What is a summary of "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this very famous essay, Althusser is primarily concerned with demonstrating how the various apparatuses that constitute the state are concerned with reproducing ideology that is friendly to the state. For example, schools, which are responsible for imparting "know-how" to young people that will give them the ability to make a living, do so in ways that, Althusser writes, "ensure subjection to the ruling ideology or the mastery of its 'practice."

In short, Althusser is really arguing for the importance of ideology to the subjection of working-class people. Marx had viewed ideology as "superstructural," a characterization that Althusser does not reject. But the fact that it is dependent on material realities does not mean that it is less significant. He categorizes the various state apparatuses as "repressive" and "ideological." So-called "repressive" apparatuses, like the police and even the family, primarily function by disciplining people in ways that reinforce the prevailing social structure. "Ideological" apparatuses inculcate the people with ideologies that do the same thing. Althusser especially implicates education as a mechanism, or "apparatus," of ideological repression, but the state does so in other ways, especially mass communication. These ideologies, Althusser claims, "always express class positions" in that they represent the material relations in any given society. Thus, they can only be understood, and their repressive mechanisms unpacked, by understanding them in their broader social context.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To understand Althusser’s essay you must first have a grasp on Marx. Marx created a theory for understanding how Western society functions according to class. He argued that the superstructure was an umbrella-like, overarching body of rule. It includes direct forms of government and also ideology, such as, religion and law. Below the superstructure is the economic base. According to Marx changes can be made relatively easily to the economic base. However, he argues that it is much more difficult to impact the superstructure. This is why it is very hard to influence society as a whole.

Althusser builds off of Marx’s theory by expanding on how ideology functions. He breaks down ideology into two parts. The first is the ideological state apparatus. This accounts for intangible places of thought creation and reproduction. For example, family, church, television, sports, and politics are all sites of the ideological state apparatus. The ideological state apparatus is diverse and expansive. It comes from all angles and works persuasively.

Conversely, state apparatuses are more obvious, very tangible spaces of ideology. For example, police and prisons are agencies of the state apparatus. Althusser believes that the state apparatus is differentiated in its more apparent and direct use of violence and force. In addition, the state apparatus is invasive and has access to the private lives of citizens. For example, the police can enter our homes with a search warrant. He believes that the state apparatus targets the working class due to their vulnerabilities. While the state apparatus uses force, the ideological state apparatus requires buy in from the public. This was a ground-breaking theory because it highlights the two ways in which the state has influence. One is obvious, while the other is more covert but pervasive.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser applies his theory of ideology to the Marxist theories of the State and the conditions of production. He explains how “the ultimate condition of production is the reproduction of the conditions of production.” What he means by this is that in order to perpetuate capitalism, ideology, which is “the system of the ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group,” needs to carry it forth.

In capitalism, the reproduction of labor power by the proletariat is required for the system to work, and for this reproduction to happen, there needs to also be reproductions of the “world views” of both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Only under ideological subjection can the reproduction of the skills of labor happen sufficiently.

Althusser proposes a thesis regarding two apparatuses he believes are used: the repressive State apparatus and the ideological State apparatus. Repressive State apparatuses are easy to explain – they are State institutions like the Army and the Police which function by repression. ISAs, on the other hand, are the real power in securing reproduction. State Repressive apparatuses are to secure ISAs. Furthermore, Althusser argues that the ISA which is in the dominant position to protect capitalist interest is the educational system, which replaced the ecclesiastical system.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial