State, debate of ideas and formation of class culture

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By ARMANDO BOITO JR.*

Criticism of the concepts of civil society (Gramsci) and ideological state apparatuses (Althusser)

The title of this round table – “State, debate of ideas and formation of class culture” – allows several entries. I opted for a theoretical intervention, briefly presenting and critically commenting on two very similar concepts that relate the State and the struggle of ideas. This is Antonio Gramsci's concept of civil society, a concept developed in the Prison Notebooks, and the concept of ideological State apparatuses that Louis Althusser presents in a short text that had great repercussions.

I do not intend to present them in detail and in all their complexity. My main aim is to criticize them. Gramsci and Althusser use, respectively, the concept of civil society and the concept of ideological State apparatuses precisely to show the participation of the State in the formation of the culture or ideology of capitalist societies. Briefly, both are reflecting on the question of how the capitalist state contributes to the formation of bourgeois ideology as the dominant ideology and to obtaining the consent of the dominated. The theme is of the greatest importance for Marxism, but the direction that both give it does not seem correct.

 

Brief presentation of concepts

I will need to repeat what is already well known and, given the necessary brevity, I may incur some simplifications. In the case of Antonio Gramsci, civil society is the terrain where classes and social groups fight for the hegemony of their ideas and values. This terrain, as everyone knows, is made up of various associations such as churches, schools, the press, political parties, unions, clubs and other institutions that produce and disseminate ideology, which, for Gramsci, is a certain conception of the world. The class whose ideas and values ​​predominate in civil society is the hegemonic class. Their class ideas and values ​​are then incorporated, often after secondary modifications and twists, by other social classes, producing a type of active consensus in society as a whole, which is what gives the hegemonic class the status of the ruling class – in addition to the force, the ruling class can count on the voluntary subjection of the dominated.

In the case of Louis Althusser's concept, the concept of ideological state apparatuses is facing the same problem: how and why the working classes submit to the ruling class. It is not only through repression, but also through ideological illusion. The concept of ideological State apparatuses, which, roughly speaking, is a concept that makes reference to the same institutions to which Gramsci's concept of civil society refers, this concept also fulfills the same function: to name and explain the production and diffusion of dominant ideology. Thus, despite the thought of Gramsci and Althusser belonging to different traditions of Marxism and despite using very different expressions to name their concepts, these refer to the same empirical fact – the aforementioned institutions – and aim, roughly speaking, to deal with the same problem.

I will start by highlighting the importance of the fact that Gramsci and Althusser set themselves the task of thinking about the problem they sought to delimit with such concepts. Where does this importance lie? Twentieth-century Marxism was strongly marked by economism, which is a conception of historical materialism that seeks to reduce all political and cultural phenomena to what they call “the economic base”, in such a way that society, in its multiple dimensions, is nothing more would be a phenomenal manifestation of a central core that would be the economy. This type of focus, which is still present in Marxism today, stands as a real epistemological obstacle blocking the development of Marxism as a social science.

It diverts Marxist authors from analyzing the juridical-political structure and ideology of capitalist societies and, by doing so, also hinders the establishment of a socialist strategy capable of guiding the revolutionary struggle. Gramsci and Althusser, when posing the problem they posed – how does ideology contribute to the reproduction of class domination? – and by asking themselves how such a phenomenon takes place at the level of the bourgeois state, by raising this question, I repeat, they contributed to removing that obstacle and to reopening a whole work site for the development of Marxism as a social science. We say reopen because Marx, Engels and Lenin had already begun the work of analyzing the so-called superstructure.

A second observation consists of the following: Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser integrated civil associations (Gramsci) and ideological apparatuses (Althusser) into the Marxist concept of the State. In Althusser's case, the very expression that names the concept already indicates that the ideological apparatuses are part of the State. In Gramsci's case, the signifier – “civil society” – can create misunderstandings about its meaning. However, Gramsci insists that civil society is part of the state. The State would have two dimensions: political society, which would be the State in a narrow sense, mainly its repressive apparatus, and civil society, which, together with the previous dimension, would make up the State in a broader sense.

