George Walford: Althusser Times Four

Louis Althusser is a French Marxist intellectual, and they don’t come any more intellectual than that. The TLS tells us his Essays on Ideology (London, Verso, 1984) is “the work of an acute intellect and contains extended passages of originality and brilliance”. Tribune: “Althusser demands patience from the reader but he rewards it with his originality and with his dauntless, always serious but insistently irreverent and open Marxism.” One opens the book expecting a feast of reason and enlightenment, and one finds – well, let us see what one finds. I am not going to review the book, only to comment on four substantial points made in the first essay: “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”. All quotations are from this source.

1. Marxism holds that the workers, not owning the means of production, are obliged to sell their labour-power to the capitalists. The value of labour-power is the cost of its reproduction and the capitalists pay this full value. But in expending their labour-power the workers produce value greater than that of their labour-power, and this “surplus value” belongs to the capitalists. The workers,¬†although receiving the full value of their labour-power, are deprived of the full fruits of their labour and this, in the Marxist view, constitutes exploitation.

For capitalism to maintain itself the labour-power expended must be constantly replaced. Under the heading “Reproduction of Labour-Power” Althusser points out that the quantity of wages needed to accomplish this must be sufficient not only to cover the biological needs of the wage-earners but also the education of their children and such factors as one pointed out by Marx, that English workers need beer while French ones need wine. We can now add that, at least in the advanced countries, workers need television sets, refrigerators, holidays and cars. The value of labour-power is determined, in short, by what our author calls “a historically variable minimum.” (p. 5) He says, in effect, that the working class receives in wages the amount required to enable it to maintain and reproduce itself not merely biologically but at the historically necessary standard.

So far as the biological needs of the workers go this concept of the reproduction of labour power is clear and helpful. We can go to the physiologists, the dieticians and other professional groups, they from their physiological and dietary studies will tell us the bodily needs of the workers and we can judge whether they are being paid enough to cover their biological requirements.

The historically variable minimum is a different matter. In order to know what, for example, the British working class need in order to maintain and reproduce themselves at the standard historically necessary in the last quarter of 1987 we have to observe what they do in fact receive.

But where are we then? We are saying that the amount required to maintain the British working class is the amount the British working class has been observed to receive. And similarly of course for any other section of the working class in any place at any time. This profound Marxist analysis, formulated not by any neophyte or soap-box orator, but by one of the foremost modern theoreticians of the movement, tells us that the workers receive the amount the workers receive.

2. Althusser puts forward the familiar and misleading metaphor of the politico-legal and ideological features of society as a superstructure which is determined in the last instance by the economic base. As he puts it:

The effect of this spatial metaphor is to endow the base with an index of effectivity known by the famous terms: the determination in the last instance of what happens in the upper ‘floors’ (of the superstructure) by what happens in the economic base. (p.9)

This is vague enough as it stands, for how are we to know when we have reached that “last instance” in which the economic determination comes into play? It is reduced to the sloppiness of watery jelly by the addition of “the relative autonomy of the superstructure and the reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base.” (p. 10) This leaves us with the proposition that the superstructure is relatively independent of the base and affects the base, but is in “the last instance” (undefined) determined by the base. It is a construction that enables Althusser to claim every relationship between superstructure and base in support of his theory. Whether superstructure is independent of base, affects it or is determined by it, he has claimed them all in advance.

His theorising here is on the level of the joke about the lawyer claiming in court that his client had not borrowed the kettle, that if he had borrowed it he had returned it, and that if he had borrowed it, and not returned it, it had a hole in the first place. But Althusser seems to be serious.

All this agonising about relations between superstructure and base is in any case beside the point, for the assumed rigid distinction between the politico-legal and the ideological on the one hand, and the economic on the other, does not exist. All societies that engage in economic activity engage in some particular form of it, and when this is examined it is invariably found to be affected by their politico-legal and ideological structure. This is so even in the least developed economies; some Polar Eskimo have a taboo against eating seal and caribou on the same day, and one Australian tribe refuse to eat a green caterpillar that their neighbours enjoy. There is no purely economic activity, completely unaffected by politico-legal and ideological factors, that can serve as a base fundamentally, or in the last instance, determining a superstructure.

3. Althusser speaks of “the ruling ideology, which is the ideology of ‘the ruling class.'” (p. 28) If that is to mean anything at all it must mean that this ideology is not that of the working class. But he also gives us a powerful description of the way the school:

takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’… it drums into them… a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (p. 29)

Having told us that the ruling ideology is the ideology of the ruling class he goes on to show, forcefully, that it is the ideology also of the working class. It is drummed into children of every class by the same educational apparatus. It is, on his own showing, an ideology held by members of all classes, and his ascription of it to the ruling class is an arbitrary act justified on no ground other than that it supports his preferences.

