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False Consciousness, what's not to dislike?

The left need to face the hard truth of False Consciousness: We actually need more of what has just happened, not less. Paradoxically, the left now need to let go in order to get to grips with the new situation.

Steve Hanson
10 January 2017
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Brexit depicted in shades of grey, the percentages also meet 52% across the image.

There are a lot of shrill declarations to be heard at the moment, after Brexit, after Trump, about how 'we' now need to give the people who never got a look-in 'a voice'. As these middle class liberal and left wing commentators inhale the vapours to bring them out of shock, the real working classes get on with their lives.

Those commentators, some journalists, some academics, assume that if 'we' enable 'them' then 'they' will miraculously form a whole new polity. And so they might. Yet exactly the same commentators recoil in horror from the idea that they might be speaking for the masses, at the same time as they are doing exactly that, by default.

You can see both things happening at the same time in some articles, we must not speak for the masses, but 'we' must put 'them' back in the picture, because of what has just happened. The whole discourse has turned into a patronising advocacy of enabling, but enabling in a patrician mode of teaching right from wrong, 'right' being the default left-liberal polity of the last thirty years or so.

But that, you may have noticed, has just been thrown out. It's time to catch up properly: They were enabled; they just acted. 

This scramble to advise reformism in the face of a populist right turn is desperate stuff. If these commentators really trust the working classes, if they believe they can think all by themselves, then why have they suddenly turned into one big advocacy machine, pumping the same useless substance down different conveyor belts? 

However, I am not going to simplistically claim that the working classes were right all along here. We need to turn to face the harder truths, and False Consciousness is one of them.

False Consciousness is a Marxist term. It denotes a situation where the understanding and feelings of a great mass of people do not match the hard facts of their lives. The man who perhaps developed the concept most, Gyorgy Lukacs, saw that old institutions cling on far longer than is necessary as countries modernize. Guilds are a good example. In Britain, we still have popular royalism.

False Consciousness is not simply confusion, it is a kind of mass hallucination floating over and describing a situation that it is possible to see very differently in concrete form.

As a working class writer and academic I seem to have cut through the usual worries around declaring False Consciousness, because my family live there.

John Harris, although brilliant on many current questions, fears False Consciousness. It means calling out the working classes using a Marxist term. But False Consciousness is to be found at the same co-ordinates as Post-Truth and Neoliberal doublespeak. Post-Truth is Postmodern False Consciousness.

False Consciousness doesn't mean the working classes are idiots, but it does mean that they have been systematically fed untruth. Harris and many others are already saying this anyway, in one form or another.

False Consciousness is not a declaration that 'the working classes are stupid', it never was. There is not some place 'over there' where False Consciousness exists, in relation to a place over here where it does not. We are all blind to the full, macro complexity. What do they talk about over lunch in The Athenaeum? I probably wouldn't understand it even if I sat at the table, yet I think I know how the elites work. False Consciousness is not just working class. In many ways, False Consciousness is the political landscape, it is not binary and it takes different forms. 

There is Pure False Consciousness, and it is definitely to be found among the working classes. Pure False Consciousness is what I have called elsewhere 'descriptive fatalism', that 'things are how they are, because they are how they are', a traumatised, necessary retreat into description.

Then there are multiple forms of Partial False Consciousness. I have reams of fieldwork notes where people said things like 'yeah, I know, it's screwed up, but I just get on, make a life, I know how to enjoy myself.' People understand that the banks got away with murder in 2008, and then still put 'descriptive fatalism' in after they have explained it to you, often in great detail. 'Ah well, we just get on eh?' They see no contradiction in this: Understanding and False Consciousness are not mutually exclusive.

There are politically disengaged working class people. There are politically switched on, self-educated or graduate working class people. There are racist right wing nationalist and liberal and left wing working class people. But to claim all the working classes in this country are engaged liberal lefties with a nuanced understanding is beyond delusional. Yet to read some of the pleas on behalf of the working classes, you might be forgiven for thinking that they are.

I get a strong sense that the biggest defenders of working class intelligence are simply not from their planet: I am.

The left need to completely re-orient themselves. They are often fine with nationalised rail and the dream of nationalised banks and industries, but they begin to scream when they detect cultural nationalism. These confusions mirror the continuing point that keeps getting missed, that somehow Brexit Leave Voters didn't understand the facts and Remain voters did. Neither side had a clear picture of what they were voting for, or the consequences. The vote was made through cultural feeling, on both sides: False Consciousness.

False Consciousness is not just about Those Who Understand and Those Who Do Not. The mirror of this logic is the binary of those who have accepted a monotheistic religion into their lives and those who have not. This is the unconscious dimension that the liberal and left wing commentators inhabit. It is evangelistic. By showing 'them' the way, or the facts, we will somehow trigger a great wave of transformation. The wave is here and it has little to do with you.

