Monday, June 2, 2014

Is False Consciousness False?

It is an oft-repeated falsehood that 'false consciousness' was a category developed by Marx.  In fact, it only appears once in a letter to a colleague, and it was Engels who used it.

Marx had devoted his work to materialism, the position that social being determines consciousness, and that social relations and the economic base of a society determines its 'superstructure' of ideology, legal codes, superstitions, and myths.  'False consciousness' is the phenomena of the exploited class being unaware of its interests, or accepting the interests of its rulers as its own.  However, in Marx's "The German Ideology", he did acknowledge that the limitations of the productive forces correspond to the limitations of social consciousness.  Even when the productive forces were highly developed, he maintained, consciousness can hold ideas and beliefs in opposition to their advancement, as a result of the rising dominance of the mode of production  under which people experienced that mode of production much as an unnatural, divine, or spectral force.

Many post-Marxists - and I am included here - do not believe that 'race,' 'gender' and 'sexuality' are forms of 'false consciousness.'  They are not ideological groups that alienate our identity as a worker from those aspects of our 'self', such that capitalism can create new forms of labor-power to exploit, and can set some workers against others (although these groups often are at odds).

Revolutionary theory and practice needs to address the unique, concrete properties of each of these groups.  Social constructivism makes a valid point when it tells us that certain categories and hierarchies of human beings are arbitrary, biased, and prejudiced in their favoring of a 'universal' race/gender/sexual orientation against which all others are measured.

This logic doesn't extend to the conclusion that we shouldn't treat these categories as 'real illusions.'  Black men make up 9% of the U.S. population and 35% of its prison population.  Marxism can certainly explain it in terms of exploitation, the need for an industrial reserve army of workers, and the creation of a strata of workers upon which slightly more privileged workers can stand.  But each of their particular subjectivities cannot be reduced to the class determinism of orthodox Marxism.  Their struggle for the abolition of class and the State are the same, but the organs of a socialist regime will give expression to a diversity of interests based on those different subjective realities.

But we should anticipate some disagreements in the process of making decisions of management in a post-capitalist society. Blacks will rightfully demand reparations for past inequalities that do not correspond to the needs of the white or latino worker.  Minorities may have more of an interest - and a clearer idea - of an alternative to prison and incarceration.  Salaried, wealthier workers in the service sector can create cooperative techno-factories to analyze and articulate problems concerning the environment, price changes, population and demographic shifts, and quantitative analysis of crime rates and public health issues.  Such workers can be integrated into the regime in order to directly communicate and work with women, minorities, non-heterosexuals, etc., in formulating a plan that can be approved by all.  Such integration and intercommunication between sectors at various levels of production and consumption are exhaustively dealt with in Cornelius Castoriadis' 'On the Content of Socialism', which I strongly recommend any radical who has felt a certain malaise over Marx's sparse commentary on the organizational forms communism would take.  For a more detailed analysis of the interplay of difference, Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge is seminal.  Both authors will be dealt with in upcoming blogs and videos.

Lenin, in his Imperialism: Monopoly Capitalism, also said capitalism's expansion of its division of labor globally had created a 'privileged labor aristocracy' in the advanced capitalist countries, and a super-exploited proletariat in their colonial territories.  The main export to those colonial regimes was the capital, the means of production (as opposed to consumer goods).  These altered, and often destroyed, the traditional basis of their societies, and fashioned them in the image of the bourgeoisie.

As Franz Fanon wryly said, the colonizing nation would use the productive forces exported to their territories to transform a layer of their former rulers, and former independent artisans, merchants, and craftsman into an urban educated middle class that would side with their colonial masters.  The backwards peasantry, surprisingly, became the antagonistic force against their colonizers, for the simple fact that their adherence to old traditions, customs and superstitions were threatened by the modernizing effects of capitalism.

 In the U.S. today, we have a 'moral majority' Right, and Tea Party republicans who are as backwards as the peasants of Algeria in 1967.  We might consider doing the educational work of giving expression to their legitimate dissatisfaction with the state of affairs today, and carefully instructing them in the practical solutions that socialism offers.  If there is a false consciousness shaping the thoughts and beliefs of the workers, it is that of those groups, and it is our political duty to uncover it, and to show them the path to a better world.

For now, comrades, may the struggle continue, and stay self-critical!

1 comment:

  1. I neglected to link to Castoriadis, but his work may be found on, and pdf versions of Foucault abound on Google. Information should be free. Liberate the digital commons from cultural capitalists!