Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology, pt. III

See Part II of this series here.

Historical consciousness develops along with the material forces of history, and not through abstract rationality, as Hegel thought. Today, the mass of rational human subjects discovers their environment not as something self-alienated – that is, produced both by themselves and for themselves, as Hegel’s conservativism led him to regard in his own Enlightenment culture – but rather as an environment imposed with the hegemony of capitalism’s cultural, political, social, scientific and economic spaces. This point, of course, does not disprove the dialectical synthesis of Hegel’s view – it only adds to it a necessary material dimension. The mass of human subjects is entirely subordinated to the hegemonic rationality of the bourgeoisie, in the logical space carved out by capitalism. The reality of this logic is based entirely on abstractions, fictions drawn from the material forces of history and distorted in order to perpetuate the cultural authority and political power of the bourgeoisie.

Because the social existence of the proletariat is not at the same time its existence within a proletarian culture, ideology is driven into the working class, rather than revealed, in the last, to be something of themselves and for themselves. Althusser calls this driving force “interpellation”, which also means ‘hailing’ or ‘calling-forth’. Ideology calls us forth in the same way that police officers do when they hail you (‘Hey, you there!’). In the eyes of the Repressive State Apparatus, your existence is only as an abstract quantity, until so hailed, at which point said existence is qualitatively transformed, in this case, into that of a suspect.[1] It is the same with ideology.

This is, perhaps, the trickiest part to grasp of the philosophical puzzle concerning the functioning of ideology. Ideology hails us from the very instant we are born, at which moment we take on the label of being a son or a daughter, hence starting us towards developing a consciousness of ourselves as within the bourgeois family unit. Althusser makes some rather paradoxical comments at this stage about the nature of ideology: first, claiming that “ideology has no outside,”[2] meaning simply that the illusion of ideology is ever present, the task of science (specifically, of historical materialism) being to shatter this illusion; and second, that ideology “has no history,”[3] which makes sense if we consider that history belongs to the material processes which, in the last instance, determine particular ideologies, and are beyond them. If there is an outside of ideology, it is in the material processes of history. The history of ideology, because imaginary, is necessary immaterial.

Marxist science studies material processes and the most general dialectical laws that govern them. It does not deal in abstractions or imaginaries. However, it is necessary to understand the expression of the general laws in the imaginaries as well, in order to fully grasp the functioning of ideology. Individuals hailed by ideology are hailed as individual subjects. What does it mean to be a subject? Althusser offers an instructive example, in the case of Christian religious ideology:

… there can only be … a multitude of possible religious subjects on the absolute condition that there is a Unique, Absolute, Other Subject, i.e. God… God thus defines himself as the Subject par excellence, he who is through himself and for himself (‘I am that I am’), and he who interpellates his subject, the individual subjected to him… i.e. the individual named Moses. And Moses, interpellated-called by his Name, having recognized that it ‘really’ was he who was called by God, recognizes that he is a subject, a subject of God, a subject subjected to God, a subject through the subject and subjected to the Subject. The proof: he obeys him, and makes his people obey God’s Commandments.[4]

The God of the market is a many-faced God, but the general laws of ideology are the same. Ideology mirrors itself in its subjects, and individual subjects mirror themselves in ideology. Xenophanes of Colophon once remarked that, if oxen and horses had a religion, their gods would be painted with hooves[5] –Althusser adds that the oxen and horses would recognize themselves as real oxen and horses only on the condition of their semblance with their behooved gods. This generally holds true in the case of commodity fetishism under capitalism. The forces of capitalist production become fetishized, inscribed with a certain commodity value, and this recognition is doubled by that of the workers, who recognize themselves as commodities – that is, they recognize their embodied labour as obeying the logic of the commodity value-form. They recognize their labour power as a quantity of money, which can be exchanged with other commodities.

Fetishization occurs when the concrete or use-value of a product is invested entirely with abstract and imaginary quantities, detached from the actual processes of production that created the product in question, as in the transformation of productive processes by capitalism into commodity-production. Ideology overflows with the logic of fetishization, producing facts and formal logics completely separated from the material processes that gave rise to them. Religious iconography provides an overwhelming wealth of examples, but we may also observe this in the case of scientific revolutions, where old hardened dogmatists have often struggled not to give up belief in some entities, once thought real, which came to be thoroughly disproved in the face of new evidence; such was the case in Antoine Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen in the 18th-century, having first observed the process of oxidization, against which one Joseph Priestley defended the old theory of dephlogisticated air to the bitter end.

