False Consciousness

I have lately been troubled by the question of false consciousness, partly because none of my comrades, girlfriend included, believes me when I say that the concept is pointless because it presupposes metaphysical realism, or a correspondence theory of truth, or a notion of objectivity that is quaint at best.  Everybody shrugs off my position as another instance of my irritation at (with?)  the Left.  It is that, to be sure, but it’s more than a minor irritation, I believe, because it leads so many smart leftists into an unwitting Leninism.

Herewith, then, an excerpt from an email exchange with a smart young leftist who can’t believe that I won’t accuse workers of being wrong when they vote to balance budgets.  The crux of the matter is this: the social reality he designates as “objective” is not, strictly speaking, sociological, but is rather saturated with and constituted by language, or, if you like, ideology.   So my guess is that the objectivity of this social reality is out of anyone’s intellectual reach, Althusser included.  But you go ahead and, uh, make up your own mind.
I begin by quoting his urgent question.


Dear [              ],
I’ll address the question you asked me:

“But look, let’s drop the theoretical disagreement because I’m curious to know if you agree with the following statement. “Poor workers who think that balancing the budget is the most responsible fiscal policy, and best for their economic prospects, are wrong. When they vote for a candidate who takes that position, they vote against their own interests.”

My initial response, was “No, they’re not wrong.”

Now you say “let’s drop the theoretical disagreement” at precisely the moment you posit this hypothetical, which, all by itself, is a remarkable, and hilarious, rhetorical move.

So let me be as plain as I can be.  Poor workers who think that balancing the budget is the most responsible fiscal policy, and best for their economic interests, are wrong only if you believe–I do not say think, because this is now a matter of faith–that you can invoke “the objectivity of a social reality” (I”m quoting you) as against, I take it, a natural reality.  These “poor workers” you invoke, who also crowd the Kansas of Tom Frank’s lurid imagination, are wrong only if you believe (a) that there is a fixed, unitary social reality, an objectivity, which gets distorted by ideology, and (b) that you are immune to this ideological distortion.

Put it this way.  You actually believe that someone like you is better able to grasp the “objectivity of a social reality” than are poor workers, because your privilege, your education, has better equipped you to see the world as it really is, without the ornamentation of language, without the bias of place or time–absent the subaltern subject position they suffer from.  You’ve been able to rise above ideological distortion.  Notice what you have made of yourself: God.  Your perspective is from nowhere.  In the name of those poor workers, you have turned yourself into the God who will judge them for their sins against the “objectivity of a social reality,” the sins that usually congregate under the heading of false consciousness.

If you already know their interests, you’re omniscient.  Is that what you want to be?  If so, write novels, not history.

Put it another way.  The so-called distortions of ideology are not incidental to human existence, to be struck through as if there’s a deeper layer of reality or meaning (“the mask”) that somehow remains.  To be human is to have language and therefore to make mistakes–to discover that the relation between a word and the thing is a joke, that we’re always missing the mark, realizing that there’s no fixed correlation between the signs and the reality they signify.  To be human is to be metaphorical.  To be or not to be?  Make the mistake–make the commitment to what will probably kill you–and then see what is to be done.

Error, and therefore truth, are only possible where there is language.  I’m quoting Anthony Wilden, who’s quoting Lacan, who’s quoting Kojeve, who’s quoting Hegel.

Let me see if I can translate or summarize what they have taught me.  The meanings incarnated by our words cannot be known outside of our discourse, but it is the free play of discourse that permits words to combine, and produce meanings, in ways that do not and cannot correspond to any natural or fixed or external essence.  Fantasy is what we call this freedom from the essential, and it is the motor of human history: causative in the most fundamental sense.  Kojeve called it the ontological category of Negativity, a cool way of saying the Cunning of Reason.  Freud called it many names, Althusser wore himself out trying to explain how it worked.  In any case, ideology is a version of fantasy that blurs the R-I-S, as comrade Zizek reminds us.

The bottom line.  False consciousness is the worst possible way of explaining anything, and that includes yourself, because all consciousness is false, and, as Hegel said in passing–or maybe not–in the Phenomenology, “The false is no longer false as a moment of the true.”

Yours truly,




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16 responses to “False Consciousness

  1. Paul

    I agree with you, Jim. I have been trying, in my own way, to convince my activist friends on the left in DC that the point is not to make fun of people who have “false consciousness” (“those dumb red-staters”; i.e, the people we went to college to escape from) but to understand their grievances and, to the extent possible, speak to them seriously, not condescendingly.

    The Prius versus the Pickup Truck is one “narrative” over which I’ve conflicted with a lot of lefty apostles of the ecology. Nothing against the Prius if that’s what you want to drive, but I tend to say to people who deride those who drive pickup trucks to mind their own damn business. Pickups: you can carry a lot of stuff in them; go camping; and throw gravel around the parking lot. And what’s wrong with that? You don’t want to do that, don’t do it. But leave the other folks alone. I’m serious.

