False Consciousness

Open Source = Communism
Open Source = Communism by David Erickson via Flickr

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.

Cash Money Store for short term loans on Yonge...
Cash Money Store for short term loans on Yonge St., Toronto - Photo by Vinceesq at Wikipedia

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.

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Fair use/dealing rationale.

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

¹ See “Letter to Franz Mehring, July 14, 1893″ in Marx and Engels Correspondence trans. Donna Torr, International Publishers: 1968.

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.

Related Posts » Advertising, Corruption, Discourse, Hegemony, Ideology


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