Democracy Against Capitalism: Base, Superstructure and More Definitions

The goal of Ellen Meiksins Wood in Democracy Against Capitalism is to resuscitate the Marxian method of historical materialism. This seems to be a perennial problem for Marxist thought; it was one of the central issues facing the Frankfurt School as we saw in The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay. See, e.g. pp. 41 et seq. Part of Wood’s method is argue her definition of some of the critical terms used by Marxists especially in Chapters 2-5. Wood compares her view to those she considers less valid, a typical approach in technical works. My interest is whether any of this can help us understand the rise of neoliberalism.

Chapter 2 discusses a common metaphor, base and superstructure. This from Wikipedia gives a good idea of the problem Wood wants to address:

In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base (or substructure) and superstructure. The base comprises the forces and relations of production (e.g. employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations) into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. The base determines society’s other relationships and ideas to comprise its superstructure, including its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state. While the relation of the two parts is not strictly causal, as the superstructure often affects the base, the influence of the base is predominant. In Orthodox Marxism, the base determines the superstructure in a one-way relationship. Marx and Engels warned against such economic determinism.

This definition contains more terms requiring a definition. What are the relations of production? This is from the Marxists International Archive Encyclopedia:

The objective material relations that exist in any society independently of human consciousness, formed between all people in the process of social production, exchange, and distribution of material wealth.

Examples of objective material relations are listed in Wikipedia: “employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations”. The forces of production are the unity of the means of production and labor.

Wood gives a her own list of the relations of production: exploitation, domination and appropriation. Kindle Loc. 1175.

And since we’re doing definitions, here’s a description of the term Capitalist Mode of Production from Wikipedia:

The capitalist mode of production is characterized by private ownership of the means of production, extraction of surplus value by the owning class for the purpose of capital accumulation, wage-based labour and—at least as far as commodities are concerned—being market-based.

The Wikipedia discussion of base and superstructure suggests that the general idea is that the economic base exerts control over the superstructure, and that occasionally changes in the superstructure cause changes in the base. Wood thinks that the two are more closely related. Capital has a lot of control over the superstructure, and can force changes in the base. At the same time, changes in the economic base can force changes in the superstructure.

All of this seems quite obvious. Changes in the machines and processes used in production can require adjustments to laws and rules both to allow the use and to protect workers. It’s also true of other superstructure elements, such as law. In the US, for example, the laws have gradually changed to allow non-compete clauses in contracts between employers and the lowest level of employees. Restaurant chains can require delivery employees, cooks, and window clerks to sign non-compete agreements. That obviously is part of the work conditions between employer and employee, which is identified as part of the base while the change in law is part of the superstructure.

The primary use of this distinction for Wood seems to be that we can use the ideas to isolate parts of society for study and analysis, but that we have to remember always that different parts of a society affect each other.

I draw the following conclusions from this chapter, which I’ve now read three times so you don’t have to.

1. Reading this book is tedious, in part because one or more of the terms I’ve defined and a few other terms we all sort of know (social formation, class struggle, etc.) appear on every Kindle page, which for me is probably 100 words. But in this kind of work, careful definitions matter. When we look back at the past, we see a vast number of specific events. Historical materialism tries to make sense of these events in terms of forces that amount to more than the individual decisions of all our ancestors, logic and laws that can be derived from study. Wood describes historical materialism as follows:

A materialist understanding of the world, then, is an understanding of the social activity and the social relations through which human beings interact with nature in producing the conditions of life; and it is a historical understanding which acknowledges that the products of social activity, the forms of social interaction produced by human beings, themselves become material forces, no less than are natural givens. (Kindle Loc. 491.)

To do this, Marxists use the terms I’ve defined here, although often with other definitions. Each definition has the potential to produce a different interpretation of history. Consequently, these tedious definitions and the tedious prose they help create are necessary.

2. The description of the relation of production as exploitation, domination and appropriation is striking. I wonder if there are any large societies in which these relations do not control production?

3. Domination seems to be the most important, perhaps because of the books I’ve been writing about. Pierre Bourdieu made it a central element of his life’s work. I didn’t get to finish Foucault’s Security Territory and Population (maybe I will someday), but one of the main ideas of that book and other works by Foucault is governmentality, and the systems that have arisen to produce it. Domination is a central focus of oligarchy, because it enables the oligarchs to achieve their common purposes:

1. Protecting and preserving wealth
2. Insuring the unrestricted use of wealth
3. Acquiring more wealth.

I doubt that Marxism is the best way to study domination in a contemporary complex society like the US or France. I don’t see on the google any evidence that Wood engaged with the works of Bourdieu or Foucault. But I am sure that our normal social discourse depends on pretending that we are not dominated.

