September 29, 2020

The extraordinary spread in recent months of what has become known, in the writer Wesley Yang’s phrase, as “the successor ideology” has encouraged all manner of analysis attempting to delineate its essential features. Is it a religion, with its own litany of sin and redemption, its own repertoire of fervent rituals and iconography? Is this Marxism, ask American conservatives, still fighting yesterday’s ideological war?

What does this all do to speed along policing reform, ask bewildered African-Americans, as they observe global corporations and white celebrities compete to beat their chests in ever-more elaborate and meaningless gestures of atonement? What kind of meaningful anti-systemic revolution can provoke such immediate and fulsome support from the Hollywood entertainment complex, from the richest oligarchs and plutocrats on earth, and from the media organs of the liberal state?

If we are to understand the successor ideology as an ideology, it may be useful here, counterintuitively, to return to the great but increasingly overlooked 1970 essay on the “Ideological State Apparatuses,” or ISAs, by the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Once influential on the Western left, Althusser’s reputation has suffered somewhat since he killed his wife in a fit of madness 40 years ago. Of Alsatian Catholic origin, and a lifelong sufferer from mental illness, Althusser wrote his seminal essay in a manic period following the évènements of 1968, for whose duration he was committed to hospital. 

Composed with a feverish, hallucinatory clarity, Althusser’s essay aimed to elucidate the manner in which ideology functions as a means to prop up the political order, observing that “no class can hold state power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the Ideological State Apparatuses”. 

What are these ISAs? Contrasted with the Repressive State Apparatuses — the police, the army, and so on — the ISAs are the means by which the system reproduces itself through ideology: Althusser lists the church, the media and the education system along with the family, and the legal and political system and the culture industry as the means through which the ideology of the governing system is enforced. Althusser here develops Gramsci’s thesis that the cultural sphere is the most productive arena of political struggle, and inverts it: instead of being the site of revolutionary victory, it is where the system reasserts itself, neutering the possibility of political change through its wielding of the most powerful weapon, ideology. 

It is through ideology, Althusser asserts, that the ruling system maintains itself in power: “the ideology of the ruling class does not become the ruling ideology by the grace of God, nor even by virtue of the seizure of state power alone,” he states, “it is by the installation of the ISAs in which this ideology is realised and real­ises itself that it becomes the ruling ideology.”

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How does this apply to the successor ideology? Almost anyone who works in a university or a large corporation will by now have been forced to attend the instruction sessions in the dogma of the new faith which have rapidly become mandatory. When we see a handful of MPs proclaim on Twitter that they refuse to attend the struggle sessions to which they have been ordered by the faceless bureaucracy, trying feebly to assert some degree of autonomy against the managerial state, we appreciate clearly the hierarchies of power which govern our system. 

Like the wave of statue-toppling earlier this summer, which immediately subsumed itself into the endless bureaucracy of commissions and panels, overseen by the quangos and opaquely-funded NGOs which actually run this country, we realise that true power in Britain rests neither in the streets nor at the ballot box, but in the hands of the professional managerial class. The spread of the successor ideology is not, despite the urban violence which occasionally attends its spread, a revolutionary moment, but the very opposite, a counterrevolution of HR managers, the means by which managerial liberalism reasserts its authority over the organs of the state. 

The sheer zeal with which middle managers and HR executives, as well as the students rioting in the streets aspiring to join their numbers, have latched onto the successor ideology reveals their grasp of the potential power it affords them. Like Althusser’s ISAs, the apparatuses of the new ideology are the education system, the mass media and the culture industry: go to university, read the newspaper, listen to Radio 4: there is no escape from the ideology of the administrative class. 

When we hear the righteous indignation of middle-class young women, lecturing soldiers for cleaning graffiti off the Cenotaph that they are furthering a system of structural racism or whatever, we hear the nasal tones of the future managerial class asserting itself, drunk with its own power. Imagine the sound of a passive-aggressive email from HR plinking into your inbox, forever: that is the sound of ideology taking the helm of the state.

How does ideology assert its control? For Althusser, it is in the moment of interpellation, or “calling out” (so resonant of the phenomenon of “calling out” on social media, when those addressed are forced to either submit themselves to the governing ideology, or accept their casting out into the wilderness). 

Althusser gives the example of a policeman calling out “Hey you!” to a passer-by. The passer-by turns round; Who, me? He asks. It is in that moment of interpellation that the person addressed recognises himself as a subject, and in doing so recognises his subjection to the authority which calls out to him, the greater Subject. 

He can deny he is the person the policeman is looking for, can profess his innocence, can meekly submit himself to authority: but in each and every case, the subject, by recognising himself as such, accepts the validity of the system to which he is subjected. In that split-second shock of self-recognition, for Althusser, ideology asserts itself.

How does this work in practice? Let’s take the example of Keir Starmer at the moment the successor ideology called out to him: will Keir kneel in the ritual BLM pose, and in doing so, recognise himself as subject to its moral authority? He has three options: he can kneel, and prove himself subject; he can refuse to kneel, and declare himself a rebel or heretic against the rightful authority, with all the social and political risk that brings; or he can ignore it entirely, refusing to either submit or to refuse to submit, thus stripping the ideology of all political power. 

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And yet the third option is denied him, by the media, functioning as what Althusser terms an Ideological State Apparatus. Journalists hound him asking whether or not he will kneel, his backbenchers and Labour’s media commentariat speculate over whether or not he will or he should; ignoring the question is no longer an option. He has been called out to, interpellated, and must respond, whether he wants to or not; in that moment, the system asserts its power and Starmer accepts his subjection to that power.

The great irony here, of course, is that in writing about the ideology of liberal capitalism, from the perspective of a Marxist-Leninist seeking to overthrow it, Althusser was foreseeing, dimly, the future failures of his own fellow ’68ers. They, the intellectual children of the French theorists, are now the wizened enforcers of the liberal capitalist order, wielding critical theory as the new establishment’s most powerful weapon. 

Railing against social democratic parties, Althusser dismisses them as “‘loyal managers of the capitalist regime’, which they have no desire really to ‘overthrow’, at least not in deeds, whatever their declarations,” observing that “the bourgeoisie makes very able use of them to counter the very troublesome ‘component part’ represented by a proletarian party or trade union.”

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Indeed, he argues, “the whole history of bourgeois politics for the last eighty years is based on this tactic of dividing the working-class forces, at the level of politics and trade union organisation alike. Thanks to this technique, the bourgeoisie effectively ‘annuls’ the presence of proletarian organisations in its ISAs.” Yet consider how much more true this is of the new managerial class, whose enforcers wield White Fragility and the critical theory as a means to assert their own power, and of the system which allows them to do so. 

Are we to believe that the entire oligarchical and corporate class which runs Western economies are submitting themselves to a moment of real revolutionary force, or instead that they recognise in it a powerful source of counter revolutionary power against the inchoate political uprisings of recent years? 

Althusser, the committed Marxist, states firmly that “it is not enough to destroy the repressive apparatus; it is also necessary to destroy and replace the Ideological State Apparatuses. New ones have to be put in place, urgently,” and many conservatives, faced with our new HR overlords flexing their power, now find themselves forced to agree.

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