Richard Wolff

(University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA)

Ideological State Apparatuses

In the winter of 1969, caught up in the immense significance of May 1968 for France and for capitalism everywhere, one of the greatest Marxist theorists of the time tried to draw some lessons. Louis Althusser published “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation.”[1] Like Marx’s and Lenin’s efforts earlier to do the same for the Paris Commune, Althusser’s article aimed to build on the successes and overcome the failures of another historic anti-capitalist uprising.
The central issue confronting Althusser resembled what Gramsci had struggled with in his Prison Notebooks earlier in the century: how should Marxism understand and deal with the inability of the working class and its leading organizations to transform a crisis of capitalism into a transition to communism. Like Gramsci, Althusser turned to the realm of ideology.[2] How people imagined their relationship to economy and society – the ideology that infused their actions – became his object of analysis. Ideology – or, more concretely, the multiple ideologies coexisting in contradiction – could operate so as to preclude a capitalist crisis from becoming a transition to communism. Althusser set himself the task of analyzing how ideologies functioned in society and what institutions (“apparatuses”) served as the sites/mechanisms for their functioning. Althusser’s Marxist politics governed his project. By stressing how ideologies and their apparatuses supported the class structure of capitalist societies, he sought to make future Marxist social interventions more successful in transforming capitalist crises into transitions to communism.
Althusser began his argument by citing Marx’s strong insistence that the capitalist mode of production could never survive unless its social conditions were reproduced. While the general term “mode of production” was taken from Marx and used in deference to its great popularity in much Marxist literature, Althusser actually meant something much more specific than the broader, more inclusive definition of mode of production in that literature. He spoke repeatedly of capitalist “exploitation” or “extortion” – which referred to the appropriation by capitalists of a surplus value produced by others, namely productive workers.[3] Thus, this essay refers mostly to the narrower notion of the exploitative capitalist class structure rather than the broader, less focused “mode of production,” since that seems more consistent with Althusser’s argument.
For him, the non-productive aspects of the society in which capitalist class structures prevail comprise the conditions of those structures’ existence. Without the reproduction of those aspects – and he was especially interested in the political and ideological conditions – capitalist class structures of production would collapse. Althusser took the further and crucial step of insisting that nothing guarantees the reproduction of capitalism’s conditions of existence and hence likewise the reproduction of capitalism itself. That is, the capitalist class structure does not automatically or necessarily succeed in reproducing its conditions of existence. And therein lies a key vulnerability of capitalism’s survival. The political and ideological conditions of capitalist class structures of production are always more or less a problem for capitalism and capitalists. The latter seek to shape, control, and reproduce them so that they provide the needed supports. However, they do so against contradictory social influences that can make politics and ideology undermine more than they support capitalism.
Althusser distinguished between two sets of social sites - or “apparatuses” as he called them – that conditioned the capitalist mode of production. The first set was political and comprised the state and its various activities and branches. This he named the Repressive State Apparatus (RPA) as a way to summarize his reading of the Marxian tradition’s understanding of the role of the state in capitalist society. That understanding stressed how the state (a) maintained and wielded a monopoly of the means of force in capitalist societies and (b) applied that monopoly to support capitalist class structures. The state, in effect, repressed the threats to capitalist class structures that it recognized. Its branches, activities, and officials constituted a Repressive State Apparatus. What most interested Althusser, however, was how a different set of social sites or apparatuses – much less well examined or understood in the Marxist tradition – played a parallel role in sustaining capitalist class structures. He named that set the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA).
The various state ideological apparatuses – and he included among them especially the schools, the family, religions and religious institutions – worked not by power and politics (as did the RPA) but rather by ideology. By this he meant that they functioned to inculcate children and adults in specific ways of thinking about and thus understanding their relationship to the societies within which they lived.[4] As with the RPAs, ideological state apparatuses were also sites where capitalists’ efforts to shape their functioning contested with the often differently directed efforts of others. Capitalists operated in both the RPA and the ISA but in each case “precisely in its contradictions” (p. 146). Althusser believed that the RSA was more unified and controlled in seeing and performing the functions capitalists wanted, whereas the ISA was a more diverse, open, and contested terrain where capitalists had greater difficulties in securing their agendas as opposed to others’.