The formula present in Prison Notebooks is: State = political society + civil society. What could justify the insertion of civil associations and ideological apparatuses in the State? The fundamental thesis of the Marxist theory of the State that both worked with: the idea that the social function of the State is to organize class domination. Now, as the social function of civil associations and ideological apparatuses would be the same, it seemed to them, and still seems to many Marxists, that it would be fitting to conceive them as part of the State. Althusser, relying explicitly on Gramsci, wrote that since the distinction between public (State) and private (associations) is a distinction of bourgeois law, it could not guide Marxist analysis. In other words, an institution governed by private law could be part of the State.

Two brief clarifications so that we can better understand what will come next. The Gramscian concept of civil society has nothing to do with Hegel's concept of civil society, for whom civil society is the terrain where economic agents defend their particularist interests. In Hegel, precisely, the particularism of civil society is opposed to the universalism of the State. State and civil society would be distinct and separate realities. Therefore, although the word used is the same in Gramsci and in Hegel – civil society – both the idea, that is, the concept, and the empirical reality to which these concepts refer are different.

The Gramscian concept has nothing to do with the liberal concept of civil society either – and a good part of the Brazilian bibliography ignores this difference. At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, some liberals went beyond the classic opposition between, on the one hand, the State and, on the other, individuals – an opposition that governed all of XNUMXth-century liberalism, starting with the liberalism of John Stuart-Mill. The new liberals conceived a role for so-called intermediary institutions – associations of various kinds, churches, political parties, etc. – which would be to mediate the relationship between individuals and the State and protect individual rights. In this conception, civil society is also outside the State and can even become a political subject.

In Brazil during the military dictatorial period, progressive liberals had as their slogan to call for the organization of civil society against the dictatorial State. Even today, progressive liberals repeat this appeal to civil society against the authoritarian threats of the Bolsonaro government. This conception and this tactic have nothing to do with the Marxist Gramsci. The Gramscian concept forbids thinking of civil society as a political subject since it is irremediably divided. To repeat: it is the terrain on which the struggle of groups and classes for hegemony takes place. It is interesting to note that, in the relationship of the Gramscian concept with the liberal concept of civil society, confusion can arise due to the fact that both the word and the empirical reference of Gramsci's concept and that of liberals are the same. What is not the same is the idea, that is, the concept itself. And it is this difference that defines everything.

 

The ideological effects of the state apparatus

Let's see what can be said about the idea present in both authors according to which the ideological apparatus of the State (Althusser) or the associations of civil society (Gramsci) would differ from the repressive apparatus of the State (Althusser) or the State in a strict sense ( Gramsci) for acting (fundamentally) on the terrain of ideology. We would have the repressive face, or fundamentally repressive, and the ideological face, or fundamentally ideological, of the State. In fact, there are also formulations in the texts of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser that suggest that one face would be merely ideology and persuasion and the other would be merely repression, without the adverb being interposed fundamentally as a caveat. But the question of whether it is fundamentally or exclusively is unimportant to the critique I intend to make. I draw attention once again to the fact that we are examining the question of the State in the struggle of ideas, which is a form of class struggle, which is the theme proposed for our round table.

What is the fundamental problem with the concepts of ideological State apparatuses and civil society? These concepts erroneously attribute to these devices and institutions the function of producing and spreading bourgeois ideology, while the function of the State, in a restricted sense, would be to repress any localized insubordination and massive revolts of the working classes. This idea, in my view, is wrong, and this is the first criticism I direct to such concepts.

Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser do not realize that precisely what they call the State in the strict sense or the repressive State apparatus is, in reality, the producer and main diffuser of the basic figures of bourgeois political ideology. In fact, what the so-called private associations of hegemony do is reaffirm, mobilize, develop and enrich, in the bourgeois sense of the term, such ideological figures and spread them throughout society. And they do it in a specific, particular way, typical of each of these institutions.

To explain what we are saying, let us return to a fundamental contribution by Nicos Poulantzas. This author shows in his work Political power and social classes (Ed. da Unicamp) that the organizational structure of the capitalist type of State produces fundamental ideological effects that allow the reproduction of capitalist relations of production. The formally egalitarian bourgeois State law, hiding from individuals the fact that they belong to a certain social class, generates an effect that Poulantzas calls the isolation effect. The worker, under the effect of this ideology, sees himself as an individual with unique interests, and not as a bearer of interests arising, fundamentally, from his class situation. Every socialist movement has to fight against this “spontaneous individualism” that is present among the workers.

