Ideology and Orientation: State Power and Catholic Social Thought


Indeed, we are living in interesting times. Our relationships, both with ourselves and others, constantly pass through intermediaries composed of our beliefs and ideologies that work as the distorting mechanisms limiting or expanding our horizons. These ideologies are created to socialize and orient us in society, but our society itself has become disoriented. Our disoriented society imbues, within each of us, ideologies of self-interpretation that work in the interests of those in power, those who control the state. As one author notes, “this image of what the self is may be distorted in the direction of the less than fully human, so the psychological internalization of such less-than-fully-human images flows directly into desire and behavior, into the project of existential self-making” (Hughes 2007, 1-2). Our desires are oriented to our self-interest and aggrandizement. Modern society has failed us. We must not fail ourselves. We must reorient ourselves to the common good.

This paper explores the coercive nature of power, mainly that which emanates from the state. I argue, the state is the source of dehumanizing ideologies, and the path of resistance is the path embracing goodness and joy. The first part of this paper looks at the nature of power and authority and its relation to the state. The second part of the paper examines Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus theory. Through that theoretical lens, I analyze how the state informs our understanding of ourselves and society. Finally, the paper looks into conceptions of justice and the process of reorienting ourselves to the common good. Through this exercise, we begin discovering that the process of social change is also a process of personal change.


Ideas of Power & Authority

Each of us grows within the confines of our given society. It’s traditions, myths, ways of being in the world shape our understanding and our actions. The state, our sovereign governing body, promulgates laws that further confine us and regulate our way of being. Aquinas noted that law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good of a [complete] community, promulgated by the person or body responsible for looking after that community” (1964, 90). He believed the state, the body looking after the community, has the communities best interests in mind. Therefore, its subjects could morally and subjectively accept, willingly, the promulgations of law (Finnis 2005). We can imagine a society where the state held its subjects interests as the guiding force of its domestic and international policies. However, the disparate economic and social system reveals the state has its own interests, which often depart from its general communities’ interests. Mikhail Bakunin, a noted Anarchist posited “[t]he State is the organized authority, domination, and power of the possessing classes over the masses” (1972, 133-4). Bakunin believes, and perhaps rightly so, that the state is comprised of the owning classes, and its laws serve their function to the majority’s disadvantage. Foucault saw the state as the “crystallization” of power in the “formulations of law” (Foucault 1990, 93). Marxist conceptions of the state varies from an autonomous dictator of capital, a place of contest and struggle of complex actors, a neutral tool utilized by those in power, or a site of inherent capitalism (El-Ojeili 2012, 30). Whatever its composition, the state is the authoritative body most present in our lives.

Bakunin’s position, and that of Marxists, responds to the authoritarian justifications of Callicles, one of Socrates intellectual opponents in Plato’s Gorgias. In that dialogue, Callicles admits that, for him and the majority of society, justice is the rule of the more powerful over the powerless through means of force and coercion (Plato and Hamilton 1971, 75). Callicles stated, “ [m]y belief is that natural right consists in the better and wiser man ruling over his inferiors and having the lion’s share” (Plato and Hamilton 1971, 78). Callicles’ argument echoes throughout time as the strong continue to enforce their wills over the weak.

The idea the state, and its ‘possessing classes,’ dominate and coerce society is not limited to Marxists, Anarchists and the Athenian ruling class. Tocqueville, had a similar belief as the others, but believed that “authority is not the consequence of subjugation, but of a recognition of superior insight and judgement, and hence it is not an abuse of reason” (Ossewaarde 2004, 29). For Tocqueville, authority is established by those with superior insight and judgment, so its imposition of coercive nature is for the common good. However, Bakunin sees this type of enlightened authority as symbolic of subjugation. He argues, Tocqueville’s sense of authority requires ideologies consisting of the idea that “the masses, always incapable of governing themselves, must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a wisdom and a justice, which one way or another, is imposed on them from above” (Bakunin 1950, 25). Of course, there are many types of authority — theoretical, moral and practical — but the state holds the ultimate authority to enforce and impose its will and interests upon others. The growth of the state, and its colonization of the lifeworld, centralizes control over our bodies. For Toqueville, the “centralization of authority is a sign of social conflict, of antagonisms in society” (Ossewaarde 2004, 42). The state has regulated every aspect of our being. The antagonisms in society, that the state authoritatively regulates, could be derived from the state regulations itself and not the doing of its subjects.

