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The social construction of consciousness

by anonymous (me) Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2003 at 11:47 PM

This paper gives a theoretical discussion of the source and methodology of the social construction of consciousness. The first section introduces the piece. The second establishes the relationship between "interests" and "consciousness." The third describes growing inequality in the US. The fourth develops the structural source of consciousness. The fifth details the interlocking nature of politics and economy in the US. The sixth section discusses how our consciousness can be constructed. The final section offers some solutions.


The purpose of this essay is to understand the development of false consciousness in the United States. Therefore, the author hopes to develop an understanding of consciousness as it emerges dialectically, in order to grasp the inherent complexities of “advanced Capitalism.” In the first section, the author will describe general tendencies of globalization and develop an appropriate level of abstraction from which to examine false-consciousness. Furthermore, this section will address the US’s leading role as an archetype in the formation of the world economy. Thus, it will substantiate the United States as a prudent focus for a study of false-consciousness, in light of our changing world order. The second section will determine the unity between interests and consciousness is not always a given; that “false-consciousness” develops in the cognitive realm between “social development” and human agency and that consciousness is always bound to history. In summation, the second section is an attempt to establish a foundation on which to build an understanding of “false-consciousness.”

Consistent with these developed imperatives, the third section is a descriptive, rather than analytical, discussion of emerging social development in the US. The author will show that, rather than building strong unions or organizing on a large scale, labor offers capital incentives that increase levels of exploitation. Finally, the author will document how the current mode of accumulation is manifest in distributive data. The fourth section develops a lexicon to discuss various impediments to the unity of objective interests—stemming from the previous section—and consciousness. The author will discuss a structural and functional-epistemological understanding of false-consciousness, which are inexorably linked and always historically specific as the latter flows from the former. Subsequently, the author will introduce Gramsci’s notion of hegemony as an articulation of structural and functional-epistemological hegemony. “America’s structural hegemony” documents cohesion between elements of government and civil-society so that the “State” is the amalgamation of government and civil society. Specifically, the author will examine American foundations, Political Action Committees, think-tanks and the communications media to demonstrate that cohesion exists between the directorates of these elements of civil society and other governmental appendages, as well as, corporations.

The final section, “Functional-Epistemological Hegemony: hegemony as false-consciousness,” is an illustration of ways in which hegemonic ideology can work by epistemology to legitimize both the form of hegemonic structure and its ramifications with regard to inequality. Rather than offering an exhaustive account (something that may be impossible do to the omnipresence of hegemony), the author will explore five subheadings to facilitate this analysis. First, the author will examine ways in which Polyarchy equates with democracy through the dubious notion of pluralism. Second, the author will examine media profit motives as facilitators of false-consciousness through a-political reporting, and the elevation of substantive political issues (i.e. globalization) to the level of common sense. Third, the author will develop “meritocracy” as an ideology that detracts from structural causes of inequality, and therefore, interprets them as “natural” normal and justified. Fourth, the author will study the co-optive power of functional hegemony through its ability to invite the re-reading of malignant ideas to induce pleasure, and therefore, pacify discontent. Finally, the author will approach “consumerism as a way of life” in order to show that, in a multiplicity of ways, consumerism has transcended the need for epistemic justification by incorporating the underprivileged into the material process through which the conditions for their exploitation are perpetuated.

Globalization and the Role of the US

Globalization is a growing phenomenon and impacts every individual and nation-state in both the core and periphery. Research points to the fact that this process erodes many of the structures that have facilitated political and social development throughout history, while at the same time, it is integrating the economy at an ever growing rate. In addition, because this process is so rapid, it is forever changing the contours of political and social interaction for many people within the nation-states involved. Consequently, some areas are experiencing a rise in ethnic, religious and nationalistic backlashes against this very process. Furthermore, those who strategize and implement this process, a growing transnational capitalist class, are also those who benefit from it, often at the expense of the world majority. However, due to the inherent complexity of globalization, it is difficult to find the appropriate level of abstraction to glean an understanding of “the way things are.” For our purposes, we will focus on the most generalized level—those who benefit from globalization (the privileged) and those who do not (the underprivileged). Thus, the author acknowledges the simplicity of this generalization in light of what, in reality, is a much more complicated process.

