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

„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...]

In this talk 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. (more…)

the spirit of capitalism and fordist daydreaming

Benjamin Franklin’s advice to a young tradesman has famously been used by Max Weber to exemplify what he called the ‘spirit of capitalism’ which he (Weber) summarises thus

‘Sondern vor allem ist das “summum bonum” dieser “Ethik”: der Erwerb von Geld und immer mehr Geld, unter strengster Vermeidung alles unbefangenen Genießens, so gänzlich aller eudämonistischen oder gar hedonistischen Gesichtspunkte entkleidet, so rein als Selbstzweck dedacht, daß es als etwas gegenüber dem „Glück“ oder dem „Nutzen“ des einzelnen Individuums jedenfalls gänzlich Transzendentes und schlechthin Irrationales erscheint. Der Mensch ist auf das  Erwerben als Zweck seines Lebens, nicht mehr das Erwerben auf den Menschden als Mittel zum Zweck der Befriedigung seiner materiellen Lebensbedürfnisse bezogen.‘ (Weber 1920: 36) ‘In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudæmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of  the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.’ (Weber 1930:53)

Typically, Weber qualifies that this does not ‘claim that everything which could be understood as pertaining to that spirit is contained in’ his Franklin extract thus summarised – but he is quite clear that this here is not only the essence of Franklin’s doctrine, but the capitalist spirit as such: it is the only example of an expression of that spirit he gives. The proposition that this ethos was born out of the Reformation, the suggestion of a causal relation between religion and economic development have been subject to relentless criticism and counter-criticism (in the Anglophone social sciences the debate was kicked off by Robertson’s 1933 Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism which was met with a refutation by Weber’s translator and future world leading sociologist Talcott Parsons). But his statement what constitutes the “spirit of capitalism” went relatively unchallenged. For example the Marxist historian and sinologist Karl August Wittfogel (1924), in what then was more or less the official Communist counter attack against Weber, does state that surely, different stages and different segments of capitalism require different mentalities, but he asserts that the one thing that runs through all of it is perfectly expressed by precisely the passages that Weber quotes. (more…)

base/superstructure 1 1/2: totalitarian tendencies in gramsci ?!?

In my previous post on Basis/Überbau I casually mention Gramsci’s totalitarian tendencies. This needs some further explanation, especially since I will use some aspects of his reconceptionalisation (as struttura/superstrutture) when arguing for the retention of this much maligned metaphor.

Gramsci tries to solve the old problem of dualism of base/superstructure (which he rejects as an instance of Croce misinterpreting Marx and Engels) and the related problem of simultaneity of determination “in the last instance” of the superstructure by the base on the one hand and the reality/efficacy of the superstructure which affects the base on the other. His solution is of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it type: he emphatically makes space for political and intellectual activity and assigns transformative powers to them while not giving up on ultimate determination by the development of the forces, modes and relations of production. I will (in a future post) argue that to make the theorem of base/superstructure productive it is crucial to resist this temptation of forging them into (in Gramsci’s terminology) an “historic bloc”. In this post I will make the case that not resisting this temptation is outright dangerous as it is conducive to totalitarian politics.


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

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)