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False consciousness is, within Marxist theory, an attempt to explain why the majority of workers consistently fail to play their allotted part in the Marxist narrative, viz., uniting in unilateral support of a worldwide communist revolution already. (What are they, stupid!?)
In Marxist theory, the role played by "false consciousness" is basically identical to the role played by "sheeple" in conspiracy theories; there having to exist as explanation — other than the theory itself being wrong, of course — for why the very people who ought to wake up the fastest seemingly refuse to do so.
When communists are not in power, the term sees use as an ad hominem of sorts — targeted against anyone who isn't communist and indeed against those subscribing to the "wrong kind" of communism.
When communists do get into power, the concept of "false consciousness" still sees wide use. In the Soviet Union, the idea that those who dared question communism publicly were in massive denial — or just not quite right in the head — was taken to its logical conclusion, and political dissidents were systematically clapped up in booby hatches or forcibly committed to asylums, fraudulently "diagnosed" with "sluggish schizophrenia".
superstitious stern warning that consciousness itself may turn "false" if exposed to the wrong ideas may also have the added effect of inducing avoidance behaviors in those already communist, thus providing a layer of fresh paint to the walls of their echo chamber.
The argument goes like this.
- Premise 1. There are different classes of people within society.
- Premise 2. These classes have different goals that contradict each other, and one has far more members than all others combined.
- Premise 3. To retain their position as the most prosperous class, the bourgeoisie uses its power over the means of production.
- Premise 4. The proletariat is bombarded with ideological messages of anti-unionism, and is swayed from using its labor power.
- Premise 5. The struggle between various social classes is the be-all-end-all of world affairs.
- Premise 6. In this struggle, members of each social class tend to look out for their own class interests, as shown by Premise 4.
- Premise 7. Fulfillment of the communist political program is an advance in the interests of the working class, and by extension each worker — no other movement can organize this correctly.
- Conclusion: Therefore, all workers should be communists for their own class interests.
The question then becomes, why are all workers not communists? Since it would be too much to suggest that some of the more assumption-based premises (particularly Premise 7) are logically unsound, it must be that workers are just misled, having been duped by the ruling classes into thinking that they are anything else besides the rightful owners of their labour, in an attempt to "divide and conquer" the worldwide proletariat. The ridiculous notion that the worker is actually an individual person is heavily frowned upon, as it tends to make him think he is somehow different from some other worker halfway across the world, with different interests, thus ruining the abstraction (and also the worker's usefulness to the Party).
According to this line of thinking, "worker" should be the primary identity of all working class people, but many workers have been duped by the ruling classes into thinking they are some other identity first and foremost. Instead of workers, this segment of the working class see themselves as having some other primary identity, such as "entrepreneur" or "middle class", and hence these workers have false consciousness. Which terms the ruling classes try to push on workers to make them think of themselves as not being workers can change all the time, but all serve to remove the worker from their own identity.
The theory of false consciousness has undergone modifications through the years.
Previously, communists had claimed that they were not in power because workers were being excluded from the political process. The lie was put to these claims when communists started losing free elections; in response, the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci came up with the notion of "cultural hegemony".
This was the idea that the ruling class uses cultural (as opposed to strictly political) means to keep the majority in a state of covert subjugation. Variants on this concept were predictably enough adopted by the far right, notably as basic narrative components of Cultural Marxism and Neoconservatism alike.
Later, with the advent of identity politics, in which various other identity groups took the place of the proletariat in the abstractions, the idea has become much more widely applied. The so-called "Uncle Toms", for example, who place their own interests above that of their perceived race, are seen as having false consciousness.
Radical feminists are also particularly fond of the idea, much to the dismay of less radical feminists. Elucidating this link between Marxist false consciousness and radical feminism, professor of social justice Sue Wise and professor of sociology Liz Stanley explain:
Feminism's concern with consciousness, and with changing states of consciousness, is easily apparent in any collection of feminist writings, any discussion of feminist practice. The main expression of both its theoretical and its practical concern is, of course, through the existence of ‘consciousness-raising’ activities.
Our interpretation of material on consciousness-raising, and people’s experiences in consciousness-raising groups, is that implicit (and sometimes quite explicit) in this is a three stage model of consciousness.
These three stages are sometimes differently named: false consciousness, partial consciousness (which includes feminist consciousness) and revolutionary consciousness by Marxist-feminists; and false consciousness, consciousness-raising and feminist consciousness by other feminists.
This sequential, and temporal, model of consciousness has explicit within it the idea of change, of movement, and of development, but also the idea of stasis. The movement is from false consciousness through consciousness-raising to true consciousness; but then the model suggests nothing further. It doesn't concern itself with what, if anything, might lie beyond this, or even whether any changes in this form of consciousness are to be expected.
These 'stages' in consciousness aren't seen as discrete, mutually exclusive, like the rungs on a ladder. There is an acceptance that false consciousness is expressed within, and is confronted by, the process of consciousness-raising; and that feminist consciousness or true consciousness comes slowly and hesitantly out of consciousness-raising. And there is also an acceptance that hints of the third stage in consciousness are contained within the first, false consciousness.