Furthermore, as this essay focuses on the US in light of Globalization, an explanation is in order. First, as Stephen Gill points out, the main protagonist in this process is American led capital, which uses the hegemonic status of the US to prepare the way for rapid globalization. Second, this process is made possible in part by the exportation of a system of governance similar to that in the United States—Polyarchy—that enables greater consent and legitimacy among those who do not benefit from Globalization in the periphery. Third, the US culture industry is also an essential player in the unification of the world economy as evinced by Hollywood’s transcendent and particular appeal (transcendent with regard to the “universalization” of ideals, particular with regard to its adaptation to context). Finally, “[t]he American political system, long considered an aberration because its two main parties embrace liberal capitalism, now looks like the model for the developed world.” Therefore, the US, as the leading economic, cultural and political archetype, is a prudent focus for our study of consciousness.

Consciousness: a dialectical progression

Georg Lukacs wrote “History and Class consciousness” at a time when, for various reasons, Marxian philosophy was in a state of flux. Conflict generated in response to deterministic interpretations of Marxian theory. Rather than reading Marx in this vein, various parties and intellectuals were attempting to understand Communism as the result of human agency, consistent with their efforts to actualize it. The Bolshevik party, for example, believed that the underdeveloped workers in Russia were prone to non revolutionary praxis, and therefore, felt the revolutionary role “had to be played by the party, an organization of professional revolutionaries, whose action as the collective engineer of the revolution would implant a socialist consciousness in the working class.” Consistent with the spirit of the time, Lukacs’ contribution involved a focus on both the distinction and interrelatedness between subjective and objective class-consciousness:

By relating consciousness to the whole of society it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on immediate action and on the whole structure of society. That is to say, it would be possible to infer the thoughts and feelings appropriate to their objective situation…Now class consciousness consists in fact of the appropriate and rational reactions imputed in a particular typical place in the process of production.

Implicit in Lukacs’ work, then, is the idea that there are objective class interests in any given moment, and therefore, it is possible to formulate what an appropriate consciousness would be. However, by necessitating the imputation of the appropriate consciousness, it becomes clear that appropriate thoughts and feelings are not necessarily a given. Thus, to the extent that people's thoughts and feelings are inappropriate to the objective situation, they can be said to have “false-consciousness,” the understanding of which is the focus of this paper.

Building on this foundation, one cannot hope to grasp a relevant conception of consciousness, whether false or otherwise, without a study that focuses on its development through a dialectical lens. In other words, any study should try to understand the relationship between class interest and class consciousness, under capitalism, as two sides of one conflicting tendency, of which
one side, is the ‘unconscious’ character of capital determined by a specific form of social development which compels it, ‘against its will’, to produce its opposite [and] on the other, the necessity, through its manifestation in the form of practical need, which gives rise to self-consciousness.

This is to say that an understanding of false consciousness must come from 1) an understanding of objective interests, conditioned by “social development” and 2) social factors that prohibit the development of subjectivities toward these interests. Furthermore, any notion of consciousness cannot escape its historical context and, when understood from these imperatives, one can only hope to explain, rather than define false-consciousness, as it is always sensitive to the continuous progression of “social development.” Consequently, consciousness is always dependent upon objective and subjective aspects, for to equate consciousness with interests is to deny human agency. In keeping with these ideals, what follows is a discussion of American social development, characterized by the globalization of Capitalism.

