Thursday, November 02, 2017

Conscienta Sive ideologia: The Spontaneity of Ideology

A Bento/Marx image

In Des Universels Etienne Balibar writes, “Conscientia sive ideologia” (Consciousness, that is ideology). Balibar’s formulation is applied to Marx, specifically to the theorization of ideology from The German Ideology, but its word brings to mind Spinoza’s famous Deus sive natura, his strategy of the sive in which philosophical oppositions are overcome with the assertion of their fundamentally interchangeability. It is at once a Spinozist injoke and a provocation, the strategy of the “sive” does not just identify two terms, but opens the question of their identity and difference. Between the joke and the provocation is of course Louis Althusser, not just because Althusser was both a Spinozist and a Marxist, but because Althusser’s various formulations of ideology, formulations indebted to both Spinoza and Marx, continually thought ideology in both its spontaneity and its universality, seeing it as coexistent experience and consciousness. Such an assertion, as with all strategies of the sive, raises as many difficulties and questions as it resolves. These questions hinge on the way in which the concept of ideology is caught between universality and specificity, structural condition and particular content, or, ultimately, between necessity and contingency, an integral element of experience or a particular effect of a given social formation. The closer ideology gets to being coextensive with consciousness, the more it loses its socio-historical specificity, becoming something like a constitutive error, or antinomy of thought. The extension on the epistemic register is not without its effects on politics, if ideology is coextensive with consciousness, than what possibilities are there for radical critique and change? The opposite pole is no less fraught with difficulties, ideologies considered in terms of its specific content and concepts, as bourgeois, capitalist, or neoliberal, raises the question of its conditions of production and dissemination, at worst collapsing into a kind a conspiracy. Ideology is caught between the poles of necessity and contingency, form and content, and structure and history. 

In what follows I intend to trace some of Althusser’s attempts to think through what could be called, the spontaneity of ideology, beginning with how he develops the concept through a reading together of Marx and Spinoza, continuing through his own attempts to think through the relation between practice and abstraction, and, ultimately, turning to the lingering effects of Althusser’s formulation of “spontaneous ideology” in Pierre Macherey’s concept of infra-ideology and Etienne Balibar’s work on universalization. The assertion, or hypothesis underlying this paper, is that it is only by paradoxically thinking ideology as both material, grounded in practices, and ideal, constituting the form and basis for thought, that it is possible to shift the concept from its polemical use to become a critical tool for analysis. 

Between Marx and Spinoza

Althusser’s influential “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus” makes only one reference to Spinoza. As Althusser writes, “The accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself (unless one is really a Spinozist or a Marxist, which, in this matter is to be exactly the same thing.) Althusser does not expand upon the self-awareness of being in ideology, only goes on to associate Spinoza with discovering the moebius strip of ideology, of it status of having no outside, of being completely coextensive with though, while simulataneously being nothing but outside with respect to reality. Despite the scant references Althusser structures his entire essay on ideology around the Appendix to Part One of the Ethics arguing that it is the matrix of every possible theory of ideology. As Althusser writes, describing the theoretical structure, or apparatus of the appendix: 

The imagination is (1) to put the (human) subject at the center and origin of every perception, of every action, of every object, and of every meaning, but (2) to reverse in this way the real order of things, since the real order is explained…solely by the determination of causes, which the subjectivity of the imagination explains everything by means of ends, by the subjective illusion of the ends of its desire and its expectations. This is, strictly speaking, to reverse the order of the world, to make it walk, as Hegel and Marx will say, on its head. It is put work, as Spinoza superbly said, an entire “apparatus”…an apparatus of reversal of causes into ends.[1]

Ideology, or the imagination, is the reversal of causes into ends, an apparatus of reversal. Here we see two themes that integral and repeated in Althusser’s account of ideology. First, there is the subject as the interpretive grid, or matrix, the tendency to make ends and intention the basis of intelligibility. The subject is the spontaneous ideology of its own foundation. Second, this spontaneity must be understood as itself an effect, as the product of apparatus, of a material production. It is an effect that appears as natural, ultimately becoming a cause. 

