The common thread that runs through both Althusser’s comments on Ideology and Gramsci’s reading of hegemony is an attempt to understand the reproductive mechanisms of capital. The question of reproduction is an important one for both of them. Althusser phrases it in the following terms, “What, then, is the reproduction of the conditions of production?” (Althusser 127) The question could be rephrased in the following terms, what is it that reproduces the structures of our society that facilitate the current relations of production? This same question is asked by Gramsci under the terms of hegemony. Gramsci’s concerns were much more immediately polemical in nature. He was in argument with what might be referred to as vulgar marxists, as well in argument with a group of syndicalist thinkers. His argument comes close to Althusser’s discussion, that the reproduction of capital cannot be thought of purely in terms of the work place and a purely repressive government.
These texts are primarily directed to thinking through the both the preconditions of capitalist society and the spaces of contestation of the class struggle as occurring in spaces outside of the workplace. As Althusser notes, “the reproduction of labour power takes place outside the firm. Althusser links this to two separate institutions in two different epochs, the first being the church and the second being the school. The focus is on the school which “is not enough to say ‘not only but also’, for it is clear that it is in the forms and the forms of ideological subjection that provision is made for the reproduction of the skills of labor power.” (Althusser 133) Which is to say, the forms in which education takes place contain the structures of class society immanently. That is to say that they are not a mere addition, but are contained in the very forms and structures of education itself.
There is a similar focus in the work of Gramsci. Gramsci is interested in how various forms of cultural structures are involved in the reproduction of the capitalist system. This is why his critique of structures of syndicalism are so significant. After all, the syndicalists are arguing that the real struggle against capitalism occurs in the workplace, and that the state only enters in as a negative agent. Whereas, Gramsci is interested in looking at this question in terms of hegemony, which is to say, how is it that the various institutions of the society work to produce consent for people’s own subjugation and exploitation. In effect, Gramsci produces a much expanded and intensified notion of the class struggle in the guise of his war of position against the much more limited notion of war of maneuver. Hegemony is the way of thinking through this broader more intensive mode of the class struggle.
So the question should be asked, what does this mean for ‘us’? The us that I am referring to is in reference to both people in the academy, and more specifically, people who are involved in examining literary texts of various sorts in the academy. I would argue that it opens up quite a bit more space for thinking through the political effects of the production of and consumption of texts. Instead of thinking through the political consequences of the text as some sort of emanation schema related to directly to the relations of production, we can think about the ways that they are involved in modes of the class struggle in more nuanced manners.
There is already direct evidence for this in other parts of both authors. For instance, Gramsci discusses the ways that popular texts construct different forms of the national-popular in his texts. The same thing occurs in the text that Macherey produces For A Theory of Literary Production, where the contradictions and effects of the class struggle should be found immanently within the form of the text rather than in the conformity to a specific form.
For me, the Althusser text is the more interesting, but at the same time, the more misunderstood of the two texts. The thing that seems to be most misunderstood is that there is a dynamic element to his notion of ideology. After all, it not only produces ‘good’ and ‘bad’ subjects, but it also acts as the first space of the class struggle. The other thing that often is missed is that Althusser is engaged in a certain amount of deconstruction in relation to classical marxist theory, which is to say, the piece may start with a classic structure-superstructure formulation, it certainly doesn’t end there. This comes out of the emphasis on ideology as a material phenomenon, and the critique of false consciousness.