Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Now that I'm a PhD student I have an excuse to write at least twice as pretentiously as before. Thus, I present you with a short paper I wrote last week:

Lukacs/Althusser: Ideology, Interpellation, Reification

Though all aspects of Marxist theory and practice have had ample opportunity to read of their demise, from Benedetto Croce's 1907 declaration that “Marx is definitely dead for humankind” to Philippe Van Parijs' 1980 “rational reconstruction by way of obituary” of the Marxist theory of crisis, the theory of ideology seems today to receive more than its fair share of opprobrium. In the “post-epistemological” environs of the American academy, supporters of a Marxist theory of ideology appear as Dr. Frankensteins, laboring away in the dead of night in a demented effort to sew the monster together and give him life. That this intellectual attack has coincided with, and is indeed incomprehensible apart from, a thirty year ruling class offensive in the United States which has decimated revolutionary organizations has meant that the efforts of the academic spinners of ghost stories have had considerable effect on the state of Marxist theories of ideology.

While this state may not appear substantially different from that of Marxism as a whole, the vitality of the theory of ideology is central to any revival of the Marxist intellectual project. There are two primary reasons for this. First, a vibrant theory of ideology is the sine quo non of any rebirth of Marxism in the contemporary American academy. Since the cultural turn, historical materialists can no longer justify their methodology merely through rigorous historical work. The debate is no longer over the making of the English working class, but its representation. The ability of Marxists to engage with such questions depends on a theory of ideology. Secondly, and more importantly, the revival of the Marxist political project, to which the vitality of academic Marxism has always been linked, depends crucially on the ability to comprehend and counteract the influences of ruling class ideology. Obviously, some theory of ideology is necessary if such an endeavor is to be successful.

Fortunately, attempts at rebuilding a Marxist theory of ideology need not begin from scratch. Twentieth century Marxists left behind an incredible corpus of writing on ideology. Within that tradition, two poles stand out, between and around which subsequent theorists have largely located themselves: Georg Lukács and Louis Althusser. Indeed, the debates over ideology of the past thirty years could be simplified to a contest between varyingly strident Lukacsian and Althusserian positions. This is at least partially due to the radically different philosophical traditions from which each writer emerged. Lukács, a Hungarian philosopher and literary critic, owed his greatest intellectual debts to classical German idealism and the new sociology exemplified by Max Weber. Althusser, on the other hand, was trained as a philosopher of science and drew heavily from the structuralist milieu so dominant on the French intellectual scene at the time of his writing. Writing later than Lukacs, Althusser would actually develop some of his key theoretical positions through a critique of what he called “historicism,” a variant of Marxism of which he held Lukacs to be a key exponent.

Despite the depth of the conflict between Lukacsian and Althusserian positions, I believe that a rigorous Marxist theory of ideology can only emerge from a deep engagement with both writers (among others, to be sure). My purpose in this paper is to stage a confrontation between the two texts I believe are most central to theories of ideology in both Althusser and Lukács: the former's “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” and the latter's “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” It is my contention that the most significant aporias of each text are the sites at which a dialogue between the two can occur.[1]

Lukács' essay is above all a development of the theory of commodity fetishism found in Chapter One, Section Four of Capital Volume One. In contrast to the preponderance of contemporary academic interpretations, Lukács argued that the transformation of “definite social relation[s] between men [sic]” into “relation[s] between things” takes place not primarily on the grounds of ideology but in the structure of capitalist social reality. For Lukács, this reality is rooted in the commodity form, “the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects.”[2] As the production of commodities becomes the dominant mode of social production, the logic of the commodity is imposed on society as a whole. Lukács begins his investigation of this imposition with the commodity's most immediate environs: the place of production. Commodity production subjects the labor process to an entirely different logic than earlier forms of production, as there is “a continuous trend towards greater rationalisation, the progressive elimination of the qualitative, human, and individual attributes of the worker.”[3] While marks of individual craftsmanship may have been signifiers of worth under artisan production, under capitalism they are marks of impurity. The labor process itself is “progressively broken down in abstract, rational, specialised operations.” Lukács' analysis of the impact of this rationalization on the individual experience of time is nothing short of poetic :