Under the general logic of fetishization, what-there-is is completely detached from how what-there-is is produced. The chemical dispute of Lavoisier and Priestley was but a trite example compared with the more devious ways in which ideology and fetishism combine in capitalist society to carve out imaginary divisions between concrete individuals. We often hear of the fetishization of gender, and race. The history of the western fetishization of Asian women, for example, extends back to the 15th-century, taking an upturn in the 18th, at the dawn of industrial capitalism, when European – mainly British – trade with Japan and China sharply increased. The sexual stereotype of Asian women as exotic and submissive is directly tied to the colonial history of western imperialist powers; this is an example of fetishization, because it leads to a valuation and, fundamentally, a misrecognition of individuals, having nothing to do with their material reality. Naturally, elements of the ideological apparatus combine in various ways. The fetishization of Asian women in the early days of British imperialism combines with the existing bourgeois ideology of the family, which envisions women as an extension of private property.

Fetishization becomes particularly dangerous in the era of capitalist globalization. The façade of multiculturalism is paraded before the material reality of capitalism’s cultural hegemony. As capitalism conquers the cultural sphere, the logic of the fetish becomes a way not only to misrecognize others in an imaginary way, but also to misrecognize oneself. Consider the self-experience of a transgendered person. At a certain point, their material reality as an embodied subject breaks with the ideological categories of gender imposed by capitalism and the rise of the state in institutions extending property rights into persons, which are typically identified as the structures of patriarchy.[6] Similarly, the proletariat exists for the most part under the stupor of bourgeois ideology driven by the culture industry; fetishization is driven by consumption, and it often takes some earth-shattering material event, such as a general strike or a steep and prolonged economic crisis, to shake workers from the consumption of their own manufactured submissiveness to exploitation. Both are conditions for the reproduction of capitalism’s productive forces.

The only way to break definitively with ideology and the logic of fetishization is with a scientific view consistently grounded in material reality. This is precisely the project of dialectical materialism. Just as with the example I gave of the transgendered individual, the revolutionary proletariat has the potential break with ideology by discovering its material reality. The science that aims at this is inherently revolutionary, because the material reality of the proletariat as a class is one and the same with the motor force of history, which is a real material force. The material reality of the transgendered person is as an individual; the material reality of the working class is as a collective. This thesis underlies the science of historical materialism.

As was seen in the case of the Christian religious ideology, the condition of the unity of individual subjects was external, subjected to and imagined to be of God’s will. With the working class, this condition of unity is intrinsic to their very material reality. The functioning of ideology disrupts the ability of the proletariat to recognize its own material reality, by carving up relations between individuals with imaginary divisions and distortions. Fetishization serves both to multiply and crystallize these divisions.

This misrecognition is at the heart of the functioning of ideology, which aims to root the building class consciousness of the proletariat out like a weed. But weeds will drive through every crack, and so too with the revolutionary will of the workers.

We have only to take on the additional task, as builders of the subjective factor of the revolution, i.e., of the revolutionary party, to attack ideology wherever it exists. This can be done only by subjecting ideology and ISAs to a consistent material critique, revealing the productive forces and reproductive dynamics underlying them.

Postscript – on the subjective factor, the revolutionary vanguard party.

Some of you might be asking, what of the subjective factor of the revolution – the need for a revolutionary vanguard party, to combine with the objective, material factor of the mass of workers and their incipient class consciousness? Is this Subject another form of Absolute, like God, unique to a particular form of ideology? Any worker who believes this will have gravely misrecognized their material reality. Hegel says,

Self-consciousness is in itself and for itself when and because it is in itself and for itself for another; that is, that it is recognized as such.[7]

This recognition is accomplished when the subjective and objective factors enter into a unity – when the mass of workers definitively combines with the theoretical understanding and advanced consciousness of the revolutionary vanguard. This recognition is possible because it accords with the material reality of the proletariat; it is historical because this material reality is also the motor force of history. Thus, articulating the Marxist philosophy of ideology does not force us to abandon the subjective/objective factor distinction, but rather reminds us that the relation of these two factors is dialectical in nature, with each pole interpenetrating with the other.

[1] Althusser (2009), 48.

[2] Ibid., 49.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Ibid., 52-3.

[5] Ref. in Alan Woods & Ted Grant, Reason in Revolt, 2nd ed. (London: Wellred Books, 2012), 42.

[6] Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), especially Ch. 2-4.

[7] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), §178. My translation and emphasis.


Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology, pt. II

See Part I of this series here.

We need only think of Wal-Mart’s notorious anti-union propaganda ‘training’ videos to see the force of ideology in action. Unions are a counterbalance to the unbridled anarchy of capitalist production. They’re also a threat to the power of the capitalist class. Producing an anti-union consciousness is a particularly effective, and pernicious way of reproducing capitalist power and production.

