One person’s base is another’s superstructure
It is a truth universities acknowledge, that academics would be stranded without administrators – well, it’s acknowledged by us administrators at any rate. Of course, academics can reply that without teaching-staff administrators would be equally stuck, perhaps more-so. As education is the end product, it is the teacher who is truly indispensable. While it is possible to deliver teaching without support-staff – say as a freelancer delivering private tuition – it is not possible to administer teaching without any teachers.
Within a large structure like a university, however, it is safe to say that both academics and administrators are essential. Without one the other can’t function, and neither can the institute (– phew!)
This hints at a wider principle, and regular source of confusion: While it is often possible to identify ultimate dependencies, this may not be the best way to comprehend a complex system.
For example, the following three claims seem sound enough: DNA can exist without organic life, but organic life cannot exist without DNA; Brains can exist without intelligence, but intelligence can’t exist without brains; Thought can exist without culture, but culture can’t exist without thought. Each step of the way, we can see the causal arrow pointing firmly in one direction, with the consequence fizzling out as soon as its cause is disconnected, as surely as a TV picture fizzles out when the plug is pulled.
But not so fast; there are more dependencies at play here. While DNA may be essential to life, the profusion of DNA on earth today is itself a product of life. It is living bodies that have borne and protected DNA over the ages, and given it the means to replicate.
Likewise, a human brain will quickly die without the feedback provided by its intelligence. The limited intelligence we all start out with (and often end-up with) is not enough to keep our brains and bodies alive. Other, more intelligent, humans need to be at hand, or drafted-in, to care for us at these times.
And while culture is clearly a product of thought, it also feeds-back into thought. Indeed culture can lie dormant for millennia, without a single oxygenated corpuscle for sustenance. Ancient texts and images can be rediscovered, dusted off, and go on to alter the course of human history. The causal arrow really can point in the other direction.
Speaking of dusty texts, the causal relationship I want to look at here is a political one – the base/superstructure model suggested by Karl Marx. With arguable degrees of metaphor, Marx sketched out a model of society comprising two interrelated layers: An economic base, beneath a social and cultural superstructure. As the ‘building site’ flavour of the model suggests, the continued existence of the superstructure depends on the integrity of the base. If structure is the house then the economy is its foundation. If the foundation caves-in, the house follows.
This principle is clear to see at the most basic level of economics – allocation of food. You can have bread without circuses but you can’t have circuses without bread. However informed your politics, however refined your art, however noble your dreams, all mean nothing without food, without the economic means of staying alive. As both Marxists and Monetarists agree, it’s the economy, stupid. You can’t eat books.
Marx took this relationship and expanded it to describe society as a whole. All of human production – owners, bosses, workers and customers formed the economic base. The rest of society – politics, art, religion, education, entertainment and the military, formed the superstructure. As with the most basic commodity – food – such superstructures depend upon the support of the economic base, rather than the other way round: You can irrigate the Nile Delta without building pyramids, but you can’t build pyramids without irrigating the Nile Delta. You can run Lancashire cotton mills without running day trips to Blackpool, but you can’t run day trips to Blackpool without running Lancashire cotton mills.
These last two points illustrate another deep insight in Marx’s model. Not only does economics support culture, the particular type of economics determines the particular type of culture it can support. If you live in age where the key products are apples, wheat and the occasional hurdy-gurdy, then you will likely spend your evenings eating bread, drinking cider and dancing round the fire. If you live in age where the key products are cars, televisions and computers you will likely spend your leisure-time at the wheel, on the sofa, or immersed in one digital universe or another.
For Marx, the 19th century revolutionary, this all pointed to an interesting conclusion: Ultimate power resided with the workers. Every apparent instrument of power was actually at the mercy of the producing class. Politics and propaganda, church and school, police and army, football and circuses, all fed off the economic base, all were mere superstructure, at the mercy of economics.
