Another Brick in the Wall: Louis Althusser's Ideological State Apparatuses and the Reproduction of Labor in the University

Article by Sam Hernandez, Pomona ‘24
Artwork by Tristan Latham, Pomona ‘23

    In this essay, I explore the foundations of the University as a facet of the broader educational state apparatus described by Louis Althusser in "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses."1 Althusser outlines how every state maintains, and when necessary deploys, a variety of repressive methods to maintain its grasp on control. Institutions such as the police, the courts, the Army, the political system, and the prisons are generally conceived of as the extent of the state apparatus in Marxist thought. Furthermore, Althusser develops a theory of the more subtle—and potentially more important—aspect of the state: Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). ISAs can be distinguished from the aforementioned arms of the Marxist State Apparatus—which will hereafter be referred to as Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs)—by the means through which they extend the state's influence. ISAs work mostly through peaceful indoctrination, whereas RSAs usually employ force, or at the very least, display the capacity for use of force in order to achieve their goals. By analyzing Althusser's work on Ideological State Apparatuses, I aim to discern the role of many of our societal institutions—most significantly that of the University—in reproducing the labor necessary for the capitalist mode of production. I then examine the possibilities that ISAs present for the continuation of class, race, gender, and other liberatory struggles. I will first look to ideology to convey the function and impact of ISAs in the reproduction of labor-power.

    Ideology goes beyond a mere set of political, religious, and cultural beliefs. It extends more broadly as the "system of the ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group."2 Ideology is all-encompassing and thus includes every single one of the individual's thoughts and beliefs. Crucially, the definition also proves the impossibility of not having an ideology; even if an individual does not subscribe to a particular political system, they still have an ideology and are necessarily subject to the societal processes of ideological subordination. Moreover, every particular ideology is subject to existence within the broader frameworks of society and so necessarily has a positionality within those structures. As a result, every particular ideology has and expresses a "class position" and a position within frameworks of race, gender, sexuality, and other power structures within the given society.3

    In examining ISAs as they function under capitalism, it is helpful to look at how ISAs have developed from previous modes of production to their current forms. For instance, under the feudal mode of production, the most influential ISA was the Church,4 which came to dominate the social consciousness of pre-capitalist society. The Church took on a multitude of roles that allowed them to have an immense ideological influence on the minds of individuals in feudal society, reinforcing the power structures of the status quo. It subsumed the educational role within society and that of social functions or culture, which is a crucial facet of the material expression of ideology. Because the ideological power of the Church was so great, nearly "all ideological struggle, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, starting with the first shocks of the Reformation, was concentrated in an anti-clerical and anti-religious struggle."5 The Church presented the most significant hurdle to revolutionary change in the ideological transition from feudalism to capitalism. It is no coincidence that the rise in anti-clerical sentiment was accompanied by considerable changes in the economic organization of production and the ensuing social relations as the capitalist class grew in strength and the power of the aristocracy waned. The advancement of technology that allowed individualized production to become more viable gave rise to an increasing number of small-time capitalists. In turn, this development created a new ideological current, which fed back into the growth of the burgeoning capitalist class, forming a cyclical relationship. The ideological warfare against the Church made the revolutionary change in the mode of production more viable. The shift in the mode of production reinforced the need for ideological change. The advent of Enlightenment ideals—especially that of private property—recognized and encouraged the development of early capitalism, which in turn further propelled the shift in social consciousness towards an emphasis on human reason over religion.6

    With the triumph of capitalism over feudalism, the Church lost much of its hegemony as the dominant ISA, and the educational State apparatus rose in its place. Instead of sitting in the Church for several hours every Sunday to disseminate the ruling class's ideology, we now sit in school Monday through Friday. Rather than hearing religious parables that justify existing social hierarchies, we have history class (which, make no mistake, is a very specific version of history conducive to white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism) to teach us why our society has to be the way it is. Not only must every mode of production be capable of producing the items society consumes, but it also must reproduce itself to perpetuate its existence. This requisite may seem evident at first, but it also raises questions when more thoroughly examined, especially regarding how it can maintain the willing existence of an exploited class. The Church was able to reproduce the serf class such that they accepted their subordination, even in the face of evident domination. Who dares to question the disciples of God? Through the sermons and rhetoric of the clergy class, the existing social order that kept the serfs exploited from birth to death was reinforced. That is, because the Church was legitimized through the state's authority (and thus, allegedly, the authority of God), the serf class had little ground on which to advocate for social change.

