Revisiting False Consciousness

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.





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14 responses to “Revisiting False Consciousness

  1. Ian MacDonald

    So you’re saying that tax cuts for the upper quintile does spur growth and hiring and that net private investment since 1920 has grown as a function of the GDP? Good to know… (After all, to say otherwise would be to represent a simple “positional valence”, no?)

    Of course, you’re making a similar act of what I might call stereotyping. When Ryan or Romney argue that Obama is robbing Medicare of 700+billion, they know, first, that this has nothing to do with benefits for Medicare recipients, and, second, that their own plan recommends the same cuts. This is cynical lying, an act of accusing the opposition of what you are in fact doing to make any accusations to oneself register as “sour grapes” or retaliation. But you underestimate a GOP defender to suggest that s/he doesn’t, necessarily, know the game that’s being played. It’s the game that many of them love–a rhetorical position to allow them political credence against a social milieu that they generally dislike. I contend that those FB interlocutors I’ve met that leverage the tactic of cynical distortion and displacement are well aware of the disingenuousness of their positions, but want to create a *public* perception of doubt over the issue at hand.

    Also, one of the problems I’ve had with a hard-line pragmatic semiotization of “truth-value” is that empiricism dictates otherwise, at least the empiricism I’ve experienced. Planes fly and objects fall at 9.81 m/ss not based off a collective linguistic agreement (unless you believe that if we all stopped buying this whole “jumbo-jets-can-fly” thing, all the planes would drop out of the sky) but because even before the Australopithecus moved on to a Habilus and onto a Jersey Shore watcher, there were ways the world worked. There *are* some facts that cross even linguistic boundaries (which is why physicists from multiple linguistic and cultural backgrounds can build the same machines that do the same thing). You can argue that economic evidence doesn’t fit red-spectrums or gravitation on the scale of empirical reproducibility and verification (although you make the opposite case in *Against Thrift* regarding investment) but the pragmatist claim taken too far flirts with solipsism. You can mollify it with a claim like “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,” but if I hold a gun to someone’s head and pull the trigger, they don’t need to agree that the the velocity of the lead particle leaving the barrel needs such and such momentum to breach the skull casing and kill you. That will unfold regardless of social consensus. Not everything is up to the committee.

    I think what you’re identifying is the root anthropological nature of the economic “science”. It’s a social science. It depends on some pre-understanding of how “People” think and act. That no matter how many graphs and figures, the intricacies of how people work within economic systems in the 21st centuries defies any easy answer in a graph. And I can jump on board with that.

    But let’s not throw out isotope decay cycles with the news cycle. They didn’t just land a rover on Mars because everybody agreed to make Mars’ gravity act in a way that corresponded to the approaching lander. We had to adjust to, well, the facts on the ground.

  2. Ian, I assent to the law of gravity, and also agree that a bullet to my brain would kill me. What follows? That is, what would change about my argument regarding false consciousness, its intellectual antecedents, and its political implications? It seems pretty obvious to me that if I object to this concept, I don’t have to deny the science of global warming.

    • Ian MacDonald

      I guess that’s my question. Your claim suggesting that there is no “body of fact independent of his perspective, method, assumptions, and values” suggests precisely that. While I agree (as I often do) with the bulk of your position here, your stance seems to be that the issue isn’t one of getting “facts” straight (since they are inherently biased) but on developing a more compelling narrative.

      Clearly, that’s a part of it, and a part that the left has grown notoriously bad at. But it’s one thing to identify the emotional pulls towards a certain narrative regarding the aims of a culture, and quite another to aver that “we know that there is no body of fact ‘out there’ somewhere.” This is true in a temporally unbounded plain where Newton’s macrophysics, say, will eventually be strained by the behavior of subatomic particles, but I think there are various spheres in motion here, even in the play of facades that is modern politics, where certain claims can be categorized as lies. So I can’t concur that “the Republicans are not lying, that there are no voters like those conjured by Thomas Frank.” Romney’s claims, for example, regarding Obama’s welfare changes have been checked into and found to be blatant misinformation by multiple sources–and yet the commercials here in southern Ohio continue to play. You can argue that those running them believe the distortion to be truth–this is no stretch; but I don’t think this serves as a kind of epistemic performative that undoes the question of validity in the claim.

