Thursday 26 June 2008

On Ideology

On Ideology, by Louis Althusser (Verso Radical Thinkers III series)

Verso’s collection of Louis Althusser’s writings on ideology includes his classic Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation), written in 1970, and, alongside it, Reply to John Lewis (1973), Freud and Lacan (1964), and A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre (1966), all of which are (more or less) related to Althusser’s theory of ideology: either in terms of its development (especially in relation to psychoanalysis), or its (partial) defence against the critique of the English Marxist John Lewis. I will focus on Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses given its standing as Althusser’s most influential work (and therefore the one most deserving of our attention), and the fact that many of the ideas contained in the other three pieces are already present or re-appear in a fully worked-out form here.

A note of warning: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses is the literary equivalent of Nytol. Passages need to be re-read several times before it’s possible to even begin to grasp what Althusser is getting at. This is further complicated by the fact that while Althusser uses Marxist concepts and terminology, he radically departs from classical Marxist discourse – and in particular with regards to his theory of ideology. It is not a coincidence then, that On IdeologIy is by far the most abstract and challenging section in Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. It is here we begin to feel like things just don’t make sense, and the temptation to start eating the pages in despair becomes very strong – especially since by this point one has already had to decipher thirty-two pages of needless verbosity. But persevere, and you’ll be rewarded with the realisation that it actually doesn’t make sense. Althusser’s fundamental (if counterintuitive) point is that the very idea of human subjectivity is an illusion fostered by ideology, and that subject-formation is itself a repressive act. In other words, it is ideology that constructs us as subjects, not subjects that construct ideology. But how does he come to this formidable conclusion?

In the first section of Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,On the Reproduction of the Conditions of Production, Althusser sets off to answer the ‘uniquely ignored’ (p2) question which forms the basis of his investigation: how are the productive forces and the relations of production (in other words, the conditions of production) reproduced under the capitalist system? The short answer: education, education, education. 

For Althusser, the productive forces are not simply reproduced “by giving labour power the material means by which to reproduce itself” (p4) (ie subsistence wages) under capitalism. Rather, since labour power must also be diversely skilled, the ‘reproduction of the diversified skills of labour power’ is ultimately accomplished ‘by the capitalist education system’ (p5-6). But this is not the end of the story: ‘Besides techniques and knowledges… children at school also learn the “rules” of good behaviour, ie the attitude that should be observed by every agent in the division of labour, according to the job he is “destined” for: rules of morality, civic and professional conscience, which actually means rules of respect for the socio-technical division of labour and ultimately the rules of the order established by class domination’ (p6).

For Althusser then, the capitalist education system does not simply reproduce labour power and its diversified skills, ‘but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, ie a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression’ (p6-7). In short, education accomplishes the ultimate reproduction of labour power by inculcating every child with the ruling ideology: ‘it is in the forms and under the forms of ideological subjection that provision is made for the reproduction of the skills of labour power’ (p7).

What about the reproduction of the relations of production? Again, education. But this time the explanation is less straightforward. Althusser warns the reader that ‘in order to discuss it, I shall have to make another long detour’ (p8). This detour encompasses two more major sections: Infrastructure and Superstructure and The State.

In relation to Marx’s discussion of base and superstructure, Althusser argues that ‘the greatest disadvantage of this representation of the structure of every society by the spatial metaphor is that it is metaphorical, ie descriptive’ and that ‘it is possible and desirable to represent things differently’ (p10). In the second section, he also chastises Marx’s presentation of the State ‘as a repressive apparatus… which enables the ruling classes to ensure their domination over the working class’ (p11) as ‘still partly descriptive’ (p12). But there is a reason why Marx’s ‘model’ is ‘descriptive’ and this is not due to theoretical deficiency as Althusser would have it, but to the method of historical materialism. Since Marx was above all concerned with examining the historically changing relations between different objects, in other words, with emphasising the dynamic, changing character of these relations, he had no interest in fixing the relationship between base and superstructure since this would only hinder his analysis.

