Base and Superstructure


Project: Base and Superstructure                                               29.10.16


The following notes are based on the OCA handbook.


Marxism: Haveland (2009:22-23) discusses Marxism . The idea that capitalist society is a class battle for domination between the ruling and working classes, which is dominated by the ruling classes. The battle is played out in an arena which includes the media. Das Kapital (by Marx and Engels) was a critique of capitalism, and a plan to overthrow the system. Society is best analysed via the economic relationships between Ruling and Working classes. As the working classes are the most exploited they will be the most likely to overthrow the system.


Marxist philosophy = Dialectical materialism


The political strand = historical or scientific materialism


Marxism types: various exist, eg.  Orthodox Marxism, neo Marxism,


For an Orthodox Marxist:


Base is the economic base (ie industry, owned by the ruling class)


Superstructure is everything else which is built upon this eg. services, arts, education,


Other Marxist strands tend to disagree on what constitutes the Base and Superstructure.


In late 19th C many artists and thinkers were inspired by this philosophy eg.  HG Wells, William Morris.  


Dialectical argument: not a new idea, Marx used it, and refined it, developing from Hegel’s work.


Thesis (argument for) + antithesis (argument against) = Synthesis (the best explanation /correct answer as it stands, in this time)




Media are part of the system, and cannot but reflect the ruling classes. They use frameworks which reflect the ruling class- though they may think they are unbiased. The proletariat’s ability to identify/rebel against this is limited, because they have no access to other frameworks from which to compare. 


Marxist Media Theory


Daniel Chandler discusses various aspects of Marxism and the Mass Media (Chandler, 1995)




Marxist approaches to analysing media were common in the early 80’s, and are still around today (though less common). There are no single Marxist schools of thought however. (Marxist analysers include?) Marxism theories emphasise the idea of media as a power for the ruling class status quo, whereas Liberalist theories emphasise its potential for freedom of speech (analogy between Labour and Liberal politics?).Marxist theories develop ideas as a reaction to the ‘functionalist’ theory of society which allows all elements of society to run together smoothly- Marx allows for social conflict in society. (Usually methods of analysis should allow lots of different perspectives. This allows for a dialectical  argument. ‘Its not black and white’- ‘its six of one and half a dozen of the other’).


The Pluralist view was common from the 40’s in US society (Hall,1982: cited in Chandler, 1995: p1), and says that the media is autonomous from state and political parties, allows a range of views, and that it is in an equal relationship with the audience, who can also influence the media, based on their choice to consume (Gurevitch et al. 1982, cited in Chandler 1995: p1).   In contrast Marxism thinks of the media as described above, as part of the power of the ruling elite.


(can you  think of examples in the media??Mcarthyism in the 60 s as a response to Marxist media? The Leveson report into hacking, The Sun and Hillsborough)


Base and Superstructure


Classical Marxism holds that the economy (the base) is the basis of everything- that it determines social, intellectual, and political life (superstructure). This is also called Economism, or materialism Applied to the mass media, Marxism is concerned with its ownership and control (Chandler,1995:2) Traditional views are that all types of media are determined by the economics (base) of the institutions which produce them. It s messages are therefore concerned with advertising products and ideas to the proletariat, or maximising audience numbers, thereby promoting class inequality. Institutions controlled by political or state entities are more concerned with the middle ground or concensus (Curran et al. 1982, cited in Chandler, 1995: 2).


Can I think of examples of the ways media is controlled by economics? Rupert Murdoch monopoly on media- money gives him power to sell his views (inc. SKY which is massive! )- Conservative party political. Does this pay for the ear of politicians?. Race to the bottom- broadcasting trashy tv which appeals to mass market, so that they will consume the adverts- not educational…..adverts are for crisps, pop, beer, (cigarettes years ago)- all are harmful. Any adverts for  being kind, helping neighbours, a few asking for charity (headed by rich stars-false consciousness?).


