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On False Consciousness: Or, why the right is wrong.

This is meant to evoke false consciousness. I don't see it.

"Certain agents within the society, are deluded about themselves, their position, their society, or their interests." 

Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas & The Frankfurt School, Cambridge University Press, 1981

This is what the theorist means when they say that a system of thought is ideological, or that an expression is one of false consciousness. What they are saying is that the system of thought contains a mistake about the truth status of the content of the system of thought.

Essentially, that from time to time we hold beliefs that if we were able to step out of history and examine, we would recognise to be false. In the way that a seventeenth century slave holder, if removed from that context may be able to see that their actions, and the ideology that supported those actions, where not just ugly - but that their supporting reasoning was false.

This is a notion that some people get extremely upset about when not applied to an event with enough historical distance. We find it relatively easy to see that the seventeenth century slave owner was incorrect. Likewise, those that held that the system of slavery was a rational and justified social system are judged as incorrect - we hold that their system of thought was false, it was an ideology.

But to claim that someone may be mistaken as to what their interests, as well as those of man [Menschen](§) broadly understood, are and what social system is the best expression of those interests is criticised as patronising if applied to a contemporary discussion.

It is sometimes difficult to work out why. The idea that a person may be mistaken as to what their interests are, or that certain people believe what they believe because they reside in a certain place at a given point in history seems fairly trivial. Not at all something to get upset about, but maybe these people have false consciousness about ideology.

As Raymond Geuss(§§) points out, when an ideology is criticised [ideologiekritik] for being false it is only criticised for being incorrect. Not for being nasty, immoral or unpleasant - but for being mistaken. This is essentially the idea behind anti-smoking public health initiatives. The idea is that in full possession of the facts you may be encouraged to stop smoking. Not me though'.

We understand that many people can be persuaded with reason, and they may be persuaded that what they had previously thought, was mistaken. Doesn't seem so patronising any more does it? The notion that people might be persuaded with reason?

If we then accept that it is possible for people to be mistaken about what their interests are, it is interesting to examine different ways in which an ideology can be false. Samo Tomšič, captures the idea brilliantly, when he puts it thus;

"The main ideological achievement thus relies on the rejection of temporality, in declaring the end of history, in the false eternalisation of the dominating discourse."

Tomšič, The Capitalist Unconscious, Verso, London 2015, pp. 26

Or as Raymond Geuss puts it;

"I might then want to call forms of consciousness 'ideological' if they presented value judgements as statements of fact."

Geuss, Ibid.

A form of consciousness thus could be criticised as being ideological if it contains a false belief to the effect that some social phenomenon is a natural phenomenon(1). Another way in which we may consider a form of consciousness to be ideologically false is if it contains a belief to the effect that the interests of some sub-group within society are the general interests of everyone within society(2).

As regards to the first position, that a form of thought can be considered ideological if it contains a false belief that a social phenomenon is a natural phenomenon. This can be very well illustrated with the example of language, which is both of these things at once.

The propensity or capacity to speak a language is a natural phenomenon(3), the content of individual languages (such as Hebrew, Flemish or English) or the words they are made up of (such as those you are currently reading) is a social phenomenon.

The fact that they are a social phenomenon is relatively uncontroversial, if you're not an early theologian in search of the language spoken prior to the tower of Babel. It can be especially well demonstrated by the fact that even within a single language such as English, different language conventions exist in different contexts.

Essentially, I don't speak 'academic Philosophese' to the bloke at the pub. Nor, does the engineer, the miner, or the religious person speak in the same way to those they know are not initiated in the specific 'language game' that they are capable of playing when they speak in the context of being a miner or an engineer or a member of a given religion.

If a member of these groups where to claim, or even deeply believed it to be the case, that the specific form of a language they spoke in these contexts was a natural rather than a social phenomenon, we would want to say that they are ideologically mistaken. We might conjecture that contained in the statement is a false belief to the effect that some social phenomenon is a natural phenomenon.

