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie’, in: Karl Marx Friedrich Engels Werke Band 13, Berlin: Dietz, pp.3-160

Marx, Karl/Engels, Friedrich (1962) [1845/6]: ‘Die deutsche Ideologie ‘, in: Marx Engels Werke 3, Berlin: Dietz, pp.9-530

Rossanda, Rossana/Bettelheim, Charles (1970): ‘Il Marxismo di Mao Tse-tung’, in: Il Manifesto, Vol.2, No.7/8, pp.26-38

Williams, Raymond (1973): ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’, in: New Left Review, I/82, Nov/Dec

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