"False consciousness"

August 19, 2015


Leftists are sometimes criticized for being condescending toward the masses, for arguing that they are prone to displaying false consciousness in their political values and beliefs. But what is false consciousness? If you examine the notion rigorously, you’ll see that, on at least some understandings, it can make perfect sense and is often applicable. All you have to do is assume that people have certain basic values and interests, such as being economically well-off, living in integrated communities, having political power, and having control over their work. Given such values, it is perfectly legitimate to criticize “secondary” values and strategies like opposing labor unions, civil rights, healthcare reform, and government regulation of business. A different kind of false consciousness is exhibited in mistaken factual judgments, such as disbelief in anthropogenic global warming and belief in God. In general, insofar as someone is immune to rational considerations, he or she is exhibiting what can be called “false consciousness.” (Truth, after all, is reached and tested through reason.)


People are free to have whatever values they want. If religion makes them happy, fine. In that respect it is reasonable for them to be religious (for it makes them happy). But in other respects religious values and beliefs can be unreasonable, namely insofar as they contradict other values and beliefs the person holds. And they often, or always, do, implicitly if not explicitly.


Anyway, it is just an obvious fact that economic and political power-structures are very good at duping people, manipulating them into voting or acting against their own interests, and having a superficial understanding of themselves and the world. There is such a thing as propaganda, after all. Is it “condescending” to want to counteract propaganda by educating and organizing people (and being educated by them in the process)? Is it “elitist” to value reason? Is it wrong to deplore the disempowerment of “the 99 percent”? People who criticize the notion of false consciousness seem to think so.

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