False consciousness – or just plain contented?

ONE of the abiding rifts in left/right political philosophy is the approach towards the poorest members of society. The failure of socialism to overthrow capitalism perplexes those on the left of the political spectrum. For those on the right it’s simple: capitalism works, it delivers well-being for most people, so there is no reason to change it.

From their perspective, however, left-leaning, often middle-class intellectuals either come to despise the working class for their weakness or blame it on false consciousness created by the dominant ideology. By this reasoning the working classes have been duped by the ruling clique into supporting Conservatism rather than Socialism – in short they are like turkeys voting for Christmas.

As Nick Cohen wrote in What’s Left: “Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan won repeatedly because large numbers of voters from the skilled working class supported them. They were never forgiven for that because from their different points of view Fabians, liberals and Marxists had hoped the working class would take power under their leadership. When it didn’t, they despised the working class for its weakness and treachery and condemned its members for their greed and obsession with celebrity.” That is quoted in a book by Christopher Snowden called The Spirit Level Delusion which looks to debunk the ideas of Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level, which purports to show that unequal societies have more social problems than more equal ones. This blog, however, is more concerned by the question of false consciousness and whether it has any explanatory power or is just wishful thinking by the left.

There is no doubt which side Snowden is on of course: “Working class indifference to inequality, so long as their own circumstances are improving, is seen as another example of false consciousness by those on the left politically.” But according to him it has nothing to do with false consciousness. He writes: “Decades of affluence, rising wages and home ownership, made the working class less reliant on paternal socialism and the labour movement.” However, in recent years that does not explain why with stagnant and reducing wages in real terms, particularly in the public sector, underpinned by austerity and the hollowing out of the public sphere, there is still no sign of ordinary people taking up the socialist cause. Worse than that, interest in politics continues to decline apace. At the same time, while the language of class war has largely disappeared from public discourse, it is still very much alive among the super rich. And as investment billionaire Warren Buffon told us: “There’s class warfare, all right…but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” And while the government rails against railway workers striking over pay and conditions, according to academics at York University more than £100 billion a year of public money is handed to corporations in various forms in what has been dubbed ‘corporate welfare’. So, what is going on? The simple rhetoric of the right, while seductive, just doesn’t seem to cut it.

A major problem is that our representative government is expressly designed to keep us as witless spectators and to keep us far from the democratic decision-making process. Citizens’ Assemblies might help to counter that problem, but there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for them, perhaps because most people are convinced that what we have is democracy without remainder. But add to that the infantilizing tendency of the advertising industry, which encourages us to abandon critical thinking and delayed gratification; the push to a cashless society with the same effect; and a social media that taps into our psychological vulnerabilities, and you have a much more complicated picture.

There doesn’t appear to be much appetite for Citizens’ Assemblies.

Many would argue that this is exacerbated by our atomized individualism, but, as Herbert Marcuse argues in one-dimensional man, there may be a case for making a distinction between atomization and individualism and to ask – individualism for whom? As Marcuse writes there is a ‘repressive ideology of freedom, according to which human liberty can blossom forth in a life of toil, poverty, and stupidity’. And he continues: “Indeed society must first create the material prerequisites of freedom for all its members before it can be a free society; it must first create the wealth before being able to distribute it according to the freely developing needs of the individual; it must first enable its slaves to learn and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.”

And lest we dismiss Marcuse as just another lefty, Douglas Kellner in his introduction points out that while he does indeed raise the ‘spectre of closing off, or “atrophying”, of the very possibilities of radical social change and human emancipation’ within capitalist society he also ‘depicts trends in contemporary communist societies that he believes are similar to those in capitalist ones’ (one-dimensional man was written in 1964).

If anything this atrophying of the possibility of social change has intensified, as indicated earlier in this blog. Inequality has also increased since then and we know that around 60 per cent of people in poverty have at least one person in their family working. Of course, there are no knock-down arguments but there is at least some plausibility in the view that there is rather more to it than the simplistic right wing approach. However, what we do about it is another matter. It sometimes feels the cause is lost and that if you can’t beat them then just join the ranks of the apathetic.

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  1. Where Marcuse’s view is introduced, I read the word “perquisite”. This is confusing, or probably misleading. I think the word “prerequisite” is what may have been intended; and it would carry a clear and quite different meaning. Please can you check your source. And if it is not a misprint, can you please consider how his opinion is to be understood? I hope you will respond to this question! Christopher Browne [01722.331972] or email/posting.


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