    However, my goal is to examine capitalism in the 21st century, which reproduces the relations of production, especially the relationship that employs the working class merely as their commodified labor-power. In the immediate sense, this reproduction is carried out "by wages," in that wages allow the working class to reproduce with some degree of autonomy.7 As the working class is composed of human beings, they will buy food and clothes and shelter if they have access to it, which incentivizes the capitalist class to pay them a subsistence wage. Their wages are just enough to ensure that they remain relatively healthy and economically viable to do their part in the production, but not enough to have the 'luxury' of quitting their job or taking time off. With enough wages to avoid starvation, people also tend to want a family and possibly children, which are crucial for capitalism's generational survival. Wages alone, though, do not make those children into commodifiable labor-power. Instead, they just make sure that those who are already members of the working class remain members of the working class. Wage labor limits the ability of the existing working class to fight capitalism because they rely on the wages it generates for their survival, which makes the notion of alternatives to the existing mode of production and social order seem unrealistic. To properly explore the reproduction of the working class as labor-power, I must now look beyond the effect of wages.

    Though wages allow workers to reproduce themselves as labor-power and give rise to the next generation's possibility, more is needed to convert each new cog in the machine from potential to actual commodified labor-power. As the final step in the educational state apparatus, the University plays a significant role in the creation of each new crop of workers in several ways. First is the inundation of students with skills under the assumption that the students are preparing entirely for the commodification and sale of their labor-power. The entire educational process is not designed to render the students capable of maximizing their unique potentials within their communities; it is designed to produce generation after generation of employable cogs for the labor machine. Consider how universities brand themselves to prospective students, publishing the destinations of their graduates, to lure high schoolers with their alumni being well-paid cogs. Once the student arrives on campus, the sheer quantity of job fairs and corporate-sponsored events in the various academic departments clarifies how little interest there is in the students as individuals. The University serves merely as a battle royale amongst students for lucrative positions, regardless of how much the University veils itself in the "co-operation over competition" rhetoric. The ideological subordination is especially effective because it is so rarely mentioned. There is an inherent assumption that students’ destiny is found in wage labor, which makes any alternative seem, again, unrealistic.

    After the inundation of students, the second stage comes in the form of four specific roles that Althusser outlines for how the educational State apparatus prepares individuals for society. Each can be found within every graduating class of the University. The roles are (1) the "exploited," which consists of most people who engage in wage-labor under capitalism; (2) the "agent of exploitation," who is taught to manage workers and extract surplus value from them (this is primarily made up of the capitalist class); (3) the "agent of repression," describing those who enforce the will of capital both overtly—as police, for example—and behind a façade of neutrality, as judges or politicians; (4) the "professional ideologist," who carries out the task of pondering, discussing, and disseminating ideology under the guise of religion, science, or philosophy, but nearly always does so in a way that upholds the dominance of capitalism.8

    The majority of those engaged in the University—as well as most of those who are ejected from the educational system after finishing primary school—are the exploited, selling their labor-power to a capitalist in exchange for a wage in the process of production or in the service economy, as is more common in Western liberal democracies. However, the agents of exploitation, repression, and ideology filter through the University as well, but are more difficult to convince to defect, since the roles they are funneling into benefit directly from the maintenance of the capitalist mode of production.

