False consciousness: who has it?
Since the middle of the 19th century this ideal has animated the struggle to achieve universal suffrage (“one person, one vote”). This goal was attained in the United States with the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920. The process took longer in other Western democracies. But the principle was established. Others on the extremes of left and right might flirt with authoritarianism, or with some form of “guided democracy,” but for liberals the people must be sovereign.
But something funny has happened on the way to the Forum Populi. In fact it is happening right now. I quote a couple of paragraphs from an essay by the pundit Michael Kinsley (“Election Day,” NY Times Magazine, Nov. 5, 2006).
“How can people want what is so obviously wrong? Democracy must be flawed to produce an electorate so badly mistaken. No one forces me to believe what I believe. I believe it because reason has told me that it is right. Reason is equally available to every citizen. If self-interest cut the other way, that would be one thing. But the self-interest of most citizens coincides with what I believe, or so it seems to me. So in a fair fight my side should win. If my side doesn’t win, that proves the fight is not fair. The other side is cheating.
“Thought like this must have gone through the minds of some liberals over the past few decades. After all, apart from cheating, there are only two possibilities: either you are wrong (and need to undergo intensive self-flagellation followed by extensive reinvention), or the voters are wrong (and even to think this is a severe violation of democratic etiquette). It is unattractive to say that the voters are wrong. But if reason has led you to a certain set of political beliefs, the fact that others disagree perhaps should give you pause, but it should not automatically change your mind, no matter how many others there are.”
If the people would just educate themselves! At least enough so they could be halfway as savvy as Michael Kinsley.
Yet why must we all morph into political junkies? Especially since even those who immerse themselves in the muck of retail politics readily grant that it is just that: muck.
We hear the following refrain often now. People in Kansas (and the heartland in general) don’t know what is best for themselves. That is why, according to Thomas Frank and others, they keep “voting wrong.” Could it be, though, that by their own standards they are voting right?
A little detour into the realm of the history of ideas affords helpful perspective. Those who adopt this idea of the masses voting against their own interest have unwittingly adopted a neo-Marxist concept stemming ultimately from the critique of ideology in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In line with this thinking ideology is conceived not as conscious deception but as a “necessary false consciousness,” a mentality that is shared by the rulers and the ruled. Characteristic of the capitalist version of ideology is the fetishization of money, profit, and consumerism—as well as reification. Those who subscribe to this approach cast a veil over real social relations. The distorted perception that results is taken to be nature itself.
This way of thinking was adopted and extended by the so-called Western Marxism of Ernst Bloch (1918) and George Lukács (1923). The image of reality that afflicts the masses is one that masks true perception of the way things are; hence it is “false consciousness.” It is in the interest of the ruling class to propagate such views. In doing so, however, the rulers often end up believing them their selves. The false consciousness is “necessary” because otherwise the bourgeois order would fall apart.
Needless to say, the neo-Marxists assumed that this collapse was already under way. The only thing one need do is to heighten the contradictions. Then the whole edifice will come tumbling down. It did not happen, of course.
So much for the history of this flawed idea. Even taking it at face value, two heretical thoughts intrude. What if the false consciousness is a perennial, perhaps eternal characteristic of the human condition? We all know people—perhaps even ourselves—who get through life by cherishing illusions that make them feel better.
An even more serious problem is the following. It may be that those who are allegedly prisoners of false consciousness actually have true consciousness. Take those conservative white voters in Kansas. What do they have to gain from racial quotas and affirmative action? The rich and powerful will always takes care of their own. But what of the offspring of the little guy and the little woman? And speaking of those offspring, people in the heartland believe that if possible their children should not grow up gay. It is too bad that they are not more enlightened. Yet how are we supposed to sell these heterosexuals on the idea that they must be indifferent as to whether their children turn out to be heterosexual or homosexual?
Then there is the matter of border control, that cause championed mainly, we are told, by such purported bigots as Lou Dobbs. Without saying so directly, the liberal elites favor the current policy of looking the other way at the tide of illegal immigrants. (At least the PC expression “the undocumented” is no longer obligatory). The Wall Street Journal, which also favors the open-door policy, understands the matter perfectly. Business loves these illegals because they make docile workers who hold everyone’s wages down. And yes there are illegals in Kansas too. This flood of immigrants is helping to destroy the living standards of native-born American workers.
In a related phenomenon, jobs continue to go overseas in the interest of free trade. To be sure, the rubes have the solace of buying cheap Chinese-made goods at Walmart. But for how much longer? Buyers’ budgets are shrinking, and because of our enormous and growing debt to the Bank of China the whole arrangement may unravel.
But all this is of no moment in the Peoples Republics of Santa Monica, Berkeley, Madison, and Manhattan. Those arrogantos cheer because the liberal elites have stuck it to the rubes in the heartland. Then they add insult to injury by saying, “We know what is in your best interest, and you don’t. So shut up and obey.”
One Democrat definitely gets it. He is Jim Webb, who is running to replace “Senator Macacawitz” (George Allen) in Virginia. In his book published some years ago, Born Fighting, Webb characterizes the elite assault on the heartland folks as follows. “For the last 50 years the Left has been doing everything in its power to sue them, legislate against their interests, mock them in the media, isolate them as idiosyncratic, and publicly humiliate their traditions.”
Before I conclude this jeremiad, let me acknowledge that there is another group that requires critique. It is my own tribe (in so far as I have one). According to Libertarians, we should all favor limited government and personal liberty. With this dual commitment we can all reach our real potential.
Yet what if people prefer big government as long as it favors their interests? The heartlanders are not opposed to big government as such, but only reject it when, in their view, it has been hijacked by the special interests of the blacks, feminists, and gays. Many lower middle-class people live from one paycheck to the next, rarely in the best neighborhoods. Security is important to these folks. And that means both efficient policing (with not too much attention to the niceties of civil liberties) and a strong national defense. After all, for many in those circumstances military service still offers a chance to better oneself. In addition, ordinary Americans tend to equate personal freedom with anarchy. Freedom is fine, as long as it is practiced within the limits of godliness. Uh, oh, here is another allegiance that the bien pensants are certain that the folks shouldn’t have.
As always, the liberal elitists know what is best for others. They also know, without the shadow of a doubt, that the others should know it too. Alas for these dreamers, the peasants are not cooperating.
I am not a big-government guy. If I have any redneck background, it has long since withered beyond recognition. I’m a gay activist. I live in Manhattan.
If someone in my circumstances can imagine what people in the heartland are thinking, why can’t Michael Kinsley, Thomas Frank, and their ilk do so? Unfortunately, these pundits seem to be in the grips of the very false consciousness they ascribe to the rubes. They believe the stuff they are peddling because it suits their ideology, not because it is true.
The immediate prospect-—almost everyone seems to agree-—is that the Democrats will win back the House of Representatives on Tuesday. I certainly hope so. In all likelihood, though, long-term prospects will continue to be bleak.
It will be a great victory when Lugosi, the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives, is installed. Yeah, sure.
Meanwhile, in their bottomless arrogance and self-satisfaction, the bien-pensants will keep on and on and on. Some folks never learn.