In early and mid-twentieth century debate, the problem [of the relationship between the economic ‘base’ and the ‘ideological superstructure’] was understood to be that this model was crude and reductive: superstructural phenomena, such as art, were supposed to be read off as a ‘reflection’ of economic circumstances. In the face of this some Marxists (…notably Gramsci) produced versions of the theory of ideology which loosened in certain ways the ties between base and superstructure. Thus for Gramsci ideology was a matter of ‘hegemony’ – the way in which a particular group and its ideas might come to be dominant in a complex and shifting field of class conflict – rather than being merely a simple reflection of the economic base. While this had the advantage of making the Marxist theory less crude, the disadvantage (or so it may seem) is that the theory becomes much less precise. Indeed, if there is a kind of autonomous struggle taking place in the ideological realm then it is no longer very clear what the Marxists’ insistence on the primacy of economics amounts to – perhaps not very much more than a commitment to a certain political position and set of social values.
While some artists may be conservative, others… are… consciously revolutionary, while still others, it seems, have no obvious political position one way or the other. Can the Marxist theory accommodate all three possibilities? And, if the answer is yes, does not an even more profound problem present itself: if Marxism can find a place for every phenomenon, does that not make it unfalsifiable and (as Sir Karl Popper famously alleged) something that has more of the character of religion than of science?
— Hatt, M. and Klonk, C., 2006, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, Manchester University Press (emphasis added)
While reading this chapter of Hatt and Klonk for MA Art History, I took particular exception to this piece of argumentation.
As Marxist Anthropologist Maurice Godelier has pointed out, ‘superstructure’ is a spectacularly bad translation of the term ‘Uberbau’ (Godelier, M. 2012 The Mental and the Material, Verso, p.6). This is all the more apparent when considered in the context of the metaphorical usage Marx put it to. The relationship between Grundlage and Uberbau (often translated as ‘base’ or ‘infrastructure’ and ‘superstructure’) in the German language is that between the foundation of a building, below ground, and the building itself. There are no ‘super’ structures here, only the necessarily sunken foundation and the perfectly normal, quotidian, structure it supports. Furthermore, it is in the Uberbau, as a ground floor everyday building that we live our lives, not ‘in the basement’ (ibid.). To point this out is to attempt to demolish those deep-seated prejudicial twins of misreading which would either render ‘superstructures’ as some kind of airy-fairy imaginary order which floats above society miraculously ordering it (which would constitute a return to idealism), or to an entirely servile, if material, ‘cultural appendage’ to society wholly determined by economic forces; rather the Uberbau is the ‘built environment’ of society itself, constituted and reproduced by the material practices of everyday life. This level of material practice is, in the sense elaborated by Althusser, ideological, meaning not ‘informed or constrained by erroneous thinking’, but comprising of varying institutional structures or practical regularities, which furthermore are generated, disseminated, ideologically reproduced and to some degree policed by what Althusser calls ‘apparatuses’. Foucault will also refer to apparatuses (dispositifs) when he maintains, like Althusser, that a certain subjectivity is produced by a particular kind of apparatus. The point to stress here, in both Foucault and Althusser, is the relative autonomy, even the historical contingency, of institutional structures. Far from being entirely determined by an economic base, the everyday Uberbau is a place of contestation, the site of ideological struggle and social antagonism, not merely its reflection or expression.
Marx was not the economic determinist some might portray him as, nor are most Marxists. The direction of causality is certainly not fixed by the metaphor of a building supported by its foundation; Marx is no more saying that economics ’causes’ the culture of society, any more than a foundation ’causes’ the shape of a house. Nor is he restricted to the argument that the metaphor might itself suggest as its meaningful limit, in which the form of a foundation conditions the kind of building it can support in a unilateral manner. Indeed Marx himself has furnished us with examples of how political acts occurring at the level of the Uberbau may impact and affect the development of productive forces at the level of the Grundlage (economic base) [Singer, P., 1980, p.56]. Were Marx a thoroughgoing economic determinist, this would not be possible within the confines of his work.
It is true that Marx does at times adhere to a teleological model of history in which a sense of purposiveness remains and sometimes speaks of the Uberbau as expressing ‘the unconscious’ of history. However, to subsume all moments of Marx within a kind of over-arching economic eliminativism (in which nothing happens but for ultimately economic reasons) is a misunderstanding. It could even be said to be an anachronism borne of current neoliberalism’s own disavowals. Indeed, it is only within the last few years that a minister of education could write in a white paper that the purpose of higher education is ultimately to ‘generate value’ and is to be set in view most aptly in terms of such an investment. It is interesting that the more a purportedly ‘Marxist’ economic determinism is fervently rejected on a cultural level, the more it is embraced – in inverted, reactionary forms such as ‘austerity’– as actual policy at the level of governance; in this way a generalised criticism of a deterministic Marx seems to mask the very deployment of a reactionary economic determinism. Do government departments such as the ‘nudge unit’, which attempts to remould subjectivities and society in general by attempting to push people’s economic behaviour in certain directions, not bespeak a deterministic outlook, do they not presuppose a certain commitment to the direction in which an economy ought to be going? Is it not teleological, if not outright anthropomorphic, today, to allow financial markets to ‘decide’ best policy (right up until the point when bankrupting all major financial institutions in the western hemisphere is no longer justifiable as ‘best’ practice, and politicians must decide that things simply ought to be going differently)? Would this moralised economic teleology be any more acceptable, any less ‘religious’, than orthodox Marxism, on Hatt and Klonk’s account?
It is inaccurate to reduce orthodox Marxism to economic reductionism in the way that Hatt and Klonk seem to want to; their argument that, were ideology autonomous and therefore economic determinism inarguably disproved, would not in the least entail a refutation of Marxism. Rather it only entails the refutation of a supposed Marxism that was contained entirely within economic determinism, which is something that would remain to be shown.
Understood in this way, it is possible to argue that Hatt and Klonk’s understanding of the base/superstructure model of earlier Marxist art historians may either comprise of genuine criticism aimed at a vulgar, although perhaps widespread, mistranslation of Marx which those art historians adhered to, or consist of a ‘straw man’ argument in which a crude understanding of traditional Marxism has been retro-fitted onto those art historians by Hatt and Klonk. Either way, the base/superstructure model of a society determined by an economic base, which seems to dog Marxism more from non-Marxist critics who do not read Marx in the original and receive their understanding third-hand, than from Marxists who translate the original for themselves, must be at all cost jettisoned. That Hatt and Klonk read this as actually jettisoning Marxism itself only compounds errors made along the way.