This could be fun, let’s see. The question of double consciousness raised by James Levy and amplified by Kurt Newman is still missing here, except between the lines, and the more practical, pragmatic question raised by Andrew Schroeder is also something for Part 3.
The responses to my complaint against the concept of false consciousness suggest that the debates surrounding Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions have never been settled. Well, duh. They never could be, never will be. So let’s say that the responses suggest something more interesting—that these debates have never been adequately framed for political purposes. And that leads me toward the practical question of how to frame them. In other words, What is to be done?
The three major objections I’ve heard are variations on this political theme. Suppose that you’re right about the impossibility of a unitary truth, what works under what conditions, for whom, and why? If false consciousness is a pointless concept, how can Niall Ferguson be a charlatan? (This is a prosaic way of invoking the “performative contradiction,” viz., if all consciousness is false, how can I criticize another’s argument or distinguish between rival accounts of the same phenomenon on rational grounds?) And speaking of charlatans, do you mean to say that those Germans who chose Hitler weren’t wrong—no, they were just making a perfectly understandable mistake, like “Reagan Democrats” did in 1980 and 1984?
So let’s not pull punches. This is not yet a metaphysical problem, although believe me, I’ll get there, and in due time I’ll prove that you’d better be armed by and against the philosophers. For now, try this.
Generally speaking, the men who vote Republican have a vested interest in the preservation of their extra-legal but measurable privileges as white males. They’re not all racists or misogynists; they can’t be. But neither are they wrong to act as if the world Obama represents—I mean this broadly, symbolically, as well as programmatically—is a threat to their future. In fact, they’re behaving quite rationally, unless of course you assume that Obama and the Democrats have issued no challenge to the status quo. In that case, OK, they’re lunatics who are out of touch with reality: you can repeat after Will McEvoy on HBO’s “Newsroom” and say that they don’t respect “the” facts.
Now, when someone like Niall Ferguson speaks their fevered language, but frames his fear of Obama as both an empirical proposition and a moral inquisition—we’ve become a nation of shirkers led by a black president and exemplified by a black congressman (Jesse Jackson, Jr.)!—I can say that the reality in question has been conjured by methods I can’t understand, condone, or reproduce. So, instead of calling him a magician or an alchemist, I call him a charlatan, a man who’s repressing and mutilating his assumptions about what ails us: he’s very earnestly fooling himself, and maybe the rest of us. But then all consciousness is false, no? What’s Ferguson’s special offense? Note, for now, that I did not check his facts, as every other critic of the Newsweek piece did—as if there is a body of fact independent of his perspective, method, assumptions, and values.
The women who vote Republican have a vested interest in the preservation of those privileges that accrue to their (white) male husbands, fathers, and brothers. They’re not wrong, either, they too are behaving quite rationally: they need the protection of patriarchal figures, because absent these (white) men and their privileges, the future holds penury and antithesis: a shitty job, single motherhood, and food stamps. Or an unsatisfactory divorce settlement, but, as Charles Murray has demonstrated, the working class doesn’t marry anymore, so white women of this social standing are particularly susceptible to the ideological reach of patriarchy. Practically speaking, they would have to be insane to choose lives that lacked the protection of men.
Perhaps if a Democrat explained how all Americans have actually benefited from the standards (I do not say achievement) of racial and gender equity as these have been articulated since the 1950s, the Republican Party wouldn’t have such a lock on the votes of white males. Perhaps if a Democrat could honestly say to working-class women that they don’t need to depend on their families for child care—especially men with incomes, but also relatives with time to watch the kids—the Republican Party would finally become the exclusively white, all-male country club it wants to be.
(Please note that I’m trying to prove a negative here—if only Democrats had said this, why then things would be different. Please also note that the ideological realities are the fundamentals of the argument.)
But go ahead, take up the Nazi example, the default setting of every political position that passes for moral philosophy, and vice versa. If you’re wedded to the concept of false consciousness, you’ve got two choices. The fascists lied to the people, who, without sufficient access to the facts—the truth of their situation—were duped into voting against their own social-democratic interests; or the people, having access to the truth, lied to themselves. Either way, the consciousness of the people was contaminated, distorted, falsified.
By what? Ideology? That’s like saying language got in the way of “objective social reality,” which is like saying that we have access to that reality without language, which is like saying that we’re all mad scientists. Do you want to go there, Dr. Frankenstein?
By lies? Since when do we think the National Socialists hid their intentions? The German people (minus the Jews, the Commies, and the Queers) weren’t misled by anybody, including themselves—they voted for what they wanted, the once-marginal party that promised to annihilate the Weimar Republic by being both anti-capitalist and anti-communist. As far as the volk could tell, they were voting for a version of socialism, not betraying themselves. Remember, always, that when you deputize the working class—or any class, any people—to live up to its teleological destiny, you’ve got explanatory trouble. Remember also that socialism has no predictable political valence.
