It’s often said that communism breeds mediocrity at best, and downright shoddiness at worst. And most in the developed world would agree that communism has failed miserably due to its lack of capitalist incentives for (a) company owners to make better widgets and (b) workers to create a better standard of living through hard work and merit.
But the founders of the communist ideology did make some thought-provoking – if biased and pessimistic – criticisms of capitalist society.
One of those criticisms deals with the notion of false consciousness. The idea of false consciousness is found in Karl Marx‘s theory but it’s not specifically defined by Marx. The term first appears in a letter written by his German comrade, Friedrich Engels:
Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.”¹
Subsequent Marxists and lefty sociologists use the term ‘false consciousness’ to apparently account for the dynamics of class-based exploitation. Specifically, the working class (proletariat) distorts their relationship with the ruling class—that is, the worker’s understanding of his or her relation to the owners of the means of production is based on ideology instead of fact.
The proletariat’s true condition of submission to exploitative, dominating powers is effectively replaced by a phoney belief in equality, involvement and duty. Duped into believing ideological stories as if they were truth, the masses willingly – but unconsciously so – participate in their own oppression.
Talking about contemporary society, neoMarxists often say the distortion of actual conditions is largely effected through ads, the entertainment industry, and the mass media. So neoMarxists would say that a song like, for instance, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” stirs up patriotic emotions among workers who happily trudge out to the factory to make widgets for a company owner who reaps obscene profits from their hard labor. And those very same factory workers save money so they can buy “American made” trucks to feel patriotic, a sense of belonging, and pride.
Another example might be what I saw today on Yonge St. in downtown Toronto. A sort of weather-beaten looking fellow who might have been living on the streets was wearing a brand new Globe and Mail baseball jacket with fine gold lettering on black.
The Globe and Mail is Canada’s conservative newspaper. I’ve heard it called an “old man’s” paper, meaning that it generally represents the interests of conservatives with quite a bit of money. And I think it would strike some neoMarxists as ironic – and a proof of false consciousness – that this fellow was wearing that particular jacket.
These two illustrations concerning a rock and roll song and a newspaper jacket are, of course, overly cynical. But this is how many communists thinkers would view things. Someone more sympathetic to capitalism would add that factory workers receive good benefits, have a humane workplace, and are always free to leave and try something else. That is, the possibility for upward mobility exists in capitalism while it’s virtually absent in communism.
Moreover, one could argue that capitalist workers are not as dumb as Marxist theorists tend to assume, and that workers truly believe in the core values of their country—especially when compared to the violent and oppressive regimes that make up many other countries around the globe.
As for the baseball jacket, maybe that person would be out on the street in any social system. And perhaps some kind soul from the newspaper was just trying to help keep him warm.
The idea of false consciousness has also been criticized by academics. Some see it as a condescending perspective generated by social theorists who wrongly believe something along the lines of:
We intelligent theorists know what the average people want better than they, themselves, do.
Other sharp thinkers like Michel Foucault question the very idea of class and the social dynamic implied by it. For Foucault, false consciousness (and the idea of class-based oppression upon which it rests) contains far too many simplifications and faulty constructs that have little bearing on what’s really going on.
For Foucault, the struggle isn’t just about two main groups (company owners and workers). Instead, it’s a complicated, ever changing matrix of discourses, practices, and power relationships.²
² The Foucauldian perspective has its own shortcomings, particularly in its simplistic view of power. But this is a point debated elsewhere at Think Free.
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- Marx’s Materialism in Relation to Hegel and Feuerbach (symptomaticredness.wordpress.com)
The word ideology is fairly well known today but not too long ago its mention, except among sociologists and historians, would probably have been met with a blank stare.
Ideology refers to a body of social, economic or political ideas and beliefs informing a person, a group or a nation. At least, this is the standard dictionary view. Social thinkers – who tend to question dictionary definitions – argue that ideology is an often deceptive set of beliefs willingly or possibly unwittingly advanced by those with the social power to do so.
According to Karl Marx, Roland Barthes and, to some extent, Michel Foucault, the unwitting masses tend to reproduce ideologies until the point where they become aware of the shallow and deceptive character of a given ideology.
At this time the so-called ordinary person, and not just the so-called intellectuals, may try to change or even revolutionize ideologies.
It’s been argued that all religions contain an ideological component. And this may be true. But to reduce the spiritual aspect of religious experience to mere ideology is probably a mistake or, at least, incomplete.
Academic treatments of the idea of ideology are often complicated and extensive. And, one could say, that although they may appear radical and progressive to naive young students, in reality the academic treatment of ideology is still, for the most part “safe,” and thus ironically reproduces the very social structures and attendant issues which are outlined in class (along with those issues that are overlooked).
That’s a cynical view, of course. And like any opinion, it’s biased and incomplete. Another view is that it’s better to talk about some things than entirely ignore or deny their existence. And social change need not be revolutionary but can, in fact, be gradual or subtle. So, university is not necessarily just “finishing school” but can help to spark young minds into positive action.
Another thing to consider about ideology – or, more properly, academic views about ideology – is that it need not be an evil or sinister process. Ideologies can be good or, at least, better than competing ones. This point is often overlooked by derisive professors who seem to be lopsidedly critical and unfairly trash the very system that gives them their bread and butter.
In the arts, Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn had this to say in the 1980′s song, “Call it Democracy.” I’m not sure what his stance would be today.
Sinister cynical instrument
Who makes the gun into a sacrament –
The only response to the deification
Of tyranny by so-called “developed” nations’
Idolatry of ideology.¹
¹ Full lyrics and subsequent author comments (up to 2005) here: http://cockburnproject.net/songs&music/atcid.html
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- Modernizing and liberalizing the Communism – releasing socialist activists linked to communists. (eekaa.wordpress.com)
- How do we take control of the agenda from the GOP? (americablog.com)
- The Ideology of the London Riots (forbes.com)
- Ideological Inebriation on Capitol Hill (nader.org)
- The Willful Ignorance of Positive Thinking Ideology (scotteriology.wordpress.com)
- Ideologies 101 (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- Yet the Left Wonders Why the President Spurns Them?: (brothersjuddblog.com)
- Ideology Serves No One (albw51.wordpress.com)