The Falsity of False Consciousness

(Photo: AP Photo/Steve Helber)

People do not always behave the way we think they ought to behave. We often perceive others as behaving in ways we think is contrary to their self-interest. This seems crazy or foolish. We then accuse these persons of “false consciousness.”

The term itself was invented by Friedrich Engels in the late nineteenth century to explain why workers (or at least some workers) didn’t support workers’ parties at the polls or didn’t support strikes called by a union. The answer for Engels was that, for some reason, these workers misperceived their self-interest, suffering from “false consciousness.”

The remedy was twofold: Those with the approved level of “class consciousness” should seek to educate those whose “class consciousness” was deficient. At the same time, they should pursue as far as possible the political actions that are dictated by class-conscious individuals and organizations.

This mode of remedy had two advantages: First, it justified the legitimation of whatever action “class-conscious” organizations pursued. Secondly, it allowed them to condescend to those accused of “false consciousness.”

The concept of “false consciousness” (although the term is not used today) and the remedy it suggests has its parallel in the widely-shared analysis that is currently made by well-educated professionals about the behavior of persons with less education. Large numbers of workers have been supporting Donald Trump and so-called far rightwing organizations (as have similar groups in other countries supporting figures similar to Trump). Many well-educated opponents of Trump perceive his support by poorer persons as an irrational failure to perceive that supporting Trump is not in their interest.

The remedy is also parallel: They seek to educate the misguided supporters of Trump. They also continue to try to impose their own solution to contemporary political problems, ignoring the weak level of support from the lower strata of the population. Their scarcely-veiled scorn for the misguided poorer strata comforts them in their own actions. They at least are not falsely conscious.

They understand what Trump’s real program is, and understand that it is in no one’s interest apart from that of a small minority of the population, the 1 percent. Paul Krugman expresses this view regularly in his column in The New York Times. This is what Hillary Clinton meant when she made the maladroit statement about half of Trump’s supporters coming from the “basket of deplorables.”

It never aids anyone in analyzing the real world to presume that others do not act in their self-interest. It is far more useful to try to discern how these others envisage for themselves what is their self-interest. Why do workers vote for rightwing (even far rightwing) parties? Why do those whose standard of living has been declining or who live in rural areas with weak infrastructure support a man and a program based on decreased taxes for the wealthy and reduced safety nets for themselves?

If one reads the statements they make on the internet or in answers to queries from news reporters, the answer seems clear if complex. They know they have been doing badly in terms of income and benefits in the regimes led by more traditionally Establishment presidents over the previous twenty years. They assert that they see no reason to presume that continuing the previous policies will improve their situation. They think it is not unreasonable to assume that they might do better with a candidate who promises to govern in a completely different fashion. Is this so implausible?

They believe that the slightly redistributive promises of the previous regimes have not helped them. When they hear these same regimes boast of (and vastly overstate) the social progress they have made in aiding “minorities” to be better integrated into governmental programs or social rights, it is easy to understand they associate redistribution and minorities, and therefore conclude that others are advancing at their expense. This is in my view and that of most opponents of the Trump regime a very incorrect conclusion to draw. But is it a better one to believe that a Hillary Clinton regime would serve them better?

Above all, Trump listened to them, or at least pretended to listen to them. Clinton scorned them. I am not discussing here what kind of social program the left should offer now, or should have offered during the last election. I am merely suggesting that the language about false consciousness is a way of hiding from ourselves the fact that everyone pursues their self-interest, including the “deplorables.” We have no right to condescend. We need to understand. Understanding the motives of others does not mean legitimating their motives or even negotiating with them. It means we should pursue social transformation realistically without blaming others for not supporting us by arguing that they are making errors of judgment.