The overturning of the superstructures

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

When the economy trembles, the whole superstructure that relies on it enters into crisis and decomposition. The manifestations of this decomposition are the characteristic elements of the decadence of a system.

Beginning as consequences of a system, they then most often become accelerating factors in the process of decline. Many a bourgeois historian, having seen the latter phenomenon, deduces from it that the superstructural elements are actually the main causes for the ending of a civilisation.

In this examination of superstructural elements, we will look at four phenomena which can be found both in the decadence of slavery and the decadence of feudalism. We will see that these are no historical coincidences, but definite symptoms of the decadence of a system.

These phenomena are:

1) the decomposition of the ideological forms that reigned in the old society;

2) the development of wars between factions of the ruling class;

3) the intensification and development of class struggles;

4) the strengthening of the state apparatus.

1) The decomposition of ideological forms


In a society divided into classes, the dominant ideology is necessarily the ideology of the dominant class. The scope for the enrichment and development of its ideological forms depends on the real capacity of the ruling class to persuade the whole of society to accept its rule. A society is only prepared to accept a given ideology as long as the economic system it is based on corresponds to that society’s needs. The more an economic system ensures prosperity and security, the more the human beings who live by it will identify with the ideas that justify it. In conditions of expansion, the injustices inherent in the economic relations can appear as no more than ‘necessary evils’; the belief that everyone can benefit from the system permits the development of democratic ideologies, above all within that part of society which benefits from it the most - the ruling class (the regime of the Republic corresponded to the most flourishing period of the Roman economy; in expanding feudalism, the king was merely a suzerain, elected as the first among equals).

Law itself is relatively little developed because the system corresponds sufficiently to the objective needs of society for most problems to be resolved by allowing things to take their course.

The sciences tend to develop, philosophy leans towards rationalism, towards optimism and confidence in mankind. Since the ugly side that belongs to any exploitative society is relatively well hidden by the state of prosperity, ideologies are less encumbered by the need to hide reality and justify the unjustifiable. Art itself tends to reflect this optimism and usually has its best moments in the periods of economic development (what is referred to as the ‘golden age’ of Roman art corresponds to the main period of the growth of the Empire, for example; similarly in the prosperous days of the 11th and 12th centuries, feudalism went through an immense artistic and intellectual renewal.

But when the relations of production turn into a straitjacket for the life of society, all the ideological forms corresponding to the existing order lose their roots, are emptied of content, and are openly contradicted by reality. In the decadence of the Roman empire, the ideology of the political power took on an increasingly supernatural and dictatorial form. In the same way feudal decadence was accompanied by the reinforcement of the idea of the divine origins of the monarchy and the privileges of the nobility, which were being severely battered by the mercantile relations being introduced by the bourgeoisie.

Philosophies and religions express a growing pessimism; confidence in mankind gives way to a fatalism and obscurantism (eg the development of Stoicism then of Neoplatonism in the Lower Roman Empire: the first talked about the elevation of man through pain, the second denied the capacity of man to grasp the problems of the world through reason).

The end of the Middle Ages saw the same phenomenon:

The period of stagnation saw the rise of mysticism in all its forms. The intellectual form with the ‘Treatise on the Art of Dying’, and above all, ‘The Imitation of Jesus Christ’. The emotional form with the great expressions of popular piety exacerbated by the influence of the uncontrolled elements of the mendicant clergy: the ‘flagellants’ wandered the countryside, lacerating their bodies with whips in village squares in order to strike at human sensibility and call Christians to repent. These manifestations gave rise to imagery of often dubious taste, as with the fountains of blood that symbolised the redeemer. Very rapidly the movement lurched towards hysteria and the ecclesiastical hierarchy had to intervene against the troublemakers, in order to prevent their preaching from increasing the number of vagabonds...Macabre art developed... the sacred text most favoured by the more thoughtful minds was the Apocalypse.” (Favier, op cit, p 152f).

All this reflected the growing gap between the relations reigning in society and the ideas about them which men had hitherto held to.

The only ideologies which could really develop in these periods was law, on the one hand, and, on the other, the ideologies which announced the new society.

In a society divided into classes law can only be the expression of the interests and will of the ruling class. It is the totality of rules that permit the proper functioning of the system of exploitation. Law goes through a period of growth at the beginning of the life of a social system, when the new ‘rules of the game’ are being established; but also at the end of a system, when reality rends the system ever more unpopular and inappropriate, and the ‘will’ of the ruling class becomes the most important thing keeping the old relations going. Law then represents the necessity to reinforce the oppressive framework necessary for the survival of a system that has now become obsolete. This is why law developed both in Roman decadence and during the decline of feudalism (Diocletian, the greatest Emperor of the Lower Empire, was also the one who produced the greatest number of edicts and decrees. Similarly from the 13th century onwards, the first collections of customary laws began to appear).

