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 – 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

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)