False Consciousness

Marxists have a term for the moment of adhering to a political cause that, while perhaps having the critical mass to affect social relations, does not optimize your long-view interests: False consciousness.

Academic anti-Marxists will sometimes confuse the term false consciousness with a conservative concept used initially by 20th century anti-communists, the insult “Useful Idiot,” which disparagement  accuses a person of being too dumb to know what’s right, and so being liable to be used, typically by the Left, for a wrong political cause. There are however non-trivial differences between the concepts, what they assume (about the distribution of humanity and rationality), how they function. If we avoid muddying them together, we will better understand hegemony and power.

Therefore I suggest that it is time for a full-blown historical-materialist renewal of the concept of false consciousness, written principally to this audience: North American social scientists. (Not to the conservative economists. They’re too far gone with their inhuman conception of rationality.) I’m talking the sociologists. It’s time to seriously, rigorously, historically, comparatively, theoretically and empirically readdress “bounded” rationalities and the historical, place-based, social, habituated, and institutionalized constraints that overdetermine which rationality paths are followed and which atrophy.

“(A)ll forms of political organization have a bias in favor of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out” EE Schattschneider 1960: 71.


H1: Does the contemporary denunciation of the concept of false consciousness stem from the union-lite/free neoliberal era’s occlusion of the identity of conservatism?

We recognize that individuals, to varying extent, hold conflicting views, ideologies, morays, culture. However, since very, very often more than a gaggle of flaneurs are required for insight, we are interested not just in marveling at or celebrating the presence of ideological mish-mosh, but in discerning how such pastiches are assembled and activated.

First we start with the premise that social network-based political ideologies, such as conservatism, can be identified. For example, in his distillation of the trans-historical (since Enlightenment) pillars of conservatism, [A Political Science Expert on Conservatism] identifies these pillars with an eye to content validity–He reviews the conservative cannon as presented in conservative libraries and published by conservative presses (eg. The Liberty Fund), parsing out ephemeral v. consistent elements of conservative thought.

Then we consider a case study to test the hypothesis:

For example, ideological liberals etc. may be captured in a right-wing coalition because conservative coalition builders explicitly appeal to liberal identity markers (Eg. Compassion for human suffering) that do not clash with an essential conservative agenda (In other words, that are not exclusive to liberalism, though liberals may feel proprietary over them).

The case of the conservative education reform campaign’s “Waiting for Superman” is instructive here. If the conservatives build their base and coalitions, as with not just the Little King strategy but typically (loss) passion, certainly we can see the deployment of loss passion in the propaganda documentary “Waiting for Superman.” The conservative campaign attaches the trauma the liberal viewer sees in the faces of the little African-American children to the idea that unions are to blame for American social disasters (racism).

Now when this passion adheres liberals and other anti-racists to the conservative campaign, are the anti-racists now conservative–that is, are they rational (or irrational) conservatives? Not necessarily. (They are invited into the conservative fold. They may or may not continue down this path to the point where they accept the fundamental pillars of conservatism, at which point they are conservatives.)

a) Do the anti-racists understand the logic and trajectory of the conservative political campaign?

b) Do the anti-racists believe that by adhering to the campaign, they can steer the conservative education reform campaign to achieve their own goals? (Resistance! Very agential!)

c) That is, does the conservatism disappear when it coheres a coalition? Does, for example, anti-racism become a stable pillar of conservatism?

a) No, and b) Perhaps, but not necessarily, and c) Nuh-uh. Usually, under such circumstances, liberals cannot transform their resistance (if it exists at all) into their home-turf antiracist goal because 1) they don’t know what conservatism is, what they’re dealing with. (It is pro-inequality divide-and-conquer strategy. There’s a reason why conservatives are quick to identify “Useful Idiot” strategy.) 2) The structure is not favorable (as indicated by the direction of hegemony); and 3) they’re not sufficiently organized to pull of that kind of collective, machiavellian political manoeuver in the face of an organized, politically-conscious conservative opposition.