“Thus time sheds its qualitative, variable, and flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable 'things' (the reified, mechanically objectified 'performance' of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space.”[4]

The commodity form's manic imposition of a rational metric does not stop with the need of capitalists to extract maximum surplus value from their workers. It is reflected in the economic theory by which the capitalist class apprehends its own mode of production. For the rationalization of production, its subjection to scientific regimes of production, produces nothing so much as a false concrete, a horizon of analysis whose immediacy masks its superficiality. The vast assemblages of data with which commodity production can be analyzed, thanks to its rationalization, do nothing to penetrate beyond the abstract form production assumes. Bourgeois economic theory fails to examine the concrete content of capitalist production.

This failure is, for Lukács, the symptomatic failure of bourgeois ideology. The reification he describes consists in the partial, limited truth of a certain facet of capitalist society assuming the form of an independent, concrete truth, instead of an aspect of a more complex social totality. Though Lukács develops this theory most fully through a critique of bourgeois economic thought, his rooting of it in the commodity form, along with his assignation of that form to a central location in capitalist society, allows him to cast reification as the dominant mode of bourgeois thought.

Lukács' analysis of reification is tremendously powerful, but it is not without problems. The most important of these is the relationship of reification to the proletariat. Though Lukács argues in great detail that the working class has the capability and interest to develop a theory which goes beyond reification, he does not offer any reasons that the proletariat should have accepted it in the first place. Simply because the bourgeoisie seeks to impose rationalization on society as a whole does not imply that subaltern classes should be compelled to accept it in their theoretical practice[5]. As Terry Eagleton argues, “For Luká would sometimes appear as though each social class has its own peculiar, corporate 'world view,' one directly expressive of its material conditions of existence; and ideological dominance then consists in one of these world views imposing its stamp on the social formation as a whole.”[6]

The problem of how the bourgeoisie is able to force its ideology on the proletariat is precisely the problem Louis Althusser takes up in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” His stated goal is to investigate the “the reproduction of the conditions of production.”[7] Of these conditions, Althusser regards the reproduction of labor power as among the most unexamined. He observes that part of the reason for its obscurity is that the reproduction of labor power takes place “essentially outside the firm:”[8] that is, outside of the site on which both bourgeois and Marxist theories of capitalism have focused. Althusser argues that not only does labor power have to be reproduced with the basic skills necessary for any job (under late capitalism, skills such as literacy, computer literacy, social skills, etc), but also “its submission to the rules of the established order”[9] must similarly be reproduced.

Since Althusser has argued that this reproduction takes place primarily outside of the firm, he introduces the state as its primary agent. The state accomplishes its task by making use of two different tools: repressive states apparatuses (RSAs) and ideological state apparatuses. (ISAs) The RSAs are constituted by the everyday symbols of state power: the army, the police, the prisons, etc. Though these are crucial organs of class rule, Althusser argues that “no class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses.”[10] As examples of institutions that function as ISAs, Althusser lists the following (among others): the family, the educational system, trade-unions, and political parties.

Following this, Althusser moves through a broader discussion of what exactly ideology is. Here he puts forth his famous definition of ideology as “the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence.”[11] Drawing upon the “theoretical anti-humanism” he developed in earlier texts, Althusser argues that the chief such “imaginary relationship” is the individual's conception of herself as a subject. The idea of human beings as individual, self-forming, rational agents is for Althusser both the most profound effect and most important function of ideology, for it is through the construction of such free, rational subjects that individuals are able to freely submit to “the posts which the socio-technical division of labour assigns them in production, exploitation, repression, ideologization, scientific practice, etc.”[12]

