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…)


base/superstructure – miscellaneous snippet…

One of the most effective critiques of base/superstructure determinism is that by Cornelius Castoriadis in his “provisional” reckoning with Marxism. One of his more striking points is that if the determining base is itself driven by the progress of the productive forces – i.e. technology, both material and organisational – then it relies on an intellectual process that would be typically “superstructural”: invention. While the routine reproduction of life is indeed the base for everything else, progress – resulting in “contradictions” between new forces and ways of production and old relations of production – is initiated by ideas. Ideas that emerge in reflection on material practices alright – but typically not occurring while carrying out routines but in the mode of stepping-back, distancing and reflecting.

‘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.’ (Castoriadis 1975 : 32)

Ironically, the dramatist Bertolt Brecht who was very proud of his mastery of dialectical materialism and whose bon mots are often used to illustrate the base/superstructure theorem, gives a nice illustration of what ex-Marxist (but revolutionary socialist nonetheless) philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis means. This here is from Leben des Galilei– Galileo accounts for how an observation of technological progress signalled the arrival of a new era and a new mindset, i.e. how the base (here, ironically: the building industry) determines/conditions the superstructure (philosophy, science, politics…)

‚In Siena, als junger Mensch, sah ich, wie ein paar Bauleute eine tausendjährige Gepflogenheit, Granitblöcke zu bewegen, durch eine neue und zweckmäßigere Anordnung der Seile ersetzten, nach einem Disput von fünf Minuten. Da und dann wußte ich: die alte Zeit ist herum und es ist eine neue Zeit.‘ (Brecht 1963: 9)

The crucial element here is that the builders change their ways after a short discussion – and then go on to do things differently (so the change does not flow from the productive process itself – it is inconceivable how it would have, otherwise, persisted for thousand years without its irrationality provoking rationalisation…)

Brecht, Bertolt (1963) [1938/9]: Leben des Galilei, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

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