Now what? Metaphysics. After Kuhn, and Barthes, not to mention James and Dewey, we know that there is no body of fact “out there” somewhere, which naturally subsists independent of our perspectives, models, assumptions, and values (our desires, attitudes, and preferences). Relativism follows, right? If the facts change according to your approach to the object of knowledge because the object of knowledge is itself constituted, not merely convened, by this approach—because you can’t observe any object without changing its trajectory—then incommensurability must reign.
In this light, the facts can’t count for or against any account because each of us has compiled different facts according to our different perspectives, models, assumptions, and values (our desires, attitudes, and preferences). Rival accounts of the same phenomenon, whether historical or contemporary, can’t then be distinguished by their respective verisimilitude. So now it’s every man for himself—finally, a new twist on the Hobbesian notion of that war of all against all—because every opinion, no matter how lacking in empirical support, is equivalent! Welcome to professional wrestling as it’s been beautifully sublimated on cable television, a rigged contest of impossibly loud equals.
Well, not exactly. Incommensurability must reign only so long as I ignore your facts and how you produced them, or present mine as if you have to agree with them—in both cases, I’m pretending that there’s just one set of facts that requires interpretation. If I want to establish commensurability, and thus the possibility of an argument over multiple truths rather than a forcible change of truth regime, I must explain to you how your perspectives, models, assumptions, and values (your desires, attitudes, and preferences) produced your facts, and then how mine not only include yours, they also answer questions you’ve raised but can’t answer. I have to become your intellectual biographer, regardless of my discipline or lack thereof.
In the heat of most blogospheric moments, you can’t afford the time and space to establish this commensurability, to have an argument as against a pissing contest. But I can now safely say, at my leisure, that the Republicans are not lying, that there are no voters like those conjured by Thomas Frank—those “rubes” who are diverted from their appointed redistributive task by “social issues”—and that Niall Ferguson, bless his heart, remains a moron and a charlatan. I don’t doubt their facts, I question their methods, their perspectives, models, assumptions, and values (their desires, attitudes, and preferences). They inhabit a different moral universe than mine, but it’s my duty, not theirs, to explain how we might learn to live in the same ethical time zone. I can do that only by explaining how their facts were produced. That means my principal claims against them are objections to the form of their arguments.
I said in the first installment that those “poor workers” weren’t wrong to vote for balanced budgets and so forth. My assumption in saying so is that the bipartisan ideological campaign on behalf of fiscal austerity stands between them and the reality the Left would like them to acknowledge and act on. Their interests are variously stated by many sides of the political divide, not to mention themselves, so that for any of us to decide in advance what those interests must be, absent “ideological distortion,” is arrogant at best. To accuse another party of “false consciousness” is to say that his truth is partial, and to nominate yourself as the bearer of the whole truth. That is why the concept itself is finally pointless. Whose truth is not partial?
For the criteria that would determine objectivity—that is, independence of the desires, attitudes, and preferences of any party—are notoriously lacking in modern politics. Alasdair MacIntyre is mistaken when he universalizes these criteria by declaring that “What is true of chess is true of all practices,” simply because the opposition of desires, attitudes, and preferences creates and constitutes the practice of politics. But my claim against MacIntyre goes deeper, because this same opposition also creates and constitutes the pilot disciplines of the modern university. It presents symptomatically, or rather professionally, as the difference between perspectives, models, assumptions, and values, but, despite what we resent about the genteel conformity of the professoriate, it’s the animating principle of the academy. Or was, until quite recently.
There is, I think, a standpoint from which a person of good faith might say that another suffers from “false consciousness.” It’s the comprehensive vision afforded by retrospect. The perfect command of a modern historian over the archival materials could allow her to argue, say, that the slave South had become criminally delusional by December 1860. Note, however, that this argument is twice removed from the scene of the crime, and is always already contested, to begin with by the inter-regional and cross-class appeal of pro-slavery ideology. Or think of yourself at a play or a movie in which each character onstage or on screen knows only a part of the reality—the big picture—which is meanwhile revealed to you, in the audience, by the entire ensemble of characters.
It is only this epistemological distance, determined on the one hand by the historian’s safe remove and on the other by the audience’s full knowledge, that gives anyone license to say that someone’s consciousness is false because it’s merely a partial truth. But again, who has the whole truth, even in retrospect? After Job, not even God believed he possessed such a thing; he reconsidered his options, eventually betting on a real long shot, the Son of Man.
And that distance I just mentioned” It’s what we know, colloquially, as irony. Nobody can think without it, except those who, like Thomas Frank, believe that their intellectual inferiors suffer from false consciousness.