Parallel to this phenomenon there appear ideas advocating new types of social relations; they take on critical, rebellious and finally revolutionary forms. They are the justification for the new society. This phenomenon was particularly evident from the 15th century on in western Europe. Protestantism, particularly the form preached by Calvin, was a religion which, as opposed to Catholicism, allowed for the lending of money on interest (crucial for the development of capital); which taught spiritual elevation though work and glorified the successful man (thus opposing the ‘divine’ origins of the privileges of the nobility and justifying the new situation of the ‘parvenu’ bourgeois businessman); which put in question the supernatural character of the Catholic church (the main feudal landholder) and advocated the interpretation of the Bible by man without any intermediary. This new religion was an ideological element which announced and hastened the rise of capitalism.

Similarly, the development of bourgeois rationalism, whose ultimate expression was in the philosophers and economists of the 17th and 18th centuries, expressed the revolutionary element of the conflict into which society had entered.

Decomposition of the old ruling ideology, the development of the ideology of the new society, obscurantism against rationalism, pessimism against optimism, coercive law against constructive law, here, as Marx said, we find “the juridical, political, religious, artistic, philosophic, in short, the ideological forms through which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”.

2) The development of wars between factions of the ruling class


The prosperity of a system of exploitation allows there to be relative harmony between the exploiters, and thus there can be ‘democratic’ relations between them. When the system ceases to be viable, when profits diminish, harmony gives way to wars between the profiteers. Thus, in parallel to the brigandry that characterised the end of the Roman Empire and the Middle Age, there was a proliferation of wars between factions of the ruling class.

In Rome from the second century onwards there was a series of wars fought by knights, bureaucrats and army chiefs and senators and patricians:

“Between the years 235 and 285, out of the 26 Emperors who succeeded each other to the throne, only two died a natural death, and at one moment there were up to 30 claimants to the throne” ( SB Clough, op cit, p 142).

At the end of the Middle Ages wars between nobles took on such proportions that the western kings were forced to forbid them, and Louis IX went as far as to forbid the bearing of arms. The Hundred Years War was a phenomenon of this type.

When the ruling class can no longer escape the contradictions of its system and sees its profits declining  irreversibly, the most immediate solution is for each faction to grab hold of the wealth of their rivals; or at least to seize control of the conditions of production which allow this wealth to be produced (for example, the fiefs of the feudal epoch).

3) The intensification of class struggles


In the decadence of a system there are three phenomena which make the intensification of class struggles one of the main characteristics of these periods of decline:

- the development of poverty: we have already shown that the end of slavery and feudalism were regularly marked by famines, epidemics and the generalisation of poverty. We have seen what consequences this had within the privileged classes, but it was obviously the oppressed classes which suffered these scourges most intensely; this provoked them into more and more frequent riots and revolts;

 - the strengthening of exploitation: we have also shown how in a system in decadence, productivity can less and less be increased by technical means, so that the ruling classes are increasingly tempted to palliate this through the super-exploitation of labour. The latter is used up to the point of exhaustion. There is a whole growth in punishments for those who fail to do enough work...

Added to the poverty and suffering they are already enduring, this last factor can only accentuate the tendency towards the generalisation of struggles between the exploited and the exploiters. The reactions of the toiling classes are so violent, and in the end so damaging to the goal of increasing productivity, that at both in the end of the Roman Empire and in the late Middle Ages, there is a tendency to replace punishments by measures aimed at giving the labourers an ‘interest’ in their work (the emancipation of the slaves and the serfs) [1]

 - the struggle of the class that bears within it the seeds of a new society: in parallel to the revolts of the exploited, there is a development of the struggle of a new class (the great ‘feudal’ landowners at the end of the Roman Empire, the bourgeoisie at the end of feudalism), which begins to establish the bases of its own system of exploitation, which sap the bases of the old system. These classes are thus led to wage a permanent combat against the old privileged class.

During the course of this struggle, the revolts of the labouring classes always provides the force that these new classes themselves lack in their effort to supplant the old structures, now become completely reactionary (it’s only in the proletarian revolution that the class that carries within itself the germs of the new society is at the same time the exploited class).

All these elements explain the fact that the decadence of a society necessarily leads to a decisive renewal of class struggles. Thus, in the Lower Roman Empire:

the situation created by the deficiencies in production, an ever-increasing taxation, the devaluation of the currency and the growing independence of the large landowners had the consequence of further accentuating the political and social disorganisation and of leading to the disappearance of the principles that regulated relations between men...impoverished landowners, ruined merchants, labourers from the towns, colons, slaves, rioters and deserters from the army resorted to pillage in Gaul, Sicily, Italy, North Africa and Asia Minor. In 235 a wave of brigandry swept through the whole of northern Italy. In 238 civil war reigned in North Africa. In 268 the colons of Gaul attacked numerous towns, and in 269 a slave revolt  broke out in Sicily” (Clough, op cit, p 142).

