What did Marx mean by ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’?

According to Marx the ‘base’ is the industrial or economic system that constitutes the foundation for the functioning and development of society. The ‘superstructure’ represents the cultural and political institutions that rely on and sustain the ‘base’.

Of the different ways of looking at the subject outlined by Chandler, which makes most sense to you and why?

Chandler explains that according to classical Marxist theory the mass media is a tool used by the ruling classes to produce a ‘false consciousness’ among members of society. It reinforces the values and world view of the owners of the means of production and presents the capitalist system as being the natural order of things. French Marxist philosopher  Louis Althusser goes on to suggest that other social institutions work in tandem with the mass media to reproduce this false consciousness. In his view subjects have social identities conferred on them by these different agents for social control. Capitalist ideology leads individuals to believe that they are ‘self-determining agents’, all members of society are equal and are responsible for  their own conditions of existence (success, failure, health, wealth, education etc.), therefore masking the inequalities or ‘class struggle’, which is the reality. Classical Marxist theory and neo Marxist theory divide on the degree of autonomy enjoyed within this system. Neo Marxists believe that the subject plays a more active role. Another Neo Marxist, Stuart Hall, observes that one of the ways the media are able to gain general acceptance of their constructed version of reality is by claiming to be the voice of public opinion.

On the one hand, I can relate to the theory put forward by classical Marxists that we are lead to believe that we have complete responsibility for our own conditions of existence. That if we are (financially) successful in society it is because we made it happen ourselves. That we all begin from the same starting point and if anyone gets left behind it’s due to their own lack of drive. I think we are encouraged at all costs to succeed and this causes us to compare ourselves with others which helps us strive for even more success. I recognize this tendency in all areas of my life from education to the rearing of my child. I also agree with Althusser’s idea that our self image is conferred onto us by society. We look for reflections of ourselves in society so we can discover whether or not we are acceptable, loveable and worthy of admiration. If what we see doesn’t match what we conceive as being ideal or worthy we can have a negative self image, but, naturally, this is of our making and it’s our own personal downfall and therefore we don’t attribute it to the manipulation of society by the ruling classes.

However, unlike the fundamentalist Marxists I do believe that there is scope for human agency. I think that although the versions of reality that are shown to us by the media can have an enormously influence on us, I don’t believe we are slaves to this. Moreover, I think that the role of the arts is to counteract the mass media’s version of reality by offering alternative view points and by encouraging people to think for themselves and question ideologies.

Does your understanding of the base and superstructure vary depending on whether you are looking at society in general or the media and the arts?

Society is a group of people that share existence and strive for survival within the same space. Capitalism is the base of our society and in order to make capitalism work we need a work force, we need the family to produce it, education to train it, health systems to maintain it, food production to give it sustenance and politics, religion and cultural agencies to keep it subservient. Not everyone in society is equal; society is divided into a pyramid shaped series of strata which go from the very underprivileged to the extremely privileged. The privileged élite occupy the top of the pyramid and less privileged masses occupy the bottom.

Marxists believe that with industrialization, urbanization, political democracy, popular education a mass society was created and out of this, a system of mass communication was born.

The media and the arts communicate the ideas of society. Some sections of society are more powerful than others and therefore they have more influence over which ideas are communicated. The media maintains the mythology of the base, which is capitalism, and the base maintains the media financially and ideologically. The media and arts claim to be a mirror on society, the degree to which this true varies. Stuart Hall believed that rather than being a mirror on society it constructed a reality that normalized inequality and the class struggle.

The media and arts are made up of different institutions such the press, cinema, music, TV and radio. There are as many divisions in the media and the arts as there are in wider society. For example, there is highbrow culture for the privileged élite and lowbrow culture for the masses.

In answer to the question it seems clear that both the media and the arts and wider society depend on the base for their survival and equally contribute to maintaining it by participating in the institutions of the superstructure. As a result my understanding of the base and superstructure does not vary it is only confirmed through observing other examples of the same system at work.


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