Let’s be real here – one likes to reflect on his or her charming hometown as an engine of Marxist theory. But yesterday, in their café discussion group (always pushing the envelope) Max, Phil, Megan, and Ally did. It wasn’t easy to conceptualize base and superstructure in the broader context of “social formation”. What is social formation anyway? We think it is Portland, Maine. We think it is Watertown, New York. We think it is Durham, New Hampshire. We even think it is Seattle, Washington.
How can we begin to envision our hometowns as the result of bases and superstructures? How can we think of our childhood playgrounds, our city halls, our local ice cream parlors as modes, forces, and means of production? Since when did our cherished elementary school become a “state apparatus”? And when did Mrs. Waterbury (Phil’s first grade teacher) become a “professional of ideology”? In reading “The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideas” in combination with Althusser’s “Ideology and the State”, we began to perceive our hometowns as less than quaint. Though we all come from very different parts of the country, our respective senses of hometown pride were equally tarnished by the realization that our homes are not mere participants, but are in fact models of the capitalist system.
Max, for example, lives in a seaside city – and for this reason he has always believed Portland, Maine to be far superior to Watertown, NY. The ocean breeze doesn’t even come close to Watertown! However, in these two places, the economic bases are essentially the same. Within our current system, workers are tied to wage labor in order to survive. Still, the cultural identities and ideologies that result from this capitalist system appear to be dramatically different in Portland and Watertown.
In Watertown, Fort Drum is essentially the driving force behind the small city’s economy. Without this base nearby, Watertown would be no less depressing than any of the other small towns in the North Country. The base brings in a social group with an overwhelming majority of recent high school graduates. This in turn shapes the social structure throughout the entire city. As Phil ambles along Watertown’s streets, he can easily find bars, restaurants, clubs and shopping areas all catered to this social group. As Fort Drum continued to grow, so did the social scene that came with it, which ultimately led to the exclusion of a more educated, older class of workers. And as time progressed, this cycle led Watertown to be less and less appealing to an older, more educated class while a younger, less educated social group gained influence in the town.
Portland’s development seems to exist in stark contrast to that of Watertown. Being a coastal town, the economic base was primarily driven by the fishing industry. This industry was and still is subject to the fickleness of supply and demand, which has created a class of low-income earners. However, as the state of Maine has grown, the tourism industry has become an essential piece of its development. As a result, Portland itself has become a destination of sorts. Now, rather than being a town reliant on industry, Portland has become a growing metropolitan area. There has been an influx of early thirties professionals moving to the city to raise their families and pursue professional agendas. The education level and the job opportunities in the city have risen and as a result, coffee shops, art museums and spaces, festivals, and other cultural events have exploded.
We discussed Durham and Seattle as well in our comprehensive and scholarly discussion group, but felt that the comparison between Watertown and Portland best indicated the relationship between base and superstructure on a level that hits much closer to home (did you see what we did there?). Ultimately, our discussion helped to illuminate many of the obscure structural elements of Marxist theory. Of course it is a little depressing to think of our hometowns as vehicles of repressive and ideological state apparatuses – especially when something amazing happens in your hometown like the Seahawks win over the 49ers last night (just an example!!). At the end of the day, or at least at the end of our discussion group, we are left with this question: If we find comfort and fulfillment in a kind of Marxist state apparatus (like our hometowns) than how damaging is it, really?