Let’s attend to the first question and its no, not least because it’s determinative of the outcome of the second & third questions about the (Christian/manga) fantasy of resistant innocence.

The antiracist agenda does conflict with the home domain of conservatism. In coalition with a conservative campaign, liberals are acting as conservatives in this moment (which may last their whole paid adult careers, eg. Ravitch). To the extent that they lend their support to the conservative campaign, due to their belief that the conservative funded and managed campaign is compatible with antiracism, antiracists misrecognize the basis of conservatism as merely loss passion. They spend this moment, perhaps their whole lives, in false consciousness, working for a goal they cannot apprehend because they see only antiracist passion, (or Little King incentives), and/or necessary income and social relations (the risk-aversion, conflict-aversion and optimistic bias that would characterize a society in which repression was imposed primarily in the workplace). As adherents to the conservative campaign (rather than conservatives), they may flicker between false consciousness, conservatism, and liberalism. (But typically they won’t be leaders of the campaign unless they understand conservatism. We have to agree that Ravitch is unusual.)

It is in the moments, such as Ravitch’s and this letter, where we see a person materially freed from service to someone else’s interests, that they–and we–can recognize the distance between their consciousness and that of their owner (including the ‘master’ in the Western master-slave legal tradition, see Graeber ch. 7).

It may well be that this is possible in our epoch because we have an active political-economic (and consequently intellectual) culture of conservatism obfuscation. After all, so much surplus is at stake and being fought over.

H2: To the extent that intellectuals decry false consciousness (or muddle it together with the conservative “Useful Idiot” accusation), do they deny their culpability (perhaps as believers in the end of history and the end of historical-material existence–the end of Enlightenment conservative-liberal-radical conflict) in participating in the obfuscation of historical (including present) conservatism, its premises, its logic, and its utopia?

I would be concerned as well about the resonance, in our era, of denying the structured variability in the distribution of patchwork consciousness. Without comparing across societies, we know that the more educated people are, the more consistent their belief structure is. If you could/did compare across societies, I think it is likely that the neoliberal era has imparted an especially patchwork consciousness–on the working class. But not so much on the capitalist class. That would not simply be a flourishing of bricolage, to be celebrated. It would spark a discussion of how hegemony works.

Can a conservative campaign that adheres non-conservatives to its cause end up somewhere else, somewhere truly antiracist or otherwise liberatory, due to its contradictions unfolding? Maybe over a long time, with other favorable coincidences. Social science: N = 1 (…ergo, to be innocent of history is to fail to do social science). That’s not really an excuse for valorizing and supporting obfuscation (Or is that manga innocence?), is it.

This article discusses Right populism–how the Right culture is invoked by elites (in this case Santorum) for political purposes. It’s a good analysis of how conservative ideology works across class, and the end is particularly acute. While Santorum’s hoi poloi political audience is ignited by the idea that prohibiting the democratization of freedoms will put them in competitive stead in the Kingdom of Heaven, nonetheless, creating caste institutions has never empirically worked to simply create a family zone of free self-replication. That is the marketing version of conservatism’s impact on non-elites.

While the poor fear and loathe liberal education, where they are expected to compete, without the appropriate human capital, with elites and their management class in superficially-democratic education institutions, nonetheless the alternative that conservatives promote–caste institutions (Private education for the elite v. Family-only socialization for the poor.) are part of a social system where raw, non-Foucauldian power constrains that within-family freedom to self-replicate in a very ham-handed way.

Postmodern thought can’t even begin to conceptualize this kind of power anymore, despite the fact that it’s a form of power that never went away and is still predominant. This theoretical limitation is why many Leftists see postmodern thought as intimately tied to the conservative ascent.

This is a case of false consciousness, because the antimony is false and it is imposed by elite ideological entrepreneurs and the absence of working class institutions–such as a working class union confederation–that could spotlight alternatives.

