Louis Althusser was an influential French Marxist philosopher who developed a theory of ideology and state apparatus. His theory has gone on to have a major impact on social and cultural theory. Althusser’s theory presents the state as a tool in the service of ruling classes, rather than as a neutral entity. He argued that ideology and state apparatus interact to ensure the perpetuation of capitalist rule.
Reproducing the Conditions of Production
How does a system keep itself going? How does it reproduce the conditions for its own continued existence? Specifically, how is capitalism, with all its crises, booms, and depression cycles, still somehow on its feet? Why isn’t it substantially challenged? The work of Louis Althusser can help us better understand this problem.
Althusser argues that any order of production needs to recreate the conditions necessary for its own reproduction. He says that:
“It follows that, in order to exist, every social formation must, while it produces, and in order to be able to produce, reproduce the conditions of its production. It must therefore reproduce:
1) the productive forces,
2) the existing relations of production.”
(p94, On the reproduction of Capitalism)
What does it mean for a system to reproduce the conditions necessary for its own continued existence? Let’s think of a business, for example. In order for a business to keep existing, it needs to generate the conditions for its own existence, which are—for example—surplus value (the company is making a profit) and legal compliance (the company isn’t breaking any laws in its pursuits of profit). A company that doesn’t regenerate these conditions can go under. If they don’t generate profit, they can’t keep existing (unless they’re funded by some other entity and they’re not meant to generate profit like a business would).
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If they don’t comply with the law, they’ll be exposed to lawsuits, depending on the degree and the law that they’re breaking, or they might even get shut down by the government for breaking regulations. This is how a business stops regenerating the conditions for its own continued existence and, as a consequence, stops existing.
We can also think of Communism in Russia. Why did it fall apart? One could say that it couldn’t replicate the conditions for its own existence. It reduced its control apparatus over its citizens and even started allowing the formation of a black market where people could usually trade things that weren’t offered in the state markets. It eventually fell apart.
Some argue that Soviet communism was brought down by foreign powers, but even in that case, the main thesis holds. The system could not generate the conditions necessary to protect itself from foreign interventions, something that it could successfully do for decades, and which—at some point—became impossible.
How Does Capitalism Reproduce Itself?
On the other hand, capitalism has been successful in recreating the conditions for its reproduction, in a lot of countries, for more than 200 years now. How does it do this?
For once, all economies are powered by labor power: workers who put labor into anything from building a house to crunching numbers in the office or even writing articles about Althusser. In order for workers to keep investing their labor power, certain criteria have to be met.
Firstly, workers need to physically keep existing, that is, earn enough that they don’t die. Now this might seem basic enough, but in a lot of cases throughout the history of capitalism, governments have had to interfere because the wages were so low that people physically couldn’t maintain themselves enough to labor. The next problem is, the worker needs to adapt to the capitalist network of production. Althusser puts it this way:
“We have said that the available labour-power must be ‘competent’. That is, it must be such that it can be put to work in the complex system of the productive process, in specific posts and specific forms of cooperation. As a result of the development of the productive forces and the type of unity historically constitutive of the productive forces at a given moment, labour-power must be (diversely) skilled. Diversely: that is, as required by the social-technical division of labour, its different ‘jobs’ and ‘posts’.“
This is where Althusser presents us with the role of the state and its institutions. State institutions, primarily schools, need to shape their young citizens in a way that their labor will be useful to capitalist production in the future.
Every now and then, there’s a debate where this intention of capitalist reproduction of labor comes out in the open: whenever people argue that we should get rid of the humanities and other disciplines that are considered to be useless as far as capitalist production is concerned. The argument is that we should orient schools solely towards creating workers for the markets they will enter when they grow up.
Althusser argues that, at school, besides learning the technical abilities that will be needed for our labor to keep powering capitalism, certain values and ways of behaving are instilled and internalized, making the passage of children from school to the office or assembly line frictionless. The reproduction of labor power happens not only in the dimension of its physical and technical abilities but also on a normative plane where the dominant ideology is internalized through the state apparatus.
Louis Althusser invented a few concepts that can help us properly address the main issues in this article. The first important concept is that of ideology. In a lot of our daily use of the word, “ideology” is almost synonymous with the word “dogma.” When we call someone ideological, we want to say that they’re being biased, and dogmatic, and they’re refusing to see things from a different angle rather than their own.
This is not at all what Althusser has in mind. Ideology for him is unavoidable. It is not a filter preventing you from seeing reality the way it is, but rather what enables you to see reality in the first place. The act of seeing is already ideological since we’re prioritizing the visible from the background, we’re picking something from its surroundings, and this can’t be done if we don’t already have a system of values that assigns things some sort of importance.
The important switch in Althusser’s conception is that ideology isn’t merely a set of ideas one believes in, but that it is a material reality embedded in state- and civil institutions with which we interact on a daily basis. This dominant ideology is imposed upon the individual by the ruling class, and this ideology structures the way in which individuals think and act, shaping their behavior. Ideology justifies the currently existing order.
Law and the State
According to Althusser, the legal system cannot stand on its own feet. It needs support from the oppressive state apparatus on one hand, and moral and legal ideology on the other.
The first is constituted by the state apparatuses of the police, courts, and every moving part of the system which embodies the law. The second is the ideology in which the legal system itself is supported, the values that are ideologically instilled in people that make laws acceptable to them. In a vast majority of cases, there’s no need for the state to use its monopoly on violence since most people are already submerged in the legal and moral ideology.
The state in itself is composed of its repressive state apparatus and ideological state apparatus. In the repressive state apparatus, we’re talking about the government, administration, army, police, courts, and prisons; basically, any institution that physically ensures compliance. The ideological state apparatus is comprised of schools, families, religion, politics, culture, etc. Each of these is to be thought of as a system comprised of smaller organizations and apparatuses, not as singular entities.
Louis Althusser on the Tool of Interpellation
What sets Althusser apart from other thinkers is his unique understanding of ideology as being embedded in material reality and present in our day-to-day interactions. Ideology isn’t just some set of ideas one adheres to but a lived reality, maintained by a complicated net of state apparatuses.
Here we arrive at Althusser’s conception of interpellation. Ideology transforms the individual into a subject through interpellation. Through interpellation, the person identifies themself as the one towards which the calling of the ideological and repressive state apparatuses is directed toward and, in that way, gets transformed into a subject of that order. Through this process, individuals become aware of their place in the social hierarchy and come to internalize the values of the dominant ideology.
This process happens in two stages, according to Althusser. First, individuals are “interpellated” or “hailed” by the State as subjects. This “hailing” is made possible through ideological messages and symbols, such as language, images, and other forms of communication. Through these messages and symbols, individuals become aware of their place in the social hierarchy and come to understand their position within the State’s power structures. In the second stage, individuals enter a process of recognition wherein the State assigns them a place which is later internalized. At this point, the subject starts identifying themselves with the dominating ideology. This is how the state power and ideology are reproduced and maintained.