For all his talk of developing Marxism, Althusser is intent on dissecting the different instances of base and superstructure and rebuilding a new, overly deterministic system, where ideology, and in particular the educational state apparatus take on primary roles. Framing his criticisms carefully, Althusser argues that while ‘the Marxist classics… recognised this complexity in their practice’, they ‘did not express it in corresponding theory’ (p16). He rightly recognises the importance of Marx’s distinction between ‘State power, the objective of the political class struggle … and the State apparatus’ which ‘may survive political events which affect the possession of State power’ (p14). But here again, he persists in arguing that ‘in order to develop this descriptive theory into theory as such… it is indispensable to add something to the classical definition of the State as State apparatus’ (p14). That is, the ensemble of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs).

He accomplishes this by arguing for a distinction between the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) which includes the Government, Administration, Army, Police, Courts, Prisons, functions primarily ‘by violence’ (p16-17) and the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) including the religious, ideological, family, legal, political (including the parties), trade-union, media, cultural (Literature, Arts, Sports) which function primarily ‘by ideology’ (p17-19). Done, with his ‘detour’, Althusser is finally ready to answer the question of ‘how is the reproduction of the relations of production secured?’ (p22)

The answer? Surprise, surprise: ‘the educational ideological apparatus’ (p26), which has replaced the Church as the dominant ISA in mature capitalist society. For Althusser, the capitalist education system accomplishes the reproduction of the relations of production pretty much in exactly the same way in which it reproduces labour power: by taking ‘children from every class at infant-school age and for years… it drums into them… a certain amount of “know how” wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy)’ (p29). ‘Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society: the role of the exploited; the role of the agent of exploitation, or the agent of repression or the professional ideologist’ (p29-30) and the capitalist education system is particularly successful at this because ‘no other ISA has the obligatory (and free) audience of the totality of the children of the social capitalist formation eight hours a day for 5 or 6 days a week’ (p30).

And so it is ‘in the massive inculcation of the ruling ideology that the relations of production… are largely reproduced’ (p30) but this state of affairs is hard (if not impossible) to break away from since ‘the mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by the universally reigning ideology of the school… an ideology which presents the school as a neutral environment purged of ideology’ (p30). While the capitalist education system certainly plays a role in reinforcing the ideas of the age, Althusser’s overly-deterministic characterisation of the role of education is unsatisfying since it doesn’t leave space for change. If all children are inculcated with the ruling ideology, and effectively brainwashed by the time they become adults, then men can never see through the appearance of capitalist society and wish to change it. But fortunately history is filled with radicals and revolutionaries that went through the capitalist education system, which points to the fact that its power is after all, limited, and that therefore we can transcend the ruling ideology.

But Althusser isn’t content with answering the question of how the productive forces and the relations of production are reproduced under the capitalist system. In the section On Ideology, he takes on the Marxist theory of ideology. Up this point, Althusser has deconstructed and reconstructed a rigid, overly-deterministic Marxism in adding elements which he felt necessary to ‘elucidate’ the complexities of Marxist theory, but it is in this section that he most clearly re-writes Marxism in a new vein. His opening clearly foreshadows this: ’The German Ideology does offer us after the 1844 Manuscripts, an explicit theory of ideology, but… it is not Marxist’ (p32), and ’Capital… does not contain that theory itself, which depends for most part on a theory of ideology in general’ (p32).

Instead, Althusser wishes to defend a theory that ‘is radically different from the positivist and historicist thesis of the German ideology’: that ‘on the one hand … ideologyies have a history of their own and on the other … ideology in general has no history’ (p34). It is at this point that making sense of Althusser’s argument becomes an almost unbearably arduous task. Incomprehensible sentences such as the following abound: ‘the ideal and spiritual existence of ‘ideas’ arises exclusively in an ideology of the “idea” and of ideology, and let me add, in an ideology of what seems to have “founded” this conception since the emergence of the sciences’ (p 39). In stark contrast to Marx’s focus on historical specificity, Althusser boldly declares that ‘ideology… is endowed with a structure and functioning such as to make it a non-historical reality, ie. an omni-historical reality …  the structure and functioning are immutable, present in the same form throughout what we call history’ (p35). He concludes: ’ideology is eternal’(p35). But what does he mean?