      You claim not to “doubt their facts,” and yet I feel that you do. Regularly. You doubt that private investment spurs growth and you have the charts to prove it. I think the question of bad faith here has a lot of pull, but just because all faith in this contest isn’t bad doesn’t dissolve any chance of there actually being bad faith. The Romney campaign thinks that commercials, even explicitly deceptive ones, will resonate more effectively than clarifications that prove the deception on the internet. And they’re probably right. But do they believe what the fact checkers have proven incorrect? You’d have to take them as far more ideological, and far less strategic, than I’m willing to.

      • The Romney-Ryan claim to the effect that Obama would cut ca. $710 billion from Medicare is not a lie. They would too. The question is why and how and what effects. Those ads you’re seeing stop short of saying that the Romney-Ryan cuts will be permanent, and lead to vouchers. Something like saying, “No sir, I didn’t cross the street to kill Bill at 8:00.” It’s not a lie because (a) I crossed the street at 8:17 and (b) did not to intend to kill Bill, just beat him with a stick. I’m leaving a lot out, but no one could convict me of perjury. This seems way too legalistic, I’m sure, but the point is that they don’t even have to lie to persuade voters. Their constituents don’t like big government, even if it’s what they need.

      • Ian MacDonald

        I wasn’t talking about the Medicare “cuts”, but about the work for welfare claim, which has been gutted by numerous sources and yet which is still proudly stated. But it was only a topical example that some facts can be doubted. Women don’t produce an anti-rape pregnancy blocker. This isn’t a fair-game interpretation of the facts–it’s a blatant distortion of the facts on the level of questioning gravity.

        The problem with utilizing Derrida is that, like nitro-glycerin, he’s liable to blow up in one’s face. Once you begin to deconstruct truth value, you can as easily render the discussion itself moot. To talk of right or left is to create a hierarchy which then can be subverted and rendered incomprehensible, so that there neither is nor is not bad faith but then there’s no good faith either. Deconstruction is a useful sacred trick–to undo the dichotomies of the world rendering it Nirvana, but it’s not too helpful if you still want to hang onto anything after the fact.

        It just felt to me like the call for the lack of facts came off as too holistic and cavalier. I understand the Nietzschean undercurrent here, but I always took him a little tongue in cheek. “[W]e know that there is no body of fact ‘out there’ somewhere.” You don’t say…Is that a fact?

  3. nicholaskiersey

    Just viz. fascism: it seems to me you are not in bad company in saying there was a certain ‘truth’ to German fascism. Foucault, for example, in his ‘Introduction’ to Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, makes precisely the same point. So I wonder if you have read that piece, and what you make of it. One interesting that is going on there, however, is D&G’s ontology of desiring production. Now, you have said you are opposed to the “pathos of production”. But in a way, I think what you are opposed to is the pathos of a narrow definition of production. You say it yourself, you question not the rationality of Frank’s “rubes” (and neither would Foucault), you question their “desires, attitudes, and preferences”. Isn’t that a perfect segue to talking about desire/knowledge/power? Aren’t you in a sense, like Hardt and Negri in Commonwealth (who are quite wedded to the D&G paradigm), suggesting that in a postmodern world piled high with affect, and where value is increasingly crowd-sourced, the battleground is more passional than rational?

  4. jonnybutter

    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. 

    Seems to me you make a pretty good, and overt, attempt to settle something later in your essay, which I will cite in a minute.

