Terry Eagleton, from “Base and Superstructure Revisited,” New Literary History 31 (2000): 231-40.


Let me first dispel if I can one or two common false assumptions about this now universally reviled paradigm. The first concerns its "hierarchical" nature. The model is indeed hierarchical, but it is hard to see what is so sinister about that. It holds, in short, that some things are more important or crucially determinant than others, as does any human being who, in Edmund Burke's fine phrase, "walks abroad without a keeper." It may be wrong as to what it considers more determinant than what; but you really cannot fault a doctrine for holding that some things are more true or important than others, since there is no doctrine which does not. Every doctrine, for example, implicitly holds that it is itself more true than its opposite, and this includes claims like "there is no truth," or "nothing is more important than anything else."


Secondly, the base/superstructure model is not out to argue that law, culture, ideology, the state, and various other inhabitants of the superstructure are less real or material than property relations. It is not, in this sense at least, an ontological claim. We can all happily agree that prisons and museums are quite as real as banks. It is not a claim about degrees of ontological reality; nor is it simply a claim about priorities or preconditions. The assertion that we must eat before we can think ("Eats first, morals second" as Brecht observed) is only an instance of the base/superstructure model if it carries with it the claim that what we eat somehow shapes or conditions what we think. The doctrine, in short, is about determinations.


Now in a broad sense it would surely seem quite plausible  that the economic lies at the root of social life. Certainly Freud, no particular friend of Marxism, thought so himself: he says straight out that the basic motivation for society is an economic one, and implies that without this unpleasant form of coercion we would all just lie around the place all day in various interesting states of jouissance. There are two metanarratives which have absorbed most of the energies of most men and women in the world to date, and these are the story of material reproduction and the story of sexual reproduction. That both have always been terrains of conflict is merely one thing they have in common. If we arrest history to date at any point whatsoever and take a cross-section down it, then we know already, even without looking, what we shall find: that the great majority of people at that time are enduring lives of pretty fruitless toil for the profit of a minority, and that Women form an oppressed stratum within this social order. And yet they talk of the death of metanarrative! There are those for whom all metanarratives must be Panglossian tales of a triumphantly unfolding Reason, Science, World-Spirit, or Proletariat, forgetful as they are that, for most men and women, the drearily self-consistent form which human history has displayed to date is one of scarcity, struggle, and violence. Would, indeed, that the postmodernists were right, and that no such metanarrative existed. But that it does exist--though this is more apparent from some locations within the present than it is from others--is no doubt one reason why Marx refuses to dignify the human story so far with the word "history" at all. For him, it has all been so far mere "pre-history," since the conditions for that genuine history which would be free, collective self-determination have not yet fully come into being.


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Superstructures are necessary in a Marxist view not because of the kind of bodies we have, but because the productive activity to which these bodies give rise generates certain social contradictions. If we need a superstructure, then, it is because the "base" is self-divided, fissured by certain antagonisms. And the function of a superstructure, by and large, is to help manage these contradictions in the interests of a ruling class. To claim that this is the function of a superstructure, however, is very different from claiming that that is the function of a school, or a television station, or a law court, or a senate. As to that, it may or may not be, depending on which particular aspect of the institution, in which particular time or place, you have in mind. A TV station behaves "superstructurally" when it puts out a lot of lies to whitewash the state, but not superstructurally when it informs you that a deep depression is moving in from Iceland. A school forms part of the superstructure when it has its students salute the national flag, but not when it teaches them to tie their shoelaces. Law courts act superstructurally when they protect private property, but not when they protect senior citizens.


The word "superstructure," in other words, reifies a range of political or ideological functions to an immovable ontological region. A practice or institution behaves superstructurally when, and only when, it acts in some way to support a dominant set of social relations. It follows that an institution may be superstructural at one time but not at another. It follows also that its various functions may be in conflict on this score. Much of what we do is in fact neither superstructural nor infrastructural. You can study a literary work as part of material production, which is to treat it infrastructurally; or you can scrutinize it for symptoms of collusion with a dominant power, which is to read it superstructurally; or you can simply count up the number of commas, which is to do neither.