However the economist view has been criticised, and Althussarean Marxists regard the media as relatively autonomous from the economic base, and also able to influence the base (going the wrong direction for classical Marxists). Such Marxism is termed ‘Cultural Marxism’ (ibid).


Media as a means of Production


Classical Marxists hold with the extreme idea that media is a means of economic production, and thus controlled by the ruling classes. It’s ideas are therefore designed to control the working class and deny them any counter-structure. This extreme view denies that there is any diversity of opinion in the ruling class or the media, and that the working class are unable to see any alternative views or oppose the ‘false consciousness’ that the media produces within them (Chandler, 1995: 3). 


Have changes in the modes of media in the 21 C affected /not affected the ideas here ?


Initially we had newspaper, then radio, TV, and finally Internet, TV channels are digital, and often pay per view, BBC licence. There are certainly more ways to consume media now-its everywhere, but is the media diverse/hold diverse ideas? Who decides what’s shown on BBC news? BBC salaries were criticised- eg celebrities and higher management- tends towards the view that they are the Ruling class.


What  sort of TV  empowers the  working class ? Big brother – yes or no??? Benefits Britain-yes or no? There may be arguments both ways- eg allowing  ‘normal’ people  some stardom, but are  these people  ‘normal’ or pathological? Does it promote a broken subset for us to laugh at- and  forget our oppression?




Classical Marxism states that the consciousness of beings depends on their social position, and that the dominant consciousness is therefore that of the ruling classes (the Materialist view). However, other strands believe that individual consciousness is more important (The Idealistic view) .Classical Marxists hold that the media produce a false consciousness, by sending messages (the dominant ideology) which suit the ruling classes (Chandler, 1995:4). They also conceal the economics of class struggle. Althusser thought that ideology is a force in itself, (so could be determined by ourselves?), and that it was irreducible and material (Curran et al. 1982, cited in Chandler, 1995:4). Volosinov, stated that abstract ‘consciousness’ cannot form ideologies, but that ideologies based on the material world must form consciousness (Chandler, 1995:4).


What Marxists do you know of ? Which type are they? Paul Foot, Glasgow Marxists, John Reed (labour now), Fidel Castro,


How does Marxism relate to Communism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Leninism?. Were they all inspired by  it –did they corrupt it /change it??


Media  as amplifiers


The Marxist view of media is that they do not challenge the accepted, legitimate opinion , and therefore are working for the  ruling class. So for example the portrayal of violence – will legitimise state control of law and order, and the negative attitudes to dissidents/dissenters. Traditional Marxists like Stuart Hall, say that the media amplifies the message of powerful bodies such as the Police, the Law, the Schools,  rather than creating different frameworks or views. Additionally  the media coverage of elections dramatises and thus reinforces the idea that voting allows voters legitimate access to democracy, according to their ideology,  when in fact this is only offering the parties that the ruling class institutions want us to choose between, and not  parties which may actually help the working class to become more equal (Curran et al. 1982, cited in Chandler,1995:5).


Constitution of the subject


Marxism distinguishes the individual who is made by nature, and the subject, who is the product of societal influences (the object). Individuals are constituted by receiving positions within a society (Bennet,1982, cited in Chandler,1995:5). Althusser rejects that humans determine their consciousness through their own acts eg. Wants, ideals,  intentions. He believes they gain their consciousness through the action of society and in accepting societal roles, through institutions such as school, family, media etc. They have their social identity interpellated via Ideological State Apparatusses (ISA’s). This fits with a structuralist interpretation of the subject’s consciousness, and the Media interpellate the ideas they want the individual to imbibe in order to become a subject. Althusser did not accept that the individual could resist this interpellation, but ISA’s are not always successful (Lapsley & Westlake 1988,cited in Chandler, 1995:5). Althusserian Marxists also think of  the subject as unified, whereas he may have a range of views across a range of social discourses ( this is presumably due to more autonomy). Neo-Marxists grant the consumer more choice and autonomy when viewing the texts transmitted by the media, with the possibility of them changing the text themselves (having influence), as well as viewing the text within their own sociological framework (Curran et al. 1982, cited in Chandler,1995:5).