Effects of Globalization in the US

The United States of America is the most advanced nation in the developed world. She boasts of the most dominant corporations and highest GNP. The inherent tendencies of global capitalism are producing a rigid social distinction between those who directly benefit from globalization (manifested in stable or increasing income and living standards), and those who do not (coupled with a corollary reality characterized by income instability and a declining standard of living). America has managed, however, to maintain legitimacy, despite the increasingly polarized nature of American social structure. Furthermore, much research points to the United States as the leading hegemon in the creation of a global economic order, which makes an analysis of American society, as the archetype of legitimization, a prudent focus. Therefore, what follows is an outline of some of the specific structural aspects of American society, with regard to increasing polarization and inequality, as facilitated by the expansion of advanced Capitalism.

In an age of corporate libertarianism, growing sectors of Americans engage in a “race to the bottom.” This race has provided incentives for corporations to cross international borders in an effort to cut labor costs and increase profits. Consequently, the ability of US corporations to retain a competitive advantage when remaining within domestic borders stems from their ability to boost productivity without cutting into profits. Heston and Summers capture this reality well:

What lets Americans live better…than their Japanese [and German] rivals is productivity. Contrary to the widespread view that the Japanese economy is vastly more efficient, every comparison shows that output per employee is 40 percent greater in the United States.

To summarize, American workers are producing more and taking home less income, which speaks to an increase in exploitation of surplus value and, to a certain extent, acceptance on the part of labor.

The ability of corporations to extract this higher level of productivity comes, in part, from limited options of those they employ. Indeed, initiatives like NAFTA have made easier for corporations to produce a situation in which competing regions offer tax breaks, less environmental regulation and other benefits to attract or retain corporations. Workers contribute through contracts that stipulate “wage concessions, productivity linked benefits, and greater flexibility concerning plant work rules.” The effects of these situations are such that corporations benefit from what wage earners sacrifice in order to gain or maintain employment. The ability of small business owners to compete is also decreased through the cumulative effects of reductions in community markets, inability to keep prices low and lack of access to billions of dollars in corporate welfare so that, as Marx and Engels stated,

the lower strata of the middle class—the small trades-people, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen…—sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which modern industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists… Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.

In other words, the cumulative effects of globalized capitalism are such that polarization and asymmetrical distribution exacerbate at an increased rate.

Income distribution statistics are possibly the easiest variable by which to make an argument for increased inequality and polarization. As Thomas Dye notes:

Only about 4,300 individuals—two one-thousands of 1 percent of the population—exercise formal authority over more than one half of the nation’s industrial assets, two thirds of all banking assets, one half of all assets in communications and utilities, and more than two thirds of all insurance assets.

Furthermore, A 1995 New York Times issue stated that the top twenty percent of the nation's population owns eighty percent of the wealth, leaving only five percent to the bottom quintile of the population. Clearly, the income inequality in this nation is increasing at alarming rates. In an article written in 1998 for the publication Extra, Norman Solomon cites The Nation:
 The working poor are losing ground. In constant dollars, average weekly earnings for workers went from a high of $315 in 1973 down to $256 in 1996, a decline of 19 percent.
 Income inequality is increasing. Last year, the poorest fifth of families saw their income decline by $210, while the richest 5 percent gained an average of $6,440 (not counting their capital gains.)

The US Bureau of the Census Current Population Reports shows that at the poorest end of the economic spectrum, fifteen percent of the population live below the poverty line, including approximately three million homeless. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of American children under six live in poverty. These statistics are harder to digest when viewed in juxtaposition with the wealth generated by the nation as a whole (7.25 Trillion in 1997) . Though statistics on income inequality are convincing, they do not allow us to understand why inequality persists with little resistance. Therefore, in order to understand how inequality becomes legitimate, we will examine American society through a structural lens.