Althusser says that ideology in general has no history because he assumes it is ideology that makes us subjects, that since ‘all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects’ (p46-47) then ‘man is an ideological animal by nature’ (p45). And so ideology must be eternal and immune to social change for Althusser, since ‘you and I are always already subjects’ (p46-47). But while it is true that the subject is socially bounded, Althusser seems to forget that the idea of the subject itself is historically specific: it was only with the emergence of capitalist society, and in particular contract law, that the idea of the subject came to the fore. Instead, he argues that ideology always has and always will interpellate individuals as subjects, by its very nature: ‘the ideological representation of ideology is itself forced to recognise that every “subject” endowed with a “consciousness” and believing in the “ideas” that his “consciousness” inspires in him and freely accepts, must “act according to his ideas” must therefore inscribe his own ideas as a free subject in the actions of his material practice’ (p41-42).

So while the classical Marxist paradigm would have it that ideology is an illusion fostered by the ruling class to keep people as sheep and reproduce exploitation in class society, for Althusser ideology is removed one step further from reality: it doesn’t just represent the appearance (rather than the reality) of bourgeois society, but it represents this to us while already having tricked us into the idea of being free subjects: ‘it is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that men represent to themselves in ideology, but above all, it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there’ (p38). In other words, the greatest ideological lie for Althusser is the idea of subjectivity itself: the illusion that men can change and mold their conditions of existence.

This is Althusser’s ‘central thesis’: that ‘ideology interpellates individuals as subjects’. In other words, that subjectivity itself is an illusion fostered by ideology since “the category of the subject is the constitutive category of all ideology whatever its determination and whatever its historical date – since ideology has no history” (p44-45). Subject-formation itself becomes a repressive act since it ‘recruits subjects among the individuals… like a policeman hailing “Hey You!”’ (p48) To elucidate his argument, Althusser uses the Example of the Christian Religious Ideology where: ‘the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, ie. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection… there are no subjects except by and for their subjection.’ (p56) In other words, the very idea of subjectivity submits us to the ruling ideology. Because it is an ideological lie that moulds us into subjects in the first place, subjectivity always comes a step too late for Althusser.

But it is one thing to say that subjectivity has historically been limited and another to say that the idea that men make history at all is an illusion crafted by ideology. Rather than arguing that we can and should change the (historically) limited status of subjectivity and expose ideological lies for what they are, Althusser precludes the possibility of the history-making subject altogether and in so doing, throws out the baby with the bathwater. For Marx, the problem with capitalist society is that appearances don’t coincide with reality (disguising the alienated, exploitative essence of capitalist society) and that ideology, created by the ruling classes, serves to foster the belief in the (just) appearance of capitalist society. But Marx’s fundamental point is that the proletariat, because of their conditions of existence, could develop class consciousness and come to see through the appearance of capitalist society and remove the alienation of the whole of society under capitalism.

This means defeating the belief that the present arrangement of society is outside man’s control, that men can and should mold the conditions of their existence and transcend capitalism through revolution. Instead, in arguing that the idea of subjectivity is fostered by ideology and itself submits us to the ruling ideology, Althusser altogether denies the possibility that people can take control of their destinies, fundamentally denying that we can ever see beyond the appearance of capitalist society and discover the reality of exploitation which is its real essence. By arguing that the subject is and always will be subjected to ideology, Althusser denies man’s historically transformative potential. He reifies man in arguing that subjectivity is something which stands above men and controls them with a force of its own, rather than being something which men wield to mould their own destinies. Althusser’s idealism, where it is ideas that form subjects rather than the other way round, leaves no room for history-making: if men are always dominated by ideology as Althusser would have it, then there is no room to break free from its mystifications of reality, to discover the essence behind the appearance, and thereby reconcile them by transcending capitalism.

In denying the possibility that men can transcend ideology, Althusser becomes an apologist for the present state of things: if subjectivity itself is a lie, then man can never change the world. In the most famous of his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx wrote that: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. Althusser may have been a Marxist at some point, or seen himself as one throughout his life, but in his attempt to reconcile Marxist theory with the realities of the resilience of the capitalist mode of production, he ends up turning Marx’s famous dictum on its head. And that’s not radical at all. 


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