In Spinoza’s Appendix what Althusser posits as an apparatus appears often as the effect of human intentions and knowledge. The imagination, or as Spinoza labels it, prejudice has a foundation that is less political, or social, than anthropological. It primary condition is that we are born “ignorant of the causes of things…and conscious of our appetite.” Ignorance of causes and consciousness of appetite becomes the basis for a universe grasped in terms of intentions and actions with an end in view. Igorance constitutes a kind of knowledge, or at least passes itself off as one. Spinoza defines this initial ignorance of the causes of things, including our desire, prejudice (praejudicia) while the latter, ignorance as it is reinforced by its social dimension, by a doctrine of ignorance and a practice of belief is dubbed superstition (supersitio).[2] Prejudice is transformed into superstition once the social dimension enters this horizon of ignorance and desire, once this belief in final causes becomes not just a fact of individual perspective but takes on a social significance, tied to human relations and domination. The priority is less a temporal one than a logical one. It is not that anyone is ever born into a world of singular prejudice, a world without history, without signs and interpretations, left to interpret the world on their own. For Spinoza it is the collective noun “man” rather than the individual noun “I” that thinks, and this collective condition defines superstition as well. We are always already in superstition, influenced by signs and interpretations. This collective condition has as its condition of possibility individual finitude, the awareness of desire and ignorance of causes that is the first kind of knowledge. The apparatus of superstitions seizes or makes use of a condition that, for lack of a better word, can be considered anthropological, foundational to humanity. 

Given Althusser’s attempt to posit an apparatus in the Appendix to Part One of the Ethics, it is striking that he does not turn to a text that is similar both in terms of its placement in a texts theoretical development and its specific argumentative structure. I am referring here to “the commodity fetishism” section of Capital, Volume One. In his preface to a French edition Althusser infamously advised readers to put Part One of Capital aside, advising them to turn first to the more immediate and concrete struggles over the working day, and his own theoretical writing suggests he took heed of that advice, never returned to Marx’s writing on commodity fetishism. In doing so he perhaps overlooked the proximity of this text to Spinoza’s Appendix. These texts are not just similar in their placement, as polemical and critical philosophical interventions at the end of a philosophical argument. There are also both in some sense preemptive; in Spinoza’s Ethics the discussion of the illusions of consciousness come before the development of the mind and affects in subsequent books, while in Marx the discussion of fetishism introduces, as something of a thought experiment, the concept of the mode of production, or at least of different manners of producing, including that of the “free association of producers.” The preemptive nature of these texts is a necessary corollary of the disruptive nature of their theses. Spinoza does not just undermine the anthropomorphic god, but shows how this conception of god stems from our own anthropocentric conception of the universe, a conception that is the product of the consciousness of desire and the ignorance of the causes of things. Spinoza’s Appendix does not just complete and illustrate the conception of god as the immanent cause, developed in Part One of the Ethics, revealing the way in which immanent causality subverts all notions of teleology and intentionality on the part of God, but confronts a common sense that is common precisely because it is a product of humanity’s practical engagement with the world. The Appendix retroactively explains why Part One is so difficult to accept by getting ahead of itself, confronting the persistent illusions of God and the universe with a philosophical anthropology that has not yet been developed. Similarly Marx’s section on “commodity fetishism” confronts directly the tenacity of the image of the objectivity of value, the idea that value is not a social relation but an attribute of commodities, by gesture ahead to a never completed thesis of the connection of thought to social forms. Both Spinoza’s Appendix and section on “commodity fetishism” are situated as the polemical conclusion to a theoretical argument, and the anticipation of the evocation of practice, of action. 

Marx and Spinoza converge not just in terms of their specific rhetorical strategy, the preliminary and polemical nature of their texts, but on a central philosophical point, the limits of knowledge and the primacy of practice. In Marx’s terms “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” Or, what Spinoza calls, the limited efficacy of the true insofar as it is true. Marx and Spinoza both turn to optics to make this point, to the irreducibility of appearances to knowledge. For Spinoza this is the sun, which continues to appear as if it were two hundred feet away despite our knowledge of its actual distance. Or, as Marx describes the illusion internal to vision,“In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself.” As Althusser’s interpretation makes clear the “limited efficacy of the true insofar as it is true” has as its corollary the primacy of practice to thought, of the apparatus to its concept. Thus as much as Althusser avoids the letter of commodity fetishism, he still holds close to its fundamental spirit, to a description that places the apparatus, a particular arrangement of practices, prior to consciousness. 