Structure and Epistemology

The following section of this paper draws largely from Robert Perrucci and Earl Wysong’s 1999 publication “The New Class Society,” as an attempt to develop hypotheses regarding false-consciousness. Perrucci and Wysong designed their system as a tool to understand the distribution of privileges and advantages inherent in the American system. In their analysis, class division embodies four distinct features. First, the class system is organizationally based, “large organizations—through various levels and groups of ‘gatekeepers’ within them—direct, channel and legitimate the distribution of resources to individuals and groups.” Second, “class location reflects the extent to which people possess combinations of four [interrelated] forms of generative economic and social resources—investment, consumption, skill and social capital.” Third, the large organizations mentioned above are also “centrally involved in legitimating the distributional processes as well as the class inequalities that arise from them,” through the production of “various forms and kinds of idea systems and explanations that justify the [asymmetrical] distribution of the four forms of capital.” Finally, the result of this system is such that “the US class structure is increasingly polarized by class inequalities into two broad class divisions.” Thus, this mode of class analysis, though abstracted at a level below production relationships, mirrors the asymmetrical income distribution and increased proletarianization that occurs under the normative logic of capitalism (M—C—M) developed by Marx.

For our purposes, we will focus on the first and third features of this system to glean an understanding of false consciousness. Specifically, the first feature—that American class system is organizationally based—provides a context for the introduction of a structural understanding of false-consciousness. The third feature of their system—that these organizations legitimize inequality—provides for an understanding of a functional or epistemological aspect of false-consciousness. Thus, the structural aspect materializes as the apparatus in which privileged class interests formulate, translate into policy and provide the ideological parameters that instruct a legitimizing-epistemology . Furthermore, this allows us to develop hypotheses regarding the impact of this epistemology on the formation of non-privileged class-consciousness. Therefore, false-consciousness inexorably links to this structure, as far as those of us, who are not privileged, internalize its epistemology.

America’s Structural Hegemony

In order to formulate hypotheses regarding structural and functional-epistemological legitimacy, an analysis of politics is necessary. Consequently, the work of Antonio Gramsci is beneficial in this regard. Through his theory of hegemony, he was able to understand the interelatedness of the state and civil society, so that the state (or government) is actually “both the juridical-administrative system and civil society.” Furthermore, Hegemony on the ideological level refers to those ideas, value systems and cultural practices etc. that dominate a society at any given moment in history. Marx believed that these ideologies “serve to justify the social (superstructure) and economic (infrastructure) framework which develops out of the given relationships of production and which comprises the social regime.” That is to say that the dominant ideologies in any stratified society are always the “isms” of the privileged class and flow in part from the structural apparatus in which they inhabit. Therefore, a thorough concept of hegemony would involve an ideological (functional-epistemological) understanding, as well as a demonstration of levels of structural cohesion within the state apparatus.
Subsequently, we should expect to find that privileged-class individuals share positions within civil and political institutions, and that these institutions have a mutually reinforcing, symbiotic role in the maintenance of privileged class power. Furthermore, we should expect to find that these institutions are able to construct modes of legitimization, which foster ideas that are “the vital function of preserving the ideological unity of [the] whole social bloc,” and legitimate inequality.” What follows is a discussion regarding the symbiotic nature of the state and civil society.
The group that explicitly benefits from globalization is the same group that occupies the Gramscian State in the U.S. Consequently, this group is in a position to exert control through dominant power structures, and thereby construct “strategic class consciousness.” Specifically, our structural analysis will examine two categories of power within American society: civil society and government: the Gramscian State. For our purposes, we will examine civil society through foundations, “think-tanks,” Political Action Committees (PAC), communications media, as well as other institutions. Through our analysis of the state, we are interested in documenting, superficially at least, the interlocking nature of governmental and non-governmental directorates. It is important to note that these agents are not involved in any conspiracy in the sense that they operate behind closed doors or are directly interested in duping the public. As C Wright Mills put it, they are

probably [individuals] of solid integrity—as sound as a dollar. [They are members] of the professional corporate elite…[they] represent the wealth of the higher corporate world.

Therefore, one can assume they only act in ways consistent with their own perceived interest, an act commensurate with any notion of class-consciousness.

