False consciousness

False consciousness

False consciousness is the Marxist thesis that material and institutional processes in capitalist society are misleading to the proletariat, and to other classes. These processes betray the true relations of forces between those classes, and the real state of affairs regarding the development of pre-socialist society (relative to the secular development of human society in general).

This is essentially a result of ideological control which the proletariat either do not know they are under or disregard with a view to their own POUM (probability/possibility of upward mobility) [cite journal|journal=Sociological Perspectives|title=Upward Mobility of Low-Paid Workers: A Multivariate Model for Occupational Changers|author=Marshall I. Pomer|issue=4|volume=27|date=1984-11|pages=427–442
] . POUM (not to be confused with the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification, POUM) or something like it is required in economics with its presumption of rational agency; otherwise wage laborers would be the conscious supporters of social relations antithetical to their own interests, violating that presumption.


The concept flows from the theory of commodity fetishism — that people experience social relationships as value relations between things, e.g., between the cash in their wage packet and the shirts they want. The cash and the shirt appear to conduct social relations independently of the humans involved, determining who gets what by their inherent values. This leaves the person who earned the cash and the people who made the shirt ignorant of and alienated from their social relationship with each other. So the individual "resolves" the experiences of alienation and oppression through a false understanding of the "natural" need to compete with others for limited goods.

In Marxist terms, not only is there no such objective need separate from the formulation of the general problem of production in society, moreover, Marx said each against all competition is antithetical to the very concept of society and therefore sets up a contradiction or historical dynamic which over time is resolved in favour of the class with the greatest ability to act in its own rational self interest. Ruling elites, traditional or otherwise, suffer from false consciousness to the extent that they see the social orders they command as predetermined or inevitable.


Although Marx frequently denounced ideology in general, there is no evidence that he ever actually used the phrase "false consciousness." It appears to have been used — at least in print — only by Friedrich Engels [cite book|location=London|publisher=Verso|title=Ideology: An Introduction|first=Terry|last=Eagleton|date=1991|pages=89]

Engels wrote [cite web|title=Letter to Mehring|date=1893|url=http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_07_14.htm] :

Here Engels expresses semantic baggage associated with the term "Ideology", i.e. that it implies a lack of objectivity, which the term had at the time of its introduction from German ( due in no small part to a reaction to Hegelianism). This has somewhat substantially been lost over the nearly two centuries since then as "Ideology" has come to be equivocated with "World View" or "Philosophy". False consciousness is theoretically linked with the concepts of the dominant ideology and cultural hegemony. The idea of false consciousness has also been used by Marxist feminists and radical feminists in regard to womens studies.


The notion of false consciousness has been a focus for some critics of Marxism, since in this instance simplistic interpretations of Marxist theory can appear to be implicated in the worst cases of states such as the DPRK or former Soviet Union. Within the USSR, the state deployed the concept of false consciousness to justify authoritarian measures against the working class.Fact|date=July 2007 Marxist critics of Stalinism, such as Trotsky and his followers, provide an account by which the theory is excused, on the basis that a corrupt regime is capable of perverting any theory.

The concept of ideology as false consciousness, even where it is accepted that Marx did not use the term, has tended to dominate interpretations of Marx's statements on ideology, although arguably this in fact involves a misunderstanding of Marx (see, for example, Joseph McCarney's essay " [http://marxmyths.org/joseph-mccarney/article.htm Ideology and False Consciousness] ").

In his book Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg refers to Thomas Frank's thesis presented in his book What's the Matter With Kansas? as "the old Marxist doctrine of false consciousness." [Goldberg, Jonah. "Liberal Fascism". Doubleday 2007: New York, 58-9. ]

ee also

* Class consciousness
* Consciousness raising
* Critical Ethnography
* Ideology
* Political consciousness
* Subconscious (the primary quote and Freud's work were contemporary).
* System justification


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