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.

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