In May 2021, I wrote an article entitled Coercion: Fundamental to the Modern State which tackled the manner in which ‘popular representation,’ as an ideology, plays down the importance of coercion in maintaining social order. In that article, I assessed the State in its entirety, both internally and externally, as a body that depends upon physical force to maintain the security of its borders, to manage these borders and those within it, and to protect its interests both at home and overseas.

But, as the late Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci would be quick to point out, the State cannot function through coercion alone. It has to create some form of ‘spontaneous consent’ (or pacificity) amongst the population, leading them to produce the behaviour expected of them without recourse to physical force. This is achieved through ideology, which in this piece I will argue is coercion’s 'spin doctor.’ This article will outline some of the ways in which this spontaneous consent is created and explore some of the ideologies it uses to that purpose. Some of these ideologies, such as racism and nationalism, will be defined by their fundamental relation to state coercive apparatuses.

Ideology In-Itself

However, before getting into how ideology is deployed to create ‘spontaneous consent,’ we need to lay down a definition of ideology itself. Ever since the term ‘ideology’ was picked up by Karl Marx, one can trace an understanding of it as an instrument formulated for the purposes of the dominant social class or elite. Indeed, it is in Marx’s The German Ideology that he declares: ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,’ and ideology therefore is ‘the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas’ (Marx 1845). Thus, in the time the aristocrat was dominant, so were honour and loyalty, and whilst the bourgeoisie remained dominant, so will freedom and equality (for the bourgeoisie) under the law. In answering this question, one can begin with Marx and assess that ideology spreads the ideas of the elite and legitimises their tool of class control: the State. The task of the revolutionary, therefore, is to combat the State’s ruling ideology, which acts to distort the ‘truth,’ and in doing so encourages the full emancipation of the proletariat.

After Marx, however, the study of ideology has produced greater understandings of its purpose, both in a social sense and further as an instrument of control. First, rather than simply viewing ideology as a tool of the ruling class, one might instead claim (as political scientist Michael Freeden does) that ‘we are all ideologists,’ utilising our diverse frameworks to impose ‘some form of structure or organization’ on contested and ambiguous political facts [1]. Second, one might also reject the concept of ideology as a distortion of truth. One would argue instead, like the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, that it is an ‘imaginary’ that is not simply ‘unreal’ but ‘pertaining to an image’ [2] of material and social relations. From an Althusserian perspective, idefology can be understood as a recruiting device that creates ‘subjects amongst the individuals’ through a process of ‘interpellation or hailing,’ an act of making a subject aware of their place within a recognised set of social relations — perhaps by being told to stop by a police officer or being told off by a teacher.

Most contemporary analysis of ideology argues that it creates a network through which we might understand, or be taught to understand, where we sit in relation to those people, cultures, and institutions around us. So in itself, ideology is perhaps less of a distortion or a lie than it is something which we maintain at all times. This is, perhaps, a position that is more tenable than trying to claim there exists an inalienable truth which we need to discover. In this way, there will even be ideology in a post-capitalist society, as people will still be connected by the ideas which allow them to understand their position within the social system.

Ideology For-Itself

However, despite these moves away from Marx when describing ideology in-itself, contemporary work does not abandon the instrumental nature of ideology when discussing how it functions for-itself. The Slovenian Hegelian philosopher Slavoj Žižek depicts this dynamic as:

‘ideology in its otherness-externalization: the moment epitomized by the Althusserian notion of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) that designate the material existence of ideology in ideological practises, rituals and institutions.’ [3]

Going back to Althusser, one can see how ideology plays a vital role in the reproduction of the ‘labour power provided for in a capitalist regime.’ If such labour power, which is essential to the economic functions of the modern State, is to be reproduced, then it cannot come simply from a ‘reproduction of its skills,’ but also from a ‘reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers.’ Such submission is achieved through two institutions: The Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs), which we know as the police, the court system, the military, and other such institutions unified under a centralised command; and the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), including the family, education, politics, the media, and other elements of society whose unity derives from their shared ideology — the ideology of the ruling classes. State power is thus exercised first in a repressive manner through the RSAs to secure ‘by force’ the conditions of production and exploitation. Then, acting as a ‘shield,’ the RSAs provide a basis for the dominance of the ISAs whose ideological power shapes the ‘know-how’ of society and recruits subjects of the population into a social structure set by its standards.