Now, most instances of ideology in action aren’t as obvious as the Wal-Mart example. Capitalism is not only an economic system – it is a cultural force. Capitalism is able to reproduce its relations of production in countless ways, both on the factory floors and beyond them. This insight takes us from ideology as it exists in concrete relations of capitalist production, to ideology as it exists as a state apparatus under capitalism. It is this which leads Althusser to turn our attention from ideology in general, to the historical development of Ideological State Apparatuses, in general.

An Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) is a special breed of Repressive State Apparatus, the latter of which secures through the direct use of force the political conditions for the functioning of the former. The Repressive State Apparatus is the direct arm of state power: police, the military, etc. Thus, a division of labour exists between the two kinds of state apparatuses. Althusser does suggest that a particular state apparatus is not likely to operate wholly either by ideology or by direct repression, but rather holds that “the (Repressive) State Apparatus functions massively and predominantly by repression, whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses function massively and predominantly by ideology.”[1]

For much of humankind’s social development during the pre-capitalist historical period, the Church was the singular, dominant ISA in society.[2] During the French Revolution of the 18th-century, it was absolutely essential that the burgeoning capitalist class challenged not only the absolute right to property and ownership of the means of production of the feudal aristocracy, but also the intellectual authority of the Church, as the main ideological support of monarchial power and land right throughout Europe, and beyond.

In the modern period of capitalist development, the central authority of the Church ISA becomes fractured and dispersed through a plurality of new institutions. Education becomes largely the responsibility of a professional class of teachers, rather than priests, in institutions owned and operated either by the state, or privately (which is increasingly the case in the current period of capitalist crisis). In school, we learn bourgeois history, thoroughly revised and “purified” of any revolutionary content; we also learn all of the basic skills required for us to become productive members of capitalist society. Today, even kindergarteners are learning computer programming in school. Just as yesterday, when we trained today’s civil and industrial engineers in the best available physical and social sciences. The basic education one is entitled to receive under capitalism is entirely at the sway of the productive forces in society.

There are other ISAs in the modern period. The parliamentary-political ISA combines universal suffrage with rhetoric and a smattering of reformist policies to produce a basic false consciousness – recently touted quite fervently by Rex Murphy in one of his vacillating centrist CBC rants – that voters possess the ultimate power under bourgeois democracy. Scientific institutions have long produced an understanding of the natural world that consummates the authority of bourgeois rule, for example, through Charles Darwin’s vulgar theory of natural adaptation, which continues to inform much research in evolutionary developmental biology, leading to a view of capitalist society as a social ecology in which the bourgeoisie thrive and survive as a class not off of the backs of exploited workers, but simply because they are the “fittest”. Lastly, broadcast-media ISAs, which create an additional layer of representation atop any experience of material reality, represent not our real conditions of existence as such, but only their imaginary distortion, biased by corporate owners or state sponsors in support of the aims of the capitalist class.

We can see that ISAs exist not only in order to reproduce the forces of capitalist production, but also to reproduce the value-framework of capital, which, in the last instance, amounts to the same thing.

Countless beliefs and representations, signifiers of the capitalist order and the bourgeois imaginary, circulate through the ideological superstructure of society. Now, there is one more element of the functioning of ideology that we have not yet considered. If ideology in ISAs is at its core the totality of beliefs and representations that exist in the bourgeois imaginary about capitalist society, and ideology in general functions to reproduce capitalist productive forces by bringing workers over to belief in the bourgeois worldview, then ideology must, in its functioning, make it so that the working class takes the thought of the bourgeoisie immediately to be its own. If this was not the case, then the mass of workers would quite easily witness the reality of their alienation in the struggle between frameworks of ideas – proletarian and bourgeois, revolutionary or reformist – on the factory floors themselves. The proletariat is not consciously convinced of the bourgeois worldview; rather, no other worldview seems to exist, from the perspective of the individual effectively subdued by the spell of the ISAs.

We should note here that the very crux of Hegel’s early dialectical method, from the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), proceeds by the overcoming of media (mediations/representations), to a point where consciousness becomes increasingly certain both of itself and the concepts of its understanding; that is, certain of them, immediately. This process iterates itself in each case that the knower – a rational human subject – discovers some part of their environment as self-alienated.

To be continued…

[1] Althusser (2009), 23. My emphasis.

[2] Ibid., 25.

Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology

This is the first of a multi-post series based on a leadoff I gave June 10th, 2016, for a Montréal branch of Fightback: the Canadian Section of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT). It approaches the question of ideology from a perspective largely inspired by the structuralist Marxism avowed by Louis Althusser in the late 60s to early 70s.

