Marx and the Arrows of Determination

How do the different parts of the substructure and superstructure determine each other according to Marx?

Marx is usually understood as arguing that the substructure (the material world) determines the superstructure. But that’s only part of his argument. The creation and propagation of ideology is an important activity of the ruling class. The members of this class usually do not work but appropriate the fruits of the labor of other classes, and hence they have the necessary leisure time to engage in intellectual “work” and to construct and promote ideologies that they can use to serve their interests, consciously or unconsciously. Those with material power also have intellectual power. They can influence what others think, and they will be most successful if they themselves believe the ideologies that they want to force on others.

This clearly shows that the substructure does not only determine the legal and political parts of the superstructure, but thinking as well. The prevailing ideas are the ideas of the prevailing class.

[T]he class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. K. Marx, The German Ideology

But there is a kind of feedback action at work here. The substructure determines ideas, but these ideas in turn help to maintain a particular economic substructure. Not everything goes up from the material to the intellectual. Something comes down as well, but only after it went up first.

This can be expressed in the left half of the following drawing:

2

In this drawing, an arrow means “determination”. All ideas, not only political and legal ones, are both the expression (arrow 2) and the safeguard (arrow 3) of the economic structure of society. (The bottom-left half, arrow 1, represents the previously mentioned relationship between means of production and relations of production).

But there is also a right half in this drawing: the fact that ideas, in a kind of feedback mode, help to determine a particular economic structure, does not always have to be negative or aimed at the status quo. The poor, when they shed their false consciousness imposed by ideology, become conscious of their real situation, and this consciousness will help to start the revolution which will modify class relations and hence the substructure. This is represented by arrow 6.

Ideally, arrow 6 would have to pass through the box containing “politics” since the revolutionary proletariat will take over the state when attempting to modify the relations of production.

However, this awakening is bound to certain material preconditions, in particular the presence of certain very specific forces of production, namely large-scale industrial production with mass labor (arrow 4) and the strain imposed by existing class relations (arrow 5). It cannot, therefore, take place in every setting. Ultimately, all consciousness, real and false, is determined by the substructure. The order of determinations is fixed and follows the numerical order in the drawing.

More about Marx here.

Human Rights Promotion (16): Is the Human Rights Movement a Total Failure?

Let’s start with another, related question: are human rights an ideology? There is indeed an ideology of human rights, at least as long as we use a value-free meaning of the word “ideology”. (Some argue that human rights are an ideology in the value-laden sense of the word, but that’s not what I want to talk about now). Human rights are an ideology because they form a widely shared system of ideas, and these ideas form a comprehensive vision of the world (see here for a definition of the word “ideology”).

Now, some have argued that the ideology of human rights, when compared to some other ideologies, has been a complete failure. Christianity, nationalism and Marxism for instance (one can perhaps add other ideologies such as Islam) have done much better over the course of history (although the role of Marxism is now finished, it seems). Over the course of decades and even centuries, those ideologies have been exported and implemented throughout the world. They have created mass movements, mass mobilization, political institutions, churches, political parties and rituals. They have inspired art, feverish devotion and legal codes. Moreover, they have proven to be able to adapt to local circumstances.

Human rights have achieved nothing of the kind. True, there are some international human rights courts and certain human rights have made their way into treaties and national constitutions, but those courts, treaties and constitutions are terribly ineffective in most parts of the world. No political party anywhere has human rights as its central goal. There are the occasional mass protests when some rights of some people are violated, but there’s always a distinctively ad hoc feeling about those protests and mobilization of this kind pales when compared to the movements inspired by Christianity, nationalism and (until a few decades ago) Marxism.

It’s true that Christianity, Marxism and nationalism were “successful” in one sense of the word. They were popular ideas, popular enough to have real life effects, but one can argue that they were not successful tools for human betterment, at least not overall. The contrary may be the case (see here for examples). And, in the end, human betterment is the only success that counts.

Furthermore, the success of ideologies such as Christianity, nationalism or Marxism was based on the fact that they were adopted by rulers. They became in some sense or other “official” ideologies and could therefore be imposed. Again, that’s not really the kind of “success” that counts. Human rights, although they also can, theoretically, be adopted by rulers, have seldom been an official ideology, and this fact may be indicative of their failure. However, the success of human rights should not be judged by the degree of their official adoption. After all, rulers don’t have an incentive to adopt human rights. They have an incentive to destroy them. The success of human rights should be judged on the basis of real improvements in the lives of real individuals. And in this sense of success, human rights have been anything but a failure, especially when compared to other supposedly more successful ideologies. This doesn’t mean that the success of human rights has been profound or conclusive. We’re not there yet.

More about progress in the field of human rights is here, here and here.

