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:


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.

What is Freedom? (16): Does the Division of Labor Enhance or Reduce Freedom?

Adam Smith is famous for the argument that freedom needs the division of labor. Without division of labor, everyone needs to be his or her own “butcher, baker and brewer”, leaving no leisure time for self-chosen activities. Individual home production of all basic necessities is inefficient compared to industrial production aided by division of labor. Division of labor allows the mechanization of labor, and distributes producers into their personal field of speciality and talent. As a result, divided labor is much more productive. Being more productive it yields more social leisure time, and hence more freedom.

Conversely, individual home production does not allow people to specialize and focus on activities for which they are best suited in terms of talent, inclination, power etc. Neither does it make mechanization possible, at least not on an industrial scale. Division of labor, and the market that comes with it (if you divide labor and no longer do everything yourself, you’ll need to exchange the products of labor), liberates people from a large number of tedious and unproductive task, many of which are not well suited to their talents.

Karl Marx, while agreeing with Smith about the efficiency and freedom-enhancing consequences of the division of labor and the concomitant market economy (he was no romantic), has some well-known and convincing criticisms. The workers in a highly developed and industrial system of divided labor lose their character of producers. Given the importance in Marx’ view of working and of making things, a worker in a modern factory is by definition a stunted human being, alienated from the product of his work and exclusively occupied with detailed tasks that are as monotonous as incomprehensible. The worker can no longer express himself in his product and therefore can’t develop himself. He is not free.

The market exchange of produced goods is also alienating in Marx’ view: we no longer deal with specific persons when we trade, but with a large amorphous group of people who we don’t know nor want to know. For Marx, a large part of freedom is to be able to produce and to engage in normal relationships with one another. He clearly saw how divided labor and the market economy that goes with it reduce that freedom. And his lesson is not heard anymore. Those who care about freedom should listen more carefully, to both Marx and Smith.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (20): Education Again

It’s a common assumption that democracy is driven by levels of education:

  • Less educated people are – supposedly – easier to oppress and more willing to accept extreme and simplistic ideologies that authoritarian rulers can exploit. They are also said to be less tolerant, and therefore less willing to accept freedoms and rights that protect outgroups.
  • Once people become more educated, they start earning more. And because they earn more, they have more leisure time. And because they have more leisure time, they have more opportunities to engage in various activities. And because they have these opportunities, they start to demand the freedoms they need to take up these opportunities. Better education itself, irrespective of the higher earning potential that goes with it, opens up opportunities to do things, and hence drives the demand for the freedom necessary to do things.
  • More educated people are also more aware of the ways in which their governments oppress them and of the liberties enjoyed in other countries, and they are better able to organize and mobilize against their governments.
  • Maslow’s theory about the hierarchy of needs also plays a part: when lower needs – such as food, clothing and shelter – are met, then the preconditions are fulfilled for the appearance of higher needs. Higher education levels, because they help to fulfill lower needs, assist the appearance of needs such as self-actualization, self-esteem and belonging, needs that require freedom for their realization.
  • Democracy requires a certain level of education among citizens in order to function properly. Of course, it’s not because B requires A that A results in B; claiming that education results in democracy because democracy needs education would mean committing a logical error. However, the fact that democracy needs education does probably increase the likelihood that democracy will follow from more education. At least the absence of some level of education will diminish the chances of democracy.
  • And, finally, more education improves the capacity to make rational choices, and democracy is essentially a system of choice. Democracy will therefore intrinsically appeal to the higher educated.

And indeed, there is a correlation – albeit not a very strong one – between levels of education and degrees of democracy.

The correlation may be due to the fact that democracies are better educators, but there are some reasons to believe that part of the causation at least goes the other way. Anecdotal evidence is provided by the recent Arab Spring: education levels in Arab countries have risen sharply in recent decades.

More posts in this series are here.