work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

From Elective Affinities and Selection to Base/Superstructure and Back – an Attempt at Salvaging Concepts

02.22.2015 · Posted in Uncategorized

„Es ist mit den Geschäften wie mit dem Tanze; Personen, die gleichen Schritt halten, müssen sich unentbehrlich werden; ein wechselseitiges Wohlwollen muß notwendig daraus entstehen…“ [It is with business as it is with dance; persons who are in step with each other, will inevitably become indispensible for each other. A mutual benevolence will arise with necessity …]  J.W. von Goethe, Wahlverwandtschaften

 [Presentation at the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association, April 2014 – and I’m still working on the full paper…]

I will venture a suggestion how to link what has come to be called the “Weber theses” and the Marxian base/superstructure theorem.

I will follow Max Weber’s own proposition that where capitalist mentalities can no longer be explained by direct reference to a Protestant theological background, Darwinian selection by market forces in a now fully established capitalist economic system would perpetuate that once religiously inspired mentality.

As he says in the conclusion to his long essay “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.” Why we are forced to do so, Weber leaves to historical materialism to explain; using Darwin as a hinge. But that elegant solution has become a cul-de-sac since the base/superstructure theorem has suffered the fate of either complete dismissal (Steven Lukes called it a “dead, static, architectural metaphor” ready for the scrap heap), or at least significant watering down in academic post-Marxism as in Laclau and Mouffe’s Sorelian turn.

To get round this I will suggest a counter-intuitive but not completely counter-intentional reinterpretation as reproductive/productive routines (base) and reflection/direction (the superstructural). I will also suggest to dissolve the notion of “determination” in their relation into determination-as-conditioning,  in which sense the base determines the superstructure, and determination-as-directing, in which sense the superstructure determines the base.

My motive for this untimely endeavour is, mainly, my interest in the rapid development of neoliberal entrepreneurial capitalism and Islamic consumerism in Turkey. There is a quite undeniable connection to the religious orientations of the new middle classes involved in this boom (neo- and post-Sufi Sunni Islam). And social actors self-refer by the theological misnomer “Islamic Calvinists”. While Weber references abound, the debate suffers from the way Weber’s writings on Islam are seriously flawed; Turkish sociology has been mostly Durkheimian for political reasons; and Western sociologies have been notoriously uninterested in Turkey (for unfathomable reasons).

“Strikingly, a number of people in Kayseri describe their community by reference to Calvinism and the Protestant work ethic. The former metropolitan mayor of Kayseri, Şükrü Karatepe, compared his fellow ‘Kayserili’ (people from Kayseri) with hardworking ‘Protestants’, and informed us that ‘to understand Kayseri, one must read Max Weber […]. Celal Hasnalcacı, owner of a textile company and branch manager of the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (Müsiad), explained: ‘The rise of Anatolian capitalists is due to their Protestant work ethic. No personal waste, no speculation, reinvest your profits.’” European Stability Initiative, Islamic Calvinists: Change and Conservatism in Central Anatolia (Berlin 2005), 24

It would be impossible to even only summarise a century-long debate adequately in anything less than a paper of its own, so to make it (too) short: Weber claimed that Luther, with the notion of calling (Beruf), sanctified everyday production as service to God. Then Calvin’s doctrine of predestination radicalised that validation. As believers cannot influence the preordained divine decision whether they are among the elect or the reprobate, and also cannot know for certain; all they can do is look out for signs (as they have been instructed that God rewards his own in this world already)

‘In its extreme inhumanity this doctrine must above all have had one consequence for the life of a generation which surrendered to its magnificent consistency. That was a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual. In what was for the man of the age of Reformation the most important thing in life, his eternal salvation, he was forced to follow his path alone to meet a destiny which had been decreed for him from eternity. No one could help him. No priest, for the chosen one can understand the world of God only in his own heart. No sacraments, for though the sacraments had been ordained by God for the increase of His glory, and must hence be scrupulously observed, they are not a means to the attainment of grace, but only the subjective externa subsidia of faith. No Church, for though it was held that extra ecclesiam nulla salus in the sense that whoever kept away from the true Church could never belong to God’s chosen band, nevertheless the membership of the external Church included the doomed. They should belong to it and be subjected to its discipline, not in order thus to attain salvation, that is impossible, but because, for the glory of God, they too must be forced to obey His commandments. Finally, even no God. For even Christ had died only for the elect, for whose benefit God had decreed His martyrdom from eternity. This, the complete elimination of salvation through the Church and the sacraments (which Luteranism by no means developed to its final conclusions), was what formed the absolutely decisive difference from Catholicism.’ (Weber 1930 : The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Unwin [translated by Talcott Parsons]  104f.)