This subjection is able to operate so efficiently precisely because it is based on concrete individuals recognizing themselves as free subjects, rather than the domination implied in Lukács' account. Althusser describes the process by which individuals are invited to so recognize themselves as “interpellation,” or hailing. Thus he compares the structure of ideology to a mirror, built with the purpose of individuals recognizing themselves within it. Importantly for Althusser, this interpellation is not a temporal phenomenon, but one always-already completed. The material rituals of ideology, its lived practice, ensure that “an individual is always-already a subject, even before he is is certain in advance that it will bear its Father's Name, and will therefore have an identity and be irreplaceable.”[13] Ideology's ability to maintain itself throughout time in this way is, for Althusser, based on its eternal nature. Contrary to a thinker like Lukács, who identifies bourgeois ideology with the specific commodity form of capitalism, Althusser argues that ideology is eternal, for every society has a need for individuals to freely submit to a division of labor. Thus, every society secretes ideology as part of its nature.

Like Lukács' theory of reification, Althusser's account of interpellation and subjection is an ambitious and systematic attempt to account for the functioning of ideology. As should be clear from the above exposition, Althusser's theory has the considerable merit of identifying a sophisticated means by which ideology should be able to secure its dominance over subaltern classes. However, as with Lukács, his account is not without problems.

I believe Althusser's theory of ideology suffers from two, related problems: functionalism and a separation of ideological production from economic production. Briefly described, functionalist explanations are those that explain a phenomenon “by its beneficial consequences...without the mechanism for this process being specified.”[14] Thus cause and effect are reversed, so that the effect which a phenomenon produces becomes its cause. Ideology is produced because the reproduction of labor power is a social necessity, not, as in Lukács, as an effect of the process of commodity production. The functionalism in Althusser's theory is not unique to him; it is a general feature of the Parisian structuralism from which he drew. However, Althusser's consistent emphasis on anti-humanism, his persistent denial of human agents any causal role in his theory, leaves him more cornered than most, with little recourse but to functionalist explanations for the phenomena he describes. Ultimately Althusser's functionalism disfigures his system not only theoretically, as the source of ideology is vaguely located in society's needs, but also politically. For if agents are superfluous to the production of capitalist stability, it is unclear how they are to become relevant to the ultimate production of capitalist instability: proletarian revolution.

Althusser's functionalism is related to his second primary defect: the separation of ideological production from economic production. As we saw above, Althusser is insistent that the production of ideology takes place “outside the firm.” He even goes so far as to identify economic activities which take commodity production as their primary purpose, like literature and television, with the state, because their function is that of the state: the production of ideology. For Althusser, the production of ideology is an extra-economic activity.

This radical separation of commodity production from ideological production is unsatisfactory on both an empirical and theoretical level. Empirically, it is quite easy to demonstrate that extra-state, primarily economic actors play an immense role in the production of ideology in late capitalist society. David Harvey, for example, cites the example of all 247 newspapers around the world owned by Rupert Murdoch all “independently” supporting the American invasion of Iraq in their editorials[15]. As most of these newspapers operate in capitalist democracies, they are subject to minimal interference by the state. The ideology they produce and disseminate is directed not through the state, but through a capitalist whose control over the means of production allows him to dictate what is said and who realizes the importance of the Iraq adventure for his class. By effacing the role of capitalists themselves in producing ideology, Althusser not only forces himself to rely on vague functionalism, but he also obfuscates an important aspect of capitalist class rule.