4. He argues that the school is now dominant among the “ideological state apparatuses” charged with “subjecting individuals to the political State ideology.” (p. 28) Taking “children from every class at infant-school age” (p. 29) the school system ejects them in batches at different ages according to their intended function, and “Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society.” It is, he adds, by this process that the “relations of production in a capitalist social formation are largely reproduced.” (p. 30)

Althusser stresses that this treatment is applied universally, (“children from every class,” “the totality of the children”) and gives no hint that it may be other than totally effective. He then goes on to speak of those few teachers who:

attempt to turn the few weapons they can find in the history and learning they ‘teach’ against the ideology, the system and the practices in which they are trapped. (p. 31)

But where do these recalcitrants come from? As teachers they have, in the course of their training, been subjected to the educational apparatus at least as thoroughly as anybody else, but on them it failed to take. Why? And if these few can escape the dire effects of the system, why not more? Althusser provides no explanation. He is content to present the educational system as universally effective, and as only partially effective, without trying to reconcile the two propositions.

Even more to the point, where do Althusser and his Marxist colleagues come from? He says the educational system instils “the ideology of the ruling class” into “the workers or small peasants,” the “small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds,” those in “intellectual semi-employment” and “the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts).”

This leaves no class unindoctrinated, and Althusser gives no indication that indoctrination can be overcome. If he is right, if the educational system is as universal and effective as he says, he has succeeded in proving that the communist movement, with himself belonging to it, cannot exist.

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DIFFERENCES BETWEEN West and East have been ascribed to the different treatments required by wheat, which encourages the development of machinery, and rice, which requires hand-labour. At least, rice used to require hand-labour. Now Australia and the USA (the two great exporters of rice) use aircraft to sow their crops and lasers are used to level the paddy-fields of the Po. (Ruth Mcvey in TLS 31 July 87, p.826)

Society increasingly determines its own “material conditions.”

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“Descartes articulated a position (later modified by Locke and Wittgenstein, among others) that words variously interpret unchanging phenomena – there is a fixed, perceptible world variously translated by language. Recently, a number of psychologists have challenged this view in light of experiments on Gestalt perception. They believe that the process of perception modifies the perceived, i.e. that there is no absolute phenomenon.” (Eugene Lindgren in Apes, Men, & Language [Penguin Books, 1981] footnote to p.59).

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ADRIAN WOOLRIDGE speaks critically of “Social investigators [who] sacrificed intellectual rigour for empirical certainty” (TLS June 5 87). A vigorous phrase, and one we shall recall each time somebody proposes to make acceptance of s.i. dependent upon the results of a bit of head-counting. It would be even more impressive had Woolridge himself example of intellectual rigour, but he says this:

Political philosophers such as T. H. Green, Leslie Stephen and Leonard Hobhouse… continued… to worry about the impact of social reforms on the characters of the poor… Their comfortable position in English life and their links with the political elite dissuaded them from original thought and encouraged a complacent belief in social engineering.

Friedrich Engels, William Morris and J. F. Hyndman (a financier who introduced Marx’s work to English, readers) also enjoyed a comfortable position in English life, but they can hardly be accused of, holding complacent beliefs, whether in social engineering or anything else. Intellectual rigour requires scepticism, greater than Woolridge has shown here, of the theory that social conditions determine thinking.

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OF COURSE, he said, I don’t let my wife decide any of the important things. She just looks after the housekeeping, the holidays, where we live, and little things like that; it’s me who decides whether capitalism or socialism is best, and whether America ought to attack Russia.

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WE HAVE repeatedly drawn attention to reports of divisiveness among the left. Accounts of cohesiveness on the right are more difficult to find; peace being less newsworthy than war, right-wing cohesiveness seldom gets reported. But the Observer Magazine of 4 Oct 87 provides two cartoons which make the point.

The first shows a crowd with speech balloons: “Hear, Hear!” “Rubbish! Hear, Hear, Hear!” “I agree!” “No, I agree more!” “Nonsense! I agree the most!” It is captioned: “Controversy Rages at the Tory Conference.”

The other cartoon shows Hitler on the podium, thousands of Brownshirts in front of him, right arms raised. He is saying: “And now, those against… ”

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WE HEAR much of the new freedom of language that came with the permissive society. How about these traditional names of plants as examples of the bad old restrictions on outspokenness: black maidenhair, naked ladies, pissabed (or shitabed), mare’s fart, priest’s ballocks, horse pistle, prick madam; the medlar was known as open arse. In 1768 Robert Smith, official rat-catcher to the Princess Amelia, spoke in print of a bird he called the large brown, white arse, ring-tailed hawk. (Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World, Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800 London, Allen Lane, 1983). When “progress” is examined it often turns out to be nothing more than change.

from Ideological Commentary 31, January 1988.