Business in the emerging capitalist economies turned out to be an excellent field of probation. I think Weber makes this point, literarily speaking, with great realism of character. Challenges have targeted not so much the plausibility of this account, but the prevalence of this character type and the extent to which it had an effect on capitalist development. A survey of the literature makes me reasonably confident that salvation anxiety indeed was widespread and that anxious businessmen and workers did function as accelerators and catalysts of industrial capitalist development (especially in spreading it from England to Scotland and to the North American colonies). This is less than Weber claims, but enough to maintain the relevance of his approach.

The really interesting question is: how did the “capitalist spirit” engendered by Calvinists’ anxious search for signs spread, how did it survive the softening of doctrine and secularisation? Here we have to read an often overlooked argument of Weber for his approach backwards.

‘Thus the capitalism of to-day, which has come to dominate economic life, educates and selects the economic subjects which it needs through a process of economic survival of the fittest. But here one can easily see the limits of the concept of selection as a means of historical explanation. In order that a manner of life so well adapted to the peculiarities of capitalism could be selected at all, i.e. should come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of life common to whole groups of men. This origin is what really needs explanation. Concerning the doctrine of the more naïve historical materialism, that such ideas originate as a reflection or superstructure of economic situations, we shall speak more in detail below.’

Weber says that he is happy to heed to base/superstructure type explanations as a mechanism in which the capitalist process (like a natural environment in Darwin) selects those mentalities that are most adapted to it. But, he insists, it can only select what is already there. Darwin relies on an autonomous process of natural variation – and Weber on a cultural sociology of mentalities. W. G. Runciman is one of the very few Weber scholar who fully appreciated the centrality of selection in his argument, but his suggestion of applying a meme – gene parallel (that slides into a meme – phenotype parallel) gets in his way. He also pitches selection against elective affinity in a way that diminishes the role of choice/agency in cultural adaptation – i.e. the central difference to natural variation. Weber, of course, emphasise this – and as Mark Warren’s analysis shows, so did Marx. In fact, nowhere is the agreement between Marx and Weber as great as in their appreciation of Darwin and the way they make use of him for social theory. So as Weber hands us over to Marx, let us look at base/superstructure then.

Which is in a mess. Let me just mention one irremediable point: If base is productive forces plus relations of production – how do we differentiate “production” from “non-production” (Raymond Williams had some uncomfortable questions about the piano player in the Grundrisse). So here is my fully counter-intuitive and half-counter-intentional suggestion. What if we start with Marx’s caricature of a society that does not yet have a superstructure

“…man’s consciousness of the necessity of associating with the individuals around him is the beginning of the consciousness that he is living in society at all. This beginning is as animal as social life itself at this stage. It is mere herd-consciousness, and at this point man is only distinguished from sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is a conscious one. […] Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears. (The first form of ideologists, priests, is concurrent.)  From this moment onwards consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of “pure” theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. ”  Marx/Engels German Ideology

And salvage what’s worth salvaging. Obviously this is fictitious and crude – but the thing I’m after is simply: Base here is just consciousness of immediate action, without distance that would afford detached reflection, routinely producing and reproducing material life and social relations. Consciousness here is just a replacement for our lacking of instincts (just as it is intended in the Fordist factory). It is through distance (alienation!) that the social becomes available for reflection, direction and redirection. The “separating out” aspect would also justify the architectural metaphor, as this is also about spatial distance, about retreating into a cave, a temple, an ivory tower, an office or a tekke. The superstructural is always also embodied, spaced, timed.