ISAs work by ideology, which in Althusser’s view means by “interpellation”. That is, institutions such as families, churches, schools, and so on function by “calling” individuals by names and in terms that prescribe and enforce (a) thinking in specific ways about their relationships with other individuals and with institutions and practices in society and (b) acting accordingly. In his subtle formulations, Althusser focuses on the “subjectivity” of such interpellated individuals. He sees the ISAs as quite literally imposing the particular subjectivity that individuals assume and internalize as self- definitions. Modern capitalism presses ISAs to subject individuals to a particular ideology of the “subject” that provides crucial conditions of existence for (that reproduces) capitalism.
This ideology of the subject that ISAs impose on individuals affirms, in a kind of ironic twist, that their subjectivity consists of an independence and autonomy. That is, individuals are interpellated as free subjects who function as the ultimate causes and origins of their belief systems, their actions, and their social institutions. The very ambiguity of the word “subject” - as both something/someone “subjected” and something/someone that causes – serves Althusser to highlight the key ideological reversal performed by ISAs in capitalist societies today. Individuals are thus shaped by ISAs to believe that their conformity to the needs of capitalist class structures is something quite different, a life path freely chosen by an independent and autonomous subject. In Althusser’s words, the individual within modern capitalist societies is interpellated by ISAs as “free” so that he/she “freely accepts his subjection” (p. 182).
Now, Althusser proceeds along the lines of this argument with a deliberate epistemological self-consciousness. He thus does not imagine or position himself as reasoning from outside the realm of ideology. He accepts - and indeed insists – that all thinking subjects, himself included, are “always, already” interpellated (p. 176). Althusser admits his own subjectivity, his own peculiar subjection to his society’s ISAs and thus his socially embedded standpoint. While Althusser’s is a different notion of subjectivity from that one mostly inculcated by the ISAs of his society, both are products of that society. For Althusser, the social contradictions working on the ISAs make them more or less contested terrains. Their contradictions provoke the formation of different and oppositional conceptions of subjectivity that the ISAs then disseminate. Althusser’s subjectivity emerges from their contradictions and moves toward the anti-capitalist traditions of Marxism, socialism, and communism – contesting forces struggling over the organization and operation of ISAs. He thus develops a different notion of individual subjectivity, one that entails his critique of the main kind of interpellated subjectivity imposed by ISAs. In his view, the latter comprises an important condition of existence of capitalist class structures of production. Althusser attacks the dominant interpellation of individuals in modern capitalism – as “free subjects” – for ignoring/denying the social constitution and social effects (i.e., supporting capitalist exploitation) of that particular interpellation.
The analysis of ISAs in Althusser’s famous article represent a major Marxist contribution to what later became better known – and more neutrally directed - as “cultural studies.” His ISAs are, of course, major vehicles for the formation and transmission of all that is included in the term culture. Families, schools, and churches are the material realities in and by which individuals are interpellated into socialized subjects. Their complex organizations, modalities, and contradictions are precisely what Althusser’s article invited Marxists especially to explore. Their social connection to capitalist class structures was as crucial for the latters’ survival as was the state which had gotten the lion’s share of Marxist analytical and political attention. Althusser was, in effect, urging Marxists to correct the imbalance, to devote serious and sustained attention to the workings of ISAs as a central component of Marxist research and politics: a Marxist cultural studies program.
