Tag Archives: intellectual history

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.)

Continue reading

Liberty for Whom?

By James Kwak

I feel like I should have something deep and original to say about Corey Robin’s fascinating article on nineteenth-century European culture, Nietzsche, and the economic philosophy of Friedrich Hayek. In addition to the things I’m better known for, I studied European intellectual history at Berkeley, with Martin Jay no less, and I’m pretty sure Nietzsche figured somewhat prominently in my orals. But Robin has far surpassed my understanding of Nietzsche, which is almost twenty years old, anyway.

The story, in very simplified form, goes like this. For Nietzsche, and for other cultural elitists of late-nineteenth-century Europe, both the rise of the bourgeoisie and the specter of the working class were bad things—the former for its mindless materialism, the latter  for its egalitarian ideals, which threatened to drown the exceptional man among the masses. One set of Nietzsche’s descendants was the political theorists like Carl Schmitt, who “imagined political artists of great novelty and originality forcing their way through or past the filtering constraints of everyday life.” Another, which Robin focuses on in this article, is the “Austrian” school of economics led by Friedrich Hayek.

Continue reading