There are forms of education that are neither liberal–built for worker standardization and hierarchy-legitimation (such as are France’s, the UK’s, the US’ current Jim Crow-influenced education systems) or built for maintaining a caste system (with education a privatized cost affordable to only elites, as in the conservative socialization model). Sweden for example has education (not just training) institutions by of and for workers (Folkskolan), and has almost-completely socialized education, K-university, as well. They have amazing social mobility compared to the Anglosphere. Working class people in Sweden never have to feel like education is about shaming them into the chauffuer’s seat. Nor do they have to feel like they need a caste system to have a shot at dignity.

Because conservatism has been the ascendent politics of our time, we need to notice how conservatism works differently from liberalism or socialism, and we need to take seriously the ample comparative historical record of how conservative regimes impact their subjects. Doing so validates the concept of false consciousness. If Hegel’s “struggle for recognition” (“Kamft um Anerkennung”) is the intersubjective struggles wherein individuals work out their asymmetrical relationships to arrive at a moment of mutually recognizing the humanity of one another in the hope that each will attain sovereign agency over their own mind and body, that’s the liberal version of Kamft um Anerkennung. There’s a conservative version, which is what Santorum’s Michigan audience was immersed in. There people struggle to arrive at a moment of mutually recognizing the divine election of one group in the hope that the “elect” Little King group will attain sovereign agency over their own mind and body, as well as that of other groups, their offspring and the children of the non-elect as well. Yet as Markell shows, whether liberal or conservative, struggles for recognition are not sufficient to produce resolutions of conflict. Paradoxically, seeking sovereign agency and emancipation in recognition without questioning the normative sources of privilege in a system actually has the effect of reinforcing societal injustices. The Little King gambit is elites offering the olive switch of false consciousness, a dram of absinthe, a Trojan Horse. It’s not harmless. It’s not empowering. It’s not too-cool-for-skool subaltern monkeywrenching resistance. It’s in fact as Old School as the American South, and oh so much older. But it is not so old school that anyone with half an interest in comparative history, half a claim on an intellectualism shouldn’t be expected to know it by heart.

TBD: On hegemony and consciousness, via Hall, Anderson, Therborn, Leys, Gramsci & Desai 1994.

What is at Stake in Understanding Hegemony and Consciousness: For social movement, for analysis
From notes on Desai, Radhika. 1994. “Secondhand Dealers.”
Intellectuals: What are they? What do they do?

Perry Anderson: Intellectuals study and are engaged with social reality. They build culture that provides a society’s fundamental concepts of humanity and society. Intellectuals are required in crisis. They are not listened to so much in a (perceived) stable structure of routinized social order. (Consider regular capitalist disruption, AKA“creative destruction” :Schumpeter). Intellectuals are fully activated when they have access to a society’s means of communication (Debray). Otherwise, intellectuals remain in monk-like subcommunities until structural opportunities are favorable. Intellectuals do not invent ideas whole cloth. They take pre-existing ideas (possibly from thwarted intellectual subcommunities) and use them to build upon.

 What intellectuals do: 

1) Social engagement (praxis). Use pre-existing ideas as foundation: build frame resonance
2) Cohere subordinate ranks around a ruling agenda (establish hegemony), by:
a) Secure assent (Gramsci)
b) induce TINA deference to elite rulers, accommodation of allies, and resignation (Therborn)
c) Support elites’ monopolization of violent coercion.

The function of intellectual frameworks: Coherence, legitimacy

 Intellectual frameworks manufacture conceptual coherence, RE: 1) What is happening 2) What will/should happen in the future.

Prestige-backed legitimacy: A product of prestige (social resources: cooperative social networks) and material resources (eg. provided to conservatives by capitalists, who control social surpluses, power), and intellectual work.

With (a degree of relative) coherence and legitimacy, people can be rallied, hegemony can be built, policies can be collectively developed.