What distinguishes such a Marxist approach from other tendencies of cultural studies is the focus on linking cultural values, institutions, and contradictions to the capitalist class structures of society with each side of the link serving simultaneously as cause and effect of the other. No determinist or reductionist linking would be acceptable; no old-fashioned Marxist reflection theorizations; no essentialism. Althusser had much earlier pointed the way to his very different approach to linking, “overdetermination”, in which every cause was also an effect.[5] Culture was both cause and effect of class. Each was constitutive of the other alongside the constitutivity of all the political and other aspects of the social totality beside class and culture. In particular an Althusserian approach to cultural studies would seek to identify the particular contradictions (and the tensions and conflicts in which they are expressed) that are overdetermined within (a) the class structure, (b) culture (the ISAs), and (c) their interactions. Indeed, Althusser’s final work was just such an attempt focused on the conscious, unconscious, and intensely contradictory interpellations to which his family ISA subjected him.[6]
Several important aspects of Althusser’s conceptualization of the ISAs were either underdeveloped in his essay or else subject later to intense debates. These deserve a brief discussion here. First, there is the matter of thinking about a society’s class structure as singular. Althusser’s original essay on the ISAs took a clear position on this when he mentioned “modes of production combined in a social formation” (p. 158). However, he never developed this point nor integrated it into his discussion. Yet nothing less is demanded to make the ISAs comprehensible. If societies (or the preferred Marxist term, “social formations”) comprise multiple interacting class structures, then a whole host of key issues arise that are directly pertinent to ISAs. First, Althusser’s logic implies that each class structure within a society would seek to shape ISAs (family, church, schools, etc.) to secure its conditions of existence. This would trasmit the contradictions and tensions among the class structures into the ISAs themselves and into their interpellations of individuals. In societies where, for example, self-employed persons (Marx’s “ancient class structure”) coexisted with capitalist class structured enterprises and feudal class structures inside households, each of these would exert its specific and likely incongruent influences upon ISAs.[7] The latter would then have complex, contradictory effects upon those class structures. This opens the door to highly nuanced Marxist theorizations of ISAs in societies with diverse class structures, but Althusser did not go through that door, neither explicitly nor systematically.
Second, there is the flavor of economic determinism that is discernible at points in his original essay. Like Marx, Althusser was concerned to stress what others had minimized or ignored: the roles of class structures in shaping ideology. In so doing, he sometimes veered close to determinist arguments of the sort he had denounced repeatedly ever since the original essay on “Contradiction and Overdetermination” (see footnote 5). The same problem arose as well in Althusser’s overstressing of the profound and subtle ways in which ISAs provided the conditions for capitalist class structures’ reproduction. He gave far less attention to the ways in which ISAs also did the opposite, undermining that reproduction because of contradictory influences upon them emanating from, for example, exploited workers and the non-capitalist class structures coexisting with the capitalist in modern societies.
Thirdly, Althusser’s discussion of the ISAs resembled his other works in paying too little attention to the different modern forms of capitalist class exploitation. These would presumably shape ISAs in different ways that Althusser might have at least briefly surveyed to good theoretical and political effect. Capitalist exploitation can, for example, exist in both private and state forms. That is, the capitalist exploiters – the appropriators of a surplus produced by others – can be either private individuals or they can be state officials. In modern capitalist corporations, the capitalists are either private individuals comprising a board of directors elected by share-holders or they are state officials assigned to a comparable position (although perhaps named a commission or ministry). Althusser’s trenchant criticisms of the USSR might have, but never did, lead him to inquire about how a state capitalism would interact differently with ISAs than a private capitalism. This is unfortunate especially as it might have provoked extremely useful examinations of the sorts of interactions between ISAs and state capitalist class structures that had much to do with the collapse of the USSR in 1989.
In conclusion, Althusser’s theory of the ISAs enabled and provoked a distinctively Marxist examination of culture and its importance to class analysis and class politics. It added layers of depth and richness to Gramsci’s efforts in similar directions. Althusser’s beginnings aimed to stimulate a Marxist tradition of studying ideology and culture. He would have ridiculed the notion that the term “post-Marxist” need or should apply to cultural studies, since he clearly believed that Marxist work was precisely what had not yet been undertaken beyond mere beginnings. We may perhaps best illustrate the rich possibilities of Althusser’s beginning by applying his ISA analysis to the particular history of the world’s most successful capitalism, the United States.
