The Basic Cultural Structure: A Comment from Chile as It Burns

EDITORIAL, 18 Nov 2019

#613 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

The concept of Basic Cultural Structure (BCS) has many uses.

An immediate payoff for peace is that once one analyses the main causes at work in history as structures, not as people, one should (if one is logical) tone down one’s anger.    The world works the way it does because its main dynamics (capital accumulation, war) and other principal dynamics were socially constructed during long centuries when none of our contemporaries had yet been born.

Another immediate payoff for peace is guidance on how to do peace-making. To replace today’s war system with a peace system, change the structures.  Spend enough time, but not too much, denouncing scandals that violate existing basic norms.   But remember that the survival of Homo sapiens depends on changing existing basic norms. Use complaints about a billionaire president who refuses to disclose his tax returns as a hinge theme (in Paulo Freire’s terminology) to turn the conversation into a critique of the cultural rules that constitute (John Searle’s and Tony Lawson’s terminology) property.   And/or critique some other main feature of today’s hegemonic BCS.

Consider alternatives.  For example: ‘what you own does not belong only to you; it also belongs to those you can help with your surplus.’’[i]

After defining BCS, I will suggest ways, besides these two immediate payoffs, that the BCS idea can be used to improve four common approaches to peace education.  The TRANSCEND approach would be a fifth, but since TRANSCEND already does structure-talk, discussing it would add more subtlety than substance.

A BCS is called Basic because it determines the production and distribution of the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, medical care, and social integration.  It is worth remembering in this connection that Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology that the first fact and the necessary starting point of social science is the existence of human beings; it is a fact which necessarily presupposes the physical organization of the means of production that make human existence possible.   Several writers have pointed out that if this is true, then it is misleading to regard culture as an ideal superstructure built on a material base; it fits the facts better to say that cultural rules constitute the material positions that organize the production that makes life possible.

A BCS is called Cultural because positions in the social structure are determined by the rules of culture. Culture is the ecological niche of the human species. Because we are cultural animals, we can change structures (institutions) when they do not serve us well, as is the case with the reigning BCS today. Through culture we have been a successful species, capable of adapting to changing conditions faster than species that depend on genetic mutation etc. to adapt.

A BCS is a Structure or a Social Structure because it defines the enduring social positions that people then occupy, like buyer and seller, and their respective rights and duties. Positions are internally related to each other, for example one cannot be an employer without an employee.[ii]    I do not disagree with people who sharply distinguish ‘cultural’ from ‘social.’ In the light of their purposes they invariably have good reasons for making a sharp distinction.   Nevertheless, I tend to use the two terms interchangeably, choosing whichever one seems more appropriate in a given context.

If we agree that every society (or every culture) has a BCS, we can next observe that scholars have named the BCS of modern commercial society in many different ways that can be regarded as references to the same BCS.   As a general rule, I think it is safe to say, the existence and the causal powers of an object of scientific study tend to remain the same when it is renamed or described in a different way.  (There are exceptions, and perhaps every socially constructed reality is an exception to some degree; for example, if it were to become customary to describe marriage as a form of slavery, the causal powers of the institution would become very different and it might cease to exist.)

The same historically and socially constructed modern BCS is referenced, I suggest, when it is named as sales, exchange, accumulation, market society, contract, bargaining, autonomy, natural liberty, individualism, the moral framework of an extended order, or in some other way.  Sticking with sales, I think it is fair to say, when sales are up, business is good and modern society works; when sales stop, society stops. Thus, when the minister of finance of Chile reports to his fellow citizens on how well the economy is doing, he (typically) concludes: ‘Above all we must nurture confidence, for confidence is the best ally of investment, employment, and consumption.[iii] The word ‘confidence’ must be interpreted as meaning ‘confidence that future sales will be numerous enough, and at high enough prices, to justify investing and contracting employees in the present, expecting that sales will cover costs and yield a profit.’   In short, our BCS is sales.  It also has many other names. It presupposes individualist human relationships dubbed sẻparation marchande by André Orléan. However it is named, it generates the main dynamics that move modern society.[iv]

This concept of basic cultural structure (BCS) has many uses.  Now I propose to use it to improve peace education.   Following (with a few modifications) Magnus Haavelsrud, four kinds of peace education can be called: idealistic, scientific, critical, and political.[v]

Idealistic peace education emphasizes producing good and rational people, who are sincerely committed to the ideals of peace.   A nearby example (here in Chile as I write this) can be found in recent writings by peace educators denouncing human rights abuses committed against demonstrators by the police.  They remind readers of international treaties and provisions of the national constitution that on paper guarantee human rights, including the right of peaceful protest.  Sometimes they speculate, along the lines of the classic study of the ‘authoritarian personality’ by Theodor Adorno and his co-authors, on why people become intolerant of the freedoms of other people and stoop to violence.