Etienne Balibar raises the question why Althusser eschews the section on commodity fetishism given its proximity to his own conception of an apparatus. It is the concept of fetishism, rather than ideology that seems best suited to grasp an apparatus that produces a particular imaginary spontaneously as an effect of a particular practical apparatus. In his short book on Marx Balibar aruges that ideology and fetishism are best understood not as variants of the generic problem of subjection, but as two fundamentally different modalities of subjection.[3] The former is tied to the state, to state apparatuses, the other is tied to the market. As Balibar argues, Marx’s model of fetishism, especially as it unfolds Capital culminates in an image of subjects that are identical and interchangeable. The universality of the market is one of freedom, equality, and Bentham. In contrast to this Althusser retains exactly what is most anachronistic of Spinoza’s Appendix, the image of God or a Subject (with a capital S) as the necessary condition of ideological interpellation. As Balibar writes, 

It is a subject interpellated by an authority that speaks in the name of the universal, or by an individual that imagines himself interpellated by law or authority (which is the fundamental mechanism described by Althusser) that becomes ipso facto a member of the community ruled by such a law. [4]


Much has been made of Althusser’s scene, the scene of interpellation, so much so that the figure and its various interpretations, various restagings and reexaminations of the scene of hailing have eclipsed its conceptual basis. It functions more as a parable than illustration. For Balibar it is not a matter of interpreting the primal scene of interpellation, but of grasping what makes such a scene necessary. Ideology is irreducible to fetishism because it is a different universal, a different figure of the universal, not the universal of the market of interchangeable and indifferent subjects but the universal of subjects constituted in and through their subjection to a form of authority. This is the irreducible theocratic element of every state, the transcendent imaginary instance that is simultaneously the cause and the effect of the immanent organizations.[5]

Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus can thus be understood to situated between Spinoza’s Appendix and Marx’s “commodity fetishism,” It draws from the point of their overlap, the primacy of practice, of the apparatus to the imaginary it engenders, but the differences are no less important. Spinoza’s prejudice is as much the effect of a particular human finitude, anthropological, as it is the effect of a particular apparatus. In contrast to this Marx’s writing on value and the commodity fetish suggest that it is humanity itself, or at least its image, is a product of the exchangability of labor. Whereas Marx’s writing on fetishism stresses equality and interchangeability as the spontaneous ideology of market relations, Spinoza’s appendix stresses that the spontaneous philosophy of prejudice sets up a hierarchy between the subject, interpellated as free, and God as the subject behind the universe’s mystery. Following Balibar, we can understood these two spontaneous philosophies, or two mode of subjections, as roughly corresponding to market and state, to relations of exchange in which posit equals in relations of exchange, and to relations of hierarchy in which belonging is always tied to subjection. 

The tension between the two subjections is also a tension between the grounds of spontaneity in each case. As much as Marx uses the metaphor of optics to describe the irreducibility of appearance to knowledge, it is clear that fetishism stems from social relations, from the isolation of producers and abstraction of labor. It is a social effect and not a product of human finitude. In contrast to this Spinoza gives us a spontaneous philosophy situated between prejudice, understood as the natural ignorance of causes coupled with superstition as the organization of this ignorance. However, as much as it is possible to find an anthropological dimension to Spinoza’s spontaneous philosophy, this anthropology is less a statement of humanities original fallen, and ignorant nature, than of social relations as the organization of both imagination and knowledge. The spontaneity of ideology is a concept that emerges in the intersection of Spinoza and Marx. Spontaneous ideology as a concept and a problem is situated between market and state, equality and subjection, between an immediacy of illusion that is anthropological and the mediation that is the effect of social relations. 