The basic statistics on capitalist exploitation in the United States since its civil war are stark in Marxist terms. Real wages rose but less quickly than did labor productivity. In Marxist terms, this means nearly a century and a half of a rising rate of exploitation. More and more surplus value was generated relative to what was paid to productive workers. That surplus is what enabled the US to achieve its ostentatious wealth and the massive state projecting a global military preponderance. In Marxist economic terms, that surplus results from the fact that US workers are among the most exploited in the world today. At the same time, the success of US capitalist enterprises in continually raising their productivity (and thus producing commodities with ever less labor per unit of output) enabled the workers’ real wages to rise to historically unprecedented levels. Indeed, the “success” of US capitalism lay in its unique combination of rising exploitation and rising real wages (a possibility Marx foresaw precisely in Capital, vol. 1’s famous discussion of “relative surplus value”).
US capitalism has been able to raise the exploitation of its workers to dizzying levels with much less resistance than capitalisms elsewhere have faced. Coopted trade unions, little socialist and communist opposition, and weak criticisms from its intelligentsia have been hallmarks of US capitalism. Hence the US became the securest capitalism on the planet, a magnet for the wealth of the rich across the globe. Yet the extreme rate of capitalist exploitation in the US has come at an equally impressive social cost. The levels of physical and psychological stress, drug abuse, interpersonal violence, broken families, psychological depression, loneliness and isolation are also extremely high.
The reasons for US capitalism’s success – its security, its growth, and its wealth – lie only partly in its economic performance. Here the central achievement has been this: capitalists compensated their productive workers for an historically high and rising rate of exploitation by delivering a rising level of consumption. In this, the US fulfilled the hope articulated much earlier by Adam Smith. He argued that a capitalism exhibiting growing inequalities between a few and the many could nonetheless avoid the envy and resentment that risked a Hobbesian war of all against all if it could compensate the many with rising consumption. This is what US capitalism accomplished. Yet that would hardly have sufficed if workers in the US had defined themselves and the quality of life they sought predominantly in ways that stressed interpersonal relationships, mental health, community, and free time. Had those – rather than personal consumption levels - been their measures of the good life, workers in the US would not have tolerated and accepted the costs of high and rising rates of exploitation that generated the surpluses enabling US wealth and global power.
Here Althusser’s ISAs enter the picture and assume their importance. Workers in the US had somehow to be interpellated systematically – in their families, schools, churches, the mass media, and so on – as consumption oriented and driven. They had to be called to think of themselves as free market participants choosing between work and leisure according to the consumption they could achieve via the income from that work. They had to define themselves as above all “consumers” who suffered the “disutlity” of labor to acquire the “utilities” embodied in consumption. The neoclassical economics that so totally dominates academia, the media, and politics in the US is the theoretical formalization of this interpellation. The advertising that pervades every aspect of life is the relentless popularization of the interpellation. Workers in the US were subjected to an ideology that defined and celebrated them as consumers first and positively (and workers as secondary and negatively). Their individual worth – for themselves and for others - was to be measured in the level of consumption they could achieve. And that level of consumption was to be understood as the reward for their individual contribution to production.
Only in so far as the ISAs in the US effectively defined most individuals’ subjectivity in such terms were rising wages sufficient to compensate workers for their extreme exploitation. Only if the workers subjectively understood themselves as beings demanding chiefly consumption from the laboring activity that so depleted them (rather than community, solidarity, emotional/relational sustenance, and so on) would they be content with rising wages. The ISAs performed well in the US, perhaps better for capitalism there than anywhere else.