The idealistic approach would be improved by considering how the freedoms celebrated by the BCS cause the low wages, pensions insufficient to live on, precarious or no employment, public hospitals lacking basic equipment and medications while private hospitals are unaffordable, extreme inequality and other systemic malfunctions that the demonstrators are protesting.   At the same time, the BCS causes the physical dependence of human life on the confidence of investors mentioned four paragraphs ago.  Modernity works (as Max Weber argues in detail in Economy and Society) only if the law makes economic calculations possible.   Come what may, there must be order, or investors will not invest.

Scientific peace research, applied in scientific peace education, asserts a stronger claim to the attention of governments and the public on the grounds that it is value-neutral.   Its paradigm might be Richardson’s mathematical models of arms races.  It leaves ethical judgments about what ought to be, e.g. peace, to others.   It simply asserts as a law of society analogous to a law of nature, formalized as an equation and confirmed by evidence, that only A causes B.   Therefore, if you want B (the dependent variable) you must choose A (the independent variable).   ´Value-neutral´ science (most notoriously economics) ends up producing imperatives because anyone who desires B but does not choose A is deemed to be irrational and his/her opinion is not counted.

The scientific approach to peace education would be improved if its philosophy of science accepted the principle that cultural structures (also called social structures) are causes.  The structures define the positions people occupy in society, and their respective rights and duties.   It would also be improved if it admitted that liberal social science (most notoriously, but not only, mainstream economics) assumes as unquestioned premises social structures that have always been dysfunctional.  They are structures that peace education should be questioning.

There is more to be said:  The positions of employer and employee are quickly becoming non-starters for most people (including the young demonstrators tortured by renegade police alluded to above).  Science and technology are driving the market value of most human labour toward or to zero.   The same accelerating advances now happening on the other side of the campus, which are making most labour obsolete as the factor of production Adam Smith thought it was, are amazingly productive and in many instances amazingly green.

The critical (or ideological) approach to peace education is rather pessimistic.   It tends to see education as necessarily reproducing what Bourdieu and Passeron call the arbitraire culturelle that preserves the class structures of capitalism.    But it is not entirely pessimistic.  Learning to question institutions that are normally taken for granted can be regarded as a necessary preliminary to changing them.

Critical peace education would be improved by taking culture to be the flagship concept of anthropology as a discipline, and bringing more anthropology into peace studies.   Placing today’s BCS in the wider context of the unbounded cultural creativity of humanity as a species, should inspire hope that today´s dominant BCS just might transform itself fast enough to adjust to physical reality fast enough and to share the wealth fast enough for humanity to survive as a species.   Reciprocity and redistribution are not new ideas.   They are the tried and true.   They have been staples of the physical organization of human life more than 95% of the time our species has existed.  It is ‘living by sales’ that is the newcomer.   Now that living by selling your labour power for money is becoming impossible, as well as oppressive, it is opportune to widen the lenses to bring more options into view.

The last item in my short and admittedly incomplete typology of approaches to peace education is a politicization approach.  This approach takes peace education to be about solving the problems it studies.   It takes solutions to require politics.

Every societal subsystem, including education, should be an arena in a struggle to change society.   Peace educators should be the conscious allies of non-educators who are, like them, working for social transformation each in her/his own sphere, and who share with them a common analysis of society’s contradictions and a common choice concerning in whose interests those contradictions should be resolved.

Working for positive peace entails, adopting Paulo Freire´s terminology, taking the side of the oppressed against the oppressors.  The changes that build peace serve the interests of the oppressed, but not the interests of the oppressors.  But the oppressed may not know this. Politicization requires building bridges from the micro level of the immediate concerns of the oppressed to macro level issues where, although they may not yet know it, their interests and ultimately all humanity’s and all of nature’s interests are at stake.

I see BCS contributing a structural analysis.   It adds a third dimension of causal analyses.   There are things that happen because the oppressed make them happen to serve their interests (for example, building working-class organizations).  There are things that happen because the oppressors make them happen to serve their interests (for example the slanting of the news in the mainstream media).   There is a third set of causal powers (not to mention fourth …..Nth classes) that happens because the BCS works that way.   An example of the latter is the destruction of the biosphere.   Ecocide is not to the interest of any human being.  No, not one.   Still less is it in the interest of anybody’s grandchildren.  And yet humanity remains locked in a death march to a destination where nobody wants to go.

Recently Wilkinson and Pickett, among others, have argued that the wealthy too are victims of structural inequality.   They do not deny that the inherent logic of market competition (as Marx said) tends to drive the many out of the game and leave a few oligarchs holding all the blue chips.  But (as Marx did not say) once we know about this inherent logic, we can take deliberate steps to counteract it and to produce a more just distribution of wealth.   My take on the evidence is that reducing inequality is hard to do, but when it is properly achieved, the results are usually beneficial for all concerned.