Indeed, without this there would be no attempt to become involved in the process of consciousness-raising — there would be no impetus for change, and no basis for this change to occur around.
The idea of a pre-revolutionary or pre-feminist consciousness, and a sequential and developmental change, is explicit in the term 'raising' used in feminist discussions of consciousness. It implies a movement from something less desirable to something more desirable, from something lower to something higher, from something which doesn’t see and understand truly to something which does. The notions of a ‘false’ and a ‘revolutionary’ form of consciousness obviously owe much to Marxist discussions. This link is apparent in much feminist work on consciousness.
This idea of false consciousness isn't simply one which sees a movement from a lower to a higher plane of consciousness. It also sees this higher consciousness as one which enables people to escape from confinement within the purely subjective and the ‘false’ into a more objective state of consciousness. They can then see truly rather than falsely their objective position within the objective social world.
Feminism vs radicalism
“”Feminist academics seem to see a difference between themselves and other women. They seem to be saying ‘I can see and conceptualize the truth about things but those poor falsely conscious morons can’t.’ You’d think all these years of men saying that women can’t really understand what’s going on in the world would have had some kind of impact on this idea of false consciousness and on how feminists do theory and research. I can only think of a couple of things written by feminist social scientists that actually challenge that way of doing research.
|—Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology|
It will already be apparent that we find the idea that there is one true objective social reality, existing for all people, quite unacceptable. We are perfectly ready to accept that all people operate on the assumption that there is an objective social reality. What we reject is that this ‘reality’ is the same for everybody — or should be the same for everybody if only they weren’t falsely conscious.
The idea of ‘false’ and ‘true’ consciousness, with ‘true consciousness’ being what revolutionaries have, is offensively patronizing. It denies the validity of people’s own interpretation and understandings. If these don’t match the interpretations of revolutionaries then they are false. ‘If you agree with me then you’re right, if you disagree then you’re wrong’, is implied but not openly stated.
The idea that revolutionaries and revolutionary groups are ‘the vanguard’, the possessors of that consciousness which is closest to truth, and which enables them to see real reality as it truly is, sits uneasily among feminist principles. The principle of egalitarianism implies an acceptance of the validity of all women’s experiences. But the idea of ‘the vanguard’ is grossly elitist and is based on a belief in the invalidity of the ‘subjective’ compared with the ‘objective’. Similarly the idea that ‘revolutionary consciousness’ or feminist consciousness is true, objective and right, is unacceptable to us.
The notion that feminism and feminists occupy a higher plane of understanding about the true nature of social reality must be exposed. In the past feminism has adopted an accepting attitude towards women, all women, and has had an immediate sympathy with and understanding of the problems and contradictions involved in simply being a woman in sexist society. Its insistence on the validity of each woman’s personal experience has been one of its most appealing facets. But the sequential model of consciousness, the insistence that feminist consciousness is 'true' and other consciousnesses are ‘false’, is in direct confrontation with this.
Now when we say that feminist consciousness isn't 'true', isn't 'objective', we don’t mean that we don’t find it preferable and in some sense better than any other consciousness. Also we're perfectly well aware, from our experience, that there is a ‘before feminist consciousness’ experience of the world, a ‘discovering feminism’ experience of the world and, for us, a 'post discovering feminism' experience of the world as well.
It might seem from this that we too agree that a three stage sequential model of consciousness is the best means of conceptualizing it. But we don’t; our experience suggests something much less tidy and much more complex than this.
Some hard-right activists and libertarians of a conspiracy theorist bent have developed their own version of false consciousness, in which they claim that people only vote left-wing because they've been duped by the liberal media, public education system, and other institutions. Deep down these "left-wing" (which just means anything left of firmly right-wing) voters supposedly believe in right-wing values, they just don't know it. When taken to an even greater extreme they may say liberals are just right-wingers in denial, or are vying for attention. A more mainstream version of this was pushed by Fox News and the GOP after the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election, where they tried to say that people didn't vote for Mitt Romney because of "messaging problems" as opposed to their platform itself being too extreme or morally repugnant for the voting public.
Another right-wing version of this, called the "Democratic plantation", pops up every now and then to explain why non-white people (and in particular, black people) don't vote Republican. The "answer" is that they've been fooled by the Democratic Party, who repress them through food stamps and welfare into not taking personal responsibility, making them like slaves on a plantation. Never mind that the suggestion that people of color are too stupid to know what's good for them is an argument that will help turn off people of color from voting for you. (See States' Rights Democratic Party#Fallacy for details).
- Actually, according to Marx, a lot of them were. Nice save, dude.
- See the Wikipedia article on Political abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union.
- See the Wikipedia article on Sluggish schizophrenia § Use against political dissidents.
- Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology, pages 120-121.
- Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology, pages 19-20.
- Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology, pages 122-123.
- Naturally, Jon Stewart takes them to task over this