How are you shaped by the media? Are you typical or atypical ? Why?


Differences between Marxists.


Three different views are common. The basic Economist view is that the media controls the message which the people imbibe, and the message is controlled by the media’s economic circumstances eg. Subservience to the ruling elites (an example would be?).Halfway between is the Structuralist view (an example would be Althusser), that the media control the  message, but the people are able to see the message in the context of  their own social class and circumstances. At the far end is the culturalist view (an example would be Stuart Hall), who say that not only is the media message not completely determined by the economic base, but the message is assimilated within an individual’s consciousness and position, and that the society is diverse, and can have different views and reactions (including those who work in the media) (Curran et al. 1982, cited in Chandler, 1995:6).


The Frankfurt School


This school was the first to attempt Marxist analysis of mass media  It included Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and they revised the economist view (Gurevitch et al. 1982,cited in Chandler,1995:7). Marcuse was very pessimistic about society and the power of the media, which precluded any individuality within either the Bourgoisie (to dictate) , or the working classes (to revolt).


The means of… communication…, the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers… to the producers and, through the latter to the whole [social system]. The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood… Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behaviour.


(Marcuse, 1972, cited in Bennett 1982: 43).


This group applied the term ‘culture industry’ to the wide range of media operations (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1972, cited in Bennett 1982: 31).




This French Marxist was against the essentialism of both Economism, and Humanism. He  held that the individual was shaped through ideologies which were imagined/experienced through  ISA’s- though they may mistakenly feel  they were moulded through individual choices. His views hold that the mass media interpellates  the text onto the subject, but many Marxists (see Volosinov and Gramsci) believe that the subject can affect the interpretation of  text (Chandler 1995, 8).




He rejected Economism, and also the ideological mechanism, and held that a humanist self-determining effect produced the subject’s consciousness, and this included human subjectivity (and diversity?). He thought that the ruling class was a hegemony which controlled the lower class via economics, politics, (and media communications?) However this acceptance of the dominant ideology required a willingness from the subject. This view also posited a struggle and a constant appraisal of the system, because of the disconnect between ideology and social/class circumstances Fiske 1992, cited in chandler, 1995: 8). The mass media was one way that the struggle was played out (Chandler, 1995:8).


How does censorship fit in the analysis?Is the BBC biased ? HOW?


Stuart Hall


He is a left wing (culturalist) Marxist.  He posits that the media do tend to reinforce frameworks of the ruling class, but claims their relative autonomy, and that they provide a place where the power struggle can take place.  The news is a secondary definer, which has less influence than the primary definers of state and government (Woollacott 1982: cited in Chandler 1995;9). He wrote an important analysis of how people read texts (Encoding, Decoding, 1980), where he described three levels of reading; the dominant, negotiated and  oppositional levels  are undertaken by those who  are within,  partially within , or completely outside the  dominant social culture- but he stresses that meaning is not  completely arbitrary ie. not completely  up to the reader/viewer to decide Hall, 1980, cited  in Chandler 1995:8).


Weaknesses of Marxist Interpretations


Classical Marxist interpretations (eg. Of the ‘false consciousness) have been thought of as too simple,   and denying any power to working class or the media viewer. They therefore deny us the tools to adequately analyse the subtleties within the mass media.  Sometimes they are theory based , but sometimes they have empirical evidence. Neo Marxists have attempted to refine the ideas, and allow for  diversity of thought and behaviours, and social groupings other than class, such as ethnicity and gender (Chandler, 1995:9).


Strengths of Marxist interpretations


Marxism helps us to consider the underlying value judgements and biases which may be behind  social research (ie it may not be impartial).  It helps us to understand the  inequalities of economics, and social class that may lie within a text.  Neo Marxists such as Althusser, Adorno, Hall, lets us to analyse in a more sophisticated way than classical Marxism allows. The analysis of the text and meanings of the  media are important, but Marxist theory reminds us that we still need to examine any inherent biases, such as ownership and mode of production, representation of minorities, and access to media sources (Chandler, 1995:11).