    That is, there’s no reason our economy can’t afford to make – and public policy promote – more fuel-efficient pickup trucks, if that’s what people want to drive. Who prefers to pay $75 a week for gas if they can spend that every two weeks instead? In other words, why not listen to what people want rather than use superior “moral” suasion (i.e., ecology as a religion or cultural faith) to guilt everyone with “false consciousness” into an econocar? And the Prius Apostles don’t much like it when I note that the towns and counties with the highest concentrations of Priuses are your Beverly Hills, Scarsdales, Potomacs, and the like. Because the super-rich people like to have one around to be seen in and for the maid to run and pick up the dry-cleaning. “Visible Saints” they may be, but it’s got nothing to do with the ecology.

    So it is relative, and a matter of consciousness and a cultural (and generational) issue, but it amounts to policy as well.

    (Disclaimer: I drive neither a Prius nor a pickup truck.)

  2. Dear Mr Livingston,

    I enjoy your blog (got here via Corey Robin) and have just started your ‘Pragmatism..’ book, which looks to be very stimulating. But the above is not a very convincing argument.

    To be human is to have language and therefore to make mistakes–to discover that the relation between a word and the thing is a joke, that we’re always missing the mark..

    What does it mean to ‘miss the mark’ if there is, apparently, no mark to miss? I think there is a very big difference between Hegel and Kojeve here – the latter’s ‘negativity’ and former’s ‘cunning of reason’ are hardly the same thing.

    I find your criticisms of academic elites (i.e. their self-aggrandizement) on the left, to be very refreshing and thought provoking, but what this has to do with Hegel and Kojeve and Freud is a mystery to me.

    These “poor workers” you invoke…are wrong only if you believe (a) that there is a fixed, unitary social reality, an objectivity, which gets distorted by ideology, and (b) that you are immune to this ideological distortion.

    This doesn’t make sense. You haven’t shown how they are wrong iff your a. and b. They could be wrong or right either way. Unless of course there is not a fixed unitary social reality as regards macroeconomics, in which case they can be neither right or wrong. Or something.

    I agree with you that the idea of False Consciousness is fraught with danger of various kinds, but this post doesn’t support that insight, as far as I can see.

  3. El Pelón

    Meh. I’m with Hegel in another fashion, that is, in consigning large sections of people to historical irrelevance and backwardness. All masses are masses, but some masses are more masses than others. In this case, the backwards white American labor aristocracy may just have to go to pot before they serve any sort of progressive role in history. In other words, I believe in the preferential option for the poor / specially oppressed / Third World worker. I don’t think the success of the human race is consubstantial with the success and prosperity of the American Republic (read: Empire) anymore than this has been the case with any other empire. History is a graveyard full of empires that thought they were indispensable to the fate of the cosmos, and foolish subjects who thought it would last a thousand years. In other words, yes, Virginia, the American working class is backward (read Joe Bageant) and perhaps doomed in the grand stage of history. Pandering to their backwardness isn’t going to change that, no matter how much Althusser you attempt to insert in there. (Hegel, Master/Slave, and all that… The U.S. of A is the Africa of his Philosophy of History). Shameless self-promotion of my review of Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, posted tonight as well: http://elblogdelpelon.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/the-wages-of-whiteness/ , which also covers this theme)

  4. I think that I am in agreement with your take on false consciousness, if I have understood you correctly as saying that all consciousness is more or less false. (I think we agree, too, that this recognition of the falseness of consciousness is the beginning of our problems, not a solution to the agony of existence).

    But, as Freud’s patients taught him, there is such a thing as a situation wherein being lied to makes us sick. If psychoanalysis has something true to teach us, it is this wisdom gifted to the world by those hysterical Victorian young women, who discovered that their extreme somatic distress derived from being lied to (mostly about sex). Desire is foundational; we exist because of its expression; but we must pretend as if this is not so, as if other things–maybe God, nation, duty to family, or maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain like good accountants–make the world go round. It fucks us up and makes us behave strangely, especially with one another, and extra especially in groups. This is a (the?) political problem.

    When leftists talk about “false consciousness,” sometimes they are talking about this–this thing that Freud’s patients discovered–aren’t they? What happens to our understanding of reality when powerful elites tell lies? What happens when we come to accept those lies because, among other sensible reasons, to guard constantly against deceit threatens to drag us into paranoia or cynicism?

    To return to your initial example. “Balanced budget” conservatism is a set of lies, no? A doctrine that comes with its own manufactured moral panics, phoney science, and nationalist identifications/cathexes. “Balanced budget” conservatism extrapolates from the individual oikos to the political economy of nations, a false analogy that nevertheless appeals to us because of the elegance built in to isomorphisms, and also because of a certain sadomasochistic psychic economy of common sacrifice, of sin and penance, that lends to political discourse in the US its unique jouissance.

