Intro to Reading Like a Marxist (and not a boss)

This post is specifically for my students, but hey, if you need a brush-up on marxist criticism, read on!

You have to know something of Marxism in order to study how class operates in our culture.  If you are using Marxism, then you need to accept the following as facts

  1.  Class is one of the most important aspects/developments in human history.
  2. You know that Karl Marx said, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Based on this knowledge, you will see all human relationships are always already in conflict because of class division.
  3. Class is fundamental to identity formation.

Terms You Need to Know – (use these to critique your friends and family members – they’ll LOVE it)

 Base and Superstructure

Base and superstructure are terms derived from Marx’s book  Das Capital in which he claims that a person’s life is a “social production” and is NOT BASED ON FREE WILL.  That is, all of our decisions, relationships and so forth are heavily mediated, if not completely directed by the economic structures of society.  This economic structure is the foundation of society as a whole.  Marxist theorists call the economic foundation (in our case a capitalist system) the “base,” [and a linguistic theorist like Bal calls it a “discourse”], and ideologies form the superstructure.  This idea is important because it suggests that what you believe , enjoy, care about, desire, etc…is a result of or based on the economic foundation of the society you live in.

Think of it this way

  1.  We live in a consumer society: this is the base.
  2. The Internet and teevee have become the primary cultural medium for advertising consumer goods.  They are basically vehicles for commercials (and intrusive, obnoxious ones at that).
  3. Consequently, the Internet and teevee affirm the legitimacy of consuming life.  Take a quick look at  At least 99.9% of what the Oprah site contains relates to mass consumption.  She gives away cars; she discusses how to live the “best” life, which entails buying the right goods (e.g. Oprah’s “favourite things”).  She isn’t telling you to go sit in a field and think about Aristotelian ethics for a while – no way.  The Oprah site and Oprah Network (the name of her network is “OWN”, for crying out loud)  need you to buy from The Gap, for example.
  4. The superstructure of the Internet and teevee reinforces the base economic structure by serving the discourse of capitalism and its attendant ideologies and mythologies.

Here’s another example

  1. We live in a consumer society: this is the base
  2. Hip Hop culture seems rebellious towards cultural norms and values, but is obsessed with consumption (e.g. Fifty Cent’s flick Get Rich or Die Trying)
  3. Even though HipHop and Rap seems rebellious, it is actually a complicit superstructure that serves the discourse of capitalism and its attendant ideologies and mythologies.  Yes, the proletariat (working class) moves up in the world, but the proletariat cannot escape the base and superstructure.  He or she cannot think of life outside of the terms dictated by the economic base of capitalism.

 Bourgeoisie and Proletariat

The bourgeoisie are members of the social class who are in the upper or entrepreneurial class, whose status or power comes from employment, education, and wealth as opposed to aristocratic origin (Wikipedia). These are business people; their high position in society rests on their current access to capital, not their blood lines, like the aristocratic class (who are often portrayed as “heroes” in literature). One of the more damaging ideologies related to the bourgeoisie class is the American Dream (which is also part of Canadian culture), which is a fantasy that claims anyone can make it to the bourgeois class if that person just tries hard enough.

The proletariat are the working class or anyone who does not have access to the elite trappings of the upper classes.  Common working people produce the wealth for the upper classes but they don’t have access to that wealth for a variety of reasons, including privatization.  The proletariat are deluded through ideology (that which glosses over the real conditions of existence) to believe that they “belong” in their social station or class. Literary works, such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) operate to naturalize class structures and prove that there is a natural ruling class and an equally natural labour or proletariat class. Wister designs the Virginian, the main character, as a cowboy who has the “natural” talent to rise through the ranks of the ranch hierarchy to become manager. He must continually struggle to retain and restrain his cowboy labourer workforce.  In the following analysis, the Virginian has defeated the ring leader of the cowboys who wanted to leave the ranch and pan for gold as an independent worker.  He must now convince the other labourers not to leave the ranch:

(note: this is an example of a marxist reading of a literary work that also incorporates issues of race)

Once the Virginian has defeated Trampas (his nemesis), he faces the group of cowboys and asks a series of questions designed to exert further control and solidify his position. Before the Virginian speaks, the narrator supplies the Virginian with corporate ethos by referring to him solely as “deputy foreman” (148). This attribution of authority allows the Virginian to ask a tag question, “And you [the cowboys] insisted on playing the game with me this way, yu’ see” (148). While Wister does not use a question mark after the phrase “yu’ see,” it is still a tag question that demands confirmation of the assertion located in the main part of the sentence (Fowler 145). The lack of a question mark designates the tone of the tag as ending on a low note rather than the raised pitch of a question, which would suggest subservience. The Virginian’s authoritative tone, corporate ethos, and decorous lies persuade his men to agree that they brought their subordination on themselves. He is not responsible for their apparent inability to understand that they are, in fact, inferior.

But why shouldn’t the cowboys head for the gold rush with Trampas? Louis Owens answers, “While a superficial reader might argue that the cowboys have the freedom to go where they like—at least in theory—a careful reading shows that the Virginian intervenes as a tool for corporate ranching to deny them that freedom” (86). It is not unreasonable that Trampas and the cowboys exert free will and choose to leave the outfit, but good reasons, or logos, have little to do with sustaining the ruling class. Owens draws a stunning parallel between the treatment of “Indians” and cowboys in Wister’s diegetic and social worlds: “Just as the Indians are expected to remain on their reservations and out of the way, the cowboys are supposed to remain on the range or in the bunkhouse as a stable workforce” (86). Through the use of linguistic tricks and deception, the Virginian ensures that his cowboy herd will remain a stable(d) workforce (Find the whole article here).


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