False Consciousness is a concept originally from Marxism (Engels) in which the idea is that society – under capitalism – is set up in such a way as to mislead the proletariat. The gist of which is that it misleads the average working man as to his prospects within that society in order to keep him docile and make him think he can become part of the dominant social class.
A prime example of this idea would be the meme of ‘The American Dream’ which is so far from reality that it couldn’t see it on a clear night with a telescope. The idea that the average American can ‘pull himself up by his bootstraps’ and is a ‘temporarily embarrassed millionaire’ (as Steinback would have it) is possibly one of the most insidious and widespread tools of social control imaginable.
Still, in the current age, sans McCarthy, with access to the internet and broad – if inadequate – education it’s not really fair to assume that people adhere to ideas simply because they’re ignorant of others and are divorced of choice. While indoctrination and societal influence plays a role it’s hard to separate stupidity, indoctrination and genuine belief.
The concept has been transferred to feminism in which it serves as an adjunct to the concept of ‘internalised misogyny’. False consciousness here is used to undermine women who claim they’ve never experienced sexism, that their choices of ‘traditional gender roles’ are their own and so on. This is possibly even less kosher than claiming it to be the case with laissez-faire capitalism. Traditional gender roles have been disrupted and challenged, arguably since the 1960s, moreso for women than men. At least, in the west, it’s hard to argue that women haven’t been exposed to a panoply of different ideas and concepts and thus a little insulting to the women who don’t choose suitably ‘liberated’ modes of life and roles to assume that it’s due to ignorance or them not having a mind of their own.
False Consciousness can, thus, be shown to have certain issues from a political/economic and gender perspective but it’s not completely without use. It’s a very problematic concept, especially when it comes to religious indoctrination. Unlike these other topics, religious indoctrination is powerfully and forcibly advanced virtually from birth and with a degree of absolutism one doesn’t – so much – find in ideologies outside of extreme radicalism.
How, then, are we to approach – for example – the issue of the hijab or burqa? Within Islamic nations there is genuinely zero choice, it’s cooperate or – in some cases – die. In the west it becomes a little more nuanced. Can someone living and working in a western country be said not to be exposed to alternative points of view on religious dress? Does a controlling subculture exert the same level of enforcement as a religious monoculture? We do get young women killed in the UK on matters of ‘honour’ and lack of modesty, or even simply being ‘too western’. At the same time we do get women who break free of this and choose not to wear these forms of religious clothing. Choice is, therefore, possible.
If free choice was not ever possible under any regime or degree of indoctrination there would never be change, revolt, revolution or innovation.
I don’t think we can adhere to the idea of False Consciousness as any sort of guide but, rather, must assess the context and degree of control in each instance. There’s no doubt that some people freely and of their own volition choose to put up with working for nothing, to be a 1950s housewife or to express their faith by wrapping themselves in a duvet to show their piety just as some people choose the opposite.
If a choice is a genuine, informed choice we need to find a way to accept that and not write off the person’s agency, while at the same time not letting that preclude us from making our own arguments and, even, trying to change their minds. Good, accurate, ideas should win out in the end.