Althusser’s caution to be mindful of the contradictions always plaguing ISAs is applicable to the US as well. The rampant “consumerism” in the US has always provoked criticisms, such as Thorstein Veblen’s attacks on “conspicuous consumption” from the left and religious fundamentalists’ laments about lost “spirituality” from the right. More than a few workers reasoned their way to a recognition, partly inspired by such critics, that the accumulation of consumer goods and services failed to overcome the intolerable strains of exploitation at work and its horrific social effects on personal lives. Such persons revolted, more or less and in diverse ways: some fled to rural villages, some “dropped out” for lives on the social margins (artistic pursuits, alcohol, lives in religious sects, petty crime, and so on), some turned inward to concentrate upon a fetishized family unit, and some found their way to a personal immersion in their work that came to be called, in a revealing usage, “workaholism”. Such revolts presented the ISAs with special problems, namely to constrain the revolts to forms and directions that would not put at risk the capitalist class structures. The solution was to shape subjects such that if they revolted against consumerist society, that revolt should be individual, not collective, and should not aim at displacing capitalist in favor of communist class structures.
Here finally, the issue arises as to how Marxists such as Althusser might use the notion of ISAs to inform a Marxist politics. That politics aims to intervene socially with an agenda that includes transforming capitalist (exploitative) into communist (non-exploitative) class structures of production. In the US that would mean entering into the contradictions of its ISAs precisely to undermine the interpellation of individuals as chiefly consuming subjects and thereby to expose the profound inadequacy of consumption as the workers’ compensation for capitalist exploitation. Anti-capitalist forces would stress the costs of that exploitation while exposing the consumerist subjection of workers as a key ideological support of that exploitation. Such forces would counterpose the benefits of a communist class structure that, by eliminating exploitation, would also reduce the social costs to which exploitation contributes.
A tragedy of anti-capitalist politics in the US for a long time is that they were not informed by anything like Althusser’s ISA argument. The left in the US did not attack the interpellation of individuals as consuming subjects. Indeed, the left endorsed and repeated such interpellations. It presented itself and socialism generally as the better vehicle for individuals to achieve higher levels of consumption: endless slogans and programs for “higher wages”, “family wages”, “living wages”, “minimum wages”, “guaranteed incomes” and so on. The US left thus chose to compete with capitalism in the one area, consumption, where capitalism could deliver enough to render that competition unpersuasive and ineffective with workers interpellated as consumers.
In this way, the left inadvertently reinforced the capitalist-sustaining aspects of ISAs rather than building upon the contradictions within ISAs to undermine the consumerist interpellation of US workers. Applying Althusser’s theory of the ISAs thus enables a profound critique of the socialist movement in the US and of similar socialist movements elsewhere.

[1] The article appeared first in the French journal La Pensee in 1970; it was then reprinted in the collection of Althusser’s articles translated into English by Ben Brewster and titled Lenin and Philosophy (London: New Left Books, 1971, pp. 127-186; New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978; and several reprintings subsequently). The page numbers here refer to the Monthly Review edition.
[2] Althusser explicitly (p. 142) credited Gramsci’s work as one basis for his own.
[3] Althusser uses these terms repeatedly, on pages 137, 150, 154 and 156, to pinpoint what was, for him, the definitional core of the capitalist mode of production: the economic relation whereby some take and use the surplus produced by others.
[4] Althusser’s argument here is quite subtle. He insisted that the distinction between RSA and ISA was a matter of emphasis and degree. The RSA, he said, worked mostly by force and secondarily by ideology, whereas the reverse applied to the ISA (p. 145). Althusser thus recognized the social diffusion of mechanisms of power and repression stressed by Foucault, but, unlike the latter, systematically maintained the distinction between power and ideology as central to his argument about capitalism’s reproduction.
[5] See his important essay “Contradiction and Overdetermination” in For Marx (Trans. By Ben Brewster). New York: Vintage Books, 1970, pp. 87-128. The importance of overdetermination and its relation to constitutivity as a new and different Marxian concept of cause and effect are discussed at length in Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 81-106.
[6] Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir (Edited by Olivier Corpet and Yann Moulier Boutang and Translated by Richard Veasey). New York: The New Press, 1993.
[7] See the analysis of such feudal class structured households in Harriet Fraad, Stephen Resnick, and Richard Wolff, Bringing It All Back Home: Class, Gender and Power in the Modern Household. London: Pluto Press, 1994.

XHTML 1.0 Transitional