I still think highly of Ideology and Utopia, a 1936 book by Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian thinker who settled in England. In that work I learned of the concept of “false consciousness” (p. 94 ff. of the paperback edition). False consciousness is the tendency to assemble a series of beliefs that serve to mask reality from the gaze of those who entertain them. Mannheim traced the phenomenon to medieval theology. Although coherent as a system, this theology in his view did not correspond to reality.
In the 1920s the idea of false consciousness assumed a major role in the Marxist analysis of ideology. Its pedigree in the thought of the founders Marx and Engels is skimpy. Nonetheless, the idea served to explain why the proletariat in Western Europe had, by and large, failed to developed a revolutionary consciousness, a transformation that had been confidently expected prior to World War I. The answer was that the workers were being manipulated by the capitalist-controlled media, which sought to divert the readers' attention away from the actual material and institutional processes that were holding them in bondage. Among other illusions, false consciousness encourages a belief in upward mobility, implying that with effort anyone can become well off. Another distracting feature, still rampant today, was the endless flow of gossip about film stars and other celebrities, as well as blather about the royals in countries like the UK.
Following the Hegelian tradition, Karl Marx sometimes discussed the matter of consciousness (Bewusstsein). He also denounced the malign influence of ideology. However, he never seems to have used the expression “false consciousness.” Yet in his 1893 “Letter to Mehring” Friedrich Engels wrote: “Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker. Consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.” There follows a not very helpful discussion of Luther, Calvin, Hegel and others.
Today, few commentators speak explicitly of false consciousness. However, the idea found a place in some feminist discussions of the 1970s. These writers excoriated the ideology of patriarchy, which had in effect colonized the minds of many women by inducing them adopt views and expectations contrary to their own interests.
The idea of false consciousness seems also to be present in some current left-wing analyses of the media. where increasing control by a few conglomerates is said to be excluding any alternative view. Appearing from time to time, this preoccupation disregards the insurgent role of the social media, which in countries like Egypt and Turkey has fostered a series of counter-narratives that are hostile to the power structure. We are seeing this resistance today in advanced Western nations, where the revelations about surveillance being spread by Assange, Greenwald and others have opened a window to the not-very pretty picture of what the authorities are doing.
Still, some people seem to be under the sway of false consciousness, or what appears to be such. This is seen in their belief that “all is well,” and the government is just protecting us from terrorism.
PS. In the discussion section below I have made reference to the solution of the problem by Jonathan Haidt, which I find convincing. Readers may find the following link helpful. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/the-righteous-mind-by-jonathan-haidt.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
UPDATE (July 10, 2013). Let me see if I can, on reflection, summarize my conclusions on this contentious issue.
The theory of false consciousness emerged among leftist intellectuals in Central Europe in the 1920s. Although an exiguous Engels paternity has been claimed, it was essentially a new invention designed to cope with two pressing issues that had emerged in post-WW I society: 1) the rise of the mass media, especially the tabloid press, appealing to the lowest common denominator in the popular mind; 2) the fact that at the beginning of the war the socialist leaders in the various countries had deserted their purported internationalist ideals and voted war credits, followed by the readiness of the masses to come forward as cannon fodder in the war.
Despite these time-bound origins, the theory proved hardy, thriving in some quarters of the left in America and Europe to this day. In reality it is hard to demonstrate the actual mechanism whereby the masses are corrupted by being inoculated with views that are ostensibly contrary to their own interests. One reason for this, of course, is that the media lords cannot be expected to be forthright about what they are doing. It is unlikely that one will catch out Rupert Murdoch, say, in openly admitting that he is simply handing out pabulum to the yahoos who are too stupid to know any better. It is also possible that the Murdochs and Roger Aileses have, in effect, hoodwinked themselves into believing their own propaganda.
Whatever the evidence for the assertions of false consciousness may be, it is clear that it serves as an exculpatory device for true believers on the left. How is it, they must ask themselves, that socialism, clearly the best solution for society, has not succeeded? The answer, they seem to believe, is that the failure stems from an insidious media conspiracy--a conspiracy once personified by William Randolph Hearst and the Mellon family, and now by the Koch Brothers and Fox News. Absent these malign influences, virtue would clearly have triumphed by now.
That is pathetic. It is simply a “just-so” story,
Lurking in the woodwork is the hubris of "progressive" intellectuals who say in effect: “We are the ones who know what the true interests of the common people are, Those boobs are are just too dumb to understand how much they are deceived and kept down.” As I pointed out, Jonathan Haidt has effectively challenged this top-down view, suggesting that the views of the "boobs" are in fact perfectly consonant with their interests as they understand them.