Structure and Superstructure

By James Kwak

Noah Smith begins his latest Bloomberg column this way:

Stanford historian Ian Morris is fond of saying that “each age gets the thought it needs.” According to this maxim, ideas like the Enlightenment, communism or even Christianity are a product of the economic and political circumstances of their times.

This is something I’ve long believed, dating back before my days as a graduate student in intellectual history. It’s also pure Marx. In the “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” the great bearded one wrote:

With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production . . . and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.

When I was a junior in college, I underlined that passage in my bright red copy of The Marx-Engels Reader. (As I’ve often said, Harvard social studies majors will probably be the last people on the planet still reading Marx.)

Smith’s point is to situate what he calls libertarianism in its historical context. (He uses “libertarianism” in a relatively narrow, economics-focused sense, which some libertarians might find restrictive, but I’ll stick with his terminology here.) At the end of World War II, government power had reached unprecedented heights in modern history, particular in economic affairs. “It made sense to fight these forces with a philosophy that emphasized individual liberty and limited government,” Smith writes. He continues by arguing that the abstract libertarian model misses out on the complexity of society. In particular, since power can be exercised on multiple levels between individuals and the state, “the neat and tidy universe of classic libertarianism breaks down.” What we need today, then, is a new political philosophy, or philosophies, that reflect this complexity.

I agree with all of that. I just want to add a little more depth to the idea that libertarianism “made sense.” Marx didn’t think that an age “got the thought it needs” by accident; just because ideas make sense doesn’t mean that they will become influential. (Between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, which set of ideas made more sense to you?) Instead, Marx argued in the passage above, the conflict of ideas is the superstructure determined by the fundamental structure of class struggle.

For Marx, of course, class struggle meant the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. I think by now we realize that the world is considerably more complicated than that. But the underlying principle still holds: ideas gain sway because they serve important economic interest groups. That was certainly true of communism, which became the organizing ideology of the working class.

It was also true of libertarian ideas after World War II. In the United States, the political landscape was dominated by the New Deal Democratic coalition and Keynesian economic principles. Corporations that had to contend with powerful labor unions and rich people who had to pay higher taxes were on the defensive. For those interest groups, the theory that competitive markets could maximize social welfare and that government intervention could only make life worse for everyone provided exactly the ideology that they needed. Money from businessmen’s foundations and, later, large corporations that financed the think tanks and networks that cultivated and disseminated the free-market critique of New Deal policies which—to jump ahead—ultimately bore fruit in the Reagan Revolution.

I tell this story in detail in the history chapter my new book, Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality, although not in as much detail as some of the historians I draw on, such as Kimberly Phillips-Fein and Gareth Stedman Jones. (I almost wrote “real historians” before remembering that I have a history PhD.) But the key point I want to make here about ideas, interest groups, and ideologies was actually also made by Marx, this time in The German Ideology:

Each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.

That’s why libertarianism “made sense” to the businessmen and wealthy families who led the postwar reaction against the New Deal—and to their descendants who continue to finance the conservative movement.

9 thoughts on “Structure and Superstructure

  1. Competitive market theory to attack the New Deal. At a time of growing dominance of oligopolistic markets and mega corporations.

  2. Actually, when I was there, all first-year Chicago students had to read Marx. Don’t know if that’s still the case.

  3. Impressive stuff, this post. My progressive ideas are often thwarted by the notion that we are exactly where we ‘can’ be. Ideas seem slow to spread though, but I suppose that we each would like to see as much progress as possible in our short and fleeting lives.

  4. Short and fleeting lives are the exact opposite of progress, interpretative naturally, he thinks 100 years of mostly private suffering is progress. I see it as pinnacle insanity, and i’m not impressed.

