On The Modern University as an Ideological State Apparatus

By Drew Pavlou

The modern university is cold, alienating and lifeless. The neoliberal university serialises students, stripping them of their individuality in preparation for careers servicing  the capitalist order. Lest they too critically challenge the status quo, agents of the state keep academic staff on tight leashes with threats of funding cuts, lay-offs and redundancies. In this essay, I argue that contemporary universities in the Western world can be best understood as ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). Firstly, I outline Althusser’s writings on ISAs in order to establish their function within bourgeois society. I then discuss the ways in which contemporary Western universities function as ISAs, perpetuating the cultural values and beliefs of the capitalist ruling class. I conclude that modern educational institutions deny the subjectivity of individuals by attempting to tame and discipline their consciousness in conformance with neoliberal orthodoxy.

In order to assess the role of contemporary educational institutions as one of Althusser’s ISAs, it is first necessary to explore Althusser’s writings on both ideology and ideological state apparatuses in depth. It is also necessary to gain an understanding of the intellectual climate within which Althusser wrote as a Marxist philosopher. Althusser’s ‘’Third Way’’ structuralist approach to Marxism was defined in opposition to both Sartre’s existentialist, humanist Marxism and Stalin’s rigid dialectical materialism.[1] Althusser and Sartre agreed on a number of philosophical issues. They shared a similar diagnosis of the major problems afflicting theoretical Stalinism—indeed, Althusser endorsed the ethical content of Sartre’s critique of Soviet dialectical materialism. They opposed Stalin’s conception of Marxism as a finished philosophy espousing scientific truths about human nature and society. Further, they agreed that Stalin’s dialectical materialism was economically reductionist, too narrowly focused on analysis of the economic base at the expense of superstructure and culture.[2] Where Althusser broke with Sartre was in his belief that Sartre’s Marxism simply replaced Stalinism’s reductionist economism with a reductionist humanism. He did not endorse the idea of the individual subject as the motor force of history; in fact, he disagreed with Sartre’s notion that individual creativity would remake the world anew.[3] May ’68’s supposed failure seemed to invigorate Althusser’s critique of Sartre. Althusser denounced the ‘’infantile leftists’’ inspired by Sartre’s existential reading of Marxism for failing to adequately comprehend the structures of the bourgeois state.[4] In Essays on Ideology, Althusser argued that ideology and culture must be the central focus of any contemporary reading of Marx for revolution was impossible without a proper understanding of capitalist social structures independent of the economic base. He believed that human agency and subjectivity were secondary to the structures of social life and so emphasised the importance of structuralist, ideological political analysis.

Althusser conceived of ideology as an organic part of every social totality, a system of unconscious ideas, images, myths and concepts meant to reproduce and reinforce dominant social relations in society.[5] Callinicos described Althusser’s understanding of the conditioning power of ideology as ‘’the way in which men and women are formed in order to participate in a process of which they are not the makers … ideology (gives) them the illusion that history was made for them.’’[6] Under capitalism, ideology functions to produce a general submission to society’s dominant cultural values and rules, perpetuating the hegemony of the bourgeoisie ruling class.[7] This is achieved through the use of ‘’ideological state apparatuses.’’ Althusser conceptualised the ideological state apparatus as the ideological function and powers of the state in addition to its more obvious coercive and bureaucratic powers.[8] He argued that the state was a machine for class domination, a ‘’force of repressive execution and intervention in the interests of the ruling classes’’ in the class struggle conducted by the bourgeoisie and its allies against the proletariat.[9] ISAs articulate the unconscious structures of society; they include, but are not limited to, the church, the nuclear family, schools and mass media. These ISAs are tasked with the reproduction of labour power and the inculcation of liberal ruling-class values in workers.[10] Liberalism teaches people to think of themselves as non-relational creatures and in so doing obscures how individuals are shaped by larger structures and forces of repression in society.[11] By instilling in the population a sense that they are separate and detached from one another, liberalism wards off the threat of group solidarity and revolution, safeguarding the economic and political power of the ruling elite. Ideological state apparatuses secure bourgeoise dominance by training individuals in the rules governing the system.

