Ideology & You: Partners in Freedom

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


April 8, 2012

Ideology & You

Partners in Freedom

In Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Althusser notes that if a productive capitalist economy is to sustain itself, it cannot only be concerned simply with producing and selling goods. Every economy depends on certain conditions—availability of raw materials, a labor force with the willingness to work and the requisite skills, technology, infrastructure, capital investment, etc.–all the many things that get used up or worn out, and must be replaced if production is to continue. It follows from this that an economy must not only be productive, it must also reproduce the conditions it depends upon that make it productive. These conditions include the obvious things like raw materials, equipment and machinery, and some that are not so obvious: consumer demand must be created and sustained through product innovation and advertising; and the legal and regulatory environment (or lack thereof); and so on.

Human labor is an input into production processes so it must also be manufactured, so we turn our attention to the reproduction of labor power. This has a biological meaning (workers must be paid enough to survive, procreate and raise new workers) and an educational one (new workers must be trained with the skills that employers require). These are all straightforward and easily understood, but something else is required in the reproduction of workers: somehow they must voluntarily submit to an unequal system that’s designed to exploit them. As Althusser puts it, “the reproduction of labor power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order.” A variation of this question is asked by Thomas Frank: what’s the matter with Kansas? Althusser supplies the answer: ideology and ideological state apparatuses.

Readers who are put off by such an answer thinking it a simple dogmatic restatement of the good old theory of false consciousness may be surprised to learn that he wants to avoid this. Althusser references two other ideas about ideology that he believes are inadequate. The first is the conspiratorial liberal theory of “Priests and Despots” that holds that a shadowy cabal of powerful individuals are deceiving us about what goes on in society. We might find Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent under this heading. The second is Marx’s theory from The German Ideology, which Althusser rejects this as false and not properly Marxist. In this account, false beliefs about reality are a product of alienation–we hold on to the comforting illusions rather than face the truth of how capitalism separates us from our authentic, human ways of being. Marx’s view of religion falls in this category, as do some recent critiques of the just-world fallacy, a cognitive bias that holds victims responsible for their suffering.

Althusser rejects both of these theories because they presuppose that we know the truth, we have an objective, scientific standpoint and can see through the illusions. In their place, he formulates an alternative theory: Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.

What does this mean? For Althusser, ideology is not simply a set of false beliefs that mystify objective conditions in contrast to the supposed scientific truth of reality–like the belief that capitalism is a fair and just economic system when it is not. This would be an imaginary representation of real conditions, where I believe something, and that belief is mistaken. Althusser’s new formulation of ideology – a representation of an imaginary relation to real conditions – implies that I can be mistaken about what I believe.

This is possible because ideas and beliefs are not just things that exist in people’s heads, they exist materially, embodied in actions and rituals that we do even when we don’t necessarily believe. The usual assumption is that belief precedes action: society consists of individuals who have certain beliefs, and this causes them to act in certain ways. Instead, Althusser has action precede belief, modeling this on Pascal’s injunction that kneeling down to pray will cause belief, rather than the other way around.

Action causes belief, as an ex post facto rationalization for why we took an action. But even beyond that, this means that a belief can have effects in society even if no-one literally believes it. We can easily imagine a situation where an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, and her parents insist that she marry the father. But they assure her that of course they are modern people who don’t hold such old-fashioned prejudices about children born out-of-wedlock, they just worry what other people in the community might think. No-one actually needs to explicitly believe in this prejudice for it to function as a stigma forcing the woman to marry, it is enough that everyone believes that someone else believes, and doesn’t wish to offend them. This belief about others’ belief is what Althusser seems to be getting at with his ideology as a representation of an imaginary relationship to real conditions of existence.

From a practical standpoint, criticizing cultural beliefs on the assumption that they are held literally can have unintended effects. For example, the usual criticism of advertising claims that a billboard or magazine ad of a luxury car is created by priests and despots on Madison Avenue, deceiving us into thinking that owning a luxury car really signals status. A critical viewer with this kind of analysis might congratulate herself on being able to see through these illusions. But there is a problem: if you are the kind of person who wanted to impress other people, the supposedly critical revelation of how the public is deluded by advertising into thinking that something confers status is actually a great argument for buying the car.

To take this a step further, the critical exposé not only fails to be genuinely critical, the secret truth it claims to reveal turns out to be the lie. Advertising works by sending a double message: the explicit message of type “This car will make you sexy, buy it and you will get all the girls,” which is the usual target of critique; and the message between the lines that subverts the explicit message, saying “You’re not so stupid as to fall for the official message, but everyone else is! Buy this car and everyone will believe you are sexy and can get all the girls.” So you buy it, not because you believe, but because you believe that others believe.

The ideological content is not in the explicit message, but in the way ideology is self-subverting, creating the appearance of an autonomous space outside of ideology. In America, the foundational self-subversion of consumerism is the sale, which endlessly varies the theme of canceling the official “full price ideology”: prices are cut, slashed, stricken through or marked down; store windows are covered in simple, cheap-looking garish signs using fake handwritten typefaces, violating the more polished, sophisticated aesthetics of the brand, almost as if it were graffiti; the occasion for the sale is some exceptional event: a holiday, the end of the season, clearing out old inventory or going out of business. Sales events are something like a carnivalesque celebration of the disruption of the normal order, which goes a long way to explaining why culture jamming was so easily integrated into it. Nominally subversive acts imagined as oppositional practices to the social order are not only ineffective, they are the very means by which that order reproduces itself.

Sales shopping is motivated out of a sense of autonomy, distance and even criticism from (what is understood as) the dominant consumer ideology, imagined as a space outside of ideology where spending money is represented as saving money or resisting greedy corporations who are trying to take us for every penny. This ideological disidentification is necessary to sustain the subject’s sense of freedom.

Althusser’s theory suggests that ideology does not so much consist of a set of beliefs and ideas about the world masquerading as knowledge. Instead, it is most apparent in an identity, a representation of who one is, how one relates or doesn’t relate to society, what’s important in life, how one should behave, what one’s role is and so on. The example for the constitution of this ideological subject is the well-known concept of interpellation: walking down the street, a police officer calls out, “Hey, you!” and you turn around, recognizing that the police officer is addressing you. In that moment of recognition, you are constituted as a subject.

But police hailing you is just a metaphor – the actual cause of the ideological subject is various ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) and their practices, and Althusser lists several of these: the family, the education system, the media, cultural institutions, religion, political parties and so on. All of these confer different aspects of identity for subjects that enable them to take their place within the capitalist edifice. Writing in the late 1960s in France, Althusser believes that the education system has succeeded the church as the primary site of ideological inculcation, but with today’s widespread skepticism of institutions, it is necessary to stress the concept of ideological disidentification and the way distance from the explicit ideology can function as its hidden support.

It’s possible that it was once subversive to criticize social institutions – especially if they are organized, bureaucratic and hierarchical – and expose their hidden biases, agendas and false claims to neutrality and universality. But this is so self-evident today, it almost strains credulity to suggest that anyone ever thought otherwise. The pervasiveness and apparent self-evidence of this belief marks it as ideological.