When the causal powers of the BCS are included in the equation, the benefits to all concerned of taking collective deliberate action to restrain their destructive tendencies are easier to see.

Further, structural analysis suggests more effective ways the oppressed can employ to further their interests, while it confirms the insight that their interests coincide with everybody’s interest in peace and sustainability.   My view is that in Latin America at least, many of the suffering masses practice a culture of lucha and traicion (struggle and betrayal).    A cult of lucha clouds the rational selection of social change strategies.    Attributing every defeat to traicion clouds learning from the past.

Any stroll downtown in Chile today illustrates my thesis.  Anywhere you go you see strikes and shutdowns –most notoriously the shutdown of the Santiago Metro.    Wider acquaintance with the BCS idea would have made more people aware that currently the lives of everybody, not just the profits of the rich, depend on keeping private capital accumulation going.    Sad but true.

Setting fire to the Metro, as if that were a blow against the profiteers who run it, with no effect on the millions who rely on it to get to work and back every day, was one more example  of how to defeat your own cause.   It was done by a small minority, while the vast majority of demonstrators used peaceful means and remained peaceful even when provoked by the police   Nevertheless, it was done.

Conversely, economia social y solidaria, a new strand of Latin American thought, illustrates a better structural analysis.  It leads to a more rational approach to changing oppressive structures.   It diminishes the physical necessity of keeping the exploitation of the many by the few going by building a people’s economy that the few do not control.

Unfortunately, the centuries-long tradition of luchar por parar (struggle by stopping) is still too entrenched in popular culture.    As I write events are already following a pattern seen too many times previously:  businesses are closing, people are losing their jobs, prices are rising, and shortages are beginning to appear. The peso has fallen to 800 to the dollar in spite of the Central Bank cutting into its reserves to try to save it.   Since Chile already has a right-wing government, it seems unlikely that extreme rightists and foreign agents are shutting down the economy deliberately this time.   Which way the eventual outcome will go is still in doubt:  it may be a new social compact, and it may be a new dictatorship.

The concept of basic cultural structure (BCS) has many uses.  One of them is to contribute to avoiding political disaster by helping both the rich and the poor to see practical ways to reweave the web of life.


[i] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II Question 32, Article5, reply to second objection.

[ii]For more detail on ‘structure’ as I use it here see Tony Lawson, The Nature of Society.  London: Routledge, 2019.  For reasons to prefer this ‘cultural rules constitute the material positions that are social structure’ approach, see the extensive writings on social structure of Douglas Porpora.

[iii] Alberto Arenas, Minister of Finance, El Mercurio 8 February 2015.

[iv] I have argued this point in several works, one of which, Understanding the Global Economy is available free in PDF on the Internet.

[v]Magnus Haavelsrud (editor and one of the authors) Approaching Disarmament Education.  Guildford UK: Westbury House, 1981. Pp. 100 ff


Prof. Howard Richards now teaches at the University of Santiago and the University of Cape Town.  He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He was born in Pasadena, California but since 1966 has lived in Chile when not teaching in other places. Professor of Peace and Global Studies Emeritus, Earlham College, a school in Richmond Indiana affiliated with the Society of Friends (Quakers) known for its peace and social justice commitments. J.D. Stanford Law School, MA and PhD in Philosophy from UC Santa Barbara, Advanced Certificate in Education-Oxford,  PhD in Educational Planning from University of Toronto. Books:  Dilemmas of Social Democracies with Joanna Swanger, Gandhi and the Future of Economics with Joanna Swanger, The Nurturing of Time Future, Understanding the Global Economy (available in PDF on line), The Evaluation of Cultural Action, Following Foucault:The Trail of the Fox (with Catherine Hoppers and Evelin Lindner),  (on Amazon as an e book), Unbounded Organizing in Community (with Gavin Andersson, also on Amazon),  Rethinking Thinking (with Catherine Hoppers),  Hacia otras Economias with Raul Gonzalez, free download available at www.repensar.clSolidaridad, Participacion, Transparencia: conversaciones sobre el socialismo en Rosario, ArgentinaAvailable free on the blogspot lahoradelaetica.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 18 Nov 2019.

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3 Responses to “The Basic Cultural Structure: A Comment from Chile as It Burns”

  1. Oleg Karov says:


    Transcend (and contributors) seem to expose a very predictable pattern, when it comes to people-vs–governments:

    1) People revolting against autocracies in Ukraine, Chile, South Korea, Saudia Arabia, Columbia, Taiwn … are heros.

    2) People revolting against autocracies in Russia, Syria, Bolivia, Venezuela, Hong Kong, China, Iran, Cuba … are thugs.

    The funny thins is that this is exactly in sync with the editorial guidelines in RT and similar media.

    Is this a coincidence?