    The third way in which the University carries out its ideological domination is the cost that it imposes on its students. Because getting a degree in higher education has become the expectation in the United States, universities, especially private institutions, can charge ridiculous prices, encouraging students to take out loans to cover the costs. It is more socially acceptable to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt at eighteen than not to have a degree. As a result, the ideological freedom of the student is constrained from before they even step foot on campus, as the anxiety and material reality of debt innately taints their options concerning their choice of major(s), classes, and aspirations post-graduation. Many students are forced to forsake their passions and even their talents because their particular strength is not conducive to commodification. Instead, they are forced to go into a field they have no interest in because it provides the only viable alternative to lifelong debt or bankruptcy. Part of the reason this structure is so insidious is that universities paint themselves as places where intellectual freedom thrives and where students can pursue their unique interests. However, the University's allegiance to capital, from their funding to their direct relationships with corporations and the capitalist financial system, guarantees their continuation of the capitalist paradigm inherent to their role as an ISA.

    Furthermore, the state is often the provider of student loans, demonstrating the extent to which the University is complicit in the structural state-inflicted violence on marginalized groups. Debt is dangerous. Having high debt often gives the lender the right to seize the borrower’s necessities of existence—their living quarters, transportation, and even their rights, through a loss of access to education, or even through imprisonment, the ultimate loss of personal autonomy. Debt also lowers credit scores, which gatekeep access to many of the tools for social mobility (including escaping poverty), such as owning a home, unless the individual taking the loan is willing to accept exorbitant interest rates. Poverty, by nature, is often cyclical and intergenerational, and this is in large part due to debt. Interest accrues, and payments are due, but having that debt in the first place is an obstacle to accumulating the money to pay off the debt. Individuals are then forced to pay late fees and higher rates, and the share of their already slim income going to debt and interest payments increases and ensures the cycle of poverty. The proliferation of debt throughout the modern economy, facilitated by the University and the state itself, perpetually forces people into the capitalist mode of production. Nevertheless, their choices to do so are the only way to give their lives any semblance of stability in providing for themselves and potentially their families. What's more, the University does not merely produce the working class but also takes on the capitalists' ideological reproduction role.

    Universities boast of their entrepreneurial education and their ability to prepare the business leaders of the next generation while concomitantly sending most of its students into the mundanity of wage labor. To ensure this function, some majors and departments are designed to teach students to be good stewards of capital and shepherds of labor—especially those focused on business management and finance. The sect of the university student population devoted to managerial studies receives a qualitatively different education, although its methods, classes and seminars are like those of any other student, concealing the altogether different sort of preparation these majors provide. Instead of making these students appealing as labor-power, business administration and managerial programs create capitalists-without-capital, ready and able to manage workers effectively—or, more clearly, in a way that maximizes their surplus value—and prepares them for an entirely different relationship to the means of production. In short, they fill the opposite role in the capitalist-worker social relation. Students of finance are not taught how to be good labor-power for their bosses; instead, they are educated on capital accumulation and strategic investment. Their studies on how best to maximize profits have the secondary—or, in actuality, primary—function of maximizing the power of the capitalist class to maintain the fragility and instability of the working class. Class consciousness and organization are made infinitely more difficult when subsistence conditions are made more uncertain, as material needs for food, water, and shelter obstruct workers' ability to engage in the sorts of political action that threaten the hegemony of the capitalist class.

    Understanding the crucial role the educational ISA plays in shaping our collective thought process and conception of society guides us to look at how this ideological domination can be overcome. Overarchingly, the beginnings of an answer can be found in Althusser's analysis of the broader operation of ISAs, where he argues that "no class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and within the State Ideological Apparatuses."9 A critical first step to weakening the capitalist class position is to wage emancipatory war for all marginalized groups within the sphere of the educational apparatus. Even though overcoming the immense power of the state appears to be a daunting goal, it remains possible for several key reasons. The first is that many educational state apparatus members do not fulfill their indoctrinatory role knowingly or intentionally. Due to the total weight of the University apparatus, which is "bigger than they are and crushes them,"10 it has the dual effect of making them susceptible to taking up common cause with students, or at the very least refraining from antagonism.

