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-1Joe Whitener

Reflection 3 1

Can a systems theoretical approach to the crises of a capitalist economic system contribute a

successful revision to Marx’s base::superstructure metaphor? It is to answering this question that

our attention is presently devoted. In doing so, we might begin by offering an overview of our

subject matter.

Quite correctly, Marx conceives of a socio-political community into which each of us is

born, and in which we must remain. Our lives represent a series of physical needs, the attainment of

which, is the collective product of our labors. The collectivity of labor among a community of men

constitutes a relation of labor; the manner in which relations of labor are performed, constitutes a

mode of production. The relations of labor coupled with the modes of production, in turn,

constitute the economic base from which the laborer’s ideological consciousness should emerge.

I hold it to be self-evident (if I may be permitted the liberty) that this model is successful in

explaining: (a.) the relationship between relations of production and products of human

consciousness and (b.) the separate, historical modes of production in which the relationships are

embodied. It is far from clear, however, how Marx’s model can explain the sustainability of any

given historical relationship solely on the basis of its perceived level of efficiency. A more

profitable enterprise (at least from the systems theoretical standpoint) is to examine how the

ideological superstructure attempts to avert the crises that the economic base advances. How, might

we ask, does a system “legitimate” itself amidst a culture of (first) economic and (then) political


The political-economic regime conceived of as a “system,” replaces the base::superstructure

relation with a network of separate, autonomous subsystems that collectively constitute the state

proper. Each subsystem itself possesses specific capacities (production, knowledge, expertise,

wealth, power, and so on,) each of which relies on and sustains the existence of the other(s). A

systems theoretical treatment regards this network of subsystems as a unified whole, yet seeks to

examine the whole only in relation to the parts of which it is composed.

In so doing, the theory attempts to realize which subsystems are unique to a specific system,

and the manner in which they collaborate with one another. With an understanding of inter-

systemic interaction, we may identify the potential crisis tendencies in each subsystem, as well as

the practical activities from which crises may arise. This, in turn, gives rise to “steering capacities”

which may be employed by the state to avert specific “legitimation crises.” Despite their form,

steering capacities attempt to rationalize the action(s) of the subsystem(s) to which the crises are

directed, and isolate their functioning(s) from the economic base from which the crises arose.

The value of systems theory, is that in exposing a vast panoply of crisis tendencies in a

functional system, it identifies the existence of an ultimate crisis of legitimation that, theoretically,

cannot be averted. I do not deny the plausibility of this approach; nor do I fail to recognize its

superior explanatory capacities relative to Marx’s base::superstructure metaphor. I am, however,

hesitant to accept its conclusion as valid universally, if for no other reason, than it presupposes the

ultimate failure of steering capacities to avert crises.

Though there are indeed physical and ideological limitations to every action, there are also

gradations in the efficiency of addressing crises of legitimation. Simply because the state must

eventually orient itself completely to legitimating its existence to its economic subsystem at the

expense of legitimation over the other (far less influential) subsystems, does not, in my view,

necessarily entail its collapse; it only suggests its descent into a society to be saturated (once only

dampened) with exploitation.