How is this different from the preacher showing the poor misguided flock The Light? Most liberal left commentators currently look like a bunch of trendy vicars, clucking and cooing, praying for a second referendum, as though that's even remotely acceptable.

There is a real parallel with Matthew Arnold here, perhaps the ultimate trendy vicar, with his supposedly benign, patrician advocacy of 'good culture' for 'the masses'.

As David Ridley explained recently, Neoliberalism contains the assumption that the masses are unthinking, or at least unreflective and unreflexive. He is right. The whole Euro-technocracy rising in the late-1980s contains that assumption. The working classes are of course thinking beings. They were all along. But they are humans and they practice reflection and reflexivity from their particular psychological lifeworlds – what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘habitus’ - as do the middles and uppers.

The working classes understand a lot of what has gone down politically and economically, but they sometimes do not care very far beyond self-interest and immediate family. But then nor do many city players. Glasman's 'Family, Faith and Flag' of Blue Labour is in some ways correct, but only as a diagnosis, as a place to begin, not as a place to intentionally take us, which in the case of Blue Labour is back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

I don't care what Neoliberals think about the opinions of the masses, but I do care about the stark fact that the masses are being redirected to the right, whether you call it 'repressive desublimation', False Consciousness, or theorise it via Dewey or Marx.

Part of the founding assumption of Neoliberalism is that individuals cannot understand the complexities of modernity at any scale. Both left and right now agree that this has been a problem. But now we have parties and intellectuals suddenly declaring that hoi polloi were reflective and reflexive all along, which is to try to solve that problem with the same problem, only in a different shape.

Neoliberal players have woken up to the anger and rejection of a great body of people in the form of Brexit and Trump. But the left have woken up to it too. These patronising messages must end, that 'we' should put things in place for the masses, to then step back with a benevolent eye and watch 'them' develop, with the triumphal sound of a jet engine streaking into blue sky.

There are writers who damn the Daily Mail to hell for poisoning vast amounts of minds and then ten minutes later paint the working classes as robust enough to resist their rhetoric. Which is it?

Well, the situation isn't so binary, the working classes are not simply one thing or the other, but saying that doesn't solve the contradictions in their arguments either.

I suspect what really troubles these writers is simply the unfiltered reality, that they are not in control.

The commentators on both the left and right who see a binary split must start to view the 48% to 52% differently. If we depicted the 48% and 52% as shades of grey they would be virtually indistinguishable. That's what we have here, a giant political ash cloud, produced by the suffocated burning rage of the last few decades.

False Consciousness is real. Stop shrieking about using the term. If it is not real, then show me the smoking gun of a working class, radical, progressive transformation. The idea that the Richmond by-election was a triumph for the slow exit agenda is crazy. The EU are pushing their own timescale and the Sleaford by-election saw a hard Brexit agenda. The only way a new left can reform is outside of these soft, comforting bubbles of analysis. Over in the East Midlands, resentment over European workers is a strong factor. We have to face these hard truths to begin again on the left. We have to stare them in the face.

The idea that an educated liberal left might give people 'a voice' was exactly the problem of Neoliberal technocracies, and it has just been discarded. To offer exactly that problem as a solution, then, is pure Neoliberalism at its most farcical.

The rightwing tabloids have been getting away with it for a long time, as the phone hacking scandals testify. But the public don’t back the tabloids they read on these issues. They may not rebel over the things a Marxist might wish them to, but 'they' rebel and Brexit was a rebellion.

This is a Legitimation Crisis, but what is really needed is Polity Rebooted, not leftwing hand-wringing: A clear Constitution and compulsory voting from 16 years of age. We actually need much more of what just happened, not less. What is definitely not required is this hamstrung leftwing confusion and a lot of patronising shepherds.

An LSE blog, Who’s Afraid of Identity Politics? by Jonathan Dean, ends by saying he finds a 'return to class alarming'. The return to class started much earlier in academia and class itself never went away. The current wealth gap is the largest in history. You cannot just float that away by recalibrating the language. 

This kind of cloistered slip of the tongue is all over and it is completely risible. We need more talk about class, more talk about nationalism, and more referendums, but voted in by everyone. Do we want a monarchy? What kind of constitution?

It is time to let go in order to get to grips with the new era opening up. Because the even more scandalous thing for liberal and left commentators to consider, much more scandalous than the reality of False Consciousness, is that what they want 'them' to do, they are doing already, and the liberal left are no longer required for that.

Which means we are all suffering from False Consciousness of a sort, myself included.

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