With their hands directly on the means of production, only the working classes have the means to pull the plug on the rest of society. Whether workers recognised this power is another matter. The ruling classes of all ages do their best to spread the belief that their rule is true, right and unassailable – even amongst themselves. Maintaining such worldviews has been a key function of superstructure throughout the ages. Call it aristocracy, the divine right of kings, hereditary privilege or racial superiority – it all really boils down to the same thing: One section of humanity persuades another section to do all the nasty backbreaking parts of life, so that the first section can live in luxury.
The extent to which workers might flex this terrible power is another matter again. It holds the potential for wholesale human emancipation, or great mischief, depending on your take. At the micro level, the basic threat to withdraw labour – to strike – remains a priceless bargaining chip, and a major determinant of pay and conditions. At the other end of the scale, a union of unions can lead to a general strike, and bring a whole economy to a halt. ‘Holding the country to ransom’ – as was the shriek throughout the 20th Century.
Rather than the solidity of bricks and mortar, the superstructure starts to look more like a house of cards, built on a rug called the economy. The rug is unmoved by the cards, but one sharp tug can bring the whole house down. We must tread carefully though. As lucid and commonsensical as it might sound, there are good reasons to be cautious before grafting this model onto our own lives. I’d like to identify two areas in which the model can mislead as much as it might illuminate. One is timeless and has dogged Marxism from the start. The other relates to historical changes.
The timeless one can be dealt with quite quickly. The discovery that one factor depends upon another is easily confused with the belief that one factor is caused by the other – shaped, detailed and defined by the other. But this really doesn’t follow. ‘A’ can be dependent on ‘B’ without being caused by ‘B’. Cars run on petrol, and are certainly designed with petrol in mind, but there’s a lot more to cars than petrol.
Similarly, while the social is dependent on the economic, it is not fully described by the economic. Sometimes quite the opposite. Although the nature of a given economic base remains a key influence on the kinds of social structures that can ‘grow’ upon it, there is also feedback in the other direction. Take technology for example. Is that base or superstructure in the first place? The principles behind a given technology constitute knowledge, so presumably superstructure. But such knowledge gives rise to products (base) which modify our way of living (superstructure) which in turn alter consumer demand (base). The process is dialectical, as Marx would have been happy to call it – an on-going inter-modification between base and superstructure.
Failure to grasp this distinction lies at the heart of some of the more vulgar and disastrous readings of Marx. While it is only wise to conclude that it is impossible to build a just and happy society upon a grossly uneven economic base, it is far from wise to assume that enforced equality at the economic base will simply percolate-up through the superstructure, and produce a just and happy society. Indeed, the 20th century was littered with examples of enforced material equality leading to social hell.
One might wonder why this misunderstanding is so hard to shake. Political desperation certainly plays a part – who wouldn’t like a simple answer to the world’s problems? But the fundamental problem is the grain of truth. For the genuinely impoverished, economics really is everything. When you are truly hungry food is all that matters, and at present that describes the situation of one in eight humans. It is easy to see why the global poor, and those who care about the global poor, might be tempted to take that basic truth further, try to map it onto the rest of human society.
In truth however, while food and shelter are necessary for a happy life, they do not guarantee it. The meeting of basic material needs usually just facilitates a different level of misery, uncertainty and powerlessness. Rather than being answered, political questions in fact multiply from that point upwards.
The belief that all social injustice can be reduced to economic injustice is certainly attractive, and politically emboldening. It contains within it the hope that an equitable economic base can automatically give rise to human happiness. But while greater economic equality might be an essential step towards peace on earth it is little more than religious faith to think it will necessarily lead there. As with all articles of faith, the burden of proof lies with the believers.
The second confusion takes a bit more explaining. It relates to historical changes since Marx’s day. Let’s begin though by confirming what hasn’t changed: The majority of human suffering remains a direct consequence of material inequality, born of inequality in the ownership and control of production. Billions of humans still live hand-to-mouth, paid a pittance by corporations who syphon-off the wealth produced for themselves.
Just the same, the superstructure erected on today’s economic base still functions in maintaining, justifying and enforcing this inequality. Humans are still numbed by churches, diverted by sport, infuriated by immigrants, heartened by patriotism and threatened by lunatic foreign powers, not to mention the enemy within. And if we still won’t play quietly there are truncheons, bayonets, daisy-cutters and drones to persuade us. And as ever, the fear that prompts this ideological and physical barrage is the same as in Marx’s day: the recognition that workers have the means to unplug the whole operation – should they choose to.