    Khun himself never had an answer for how, if two paradigms are literally (rather than poetically) incommensurate, there can be a rational basis on which to choose one over the other. The easy answer is that there just isn’t such a basis, but that answer has a lot of bad implications; it’s easy to say, but hard to believe. Still, if a person does believe in that sort of postmodern mumbo-pocus, then their view and mine really *are* incommensurate, and it’s the end of the discussion. As Kuhn left the problem, the end of the discussion is *always* nigh.

    saying language got in the way of “objective social reality,” …. is like saying that we have access to that reality without language,

    I think the point you are trying to make here is debatable, at least. It depends what you mean by ‘access’. Your points about language are mostly well taken, but it still doesn’t follow from them that because what it is words are symbols for are represented imperfectly, or indeed even overweeningly, by those words, that therefore the actual things symbolized don’t exist or aren’t as real as anything else. There clearly sometimes is, in my experience, non-verbal ‘access’ to what words symbolize (and, btw, there is nothing *necessarily* wrong with bi-directional refinement, is there?). Ask any creative person – scientist (Einstein, Kekule) , artist, or wonderful multi-disciplinary historian and writer. I’m no Einstein, but when he talks about seeing ideas as something akin to shapes/colors, I know and have always known what he means, despite the laughably inaccurate metaphor. Because ‘shapes’ and ‘colors’ are, strictly speaking, inadequate to what they are supposed to designate doesn’t mean that we have no access to them. How can I have written that last sentence otherwise?

    If I want to establish commensurability…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.
    This sounds like a reasonable approach to Kuhn’s problem (well, one of his problems). It also sounds like exactly what some ‘unwitting leninists’ (maybe not T. Frank) want to do. Sounds to me like you’re saying that it may be a good faith act to posit false consciousness in retrospect – having done all the attendant work – but it’s nonetheless wrong because ‘who has the whole truth even in retrospect’? So if it’s good faith (but still wrong) to do in retrospect, why the problem with using the past to explicate the present?
    Oh well, it’s pretty easy to criticize, isn’t it?
    ‘False Consciousness’ really is an offensive term, and you make the case for that very well. The political criticism part of this essay is very convincing and very fresh. Writers like you give me hope that the Western Left might yet get the enema it so desperately needs – because we just as desperately need a Left which isn’t moribund (how ever the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are defined in future). I do think there are problems with your theory side of things – i.e. the philosophy stuff. Luckily it doesn’t matter.

  5. P. S. Eudonymous

    I don’t see any need for the concept of false consciousness but your rejection of that concept is more than an imminent critique, it seems like you rely on some alternative theoretical points. Within your perspective, setting aside false consciousness, how would you account for people who deny climate change science and vote for candidates who do the same? Relatedly, it seems like you would reject the concept of ‘political mistake’ altogether. Is that correct?

  6. Re: IPM and Eudonymous, my “alternative theoretical points” are drawn from Alasdair MacIntyre’s writing on Kuhn, epistemology, science, and broader history of philosophy. Not so much Derrida, although whose sensibility is not informed by deconstruction these days? Denying climate change may be a form of magical thinking akin to religious faith; it’s more likely a rear-guard action against what its constituents believe is a statist agenda. In any event, I wouldn’t call religious faith “false consciousness,” either.

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  8. Interesting piece and while I mostly agree, how did we get here? In the mid fifties, “generosity was voted the most conspicuous American characteristic, followed by friendliness, understanding, piety, love of freedom, and progressivism. The American faults listed were petty: shallowness, egotism, extravagance, preoccupation with money, and selfishness.”* Was it through Phillips-Fein’s ‘Invisible Hands?’ Is the present consciousness a creation? If so, is it a false consciousness, or were the fifties a false consciousness. How do ideas become acceptable means for consciousness.

    *William Manchester “The Glory and the Dream” quoting George Gallup’s Institute of public opinion.

  9. Tom

    “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).”

    I don’t think “we” know any such thing. These are still live questions in philosophy and really only make sense within that discipline. It always pains me to see controversial philosophical theories reported as established facts (or whatever phrase that denotes doing more or less the same thing in practice) in some of the social sciences, because they are no such thing. People who study this stuff as philosophers have nowhere near this confidence in the theories, and for good reason (and because they don’t have to have such confidence).

    Whether or not this stuff is “true” in a metaphysical sense is debatable, but in the rhetorical or sophistical sense (i.e. that you need to assume it in actual political debate given the diversity of beliefs that people hold) it is obviously true. Hence the effectiveness of the Socratic strategy that you mention (and you are surely correct in doing so).

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