Louis Althusser

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What are the main points in Althusser's Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses?

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Louis Althusser was a French professor and Marxist philosopher who wrote Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses in 1970 in order to explore what mechanisms were at play in maintaining and perpetuating the alleged subordination of the working class and other perceived types of exploitation as they related to production in society.

He ultimately concluded that there are two primary mechanisms working together to control the masses by a combination of physical force (or the threat thereof) and indoctrination. The first is the "repressive state apparatuses" such as the military, law enforcement, the prison system, the judiciary, the legislature, and so forth. The second is the "ideological state apparatuses" that are maintained by cultural institutions such as the family unit, the school system, universities, libraries, churches, the media and entertainment.

Althusser believed that "ideological state apparatuses" are far more powerful because they use ideology to get people to act a certain way completely of their own volition, often because they don't believe things could ever operate any other way. He calls it a "double mirror effect," which cements an individual's place in reality and then assures him this is the only reality that is possible.

He references five core elements that define ideology:

  1. It is devoid of history.
  2. People are operated or controlled by it.
  3. It exists in a tangible, material form through practice.
  4. It represents a perceived but fictional relationship between the individual and the real life conditions around them.
  5. Individuals are conceived as subjects.

In essence, individuals, through ideology, are made to be simple subjects who are controlled through material practices that blur the line between what is real and what is perceived as real.

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Althusser is mainly concerned with how the state manages to perpetuate itself or stay in existence. He argues that aside from visibly coercive force this is only possible through the use of ideology. The latter however is what he terms invisible. If this is the case, he suggests we must look toward the institutions that are ideological in nature, or what he calls the state apparatuses. He suggests that there are number of institutions that shape our ideological beliefs, but we do not know it. Althusser calls this process Interpellation, or how one is hailed as a subject of society through ideological forces. This, as well, is a process that takes place without explicit consent or knowledge of the individual. Finally, the institutions Althusser views as doing this ideological work include churches and schools, but consider that the family or marriage are also considered institutions.

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