  5. As for progress, and “how each generation gets what it needs”, I am reminded of something the Nobel economist Robert Fogel once wrote:

    “Between 1875 and 1995, the share of family income spent on food, clothing, and shelter declined from 87 percent to just 30 percent, despite the fact that we eat more food, own more clothes, and have better and larger homes today than we had in 1875. All of this has been made possible by the growth in the productivity of traditional commodities. In the last quarter of the 19th century, it took 1,700 hours of labor to purchase the annual food supply for a family. Today it requires just 260 hours, and it is likely that by 2040, a family’s food supply will be purchased with about 160 hours of labor.”

    But I suppose progress, as obvious as it is, can be obscured by one’s own misery or discontent. A hundred years ago however, a worker in this country was barely able to afford a pair of shoes when needed, and now those living in ‘poverty’, many of whom have never worked a day in their lives, they own flattscreen TVs, cell phones, and multiple pairs of designer shoes. So it seems delusional to assume that the ideas that are needed to affect progress have been forthcoming, in the aspects of life that allow for measurement at least.

  6. You know in 1875 hardly no one had signs of cancer,(it’s a modern age creation), and in 1875 the share of family income devoted to the average education and health insurance was about nil, today it consumes who knows what hell amount, but it substantial.
    And who needs to be shackled down with another home mortgage and appliances bills when everyone could build their own love shack and live happily ever after without debt and bankruptcy concerns.
    The food supply so ample we cant even afford to store a years worth of food for them because if there is a weather problem or something some other guy in some other country will provide the commodity at a slightly higher cost, but hey, we save the lives of animals so it’s all good.
    The supply of the latest toys and sweets is ample to keep the masses from complaining, but my dental bill is higher than ever and the guy who pulls a set of teeth for dentures for 50 bucks is laughing as he pulls my teeth but since you wernt there to see it i’ll just put that skeleton in my closet and we can forget it ever happened. My neighbor just got targeted and busted for smokin a joint and now he cant pay the legal fees so he’s in jail on the tax payers dime, it’s okay though, he still has 6 teeth left before he cant afford the 50 dollar fee to pull the last one and a pair of store bought teeth.
    The politicians and businessmen are just hypocritical and arrogant as ever but we choose to bombard the other side with insults as a distraction, and it’s working just as advertised. The cars homes and railroads are going to hell in a hand basket, but as long as I can afford the McDonalds cheeseburgers, imported clothing and roach infested shelter, it’s all good as far as the gvt story is concerned. So yeah, life is a party, vote for a politician.

  7. Oops, my last sentence is missing a ‘not’. I meant to say: “So it seems delusional to assume that the ideas that are needed to affect progress have ‘not’ been forthcoming, in the aspects of life that allow for measurement at least.

    But, Mr. Skunk, since teeth are a ‘measurable’ thing, maybe I stand corrected. Maybe not though too, because it is possible, lol, that some anecdotal guy had dental problems in the distant past too. And yea, there are new problems such as cancer, and folks never died in auto accidents either in 1875, but I think they may have had cockroaches then too.

  8. Yes but they did die from falling off horse drawn carriages, my point is the carnage of the human race is as atrocious now if not worse than back then for the average person. The technology of man, which is measurable, is overlooked and forgotten as we are absorbed into the latest gadgets, so basically progress is seen within the eye of the beholder, and to me, it’s as ugly and misinterpreted as the hell humans have created.
    People(as a technology) are at standstill as we study the infinite human denial syndrome of competition of insanity for money. People went insane a lot slower back then, today we fast track it and then monitor it with a mirror.

  9. “Each age gets the thought it needs.” As Marxist, it is an expression of the teleological, in the Hegelian sense, of history progressing to its end; although for Marx it is history without the geist. It is thereby that the thought of an age is necessary. If you don’t believe in such a teleological destiny, then “needs” becomes what? In the sense that Morris is using it, an expression of causality? Well then, no matter how complex the web of that might be, though it enables one to makes sense of the past and the present, it becomes rather uninformatively tautological, if not in itself “unneeded,” as an interpretive paradigm.

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