The bureaucratism of the bourgeois State, in turn, unifies citizens thus isolated in an imaginary collective that is the national collective. As all representative and bureaucratic institutions of the bourgeois state are formally open to individuals from all social classes, such institutions appear as socially neutral and representatives of a general interest, which would be the so-called national interest. This is the effect that Poulantzas calls the unity representation effect. In the dictatorial form of the bourgeois State, the mere existence of professional, civil and military bureaucracy, formally open to all social classes, produces such ideological effects.

In its democratic form, the bourgeois state also relies on elections, in which each citizen is worth one vote and can elect the occupants of the state. To the ideological effect provoked by the existence of the modern bureaucracy is added the wide and deep ideological effect produced by the elections and by the political representation in the working masses. Perry Anderson made this last point in his discussion of Gramsci's concepts – The antinomies of Antonio Gramsci (New Left Review no. 100, 1976). We know that every socialist movement fights against the illusion of the common general interest that would be represented in the State in order to develop the socialist conscience of the workers. Therefore, the idea of ​​citizen and nation, which are the essential raw material of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties and unions, of the bourgeois press, of the capitalist school, etc., are generated elsewhere and not by these institutions.

Each of these institutions will then reaffirm, disseminate and develop, always in a specific way according to the nature of each institution, such ideological figures. Bourgeois and petty-bourgeois political parties will be able to present themselves as defenders of the national interest, hiding their class nature. It is the phenomenon of the opacity of the political scene caused by the dissimulation of the class nature of such parties, an opacity that can only be broken when workers organize a mass socialist party that openly proclaims itself a class party.

The capitalist school will be able to present itself as a public institution, neutral in the face of social classes, which would offer all citizens, regardless of their class origin, the same opportunity for social ascension – when such an ideology goes into crisis, as has happened in recent decades, compensatory policies of racial and social quotas can be implemented whose democratic impact is as real as it is limited. But, returning to the core of the argument, such ideological operations are only possible because the State (in a restricted sense) produced and disseminated, as a result of its own structural organization, the ideas of national interest and citizenship.

In summary, without the ideological effects generated by the State (in the strict sense) it would not be possible for private associations of hegemony to play the ideological role they play. They are dependent on the ideology that is produced by the state apparatus (in a narrow sense). These associations do play an active role in the development of bourgeois ideology, in the creation of “variants” of this ideology and in its dissemination, but this does not authorize conceiving them as the primary ideological agencies of capitalist societies, distinct, to that extent, from a State. (in a narrow sense) that would be fundamentally or exclusively repressive.

 

The structural difference between the State and the institutions of “civil society”

Nor can we conceive of these associations and institutions as part of the State – and this is my second criticism. The way in which the family, churches, the press, political parties, etc. are organized is different from the way in which what we traditionally call the State apparatus is organized. They are different organization rules and the values ​​that inspire these rules are also different in one case and another.

An initial observation. The State, in these Gramsci and Althusser concepts we are commenting on, would be everything and all individuals, without exception, would be part of the State. The state encompasses all of society. It is true that not all are members of a political party, or even of a trade union or employers' association, it is also true that many have already completed their school career, are out of school, but all, or almost all, belong to a family, soon virtually everyone would be part of the state. Something that can be said at the outset is that it is doubtful that such a broad concept, which amalgamates state and society, can establish the particular, specific nature of the phenomenon that it seeks to designate. The very idea of ​​State agents, State employees, would lose its meaning.

Another problem that stands out is the following: are parties and unions part of the State? Althusser and Gramsci are not always careful to make the caveat “except for revolutionary, socialist parties, etc…”. Now, in the party systems of modern bourgeois democracies you can have, and you have had throughout history, parties that are anti-system, these parties are not mere pieces of the political game of bourgeois democracy.