    And: because outside of a small number of graduate seminars, reading groups, and Brecht Forum classes, it is very difficult to learn or re-learn why deficits are not dangerous, why inflation can be a very good thing for ordinary people, why countercyclical policy is sensible, why crises tend to happen, how capitalism seems to work. We have to learn that we needn’t balance budgets, just like we have to learn that God won’t kill us for eating on Yom Kippur or that a song doesn’t need to have a verse or a chorus.

    Some people understand this better than others. You, for example, understand the madness of “balanced budget” conservatism better than I do. But, in common, we both want to know; we both recoil from lies (like those of Niall Ferguson). We don’t wish to merely trust what Paul Krugman or Dean Baker tell us; we don’t want to be subservient to the “Subject supposed to know,” as the Lacanians say. This desire to know is democratic, egalitarian. We have an ethical starting point for a relationship based on our common desire for knowledge in which it is no scandal or tort that you know more than me. This is, I think, one of the important points at the heart of Jacques Ranciere’s work since The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

    Couldn’t “false consciousness” be a (bad) name for this mutual practice of desiring to know, in common; under conditions where some know more than others, but all acknowledge their vulnerability to the seductions of fantasies, the partiality of their knowledge, the imperative to avoid calcifications of power that attend situations in which some know more than others? And–here I think we might diverge, although I hope not–wouldn’t it be a good thing if the contemporary Left could shake off its guilt about “false consciousness” and “vanguardism” and proceed with our collective work of following up on and nurturing our desire to know how we have arrived to this moment and how we might go somewhere else? (And tying back to a previous post): in which case, intellectuals might well have an obvious–and ethically coherent– role to play vis-a-vis social movements, as participants in a common project (who may nevertheless bring special skills and knowledges to the table) with anybody and everybody else who also want to know.

  5. the concept [of false consciousness] is pointless because it presupposes metaphysical realism, or a correspondence theory of truth, or a notion of objectivity that is quaint at best.

    Three different things! There are some pretty good arguments for direct realism, and while they may not be conclusive, they aren’t quaint. IOW, presupposing the falseness of realism is not more defensible than presupposing its truth. In fact, one of the best of these arguments (IMHO) is one which you seem to hold by implication: that just because language is inadequate to the perfect symbolization of an idea doesn’t mean there is no idea, nor that one shouldn’t forever keep trying to so perfectly symbolize (or ‘actualize’). You don’t give up trying just because you know you will never succeed 100% (unless you have false consciousness, like Kojeve…I kid!).

    If we are talking about the poor person’s self-interest in general, I’d say you are right – the earnest Leftist can’t decide for her what her self-interest – or anybody else’s – is. But economic self-interest, which is what this student of yours must mean, is a specific thing. How the poor person ranks economic self interest among her other interests is up to her, but voting for candidates because they say they will balance the Fed. budget and keep inflation low is indeed against her economic self interest, just as publishing her social security number on her facebook page, or leaving cash on the lawn, are. Calling it ‘false consciousness’ is…yes, irritating! But the student’s insight is not wrong for the epistemological reasons you cite.

    What’s really ‘pointless’ here is the idea that all consciousness is false. The problem is in what ‘false’ means; the problem is the binary thinking. I would replace it with ‘While no consciousness is perfectly true, none is also perfectly false’.

  6. The post seems to adopt the notion that the claim of false consciousness must itself represent false consciousness in the original sense, Engels’, relative to the “reality” of the worker’s true interests, which is either to be theorized correctly, as in the classical Marxist view, or is not really theorizable at all, which seems to be the implicit view of the blogger. If the latter, if the worker’s interest is to be understood as in effect beyond understanding, as not real to theory, or not accessible to theory precisely because real, then what remains for the Left to be Left about?

  7. Yes, but the problem with false consciousness isn’t that it’s too Leninist. Isn’t the belief that you are immune to ideology just another variation of today’s predominant post-ideological capitalism?

    • Mafer

      Lenin´s “partiinost” was an open declaration of ideological partisanship.

      The question boils down to whether an individual´s political ideology is commensurable with his or her interests.

  8. James Levy

    False Consciousness VS Double-Speak: A Question

    Speaking as writers of history and our dependence on those thorny things called documents, obviously Jim has a point. Where does the “real” consciousness underlying the apparent (false) consciousness get documented? Leo Ribuffo in a response to Jim on FB suggests the excavation of the real from the muddy ground of the apparent may happen in time: eventually people get it right after reflection and become more truly conscious or, to please Jim, more self-conscious in a Hegelian “synthesis” kind of way. If this is true, then we get documentation afterall and don’t have to worry about our own condescending I-know-better-than-they-do, agency-destroying tendencies. This presupposes, of course, that people “know” themselves better after the fact than in the moment which, as an oral historian, I know all too well is a very problematic assumption. But it’s an interesting point. Still, if we see at least some merit in Jim’s argument when considering the problem of documents, we have an obvious evidentiary challenge.