 To build hegemony, to establish a social order:

1) ‘war of position’ – carried out by intellectuals through social engagement, organizing and building:

a) collective actions galvanizing critical mass political/social movement mobilization

b)  associational forms (eg. organizations, institutions, the Citizens Committee, the trade unions) and coalitions,

c) development of culture and ideas (complementing aspirational social order) and prefigurative politics, and

d) generally building an extra-government civil society, preceding and eventually alongside:

2) ‘war of maneuver’- a direct revolution, critically disrupting the opposing collectivity to (attempt) overthrow/defeat oppositional order. Viable wars of manoeuver need to be based on the strength of war of position. Build new relations so you can dismantle old relations (addressing conservatives’ loss passion).

 The interrelationship of  collective action, structuration & consciousness

The working class institutions of the welfare state societies were the accumulation of 1870-1945 collective actions. Instituting a social order takes exhausting work. But history—and collective action–doesn’t end once collective action has built a structure.

Both left and right observers think that in an era when the right was embracing the long fight of hegemony, the Anglo-American lib-left abandoned intellectualism.

 Conservative collective action in the form of Thatcherism reintroduced the importance of ideas + righteous proselytism (passion) to Western politics. Thatcherism was an ideology armed with a set of economic theories. An intellectual framework.

Comparative liberal strategy in US: Ford Foundation defunded intellectual work in 1970s, transferring support to myriad local community organization projects. Not unlike CBPR (Community-based Participatory Research) today, see Bourdieu’s critique.

 Components of contemporary Right social movement in Britian:

1)  Organizational form: Think tanks (IEA, CPS, etc.) Small budgets (in UK)
2) Political opportunity structure (POS): centralized British rule Conduits: media, politicians, outside advisors, No 10 Policy Unit Crisis: Falling profit rate
3a) Pre-existing Content: Friedman, von Hayek, Virginia Public Choice School (Economics of Politics). Market theories, state failure theory, libertarianism, anti-communism, authoritarianism.
3b) Modified content: Eg. “Property owning democracy” slogan “Microeconomic” focus on policies + monetarism
4) Goal (utopia): To transform (Fabian) elite policy-making consensus, implement conservative policies providing capitalists full discretion, exclusive state support.

Microeconomics as a resonant conservative social movement hegemony strategy, what it accomplishes:

1) Focuses intellectual activity on policy reform

2a) Discredits big picture, outcomes considerations and evaluation

2b) …Without which, the big picture goals are kept from debate and policed by the centralized think tank organization (eg IEA editorial board)

2c) Exception: macroeconomic monetary policy—anti-inflation campaign

3) Microeconomics allows intellectuals and technocrats to never even come close to the nature and the dynamics of contemporary capitalism, thus shielding experts and decision-makers from rational criticism. “But such is the fate of all idealisms which give language an existence independent of the material conditions of social life and reproduction” observes Varoufakis.

 4) In the neoclassical microeconomics “Empire of Ordinal Preference, the only possible data that social theory can go to work with are the differences in individual whims and freely-chosen identities. These data are then, courtesy of their ordinal properties, impossible to compare across persons (for this would require a metanarrative) or procure a view of capitalism as a system. Thus in a fully-fledged microeconomic or postmodern schema, social relations are confined to interplay, voluntarism, tolerance and exchange; society is the playground where the latter unfold; and discussions of the General Will, exploitation and developmental freedom make no sense. The asymptotic limit of postmodern fragmentation is the neoclassical general equilibrium economic model. Both Neoclassicism and Postmodernity espouse a radical egalitarianism which is founded on the rejection of any standard or value by which either individual action or the institutions of late capitalism (e.g. the labour and capital markets) can be subjected to rational criticism.” Microeconomics finds in contemporaneous, complementary Postmodernity “easy-pickings for a similarly viewless/valueless tradition, one which bears the additional weaponry of intricate mathematics and endless econometric ‘evidence,’” –Varoufakis.