Going further, one might adopt a Gramscian position to better explain how it is that the modern State installs an ideological ‘hegemony’ over the social relations of production. For Gramsci, ‘hegemony’ is achieved once the State and the capitalist class manages to create a ‘spontaneous’ consent amongst the ‘great masses of the population’ toward the ideology of the dominant group; consent is aided by the ‘prestige’ enjoyed by the dominant group ‘because of its position and function in the world of production.' Much like Althusser’s ‘know-how,’ Gramsci asserts that ‘civil society’ (his term for the institutions like schools, families, churches, the media) dominates through ideological means what is known to be ‘common sense.’ We can look to policing and the prison system as examples of this. It is deemed ‘common sense’ that police and prisons are necessary to maintain order, and yet, both have only existed for a short time in human history. In fact, when the English poor were met with their first police force, the Metropolitan Police Service, many reacted with disgust and violence at this unwelcome and unfamiliar coercive body. Considering this, the manipulation of what is considered normality makes the task of state legitimation easier, as it becomes much harder to fight what has become the ‘common sense’ of the social order than what might be viewed as an ‘alien and oppressive,’ coercive State [4].

As Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman famously argued in Manufacturing Consent, the media, whether publicly controlled by the State or privately owned by corporations, play a decisive role in generating what Gramsci calls spontaneous consent. To Chomsky and Herman, the media exists to ‘amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.’ In their analysis of the United States in the Cold War, they show how media coverage was instrumental in maintaining an anti-Communist sentiment that kept Soviet ideas out of the US. Anti-Communism became a dominant ideology justifying the coercion of ‘communist threats’ both at home and abroad.

What is important to Gramsci, however, is that what Althusser would name the RSA only sits in ‘anticipation of moments of crisis of command’ when the ‘spontaneous consent has failed’. Otherwise, should it rely on direct force, it will ‘risk suffering a drastic loss of ideological credibility’ [4]. We might understand unrest and resistance in the face of police brutality, such as that faced by George Floyd, as an example of the risk the State faces when its coercion is laid bare. Therefore, the legitimation the State achieves through an ideological ‘hegemony’ can be said to outweigh the importance of coercion alone. However, as Gramsci notes, the repressive apparatuses of the State are in hand to pick up after ideology.

We saw this again in the police response to the George Floyd protests in the US, and we also see it in every modern State’s response to intense protest and social unrest, from the UK, to Venezuela, the Philippines, and China. We can further witness this in the way that the State treats the homeless or nomadic cultures like Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers. Ideologically, the State is prepared to demonise and criminalise these groups; coercively, the RSAs must be prepared to stand in and protect the so-called private property of landed citizens through force.

The Marxist cultural theorist Stuart Hall makes similar observations about the role of ideology in modern society. Much like Gramsci’s concept of ‘common sense’ (which greatly influenced Hall), Hall emphasises the ‘reality effect’ of ideology, or in other words, its ability to represent socially constructed beliefs as taken-for-granted facts. As he states, ideology ignores:

‘...the contingency of the historical conditions upon which all social relations depend. It represents them, instead, as outside of history: unchangeable, inevitable, and natural.’

We might consider the ideology of gender to be an example of this ‘reality effect,’ in which gendered members of society are governed through segmentation into different roles. Women, whose unpaid labour is continually exploited to uphold capitalism and the State, have the historical conditions on which their oppression rests ignored and their subjugation depicted as the natural way of things.

In Hall’s formulation, ideology is both a conscious and unconscious force which acts through linguistic frameworks and cultural codes. Dominant ideologies find such dominance because of the power that institutions, such as the State and the media, afford them. However, in opposition to Marx, this hegemony of ideology cannot be explained by pointing to a unitary economic class (the bourgeoisie), nor can it be described simply as a false consciousness. Instead, ideology acts to unify the ‘fractured alliance’ of a complex set of social actors who populate the institutions of a state, where a multitude of non-dominant ideologies jostle for the status of ‘common sense.’

Racism, Nationalism, and Borderisation

Race and racism, similarly, show us how ideology both justifies internal and external coercive forces.. In Black Marxism: The Making of a Modern Tradition, Cedric J. Robinson explains how ‘Anglo-Saxon chauvinism,’ which he describes both as an ideology and a nationalism, divided the ‘English working class’ from Irish Catholic immigrants in the late 1800s, overtaking the cross-cultural radical movements that preceded this era:

‘From the mid-nineteenth century on, among English workers, the ideology of English nationalism gained ascendancy over the counterideology of international class solidarity and socialist hopes. This was a part of a conservative reaction (trade unionism) to political defeat and economic growth, but it also had to do with the radical directions the Irish working classes (and the nationalist Irish middle class) had taken.’

This, of course, had as its backdrop the English State’s subjugation of Ireland and its subsequent famines. I describe this as a racial ideology because it is in this period of subjugation of Ireland that we see some of the first conceptions of a white race in the English emerged in opposition to a ‘savage’ race in the Irish.

