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False consciousness is a term used by sociologists and expounded by some Marxists for the way in which material, ideological, and institutional processes in capitalist society mislead members of the proletariat and other class actors. These processes are thought to hide the true relations between classes and the real state of affairs regarding the exploitation suffered by the proletariat.
Although Karl Marx frequently denounced ideology in general, there is no evidence that he ever actually used the phrase "false consciousness". It appears to have been used—at least in print—only by Friedrich Engels.
Engels used the term "false consciousness" to address the scenario where the ideology of the ruling class is embodied willfully by a subordinate class. "Consciousness", in this context, reflects a class's ability to politically identify and assert its will. The subordinate class is conscious: it plays a major role in society and can assert its will due to being sufficiently unified in ideas and action. Engels dubs this consciousness "false" because the class is asserting itself towards goals that do not benefit it.
It's worth noting that "ideology" in this context does not refer to the typical usage of the term. Ideology, as used originally by Marxist theorists, refers to the cultural beliefs and accepted wisdoms that a society creates and holds as a reflection of its internal dynamics, that is to say the superstructure of the society. The definition has since drifted, such that outside Marxist theoretical discussions "ideology" is nearly synonymous with worldview or personal philosophy. Marxist theory, however, continues to use the original definition.
Marshall I. Pomer has argued that members of the proletariat disregard the true nature of class relations because of their belief in the probability or possibility of upward mobility. Such a belief or something like it is said to be required in economics with its presumption of rational agency; otherwise wage laborers would not be the conscious supporters of social relations antithetical to their own interests, violating that presumption. Another possible explanation is household debt. Buying into the belief that upward mobility is possible, many wage-earners take on loans to buy assets and become owners of capital. Having to service these debts, workers have little incentive to question their past decision (or the system that allows them) to take these loans. To harbor such doubts would greatly undermine the psychological value of the assets purchased. In sum, it may be that people are deluded by hope - the hope that their particular debt is productive and will pay-off. Of course the 2008 GFC is testament to how irrational low-income workers can be in practice and how prepared they are not to face the economic realities of their personal circumstances.
- Eagleton, Terry (1991). Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso. p. 89. ISBN 84-493-1797-5.
- "Letter to Mehring". 1893.
- Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Marx: On Ideology". www.cla.purdue.edu. Purdue University. Retrieved 4 January 2018.
- Marshall I. Pomer (October 1984). "Upward Mobility of Low-Paid Workers: A Multivariate Model for Occupational Changers". Sociological Perspectives. 27 (4): 427–442. ISSN 0731-1214. JSTOR 1389035.
- This phenomenon is most accentuated in the United States, and has given rise to what some European Marxists[who?] refer to as "class transference".