4. The three relations have deep roots in our individual psyches. It’s easy to see that domination/submission drives behavior in the animal kingdom as pictured in the term Alpha Male. Exploitation and appropriation are frequently found with domination. Perhaps recognition of those fundamental psychological issues drove the scholars of the Frankfurt School to attempt to incorporate Freudian psychology into their revamped Marxism.

5. Ideology is one part of the superstructure, I plan to take that up using this article by Wood.

22 replies
  1. alasalas says:

    New regular reader (I expect you’ve gained many recently) and off topic. Can you provide a Posts by Date archive link? I can’t find one.

    Outstanding work. Thank you.

  2. Charlie says:

    Have found David Harvey (you may well know of him) interesting. He lectures on the significance of Marx’s Capital for understanding contemporary capitalism at CUNY. He wrote ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ (2005). He says that this system benefits the few at the expense of the many. In a discussion on UTube he says “Socialism produces for use values, capitalism produces for exchange values.”

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      We’ve discussed David Harvey in several posts.  His Introduction to Marx’s Capital is excellent, but not a light read.  His series of lectures on it are more accessible and available free online.

      Several good short reads on the origins of neoliberalism have appeared in the last several years.  One is The World: A Beginner’s Guide, by Goran Therborn, former head of sociology at the University of Cambridge.  (His, Ideology of Power and Power of Ideology (1999) – shades of Dr. Hasseldorf’s, “Hostage Terrorist, Terrorist Hostage: A Study in Duality” – would be a good read for Ed’s next post.)

      For a longer read, there is Philip Mirowski’s, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste, and Naomi Klein’s, Disaster Capitalism.

    • Sabrina says:

      This is a timely comment for me. I’ve recently been interested in economics, as such, I only discovered Harvey a few weeks ago on a YouTube video (posted by RT America, of all networks, so I assumed it would be a propaganda piece- imagine my surprise when I saw how well-spoken and insightful he seemed!). Though the video was clearly anti-capitalist in tone, the information itself seemed accurate. SInce I’m such an economics novice, I’ve been unsure of his economic credibility as I don’t know enough to judge his expertise on my own.
      I’ll link to it below in case anyone is interested- the title is “The Future of Global Capitalism with David Harvey”.

      (EOH- looks like I’ll need to read the posts on here re: Harvey as well as try to read Introduction to Marx’s Capital and some of the other books you mentioned. Though they are certain to currently go over my head, the entire field for me is fascinatingly concerned with the *behavior* of finance. Not only the movement, acquisition and forms of capital as an isolated system, but with a critical behavioral component which determines *how* capital is moved, the forms it takes, and the probability of one type of market reaction versus another. The more I learn, the less I feel that unregulated capitalism is a good strategy- especially for a “mature” developed economy like the US, Canada or the EU, where automation has made service jobs the primary form of employment, and the future is looking increasingly at quality of life metrics, instituting some form of UBI, etc. This site has definitely given me a lot of perspective on this, both in posts and in comments. Yours along with many of the regular posters’ comments have been very insightful, and much appreciated).

      • Ed Walker says:

        Harvey is good, I’ve read A Brief History of Neoliberalism. But if you’re getting started reading economics, I suggest Randy Wray’s Modern Monetary Theory which will serve as a good counterpoint to the ideas offered by standard economics texts.

        As you might guess, I don’t care much for standard economics, and I particularly don’t like intro economics. I did a series on Mankiw’s 10 principles which you can find in my archive, based to some extent on Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Maybe take a look at this:

        • Sabrina says:

          Thanks for this! I’ve just skimmed the post; there’s a lot for me to unpack here given the points you raise and the extra links. I like your take on the issue- the willingness to look beyond the most often-used arguments (your point about textbooks having a thick veneer of authority), your tie-in to sociology, a wider macro-perspective, and (especially interesting from my perspective) your relation of economic support systems to those which dominate scientific ones; to wit, funding and by extension, politics.
          I suspect, though this is just a thought that I cannot support yet with evidence, that economic theories cannot be blanket-applied to all systems; they work differently as markets change and evolve. Therefore, there may be situations in which some elements of capitalism are better suited for economic growth compared to more socialist ones; comparatively, a system which works with one economic model may require a paradigm shift as the population increases and becomes more prosperous.
          Being Canadian though, I do believe in social safety nets increasing the health and well-being of the populace, leading to a more productive society who is happier and more willing to spend money (I’m sorry if I butcher any of these concepts as I’m still learning). Oh, and EOH has written a comment regarding generational paradigm shifts as a result of new info emerging over time which I thought was an interesting point.