Wealth at the disposal of foundations within civil society can have a dramatic impact on policy decision and implementation, elections, as well as fields of study in our nation’s institutions of higher learning. For example, following WWII when the world desired a return to economic prosperity and peace, American foundations were highly influential in the area of social science. Specifically, major U.S. foundations made generous endowments to social science programs at prestigious universities under the conviction that “fellowship recipients would contribute to the national interest by making their knowledge available to those responsible for foreign-policy formulation.” The result of these endowments included long lasting methodological approaches such as functionalism and behavioralism, which helped to maintain stable, well oiled political and economic machinery at home and abroad.
Furthermore, board members of these foundations often serve on the boards of powerful corporations, as elected or appointed political officials and in the administrations of prestigious universities. Through the ongoing research at Florida State University, researchers are able to document that chairpersons for both the Ford and Rockefeller foundations have served on the boards of Dow Jones and Co, Walt Disney and Chase Manhattan, as well as many other corporations. They have served as secretary of defense, on the Council on Foreign Relations, as members of Congress and in the Trilateral Commission. Additionally, these foundation directors have served as top administrators for leading universities such as Cal Tech, Yale, and the University of California system. Consequently, foundations play a significant role in civil society, through both direct implementation and creation of policy, as well as, serving in governmental positions and in directorate positions for the nations leading corporations and Universities.
PAC’s and think tanks have a dramatic impact on the formulation of policy. Much literature has been written in reference to “iron triangles,” the Tri-Lateral commission and other governmental and non-governmental agents who influence policy. Much like foundations, these groups are funded by big money, money in the hands of powerful corporations or other privileged class institutions. As such, privileged class individuals who occupy or have occupied strategic positions in other areas of government and civil society often direct these highly influential PACs. The most important aspect of these organizations has to do with their direct involvement in policy, however it is important to note their interlocking character in order to demonstrate a level of cohesion.
Perrucci and Wysong site “five superclass-connected and politically influential ‘centrist’ organizations:” The Business Roundtable, the Brookings Institute, the RAND Corporation, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. The main purpose of these elite organizations is to inform the evaluation and implementation of domestic and foreign policy. Further research shows there are also ten “conservative think-tanks” that are increasingly influential in policy decisions and, though they share general economic ideals with their “centrist” counterparts, are deemed conservative for their repudiation of policies traditionally associated with America’s “liberal” establishment. The members of both types of these organizations have served on the boards and in administrative positions for General Foods, the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Motor Co., and the New York Stock Exchange, as well as other corporate and financial institutions. They have held political appointments as directors of the CIA, FSA, as Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of State etc. Furthermore, they have held positions at Universities such as M.I.T, Northwestern and SUNY to name a few. Therefore, these privately funded institutions exemplify further the concentrated and interlocking nature of the established power structures in the U.S.
With the advancement of communication technology, media has become an increasingly influential actor on public consciousness. The case of media in the United States is especially important due to its consolidation in the private sector, and consequently, the profit imperative driving its production. Furthermore, media content comes from seven major firms that own broadcast networks and cable TV systems. Not surprisingly, many of the names previously discussed with regard to the interlocking directorates among corporate, political and civic entities reemerge in the discussion of media’s condensed nature. T.C.I., Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, General Electric Viacom and CBS together control nearly 90 percent of what is viewed on television, whether through the networks, cable or the growing satellite-television industry. The content of media dissemination, discussed later, contributes to the seemingly smooth and little contested evolution of the American system, partly through a focus on sensationalism as an effort to attract large audiences.

Functional-Epistemological Hegemony: hegemony as false consciousness

The media is the easiest medium of analysis by which to demonstrate the mechanics of ideological hegemony ascribed by Antonio Gramsci. In order to facilitate conciliatory consciousness, hegemonic ideology “permanently attempts to cast all competing perceptions and definitions of reality within [its] particular frames.” Thus, hegemony functions based on consent through the provision of illusionary choice. This is not to contend groups and individuals do not exercise choice in their decisions, from television shows to public policy. Rather, it is the idea that options from which to chose are contained within ideological parameters, set up by the privileged class through structural hegemony, that enable the continuation of the existing status quo. What follows is a discussion of various aspects of functional-epistemological hegemony. This is not an exhaustive account, rather it should demonstrate the potential impact of ideology on epistemic processes and thereby, false-consciousness.