Can you analyse your favourite films from the different Marxist perspectives?


Additional research:


…….Marx and Engels identified six successive stages in a society’s development:


  • Primitive Communism, as seen in co-operative tribal societies.
  • Slave Society, which develops when the tribe becomes a city-state, and aristocracy is born.
  • Feudalism, where aristocracy is the ruling class, and merchants develop into capitalists.
  • Capitalism, where capitalists are the ruling class, and create and employ the true working class.
  • Socialism (or “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”), where the workers gain class consciousness, overthrow the capitalists and take control over the state.
  • Communism, where a classless and stateless society has evolved.


Summary: Lenin was the first to put Marxism into practice whenthe Russians overthrew a (minimally) capitalist state, and developed a socialist/communist USSR.  Stalin took over later, and Trotsky said his system was not based on Marxism. After WW 2 many states became Socialist/Communist- encouraged by USSR (with military backing)  eg. China, Eastern European countries, Romania, East Germany, Albania, Cambodia, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Vietnam, …. All these systems collapsed, was this because Marxism is flawed?  Or because they were not properly Marxist? (Mastin,2008).




Questions for my BLOG


1.      What did Marx mean by Base and superstructure?


Marx categorised the Base as society’s economic means of production, which in his view were controlled only by the Ruling Class or Bourgoisie. The Superstructure was classified as all the other parts of society which were built upon this base, including social relationships, education, political systems, justice (and presumably religion-though Marx was an atheist). Marx’s view, like Orthodox (or Economist) Marxist’s in general, was that in a Capitalist society, power and influence were only exerted from the Base onto the superstructure elements, and that the relationship could not be reversed. This means that the working classes are controlled absolutely by the Ruling classes who are in charge of  the means of production.


2.      Of the different ways of looking at the subject outlined by Chandler, which makes most sense to you and why?


The various strands of  Marxism (economist, structuralist, cultural) provide different tools for  the analysis of  the complex system of Society, and more specifically the Media. This has to be a good thing, but dogmatism and absolute analyses of systems is probably best avoided.  Analysis of the Media will depend partly upon the analyser (variation of,  and biases,  in the observer), and partly  on the particular time and place being analysed (variation amongst the ‘population’ of media examples).


In discussing the media as I experience them in 21st Century UK society I think that the Economist view of classical Marxist’s has an element of truth, and is useful (to the extent that it  reminds us of the inherent danger of  believing that our perceived consciousness is our own – it may indeed be a False Consciousness.  The Economist view is too dogmatic and polarised to be useful by itself. However there are indeed aspects of the media which I interpret as veering towards a massive  power inequality between the advertisers- media companies (they are related via commerce) and the viewer/consumer. 


 The power of advertising to control what people buy, is one example. Take Payday loans which are advertised ad nauseum during commercial breaks for tv programmes targeted at a low income audience (Even the Church of England were involved in Investments in WONGA payday loans at one point!). This normalises the framework of high interest loans , which normalise and obscures the inequalities of opportunity for poorer people. The high penalties also produce more ‘cashlessness’ when the people targeted cannot pay back in time (thus making the loan company (at the ‘Base’ ) even more rich and powerful.  Adverts pleading for us to make the right choice and buy a bigger car, or a more expensive TV function in the same way due to the working classes enforced reliance on credit to achieve technological ‘goals’.


A more realistic and moderate view is that the viewer has some control over his actions as to what products he should buy, and that the adverts broadcast are under some control (increasingly so) – the companies are not at liberty to communicate any text (in a broad sense of the message) whatsoever. For example no one is physically (or psychologically?) forced to buy a new television, and the advertising standards agency which is independent of manufacturers, prevent explicit misinformation being provided in an advert. My point of view here is that of a Cultural Marxist.


