By Alyson Escalante
If you’re beginning to dive into Marxist thought, then you have probably heard people talk about and use the terms”base” and “superstructure.” You might be wondering exactly what these terms mean, and why they matter for understanding and resisting capitalism.
I’m hoping to use this video to explain the basics behind the base and the superstructure model in Marxism, and to help you understand why this model is so important for Marxism.
So when Marxists talk about base and superstructure, what do they mean?
First, its important to understand that Marxism is an approach to looking at the world that tries to get to the root of whats going on around us. For Marxists, its not enough to just describe whats happening in our society and in our lives, we want to dig in and really get to the core of “why” these things are happening. The base and superstructure model helps us do that.
In order to understand society, we divide society into base and superstructure. The base of a society is basically the material and economic relations which societies are founded upon. For Marx, all humans have to eat and reproduce and sustain life, and these needs create social formations that are central to human life. How we feed ourselves, how we produce goods, who does what work in making food and goods, and what forms of activity make thise all possible, are all questions that relate to the economic base.
So in capitalist society, the economic base describes the way that labor is divided, the way private property functions, and the conditions which make capitalist society possible. The base therefore includes the division between workers who sell their labor and capitalists who purchase labor and make a profit off of it. The base also includes the property relations which ensure that capitalists manage to maintain control over productive property like factories. The base also includes the material realities which make this possible such as: the natural resources a society has access too, as well as the factories, tools, and machines used in gaining access to the resources.
If the base represents the material reality which society is built upon, then the superstructure represents the all the other parts of society that emerge as a result of the base. Once humans manage to feed ourselves, clothe, and house ourselves, we tend to move on to cultural development. Art, philosophy, culture, ideas, the law, religion, etc, can only exist once our material needs are met, and it is these social phenomena which make up the superstructure.
So if the base is all the material stuff that makes a society function and the superstructure is all the more cultural or ideological stuff that structures our lives, whats the relationship between the two?
Well the base has to exist for the superstructure to exist. If we aren’t having our most basic needs met, we don’t have the ability to produce the social superstructure at all. Its in this sense that Marxists will often talk about the way that the superstructure produces the base, or has a more primary function in the relationship between the two. Its important to recognize, however, that while the base does lead to the creation of the superstructure, the superstructure reflects the conditions of the base, and helps to reinforce those conditions.
Lets try to look at this a bit more concretely. The capitalist base requires that workers sell their labor, and in doing so requires workers to compete with each other for job openings. Additionally, the capitalist base ensures that only a very few people can achieve major economic and social success, and only at the cost of exploiting others. This causes the superstructure of capitalism to focus on hyperindividualism. In western capitalist societies, we are told to put ourselves first, to worship successful individuals, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and to embrace personal overcoming. All those cultural norms, expectations, and beliefs are part of the capitalist superstructure.
Whats important to recognize is that while those norms reflect and are shaped by the base, they also help protect and solidify the base. If we spend our whole lives being told we are all in this for ourselves and that individualism is good, we are not very likely to begin to band together or understand our interests as a class. This is a good thing for the capitalist base, because it means we will probably not revolt and try to change the material conditions in which we live. This means that the superstructure exists not only to reflect the base but to support it, make it stronger, and to make sure that it is reinforced.
So, now that we have a sense of what the base and superstructure are, we can dive a bit more into why this whole model matters
The first reason that this model matters is because it helps us understand how we can best resist capitalism. If we dislike the stunning inequality, the exploitation, and the cruelty of our capitalist society, then its not enough to change our society’s ideas. Encouraging people to care for others, to be less selfish, and to think more as a collective are all good, but they don’t actually challenge the material base of capitalism. They simply take on the superstructural values of individuality and competition. So, the base superstructure model lets us realize that while re-assesing our values and beliefs is an important process, its not enough. We have to pair it with material action designed to overthrow the base as well. As long as the capitalist base exists, no ideas we come up with can be sufficient to create justice and end exploitation.
The second reason that this model matters is because it lets us understand where ideas come from. Art, film, and culture sometimes get understood as apolitical expressions of individuals, but the base superstructure model lets us realize that all these things are political and that they function to reinforce capitalism. The ideas we hear in music or see on TV are in fact really important to the maintenance of capitalism. There is a reason that the imperialist US military dumps so much money into film and video games: it is because these parts of the superstructure naturalize and make it easier for us to accept the conditions of capitalism as good and inevitable.
So, in conclusion, the base superstructure model is crucial for a Marxist approach to anti-capitalism. For those attempting to understand Marxism, gaining a grasp on this model is an invaluable tool. With it, we can understand the dialectical relationship between economics and culture, and we can begin to strategize methods for getting rid of capitalism.