When we apply this idea to capitalism as a social system we are furnished with a useful theoretical lense. The idea being that the system of capitalism is a social phenomenon, it does not represent a natural fact about the way that society must be organised.

That a social system will exist so long as it is the case that groups of individuals that interact with one another exist is a natural phenomenon. That its expression will be capitalistic is a social phenomenon - it is not necessarily the case that as long as there is a social system it will manifest as capitalism. Which can be illustrated by the fact that social systems besides capitalism have existed - ie. Feudalism, Tribal Societies or other such non-market exchange societies.

The contention is that capitalism does not represent the end of history - something will supersede it. In this context it is clear what is meant by 'the rejection of temporality(4)' and 'false eternalisation of the dominating discourse(5)'. The belief that capitalism is a natural fact that has always existed and will always exist throughout history rejects temporality, or time. It claims, incorrectly, that the dominant discourse of today has always been and will always be the dominant discourse. Thus, it is ideological.

The other way listed above that a form of consciousness could be ideologically false, when it contains a belief to the effect that the interests of some sub-group within society are the general interests of everyone within society(§§§) can also by illustrated by discourses that surround social phenomenon within capitalism.

The idea that private property(§§§§) must be beneficially owned in such a way that individuals should derive profit from it, lest they stop innovating, is an ideologically false belief. The idea here is that to encourage enterprise, it must be possible for me to make a personal profit from my labour.

What the existence of private property does however is to strip me of the benefit from my labour. Thus, if employed as a journalist it is standard practice for me to give up my claim to the ownership of my work. The rights to benefit from the monetisation of it are given over to the newspaper I work for. Likewise, the person who works for Unilever, or GlaxoSmithKlein creating new products such as pharmaceuticals. The person who writes the programme for Apple that runs the computer on which I am typing, et al.

In these cases the institution of private property does not encourage enterprise, what it does is rewards the creation of contracts that strip those doing the innovation of the right to benefit from the product of their innovation.

Thus, it is a false belief to the effect that in order for the interests of everyone in society to be served by innovation, private property is necessary. What we may want to claim instead is that, the particular interests of certain dominant groups within society are served.

The ideological claim is made that the interests represented by private property are universal, that they are possessed of everyone within society.

Which is clearly, bullshit.




(§)I'm drawing heavily on source material that is in German, as in the case of Marx and the Frankfurt School theorists. Thus, if original German word used is more appropriate or a corresponding English word that captures the totality of what I take these theorists to be saying doesn't exist I have provided the original for you in [Brackets] to cross reference with a translation dictionary - or your own brain if you speak German.

(§§) The ways in which Geuss, who is attempting to give the Frankfurt School position on the issue, believes a system of thought can be ideological are not treated exhaustively in this post. If you are interested in reading more about the issue, the work of his that I am drawing upon is an excellent introduction to the subject. Also, rather rarely for this type of philosophical thought, it is extremely clear and the argument is easy to follow. I recommend reading it.

(§§§) Given that this addresses specifically an issue of distribution of goods or power, this is inherently a political issue. It is therefore difficult, although I doubt it is impossible, to proceed in the manner I would usually like to and start off by giving an uncontroversial example. I am forced by my own limitations to go straight into politicking.

(§§§§) Private property is not your house or your possessions, that is personal property. Private property consists of articles such as factories, shops, patents and copyrights. Essentially, items from which it is possible to generate capital with no input, other than capital.


(1) Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory:Habermas & The Frankfurt School, Cambridge University Press, 1981 pp. 14

(2)Geuss, Ibid.

(3) Essentially, Chomsky argued that the human brain contains a limited set of constraints for organizing language. This implies in turn that all languages have a common structural basis: the set of rules known as "universal grammar", at least according to the theory of Chomskian Universal Grammar. Link; here. The theory has it's detractors and may one day be superseded, but so does the theory of gravity. Or any scientific theory you might put forward - there are no truths in science, only conjecture. But more or less well established conjectures.

(4)Tomšič, The Capitalist Unconscious, Verso, London 2015, pp. 26

(5)Tomšič, Ibid.


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