In terms of television programmes and their content, I feel that the economic base manifests less power than during advertisements-and  are thus less damaging.Separating the objects of advert/programme  is useful because there are channels (such as the BBC channels, or NETFLIX) where one is not subject to advertisements, but one pays a fee to view.  This would seem healthier, more transparent, and less subject to power abuse than commercial channels (the programme content is directly linked to the fee to view, and the choice to pay the fee, not hidden within an advert).


 So if we take a relatively non political ‘blockbuster’ film ( I feel the need to qualify almost every other word, sentence and argument here- a sign that hidden meanings and symbols are rife within this subject!) , shown on BBC1, we  may be dealing with a relatively innocuous communication of the  text to the viewer.  We must still remember though that there is a whole infrastructure within the BBC (Chairman, Board, commissioning editors, presenters, director/producer to name a few) that can indirectly influence power over the viewer’s thoughts and actions. These people and structures are what Althusser would term an Institution of the State.  Althusser would say that our ideology is gained through our experience of the text (content) interpellated onto us, which make us a subject (of the BBC/the film in this instance) and  not an individual of free consciousness.


If we take the media coverage of domestic UK politics, I tend to favour an orthodox /classical Marxist   analysis. The BBC’s coverage of Westminster politics- with its dramatic concentration on inter- party strife, political misdemeanours, and a Right v Left dialectic, rather than on POLICIES, seems to transmit a false consciousness to the working class viewers. It attempts to outwardly include them in politics (they do have a vote), but conceals the fact that although Parties and Prime ministers may change, there is less evidence that the poor and under priveliged are ever helped out of their predicament, by any ruling party. This view


3.      Does your understanding of base and superstructure vary depending on whether you are looking at society in general or the media and the arts?


As discussed above, my view of mass media is that there are elements of several strands of Marxism within it, so the classic components of Base and Superstructure, and the power relationships may hold true to an extent, but not totally.  I think this is also the case with society in general. Objects in society might include political systems, education, the law and justice, and religion.


Let us take religion. Classical analysis would hold that the means of production control the church and religion. This is interesting, given the Wonga story above, but is a little far-fetched. If we take the Church of England, the ‘boss’ on earth is the Archbishop of Canterbury. He would argue that the C of E is relatively independent of ruling structures, and that the main focus of its work is on the formation of a more equal society, and of fostering altruistic values. In fact he would place religion at the Base of the Superstructure.


 However, the Church of England does have a lot of Money, Land and Power, hierarchical system of Government (inc. bishops and vicars), and occasionally corruption within it. In this respect it could be analysed as being dependent on the ruling class, and the economic base. Additionally it was formed by Henry Ⅷ as a sign of his power and dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church, which made it a tool of the most powerful man in England at this time!


What of education? Again I can see several sides of an argument.  Let’s take secondary education. The quality of education of 11-18 year olds is very much dependent on the quality of the school (the building), and the teachers, and the national curriculum, and perhaps also on parental help and guidance.  A good education is seen as perhaps the most important ingredient in doing well in society being happy, healthy, and prosperous (not just in economic terms, but that does come into it).


How much is a member of the proletariat able to influence the quality of his/his child’s education?  I would say only a little. The quality of school becomes a function of the house prices in the local area, private education is too expensive, and the national curriculum is set by the government, and influenced by teachers.  The teaching profession is in crisis, and the quality of teachers is not always as good as we’d like. So education is affected by many economic factors from the Base, and the ability of the individual to influence this is small. They do at least have a vote- if we believe that any political party’s education policy would be better.






Chandler, D. (1995). Marxist Media Theory at (accessed on 5th November 2016).


Haveland, P. (2009)  Visual Studies 1 Understannding Visual Culture. Barnsley : Open College of the Arts  


Mastin, L. (2008). The Basics of Philosophy at (accessed 5th November 2016).












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