Sunday, November 4, 2007

Why "false consciousness"?

The most frequently visited page on my research web site (out of more than 90 articles) is an encyclopedia article on false consciousness. Moreover, many of these visitors come from the developing world, including especially the Philippines. I am curious about these facts.

False consciousness is a Marxist concept. It refers to the hypothesis that oppressed people have a worldview that systematically conceals the reality and causes of their oppression. The concept is associated with Lukacs, Althusser, and Gramsci.

But once again, why so much current interest in the concept? It is common to observe that "Marxism is dead"--no longer a useful tool of analysis in the 21st century. But here we find a lively interest in a particular Marxist concept. Why is this concept so frequently searched on Google?

I cannot confidently answer the question. But here are a few possibilities.

First, oppression and economic exploitation are certainly not gone from the scene. And yet there is little organized economic struggle going on in the world today. Perhaps critical thinkers in developing countries are turning to false consciousness as a possible diagnosis.

Second, the rhetoric of globalization suggests that everyone gains from these processes of international trade and the global movement of capital. And yet the locally visible realities appear quite different in Chiapas or Manila. So perhaps the mis-match that appears to exist between representation and reality about the effects of globalization brings thoughtful observers back to the theory of false consciousness.

Third, it is a fact that media (including the Internet) have massive and growing ability to shape public consciousness and ideas. Perhaps this is the most visible mark of the twenty-first century. It is natural to ask, in whose interests does this shaping take place? And what kinds of systematic and deliberate bias are embedded in this media stream? What is the connection between "interest" and "representation"? Perhaps it is logical that third-world thinkers are turning to Lukacs and Gramsci in order to find tools for analyzing this system of consciousness-formation.

So perhaps the interest we found on the topic of false consciousness is understandable, a response to some current and powerful features of the current economic and social system.


Anonymous said...

I think the concept is popular in the third world also because it helps to explain why far-left parties don't win elections. For instance, in Peru and other countries where neoliberal policies dominate since some years ago, "false consciousness" is the answer the left points out as responsible of his lack of luck in the polls. And it seems to be true: Peru is going to host the next Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum and the center-right government don't stop talking about the benefits from free trade through advertisements in the media.

Linda Fox said...

I do have issues with the concept of "False Consciousness", as it has, at its core, the idea that the common people are too damned stupid to know what is "good for them". I am one of those common people, as is my family. We object to the idea that we're just not sophisticated enough to see through propaganda and emotional appeals to our common heritage.

In actual fact, the Left is most likely to fall for emotional appeals to class solidarity, fear of the future, sexual, ethnic, and racial division, and other ways that their leadership tries to direct their thinking.

Derek Hudson said...

Exactly! You can't argue emotions and they don't want anyone questioning or arguing their perspective. I think Hitler was the same way