What has altered sharply however is location. While much of the capital of capitalism is still raised in the west, much of industrial production now takes place in the developing world, notably the Far East. As workers, far fewer westerners have anything to do with actually making things. Aside from food and cleaning products, what else in our supermarkets is produced at home? This change of location gives us several reasons for caution before mapping Marx’s model onto our own lives.
Let’s start with production itself, and a commonplace scenario in our new private sector. Let’s say some British capital finds itself invested in a toy factory in Asia. The investors could be shareholders in an established UK toy company, or shareholders in an otherwise disinterested body such as an investment fund, which itself holds shares in an Asian firm. All being well, the toys produced are then sold at profit, and an enhanced sum is sent back to investors in the UK. Interestingly however, the toys come along too. Both profit and product are imported. The toys are bought by a British retailer, say ASDA, who sell them at some mark-up to members of the British public.
Now, the interesting question is where does the British public get the money to buy the toys? It’s increasingly unlikely that they get it from producing anything as corporeal as toys. More likely than not, they get it from working in ASDA, or some other retail giant.
At last, the title of this essay emerges. Rather than an integrated part of the process of production, our own economy starts to look peripheral. Certainly, from the perspective of a politically savvy Asian factory worker the UK economy must look more like superstructure than base. It’s more like a game of monopoly going on overhead, a circular sloshing of pretend money between friends, all the while supported by the genuine wealth producing economies below.
At first glance this might look like business as usual. International capitalism has always involved a hierarchy of productive process, with those countries higher in the chain making the greater profits. Companies and countries whose production centres on intermediate goods, like raw cotton or coffee beans, tend to get the bum deal. Those who produce finished products, like clothing and freeze-dried coffee, are the ones who do well. But can retail seriously be called ‘finish’ at all? Turning beans into a jar of instant genuinely does add value to the coffee. Putting that jar on a shelf doesn’t add a bean. Any fool can do it.
If this still sounds overstated then we can always test it against the causal premise of Marx’s model – the existence of the superstructure depends on the integrity of the base. On this reading it stands: A general strike in China certainly could bring western capitalism to its knees. A general strike among British retail workers (if we can contain our mirth) would barely register in the Chinese economy. A blip in the demand curve, ironed-out as soon as new outlets are found.
However it’s when we turn to the public sector that the full picture emerges. Let’s return for a moment to the profits from the Asian toy factory, as they flow back into the UK. Some go into the pockets of the investors, but a portion goes to the treasury in the form of tax. Consequently some of this goes to fund our public sector, not least the wages of public sector workers.
Along with retail, our gargantuan public sector is another key source of employment in ‘service economy’ UK. Even more starkly than retail, wealth creation here is all but non-existent. Essential as they are, doctors, nurses, police, fire-fighters, refuse collectors and social workers don’t produce a thing. In fact the whole operation runs at a massive loss. Economically, the kindest thing you can say is they save us money by pre-empting disasters - but that’s a far cry from wealth creation.
Again, from the viewpoint of the Asian factory worker our NHS isn’t an economic entity, it’s pure superstructure. It might not seem this way to a hospital porter, sweating endless hours away on minimum wage. Doubtless the internal feeling is of being a worker, employed by a company called the NHS. As in a factory, both worker and employer wrangle over those timeless issues of pay and conditions. If a compromise cannot be reached there is always the threat of a strike.
But again, we only have to apply the causal premise of Marx’s model to see the true economic relationship here. While it is quite feasible that a general strike in China could bring severe disruption to our NHS, a total walkout of staff at the NHS would have zero effect on the economy of China.
This shift has dire implications for anyone holding out for worker-led liberation in the western world. Our own proletariat (if that is still the right term) no longer do hold the reins of production. Relocation of industry has stripped their power. In terms of pulling the plug (or the rug) on capitalism our own proletariat has been pretty much neutered.
