Project 1-3: Base and Superstructure

This project requires reading a section on ‘Base and Superstructure’ from Daniel Chandler’s article on ‘Marxist MediaTheory’ Accessed July 2014

In his introduction, Chandler recognises that although neo-Marxist approaches to media theory were common in Britain and Europe from the late 1960s – early 80s there was no common school of thought and also that the jargon used often seems impenetrable to the uninitiated. The neo-Marxists  tend to emphasise the role of the mass media in the reproduction of the status quo. An opposing view is provided by liberal pluralists who contend that media promotes freedom of speech.

What did Marx mean by ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’?

The terms ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ describe the relationship between the economic base: the forces and relations of production or labour and economics, and, the superstructure: the state, legal, political and ideological forms or social systems and consciousness. The theory is expressed in “The German Ideology” (1845-6 Marx and Engels) and the preface of “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859 Marx).

Marx argues that the mode of production of material life (the base) determines social, political and intellectual life (the superstructure) and that the ruling ideas/dominant ideology of any given historical period are those of the ruling class. Changes in the economic base of society will eventually transform the entire ideological superstructure, however, the superstructure is unable to influence the base.

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

Agreement with the base/superstructure model suggests that the messages carried by mass media are rooted in the economic base of the institutions that produce them. That is, in order to viable organisations must maximise their potential audience-they do this to satisfy the needs of advertisers that provide their revenue. Media institutions that are controlled by the state tend to gravitate toward the middle ground politically. Applying the base/superstructure model to mass media provides an inherent concern over ownership and control of the media. In classical Marxist terms the mass media are a means of production in the ownership of the ruling class perpetuating their ideas and world views and denying alternative ideas.

Critics of an economic explanation of mass media behaviour argue that the base/superstructure model fails to account for diversity and the role of the audience in mass media, that is, the relationship between base and superstructure is not purely one way and can be reciprocal. Although the balance of power is not even and is often in a state of flux.

The classical Marxist reading of base/superstructure seems both appealing and too simplistic to me: I believe notions such as a ‘free press’ and ‘objective reporting’ (if news media is taken as an example) are too readily taken as truth and not analysed sufficiently. The modern media is unrecognisable from what Marx would have understood in the 19thC: it can no longer be said that the media solely perpetuates the ideology of the ruling class as there are now too many avenues of communication, I think particularly of the information that can be found on the internet. Perversely the huge amount of information that is available to us through new media goes some way to validate more traditional forums as they have a cache of respectability and trust-perhaps freedom of information is a myth? Powerful media moguls (such as Rupert Murdoch) in modern capitalist society are significant and not something anticipated by Marx. If the state is the prevailing influence on media why is endorsement of media organisations so important to politicians?

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

In modern British/western society there is an almost accepted view that we live in an independent and autonomous way with freedom of thought, movement and the ability to better ourselves. Similarly, it is commonly accepted that the media operates outside of political influence. The opposite view of this is that we merely experience the illusion of being able to change our way of life (it has been said that the gulf between rich and poor has never been wider) and that there is little we can do to affect the world in which we live. This idea is kept in check because the media fails to report it and is therefore complicit with the ruling elite. (If those in power are not an elite how do we explain so many cabinet ministers from privileged public school background?) Like the base/superstructure model these opposing views are too simplistic, in my view there are elements of truth on both sides. The idea of a controlling elite either in government or the media does not take into account the way many elements of society and the media interact.

In modern capitalism the media needs to be funded somehow, advertising is the main vehicle for this and media organisations can be seen as subservient to advertisers meaning there content is conservative in nature as they do not wish to upset those that keep there business going-no brand would want to be associated with a media organisation that is too controversial.

The definition of base/superstructure described by Marx makes more sense to me when applied to society as this can be more closely allied with the Marxist view of capitalist society even though modern capitalism has evolved immeasurably since Marx was writing. Because the modern media is so different to anything Marx could have understood base/superstructure seems less relevant. The relationship between media organisations and society seems much more complex and far reaching than the theory can allow especially today when we all have the ability to create our own media and make it available to almost everyone through digital technology and the internet.


I have found this to be an extremely challenging exercise as (while interesting) the text we are asked to read does not give sufficient information to answer the questions posed. The subject is vast and more importantly extremely controversial with many opposing points of view and differing approaches. I wonder how much posing these questions at this point of the course is a deliberate strategy to push the student out of their comfort zone? I have found myself considering the questions here at length and not really getting any cut through. With the previous two projects I felt that (although I do not pretend to yet fully understand) I had made progress and was starting to tackle new ways of thinking. With this exercise I feel more uncertain and less informed than when I started, my knowledge of the subject is not sufficient to be able to have yet formulated a full opinion. If I consider this logically however I can appreciate how this can be a benefit-I know that Marxist theory and many of the sources quoted appear again later in the course, hopefully as I progress I will absorb more theory and gain better understanding. Despite this I do feel guilty moving on as I know there is so much more reading I could have done….the danger however is that I would get hung up on this rather than progressing with the course, hopefully I will revisit again in the future.

Keywords and concepts for research:

Marxism (neo-Marxism, orthodox Marxism, classical Marxism, fundamentalist Marxism, Culturalist Marxism) scientific socialism, materialistic theories (dialectical materialism, scientific materialism, historical materialism) post-structuralism, post modern, dialectical method (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal pluralism, functionalism, social being, social consciousness, political economy.

Key figures for further research:

Marx, Engels, Hegel, Curran, Murdock, Althusser, Lapsley and Westlake, Hirst, Hall, Gramsci.