For Althusser, the ‘school-family couple’ is the dominant ideological state apparatus in the liberal bourgeois state, disciplining and shaping the individual in conformance with conservative culture.[12] The dominant ideology of the liberal state represents the school or university as a ‘’neutral’’ environment purged of ideology.[13] But teachers and lecturers, consciously or unconsciously, enforce the ruling ideology of bourgeois society—freedom, morality and responsibility through the liberating virtues of education. Impressionable, vulnerable children and teenagers are subjected to years of this particular ISA, where they are taught the ‘’attitude that should be observed by every agent in the division of labour’’ and ‘’rules of respect for the socio-technical division of labour and ultimately the rules of the order established by class domination.’’[14] Each year, educational institutions churn out masses of children into production and work, providing them with the ideology most suited to their future role in society.[15] Althusser writes of the educational institution’s dominance: ‘’No other ideological State apparatus has the obligatory audience of the totality of the children in the capitalist social formation, eight hours a day for five or six days out of seven.’’[16] Repressive state apparatuses under the command of the political representatives of the ruling class act as a shield behind which the educational institution as ideological state apparatus operates – the police, courts, prisons, army, head of state and central administration all exist to discipline individuals when ideological conditioning fails.[17] Juvenile detention and foster homes exist for children who do not conform to the standards propagated by the school-family ideological state apparatus. The distinction between ISAs and RSAs is partially a matter of degree, and ‘’whether force or ideology predominates in the functioning of the apparatuses.’’[18] There is no absolute institutional separation of ‘’coercion’’ and ‘’persuasion’’—though ISAs predominantly operate through persuasion, socialisation and indoctrination, they have their own internal coercive practices such as punishment in schools and universities.[19] Althusser’s analysis of ideology’s power has been criticised for seemingly conflating ruling-class ideology with ideology itself. Nevertheless, his conceptualisation of the ideological state apparatus and its role in serialising individuals is relevant to an analysis of modern educational institutions today.

The modern Western university functions as an ideological state apparatus by perpetuating the cultural values and beliefs of the capitalist ruling class. Organised along Prussian, Humboldtian lines, it is deeply hierarchical and socially stratified.  While it seeks to portray itself as apolitical and neutral, the modern Western university is fundamentally an arm of the neoliberal, capitalist state, focused on the reproduction of labour power and the inculcation of bourgeois cultural values in students. It was not always like this. Western universities were hotbeds of radicalism and counter-cultural thought in the 1960s. French university students led the May ’68 movement that brought the conservative De Gaulle government to its knees; Australian, British and American students led the resistance to the Vietnam War in their home countries. The neoliberal capture of the university was thus a significant victory for the capitalist ruling class, nullifying the threat posed by radical students to the status quo. Thatcher and Reagan were able to subdue the radical university of the 60s by subjecting wider society to neoliberal shock therapy. As the university buckled and gave into market fundamentalist dogma, university administrators came to adhere more and more to the corporate logic of neoliberalism until the line dividing the marketplace and the university became so blurred as to be all but indistinguishable. They pursued the same austerity policies as neoliberal governments, jacking up student tuition fees while simultaneously exploiting contingent academic labour.[20] While university administrators earned million-dollar salaries, the professoriate was ‘proletarianised,’ the number of short-term or part-time contracts at major institutions increasing substantially.[21] The social historian E. P. Thompson put it best when he described the process by which the university was subverted by capitalism:

The system not only grew around us but built us into its own body-walls. Once inside there it looked as if we were running our own bit of the show: but the show itself was being directed toward other ends. [22]

The modern Western university became an ideological state apparatus in support of the neoliberal order, focused on the reproduction of labour power and the inculcation of bourgeois cultural values in students. This can be seen when analysing the modern university’s relationship with students, staff and agents of the state.

The modern university as ideological state apparatus strips students of their individuality in order to remake them in the image of the neoliberal officer class. Students are funnelled toward narrow, specialised professional degrees in order to be rendered economically ‘’useful’’ to the capitalist machine. Patrick J. Deneen vividly described this process in his seminal book, Why Liberalism Failed:

Elite universities engage in the educational equivalent of strip mining: identifying economically viable raw materials in every city, town, and hamlet, they strip off that valuable commodity, process it in a distant location, and render the product economically useful for productivity elsewhere. [23]

The corporatised university serialises students, robbing them of their subjectivity as individuals. They become just another economic resource to be pounded into shape by a cold and unfeeling system. There is a tremendous social pressure on students to conform with neoliberal orthodoxy, wherein, under neoliberalism, ‘’students eschew subjects to which native curiosity might attract them in obeisance to the demands of the market.’’[24] To use my own anecdotal experience, I was pushed toward the study of law despite my passion for the humanities—I felt that I had to study something useful, something viable, or otherwise risk being labelled lazy and unintelligent by wider society. The modern university has its own mode of internal coercive practices to punish those who would seek to challenge this status quo. Students cannot issue radical challenges to the neoliberal order when they are forced to work multiple part-time jobs in order to pay high tuition fees and financially support themselves through university.

