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Hegemony and interpellation: reading Gramsci and Althusser

This comparative essay will present quotes by Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci. The discussion in this piece will be rooted in these quotations. Using these quotes, this essay will discuss how the theories of Hegemony and interpellation function, detailing their relationship with one another. Specifically addressing similarities which are foundational to both theoretical positions. Such as: how both attempt to explain how and why the proletariat within traditional Marxist discourse fails to rise from their oppressed conditions, how both theories are influenced by political situations, how both hegemony and interpellation detail the process by which one class dominates another and how the theory of hegemony lays the foundation for the theory of interpellation.

In the prison notebooks, Gramsci asserts the notion that; “The state is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules… [1] From the first sentence of this quote, Gramsci explicitly tells his potential readers that there exists classist agenda within a society, but instead of being in overt conflict, the class being ruled instead actively gives consent to be ruled. The implication of this is that the proletariat is compliant and is not coerced into this end by means of physical force, (though it must be noted that this force is still at the disposal of the ruling class.[2]) and is preferably instead subjected to the “theoretical” and “practical” ideals of the state. The fact that a ruling class would not simply use physical force as its primary agency of control would also suggest that the ruling class needs the proletariat and their participation within society to “maintain its dominance” within said society.



What is meant by this dominance within a Marxist discourse is of course a compliant proletariat who does not see that they have been manipulated and controlled to adhere to the whims of the ruling class. However, the language which Gramsci uses within this paragraph would suggest that we are reading the thoughts of a Marxist thinker who has established a different line of enquiry.[3] For Gramsci, the proletariat are aware of their situation and these thoughts are evident from the following phrase; “the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules…” Gramsci states that in his theory, the proletariat are complicit and even goes so far as to say that they allow themselves to be ruled.

This raises the question of how the proletariat is being compliant. It could be argued that the very notion of voting would equate to the proletariat actively participating in a choice of who they want to be ruled by. Gramsci goes on to say that: “: it is the bureaucracy—i.e. the crystallisation of the leading personnel—which exercises coercive power, and at a certain point it becomes a caste. Hence the popular demand for making all posts elective”. It is in this instance that political parties are here attempting to achieve political hegemony, by offering an illusionary choice to the proletariat, illusionary in the sense that it is not ultimately choice which will lead them to a freedom, but as previously discussed, one which sees them “give active consent”[4] to be ruled. It is through this process that hegemony is achieved.

The idea that persuasion is needed suggests that the masses need to be made to believe in the tenants (or ideology) of the ruling class. For this end, it is a necessity that the proletariat see a reason to give this consent to be ruled to the ruling class. Without this reason they are yet to be subjects of these tenants. This subjectification occurs through Althusser’s theory of Interpellation.

Althusser builds on the work of Gramsci, cementing the notion that physical repressive action is not the sole tool used by the ruling class to maintain dominance, but is instead more reliant on the state. However what Althusser asserts is that in the work of Gramsci the articulation of this notion is somewhat fragmented.[5] What Gramsci identifies as agencies within civil society being the alternative to physical repression, Althusser specifically acknowledges as; “ideological state apparatuses.”[6] Althusser identifies the primary agencies by which state control is garnered just as Gramsci did in the prison notebooks, but instead of labelling them; “1.Legislature 2. Judiciary 3. Executive”[7] Althusser instead devises a more exhaustive list: -The religious ISA, The educational ISA, the family ISA The legal ISA, The political ISA, The trade union ISA, the communications ISA (press, radio and television etc) the cultural ISA”[8]


It is evident then, that Althusser borrows from Gramsci and fleshes the bare bones of his earlier identification of state powers. Althusser later explicitly states that there exists a difference between an ideological state apparatus and what he calls the; “repressive state apparatus”[9] Here, Althusser acknowledges that the state does have the means of physical control over the proletariat, just as Gramsci acknowledges. The major distinction in this regard between the two theories is that Gramsci only acknowledges that the state exuberates ideology in what Althusser would call “the public domain “failing to acknowledge the private means of ideological influence. It is here that one may realise that subjectification occurs in a constant flux. Not only does the state assert its ideological discourse in the plains of the legislature, judiciary and executive, but also in an abundance of social realms which appear separate from state influence such as in the culture and family ISAs. For Althusser, it is through this constant exposure both to public and private domain ISAs that subjectification through interpellation becomes possible. In his words; “The Author and reader of these lines both live ‘spontaneously’ or ‘naturally’ within ideology”[10]

Though the family may appear devoid of involvement with the state directly, they live within a society which is of course not detached from state influence and is within a domain which is under political hegemony. This means that they bring with them into the family the tenants of the dominant class and the societal norms that they have learned. This transitional process from public domain into the private exemplifies how the work Gramsci is given more depth by Althusser and shows how ideology within political discourse bleeds into private domains for the ruling classes to maintain dominance within a society as Gramsci previously stated. For Althusser, this cycle suggests through ideology, the subjects inadvertently become agents of ideology after they become

interpellated, spreading ideology as if it was their own. This is best is best summarised by the following sentence; “There is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects.”[11]

Within this discussion, what has been realised is how both theories are influenced and relate to political discourse, most notably in the work of Gramsci but also in the work of Althusser. What Althusser does which sets him in contrast to Gramsci and other Marxists is this; Althusser does not relate everything to the economic discourse which is of course canonical within the Marxist narrative. Althusser states that; “man is an ideological animal by nature”[12].