“The breadth of the social movements affecting the Latin west in the 5th century is impressive. They shook all regions and especially Brittany, western Gaul, the north of Spain and Africa...” (Lucien Musset, Les Invasions, p 226).

It was the same at the end of the Middle Ages:

From the end of the 13th century labourers’ riots shook the Flemish towns. At the time of the Hundred Years War and the Italian divisions, it was the upsurge in urban misery that gave rise to the troops of vagabonds that wandered the countryside. It was very often the same kind of people in different countries, men with no land who became men with no work: the ‘Jacques’ of the French plains, the Tuchain of Languedoc, the Lollards of the English midlands, the Mallotins of Paris, the Coquillards of Bourgogne. Daring tribunes exploited their distress and put these revolts at the service of the political ambitions of a social group or individual. Etienne Marcel wanted to impose on the Dauphin the tutelage of a faction of the bourgeoisie...Van Atevelde had exploited the misery of the Flemish labourers, Cola di Rienzo, a ‘tribune of the people’ did the same with the lower orders who had been devastated by the excesses of the Roman aristocracy. In Florence, the revolt of the Ciompi, a hunger revolt, in the end served the interests of the Medicis...Thus, this stagnation, this fruit of divisions, war and social disorder led to pillages, riots and massacres...” (Favier, op cit p 137. See also Pirenne, op cit, p160f).

The revolutions of Cromwell in 1649 in England and the French revolution of 1789 were the spectacular culmination of the struggles provoked by the decline of feudal society and the birth of capitalism.

The history of economic systems can only be the history of the men who live within them. The development, conservation and supersession of a given society are the work of groups of men driven to act according to their economic position within a system. The capacity of a system to sustain itself is above all relative to the strength of the class which draws most profit from it; the strength of a new society is similarly related to the strength of the class which has the most interest in it.

Thus, it’s in the action of social classes that we see the concretisation of the objective forces that have plunged society into a contradiction. At a given moment, the class conflict is none other than the conflict between the reality of the development of the productive forces and the existing relations of production.

4) The strengthening of the state


If law represents the interests and will of the ruling class, the state is the armed force charged with ensuring that the law is obeyed. It is the guarantor of the order required for the exploitation of one class by another. Faced with the economic and social disorders that characterise the decadent phase of a system, the state can only be reinforced. “The development of the function leads to the development of the organ”.

 - Against social disorder: having emerged as the armed force of the ruling class, the state is essentially the servant of a class. However, it’s around this ‘servant’ that we see the clearest crystallisation of all the interests of the ruling class: its task is to maintain an overall, general order. In this sense it has a wider view of the functioning of the system - and of its necessities - than that of the individuals who compose the privileged class. Separated from society as a whole because it is an organ of oppression in the service of a minority, it is also distinguished from this minority by its character as a single, unified organ in contrast to the diversity of the factional or individual interests of the exploiters. Furthermore, the privileges of the state bureaucracy are closely linked to the proper functioning of the system as a whole. The state is thus not only the force that can attain a sufficiently global view of the economy, it is also the only one which has an immediate and vital interest in its good functioning.

Thus in periods of decadence the state is reinforced because it has to deal with a growing number of revolts by the oppressed class, but also because it is the only force that can ensure the coherence of the ruling class when it is pushed towards dispersal or tearing itself apart.

The development of the power of the Roman Emperor, above all from the second century onwards, as well as that of the feudal monarchy, had a real justification both in their respective struggles against the revolts of the oppressed and in their attempts to defend the reigning order by restricting the struggles between factions of the ruling class. The Emperor Septimus Severus (193-211) ended up confiscating “the properties of senators and urban businessmen in order to procure the necessary funds for paying the soldiers who assured his safety and power” (Clough); the Capetian monarchy developed at the expense of the great feudal lords.

In most cases, wars also constitute a powerful factor in the strengthening of the state apparatus. Only the state authority can carry out the regroupment of forces that war demands; the state always emerges stronger from such tests. This factor played a very important role in the strengthening of the feudal monarchy, particularly in France.

 - Against economic disorder: It is notable that there was a very strong development of state interventionism both during the decline of the Roman empire and during the waning of feudalism:

As far as production was concerned, he (the Emperor Dioticien, 284-305) imagined that it could be stimulated by a sort of ‘directed economy’; he regulated the activity of the ‘colleges’, controlled the exploitation of the great estates and established control over prices. Finally, the tax rate was revised and the production of money regulated in order to try to stabilise the currency” (Clough, p 143).

