Marxist Literary Criticism

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In Marxist terminology, what is the difference between infrastructure and superstructure?  

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Marx was a philosopher of history essentially. His philosophy has been called historical materialism and dialectical materialism. The former conveys the idea that history is dictated by actual material events: social, political, and economic interactions. The latter, dialectic, conveys the idea that this progress of materialism is based upon a dual (and/or dueling) system. This system of two forces working with or against each other is called a dialectic. Dialectics goes back to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks as a factor in philosophy. And Marx uses dialectics to describe forces which work together and/or against one another. The proletariat and the bourgeoisie, or the workers and the owning class, are at odds with each other but under a capitalist system, they work together (according to Marx, to the dismay of the proletariat).

Likewise, Marx applies the dialectic to describe the mechanism of life in two structures: the infrastructure (base) and the superstructure. The infrastructure is made up of the forces, the means, and the relations of production: the material "stuff" of life. The infrastructure comprises 1) Forces: the workers, the technical knowledge to perform the work (training, knowledge), 2) Means: the actual materials of production (raw materials, machines, tools), and 3) Relations: the interactions between workers as well as between workers and business owners. Of course, there are potential clashes between workers and owners, but it is ultimately through the forces of production that real change occurs. 

The superstructure arises from the infrastructure. The superstructure can loosely be defined as culture. But what makes it important in Marx's thinking (in this dialectic of infrastructure and superstructure) is that this superstructure comes from the infrastructure and reconditions ways of life/living so that the infrastructure continues to be produced. It is dialectic but cyclical in a way. The infrastructure (material things and interactions of life) produce a culture (laws, politics, art, etc.) and that culture then is structured in such a way that the society continues to reproduce the infrastructure. For change (or a revolution to occur), something must change in the infrastructure - it would then affect the superstructure, which would then effectively change the infrastructure. 

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Marx believed that in order to understand the nature of a society, one had to understand its economic base. The word "infrastructure" essentially refers to this base, which Marx defined as the relationship of people to the means of production. Under a capitalist system, the "infrastructure" was private ownership of the means of production by the bourgeoisie, which, due to relentless mechinization and other developments, forced more and more people into wage labor. "Superstructure" is a Marxian term referring to culture, including systems of belief, societal mores, and even some aspects of government and law not directly related to property relations. Marxists argue, to varying degrees, that the superstructure is determined by (and, from an academic perspective, explained by) the economic relations that lay at the heart of the base, or infrastructure. So from the standpoint of literary criticism, a work itself cannot really be...

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understood on its own, but as part of a web of cultural relations that constituted a superstructure, that is in turn affected by the infrastructure.

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What are the differences between superstructure and infrastructure in Marxism?

Marx said that it is not consciousness that determines life but it is life that determines consciousness. Think of it that way: Our physical functions and interactions will determine the ways we think about the world. More specifically, the Base consists of these physical functions and interactions, or what Marx would call the material conditions of existence. These material conditions, the Base, are socioeconomic; our monetary system, economic system, how and why we buy and sell property (everything from food to housing to clothes – the means of survival, and later luxuries). This base gives rise to the Superstructure which is our philosophy, religion, art, law, politics. The Superstructure, once created, can reciprocally influence the Base, but the Base largely controls the manifestations of the Superstructure. So, the Base is life (our actual material conditions of existence, namely socioeconomics). And the Superstructure is our collective consciousness.

Marx claimed that the Capitalist system’s Base creates a Superstructure in which the ideology of the bourgeois (ruling class) dominates cultural spheres and this domination is called hegemony. Members of the working class (Proletariat) who unknowingly buy into these ideologies unknowingly participate in the perpetuation of their own oppression and thus, they exhibit a “false consciousness.” The working class is oppressed because their surplus labor/surplus value all becomes profit which all goes to the ruling class (bourgeois). These material relations (Base) of production come into conflict with the social forces of production (Base) and this could lead to a social revolution because this would be a change in the Base – change to a conflict. Remember that the Base gives rise to the Superstructure, life gives rise to consciousness. So, if a social revolution began, it could be a gradual transformation of that socioeconomic base but it could also be a quicker, more forceful revolution (Cuba) as the Base creates an element of Superstructural consciousness that brings the Proletariat out of its “false consciousness.” This would be a case where the Base and the Superstructure change together. And in this case, the consciousness of the Proletariat could proactively work to change that Base.

Remember that the Base is actually a simple concept: it is just the stuff we do every day, the literal, physical stuff. This largely determines the Superstructure which is analogous to consciousness. More recent interpretations of this Base-Superstructure model have shown that the model is more reciprocal in its function depending on the period and place in history.

To sum up, Marx says that the way we think about the world (Superstructure) cannot change until the world itself changes (Base). Marx said that the contradictions that would arise in late Capitalism would actually provide the means for such a revolution. In other words, the unequal distribution of surplus value in Capitalism (which is what Capitalism is based on: profit) would eventually lead to these conflicting changes in its base and would result in a transformation to Communism.

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