Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

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"Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)" (original French title: "Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État"),[1] is an essay by the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. First published in 1970, it advances Althusser's theory of ideology. Where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels posited a thinly-sketched theory of ideology as false consciousness, Althusser draws upon the works of later theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to proffer a more elaborate redefinition of the theory. While much of Althusser's work has fallen out of favour in the decades since it was written, his theory of ideology remains influential.

Reproduction of the relations of production[edit]

Althusser begins the essay by reiterating the Marxist theory that in order to exist, a social formation is required to essentially, continuously and perpetually reproduce the productive forces ([labour-power]), the conditions of production and the relations of production. The reproduction of production relations is ensured by the wage system which pays a minimum amount to the workers so that they appear to work day after day, thereby limiting their vertical mobility.[2]:1483–1484 The reproduction of the conditions of production and the reproduction of the relations of production happens through the State Apparatuses which are insidious machinations controlled by the capitalist ruling ideology in the context of a class struggle to repress, exploit, extort and subjugate the ruled class.[2]:1488–1490

The Marxist spatial metaphor of the edifice describes a social formation constituted by the foundational infrastructure, i.e. the economic base, on which stands the superstructure consisting of two floors: the Law-the State (politico-legal) and Ideology. A detailed description of both structures is provided below:

The infrastructure consists of the forces, the means, and the relations of production. The following examples reflect the concept of the infrastructure in further detail:

  1. The forces included the workers. Also, it consists of the technical knowledge to perform the work, such as training and knowledge.
  2. The means are the materials of production. This includes the raw materials, tools, and machines.
  3. The relations of production reflect the interactions between workers as well as between the workers and owners

The superstructure arises from the infrastructure and consists of culture and ideology. The following examples reflect the concept of the superstructure in further detail:

  1. The culture includes the laws, politics, art, etc.
  2. Ideology include the world views, values, and beliefs

Marx's theory is that the superstructure comes from the infrastructure and reconditions ways of life and living so that the infrastructure continues to be produced.

Althusser extends this topographical paradigm by stating that the Infrastructural economic base is endowed with an “index of effectivity” which enables it to ultimately determine the functioning of the superstructure. He scrutinizes this structural metaphor by discussing the superstructure in detail. A close study of the superstructure is necessitated due to its relative autonomy over the base and its reciprocal action on the base.[2]:1486

Repressive state apparatus (RSA)[edit]

The ruling class use the repressive State apparatuses (RSA) to dominate the working class; the basic, social function of the RSA (government, courts, police and armed forces, etc.) is timely intervention to politics in favour of the interests of the ruling class, by repressing the subordinate social classes as required, either by violent or non-violent coercive means. The ruling class control the RSA, because they also control the powers of the State (political, legislative, armed).[2]:1491–1492

Althusser progressively developed the Marxist theory of the State, by distinguishing the repressive apparatuses of the State from the ideological apparatuses of the State, which are an array of social institutions and multiple, political realities that propagate many ideologies — the religious ISA, the educational ISA, the family ISA, the legal ISA, the political ISA, the communications ISA, the cultural ISA, etc.

The differences between the RSA and the ISA are:

1. The repressive State apparatus (RSA) functions as a unified entity (an institution), unlike the ideological State apparatus (ISA), which is diverse in nature and plural in function; however, what unites the disparate ISA is that their ultimate control by the ruling ideology.
2. The apparatuses of the State, repressive and ideological, each perform the double functions of violence and ideology. A State apparatus cannot be exclusively repressive or exclusively ideological. The distinction between an RSA and an ISA is its primary function in society, respectively, the administration of violent repression and the dissemination of ideology. In practice, the RSA is the means of repression and violence, and, secondarily, a means of ideology; whereas, the primary, practical function of the ISA is as the means for the dissemination of ideology, and, secondarily, as a means of political violence and repression. The secondary functions of the ISA are effected in a concealed and a symbolic manner.[2]:1488–1491

Moreover, when individual persons and political groups threaten the social order established by the dominant social class, the State invokes the stabilising functions of the Repressive State Apparatus. As such, the benign forms of social repression effected with the systems of law and the courts, where ostensibly public contractual language is invoked in order to govern individual and collective behaviour in society. As internal threats (social, political. economic) to the dominant order appear, the State applies the proportionate social repression: police suppression, incarceration, and, military intervention.

Ideological state apparatus (ISA)[edit]

Unlike the Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA), the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) belong to the private domain of society — to churches, schools, families, etc. Instead of expressing and imposing order, through repression, the Ideological State Apparatuses reinforce the rule of the dominant class, principally through ideology; people submit out of fear of social ridicule, rather than fear of legal prosecution or police violence.

A social class cannot hold State power unless, and until, they simultaneously exercise hegemony (domination) over and in the ISA; however, in the course of class struggle, dominance of the ISA enables the subordinate class to counter the ruling class, by using the inherent ideologic contradictions of the apparatus of State ideology.[2]:1491 Althusser said that the School has supplanted the Church as the crucial ISA for indoctrination, which augments the reproduction of the relations of production (i.e. the capitalist relations of exploitation) by training the students to become the productive forces (labour-power) who work for and under the Capitalist agents of exploitation. The Educational ISA assume a dominant role in a Capitalist economy, and conceal and mask the ideology of the ruling class behind the “liberating qualities” of school so that the hidden agendas of the ruling class are inconspicuous to the parents of the students.[2]:1493–1496

Therefore, the ideological State apparatus (ISA) and the site of the class struggle might be at stake, because the social class, or alliance of social classes, in the ISA cannot lay down the law as readily as in the repressive State apparatus (RSA). One reason for that difference in control is that the former ruling classes are able to retain strong positions in the RSA. Another reason is that the exploited social classes are able to find the means and occasions to politically express themselves, either by way of the utilization of ideologic contradictions, or by conquering combat positions in the course of class struggle.

