Since my name was invoked in the ongoing debate on Eran’s latest post (“Could there be an intellectual history about ideas”)—as someone who might know something about “false consciousness”—I hereby dedicate a short post to thinking through this term and concept. It seems to me there are at least two ways in which “false consciousness” has been used in the Marxist tradition since Engels first used it in a private letter to Franz Mering:
- False consciousness is how the proletariat (or oppressed classes more generally) internalizes its oppression. It believes that the system is working in its favor, when in fact it’s working against its interests and in favor of bourgeois interests. Working class people are dupes.
- False consciousness is that which describes how all or most people living within the capitalist system wrongly think that capitalism is the superior mode of production and human interaction, or wrongly think it’s the only viable way of living—the only alternative. We’re all dupes.
Marx never used the term “false consciousness” and never analyzed the concept in terms of its first way—in terms of thinking about working-class people as being dupes. This was for good reason and not only because it’s condescending. Rather Marx’s main project was a critique of political economy, and one of the central currents running through 18th and 19th century political economy that he sought to criticize was the idea that humans are rational agents who seek to maximize personal advantage. Homo economicus. Such an understanding of human motivation kneecaps ethics, and although Marx was focused on unmasking seeming laws of capitalism his critique was also ethical in that he pointed to less exploitative ways of living that would improve the lives of everyone. To the Finland Station. The idea that the proletariat has false consciousness is grounded in the idea that humans should be governed by narrow self-interest.
The best-known Marxist analysis of false consciousness is Lukács, Class Consciousness. To a certain degree Lukács did indeed think that false consciousness was a problem specific to the working class. He premised his study on the following essential question: if the working class understands its real interests, why aren’t all its members socialist revolutionaries? Putting aside liberal or conservative criticisms of the premise upon which this question is based—about whether socialism is indeed in the best interests of the working class—and it does engender an interesting avenue of analysis, but only because Lukács argued his way out of its potentially condescending or anti-ethical elements. He wrote that rather than analyze how people’s beliefs are true or false relative to their interests, we should “investigate this ‘false consciousness’ concretely as an aspect of the historical totality and as a stage in the historical process.” In other words, the system itself breeds misunderstanding—this was what Lukács famously referred to as reification which is now a commonly used academic term to refer to the naturalization of historically contingent ideas. In other words, Lukács started at the first way of thinking about “false consciousness” (specific to the working class) but ended at the second (more generally a systemic or historical problem).
Even though Marx did not use the term “false consciousness” in his analysis of capitalism, and although he avoided the first way of understanding the concept, he did indeed point in the direction of the second, specifically with his elegant unmasking of commodity fetishism. We cannot see the underlying social relations that give us our world of surfaces. This is what Žižek means when he claims that “Marx invented the symptom.” Capitalism violates human nature and capacity, but the process of capitalism keeps such violations hidden from us. We are alienated from ourselves.
Another term for this second form of “false consciousness” is ideology, although the ways in which that term has been used are even more varied and fraught. For a lucid and thorough genealogy of ideology see Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction. I also recommend Žižek’s Sublime Object of Ideology (this was written way before Žižek became, well, Žižek, and its theoretical originality blew my mind when I first read it). Žižek writes: “‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence.” Or; we are all caught in a web of unreality.