Between Spontaneity and Practice


Althusser’s remarks on Spinoza and ideology are neither the first, not last words on spontaneous ideology. The concept and word gets its most lengthy formulation in Althusser’s course on Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of Scientists from nineteen sixty seven, and continues to be developed throughout the late sixties and early seventies. The concept is situated between the development of a theory of ideology, a theory that gets its most lengthy treatment in the text on reproduction, and a series of more pedagogical interventions on the very place of philosophy. These pedagogical interventions are in some sense double displaced, they are written from the outside of philosophy, as a Marxist intervening in philosophy, and delivered to philosophy’s outside, to scientists and activists. It is perhaps because of this that the dominant question of these texts is not on the philosophical sources of Althusser’s concept of ideology, but rather the relation between ideology and practice, or practices. 

In the course for scientists “spontaneous ideology” is defined initially as the particular conception that arises from a particular practice. Scientists do not just understand their particular practice through scientific methods, but begin to see the world through such a lens. There is a spontaneous philosophy to every practice, scientist, philosopher, writer, etc. all have a particular conception that stems from a particular practice. As Pierre Macherey writes, “The spontaneous is never but spontaneous in scare quotes, that is to say a false spontaneity which is in reality the result of a manipulation, an artifice, an editing.”[6] Spontaneity is the immediate determination of thought by a particular practice or action. As much as the spontaneous ideology reflects the primacy of practice to thought, it is not Althusser’s last word on ideology, not is it the determining condition. As Althusser writes, 

Their own ideology, the spontaneous ideology of their practice (their ideology of science or the arts) does not depend solely on their own practice: it depends mainly and in the last instance on the dominant ideological system of the society in which they live. Ultimately, it is this ideological system especially that governs the very forms of their ideology of science and of the arts. What seems to happen before their eyes happens, in reality, behind their backs. [7]


If one was searching for Spinozist antecedents to the relation between the spontaneous and dominant ideology, it might be possible to consider the relation between the two ideologies a version of the relation between prejudice and superstition, between the generic ground of any ideology and its specific articulation. Spontaneity is thus shifted away from anthropology, from a specific human nature and human finitude, to instead be the basic ideas and conceptions tied to a specific practice, spontaneity is not an effect of the fundamental finitude of human nature, but of the fact that every practice carries with it is own conceptual dimension, produces its own theory. This is what separates the worst architect from the best of bees, to cite Marx. As much as this spontaneous ideology has a certain immediacy, tied as it is to a particular practice, it is ultimately not determined by this practice. The spontaneous ideology is determined in the last instance by the dominant ideology. The determination by the dominant ideology is also the primacy of the totality, the mode of production to each specific practice. 

The question remains as to how to grasp this intersection, how to understand how the various spontaneous ideologies, tied as they are to specific practices, from science to the arts, not only intersect with this dominant ideology, but are determined by it. In the complete manuscript of Sur la Reproduction Althusser moves beyond the essay’s focus on the school as the dominant ideological state apparatus to focus on the centrality of the legal/moral ideology, and in doing so redefines both the spontaneity and dominance of this ideology. As Althusser argues, law as a system of obligation requires a supplement in order to guarantee subjection. There is no law compelling people to obey the law, and even if there were, such a law would require an additional law, and so on, in an infinite regress. “Law is a formal, systematized, non-contradictory, (tendentially) comprehensive system that cannot exist by itself.” Of course obedience could always be guaranteed by the police, by repression, but this is not sufficient. Law, and legal obedience, functions by a supplement. “Legal ideology plus the little supplement of moral ideology.”[8] Althusser then sets up what could be considered a system of supplements, law is supplemented by legal ideology, legal ideology by moral ideology. All of which reinforce and intersect around the same idea of individuality, responsibility, and morality. Each practice, from law, to legal ideology, to morality, requires an additional practice or discourse in order to sustain itself. While such an assertion is well in line with Althusser’s thesis that Ideological State Apparatuses function by ideology, in other word reproduce existing relations of production without repression or violence, it is at odds with his well known, and perhaps post-68 identification of the school, and education, as the dominant ideological state apparatus. In a manuscript written five years later, Initiation à la philosophe pour les non-philosophes Althusser returns to the question of legal ideology, only now it is framed less as supplement than an intermediary, the legal ideology is the intermediary between state and morality. In this later text, it is precisely the legal ideology’s ability to mediate between the state and the law, morality and the law, and religion and the law that makes it all pervasive.[9] Thus to risk stitching together these two texts with one of Althusser’s own concepts, we could say that it is less a matter of the way a particular ideology, or ideological apparatus is determined as dominant, as in the case of education, but the overdetermination of ideology. The legal ideology’s centrality is defined by its intersection with, as a supplement and an intermediary, other discourses, practices, and ideology. It is less the foundational ideology that makes all others possible than the point where all other ideologies converge and transform each other. The practical mediations of the legal ideology are doubled by its theoretical mediations. The legal ideology of individual responsibility can easily shift from original sin to the work ethic, from Eden to the state of nature. On the terrain of ideas, the legal idea of the individual offers a reconciliation of the abstract and concrete, functioning in multiple discourses while simultaneously appearing to be grounded in concrete reality. 

