Monday, September 08, 2014

Krugman says "false consciousness"

Paul Krugman for years has been puzzling over what makes policymakers and economists seemingly impervious to evidence of the success or failures of certain economic policies and assumptions.

In Inflation, Septaphobia, and the Shock Doctrine 09/01/2014, he focuses on the seemingly irrational fear of inflation among the One Percent. In conclusion, he writes:

The thing is, it sure looks like a form of false consciousness on the part of [the] elite. But I’m still trying to figure it out. [my emphasis]

It's a stock criticism from the right that mean libruls and "leftists" accuse Real Americans of having a "false consciousness" if they vote for Republicans. This is taken as evidence of the snobbishness and elitism of The Left, who in a major theme of rightwing symbolism are affluent foofs lookin' down on hard-working regular Americans. Especially on regular white Americans.

This theme peacefully coexists with the idea that Democrats/Mean Libruls/The Left are also unemployed losers who don't take responsibility for their lives. And also black.

The usual retail, FOX News-ish version of this accusation, and even the more highbrow ones, generally leave me cold. Democratic politics is about competing for people's votes and support for candidates and ideas. You could say that any political argument aimed at potential swing voters assumes that they suffer from "false consciousness." Because they don't at the moment have the True Consciousness that means they will vote for your side's candidate or cause. And the campaigners are trying to convince them that they should give up that "false consciousness" of non-support.

For that matter, you could frame any sales pitch that way. The car salesman's job is to rid you of the "false consciousness" that you don't want to buy a car that day and reveal to you your burning desire for a new vehicle with maximum accessories.

The phrase "false consciousness" does seem to have stemmed from the Marxist tradition. In an undated online paper, False consciousness, Daniel Little traces the concept from ideas of Marx (of whom he says, "Marx himself did not use the phrase 'false consciousness'") to Georg Lukács ("one of the first European philosophers to reflect seriously on Marx’s philosophical ideas"), sociologist Karl Mannheim, Italian Communist political theorist Antonio Gramsci, and French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Little discusses the concept further in the four posts shown here from the Understanding Society blog.

(The borrowing by conservatives of ideas originating in the Marxist tradition is an interesting topic. The more highbrow American conservative criticisms of the Librul Media make use of the concept of cultural hegemony closely associated with Gramsci.)

There is at least one known instance of Marx' longtime political collaborator and financial sponsor Frederick Engels using the phrase "false consciousness," in a letter to Franz Mehring of 07/14/1893:

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.
Today, "ideology" is commonly used to describe any more-or-less systematic point of view or even a general political outlook. Marx and Engels used the word in a more technical sense to mean erroneous perceptions of reality. For them, "ideology" was by definition a false view.

What Engels is discussing in his letter to Mehring, whose primary role in his career was as an educator in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), though he is probably better known as a friendly biographer of both Marx and Engels, is the role of ideas in shaping reality via social, economic and especially political processes. He continues directly:

Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought; indeed its origin seems obvious to him, because as all action is produced through the medium of thought it also appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought. The ideologist who deals with history (history is here simply meant to comprise all the spheres – political, juridical, philosophical, theological – belonging to society and not only to nature), the ideologist dealing with history then, possesses in every sphere of science material which has formed itself independently out of the thought of previous generations and has gone through an independent series of developments in the brains of these successive generations. True, external facts belonging to its own or other spheres may have exercised a co-determining influence on this development, but the tacit pre-supposition is that these facts themselves are also only the fruits of a process of thought, and so we still remain within that realm of pure thought which has successfully digested the hardest facts. [my emphasis]
Ideas matter, in other words.

Now, as in any field, the simplest explanation of a topic that goes into ad copy or a general press release or a sales training event looks very different from the more developed idea in all its nuances and professional evaluations.

I would note here that Engels' quote does not restrict the idea of "false consciousness" to the definition Daniel Little gives of the background concepts from Marx in this passage:

Marx asserts that social mechanisms emerge in class society that systematically create distortions, errors, and blind spots in the consciousness of the underclass. If these consciousness-shaping mechanisms did not exist, then the underclass, always a majority, would quickly overthrow the system of their domination. So the institutions that shape the person’s thoughts, ideas, and frameworks develop in such a way as to generate false consciousness and ideology.
The description Engels gave to Mehring wasn't restricted to an "underclass." The passage following that just quoted from Engels' letter reads:

It is above all this appearance of an independent history of state constitutions, of systems of law, of ideological conceptions in every separate domain, which dazzles most people. If Luther and Calvin “overcome” the official Catholic religion, or Hegel “overcomes” Fichte and Kant, or if the constitutional Montesquieu is indirectly “overcome” by Rousseau with his “Social Contract,” each of these events remains within the sphere of theology, philosophy or political science, represents a stage in the history of these particular spheres of thought and never passes outside the sphere of thought. And since the bourgeois illusion of the eternity and the finality of capitalist production has been added as well, even the victory of the physiocrats and Adam Smith over the mercantilists is accounted as a sheer victory of thought; not as the reflection in thought of changed economic facts but as the finally achieved correct understanding of actual conditions subsisting always and everywhere ...
He was talking in terms derived from the classical German philosophical tradition of Kant and Hegel about how ideas depict empirical reality and how limitations in the formation of ideas affect that process. He included capitalists and churchmen among those who can suffer from "false consciousness."

The formation of political opinion is a long-standing and broadly researched field to which pollsters, campaign operatives, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists and others all contribute. The kind of discussion a psychoanalyst like Sigmund Freud or a philosopher like Georg Lukács would produce looks very different from the campaign guidelines of a particular political party for an election.

A political hack could approach the academic literature on the subject in the oppo research mode by pulling out a sentence or a phrase and ridicule the arrogance of them thar out-of-touch perfessers.

Conversely, many a college student has been taken aback to find out that snarky phrases from political arguments don't cut it in classes where some nuanced attention to academic arguments is required.

Getting back to Krugman's use of "false consciousness," he's looking at a real-world question about why many of the very wealthy and their advocates seem to be fearful of inflation in the face of evidence he cites suggesting that they themselves benefits considerably from it, even disproportionately benefit from it.

People really do sometimes misunderstand things. And that seems to me to be the straightforward meaning of "false consciousness."


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