Let's move on to the heart of the argument. The bourgeois State, as we have already said, recruits its members from all social classes and does so, we will now add, through formally public competitions and elections. It is clear that the individual belonging to a low-income family does not have the same opportunity as the one belonging to a high-income family in formally public competitions, mainly in competitions for vacancies in high positions of the State. Despite this, the fact that there is no law prohibiting the participation in formally public contests of individuals as a result of their class membership or their income level, this fact produces a real ideological effect. It should be added that the State bureaucracy, civil and military, is organized according to a rigid and centralized hierarchy formally based on competence. It is these norms that make up what Poulantzas, in the aforementioned book, calls bureaucratism. It is this bureaucratism that makes it possible for the bourgeois State to act in a unitary way in the organization of the class domination of the bourgeoisie.

Well, that's not how things are in the organization of the family, the church, political parties and so on. This is not how such organizations recruit or can recruit their members and this is not how these same organizations guarantee their internal unity and are managed. How, then, would it be acceptable to encompass under the same concept, the concept of the State, institutions with such diverse forms of organization? I'm talking about organizational rules and values. Eventually someone may object that I would be abandoning the field of Marxism and entering an institutionalist or idealist terrain. I do not think like that. And, on this subject, I repeat that Althusser and Gramsci set the example: it is necessary to think, analyze and develop Marxism in the analysis of the superstructure, not only in the analysis of the economy. And the concepts to analyze one and the other are not, and cannot be, the same, although they must, in Marxism, be linked.

 

Class struggle in the state?

In Gramsci, civil society is the terrain where classes struggle for hegemony and that same civil society is part of the State. What we have as a necessary consequence is that there is class struggle within the State. The State which for Marx, Engels, Lenin and much of later Marxism is an organizer of class domination, this State appears in the Gramsci of the prison notebooks as an institution within which the class struggle can be inscribed. If there is class struggle within the State, it means that this State is, in theory, open to the interests and antagonistic values ​​of the social classes – to capitalist measures and socialist measures, to bourgeois ideology and socialist ideology.

In the case of Althusser's text on the ideological state apparatuses, we find something very similar. When Althusser published this text, it received numerous criticisms. His analysis was criticized as functionalist, as it would hide the contradictions between these apparatuses and within each of them. Society and the State would appear as a functionally integrated whole, preventing the perception of any way to overcome capitalism. Later, he added an addendum to the original text where he agrees that he underestimated the contradictions and, to correct himself, he added that, in fact, the ideological apparatuses of the State would be crossed by the class struggle. Therefore, also in Althusser's text, the conception of the State includes the idea that there would be class struggle within this institution.

This statement by Althusser was even quoted by Santiago Carrillo, General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, in his book Eurocommunism and the State, as a thesis that authorized the reformist strategy of the Eurocommunist current. In the 1970s, the PCI, PCF and PCE carried out a revisionist intellectual operation of the Marxist theory of the State to justify their parliamentary and legal transition strategy to socialism. They were then able to make use of both the conception of the State present in the prison notebooks by Gramsci, as well as by this text by Althusser because, in fact, both allow us to conceive of a reformist strategy of transition to socialism. Neither Gramsci nor Althusser were Eurocommunists. Eurocommunism emerged long after Gramsci's death, and Althusser, in turn, publicly criticized this political current. This does not change, however, the fact that the concepts we are examining by these authors do authorize the use made of them by the Eurocommunists.

We see that, starting from an abstract theoretical discussion, we arrive at a political and practical discussion. The political critique of these concepts, which I presented very briefly by indicating that they support the existence of class struggle within the State, this political critique would require the development of the theoretical critique that underlies it, something that I will not be able to do here. That would be a topic for another lecture.

I will end by saying that we have learned and will continue to learn a lot by studying the work of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. However, the development of Marxism, in addition to the use and improvement of concepts and theses that make up the vast theoretical collection that we inherited, sometimes requires the refusal, rectification and criticism of concepts and theses that are part of that same collection. It should even be noted that the work of Gramsci and Althusser went through different phases. They are not homogeneous. The concepts of civil society and the State in a broader sense are developed in the Prison Notebooks, they do not govern the excellent historical and political analyzes that Gramsci makes before his arrest. The concept of ideological state apparatuses does not appear in Althusser's two best-known works – By Marx, recently published by Editora da Unicamp, and Read Capital.

I ran out of time a little. Thank you to everyone for your attention.

*Armando Boito is professor of political science at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of State, politics and social classes (Unesp).

Transcript revised by the author of the lecture given at the X International Day of Public Policies from the Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA) in November 2021. Transcribed by Gleisa Campos.

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