Human Rights Promotion (2): Who Does Most Harm to Human Rights? The Left or the Right?

I can simplify this question a bit and focus on those rights violations that are caused by government action. Moreover, I’ll focus on governments in developed countries and say that those are generally democracies dominated either by left-wing or right-wing political movements, alternating. Now, if I want to judge whether it’s the left or the right that is most harmful to human rights, I need to define left and right. And that’s tricky. But let’s simplify some more and say that

  • the right is generally conservative, concerned about respect for religion and religious rules/morality, in favor of capitalism and free markets, against taxation and government intervention in markets, not very interested in equality or equal rights in some areas (as a consequence of religious morality for instance), suspicious of immigration, in favor of a strong national defense, and focused on law and order;
  • the left is worried about capitalism and free markets, in favor of government regulation and intervention in markets, suspicious of free trade, willing to tax and redistribute, and politically correct.

I know, highly simplistic, but I’ll try to make it useful. So bear with me. If we focus on present-day developed nations, which of these two political ideologies is most likely to lead to government policies and legislation that cause human rights violations?

If you look at national defense, you could claim that right-wing governments are most harmful. Although the left is often very supportive of the war on terror, especially in the US (but less elsewhere), it’s the right that is most enthusiastic and most eager to adopt extreme measures. In the name of this war, the US tortured, invaded, murdered civilians, eavesdropped, rendered, and arbitrarily arrested. After every new terror-scare, right-wing spokespeople are quick to demand more rights sacrifices (Miranda rights should be suspended, citizenship revoked etc.). On the other hand, it was a left-wing government in Britain that eagerly supported this war, and Obama seems to be continuing the work of Bush.

If we look at markets, the left is clearly more skeptical about it’s benefits. However, economists – also left leaning economists – generally agree that free trade is good and that many interventions in markets, such as trade restrictions, quotas, subsidies etc. aggravate poverty. And poverty is a human rights violation. Of course, right-wing governments also impose or maintain such restrictions, but arguably left-wing governments are more prone to such vices since they often depend on support of labor unions and other protectionist forces.

On the other hand, the trust in markets expressed by the right can result in a kind of blindness: the right often doesn’t notice market failures and the harm that a slap of the invisible hand can do. As a result, the poor are blamed for their poverty, which is why government assistance in the struggle against poverty is deemed unnecessary, unhelpful and even damaging. The right’s focus on private philanthropy is good but it’s naive to think that philanthropy alone will solve the problem of poverty.

Taxation is a difficult one. Very high levels of taxation are obviously economically inefficient and may lower living standards rather than equalize them. On the other hand, very low rates make it impossible to fund the welfare state, with the same result. Both right wing and left wing fiscal policy can be harmful from a human rights point of view. And there’s a problem of actions vs words here: it’s not obvious that right-wing governments impose low tax rates and left-wing governments high tax rates, despite the respective rhetoric.

If we accept that the right is more enamored of religion, then it’s clear where we should lay the blame for a host of rights violations, such as attempts to undo the separation of state and church, discrimination based on religion or sexual orientation and invasions of privacy. Take the example of 0gay marriage. A focus on religion can also lead to a lack of respect for the sexual privacy of consenting adults, not just homosexuals, but also adulterers, people consuming obscene or pornographic material, or engaging in sodomy. Laws against homosexuality, adultery, sodomy and obscenity usually come from the right. Moreover, the right can show a lack of respect for religious minorities, a result of the incompatibility of different religious claims (“there is only one God”). Opposition to Muslim headscarves for instance is often more prevalent among the right (although there’s also anti-Muslim sentiment in some parts of the feminist or atheist left).

Moving on to another topic. The right’s focus on law and order has led to high incarceration rates, especially in the U.S. These rates have also been inflated by a misguided war on drugs, apparently inspired by a puritan religious morality. Capital punishment is also more popular on the right.

Regarding the left, we can mention some of the harmful consequences of political correctness. PC can lead to exaggerated limits on free speech. Hate speech, for example, is in certain cases a justifiable reason for speech limits, but it seems like some of the limits go too far. An innocent use of a particular word can get you fired, for instance.

Of course, I did simplify. The left-right dichotomy as I have defined it here doesn’t accurately reflect all nuances of political ideology. Some on the left are more pro-free-market than some on the right. Moreover, the dichotomy doesn’t capture all ideologies (libertarianism in a sense is neither left nor right). Also, many governments are left-right coalitions. And, finally, many human rights violations are not caused by governments but by fellow citizens. And when they are caused by governments, they may not be caused by those parts of government that are made up of elected politicians of the left or the right. Bureaucracies or judges can also violate rights. Some violations are not based on left or right leaning ideologies, but on other things such as an extreme desire to regulate etc.