On a theoretical-political level, Althusser's excision of ideology from the economic realm leads him to identify struggles in the ISAs, such as in the schools or in literature, as an important aspect of the class struggle. However, because of his insistence that ISAs are indeed state apparatuses leads him to conceive of struggle in these areas not as a class struggle of workers to seize control of the means of production, but as the political struggle for state power. This theoretical move was inspired at least partially by Althusser's sympathy with the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As Ralph Miliband has argued, it ultimately wreaks havoc with a theory of capitalist class rule:

To suggest that the relevant institutions are actually part of the State system does not seem to me to accord with reality, and tends to obscure the difference in this respect between these political systems and systems where ideological institutions are indeed part of a State monopolistic system of power. In the former systems, ideological institutions do retain a very high degree of autonomy; and are therefore the better able to conceal the degree to which they do belong to the system of capitalist power.[16]

Working classes have paid dearly at various points in the twentieth century for confusing the differences between liberal democracies and totalitarian societies.

Can Althusser's theory be salvaged? I believe it can, by rigorously integrating it into a Lukacsian framework of reification. While Lukács surely benefits from the tremendous explanatory power of interpellation, Althusser's theory is equally in need of precisely the kind of basis in economic reality that Lukács always maintains at the center of his problematic. This basis can ultimately be found in Marx's “double freedom” of the proletariat.

In Chapter Six, Volume One of Capital, Marx famously argues that

For the transformation of money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must find the free worker available on the commodity-market; and this worker must be free in the double sense that as a free individual he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that, on the other hand, he has no other commodity for sale, i.e. he is rid of them, he is free of all the objects needed for the realization [Verwirklichung] of his labour-power.[17]

In order for industrial capital to achieve the hegemony that constitutes full-scale capitalist production, it is necessary that the originally peasant working class be forcibly dispossessed. Once workers have nothing to sell but their labor power, their ability to work, capitalists are able to secure their free, voluntary efforts to be hired, and thus exploited.

This process mirrors exactly that described by Althusser in his description of subject formation by ideology, and indeed it constitutes the material basis of that process. While Althusser is properly insistent upon the materiality of ideology, his functionalism leads him to bypass any systematic exploration of subject formation's material base in favor of descriptions of social needs. In a fashion homologous to Lukács' description of reification, the position of workers as free subjects is indeed a “true” part of capitalist society. As Marx argues, it is necessary to capitalist production. At the same time, it is an unavoidably partial truth. The freedom to sell one's labor power is a false concrete, developing only out of the brutal violence of dispossession; in the same way, the rationalization of capitalist production is a partial truth, developing as it does out of the anarchy of the market.

Properly subsumed under a Lukacsian framework of reification, both of the problems identified above with Althusser's analysis are resolved. A functional explanation of ideology is no longer necessary, as the task of creating workers who are free in Marx's double sense is one clearly undertaken by the capitalist class[18]. Similarly, the production of ideology is no longer once removed from the structure of social relations, but on the contrast, stems directly from them.

It is on this solid materialist ground that the reconstruction of a Marxist theory of ideology can begin. Both Lukács and Althusser are necessary to such work, but as I have argued, the two cannot stand equally tall. If Althusser can only survive on Lukacsian life support, so much the worse for him, but so much the better for the revival of the Marxist project.

[1] In this paper I shall restrict myself to what Lukács and Althusser have to say about ideology as such, and refrain from engaging their theories on how it can be overcome. At this point I will confine myself to saying that I find Lukács' answer of proletarian revolution to be more attractive than Althusser's “theoretical practice,” although the former is certainly not without problems.

[2] Lukács 83.

[3] 88

[4] 90

[5] I use the term here in the Gramscian sense, rather than Althusser's more technical meaning: “Each man, finally...carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a 'philosopher,' an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.” Gramsci. Prison Notebooks pg 9.

[6] Terry Eagleton 101.

[7] Althusser 1

[8] 3

[9] 5

[10] 14

[11] 24

[12] 37

[13] 33

[14] Callinicos 297.

[15] Harvey 35.

[16] Qtd in Anderson 1976 pg 36

[17] Marx 272-273.

[18] A clarification is necessary here. Enclosure as described by Marx in his section on primitive accumulation was undertaken by the state. However, Marx is clear that the bourgeoisie was the primary actor behind it. See Marx 884-885.