What is so striking about this, as Theodore W. Allen points out in The Invention of the White Race Vol. I, is the manner in which Irish people became white as they immigrated to the United States. Why did this happen? Because their incorporation into whiteness bolstered the ongoing settler colonialism and oppression of Black and Indigenous people. The connection between race and the modern State, a coercive institution, is established strongly by South African critical race theorist David Theo Goldberg. The State, to him, is a racial State:

‘Race marks and orders the modern nation-state, and so state projects, more or less from its point of conceptual and institutional emergence. The apparatuses and technologies employed by modern states have served variously to fashion, modify, and reify the terms of racial expression, as well as racist exclusions and subjugation.’ [5]

Race, then, is another ideology which permeates the institutions that make up modern States. In my previous article, Coercion: Fundamental to the Modern State, I focused on how borders epitomise the state’s coercive nature. I argued that borders cannot be said to rely on the consent of those outside of the lines they draw. They can, however, be said to rely on the consent of those within those lines. Both race and nationalism as ideologies play a significant role here. It is in essence an ideology of nationalism, of national identity, and culture which defines who belongs where and with what privileges. Where the State meets this ideology we are given ‘nationality,’ which in the eyes the Anarchist Federation:

‘is its most fundamental category — determining what rights and privileges we have access to, whether we are inside or outside the community of citizenship which nationalism presumes, and ultimately whether we are a valid, “legal,” person. When we come across bureaucracy, the various definitions assigned to us by it loom large: gender, nationality and race in particular. These things seem to be as obvious a part of ourselves as eye colour or blood type, and more often than not go unquestioned.’

‘...not go unquestioned’ is an important part of that quote, as it speaks to the ‘common sense’ of Gramsci. It is common sense to us that nationalities exist, and that our nationalities, cultures, and values differ to those of other nations. Nationalism is a product of the modern age and modern, Western states. Despite this, it has been subject to Hall’s ‘reality effect’ and therefore severed from its specific historic context. Nations and nationalism, now, are eternal ‘facts’ of our everyday lives, and are used to constantly divide us. Or, as the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker would put it, they are used to create ‘artificial separations and partitions within that organic unity which finds its expression in the genus Man [sic].’ We witness this in extreme events, like refugees being turned away from shores, but we also see it in the everyday function of the State.

Our current political moment reveals the evil that coercive states and their ideologies present. In Poland the European Union (EU) is militarising its borders against refugees, people now without a nation, in order to 'protect' Europe, its political and ideological project. In the West Bank, Israel has approved the building of a further 3,100 settlements on land stolen from Palestinians. An ideological divide created by Zionism fuels the power of a coercive apparatus to populate land only with those deemed worthy of it. In the United States, Biden is reinstating Trump-era policies on the US-Mexico border, proving that his administration was never going to relieve the country of its part in upholding global exploitation.

Concluding Remarks

In Coercion: Fundamental to the Modern State, I used borders to explain that the State is fundamentally a coercive institution. I am using them here as well to explain that the State is also an ideological institution, utilising a mixture of both ideology and coercive to support itself. Why is this important? It is important because if we are to fight a campaign against the State, we must also wield a campaign against its ideology. Similarly, if we are to fight a campaign against the police, prisons, or borders, we must aim our efforts both at their coercive apparatuses and their ideological ones — which are ultimately intertwined.

If ideology produces the framework which places us in the world, and teaches us what is natural or ‘common sense,’ then an attack on the material without addressing the ideological is no good. If we destroy the coercive apparatus, but overall leave the people with a belief that these systems are ever-lasting and necessary, then we risk those systems coming to the fore again. This is at the heart of what anarchists call prefigurative politics, a process whereby prefigurative organisations:

'involve activists directing effort into performing now their vision of a ‘better world’ to come. Prefigurative politics is an inherently spatial and performative genre of political activism in which people enact a vision of change – through organisation, design, architecture, practices, bodies, or something as simple as a gesture or demeanour – and promote this as indicative of an imminent or more distant “future”.'

Prefiguration emphasises the importance that both ideology and coercion have in upholding the State, and requires us to tackle both in our activism. In this way, we challenge institutions by demonstrating alternatives. To challenge prisons and policing, we develop alternative forms of addressing harm and refuse to call the police. To dissolve borders, we subvert them by aiding refugees and asylum seekers with food and shelter, showing what a global system of care could look like. To move beyond parliamentary systems, we demonstrate the power of horizontal organisation and consensus-based decision making (check out Symbiosis’ affiliated organisations). To subvert the whole system, we might throw all of the above together into organisations that challenge the authority of a state-based society. In The Commoner’s interview series, you can find a litany of libertarian socialist groups trying to do just this using a variety of tactics and organisational approaches.

To escape the State, we must liberate ourselves from the institutions building borders around our bodies, and the ideologies building borders around our minds.

Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash

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[1] Freeden, M (2003). Ideology: A Very Short Introduction, p.2.
[2] Eagleton, T. 'Ideology' in Mapping Ideology, ed. Žižek, S (2012), (London: Verso Books), p.214.
[3] Žižek, S (2012). Mapping Ideology, (London: Verso Books), p.12.
[4] Eagleton, T. (2012), p.198.
[5] Goldberg, T. (2001) The Racial State, (Wiley) p.10.