Still, I think that the overview given above is useful. It’s not useful in the sense that it allows us to quantify or compute the respective levels of (dis)respect and to conclude that either the right or the left is better for human rights. It doesn’t. In that sense the question in the title of this post is meaningless. However, the overview above highlights the fact that everyone can violate human rights and that human rights activists should be careful when affiliating themselves with a particular ideology. Neutrality, objectivity, fairness and a lack of double standards are crucial in the struggle for human rights.

Marx, Substructure, Superstructure and Human Rights

The substructure, according to communism, is the mode of production or the nature of productive activity. Productive activity means the production, in interaction with nature, of goods necessary to survive. This production requires, on the one hand, means of production (materials, machines, land, tools, labor etc.) and, on the other hand, relations in which production takes place (relations of co-operation or ways of organization such as relations between masters and slaves, employers and employees, landowners and farmers etc.). The combination of means (or forces) of production and relations of production is the mode of production.

The available means of production determine the relations of production. A certain degree of development in the former necessarily produces a certain degree of development in the latter. This idea is the basis of the historical evolution of society that is so important in communism.

In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production, take place. These social relations into which the producers enter with one another, the conditions under which they exchange their activities and participate in the whole act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production. With the invention of a new instrument of warfare, firearms, the whole internal organization of the army necessarily changed: the relationships within which individuals can constitute an army and act as an army were transformed … Thus the social relations within which individuals produce, the social relations of production, change, are transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, the productive forces. K. Marx, Wage Labor and Capital

These social relations are therefore independent of the will of the participants. They depend on technology, the availability of land etc. Each major change in the relations of production and the organization of production, caused by changes in the means of production, leads to a major change in the type of society we live in.

The combination of means of production or productive forces on the one hand, and relations of production on the other, is the substructure and determines the superstructure or the collection of different forms of consciousness, such as law, morality, religion, philosophy, politics etc.

The substructure is “the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”. “Economic production and the structure of society of every historical epoch necessarily arising therefrom constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of that epoch”.

Politics and law are parts of the superstructure which are determined by the substructure. They are formed by the interests of those who have economic power and they serve to defend these interests. “Political power … is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another”. “Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise from economic ones?” The quintessential example is the right to private property. Owners can use this right to defend their interests against the poor. They can appeal to the judiciary and the police force to defend their property and hence to maintain existing class relations and modes of production.

The right to private property makes it impossible for large groups of people to have their own means of production and hence to be economically independent and self-sufficient. In other words, it makes it impossible for people to be free.

However, the law is not only something that can be used to justify the use of force for the maintenance of the status quo. The use of force by the state for the defense of the right to property is not necessary when the poor can be convinced that this right is in their interest, that it is a human right rather than a right of the wealthy. The economic relationships and structures are maintained with political and legal force but also with legal ideology.

All ideologies are similar. Christianity can convince people to accept their situation by promising salvation in a future life, and the ideology of human rights does the same by convincing people, all people, that they have the same rights and that they are therefore equal. When this universality and equality of rights is accentuated, people do not see that others who have the same equal rights profit more from these rights. Human rights give the impression of guaranteeing freedom and equality but in reality give those who are better off tools to improve their situation even more, and at the expense of the poor. Instead of real equality there is only legal and formal equality, and the latter takes us further away from the former because the rich can use their equal rights to promote their interests. Rights give us the freedom to oppress rather than freedom from oppression.

Human rights, according to communism, are “an illusory sense of community serving as a screen for the real struggles waged by classes against each other”, an ideological veil on reality, a set of false ideas that has to cover up class rule and make it acceptable. The continuation of inequality by political and legal means is based on the combination of coercion and false consciousness. Christians are equal in heaven and thereby maintain inequality on earth, and believers in human rights are equal in the heaven of their political ideals and thereby forget the inequality that these ideals help to maintain. Again we see how the ruling class uses ideology rather than mere force to maintain its rule. It tries to instill certain beliefs in its victims and to use these beliefs as a drug, an opium to pacify them.

Like the protest inherent in the Christian ideology of a future paradise must be maintained but stripped of its ideological content, so the ideal of equality inherent in human rights must be maintained but in such a way that it becomes real equality in a real and worldly paradise, and not some kind of formal equality of rights that only aggravates real inequality and postpones paradise to the afterlife. The poor must become conscious of the fact that their formal equality only covers up their real inequality. This consciousness will be an important step in their liberation. However, as we will see later, this consciousness is conditioned by and can only come about at a certain time in the evolution of exploitation. It cannot result from education or political agitation alone.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (15): Is Human Rights Talk Mere Signaling?

