Definition: In understanding Ideology, we have to draw on the Marxist theorization of how society is structured. For Karl Marx society was structured by a base/superstructure divide. The base consists of the economic and class relations, that is to say who owns the means of production, and the class positions of people in the hierarchy of class relations (bourgeoisie, petti bourgeoisie, proletariat). While the superstructure refers to the cultural ideology relations – comprising education, media, family, work environments etc… The ideological apparatuses that function in the superstructure are controlled by the class interests present at the base, and under capitalism controlled by the bourgeoisie. By doing so the bourgeoisie mystifies and obscures the exploitation that is continuously taking place at the base through representing ideology that benefits their class interests. In this sense, the relations at the base come to determine the superstructure, and the system must constantly reproduce itself to fight off being taken by the revolutionary class.
Building on the theorization by Marx, both Italian cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci, and French Philosopher Louis Althusser contributed to how we come to understand the function of ideology. Gramsci expanded on the work done by Marx and Engels during his time at jail, after being prosecuted by Mussolini in Italy, he wrote numerous essays on culture, society, and hegemony that were compiled to his book called The Prison Notebooks. Gramsci’s theorization of cultural hegemony, argued that ideology affects the relations at the base in a much more pervasive manner than articulated by Marx. In that sense, Gramsci argued further that ideological relations at the superstructure don’t necessarily follow class lines but could also be crossed over across class positions (for further reading on Hegemony available here). Hegemony comes to be articulated in the consent of the subaltern classes to be ruled by the bourgeoisie.
The work of philosopher Louis Althusser has furthered the theorization of ideology by providing further context to the forms in which ideology is present in our lives. Most notably, Althusser argued that the state has two different apparatuses to enforce its ruling ideology, the first being Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA’s), and the second being Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA’s). For Althusser, RSA’s are a tool of the state to forcibly repress those that attempt to disrupt the class structure in place or foster class consciousness, this could be seen through policing, surveillance, military amongst other examples. Despite the limited forms of repressive tools that are available to the ruling classes, Althusser argues that through ISA’s the control becomes much more pervasive and manifests through agents of ideology. Examples include mass media, the culture industry, education amongst others. For Althusser people are always already a subject, in his words “interpolated” through ISA’s to operate in the service of the ruling class’ ideology and instill those ideas within individuals to accept and celebrate capitalist exploitation.
Karl Marx: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm
Karl Marx: German Ideology: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/
Antonio Gramsci: The Concepts of Ideology, Hegemony, and Organic Intellectuals in Gramsci’s Marxism: https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-7/tr-gramsci.htm
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers Co., November 1971.
Althusser, Louis. On Ideology. Verso, March 2020, London.
Hall, Stuart. “The Problem with Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees.” Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, Routledge, 1996, 24-46.