Althusser’s repeated returns to the question of legal ideology in seventies can be understood as an attempt to reconcile two aspects of ideology grasped so far, the primacy of practice, of the apparatus, and the role of ideology in reproducing the relations of production; in other words, the spontaneous and the dominant. Legal or moral ideology is spontaneous because its central concepts, the responsible subject, the universality of the law, are articulated through a variety of practices. For Althusser the most significant of these practices is the labor contract, the contract that represents the sale of labor as the exchange of a commodity for its price. One could expand this to include the other quotidian practices of legal responsibility and individuality, the various forms signed and contracts entered into over the course of the day. The spontaneity of the legal ideology is everywhere, intersecting with the spontaneous ideology of the market and the state. Legal ideology is also dominant, not just in the sense that it is central to capitalist society, but the isolated and responsible legal individual is the necessary condition of the reproduction of class relations. It is where the dominant ideas become the ideas of domination. 

Legal ideology can be understood as the intersection of the spontaneous and the dominant, an articulation that itself crosses the divides of superstition and prejudice, of practice and doctrine, in the case of Spinoza, and of subordinate and dominant class, in the case of Marx. These divisions which neither entirely coincide, nor entirely diverge, are the necessary, but not sufficient conditions for developing the intersection between the spontaneous and dominant ideology. The dominant must contain, must encompass in some way the immediate spontaneous ideologies, or experiences, so in some way the dominant ideology is that of the ruled, not the ruling class; at the same time, however, the dominant ideology must organize and interpret the various experiences of different practices, of different spontaneous ideologies, turning them towards the necessary goal of reproduction, the dominant ideology is the ideology of the dominant class. This conflict between dominant and subordinate, ruling and ruled class, constitutes the basis of the theoretical debates within ideology, debates between its popular, or, in Balibar’s terms Machiavellian dimension, which makes the ruler appear to be of the people, and its dominant, or Marxist dimension, in which the ideas of the ruling class are disseminated. In each case ideology is the universalization of specific spontaneous ideologies, the only difference is whether the universalization in question is brought from above or below, from the dominant or ruling ideology or from the spontaneous and dominated.[10]This difference is also the basis for many political interventions within the field of ideology itself, populism and various forms of elitism, of the constitution of technical and economic elites, are nothing both the practical variant of the prior theoretical positions, or, vice versa. As much as it is possible to map the various theoretical conceptions and practical interventions in ideology along the poles of spontaneous and dominant, it would be false to assume that there is only one spontaneous ideology. There are as many spontaneous ideologies as there are practices. It is not just that the scientist, artist, and philosopher have their own specific spontaneous ideologies, but that even the fundamental relation of selling one’s labor power is itself made up of multiple ideologies. As Althusser enumerates the different spontaneous ideologies of the wage relation. 

This ideology that ‘makes the workers go’ comprises the following basic elements, which are so many illusions and impostures, yet ‘are successful’ as long as the workers’ class struggle does not combat them: 1) the bourgeois legal illusion according to which ‘labor is paid for at its value’; 2) the corresponding legal-moral ideology which has it that one must ‘respect one’s labor contract’ and, through it, the enterprise’s house rules and regulations; 3) the technicist-economist ideology which has it that ‘there must, after all, be different jobs within the division of labor’ and such-and-such individuals to fill them. This ideology does a great deal more to make workers ‘go’ than repression does. [11]