There’s certainly a lot of signaling going on in human rights talk. People who engage in human rights talk don’t necessarily have as a first priority the goal of improving respect for human rights, but rather want to convey some meaningful information about themselves and use human rights talk to do that.

For example, it’s possible that some of the people who are very expressive about perceived discrimination of a particular minority group may be primarily motivated by a possible leadership position within that minority group. Their human rights talk signals leadership aspirations. Some allegations by torture victims may not be intended to stop a torture regime, but to signal extremist credentials to like-minded people. Also regarding torture, I’ve written not so long ago about a study suggesting that some governments sign torture conventions, not to rid the world of torture, but to signal ruthlessness: they sign the convention and just continue their torture methods, thereby telling their victims and their population in general that they are so powerful that they can voluntarily submit to laws and then deliberately and openly break them in the face of impotent international opprobrium.

Another example is the ritualistic condemnation of China’s human rights record. Western leaders, when visiting China or playing host to Chinese leaders, are expected to repeat some standard phrases about human rights in China. That’s what their national constituencies expect from them, and they grudgingly comply. It has become part of protocol, like kissing the Pope’s ring. It’s utterly meaningless because real action to pressure China is completely lacking. China knows this, but goes along and issues its equally ritualistic counter-claims of national sovereignty blah blah. The West signals that it cares about human rights; the Chinese leaders that they don’t.

Something similar is happening with universal jurisdiction. Countries engaging in universal jurisdiction often start court cases against foreign dictators, without the slightest hope of actually punishing and imprisoning those dictators, but at least they signal that the “world community” doesn’t silently accept atrocity. And perhaps they also signal their own country’s moral superiority. A lot of human rights talk seems to be about moral superiority.

Karl Marx already identified signaling as a important function of human rights, although he pushed his point a bit too far. Human rights, according to him, are an ideology. An ideology pretends to be a description of the world but in reality it masks certain key aspects of it in order to maintain the economic status quo. It is an instrument in the continuation of the existing social order. Those who may threaten the status quo in a revolutionary way can be convinced by the ideology of human rights to work within the system and struggle for equal rights. However, these equal rights, according to Marx, can only deliver formal equality, not real equality. Only a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism can achieve the latter. Human rights signal equality but in reality serve to maintain class rule.

Those who benefit from the existing order and who are therefore part of the ruling class, will tend to produce and propagate ideologies. Religion is another example of an ideology, and one that works in much the same way as the ideology of human rights. Desires that can harm the existing order and the status quo – such as desires for equality – must be neutralized. The idea of the Christian paradise expresses certain desires for a better world but makes it impossible to realize them and to threaten the existing order. By convincing people that these desires can only be realized in the afterlife, the idea or better ideology of paradise pacifies relationships in this life. Why revolt if you know that equality and happiness are there for the taking in a future life? Especially when you will only get paradise if you respect morality in this life and when morality is often and conveniently incompatible with the consequences of revolt.

Religious ideology neutralizes desires by situating them in the afterlife. Religion is opium for the people, a drug that makes them forget the pain of this world, or at least convinces them to accept this pain, because pain can lead to revolt and those in power never like revolt. Something similar is inherent in the ideology of human rights. The use of force or coercion by the state in the defense of the right to capitalist property, for example, is not necessary when the poor can be convinced that property is a human right which is in their interest, rather than a right of the wealthy. The economic relationships and structures are maintained with political and legal force but also with legal ideology.

All ideologies are similar. Christianity can convince people to accept their situation by promising salvation in a future life, and the ideology of human rights does the same by convincing people, all people, that they have the same rights and that they are therefore equal. When this universality and equality of rights is accentuated, people do not see that others who have the same equal rights profit more from these rights. Human rights signal freedom and equality, and give the impression of guaranteeing freedom and equality, but in reality give those who are better off tools to improve their situation even more, and at the expense of the poor. Instead of real equality there is only legal and formal equality, and the latter takes us further away from the former because the rich can use their equal rights to promote their interests. Rights, according to Marx, give us the freedom to oppress rather than freedom from oppression.

Human rights, he says, are a set of false ideas that have to cover up class rule and make it acceptable. The continuation of inequality by political and legal means is based on the combination of coercion and false consciousness. Christians are equal in heaven and thereby maintain inequality on earth, and believers in human rights are equal in the heaven of their political ideals and thereby forget the inequality that these ideals help to maintain.

I think that view is far too pessimistic and takes the signaling thing way too serious. It ignores the transformative power of human rights. There is signaling going on in human rights talk, but a lot of other stuff as well. Some talk is really aimed primarily or exclusively at a real transformation of reality toward a higher level of human rights protection. And a lot of that talk really works in the sense that life is changed by speech. Sometimes human rights aren’t about human rights, but often they are.