Two theses on ideology[edit]

Althusser advances two theses on ideology: "Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence";[3]:153 and "Ideology has a material existence".[3]:155 The first thesis tenders the familiar Marxist contention that ideologies have the function of masking the exploitative arrangements on which class societies are based.

The second thesis posits that ideology does not exist in the form of "ideas" or conscious "representations" in the "minds" of individuals. Rather, ideology consists of the actions and behaviours of bodies governed by their disposition within material apparatuses. Central to the view of individuals as responsible subjects is the notion of an explanatory link between belief and action, that

every 'subject' endowed with a 'consciousness' and believing in the 'ideas' that his 'consciousness' inspires in him and freely accepts, must act according to his ideas", must therefore inscribe his own ideas as a free subject in the actions of his material practice.


For Althusser, this is yet another effect of social practice:

I shall therefore say that, where only a single subject (such and such individual) is concerned, the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into his material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which we derive the ideas of that subject...Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.



According to Althusser, the obviousness that people (you and I) are subjects is an effect of ideology. Althusser believes that there are two functions of interpellation. One function of ideology is “recognition” and the other function, its inverse, is “misrecognition”. Below are a few concrete illustrations that Althusser provides to further explain the two functions:

  1. When a friend of yours knocks on your door, you ask “Who’s there?” The answer, since it is obvious, is “ it’s me”. Once you recognize that “it is him or her”, you open to the door. After opening the door, you see that it truly is he or she who is there.
  2. Another illustration reflects Althusser’s idea of reconnaissance. When recognizing a familiar face on the street in France, for example, you show him that you have recognized him and that he has recognized you by saying “Hello, my friend”. You also shake his hand when speaking. The hand-shake represents a material ritual practice of ideological recognition in every-day life of France. Other locations across the world may have different rituals.

Althusser uses the term "interpellation" to describe the process by which ideology constitutes individual persons as subjects. The ideological social and political institutions - the family, the media, religious organisations, the education system and the discourses they propagate - 'hail' the individual in social interactions, giving him his identity. Althusser compares ideology to a policeman shouting "hey you" to a person walking in the street. The person responds to the call and in doing so is transformed into a subject - a self-conscious, responsible agent whose actions can be explained by his or her thoughts. Althusser thus goes against the classical definition of the subject as cause and substance, emphasising instead how the situation always precedes the (individual or collective) subject. Concrete individual persons are the carriers of ideology - they are "always-already interpellated" as subjects. Individual subjects are presented principally as produced by social forces, rather than acting as powerful independent agents with self-produced identities. Althusser's argument here strongly draws from Jacques Lacan's concept of the mirror stage[3]:162 — we acquire our identities by seeing ourselves somehow mirrored in ideologies.

As a further example, Althusser depicts Christian religious ideology, embodied in the Voice of God, instructing a person on what his place in the world is and what he must do to be reconciled with Christ.[3]:166 Althusser draws the point that in order for that person to identify himself as a Christian, he must first already be a subject; that is, by responding to God's call and following His rules, he affirms himself as a free agent, the author of the acts for which he assumes responsibility.[3]:169 We cannot recognize ourselves outside of ideology, and in fact, our very actions reach out to this overarching structure.[3]:168


In the essay “Considerations on Western Marxism” (1976), Perry Anderson said that:

Despite the huge popularity gained by the concept [of ideological state apparatus] in many circles, ISA, as a concept, was never theorised by Althusser, himself, in any serious manner. It was merely conceived as a conjunctural and temporary tool to challenge the contemporary liberalism within the French Communist Party. A further elaboration of the concept, in the hands of Nicos Poulantzas, was easily demolished by Ralph Miliband in the exchanges over the pages of New Left Review. For, if all the institutions of civil society are conceptualised as part of the State, then a mere electoral victory of a left-wing student organisation, in a University, can also be said to be a victory over a part of the State!"[citation needed]

Generally, Althusser’s perspectives on ideology remain respected; in the Louis Althusser capsule biography, the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd. Ed., says that “Althusser’s major concepts — Ideological State Apparatuses, Interpellation, Imaginary relations, and Overdetermination — permeate the discourse of contemporary literary and cultural theory, and his theory of ideology has influenced virtually all subsequent serious work on the topic.[4]


  1. ^ Althusser, Louis (1970). "Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d'État (Notes pour une recherche)". La Pensée (151). 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Leitch, Vincent B. (2001). The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. pp. 1483–1496. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Althusser, Louis (1971). "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses". Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays. pp. 121–176. ISBN 0-902308-89-0.  Translated from the French by Ben Brewster.
  4. ^ Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Ed. (2nd ed.). W.W. Norton and Co. p. 1333. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, trans. and ed. G.M. Goshgarian (Verso, 2014).
  • Freeden, Michael (2003). Ideology: A Very Short Introduction. pp. 25–30. ISBN 978-0-19280281-1.