As much as the legal ideology plays a central role, passing transversally between the spontaneous ideology of the wage and the contract and the reproduction of the relations of production, it is not the only spontaneous ideology, it is also coupled with the spontaneous ideology of technology, of the division of labor. One could even argue that the spontaneous legal ideology is split in two, torn between its legal and economic dimension, between the legal ideas of order and responsibility and the economic ideas of fair and equal exchange, between dimensions closer to the state and to the market, to return to our earlier distinction. One could hazard a guess, but it would just have to be a guess given that we are dealing with Althusser’s drafts and unfinished projects, that the different aspects of these different ideologies, come into play in different work situations, one more fitting with service workers, another for engineers and mechanics, or in different moments of struggle. The tension between the spontaneous ideology and dominant ideology is then, like the corresponding concept of dominant and subordinate mode of production, a conceptual distinction that lends itself less to an overarching logic than a conjunctural analysis. It can perhaps only be thought in terms of the concrete analysis of a concrete situation. 



Ideology After Ideology


At this point, and something by way of a conclusion, I would like to look at the way in which the problems left in the wake of Althuser’s conceptualization of spontaneous ideology persist in the work of Pierre Macherey and Etienne Balibar. These problems are the very spontaneity of ideology, the way in which ideology is less a doctrine, a set of beliefs and ideals, than the reflection of a given practice in thought. Here the problem is precisely how to think that determination of ideas by practices, the order and connection of thoughts and ideas without lapsing into reflection or simple linear causal determination. It is this problem that is taken up by Macherey’s concept of “infra-ideology.” The second problem concerns the relation between the dominant ideology and spontaneous ideology, especially insofar the latter is not just a singular spontaneous ideology, but encompasses multiple ideologies, tied to different practices. This is a problem of the intersection of universalization and domination, as it has been explored by Etienne Balibar.

With respect to the former, as much as Macherey’s Le Sujet des Normes constitutes a return to the problem of ideology, even returning to Althusser’s essay on Ideological State Apparatuses, it is also written as a response to the critiques of the very concept of ideology that followed in its wake. Critiques only alluded to so far here. The most important critiques to the development of the concept of infra-ideology are historical as much as they are theoretical, the claim that contemporary society functions through forms of power that are more direct, more immediate, and less in need of conceptual grounding than ideology. As Macherey writes, what he calls, infra-ideology, is an “ideology which intervenes insidiously in advance and from below, and which does not need, in order to have effects, to be formulated or represented, to pass through the relay of signification.”[12] That infra-ideology does not require signification does not mean that it functions without signs or words, but that these signs and words indicate less something to believed than something to be done. Macherey’s point of reference here is Michel Foucault’s argument that contemporary society, the society of discipline or biopower, functions through norms rather than ideology. Norms are understood to be more operative than interpretive, delineating what needs to be done rather than what must be believed.

What Macherey focuses on in the concept of infra-ideology is not only that it is functional, but that it is profoundly flexible because it is all encompassing. If one takes as one of the center notions of infra-ideology productivity, the demand to be productive, it is important to note that not only does this ideal have no ground, or rationale, productivity appears as its own rationale, its own ground, but that it would seem to encompass everyone, worker, capitalist, even the anti-capitalist activist measures their goals and actions according to a standard of productivity. The flexibility of infra-ideology can be understood as an extension of Althusser’s assertion that ideology has no outside; now the interiority of infra-ideology is no longer maintained by the figure of the subject, the interpellation of individuals as subjects, but by the ubiquity and flexibility of its operating. Infra-ideology defines less the perspective taken by an individual subject, or individual, than an omnipresent way in which reality appears, a kind of spontaneous metaphysics, a metaphysics produced not in thought but in the central practical matter of capital, the transformation of labor power into profit.[13] As Macherey writes, 