The advent of individualism, which is now the hegemonic rights-based philosophy, our conceptions of the common good has narrowed into a much smaller understanding. The thrust of this philosophy is the envisioning of society as an “aggregate of autonomous individuals or units cooperating only when the terms of that cooperation advanced the ends or advantage of the parties involved” (Copeland 1993). Society conceived in this way promotes self-interest, self-preservation, and self-aggrandizement. The orientation towards the common good shifted to the good of the self. Such a society echoes what Thrasymachus described in Plato’s Republic as “individualistic materialism in which the whole function of the city is to safeguard the liberty of each; thus giving the strong full freedom to oppress the weak” (Copeland 1993, 315, 63). Most of us are now oriented to the ”I” and “mine” as opposed to “us” and “our.” Creating a distance between the understanding of the world’s interconnectivity and the knowing that this interconnectivity is what will sustain our global harmony.

Our conception of society, based in individualism breeds egoism. Lonergan posited that “[e]goism…is an incomplete development of intelligence…[and] its inquiry is reinforced by spontaneous desires and fears; by the same stroke it is restrained from a consideration of any broader field” (Lonergan 1992, 220). Individualism, then, is the imposition and promotive ideology of egoism — the ethical and moral legitimization of self-interest. While an individual’s egoism can be entirely anti-social and justifiably coerced into a socially acceptable behavior, an issue exists if a majority of individuals’ egos, through emergence, takes form into a dominant social construct. Lonergan warns of this possibility — “group egoism not merely directs development to its own aggrandizement but also provides a market for opinions, doctrines, theories that will justify its ways and, at the same time, reveal the misfortunes of other groups to be due to their depravity” (Lonergan 1972, 54). Thus, group egoism can take form in state governance, law, education, media, and other forms of knowledge production.


The Ideological State Apparatus and Social Orientations

If the state is the source of power, authority and coercion, then we must examine its internal processes and how it coerces its subjects. Althusser reduced the state’s complexity by delineating two important forms of control — “the body of institutions which represent the Repressive State Apparatus on the one hand,” which functions through violence, “and the body of institutions which represent the body of Ideological State Apparatuses on the other,” which functions through ideology (Althusser 1994, 113). The Repressive State Apparatus — consisting of the army, police, and judiciary — works primarily through authoritative utterances (legislation for example), but when these fail to secure compliance of the citizenry the state resorts to physical force. This is how the state maintains order and re-establishes it when challenged. The Ideological State apparatus (ISA) — consisting of schools, media, churches — works primarily through indoctrinating ideologies vital to maintaining ruling class dominance.

Althusser’s ISA manipulates social subjects through ideology, which he defines as, “the system of the ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group” (Althusser 1994, 120). The ISA infiltrates the collective (un)conscious and produces self-interpretation epistemologies that steer us into state promoted ideologies and ways of being. ISA produces human nature by “transforming biological raw materials [individuals] into social subjects…in this productive process, it obscures the processes by which the subject is constituted, enabling the subject to consider itself produced or naturally given” (Grosz 1990, 69). We are formed into consumerists, conservatives, liberals, supporters of military domination, and we consider our actions and beliefs normal. We can relate to sites of authority and the people around us who share the same ideologies. Working 50 hours a week is acceptable. Cutting life saving social support is acceptable. Buying items to support America and the economy is acceptable. We realize the system is corrupt, but we are disciplined and constructed by the state, which transforms us into social subjects willing to accept the current state of affairs. But, most importantly, “[t]he state is always accompanied by a statist mind-set or political logic which affirms the idea of the necessity and inevitability of the state, particularly at revolutionary junctures, and prevents us thinking beyond it” (Newman 2010, 107).

The ISA explains how disparate economic, social, and political systems flourish despite the fundamental conflicts of majority interests — “what is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live’” (Althusser 1972, 165). Different societies have different social imaginaries. Charles Taylor echoes Althusser’s sentiment in his idea of the social imaginary. Taylor believes that we imagine our society and our imagination is disconnected from reality. He states —

I adopt the term imaginary (i) because my focus is on the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends. It is also the case that (ii) theory is often the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society. Which leads to a third difference: (iii) the social imaginary is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (Taylor 2004, 23).

Taylor’s observation highlights the existence of imagined communities and ways of knowing and explains how these imaginations can become dominant and normalized. As one author notes, “knowledge production is never neutral but always distorted by language, taste, patriotism, religion and regime…knowledge…is transmitted by tradition and enforced by traditional (and charismatic) authority” (Ossewaarde 2004, 31). The ISA is the source of these imaginations and intermediaries between our true selves and the reflection of our imaginations as projected out into the world.