    On this same logic I’d go a step further and insist also that we, those of us who identify as historians of race and in particular who write about the African American experience, should also ask ourselves similar questions about “double-consciousness” and “double-speak” (Zora Neale Hurston’s concept of humor as the “feather-bed of resistance,” etc). How do you document THAT process? The answer seems to be by finding hermetically-sealed distinct racially-defined communities of discourse. In other words, by comparing and contrasting documents by African Americans written or spoken to black audiences with those written or spoken to white audiences. Booker T Washington’s Story of My Life and Work vs. Up From Slavery, the famous repeat WPA oral history with Susan “Hamlin”/”Hamilton” are examples. But those are rare finds and the consideration of “double-speak” has gone much, much further than documents can support (see Houston Baker, Eric Sundquist, even H.L. Gates and many others on “signifyin'”).

    How should historians deal with this?

  9. It is probably bad form for me to reappear before the author responds, but I hope I may be excused because I am mostly chiming in to commend James Levy on his thoughtful questions, and to express gratitude for the Hurston phrase “feather-bed of resistance.” Somewhat miraculous for me, as two ongoing, but heretofore unrelated research projects of mine are the history of featherbedding and anti-featherbedding discourse in US labor politics, and the comic mode of resistance in African American and working class music. Had no idea the two met in Hurston’s writing; any cites you might have on this would be tremendously appreciated.

    I would add on to your question with another question and a related note: first, why “double consciousness”? Why were Du Bois and other African American thinkers committed to binarism? (Adolph Reed’s question). Or were they? Do we make a mistake to think of “double consciousness” as just another example of stale Western thinking, always “two-by-two” as Trinh T. Minh-Ha joked. Or, is this a binarism in the service of revealing an incommensurability, a contradiction that undermines the whole edifice of racial hierarchy and white supremacy? (I think this is the case). And in the service of self-promotion, I would be interested in thoughts on “false consciousness” in the Black radical antibourgeois tradition, which I get into in a blog post here: http://sadbillionaire.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/and-then-one-fine-day-the-bourgeoisie-is-awakened-by-a-terrific-boomerang-effect/ As in E. Franklin Frasier’s Black Bourgeoisie, the works of Fanon, Cesaire, and Rodney are replete with critiques of false consciousness as a particular pathology of African diasporic bourgeoisies. As much as I agree with Livingston that “false consciousness” talk can suck, I would be very hesitant to argue that Fanon or Frazier were wrong to see their Black bourgeois peers as tragically deluded.

    Finally, a note: Jodi Dean’s talk on the “communist horizon” is germane to much of this discussion, especially as it engages Lukacs in many places, and also as it identifies a collective mode of desire as the Left alternative to capitalist individualism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEjSxU-vfhE Dean’s talk made me think that part of the problem with false consciousness is an unresolved dilemma between lingering attachments to individualism (monadism, even) and an emergent socialist vision of knowing and acting collectively and in common.

    • James Levy

      Interesting comments, Kurt. Just off to bed but quickly, since you asked for the reference: Right near the beginning of Hurston’s Mules and Men, the second or third page of the Introduction she talks about the “evasiveness” of African Americans as a “people.” (Note this is “people” as in those whom Hurston addresses in her exasperated “My people! My people!” essay).

      • Thanks kindly! I have been meaning to revisit “Characteristics of Negro Expression” and now I can see that this fall will be be Hurston-heavy. Lucky me! I really appreciate the cite help.

        It seems, too, that re: Hurston and Du Bois, we might want to think about Critical Race Theory lit on code-switching as a means of survival for POC, and, always, Americo Paredes’s With a Pistol in his Hand (especially via Saldivar’s Chicano Narrative and in conjunction with Alessandro Portelli) on double meaning and the constitutive role of mistranslation/misprision in cross-cultural communication/power relations. This brings us also to Bakhtin and Bloch, two thinkers who we can probably all agree are more fun and energizing to read than all those “false consciousness”-obsessed emo kids in the groves of Hegelian Marxism.

  10. Pingback: Want to Know What « sadbillionaire

  11. Mafer

    This post is a mystification of a simple concept. In simple terms, the victim of a con-artist is a victim, regardless of what point in time (if ever) the victim realizes it.

  12. Can you really say that the Republicans are lying, and, oh, fooling half the voters? The mystery to me is how simple-minded the concept of false consciousness is–and why it captivates the Left.

  13. Pingback: James Livingston and the Unalienated Intellectual | myrivercityblues

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