From this point of view, we could say that when the capitalist occupies himself with his workers’ labor-power, which he has acquired the right to employ in exchange for a wage, treating it as a “productive power” whose productivity he intends to increase in order to produce relative surplus value – he practices metaphysics not in a theoretical but in a practical way. He practices this peculiar sort of metaphysics not during his leisure time, as a distraction or mental exercise, as he would a crossword puzzle, but throughout the entire working day dedicated to production. By opening up his company to notions such as “power,” “capacity” and “causation,” he thereby makes them a reality, realizing these fictions, these products of the mind, which he then employs with daunting efficacy. In this way, with payrolls and charts of organizational tasks at hand, he shows, better than a philosopher’s abstract proofs, that the work of metaphysics could not be more material, provided that one knows how to put it to good use in introducing it into the factory. One could, incidentally, derive from this a new and caustic definition of metaphysics: in this rather specific context, it boils down to a mechanism for profit-making, which is no small matter. This means that, amongst other inventions that have changed the course of history, capitalism has found the means, the procedure, the “trick” enabling it to put abstract concepts into practice – the hallmark of its “genius.”[14]


Macherey’s concept of infra-ideology can be understood as a radical expansion of spontaneous philosophy, the point where it becomes a kind of spontaneous metaphysics, a metaphysics that is all the more intractable, inescapable, by not being uttered as such. The concepts of productivity and utility, the imperative to be productive, are less concepts than a general common sense, a shared way of viewing the world. 

Macherey’s infra-ideology can also be understood as a spontaneous ideology without a dominant ideology, or without the point of transition to a dominant ideology. Or, more to the point, it is the spontaneous ideology as dominant ideology, as an ideology which becomes dominant without ever ceasing to function in its spontaneity, in its immediate connection with the practical dimension of daily life. It universalizes those conditions without ever referring them to a transcendent meaning. The maximum point of its extension is also its limit. This limit can be framed in multiple senses. First, there is a question of the necessity of reproduction. Can an infra-ideology, an ideology of maximum extension but minimum signification, be the necessary and sufficient ground of social reproduction? Does it require that additional transcendent dimension, the Subject capital S, that functioned as the ultimate ground of ideological interpellation. This can be understood to be Althusser’s question in the essay on ideological state apparatuses. To which we could add the question raised by the complete edition of Sur la reproduction, how does infra-ideology contend with the plurality of spontaneous ideologies? This question becomes all the more pressing in light of the rift between Spinoza and Marx, between what could be called ideology of the state and a fetishism of the market. If these constitute two different spontaneous ideologies, drawn from two different practices, market relations and state law, with different dominant ideologies, different universalizations, then how is it possible to grasp their specific articulations and conflict? 

Balibar has argued that the relationship between the spontaneous ideologies of the market and the state should be understood as a conflict of universalization. As much as Spinoza and Marx have theorized the irreducible particularity at the heart of every universal, the particular striving or class position, that elevates and obscures itself in the constitution of the universal, they do not pose the problem of the conflict between universals. As Balibar argues with the aid of Hegel the conflict between the spontaneous ideology of the market and the ideology of the state, between commodity exchange and law, is not a conflict between the particular and the universal, but a conflict within two different universalizations. The first, the universalization of the market, of exchange relations, is best described as infra-ideology, as a universalization that passes, behind the back of the individuals involved, appearing less as a specific doctrine or even an interpellation of subjectivity, than as a generic set of values and ideals, productivity and utility, that are both ubiquitous and without ground. The second, the ideology of the state, of the nation, also has its quotidian practices that constitute the ground of its spontaneous ideology. These include the spontaneous legal ideology that Althusser refers to, but go beyond that. As Balibar argues, the nation and the state are also produced and reproduced by the various practices and rituals attached to the learning and transmission of a language (back to Althusser’s school) and even those that govern the passage of life and death.[15] The nation takes on certain aspects of the sacred. These two spontaneous ideologies, or spontaneous ground of ideologies, are different not just in terms of the practices that ground them, but in terms of the very conceptualization. The infra-ideology of the market simultaneously falls short of and exceeds an ideological doctrine, to remain either just below conceptualization or above it, becoming a kind of spontaneous metaphysics. This does not mean that it cannot be rendered explicit, and conceptualized as such, one way to grasp the intellectual products of neoliberalism, from homo economicus to the selfish gene, is an attempt to make an ideology of the infra-ideology of market relations. It stands in sharp contrast to the ideology of the state, which is inseperable from both its transcendent moment, and from its historicization and conceptualization. Nature makes no nations, which is why nationalism must always be told in the form of a story, a narrative. The two ideologies are different in terms of their ground, that which they are spontaneous ideologies of, but also in terms of their articulations, capital is more axiomatic than code, less in need of hearts and minds than bodies, while the state necessarily constitutes individuals as subjects and collectives as nations. We can understand these differences in terms of fetishism and ideology, market and state, or, to return to the beginning in terms of the difference of Marx and Spinoza. As Balibar sums up this difference,