And while superstructures in the service of bureaucratic regimes lose contact with base and become self-serving, if we think them as instances of reflection/direction, they do indeed, as E.P. Thompson famously said “appear at every bloody level.” Even, as Gramsci observed, in Fordist workers whose minds tend to wander off…

‘The slow speed of the art of writing in the Middle Ages explains many of these weaknesses: there was too much time in which to reflect, and consequently “mechanization” was more difficult. The compositor has to be much quicker; he has to keep his hands and eyes constantly in movement, and this makes his mechanization easier. But if one really thinks about it, the effort that these workers have to make in order to isolate from the often fascinating intellectual content of a text (and the more fascinating it is the less work is done and the less well) its written symbolization, this perhaps is the greatest effort that can be required in any trade. […] However it is done, and it is not the spiritual death of man. Once the process of adaptation has been completed, what really happens is that the brain of the worker, far from being mummified, reaches a state of complete freedom. The only thing that is completely mechanized is the physical gesture; the memory of the trade, reduced to simple gestures repeated at an intense rhythm, “nestles” in the muscular and nervous centres and leaves the brain free and unencumbered for other occupations. One can walk without having to think about all the movements needed in order to move, in perfect synchronization, all the parts of the body, in the specific way that is necessary for walking. The same thing happens and will go on happening in industry with the basic gestures of the trade. One walks automatically, and at the same time thinks about whatever one chooses. American industrialists have understood all too well this dialectic inherent in the new industrial methods. they have understood that “trained gorilla” is just a phrase, that “unfortunately” the worker remains a man and even that during his work he thinks more, or at least has greater opportunities for thinking, once he has overcome the crisis of adaptation without being eliminated: and not only does the worker think, but the fact that he gets no immediate satisfaction from his work and realises that they are trying to reduce him to a trained gorilla, can lead him into a train of thought that is far from conformist.’ (Gramsci, Antonio (1988): A Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, London: Lawrence and Wishart (ed. By David Forgacs): 295)


There is an emancipatory potential in such separation and in detachment – at least according to Marx for whom in communism, unlike in Urkommunismus, we shall be free to be superstructural, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner. Again, the architectural nature of the metaphor is helpful – Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own really does liberate, to be denied it entraps in engulfment. Similar things can be said about the Sufi notion of exile, ghurba – their proto-Simmelian strangerdom and urbanity.

This potential can, in turn, be expropriated and harnessed for the reproduction of systems of domination.

„In dem Maße, in dem die klassische Differenz von Überbau und Basis durch die immanente Ideologisierung der Produktion schwindet, gewinnt eine Kritik des Alltagslebens an Bedeutung.  Kategorien der Subjektivität verhärten sich unmittelbar zu steuernden Prinzipien der Objektivität.“ [To the extent that the classic difference between superstructure and base disappears due to the immanent ideologisation of production, a critique of everyday life becomes more important. Categories of subjectivity immediately coagulate into controlling principles of objectivity] Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Konstitution und Klassenkampf: Zur historischen Dialektik von bürgerlicher Emanzipation und proletarischer Revolution (Frankfurt: Verlag Neue Kritik, 1971), 118.

As radical Critical Theory realised early on – while in Communism you’re a hunter in the morning and a critical critic in the afternoon – in Virno’s communism of capital (post-Fordism) your ability to be a critical critic is harnessed into the corporate machinery, becomes a tool of your self-enslavement (in academia we call it “reflexive practice”).

And on the other hand we can understand the routine reproduction of social relation in various historically different societies, as Maurice Godelier highlighted them, i.e. kinship, politics, religion as far as they are routinely, ritualistically contributing to social reproduction, as base. Godelier himself proposes viewing them not as levels or institutions but as functions – I here suggest to assess them according to their mode (avoiding the notorious problems with defining what is and what is not productive)

The other issue that needs to be resolved before going back to Weber is the question of determination – here Weber seems to subscribe to a much cruder materialism than Marx: he talks a lot of “material interest” (even though he himself pointed out that what constitutes such is culturally highly contingent – for the devout Catholic avoiding hellfire may be a very strong material interest indeed)

