Sunday, October 23, 2011

False Consciousness and the Analytical Power of Karl Marx

Karl Marx & Freidrich Engels
It's easy to dismiss Marx, certainly easier than trying to engage his complex and often overwrought ideas.  Yes, he got some stuff wrong (or at least incomplete) in his analysis of capitalism (the labour theory of value comes to mind).  But he got some other important stuff very, very right.  One of his key observations is that the capitalist system acts an efficient obstacle to class reality.  This is why The Matrix is such an interesting critique of capitalism (even though it has Keanu Reeves in it!).

False consciousness is one of the key mechanisms the capitalist system maintains itself.  Now, I'm not trying to say (nor was Marx) that the vampire squid that it capitalism is a conscious entity, rather the mechanism by which it operates tends to obscure the manner in which it operates.  Capitalism operates in a way that prevents the participants operating within the capitalist system from seeing the "man behind the curtain" of capitalism.

For Marx, it always boils down to class.  There are two.  Workers and Capitalists.  That's it.  Fin.  Nada mas!  There is no "working class," "middle class," "upper-middle class," etc.  There are only workers and capitalists.  If you earn a living by selling your labor to another, you are a worker.  If you earn your living by accumulating that labor and converting it to capital, you're a capitalist.

So if class is so important to understanding the relationship between workers and capital, why is it so little discussed?  Because... wait for it... wait for it... false consciousness!  See?  I told you we'd get here.

Although Marx never used the phrase "false consciousness," his colleague Engels used it.
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. Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought; indeed its origin seems obvious to him, because as all action is produced through the medium of thought it also appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought.
Ideology derives from a though process that is clouded by motives external to the thought motives apparent to the thinker.  This sets up a false consciousness about what and why things are the way they are.  The filter of capitalism obscures the reality of the circumstance in which the thinker thinks.

So how does this play out in terms of modern thought and action?  Put simply, we've erected a series of biases that ensure American's do not recognize the relationship between their economic situation and their lack of class consciousness.  As American's we do not like to talk about class.  It rankles our sense of equality and egalitarianism.  But that also serves the purposes of the economic ruling elites, the wealthy 1%.  They are able to leverage and exploit our belief in equality to paint mechanisms designed to improve the equality of Americans as "socialism" or "class warfare."  Things like progressive taxes, inheritance taxes and food stamps get paraded as examples of unfairness by the right.

Let's take a look at some of the psychological biases that facilitate American's false consciousness.

First, there is the illusion of control which causes people to over-estimate their chances of escaping from poverty or the working class through their own efforts, and so under-estimate the importance of collective class action.

The in-group heterogeneity bias (which is the opposite of the out-group homogeneity bias) which causes people in similar economic circumstances and position to exaggerate the differences between themselves and others in similar circumstances hence failing to identify with a common class.  For instance, historically trade unions and industrial unions did not see commonality between the state of their members.  But eventually, though continued attacks upon unions of both types, they recognized they had more in common than differences.  More recently, private sector workers attacking public sector workers because the public sector workers had better benefits instead of going back to their own employers and demanding a better benefits package.  It made more sense to those private sector workers to identify with the owners of capital for whom they worked even though they had much more in common with the public sector workers.

One of my personal favorites, the just-world fallacy enables people to think that victims are to blame for their fate.  It allows people like Herman Cain to express the view that the 99% protesters need to just "get a job."  And it allows the TeaOP to applaud the death of the uninsured and the execution of innocent people.  It permits the police and juries to excuse rapists because of the way the victim was dressed.  In terms of fals consciousness, the poor are thought to be deserving of their fate even if the cause of their poverty lies elsewhere.

The American Dream is a classic example of the optimism bias.  This bias leads people to think they will succeed if only they work hard enough, and blinds them to the reality that their class position will ensure that they remain stuck in the present socioeconomic circumstance.  This is one of the cruelest of the biases because is masks reality with a fase optimism.

Stockholm Syndrome ensures that people who are working class or poor identify with their economic captors through the operation of the optimism bias.  This helps explain why the Tea Party and poor GOP supporters so vigorously defend attacks on teachers and other public workers.

So how can we overcome these biases that lead us to false consciousness?  We first need to be aware that they are there.  This is harder than it seems.  You have to question all your assumptions about why the world is organized the way it is.  You have to get beyond simple notions of "we invaded Iraq for oil" and see that we invaded Iraq because the military-industrial complex needed money and the easiest way to do that was to start a war and burn through ordinance.  They also ensured that a great deal of the non-combat functions were outsourced to private industry thereby funneling vast sums of money from public coffers into private.

From a class perspective, we need to appreciate the fact that America's class boundaries are nearly impossible to penetrate.  Poverty, like wealth, is inherited.  And that, more than anything, demonstrates the need for the poor to start identifying with one another as a common class.


  1. Question for you. i am having troubles with a class assignment. I needs to answer " give a few reasons why the Tea Party movement can be seen as a start to a Marxist revolution and the end of capitalism.How can the Tea Party movement bring on this revolution?" i have been working on this for days. if you any suggestions please let me know.

    1. Well, I'd be happy to help you if I knew who you were... :-) I don't see the Tea Party as a direct precursor to a Marxist-style revolution, but perhaps as a catalyst to increased class consciousness which in turn might lead to a more European-style social democracy. I don't think there's much chance of an actual Marxist state to be established in America.

    2. But clearly, the re-election of Obama and the complete and utter surprise expressed by a vast swath of Republicans is a classic example of this problem. The bubble-world conservatives inhabit produces a radically altered world-view from what the actual world actually is.