It would be easy to conclude that Marx is basically unaware of the “other scene” of politics, the scene of communitarian affiliation, and therefore unaware of symbolic violence as well (although he names it or has bequeathed us with the word ideology, on of the aptest names for it); and to conclude that Spinoza, for his part, basically ignores the irreducible level of economic antagonism (doubtless because, at the economic level, where conatus can perhaps be conceived of as a “productive force,” Spinoza is basically an optimist and a utilitarian” (Balibar 2015: 12)

As much as it is possible to return these differences to one overarching dualism or split, thematized in terms of either philosopher, Spinoza or Marx, or practice state or market, it is possible to think in terms of multiple points of demarcation, and tension, divisions between the spontaneous ideology and the dominant ideology, between the different spontaneous ideologies, and different dominant ideologies. 



The Future of an Illusion

By way of a conclusion it seems useful to think of this itinerary, back to Spinoza and Marx, and through Althusser to Macherey and Balibar, as less a lesson in genealogy, and more of an attempt to think a concept, in this case ideology, or the spontaneity of ideology, along with its tendencies and tensions. It is as much a matter of the way in which the concept does not cohere, caught in tension between anthropological and historical justifications, between the various spontaneous ideologies and the dominant ideology, as it is seeing the elements of the constitution of the concept. These fissures and fault lines are not just the gestures of a theoretical modesty, of the conflicted and incomplete nature of any philosophical system, they are also the points of intervention for theoretical and political practice. The concept of “spontaneous ideology” reveals both the strength and limits of ideology. On the one hand it demonstrates that ideology is like a second nature, so thoroughly wedded to our practical comportments that it appears as nature. It accounts for the immediacy of ideology. While on the other it demonstrates the fault lines of ideology, the gap that separates the spontaneous philosophy from its practices, the spontaneous philosophies from each other, and all from their universalization in the dominant ideology. The tension of the concepts development, the gap that separates Spinoza’s superstition from Marx’s fetishism, is in the end the basis of new lines of demarcation. What appears as necessary, the existing articulation of ideology, must be grasped as overdetermined and contingent. This, and not the sterile declaration of truth, is what it means to intervene philosophically in ideology. 


Presented at Duke University in December of 2016



[1] Louis Althusser, “The Only Materialist Tradition, Part One: Spinoza” pg. 6. 


[2] As Pierre Macherey argues, The Appendix can be understood as something of a practical demonstration of the implications of EIIP36 ‘Inadequate and confused ideas follow with the same necessity as adequate or clear and distinct ideas.’ Macherey 1998a, p.206 


[3] Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx pg. 78. 


[4] Etienne Balibar, Des Universels: Essais et conferences pg. 61. 


[5] Etienne Balibar, “Jus, Pactum, Lex” pg. 197. 


[6] Pierre Macherey, “Althusser and the Concept of the Spontaneous Philosophy of Scientists” pg. 16. 


[7] Pierre Macherey, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists pg. 95. 


[8] Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, translated by G.M. Goshgarian, (New York: Verso, 2014). Pg. 68. 


[9] Louis Althusser, Initiation à la Philosophie Pour Les Non-Philosophes, (Paris: Presse Universitaires de France, 2014) pg. 357. 


[10] “I shall take the liberty of advancing the following interpretation: domination by an established order does indeed rest, as Marx argued after Hegel, on the ideological universalization of its principles. But contrary to what Marx believed the dominant ideas cannot be those of the dominant class. They have to be those of the dominated…” Etienne Balibar, “Three Concept of Politics” pg. 7. 


[11] Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, pg. 42. 


[12] Pierre Macherey, Les Sujet des Normes pg. 302. 


[13] Pierre Macherey, Les Sujet des Normes pg. 348. 


[14] Pierre Macherey “The Productive Subject” 2015. 


[15] Etienne Balibar, “Homo Nationalis: An Anthropological Sketch of the Nation-Form 

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