Imagine that you’ve magically transformed into a bourgeoisie capitalist. You wake up one morning and…poof: regal cashmere pajamas, silk blankets, king size bed, and, as you wrestle your way out of bed, you find that your feet have found their way into Ralph Lauren velvet slippers. Ahh. And, to your delight(?) your uncle has just died, leaving his inheritance and his prestigious job as CEO at BillionBucks to you. Assuming you accept my scenario and want to keep your wealth and prestige, what is your first order of business? It’s quite simple really, an answer found within the question: you make sure to keep things they way they are. Or, in Marxist terms, you look to reproduce the conditions of production, which includes the productive force, and the existing relations of production. For those uninitiated with Marxism, this means that the bourgeoisie (those in charge of factories or are otherwise wealthy) try to keep the proletariats (workers) working in factories (or similarly oppressive situations) with the same sorts of tools, machinery and other resources, while also making sure the proletariats don’t gain any control or form some sort of coalition.
In tandem, the productive forces and relations of production make up what is called the mode of production, which is also known in Marxist theory as the ‘base’ of society. Marxists thinkers argue that those in control of the mode of production, or the base, will also control the cultural climate of the society, or, the superstructure. In simple terms, if you control factories and those working in factories, you also naturally control art, movies, language, literature, or, to be broad, culture. However, for some, Orthodox Marxism has been too inflexible and drastic in some areas. In light of this, many neo-Marxists, or post-Marxists or just plain old Marxists have attempted to add more intellectual nuance and depth to Marx’s thought. Among one of these thinkers was the French Structuralist Louis Althusser.
Althusser looked at the base/superstructure dichotomy and saw something wanting. He accepted that those in control of the base could affect the superstructure, but he wanted to introduce a plausible way in which this happened. He did this by arguing that those in power exercise influence in two ways: through the repressive state apparatus (RSA) and the ideological state apparatus (ISA) (142-143). The RSA is made up of “the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons etc.,” in short, structures that “function by violence” (143). However, it’s quite clear that sheer force is not enough to sustain one’s power. If the state only administers force to stay in power, and violently coerces its citizens into compliance, then one can likely expect to face a mutiny at some point, or an intervention from a third party. To Althusser, the key in reproducing the conditions of production becomes a question of ideology.
The ideological state apparatus refers to the church, schools, family, media, political system and parties, and cultural pursuits like literature, the arts, and sports (143). As previously established, because the RSA relies on force, the ISA becomes the dominant way to influence the people within a society, generally towards the goal of reproducing the conditions of production (154). But how is this carried out? Althusser argues that each part of the ISA (listed above) “contributes towards this single result in the way proper to it” (154). For example, the media will cram “every ‘citizen’ with daily doses of nationalism, chauvinism, liberalism, moralism etc” (154). Similarly, sports implicitly teaches that chauvinism is an important trait to have, or at least, to display. The church also influences society, by reminding its congregation that they are but ashes, and nothing is more important than loving your neighbour, and turning the other cheek (154). One should note that these traits, taken together, shape a citizen to take pride in his country above all else, to remember good morals, to treat his fellows well, to remember that everyone is equal, and when conflict arises, to show grace.
What makes ideology that the ISA ‘distributes’ so dangerous is the fact that, “hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent!” (155). Ideology, at its most dangerous is untested, implicitly held values, that we typically don’t even know he hold. Or, more simply, ideology is a group of beliefs or practices that we assume are common sense, but really aren’t. To demonstrate how ideology become so silent, Althusser adds yet another layer of nuance to his theory, that of interpellation.
Interpellation is the process where an individual is treated as subject. Althusser writes, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject” (173, italics his). Or, in other words, we cease to treat others as truly unique individuals but rather look for things about them that suggests their identity belongs to a certain group or subculture, and try to treat them accordingly, and in return we expect to act in accordance with this identity. For example, upon seeing a Christian a few assumptions will be made about them: they have a ‘pious’ lifestyle, they have a certain code of ethics, they are perhaps judgmental, they’re supposed to forgive others, they go to church etc, and because of this knowledge we treat them a certain way.
Furthermore, interpellation is inescapable even from birth. A newborn child will either be female or male, or in a rare case, both; each result with its own set of expectations. If male, you will be expected to be rough and tumble, interested in sports and so on; in short, you will be interpellated into a (male) subject. Even as you grow up and choose clothes you are deciding in what way you are going to be interpellated: wear too much black and you’ll be a goth, wear glasses too big and you’re a hipster, wear colourful, tight clothes and watch men uncomfortable with their sexuality come around spewing about how gay you are. In each choice the interpellation cannot be avoided, rather it’s a matter of choosing how you are to be interpellated.
The goal then, of the ISA is to create a way that interpellates individuals into subjects in such a way that seems advantageous or beneficial for the individual, so that it no longer seems like ideology or interpellation, but rather, common sense. Althusser provides this as the model for the process, called the duplicate mirror structure of ideology:
- the interpellation of ‘individuals’ as subjects;
- their subjection to the Subject;
- the mutual recognition of subjects and Subject, the subjects’ recognition of each other, and finally the subject’s recognition of himself;
- the absolute guarantee that everything really is so, and that on condition that the subjects recognize what they are and behave accordingly, everything will be all right: Amen – ‘So be it’ (181).
As shown above, Althusser posits that a subject (previously an individual) must be subjected to a Subject. For example, in Christianity, a subject, or a follower, must recognize the Subject, that is, God, and then realize their relationship to this Subject. Of course, this relationship is uneven, as, after taking a long look at the Subject, the subject realizes that they pail in comparison and must subject themselves to the Subject. However, this is exactly how the Subject gains power – via belief and submission. The subject thus realizes his role, and his goal, which is to spread the good news of the Subject. Finally, and this is the clincher for ideology, a promise from the Subject exists, which says that if you submit to me, and spread the Gospel and submit your life to Me, “everything will be all right” (181).
Of course, terms could be switched so that the Subject is no longer God, but is now Manager, or Boss. Number one: I am not an individual, I am a worker and being a worker, I have certain responsibilities. Number two: I work for my Boss and must do as He says. Number three: As I reflect on my Boss, I realize his role is greater than mine, and he possesses more power than I. I must submit to the Boss. If I, the worker, do not submit to the Boss, I can expect a justified intervention, which I’d like to avoid. Number four: If I work hard, and finish my jobs, and don’t challenge his authority, I will collect my paycheck, which I can bring home and provide for my family. Because this is advantageous for me, I will do it.
Now let’s tie it all together. In order for you, CEO of BillionBucks, to reproduce the conditions of production, you must contribute to the ideology being distributed by the ISA. At a broad level this will promote ideas of nationalism, chauvanism, etc… in short, characteristics that will lead you into blindly accepting the laws, values and rules instituted by the State. However, the ISA’s ideology must also nudge citizens into interpellating themselves as workers, by: a) making it seem advantageous that they submit to being workers, b) make it seem like they have a choice in being a worker or not, (of course, because the workers think work is advantageous for them, they will always choose work, but the illusion of having a choice must remain open) (182) and c) try to implicitly push this ideology of work so that the workers themselves don’t even feel interpellated at all. Just common sense to work, no? Taken together, this should help you succeed in creating and sustaining a repressive, capitalist dystopia! Go and make disciples…er, I mean workers! Go and make workers, Mr./Mrs. BillionBucks!
Josiah H. Nelson
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1971.