          In any case, I will be doing a lot of reading over the next few days! Much appreciated!

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Ed’s given some good suggestions for what to read on economics.

        The works on neoliberalism are not really about economics.  That’s because neoliberalism is the use of economics to disguise desired political ends.  It attempts to excuse those ends as inevitable, as the outcomes of natural law, not choice.

        That mythology handily avoids the problem of having to explain and defend those ends as policy choices, which gets into issues such as who benefits, at what cost, and to whose detriment. 

        More importantly, neoliberalism attempts to foreclose other choices – defining them by default rather than through explanation, as inherently harmful – and the processes by which they could be made and put into effect.

        • Sabrina says:

          Very true. If market “freedom” is presented as the best choice, then the resulting upward movement of capital doesn’t need to be explained. The interesting part especially is how this type of market has been described- words like “freedom”, free-trade agreements (which I think, under a different system, can actually be used to level the playing field using the industrial strengths of each country), and the idea that collaboration across markets is generally a good thing. Without looking deeper into it, it DOES sound like a great idea, and I’m going to assume that designing the narrative in that way was not by accident. Because who wants to be the person arguing *against* collaboration? It’s harder to form a counter-argument when the original idea has been set up to easily attack detractors as enemies of freedom or collaboration across countries. The distinction IS important, and thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Rapier says:

    Liberalism of the institutional kind, the Democratic Party for instance, embraced the neo liberal idea that politics was a market and in the obverse, that markets delivered the most democratic solutions. That is, that markets are liberal. Everything is now understood, in part, in terms of the “market”, The political market and even the market of ideas.

    This is Clintonism, the third way. The idea is insidious. The ‘markets’ are corrupt or otherwise they are designed to deliver profits to those who designed the markets. ACA was a neoliberal exercise in that it designed a market to deliver cash flow and profits to corporations and those associated with them.

    So in America everything becomes not so much a market as a racket.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      It is insidious.  It inserts a fictional market as the dominant frame for understanding and ordering all of human society.

      It’s really a way to limit behavior and to restrict choice to the confines desired by neoliberalism’s chief proponents.

    • orionATL says:

      what ideological nonsense; what intellectual pap; what blatant ignorance and mysogeny in slamming clinton.

      where is the political party with the most political power in the last 40 years in your writing here and your thinking.- hint the name begins with an “r”.

      try explaining what has happened in this country economically by observing who and what controls what has happened politically in the u. s. since at least 1980. there has been a concerted corporate effort to control regulation and taxes. that effort has been backed up with hundreds of millions of easy funding from the hyper-rich and corporations and backed up with carefully organized and munificently funded efforts to control election outcomes (koch bros.).

      add exceptionally well-funded thinktanks and orgs like “americans for prosperity”, the united chamber of commerce, the business roundtable, the federalist society, not to mention that “r” organization you neglected to mention.

      and then add a relentless and unchallenged propaganda arm beginning with murdoch’s faux news and adding breitbart and others whose sole purpose is to con highly loyal r voters, racists (used expansively), and/or ignorant fools into voting for the r party for years at state and national levels, and you will have the beginnings of a truely competent understanding of what causes poverty and has let to a highly destructive general economic decline for many americans in this country for years.

  4. Rusharuse says:

    The patriot Carter Page looks dodgier than the dossier, Jimmy “the hit man” Jordan and his boys better head back to the sauna for another strategy meeting.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Really makes you wonder how Page got that PhD dissertation accepted, on the third try, with a new, undisclosed committee, and why it is unavailable for viewing.

        He’s had inexplicable juice and income.  Being handled by the Russians would be one explanation.  That Trump is angry at the FBI and not the Russians or Page about Page’s surveillance, also says a lot.

  5. Charlie says:

    O/T  As a relative newcomer to empty wheel who, you’ll have noticed, has submitted a couple of posts, “please allow me to introduce myself” (yes, The Rolling Stones) but not “a man of wealth and fame”, unlike the main topic of conversation, but a 10 years retired Brit with a disability (M.E. see Jen Brea film documentary ‘Unrest’) which leaves me frequently housebound with time on my hands so have been following the Trumpian shenanigans for some time and one day came across EW who has been amazingly enlightening. So, I thank you and I hope to make useful contributions.

    • Rayne says:

      Welcome belatedly to emptywheel. I look forward to any comment you might share with regard to Brexit, the parallels with the Trump election, and the changes which happened in UK since the likes of Tony Benn roared and roamed Parliament.

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