By Jeannine Gliddon Owens
Human beings, for the most part, are social creatures and our lives are determined by social relationships. If you ever watched Alone on the History channel, it becomes clear very quickly, that people crave social interaction. We are born into families, interact with people at school, work, or church, and engage in shared cultural activities. Is that need for ‘the social’ instinctual, or is it learned? Is it a requirement in the ‘production’ of a life? To answer these and other related questions, it’s important to examine social structures that imprint thoughts and ideas on us.
Karl Marx stated that: ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness’ (Williams 1977). In the US, ‘our mode of production of material life’ revolves around capitalism, and concerns with earning enough money dictates our social being and consciousness. We start preschool at age three, continue through high school to get into the best universities, to get the best paying jobs, to get the biggest house and nicest car. We volunteer and join organizations to network, and on and on it goes, until we are saddled with the debt it requires to attain the social status society has prescribed. Most people become trapped by social and economic pressures before they are even aware that society has imposed those ‘requirements’ on them.
People and activities associated with the mode of production, or economy, form the base of any society. This base supports the superstructure, comprised of the elite and powerful, which form cultural ideas. They create culture from their perceptions of life, which don't necessarily resonate with those in the base.
According to Georgi Plekhanov, the relationship between the base and superstructure is formed sequentially by: The state and productive forces; economic conditions; political regime; the psyche of the social man; and subsequent ideologies (Williams 1977). But all these elements are interconnected and affect each other in various, non-sequential ways. The relationship is complex and dynamic, and individual economic determination is more relevant when studying social structures.
Most people are too busy trying to make a living to spend much time thinking about social formations or the relationship between society's base and superstructure. Their great awakening results from comparing their economic struggle with that of others — forming ideologies to then engage with social systems. This awareness manifests itself through the ongoing 'dialectic struggle' between the classes (Hall 2018).
Social institutions such as schools, churches, the media, and/or political representatives structure feelings as well. For instance, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a representative of the US superstructure, is currently telling society that feelings of racism against Black Americans are valid. By blocking an Advanced Placement course on African American studies within the Florida educational system, he signaled that Black Americans and their specific history doesn’t matter. He, and others within the superstructure, have previously denounced teaching Critical Race Theory as well, which underscores the US culture as racist.
People don't like to be told how they should feel, though, particularly when they have been marginalized by those in the superstructure. This produces tension between our individual or 'practical' consciousness and our societal 'official' consciousness (Williams, 1977). Our practical consciousness — thoughts, feelings and actions from lived experiences — is often discounted by the ‘official’ consciousness, represented by institutions of power. Examples of this can be seen within dichotomous reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement or the anti-gun movement within the US. For some, practical consciousness is one of disgust and horror, but the official consciousness is one of infinite patience and tolerance.
Discourse about these differences appear in various forms and places, including on social media platforms, which have become our modern public square. Used by ‘organic intellectuals’ reflecting an authentic ‘regime of truth’ (Jones 2006), discourse artifacts are created and dispersed from the bottom up, affecting the on- and off-line feelings of millions. These feelings turn into action, affecting those within the superstructure, making the relationship between superstructure and base even more complex.
Hall, Stuart. “Rethinking ‘Base and Superstructure’ Metaphor” .” In Essential Essays, Volume 1. New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2018.
Jones, Steve. Antonio Gramsci. London; New York: Routledge, 2006.
Williams, Raymond. ‘Base and Superstructure.’ Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press, 1977.
Williams, Raymond. ‘Structures of Feeling.’ Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press, 1977.