The Falsity of False Consciousness, Research Time, 21/05/2014

A core element of Marxist and Chomskian analysis of contemporary Western capitalism and its imperialist activities is the concept of false consciousness. I’m most familiar with the version that exists in Hegel’s work, which is where the concept first originated, even though Marx’s articulation was more popular and influential. Because Marx was such a Hegelian in his foundational concepts, I think I’m in the clear with regard to the focus of my own understanding and critique. 

Stuart Hall's work on Thatcherism would be an excellent
case study for the Utopias project.
Big pile of philosophical names aside, false consciousness is essentially the notion that one’s own framework of thinking, even though it is always basically your own power, deceives you as to how the world truly is. The British left of the mid-20th century spoke a lot about false consciousness. As they watched Thatcherism’s birth, the growth of its momentum, and its eventual transformation of all the basic goals and assumptions of British politics, Michael Bérubé and his central influence in The Left at War, Stuart Hall, describe the British left as convinced that this populist movement was a matter of false consciousness. Eventually, it would be necessary simply to point out the contradictions of bemoaning the modern dissolution of family values and the historical traditions of Britain while their economic policies themselves destroyed those values and traditions. The deception of the working classes would fall away and the conservative revolution would stop.

This did not happen.

Over the last decade in the Western left, particularly in North America, Noam Chomsky’s concept of manufactured consent has come to serve a similar function as the old Marxist adage of false consciousness did. Hall’s central critique of the old British left revolved around a simple idea: they refused to understand how people could actively choose to embrace Margaret Thatcher. As such, they never attempted to understand Thatcherism, only pointed to its internal contradictions as an ideology and waited for the false consciousness to fall apart.

The modern Chomskian left, as far as Bérubé is concerned, makes the same mistake. They presume that people would only agree with modern neo-liberal ideology because the majority have been essentially brainwashed, utterly passive. The elite-controlled media have manufactured the popular consent to their senseless ideology,* so all one needs to do to liberate people is shake them. 

* This is another aspect of the too-simple view of the world as evil agents of capitalism, the passive consenting sheep, and the few faithful who can see the truth. The Chomskian perspective ignores the fact that the so-called elites are governed by a variety of different ideologies, and are more often than not in conflict. There is no truly unified character to the media except a desperation to stay on the air that keeps most people from asking truly difficult questions.

Even for someone considered as remarkably important to
political philosophy as Frantz Fanon, I find it regrettable
that I was never taught about him in any of the
philosophy departments where I've been a student.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon talks about what it really means for a people to be free. It isn’t enough to rebel against one’s oppressors. Even if you win, your mind is still dominated by ideas of rebellion — you are reactive, seeking out enemies from which to continually liberate yourself. In such a mode, you haven’t been freed. Real freedom, he says, comes when you leave the war for liberation behind, having accepted that you have defeated oppression. You use your new free space to create some social or political project with no reference to the oppressor, the struggle, or even the victory.

To believe in your enemies’ ability to manufacture consent renders you entirely reactive, and you believe that the population who you hope to liberate cannot possibly liberate themselves. You are stuck between passivity and reactivity. Real freedom, activity, is not even conceivable, because your enemies have already won thanks to their manufactured consent, the consenting are conceived as entirely passive, and your only recourse is to shout as loud as you can.

Such thinking is lazy dissidence. It refuses to learn a key premise of Anti-Oedipus, the concept that made this book genuinely great. In this book, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari ask, not how the masses are seduced or made sheep, but why they actively choose their own repression. Until we understand the importance of why we choose to live as we do, we can never begin the process of freeing ourselves, or even conceiving of what that freedom would be.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your condemnation of Chomsky's intellectually-dishonest (or incompetent, I don't know) political theory. Sociologically, this is just a constructivist account of social life where one side does all the constructing, and the other side is a cultural dupe. Sociological theory has moved far beyond this and now focuses on cultural resources as more or less able to be instrumentalized by more or less advantaged actors. The complexity engendered by taking that step is immense, and requires empirical investigations by lots of people (not just some dude trying to get a prestigious appointment in a French university, as used to be the case!).

    In my work, I study the U.S. Army's capacity to shape public opinion. The U.S. Army is the most powerful coercive force in all recorded history -- it concentrates a very extreme level of potential violence and it is entirely capable of signaling that control to every living human being. Certainly a nightmarish scenario on the face of it, yet that power is firmly under the control of civilians, both elected and appointed. Their capacity to shape public opinion (including the defensive capacity to prevent their message from being shaped in turn) is considerable, but not overwhelming relative to private corporations (including non-profits, educational institutions and the like). How does this very strategic organization shape the democratic culture? How is it shaped by the democratic culture that infuses its agents from birth and is reflected in its own regulatory logic?

    Provocateurs like Chomsky do a valuable service of sensitizing us to the gap between the rhetoric and reality of democratic ideals, but are of little help as far as I can see in making sense of the complexities of how power is or indeed should be managed in a democracy. One of the things I'd love to see in your utopias project is a sense of how difficult cases like the use of military force can be actually manifested in the better future that we keep hearing about. That level of detail would be really interesting -- we know how these guys frame their pet issues, but how can their ideas be extended to deal with the true contradictions facing citizens in democracies? ... or indeed are we talking about a class of intellectuals who leave the messy world of the democratic state behind?

    1. Your research could actually provide a really important example to illustrate the complexity of the real world, which is a central element of the Utopias project. I'd say its central polemic element is based on an old saying of Alan Moore, that the world is rudderless and without a unifying order precisely because all conspiracies are true. Any simple explanation can find a verifying example in the world, even the explanations that contradict each other. So trying to find a simple way to make sense of the world only makes the world additionally complicated, because it introduces one more theory into the mix.

      I plan on theorizing that complexity in terms of a Bergson-inspired conception of time and becoming, which is how the project keeps from falling into the trap of essentially having nothing to say. After all, the negative part of that polemic element implies that it isn't worth theorizing about the world because it introduces needless and confusing complications, and I don't want my work to be anti-philosophical in that Wittgensteinian sense. Bergson instead offers a kind of meta-theory that can account for the proliferation of frameworks for understanding. I still need to work out the details of how the book is going to look (and get my other philosophy work published in the meantime). But you may have given me the foundation for a chapter.

      We'll talk more at the CPA in the next few days.