Originally published in 1970 in the French journal La Pensée, Louis Althusser’s landmark treatise Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards An Investigation) was responding to an invigoration in what can roughly be called “the left.”
The social upheavals of May, 1968, in Paris posed a problem for progressive and revolutionary thinkers. On the one hand, it bolstered the belief that political action could be successfully taken against repressive governments. On the other, the decentralization of such feats (like wildcat strikes undertaken without authorization of unions) caused a crisis in traditional ideas of collective action being, well, collective.
Althusser, a member of the French Communist Party who staunchly believed that the most productive revolutionary action could only be taken from within the party structure, endeavoured to suture these ideological fissures. His Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses examined how societies that appear increasingly liberal are at the same time reproducing the conditions of political domination. By focusing on the notion of “ideology” – regarded not just as a set of values espoused by a dominant group, but as a fact of our shared existence, like gravity – Althusser was in effect hitting the reset button on half a century of Marxist thought.
The first English-language publication of On The Reproduction Of Capitalism, the larger (and unfinished as of the author’s death in 1990) volume originally constructed from fragments of Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, offers a similar opportunity to rethink modern capitalism. And the reintroduction at our present moment – when capitalism’s endlessly revolutionizing force has led to a dwindling middle class and a fissure between rich and poor that feels (in a North American context) unprecedented since at least the Great Depression – presents a whole new set of knotty, arduous and maybe entirely academic problems.
On The Reproduction Of Capitalism methodically analyzes the ways in which capitalist social relations (not only the way we work, but the way the way we work informs how we interact with one another, and even how we come to regard ourselves as individual subjects) replicate themselves in day-to-day life, and the finer subtleties of repression. Where rudimentary critiques of Marxist dogma may state that the emergence of a middle class has negated the binary of class antagonism, Althusser notes that the “constant modernization of technology specific to the capitalist mode of production…do not alter Marx’s thesis by a jot.”
To wit: London School of Economics Anthropology professor David Graebner has written much in the past few years (in both his book on the Occupy movement, The Democracy Project and a recent essay in Strike magazine that was widely shared in certain corners of the online echo chamber) about the phenomenon of what he calls “bullshit jobs.” Essentially, these are “pointless jobs” made up “just for the sake of keeping us working”; middle-class, professional, managerial posts. For Graebner, these “bullshit jobs” illustrate the “moral dynamics” of the present economy, wherein those indolent non-labourers come to resent the productiveness of working class (of people who actually make things) while simultaneously adopting the worldview of their bosses: imbibing the drive towards consumption, indoctrinated in the idea that work holds some moral value in itself, an idea designed to keep them working. Such a persuasive analysis of contemporary labour not only restates the fundaments of Marx, it also rings decidedly Althusserian.
Althusser’s writing remains (to use that pet Marxist word) “immanent.” Perhaps his greatest intervention is his ability to crack open ideas that we tend to take for granted. “It is characteristic of ideology to impose self-evident facts as self-evident facts,” he writes. This sort of the stuff crops up when free-market economists (or just free-market buffs) talk about “the market.” It’s not uncommon to hear explanations like, “Well, because of the market…” or “The market dictates…” as if “the market” is a thing that exists in a natural state, like a zoo animal that can be observed, instead of something that is created and maintained. The market is a thing that is taken for granted; its self-evidence totally imposed.
Althusser’s expanded analysis of how both ideology and its apparatuses (schools, churches, courts, states) work to serve a dominant order, while pretending to serve “everyone,” remains lively. There’s nasty pleasure in his laceration of Plato for devising philosophical systems designed “to establish class relations among people that flattered the convictions of the reactionary aristocrat he was.” Elsewhere, the disjointed, unfinished nature of On The Reproduction Of Capitalism renders it halfway-tortuous, plagued by an excess of “quotes” framing ideas, un-translated French loan-words, and explanatory footnotes that run to Foster-Wallacean lengths. Questions asked are left unanswered, deferred to subsequent volumes never written.
Perhaps the more “immanent” question, though, is to what extent we really need Althusser – or any academic Marxism? It seems like these sorts of ideas are dribbling into the mainstream. A new book by Paris School of Economics professor Thomas Piketty, Capital In The Twenty-First Century, provides a sobering economic illustration of how the natural, self-evident, taken-for-granted logic of the free market works to increase political inequality. Online, websites like Gawker (and especially cub revolutionary Hamilton Nolan) track the harrowing collapse of the American middle class, and the tyrannically anti-labour policies of companies like Wal-Mart, with the same obsessiveness they usually reserve for celebrity gossip. Late night funnyman Jon Stewart identifies as a socialist.
Even the retreating allergy towards the word “socialism” at once signifies the superfluity of texts like On The Reproduction Of Capitalism and their necessity. A volume like this isn’t likely to become a paperback bestseller, dog-eared copies proudly clutched to the chests of a singular, reinvigorated revolutionary political movement. But even Althusser’s unwitting legacy over contemporary attitudes of wearied exasperation at gross economic imbalance is tricky to discount. Althusser offers an economic trickle-down effect theory (or trickle-down effect of theory) that actually seems quantifiable.
John Semley is a Toronto-based writer.