Academics who in the past might have issued a withering critique of such a state of affairs are muzzled by administrators and agents of the state. The bourgeoisie do not control the entirety of the education system—many left wing, Marxist academics and writers are university-educated and still hang onto their positions. But the ruling order has been attempting to steadily negate the influence of such academics. The university as ideological state apparatus keeps its academic staff compliant by subjecting them to the indignity of regular performance reviews. Obsessed with corporate buzz-words such as ‘’transparency, accountability and quality,’’ the modern university does not lend consideration to the fact that quality teaching and education ‘’cannot be measured like coffee beans.’’[25] Nor does it care for the fact that education ‘’emancipates in ways that are often difficult to define and impossible to measure.’’[26] Neoliberal orthodoxy and corporate management speak are privileged over the role of education within the university. Academics are forced out if they do not comply with the often-arbitrary strictures of university bureaucrats who are tasked with carrying out the will of a capitalist state that is obsessed with measuring and ranking educational institutions. Arrogant, philistine government officials keep academic staff in public universities on a tight leash in order to dissuade any radical challenges to neoliberal dogma. In Australia, the neoliberal Education Minister Simon Birmingham recently exercised his ministerial veto power over a number of Australian Research Council approved academic projects in the humanities for being ‘’entirely the wrong priorities.’’[27] Presumably, the projects did not sufficiently conform to the ‘’priorities’’ of Australia’s neoliberal government—economic rationalisation and growth at all costs. Simon Critchley eloquently described the deadening effect such state influence has on academia, which has: ‘’into an increasingly uniform and pleasureless machine for the industrial production of knowledge at the service of the state and capital.’’[28] The fragile informal bonds of civility that ‘’tie a university community together’’ are stretched to the breaking point and in many cases ‘’broken.’’[29] Academics intent on treading water amidst these changes learn to discipline and govern themselves according to neoliberal orthodoxy, making the task of the ideological state apparatus complete. But the university loses something of itself when it becomes an ISA—the victory is not total. By attempting to tame and discipline the consciousness of staff and students in conformance with neoliberal ideology, the modern university forsakes its founding mission—the pursuit of ‘truth’, or veritas. The modern university  becomes a place of indoctrination, devoid of any real learning or study. To Bill Readings, the university becomes a ‘’ruined institution.’’[30] It is as powerful as ever in its role as the dominant ideological state apparatus in society, but hollow at its core.

The modern Western university is cold, alienating and lifeless. Understood best as one of Althusser’s ISAs, the contemporary neoliberal university serialises students and muzzles academics in its attempt to enforce conformity with ruling class ideology. In practice it functions as an arm of the bourgeois capitalist state, focused on the reproduction of labour power and the perpetuation of neoliberal orthodoxy. Marxists must heed Althusser’s writings and target the university ideological state apparatus if they are intent on reshaping the world along fairer, more just lines. Otherwise, the corporate university’s dominant place in culture and its powers of indoctrination will make revolution all but impossible.

Drew Pavlou is a student in Brisbane, Australia, where he lives with his family and his dog, Max. He is the founder and editor of The Queenslander which he runs with his awesome friends Toby and Erin.


[1] Ted Benton, The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism (London: MacMillan Publishers, 1984), 20-21.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Alex Callinicos, Althusser’s Marxism(London: Pluto Press, 1976), 70.

[4] Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, Letters from inside the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser(London: NLB, 1973), 314-317.

[5] Callinicos, Althusser’s Marxism, 41.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Louis Althusser, Essays on Ideology(London: Verso, 1984), 6-7.

[8] Benton, The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism, 100-101.

[9] Althusser, Essays on Ideology, 11.

[10] Ibid., 6.

[11] Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 16.

[12] Althusser, Essays on Ideology, 26-28.

[13] Ibid., 30.

[14] Ibid., 6.

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 30

[17] Callinicos, Althusser’s Marxism, 64.

[18] Benton, The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism, 101.

[19] Ibid., 101.

[20] Andrew Seal, ‘’How the University Became Neoliberal,’’ The Chronicle of Higher Education64 (2018).

[21] Bill Readings, The University in Ruins(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 1.

[22] Seal, ‘’How The University Became Neoliberal,’’ 2018.

[23] Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, 132.

[24] Ibid., 119.

[25] Simon Critchley, ‘’What Is the Institutional Form for Thinking?’’ The Undecidable Unconscious: A Journal of Deconstruction and Psychoanalysis1 (2014): 122.

[26] Ibid., 122.

[27] Michael Koziol, ‘’Former Education Minister Vetoed $4.2 Million in Recommended University Research Grants’’ The Sydney Morning Herald (2018).

[28] Critchley, ‘’What Is the Institutional Form for Thinking?,’’ 120.

[29] Ibid., 122.

[30] Readings, The University in Ruins, 169.

Works Cited

Althusser, L. (1984). Essays on Ideology. London: Verso.

Benton, T. (1984). The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism. London: MacMillan Publishers.

Callinicos, A. (1976). Althusser’s Marxism. London: Pluto Press.

Critchley, S. (2014). What Is the Institutional Form for Thinking? The Undecidable Unconscious: A Journal of Deconstruction and Psychoanalysis , Vol. 1, 119-133.

Deneen, P. J. (2018). Why Liberalism Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Koziol, M. (2018). Former Education Minister Vetoed $4.2 million in Recommended University Research Grants. The Sydney Morning Herald.

Macciocchi, M.-A. (1973). Letters from inside the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser. London: NLB.

Readings, B. (1996). The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Seal, A. (2018). How the University Became Neoliberal. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 64, Issue 39.

Featured image by Gary Todd via flickr


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