What is Liberation? (Ideology and the Unconscious)

The Problem of Liberation

One of the most pressing concerns today is our own liberation. While this is necessary, it seems that what liberation is in the first place is something which is never fully conceived. Time and time again, every attempt at achieving liberation is also, simultaneously, caught up with the struggle to avoid reproducing the very things that it is fighting against. We see the Marxist states that have increasingly bureaucratic and hierarchical structures, which are ultimately capitalism in a different form; we see the organizations, parties, unions, etc. which become assimilated in State power and capitalist relations through business contracts, regulations, non-profit work, and so on. In other words, we see the reproduction of power in the very attempt to fight against it.

To avoid the reproduction of power, we must be able to clearly see what liberation actually entails. To this end, the question of what oppression is and, in particular, the question of what oppresses us is something which needs a clearer exposition. When tackling this question, there is always a focus on things external to us; it is the State and its institutions (the military, police, judges, etc.), it is capital, it is the ruling class. Though these are areas of oppression, they do not cover the full scope of oppression so long as we see them as only outside of ourselves. To only see capitalism in the factory, to only see the State in the White House, doesn’t acknowledge the extent to which these institutions have a grasp on society. They are in everything, and this includes the very identities which we use to understand ourselves.

This is the immediate problem to consider: How does the concept of “identity” play a role in oppression? A critical look at two texts from Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses and Freud and Lacan, can help us with this question. It has to do with ideology, on the one hand, and the unconscious, on the other.

Louis Althusser

Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

The first, and by far, the more famous of the two, gives an analysis of ideology (the ruling religious, legal, moral, etc. ideas in any given class society). Althusser argues that ideology fundamentally works by giving an identity to those it affects. This act of giving an identity is called “interpellation”.

We can see, for example, how Christian ideology gives an identity to its followers as the people of God, as given a certain mission, as having a calling and a plan for their life, etc.

This is the act of interpellation. As Althusser would say, we move from biological individuals (beings with no particular identity) to human subjects (with an identity, an image of themselves). This image is always based on a central Subject (God, the King, the State, etc.) which makes the subject submit to the Subject. God turns people into his “followers”, the King turns people into his “subjects”, the State turns people into its “citizens”. But, insofar as it does this, the subject’s very being is dependent on the central Subject and therefore is in submission to it.¹

One could say that those affected by ideology (everyone) are subjected to the Subject. This is one of the main ways in which these institutions are kept alive and which repress other forms of action and subjectivity that undermine or are harmful to these institutions. They turn us into free subjects only so that we can freely accept our own subjection.

A picture from “The Little Prince”. In the story, the Prince travels to a planet where the sole inhabitant is a king. The king calls him saying , “Here is a subject”, which makes the boy confused. How could the king know him when he never saw him before? The book says, “He did not know how the world is simplified for kings. To them, all men are subjects.” So it is with all centers of ideology.

Hence Althusser’s famous thesis:

All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects… the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection ‘all by himself’.

An important point: Where is this subjectivity located? How does the Christian, for example, gain a sense of themselves as a Christian? Althusser would say that it is in the material practices of ideology. It is in the actual buildings which are the churches, the practice of going to them, of praying, of receiving communion, etc. It is precisely these material relations which register a person as a Christian and which, more often than not, give them that idea themselves.

From this, we see that the formation of new identities is not possible without the formation of new institutions. We can see this, for example, in the history of the school which has always imposed the concepts of “teacher” and “student” on living human beings. The school can not have any revolutionary potential so long as it is based on this division, so long as it has a hierarchical structure, so long as the individuals are atomized, so long as the classrooms, hallways, lockers, etc. are built in a way which actively works towards this atomization and which reinforces hierarchical relationships. This is where the history of the anarchist school is important: it has recognized this and has found a million ways of combating it.

Freud and Lacan

Now, if we look at the other paper, Freud and Lacan, we see Althusser trying to define what the “unconscious” is in psychoanalysis. If ideology is the process of becoming a subject considered from a broad social view, the unconscious allows us to think of this process from an individual view. This is because, in Freud and Lacan, we see that Althusser thinks of the unconscious as that thing which is the result of biological individuals coming to be human-sexual subjects.

For Althusser, one of the main ways in which we gain a role as a subject is through where we first see it in the family. We see the roles of “father” and “mother”, “husband”, “wife” and even the role of the “child”. We see the identity of “man” and “woman”. We see an instance of sexual difference. We see the movement from an individual (the child at the beginning of the process), not caught up or aware of any of these concepts, to the subject who is now caught in the process of becoming a “boy” or a “girl” with the promise of becoming a “man” or “woman”. For Althusser, the Oedipus Complex has nothing to do with its usual literal reading, but instead has to do with how the child enters into the realm of identity, in the realm of subjects, of images which are seen in others and seen in themselves. Even before coming into this world, the child is given an image as a subject through the rituals which inaugurate its own birth (parties, medical visits, giving a name, etc.).²

A diagram from one of Lacan’s papers, “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”. The two doors are identical, and it is only though the terms “Ladies” and “Gentleman” that they come to be seen as “different”. Lacan used this to talk about how, regardless of their individual meaning, the opposition of these two terms is what creates the sexual difference in question.

