Power Relations and the Socially Constructed Self: What does this say about “belief”? Part II: Louis Althusser


In the previous post, I presented an overview of this series. Here, I will focus on Louis Althusser. After providing a more comprehensive overview of the three theorists, I will discuss the relationship between social indoctrination and personal belief.


Louis Althusser claims that a primary function of State Power in a capitalist society is to perpetuate the means of production to propagate a surplus of produced materials. In order to do so, the conditions for production must be reproduced. In other words, skilled workers must be perpetually reproduced in order to continue production without interruption.

State power and the State Apparatus are two separate aspects of the State according to Althusser. While State Power can change hands, the structure of the State Apparatus resists drastic change. The State Apparatus is made up of the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) and the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). The RSA uses violence to force submission, via the various apparatuses of the military, army, penal system, etc. Apparatuses of the ISA are the media, schools, church, the family, etc. While a distinguishing difference between the two types of apparatus seems to be public and private, Althusser points out that the State is neither public nor private.

The apparatuses that make up the ISA appear to be neutral or, at least, too lacking in uniformity to serve a single ideological interest, but, according to Althusser, this is part of the ideological perspective. Religion was once the primary ISA, and has now been surpassed in efficacy by the “Family/School” apparatus. According to the Family/School ideology, education systems are neutral and individuals possess the freedom of choice. These assumptions are inculcated in the subject by the ISAs.

Althusser says that the “subject as a category” is not only the primary category of ideology, but also the only category of ideologyIdeology “interpellates” or “hails” the subject into social being. And because ideology has “always already” hailed all subjects, individuals cannot exist outside ideology and their social being. Individuals are born and live within ideological constraints that are accepted as “obvious,” defining the classsocial constraints and expectations of the State for that subject. As a result, the individual accepts the parameters of subjectivity offered by the State as natural. In this way, the ISAs reproduce the conditions of production by engendering productive subjects through ideology. According to this model, political differences are as ephemeral as individual freedom, as one cannot exist outside the structures of the ISAs and the sole purpose of the ISAs is to develop productive citizens.

Even so, however, Althusser claims that ISAs operate at the level of class conflict and are not generated by the State. This is precisely why changing state power from one party to another will not affect the structure of the ideological process that reproduces the conditions for subjects in the State: no one is outside the ideology, including leaders of the State. Until conflict at the class level forces a shift in ideology, the SAs that reproduce the conditions of the State will continue to perpetuate the same basic social structure regardless of who possesses State power. Therefore, prevailing ideology structures society.

The media, education system and other ISAs indoctrinate individuals to succumb to the conditions of the State in order for it to perpetuate the social structure.

In the next post, I will provide an overview of Michel Foucault.


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