A prefatory note: Althusser occupies the slightly uncomfortable historical position of having simultaneously given structuralism is clearest theoretical formulation as a critical theory, while demonstrating its limits. Naturally, one asks of the question of ideology, a cui bono – that is, an ideology for whom? from the perspective of which subject? Structuralist critique cannot stand against itself without coming undone – from the perspective of a subject yet to come, or a subject in a different historico-factical situation, what is taken as the material of a science is called ideological, and vice versa. Let it be said that Althusser’s always was an explicitly partisan philosophy. “Class struggle in the field of theory” was for him definitive of philosophy. Thus, that the following presentation is presented from the position of the proletariat as the subject of history, that is, as its motor force, an a priori assumption of the science of historical materialism, should not be considered as a substantive critique, but merely as a partisan difference (with empirical consequences).

Let’s begin with a quote, from the Preface to The German Ideology (1845-6/1932), to help us define our scope.

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.[1]

Our question is a philosophical one: what is ideology? And how does it function? It is also a practical one. How does ideology relate to the oppression and exploitation of the masses in capitalist society? What sorts of material conditions give rise to ideology as an extension of bourgeois power? And, perhaps most importantly, how does one differentiate between ideology and scientific fact? These will be the guiding questions of our present discussion.

First: what is ideology? As Marxists, we are materialists. We are not the sorts of vulgar materialists, who, like Feuerbach, would reduce all of the realm of ideas to the level of material reality, while at the same time holding that the essence of what is material only becomes real in ideology, for example, in Christian theology.[2] Engels skilfully detects this contradiction in Feuerbach’s thought in the 1886 work on the latter.

For Feuerbach, our ability to conceive of an idea so grand as the gods, and to base entire religions around them, showed that ideas somehow have a greater reality than matter. Feuerbach once said of the emergence of rational thought in human subjects as we evolved from the apes, that he agreed with the dialectical materialist view “going backwards, but not forwards”. As dialectical materialists, we argue that rational thought, that consciousness itself, is not beyond matter, but is instead the highest realization of matter. Religion does not surpass matter; religion, at base, has a material reality.

In the same way, ideology has a material existence. This is one of the theses on ideology argued by Louis Althusser, in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”.[3] Ideology exists in the rituals and practices of concrete individuals in material institutions: priests in the Church speaking hocus pocus (‘hoc est corpus meum’) over the Eucharist; Wall Street bankers who perceive the world through the spectacular calculations of bourgeois economics, shuffling about in a panic as the market fluctuates, in a virtual microcosm of the anarchy of capitalist production.

However, if this was all that there was to the substance of ideology, then it would be enough that we seize all of the factories tomorrow in order to topple bourgeois ideology wherever it exists. This is clearly not so. Ideology is an element of the superstructure of bourgeois society. The superstructure is dialectically related to a society’s material base. So, how we function materially produces in us a certain consciousness – ideas about how we ought to function – which we then apply concretely as a way of organizing our labour, along with the productive forces in society. Marx describes the dialectical relation between superstructure and base in The German Ideology, and Althusser further develops this idea in his own work.

This is how, by owning all of the means of production in society, the ruling class also comes to dominate society ideologically. Here, we should recall Marx’s well-known slogan: the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of its ruling class.

Now, how does ideology function – and what does it function to do? The first part of this question, according to Althusser, was not adequately considered by Marx, who instead answers to the second part of the question. Says Althusser,

… 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. It is this relation which is at the centre of every ideological, i.e. imaginary, representation of the real world. It is this relation that contains the ‘cause’ which has to explain the imaginary distortion of the ideological representation of the real world.[4]

Let’s make this a little more clear. If workers represented their real conditions of existence to themselves in ideology, then they would eventually, without fail, develop an advanced class consciousness, simply as a result of the material social relations of their labour. They would recognize themselves as a collective force and will, rather than as individuals, with relative ease. Wouldn’t that simplify the task of the revolutionary party! So, it isn’t the real conditions of the base of society that workers represent to themselves in ideology, but rather the imaginary representations of those conditions, which make up the superstructure of bourgeois society.

For the most part, the working class is not awake to the reality of their exploitation. This is the result of a manufactured social reality imposed by the ruling class, which produces in workers a submissiveness to exploitation. It is not that workers know themselves to be exploited and are unaffected by this fact, but rather that the bourgeois ideology produces a consciousness in individual workers which leads them to believe that their material exploitation is in fact the best of all possible worlds. Ideology is principally a force that reproduces capitalist relations of production, by representing to individuals a positive understanding of themselves as within the framework of capitalist production.

This was the point already made by Marx: “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce.”[5]

To be continued

[1] Marx, The German Ideology (1932). My emphasis.

[2] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy (1886), §2-3.

[3] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970) in On Ideology (New York: Verso, 2009), 39.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Marx (1932), Part I. A: “Idealism and Materialism”. My emphasis.