Marxists like to talk about ‘false consciousness’. But what exactly is it? The term false consciousness was used by Friedrich Engels in his 1893 letter to Franz Mehring. Engels writes,
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. (Engels 1893)
His example of false consciousness is people thinking of the history of ideas as a succession of abstract thinkers producing thoughts independently of the society in which they lived and overcoming previous generations of thinkers with better thoughts. Such a view is a form of false consciousness since it ignores that the history of ideas is bound up with the history of society. Thinkers live in societies and so their thoughts change as society changes. Indeed, the very idea that the history of ideas is a history of great men with great thoughts who live outside of history is itself a product of a particular kind of society. Someone who ascribed to this view of history would therefore have false consciousness in two senses. Firstly, they would have a false view of the history of ideas. Second, they would have a false view about how they came to hold the views they do.
Building on Engels, we can hold that false consciousness refers to consciousness which is false or inappropriate in a general sense. Lorna Finlayson distinguishes between five different kinds of false consciousness in her book ‘An Introduction to Feminism’. These are,
1. A false belief about the world. For example, a worker who thinks capitalism doesn’t oppress them or a misogynist who thinks women are innately bad at maths.
2. An inaccurate representation of the world. For example, a woman who looks in the mirror and sees herself as ugly and larger than she actually is.
3. An emotional response that is inappropriate to the situation. For example, a victim of abuse who blames themselves for their abuse and venerates their abuser.
4. The failure to notice a relevant truth. For example, a white person who doesn’t notice racism and thinks they live in a “post-racial’ society, or a man who doesn’t notice the reproductive labour that women perform.
5. The failure to experience a certain emotional state. For example, a capitalist who doesn’t feel empathy for their employees or a trans-person who doesn’t love themselves because of internalised transphobia. (Finlayson 2016, 15-17)
A further distinction can be drawn between mere false-consciousness and ideological false consciousness. False-consciousness is not necessarily political since I am technically experiencing false consciousness when I think it is Wednesday but it is in fact Thursday as I have a false belief about the world. But the kind of false consciousness which Marxists are interested in is false consciousness which is produced by particular power relations and is therefore inherently political. This is ideological false consciousness, which refers to false consciousness whose existence and character is explained by its tendency to promote the interests of one social group over another. (Finlayson 2016, 18)
An example of ideological false consciousness is patriarchal ideology, which consists of the distorted ways of seeing, feeling and relating to the world which exist and have the character they do because of their tendency to further the interests of men, who are dominant, over women, who are subordinate. (Finlayson 2016, 18, 21) For example, the idea that women are naturally best suited to child care contributes to a situation in which women do the majority of child care and are expected to by people of all genders. This idea helps reproduce patriarchal gender roles and patriarchy’s gendered division of labour by ensuring that people think this arrangement is natural and should exist and by producing people who judge the worth of women relative to their success at being mothers. This in turn leads women to feel compelled to do the majority of childcare so that both others and themselves do not judge them as failing to be good women. The fact that this idea reproduces patriarchy in turn explains why the idea exists and permeates patriarchal culture. After all, young girls are taught these ideas as children in order to prepare them for an adulthood in which it is assumed that they will be mothers and wives.
One important feature of false-consciousness so understood is that it affects both the oppressor and the oppressed. In the case of patriarchy, for example, people of all genders possess patriarchal false-consciousness, although it takes different forms depending on sex, gender, race, class, the country you live in, the culture you grew up in and so on. (Finlayson 2016, 21) One of the most startling examples of this in the modern world is women who make their living on youtube by attacking feminists and validating the misogyny of their majority male audience. Since women are just as much subject to patriarchal ideology as men we should keep in mind that just because a women does or thinks something does not automatically mean that it is furthering the emancipation of women or that it reflects an accurate understanding of gender relations in our society.
In a similar fashion, both workers and capitalists experience capitalist false consciousness. A worker may falsely believe that there is no alternative to capitalism, while a capitalist may falsely believe they have earned their wealth through their own hard work, when in reality they have exploited the labour of others. Marx himself thought that the English philosopher and utilitarian Jeremy Bentham suffered from capitalist false consciousness. In Capital Volume 1, Marx describes Bentham as “that soberly pedantic and heavy-footed oracle of the ‘common sense’ of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie.” (Marx 1990, 758) He continues in a footnote, “[w]ith the dryest naiveté he assumes that the modern petty bourgeois, especially the English petty bourgeois, is the normal man. Whatever is useful to this peculiar kind of normal man, and to his world, is useful in and for itself. He applies this yardstick to the past, the present and the future. . . I should call Mr Jeremy a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.” (Marx 1990, 758-9, note 51)
False consciousness is thus not a patronising idea about the benighted masses suffering under delusions consciously created by a conspiracy of capitalists. In reality, the capitalists and their ideologues are subject to a vast amount of false-consciousness themselves, as can be seen when one reads fortune magazine or neo-classical economics or when one watches interviews with silicon valley entrepreneurs talking about why they are successful.
Engels, Friedrich. 1893. Engels to Franz Mehring.
Finlayson, Lorna. 2016. An Introduction to Feminism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marx. Karl. 1990. Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin.