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Against the Base/Superstructure Metaphor

Nate Holdren and I have written an essay on the base/superstructure metaphor for Legal Form. We argue that law is not an epiphenomenal reflection of an allegedly primary economic “base.” It is, instead, a moment in the totality of capitalist social relations of production:

[T]he base/superstructure metaphor is inherently and unavoidably premised on economism (unsurprisingly, since the metaphor originates within classical political economy, not its critique). Economism is a double-faceted mistake. One facet consists of insisting that the economy constitutes the source, cause, or ultimate determinant of other social relations, including legal relations. The second facet consists of taking a domain of society called “the economy” as given. (Those who criticize Marx as economistic typically accuse him of the first facet of the mistake, while themselves still caught up in the second.) One of the central claims of the critique of political economy is that we all produce the “economy”–albeit behind our backs–through struggle and antagonism. What we typically call “the economy”, then, has a certain social validity, but only within capitalist social relations. There are no such things as eternally or universally valid economic laws; rather, “economic laws are inverted forms of definite social relations” (a point to which we shall return below).

Responses to the charge of “economism” tend to undermine the explanatory power typically claimed on behalf of the base/superstructure model or yield an insufficiently critical account of political economy. Ultimately, the base/superstructure metaphor naturalizes the bourgeois antinomy between state and civil society, rather than critiquing it. It also effaces the ways in which juridical and economic relations are mutually constituted, as well as their reproduction through class struggle. We find no compelling reason to retain the base/superstructure metaphor.

Read the whole thing here.