Why do we romantically insist that lands and bodies can be colonized, but never the minds that interlace them? Southern politesse and noblesse oblige never protected the poor, the racialized, or the marginalized. I am arguing it would be far more liberatory to engage the hegemonic fight, to struggle to claim conceptualizations within the context of their political interest home base, and to recognize that in capitalism, hegemony is not a fair fight on an even playing field. (For example, In their article on the corporate response to fair trade,  the authors Fridell, Hudson & Hudson discuss the “Lemon Problem”–the empirically-demonstrated, characteristically-uneven distribution of information in capitalist relations–as it impacts consumers trying to make ethical decisions.)

In terms of pragmatics, I am not arguing (I realize this is a long post.) that we should run around, emotionally deaf, accusing marginalized people of false consciousness. It is not all about studying (as care-taking) down. We need to recognize false consciousness as a political, hegemonic goal secured by reducing non-elites’ freedoms and inducing pain (see Graeber on Nietzsche, and Elaine Scarry). We need to struggle to articulate counter-hegemonic ideas, ideals, relations, and institutions; and we just cannot do that if we cannot even make contextual, interested distinctions and conceptual frameworks, and have to pretend that no one else in a speechifying social species is doing that…because…why?

The idea of false consciousness is not the problem, and even though in capitalism the powerful have an advantage in wielding the charge, that’s no different from all the rest of their hegemonic advantage. They have hegemonic advantage with postmodern concepts, as has been demonstrated ad nauseum. This advantage is no reason to black-box the relationship between consciousness and material relations. The problem is, as Fraser, Markell and many others have observed, asymmetrical relationships and conflict. Leftists cannot just bow to conservatives and agree asymmetrical relationships don’t exist/are without effect, we can’t forfeit consideration of interests and rationality to game theorists and conservatives’ focus-group marketing firms, and we cannot polite asymmetrial relations away or pretend we’ve found a way around them, within the system. Put false consciousness back on the table, and let us analyze how structured interests v. marketing play out across the scales of space and time.

4 thoughts on “False Consciousness

  1. I'm not sure which social scientists you're referring to, but I can speak to my own suspicion of talk of false consciousness. Such talk seems to me to assume either (a) a frankly metaphysical conception of universal truth, or (b) a functionalist conception of human reason as teleological or (c) a reductionist, individualist conception of human reason as biophysically determined to work in universal ways, all of which I doubt very much. It seems very much a normative concept, and I think the Left has gotten trapped by normative thinking, by the sterile exercise of measuring the world in terms of how it "ought" to be.And in all cases, the claim that someone has false consciousness seems to give the intellectual a privileged relation to truth, relative to the poor dope being accuse of false consciousness. The power relation this constructs is obvious. However, I'm not worried about the poor proletarian being oppressed by the party intellectual claiming the authority to adjudicate whether her consciousness is true or fase. I'm worried about the socialist intellectual being stuck in a marginality of their own making because nobody with any self-respect would want to listen to someone who tells them that their entire consciousness is false. I could very well have a straw figure notion of false consciousness. Of course social actors make decisions on the basis of incomplete information and on the basis of limited and contingent interpretive frameworks; of course sometimes their empirical beliefs that are demonstrably mistaken or their interpretive frameworks blind them to important information or conceal from them possibilities which they otherwise would desire to pursue, and so on. Sometimes one can say to another, "you really don't want to do that", and have that person decide to accept that advice. If this is all one means by false consciousness then I'll freely concede the utility of the concept. If intellectuals could not possibly have any useful information to offer actors engaged in social struggle then I wouldn't be an intellectual.But consider how easy it is to make the mistake of thinking that one knows better than another what they really want, what opportunities and dangers they face, what the costs and benefits of one or another course of action open to them are. As a sociologist I'd much rather examine actors' reasons for acting as they do than decide whether their reasons were good or not. In the example that you give, I would ask why self-identified ideological liberals buy into the "Waiting for Superman" discourse if it's so self-defeating. Perhaps they do lack a grasp of the big picture effects of this enrolment. (IF so, why?) Or perhaps it's something more mundane, such as this: that many political entrepreneurs tend to be more interested in the marginal yield of their actions than in long-term strategic goals, that this is a disguised case of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" or some other pragmatic adaptation to the current historical situation. People's ideological commitments very often operate as one strategic resource among others in their ongoing work of self-construction, after all.I think the kind of modesty I prefer isn't just about being, you know, a nice guy and all; I think it's good socialist practice. If someone isn't doing what my social theory predicts they ought to do, based on my conception of their interests, maybe I'd do better to find out why than to apply normative labels to the situation. This might give me a more practically useful map of the opportunities for alliance and mobilization than I otherwise might have.In other words, I'm not sure how the concept of false consciousness is at all useful for revolutionary socialist struggle.