And, as time progresses, more and more identities become imposed on the subject, from religious identity to political identity to national identity and more. For each of these, there is an element of repression, of restructuring desire around these identities and suppressing elements of oneself which are contradictory and harmful to these identities or the institutions which uphold them.

This is what allows the existence of the unconscious. It’s precisely through this repression, through this entering into subjectivity, that creates the thing which we call “the unconscious”. It’s the scars, the marks, the trauma which comes from this continuous and never-ending experience. Whatever our opinion of psychoanalysis, this is the one thing we can learn from it: that repression is fundamental to being a human (at least, a human in the current world order).

So we see that both ideology and the unconscious are, in the end, based on the formation of subjectivity. We see that they are basically the same process. Ideology is this process considered from a social point of view, whereas the unconscious is this process considered from an individual point of view. Insofar as they are both involved in the process of becoming subjects, they are both locations for revolutionary struggle.

An important point to note is that, to the extent that each of these gives an identity, they give a false identity. They give something in which the subject can recognize themselves, but it is always a misrecognition. This is because both of them hide the conditions of the subject’s existence. Ideology hides the condition of being subjected to the Subject; it gives an image of being free when the real condition is only one of submission. Similarly, the unconscious, by its very definition, hides itself from being seen. Humans appear as free subjects able to make choices for themselves, when in reality, they are subjected to the unconscious.

We can see this in a quote at the end of Freud and Lacan:

Since Copernicus, we have known that the earth is not the “center” of the universe. Since Marx, we have known that the human subject, the economic, political, or philosophical ego, is not the “center” of history and we have even known, against the Philosophers of the Enlightenment and against Hegel, that history has no “center” but possesses a structure that has a necessary “center” solely in ideological misrecognition. In turn, Freud has discovered for us that the real subject, the individual in his unique essence, has not the form of an “ego,” centered on the “ego”, “consciousness,” or “existence” — whether this is the existence of the for-itself, of the body proper, or of “behavior” — that the human subject is de-centered, constituted by a structure which has no “center” either, except in the imaginary misrecognition of the “ego,” that is, in the ideological formations in which it “recognizes” itself.

We see here that there’s a common logic of “de-centering” and a logic of “misrecognition”. Both of these tie ideology and the unconscious. And insofar as they are tied by this, they are also both tied to the reproduction of capitalist relations of production. It is the unconscious which is the basis of familial and social relationships which prop up capitalist and State institutions. It is the unconscious and the drama which created it that give rise to sexual, familial, etc. relationships and forms of being (these forms themselves developing in tandem with the development of capitalism and currently work towards its maintenance). It is the unconscious which is the mark of repression, of subjugation of desire, which prevents new forms of being, new forms of kinship, relationship, etc.


So we see that revolution can be conceived as liberation from ideology and, as a parallel, liberation of unconscious drives (sexual, political, familial, etc.). This is important insofar as we are often convinced to see liberation only in terms of its external components. It is a matter of overthrowing the bourgeoisie, of abolishing the State, of seizing the means of production, or something similar. Revolution is seen as taking something outside of oneself. The question of what one is and whether that supports liberation or the system to be overthrown is never asked.

This conception fails on two accounts: First, it does not fully cover the scope of oppression. Certainly, the ruling class, the State, the capitalist mode of production, all are repressive and must be attacked. But, to only see capitalism in the workplace, to only see the State in the military and police, this ultimately misses the target. They are everywhere, and they are in everything. If Althusser said that ideology is omnipresent, it follows that it is in us as well. Repression follows us even to the depths of our own soul.

Second, insofar as the external view does not recognize the full scope of oppression, it also does not allow for full liberation. If the problem of identity and subjectivity is not grappled with, not just in papers, but in the very real instances of the organization, of marches, in schools, in the workplace, etc.; if there is not a space for the formation of new identities, new forms of relationship, etc. then there is still work to be done, and there is still an obstacle to overcome.

We can end with a quote from Jacques Camatte:

“Communism is not a new mode of production but a new mode of being.”


[1] It’s important to note, for Althusser, that there is never a moment when we are not subjects. As Althusser would say, we are always-already subjects. Even before our birth, there is a place designated for us in familial ideology and the rituals associated with it. There is ideology everywhere, in the school, in the family, in the Church, in the workplace, in the Marxist organization, etc. This is why Althusser says that ideology is omnipresent. There is never a moment when we are outside of ideology, and under current conditions at least, there never will be.

[2] I want to stress here that these are not the only identities possible for human beings. Certainly, there are non-binary, genderfluid, etc. identities. I use “man” and “woman” exclusively here because currently these are the only identities socially given by the ruling ideology. Non-normative gender identities are, in themselves, revolutionary.


Louis Althusser. Freud and Lacan (in Writings on Psychoanalysis). Columbia University Press. 1996.

Louis Althusser. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (in On the Reproduction of Capitalism). Verso Books. 2014

Links to Texts

Freud and Lacan

On the Reproduction of Capitalism




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