Monopoly capitalism: The superstructure in the base

I’m getting a great deal of pleasure out of John Bellamy Foster’s first book (actually his PhD) The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (largely a study and defence of the theories of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy). I’m a whole of 40 pages in so I don’t want to comment too much just yet, for fear of cringing when I scan through previous posts in the future… But one thing that strikes me is the brilliant, yet controversial, move from the concept of surplus value with its high emphasis on productive labour to simply economic surplus. This move, while seemingly contradicting fundamental tenets of Marxist economics (Foster would argue that it is a logical extension), is necessitated by the realisation that unproductive labour has to a much greater degree than before entered into the stage of production itself (planned obsolescence, useless packaging to entice buyers, etc), so that “the distinction between workmanship and salesmanship has been blurred” (Baran and Sweezy, quoted p. 39, 1986). So, determining socially necessary costs becomes immensely difficult. This aspect has seemingly only increased over the decades since Baran and Sweezy’s initial insights, especially in the realms of information technology…

The explosion of ‘lifestyle’ consumerism is another example of unproductive labour entering into the realm of production itself – the commodity becoming an ‘advert for itself’. There is an interaction or blurring of base and superstructure going on, since the base requires the production of a certain kind of totally “formal use value” whose only function is to absorb potential economic surplus (p. 39), and then, in the contemporary situation, the kind of fetishising ideology that Zizek talks about then gets written into the being of commodity itself (this is beyond, but related to Marx’s theory of ‘commodity fetishism’). So, while individual consciousness can think what it likes on the level of superstructure, there is another, unconscious ‘superstructure’ that is, in away, in the base.

This also has ramifications for the category of the working class, of exploitation, and the idea of class struggle, and certainly goes some way to clarifying why the image of the (Western) proletariat as the rugged blue-collar worker needs to be destroyed. White collar workers, for instance would be exploited for their power to build or maintain the conditions of the reproduction of the social relations. But, the simple point is that it is not just that the producers of the means of the reproduction of the system (advertising consultants, academics, shop assistants), as opposed to the properly productive workers, have become more important (and so, in a way, we need them for a revolution, even though they aren’t really being exploited in the same way), but that properly productive workers have become bound up in nonproductive, ideology producing functions themselves!

This doesn’t in any way suggest that the working class is a united body (a class ‘for itself’). The subjective experience of class is, in part due to these lifestyle commodities themselves, immensely varied today…

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