As Raymond Williams pointed out, “determine” can mean different things – from predestine to limit/condition – and he berates Marxist cultural studies for adhering to strong determination. Marx is ambiguous. He uses the word for determine in the sense of “to command” (bestimmen) and in the sense of “to condition/influence” (bedingen) interchangeably. I suggest to make use of the semantic difference to get clearer how the superstructure is – as Gramsci emphasises (with some claim on being true to “the founders of the philosophy of praxis”) – operational, efficacious (wirklich as wirkend). In this sense then it would be obvious that the basis – as that what is (repetitive, predictable, causal or instinctive or quasi-instinctive) – as an opportunity and plausibility structure limits what can be decided in much the same way as conscious activity on nature (work) can only create by submitting to the forces of nature and turning them against each other, conscious social change (as commanded by a dominant class or as revolutionary praxis) can only transform by understanding and manipulating what already is (and what routinely reproduces itself)

‘The mode of production of material life conditions (bedingt) the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines (bestimmt) their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’         Marx, Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy

But in doing so, humans consciously determine (bestimmen) what’s going to happen – Weber’s switchmen metaphor is quite apt, only that there are many, many more switchpoints in history than there are in any railway network in the known world.

And if we, as we should, count reflective/directive technical planning as superstructural activity, then, as Castoriadis points out, in historic materialism the historical process is determined… by ideas, since it is ideas that drive the development of the productive forces.

« Ce sont en effet l’idées qui font avancer l’histoire dans la conception dite « matérialiste historique » – seulement au lieu d’être des idées philosophiques, politiques, religieuses, etc., ce sont des idées techniques. Il est vrai que, pour devenir opérantes, ces idées doivent s’ « incarner » dans des instruments et des méthodes de travail. Ais cette incarnation est déterminée par elles ; un instrument nouveau est nouveau en tant qu’il réalise une nouvelle façon de concevoir les relations de l’activité productive avec ses moyens et son objet. Les idées techniques restent donc une espèce de premier moteur, et alors de deux choses l’une : ou bien on s’en tient là, et cette conception « scientifique » apparaît comme faisant reposer toute l’histoire sur un mystère, le mystère de l’évolution autonome et inexplicable d’une catégorie particulière d’idées. Ou bien on replonge la technique dans le tout social, et il ne peut être question de la privilégier a priori ni même a posteriori. La tentative d’Engels de sortir de ce dilemme en expliquant que les superstructures réagissent certes sur les infrastructures, mais que celles-ci restent déterminantes « en dernière analyse », n’a guère de sense. »  Cornelius Castoriadis, L’institution imaginaire de la société (Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1975), 32.

So what do we do with this in conjunction with the Protestant ethic and the capitalist spirit. I propose this: Let’s take Weber’s notion of probation – the Calvinists look for signs (they are determined by their belief in their teachings, and the resulting anxiety). We need to find a match (let’s call it an elective affinity) between determining conditions (Bedingungen) and determining choices (Bestimmungen) that in the first instance make the choice for engaging in the market a likely one and in the “last instance” make it plausible for the market to condition mentalities.

“The exchange value of his goods will show him whether or not they satisfy a social need. If he can sell them at or above his production cost, society was willing to allot a quantum of its labor-time to their production; otherwise he wasted or did not spend socially necessary labor-time. The exchange value of his commodities decides his social fate.” Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution (New York: Humanities Press, 1954), 301

If we look at the capitalist market as set of routines we find it to be, objectively, a field of probation that tests both virtue (you  have to contribute, work) and fortune (there is an element of sheer luck, and if you’re not already rich the odds are stacked against you). But once the market has become the central nexus of recognition after most feudal modes have been devalidated, the structural parallel between religious probation and the moral grammar of capitalist market exchange become a universal field of probation for all.

The Invisible Hand, God’s working through the market as secularised by Adam Smith, may not arrange for the utilitarian maximisation of returns for all involved, but it is a pitch-perfect symbol for the inscrutable ways in which success as sign of election is related to virtuous behaviour (itself a sign), but not causally following from it. The elect may be rewarded; the only outwardly obedient may be shown up in failure; the sincere believer might be tested (like Job) by initially being denied deserved rewards; the undeserving are lulled in false certainty to be destroyed come Judgement Day. This also works if you take God out of the equation in Durkheimian choice between God and Society. When God is gone, Market Society is still there.

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