Lonergan critiques the power and influence of ideologies that orient us towards unsustainable and dehumanizing ontologies —

Not only do ideologies corrupt minds. But compromise and distortion discredit progress. Objectively absurd situations do not yield to treatment. Corrupt minds have a flair for picking the mistaken solution and insisting that it alone is intelligent, reasonable, good. Imperceptibly the corruption spreads from the harsh sphere of material advantage and power to the mass media, the stylish journals, the literary movements, the educational process, the reigning philosophies. A civilization in decline digs its own grave with a relentless consistency. It cannot be argued out of its self-destructive ways, for argument has a theoretical major premiss, theoretical premisses are asked to conform to matters of fact, and the facts in the situation produced by decline more and more are the absurdities that proceed from inattention, oversight, unreasonableness and irresponsibility (Lonergan 1972, 55).

This damning critique of the power of declining ideologies reveals ideologies deep roots in our imaginations, selves, and society. Our orientation is disoriented. One author believes, “[s]uccessful resistance to disorder begins, therefore, with understanding how one’s own consciousness manifests contemporary forms of ‘the tension between existence in truth and the deficient modes of existence’”(Hughes 2005). Resistance, then, begins within ourselves. By creating habits that orient us outside ourselves we begin to work in solidarity with others resisting dehumanizing ideologies.

America is a land of consumerism and waste. The state’s orientation to consumerism and individualism creates subjects — homoeconimus — that continues capital accumulation. We are groomed to consume. Ideology forms us, and according to Althusser, it constructs our being through obscured processes that formulate and percolate in our unconscious. If the ISA works in the way Althusser theorized, than our virtues and actions come pre-scripted by the state. This notion is also held by Lonergan who stated, “there stands in the habitual background of our minds a host of previous judgments and assents that serve to clarify and define, to explain and defend, to qualify and limit, the prospective judgment that one is about to make” (Lonergan 1992, 706). Ideology is the substance and form of the background processes that design our assents and dissents. The ISA mechanisms implant themselves in our very being through social inculturation. Ideology is not something that can be transcended, its needed in every society. It provides us with social cohesion, but when that cohesion is oriented incorrectly and not towards the common good, we begin to dehumanize ourselves and degrade our environment (both spiritual and physical).

Spitzer provided us with a foundation through which we can view our current social predicament. He described two primary sources of happiness and how individuals, even societies, can cater and focus on these levels of happiness. Spitzer notes —

The first level of happiness (laetus in the Latin) refers to the pleasure produced by an external stimulus. The stimulus is normally concrete and tangible. The response is immediately gratifying and does not last very long. The second level of happiness (felix in the Latin) refers to ego-gratification. Ego (the Latin word for, ”I”) refers to one’s inner world. The inner world is constituted by one’s memories. choices, thoughts. and feelings. Whenever this private, inner world is built up and extended into the outer world one feels gratified. Ego gratification generally comes in four forms: I) achievement. 2) comparative advantage, 3) recognition and popularity, and 4) power and control (Spitzer 2001, 76)

Spitzer sees the dominance of these two levels of happiness, as opposed to the levels associated with helping others and involvement in a grand project, is brought about by two reasons. The first is that these levels are easier to understand, see, and hold. The transcendent notions and levels of happiness beyond the physical sensory forms are difficult to understand. These levels provide immediate gratification. The second, he notes, comes about through “our cultures-by the media, peer pressure, and entertainment — favor[ing] a climate of winners and losers” (Spitzer 2001, 90). By living and thriving in a culture of instant self-gratification and competition, our horizons are limited to the incidental ways of being. Emancipatory thought processes, which could endanger the state, are obscured through ISA inculturation and ways of being. Pope John Paul II warns us of this path of consumerism —

This super-development, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of “possession” and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of “consumption” or “consumerism,” which involves so much “throwing-away” and “waste.” An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer (II 1987).

Modern capitalist societies promote unsustainable consumerism. We know the happiness associated with self-gratification is fleeting, but we continue to indulge ourselves. Scientists acknowledge that continued fossil fuel use will lead to irreversible environmental damage, but we drive cars anyways. Human rights organizations and the media publish stories about the degrading treatment and horrible abuses suffered around the world, be we still focus on ourselves. Behavior such as this reveals the power of ISA and dehumanizing ideologies of decline.


Justice and the Orienting to the Good

The influencing manipulations of the ISA predefines our being in ways we are not even aware of. But, we do have a choice of orienting ourselves to justice in our daily lives. Single moments of insight and awakening reveal the truth about ourselves and the world around us. To orient ourselves towards justice, Thomas Aquinas noted, “you can say that justice is the habit whereby a person with a lasting and constant will renders to each his due” (1964, 21). Justice does not consist of egoism and individualism, but its exact opposite. Aristotle declared, “justice alone of the virtues is held to be another’s good” (2011, 92). We have to become, as Aristotle noted, “disposed to do just things and on the basis of which they act justly and wish for just things“ (Id at 90). We must desire for the good of others, act for the good of others, and resist for the good of others. Justice is a choice, a habit, through which we can not only resist and uncover the ”deficient modes of existence,” but become a better human being.