    Secondly, control in the ISAs is much more tenuous than control born of repression, especially given the propensity of oppressed groups to fight for self-expression and liberation. Because the state and the capitalist class must maintain the façade of scholastic neutrality, the University has a much more difficult time stifling the full range of anti-capitalist struggle, whether it manifests in art, writing, or student organizations. Through these mediums, marginalized students can use the supposed objectiveness of the educational apparatus to their advantage, leveraging it in defense of their own forms of resistance and expression. However, it is also important to note that ISAs are undergirded by the threat of force as well, often in collaboration with the RSAs. For example, if a student misses too much school and becomes truant, they now have technically committed a crime, and their parents can be forced by the court and the police to pay fines or, in extreme cases, have warrants issued for their arrest.11 At the university level, the use of force can be deployed if the threat to the state or capitalist interests is great enough. When student protests of the Vietnam War grew too large at Kent State University, the state responded with the deployment of the Ohio National Guard, which fired on the crowd, leaving four students dead and nine injured.12 Although Kent State may be the most well-known instance of state-enacted violence against student protests, it is far from being the only occurrence. The many RSAs stand ready to quell any attempt to undermine the ideological goals of the University and broader education ISA.

    The effects of a triumph in the struggle for power over the University would be immense. In terms of its primary effect, wresting control of the University away from the hands of capital would disrupt capitalism's ability to reproduce the labor-power necessary for its self-preservation, thus undermining the very mode of production, though likely not severe enough to be a catalyst for a more holistic shift. Perhaps more importantly, the weakening of the University within the educational state apparatus would reverberate throughout the rest of the ISAs that constitute state power. The military state apparatus, for example, relies upon the high costs of secondary education to recruit soldiers that it ships halfway around the world to secure the resources for production and conditions necessary for the low prices that sustain the capitalist mode of production. The political ISA is also dependent on the educational ISA—not because it desires well-educated voters to make the best decisions for our ‘democracy,’ but because the University and the school system conveys the ideological domination that capitalism and the neoliberal democracies we live under are the best of all possible social structures. Every societal ill could allegedly be waived away with the right bill passed by the right representative, yet this salvation never comes. Only through the sheer ideological force wielded by the educational state apparatus could the sham that passes for a political system be considered acceptable or remotely reasonable. Mental health crises are skyrocketing,13 climate change is accelerating rapidly,14 and inequality abounds,15 yet the University apparatus proliferates the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism.16 Therefore, to work towards a more sustainable, equitable world unimpeded by the oppressive power structures of the current era, engagement in collective action is needed to push back against the ideological subordination upon which the University rests.


1. Louis Althusser, On Ideology (London: Verso, 2009), 1-60.
2. Althusser, On Ideology, 32
3. Althusser, On Ideology, 33
4. More specifically, the Church as used here refers to the Christian churches of various denominations popular in European feudal society.
5. Althusser, On Ideology, 25
6. The Enlightenment’s pivot to individualism and the prioritization of human reason helped to justify capitalism by substantiating the need for property rights, especially in the context of rebuking feudal systems of property.
7. Ibid., 4
8. Ibid., 29-30
9. Ibid., 20
10. Ibid., 31
11. Nadja Popovich, “Do US laws that punish parents for truancy keep their kids in school?,” The Guardian, June 23, 2014,
12. “Kent State Shooting.” A&E Television Networks, September 8, 2017.
13. Reinert, Maddy, Theresa Nguyen, and Danielle Fritze. “The State of Mental Health in America.” Mental Health America, 2021.
14. Fountain, Henry. “Climate Change is Accelerating, Bringing World ‘Dangerously Close’ to Irreversible Change.” The New York Times, December 4, 2019.

15. Gunn, Dwyer. “Why Racial Economic Disparity Keeps Growing in the U.S.” Pacific Standard, January 16, 2019. See also Heeb, Gina. “US Income Inequality Jumps to Highest Level Ever Recorded.” Business Insider, September 27, 2019.
16. For more information on the psychological destruction of alternatives to capitalism, Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism provides an in-depth account.