  2. I've just realized that I ought to have phrased my comments as a question. Or two questions, rather: how does one frame a concept of false consciousness that does not assert the superiority of the person who uses it over the person(s) to whom it is applied? And, what is useful about the concept?

  3. Thanks for the thorough lay out of the critique of false consciousness, Chris. That will be useful.It seems to me that the anti-false consciousness critique always assumes that privileged intellectuals are charging the most marginalilzed people with not understanding their own interests. Much more interesting I think is approaching false consciousness by studying horizontally or studying up (as I always prefer to do). Then we shed the sentimental noblesse oblige micro-politics, and look directly at the concept of false consciousness.For now, something interesting that I've seen is the assertion, from a sort of Fabian perspective, that in the contemporary era the privileged Left *autonomously, organically* embraced Kantian is/should dichotomy as regards inequality, wanted to increase private investment, and turned its back on anti-capitalist value.It's *almost* a complete and utter embrace of surface appearances. Suspiciously like conservative economics' anti-sociological black-boxing of *how* preferences get formed, it ignores all theory on hegemony (Gramscian, Therborn), sure. But if rejecting hegemony theory is your definition of anti-metaphysical, anti-functionalist, anti-reductionist and sociological, then that's a lifetime of debate; but I'll start it out by saying it's also anti-empirical. There's just so much documentary scholarship on the active efforts made and resources poured into steering ideology, tracing those documented, organized efforts directly to policy and even academic chairs. …And then we can talk about the physical, health data describing what happens when the Master's perspective dominates the Slave's (see Graeber on Nietzsche, and Elaine Scarry).Hegemony and the war of hegemony is real, and the false consciousness that war creates is a real problem misallocating freedoms. That's what's so useful about the concept for revolutionary struggle. As far as why the concept is usefully applied in an academic context: It allows us to observe all that massive evidence of hegemonic warfare, instead of, for example, making or accepting the very interested, political assertion that all consciousness emerges from voluntaristic, or accidental metaphysical musing alone.

  4. So for example, this all started with me seeing that Left feminists were contributing to–not commandeering–the right wing ideological and policy effort to destroy working class institutions and impose austerity in Sweden. If they were doing that organically, one might expect that they could articulate those relations, which were in no way hidden–They were plastered all over the news. But no–they framed their participation in these terms: It was required, for them to protect and mother the most vulnerable amongst them, the immigrants. Which is exactly what they were being told by the Right think tanks.The actions of the feminist Left in Sweden were not always oriented thusly, and I can make a pretty solid argument that this Right-feminist alliance was not a matter of beyond-the good-ole-boys'-wildest dreams liberation. You know what theoretical framework described this situation best? Hegemony, war of hegemony, false consciousness. It's not difficult to make a pretty solid argument, replete with material data (funding, organizations, campaigns, decline of credible threat) that it is no accident that the contemporary rise of conservatism coincides with postmodernism and its variants–eg. the neoliberal feminism Nancy Fraser has critiqued.Four years of having my labor sold cheap to Gender and Sexualities Programs, and progressive academic managers shilling for for-profit education companies, have in no way lessened the observations I made in my diss. work–or my need to find a fitting explanatory framework.That's what's at stake. Without hegemony and false consciousness, we do not have a framework that can adequately describe the ongoing and particular post-1968 co-optation of the Left and the ascent of TINA. I think the Greeks can explain why this is necessary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s