This might sound an odd claim just after a successful bin-strike, but in fact that strike is a clear example of how depoliticised public-sector strikes really are. It’s tempting for leftists to portray such disputes as a traditional class fight between workers and tight-fisted capitalists, but in truth who were the evil paymasters? It was us, the residents, including the bin-men themselves assuming they live in the area they serve. Nice as it would be, we really can’t blame Rothschild and Carnegie for this one. Rather than class conflict, such disputes are better understood as the public desire for the impossible – low levels of council tax and clean streets.
‘Sticking it to the man’ loses its potency when the rebel is at one and the same time ‘the man’. It’s the same story across the public sector. Schools, NHS, policing, roads, local services, we are simultaneously employer, employee and customer. If we seriously believe we aren’t paid enough, we can always pay ourselves more. Threats to suspend health care, education and bin collection are really only threats to ourselves. If we want to roll in our own detritus, it’s really our own business. International capitalism will not weep.
And of course there is more to public sector spending than paying people to work. It also supports those who aren’t working. Here again wealth created overseas must be playing a part in propping things up. It is difficult to imagine how it could be possible for a large section of working-age citizens to spend weekday mornings watching daytime television without financial contributions from more productive nations. Few workers in Bangladesh can indulge this dubious luxury.
Our long-term unemployed would presumably form a major component of a productive working class, were we a more productive nation. But with welfare payments providing a better standard of living than the wages paid in Asian factories, no domestic factory can compete directly with an equivalent in Asia. Who would sign-off to work in a factory for less money than benefits are bringing in – even if such pay rates were legal, given the minimum wage?
As no one outside the crankiest think-tanks would suggest our own unemployed should accept Asian-level factory wages, we are stuck with the situation as it stands. Our best hope is that Asian workers use their new power – good old class struggle – to win themselves better pay and conditions. Aside from the intrinsic justice, this would also inflate the costs of goods from Asia, and make competition from western manufacturers a possibility again. Until then, the outlook is bleak on both continents. For the long-term unemployed, in our dying towns, and post-industrial cities, life will remain an earthly purgatory, drip fed, at least in part, by the developing world.
The decline of manufacturing in the UK has left much of our workforce creating either zero wealth (retail, banking, customer service) or absolute loss, via welfare. When we were sold this new arrangement in the 1980’s it was presented as a mere skills swap, a transfer from one form of productivity to another. But this just doesn’t wash. Contrary to propaganda, no banker has ever made any money. Only people who create, by hand or by brain, add value. Banking isn’t about making money, it’s about getting other people to make money for you. The money that finds its way back into bankers’ and investors pockets is always the fruit of another’s labour. When Chancellor Lawson looked favourably towards the UK’s future as a ‘service economy’ it was really a declaration of parasitic intent. Phrases like ‘Britain now makes much of its money through banking’ are just the finance journalist’s polite way of admitting that Britain now gets citizens of other countries to make its money.
For anyone with a moral interest it’s a curious set-up. Through neither malice nor love, the Asian factory worker simultaneously puts the western worker out of work, pays the benefit cheques, and ends up with a worse standard of living. We pay each other to obtain the luxury goods they produce but cannot themselves afford. While they often struggle to see their children into adulthood, we grow increasingly indignant if our loved ones don’t make it into triple figures.
As our economy morphed from manufacturing to overseas investment, our welfare system itself morphed from something democratic and enlightened, something to be proud of, to something parasitic upon the poor of other nations, every bit as parasitic as the luxury purchases of capitalists. From the perspective of the proletariat of India, discovering that their labour subsidises the UK’s NHS is probably no more comforting than discovering it gets spent on yachts. In both cases, they don’t get to see the benefits. If any state healthcare system is to be subsidised, I’m sure they would choose their own.
As a nation we of course have every right to prioritise our own health and welfare if we so wish. There’s nothing immoral in a country deciding to use part of the wealth it creates to provide its citizens with universal healthcare and unemployment benefit. Such policies are widely seen as the great political victories of the 20th century. But the same can’t be said for using wealth extracted from foreign labour. I’m sure Marx would be the first to agree.