As for the feudal royalty, it strengthened itself by creating a powerful interventionist administration. The development of the bureaucracy was such that the feudal courts ceased to be itinerant and settled down in one city: Paris, Westminster, Pamplona, Moscow. The king used his own functionaries (baillifs and seneschals in France) whose economic tasks grew more and more throughout the realm.

When the economic relations of a society become a calamity for those involved in them, only armed force can keep them going. As the armed force and ultimate crystallisation of the laws of a system, the state then tends to take the economy in hand.

Everything in a decadent society pushes this phenomenon forward: the parasitic costs that derive from the need to maintain an economy that is no longer viable leads to a huge growth in fiscal burdens. Only a strong state can extort such funds from a population that is already hungry and on the verge of revolt. Both the later Roman Emperors and the feudal kings found that this task was one of the main bases for the strengthening of their powers. The economy was no longer in accord with the necessities imposed by social reality; economic initiative no longer had a natural guide in the search for prosperity and harmony with the rest of society. State power, state intervention then became the only means for trying to prevent the paralysis of the economy, a collapse into total disorder. Both at the end of slavery and the end of feudalism, there was a development of tendencies towards the bureaucratisation of society and the systematic control of the individual.

This tendency reached particularly frightful proportions in the period of the Lower Roman Empire:

“Everyone was dissatisfied with their situation and tried to escape from it. The peasant deserted the countryside, the craftsman abandoned his craft, the decurion fled the municipal senate. The state power had no remedy for these problems: all it could do was to try to tie everyone to their condition and close the doors through which they could escape.

The watchword was ‘everyone at their post’ or Roman culture would perish. It was a state of siege, a perpetual siege of life. Social conditions, professions were made hereditary. There was the establishment of a real caste regime; and this wasn’t something primitive or spontaneous, but new, political, imposed from above” (F Lot, Le Fin du monde Antique et le Debut du Moyen-Age, p 109).

Some labourers were marked with red hot irons to stop them abandoning their jobs. The right of pursuit was made general.

This same necessity for state interventionism appears at the end of feudalism. But there was an important difference between the economic action of feudal royalty and that of the Lower Empire.

As it decomposed slavery gave way to a system of autarky, a particularly fragmented economic system. The attempt to centralise and strengthen the state on the one hand, and the development of feudalism on the other, were two simultaneous but quite contradictory phenomena. Feudalism, by contrast, would be superseded by capitalism, that is by a system that required an increasing level of concentration and integration of economic life. The centralisation and interventionism of the feudal state, which resulted from the necessity to shore up a disintegrating feudal system, thus objectively constituted a means for developing the bases of capitalism. Several fundamental factors forced the monarchy to take up this dual historical role:

1) the monarchy often had to call on the support of the bourgeois towns to bolster its power;

2) the interests of the dominant exploiting class, the nobility, could be in relative accord with those of the rising bourgeoisie;

3) the growing strength of the bourgeoisie, which had by the end of the 15th century created the bases of capitalism, enabled it to impose a partition of power on the aristocracy.

The economic measures taken by Edward II, Edward III, the mercantilist policies of Henry VII in England, the economic developments realised under Louis XI in France, the protectionist actions favourable to the development of industry taken by most of the French and English kings from the 14th century onward, as well as the acceptance of bourgeois parliaments by the two monarchies, are all evidence of the eminent role played by the feudal monarchy in the process of the primitive accumulation of capital.

But it would be absurd to see the feudal monarchy from this angle alone. The monarchy remained essentially feudal, in fact it was the last rampart of feudalism. This is attested by facts such as: the constant struggle between the king and the bourgeois parliaments; the defence of noble privileges by the monarch (in France only the commoners paid taxes); the defence of the corporations; the struggle against Protestantism  - the ‘religion of the bourgeoisie’ - in France; finally, the very fact that the bourgeoisies in England and France had to resort to revolution to permit a real development of capitalism.

Despite this dual role played by the feudal monarchy, the inexorable reinforcement of the state was aimed essentially at maintaining the feudal system and was a typical feature of a society in decline.

If the image of a society in decadence is that of a body which is pushing against a garment that has become too tight, the development of the state apparatus is simply the attempt of the garment to strengthen itself so that the mounting pressure from the body doesn’t tear it to pieces.

Decomposition of the dominant ideology, the development of wars and revolutions, the reinforcement of the state, these are the most salient characteristics of a society in decadence, a society in which the productive forces are finding it harder and harder to develop. The economic system ceases to be a historic necessity and instead becomes a fetter that plunges society into growing barbarism.

[1] This phenomenon has a particularly interesting significance: when an economic system is at the end of its tether, it is often obliged to abandon certain of its juridical aspects in order to preserve what is essential: the real relations of production