Louis Althusser

Althusser was another major theorist, more concerned with French marxist politics in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. His major projects are of less immediate interest to us here, because they turned on trying to systematise and make valid marxist theory in general. However, he was the author of a very specific and much quoted essay on ideology and the role of the state. I have a summary of the actual essay and some other bits on ideology for anyone who is interested.

The essay itself is an attempt to define  'ideology in general', that is to identify the central feature of actual ideologies that are important in modern European societies. It turns out that individualism is the key. What happens is that a number of 'state apparatuses' play a major role in trying to persuade us that we are free liberated individuals able to make choices in our best interests there. So far, this is not particularly unusual for marxist analysis, and a lot of critical work on consumerism makes that point as well -- we think we are free to choose, but in fact our options are pretty well limited by the activities of commercial organisations -- they 'individualise' goods and services, not us. However, Althusser offers a rather interesting specific account.

He suggests that there is a basic mechanism to construct a sense of individuality. This is called  'interpellation', or  'hailing'. It works when people greet us ( 'hail' us) in the street: someone says 'Hi Dave! Owizit at Marjons?' and this confirms my sense that I am a proper individual with a personality and an identity. There is a religious metaphor here which expands the idea. Christians report that they become fully individual, free and human once they contact God. God then acknowledges them, but, of course, they have to subject themselves to his will first. Christians are free only after they have submitted.

Lots of state apparatuses offer us the same deal. My favourite example is the education system. When we do well, we think of ourselves as well rounded confident and capable individuals, but we only do well after we submitted to the rules and procedures. To push the French - inspired word play to its limit, we have to submit assignments which other people have set and which they judge, and in exchange we get  'our' personal, individual and very important grade.

Althusser suggests that just about all the state apparatuses work in this way, and he includes families and the mass-media. What about the apparatuses that deal with sport and related activities? On the individual level, it might be quite possible to see that you only achieve 'your' personal best by submitting yourself to the regime suggested by your coach, and, of course, you have to submit to the rules and regulations that govern the particular sport in the first place. More generally, you could understand health policy as offering people a sense of being a full , proper and active citizen, but only if those people accept the criteria (such as having an acceptable BMI).

On another tack, it might be possible to try and detect the mechanisms by which individuals are 'hailed'in actual policies. How are individuals addressed? What sort of individualism (individual benefits, individual responsibilities) is being suggested by the policy? What do individuals have to agree to in the first place? ( see also the file on persuasive communication)

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