The significance of this quote is that it suggests is that there is something within humans which long for meaning, beyond the external world, it is something much more it is something within them, in their “nature”. Which lead people with a yearning to make sense of the external complexities of the world which they inhabit, it is here then that the influence of the French psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan is most evident within Althusser’s work. In the movie American beauty, we can see how the interpellated subject functions within a society, and what happens when a man breaks from his ideological nature in the form of the main character Lester Burnham in the following soundbite from said film; “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up.”[13]


Lester says this when he leaves his job, and in doing so we as the audience see Lester breaking from the norms which have constructed the pathway of his being, as he states, for the past twenty years. Despite Lester finding himself in a new-found state of buoyancy, due to his freedom from his bourgeois paymasters, he is made a pariah within his own home by his wife. An Althussurian reading of this portion of the film would suggest that though Lester has defied his ideological distortion, his wife has not, and so lambasted her husband for choosing to quit his job. This exemplifies how economy (in this case, Lester’s employment) relates to how ideological state apparatuses function in regards to private and public domains as we see how Lester leaving his job is seen as a bad thing by his wife and in making him a pariah within the home shows how subjects of ideology (Lester’s wife in this instance) self-maintain the norms of the ruling class without direct repercussions from the state. It is here that we see how those who have been interpellated through subjectification act as agents of ideology, serving the interests of the ruling class indirectly within ISAs such as the family, by repeating what they deem as beneficiary to themselves within the family unit when in actuality, they are inadvertently speaking in the terms most beneficial to the state, as having the ruled classes working allows the ruling class to “maintain its dominance”[14] whilst also “reproducing the conditions of production.”[15]


If we are to understand hegemony as the domination of one group by another, it seems appropriate to label the world’s leading Hegemon within this discussion; The united states of America. America asserts its dominance on a world stage simply by influencing most countries on the globe. We do not have to be within the country’s borders to know what is there and its ideological tenants. Across the planet, people watch American Hollywood films and pay millions to see them, use computer systems such as windows, know its leader after every election, and of course use their smartphones Apple being the most apparent example. Of course, with access to these medians which we enjoy internationally there is also a dangerous side to this. The hegemonic state has influence over other nations and can influence countries to even go to war as happened when The US and UK armed forces invaded Iraq.


How this occurred of course was by Bush and Blair asserting that the Iraqi government had weapons of mass destruction under development, in stating this, whether it be true or untrue, through the numerous media outlets that the US has under its control accessible internationally, an ideological message was transmitted and the war on terror ensued. Ultimately of course, this caused Blair to become Villainously portrayed after the findings of the Chilcott report. In the prison notebooks Gramsci asserts that; “It is to be noted how lapses in the administration of justice make an especially disastrous impression on the public”.[16] What Gramsci states here was ultimately true in the case of tony Blair as this former Prime minister is now seldom heard from or seen as the former master manipulator of the British press has now been seen himself become a pariah in the eyes of the people whom he essentially tricked. The relevance of this example is that we can see how hegemony filters itself even in the higher echelons of power, despite voting for Blair, the British people were being complicit to the will of the American president George Bush. But, due to American influence oversees the British population were knowingly tricked into going to war.

To conclude, one can see how under the theoretical expositions of Gramsci and Althusser we can learn how our daily lives are influenced by ideology and how it distorts us. In this knowledge, one could not more readily challenge norms and challenge the discourses in society and in private domains, or at least acknowledge the reasoning behind these occurrences.

[1] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, trans. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (99a Wallis Road, London, E9 5LN: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), p. 244 [2] Anthony Easthope And Kate McGowan, A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. by The estate of Anthony Easthope And Kate McGowan, 2nd edn (McGraw-Hill Education, McGraw-Hill House, Shoppenhangers Road, Maidenhead Berkshire, England SL6 2QL: Open University Press, 2004), p. 35. [3] Glyn Daly, The Routledge Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory, ed. by Simon Malpas and Paul Wake, 2nd edn (2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN: Routledge, 2013), p. 44. [4] Gramsci, selections from The Prison Notebooks.p.244 [5] Louis Althusser, Louis Althusser On Ideology (6 Meard Street, London W1F 0Eg: Verso, 2008), p. 16. [6] Ibid.p.17 [7] Gramsci. Selections from the prison notebooks p.246 [8] Althusser, Louis Althusser on ideology p.17 [9] Ibid p.17 [10] Ibid.p.45 [11] Ibid. p..44 [12] Ibid. p.45 [13] 'American Beauty, dir. by Sam Mendes (DreamWorks Pictures, 1999). [14] Gramsci, notes from the Prison Notebooks p.244 [15] Althusser, Louis Althusser on ideology p.1 [16] Gramsci. Notes from The Prison notebooks p.246

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