Transforming state policy and the ISA to orient us to the good will require not only personal change, but governmental change. As Pope John XXIII stated, “however extensive and far-reaching the influence of the State on the economy may be, it must never be exerted to the extent of depriving the individual citizen of his freedom of action. It must rather augment his freedom” (XXIII 1963). Perhaps Pope John XXIII is arguing for the state’s decolonization of our lifeworld. If we are coerced, through ISA, to consume beyond our sustainable limits, then perhaps we do not have freedom to choose. We are programed to consume. Pious XI stated that a reformation of global institutions is needed. He believed that this reformation must be focused on the state, “not as if universal well-being were to be expected from its activity, but because things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed “individualism” that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State” (XI 1931). The reformation of our morals and selves through orienting towards the good of others (justice) and the retreat of the state from it coercive measures would bring about a non-authoritarian system of governance the promotes peace and equality instead of consumerism, self-gratification, and self-interest.

Bernard Lonergan stated, “[i]n the main it is not by introspection but by reflecting on our living in common with others that we come to know ourselves”(Lonergan et al. 1996, 220)  Through a continual process of  “self-constituting,” he argues, we communicate what we are to others, and this communication becomes collaboration that provides insights into who we are (not of what we know) (1996, 207).  Thus, by shifting our inner world towards justice, we begin to reach out to others and uncover — within ourselves — the existing intermediaries blocking us from our full potential. Aristotle notes, “[i]ndeed, the life [of those who love what is noble] has no need of additional pleasure, like a sort of added charm, but possesses pleasure in itself” (A2011, 16). The process of self-transformation is enjoyable and infectious. By revealing to ourselves, and others, the beauty that lies underneath our mistaken ideologies we invite joy. But, we must remove our mistaken ideologies.

Lonergan believes removing mistaken beliefs from our consciousness “takes as its starting-point and clue the discovery of some precise issue on which undoubtedly one was mistaken. It advances by inquiring into the sources that may have contributed to that error and, perhaps, contributed to other errors as well” (1992)  The process of correcting mistaken beliefs is not obtained by explicit self-analysis whereby we systematically go through our beliefs or read books that prescribe to a certain form of thought.  Lonergan posits that it has taken a lifetime to become the person we are now, so spending our time analyzing ourselves would require two more lifetimes because we would have to assess both the truth and falsities of our beliefs (1992, 716).  Lonergan believes this process, instead, “begins with the conviction that one has made one bad mistake, and it proceeds along the structural lines of one’s own mentality, and through the spontaneous and cumulative operations of the mind that alone can deal successfully with concrete issues” (1992, 717).  He asks us to delve deeper into our self-reflective exercises.  If we have a propensity for a negative action, and can acknowledge it, we must ask ourselves what are the underlying influences that lead to this action?  There will surely be a web of beliefs and understandings that lead to that single mistake.  This is the process of self-correction and actualization through constant attentiveness to actions and thoughts – as perceived through the outside, not the inside.  For one realizes their mistake through activity not in-activity.


Society is based in hierarchy and authoritarianism. Callicles’ position that the strong governs the weak seems to be our current position in history. The state is emboldened to its own interests, which often align with the ‘possessing class.’ The state marginalizes those who don’t possess through ideologies and the lack of charity. Through the coercive and clever maneuvers of the ISA and dehumanizing ideologies, our society is in decline. We are constantly imbued with messages to consume, self-gratify, and self-preserve our possessions and class. To change the world, we must first look inward and orient ourselves to justice — the common good. Spitzer notes, “If we are not reminded of our potential for contribution, love, leadership, self-communication, self-transcendence, and faith, we can easily forget them and give ourselves over to the more insistent demands of our default drive” (2001, 90). Our default drive is unsustainable. The thin façade and limits to the modern capitalist system are cracking due to the environmental changes and innumerable human rights abuses. Mark Helprin reminds us —


The saving graces and the fragile institutions of humanity depend upon our humanity itself, which in turn depends absolutely upon the discipline or rejection of certain appetites. We have many a resolution that separates us from the other animals, many a custom, practice, tradition, and taboo, and if we do away with these in the pursuit of power, the worship of reason, or the imitation of time-and-space-flouting divinity, we will become a portion for foxes (Helprin 2009, 16).

By orienting our disoriented selves, we create and spread joy. This joy is the foundations of the resistance movement founded in love and justice.