Polyarchy refers to a form of “low-intensity democracy,” in which the privileged class rules on behalf of capital. Thus, the previously mentioned PACs transmogrify to special interest groups that compete for policy favorable to their particular agenda. Furthermore, these “special interest” groups are understood in light of their differences rather than similarities. This enables the perception that American democracy is “pluralistic” and ultimate equilibrium results from the competition between these groups. However, as discussed previously, most influential PACs are fully occupied and funded by the privileged class and at most, any conflict stems from disagreements on implementation or extent of various policies, all of which favor privileged class interests over those of everyone else. Thus, when the media covers PAC influence at the level of policy, it enables the viewer to understand that conflicting interests—the checks and balances—contribute to greater democracy, and in so doing, masks the influence of the privileged class as a whole.
Other evidence suggests “ pluralism” has had a significant impact on the democratic process in areas not limited to policy. Justin Lewis contends that the entire political process in the United States is essentially right leaning, and this fact diminishes in significance through the media’s focus on elections from a “left verses right framework of political reporting.” This framework includes, much in the same way as coverage of PACs, a downplaying of convergence with regard to economic issues, while highlighting less substantive issues such as abortion and gay rights. Therefore, by focusing on social issues in place of larger economic issues, the myth of plurality persists through the competition between Republicans and Democrats. In the end, “democracy” prevails, though its true essence is completely hollowed out.

Political Entertainment
Another way that hegemonic epistemology functions to facilitate false-consciousness is through the creation of social beings who are ignorant of the structural mechanisms around them and become depoliticized. Concurrently, David Sallach contends that hegemony has produced a majority of working class Americans that suffer from fragmented, confused and inconsistent value systems. Michael Parenti believes that this in part a consequence of the imperatives driving media dissemination:

These corporations [that own the media] are highly concentrated capital formations whose primary functions are (1) capital accumulation: making a profit for their owners and investors and (2) ideological legitimation: supporting and opinion climate that is favorable, or at least not hostile, to the continuation of profit-making, and corporate economic dominance.

Consequently, rather than reflecting the world as it really is, the media is concerned with making reality palatable for mass consumers.
An example of this manifests in coverage of modern elections when “the spin doctors, marketers, handlers, and other damage control experts have become the political antiheroes of the age. In this upside-down world, the campaign becomes evaluated according to a perverse aesthetics of media mastery.” Another illustration turns up in media coverage of the actions taken against the WTO during the Seattle round. Instead of using the opportunity to educate the public about the current mode of global accumulation and its inhumane consequences, coverage focused on limited violence, causing real political issues to become meaningless. Consequently, protesters were marginalized as rebellious individuals and were pushed to the fringe, rather than portrayed as a group who understood and meant to address the inhumane consequences of globalization.
To conclude, the over all message conveyed to the public is one that focuses on irrelevancies stemming from personal character (of either a candidate or a protestor) instead of pertinent political problems associated with the current mode of transnational-capital accumulation. In summary, through a focus on sensational over substantive political phenomena, the ultimate fuel driving both the WTO and mainstream American politicians, namely the increased liberalization of the world economy, elevates to the level of common sense.

Meritocracy refers to the notion that ones status in life reflects their individual character. Epistemologically, this ideology filters social phenomena through the rubric of competition, equal opportunity and individualism. Therefore, egalitarianism in the American context “…implies that achievement should reflect ability, justifies higher differentials in reward and rejects taxing the successful to upgrade the less advantaged.” Furthermore, as hegemonic ideas, they can define the experiences of the normal individual in ways that legitimize the privileged-class because of their position. In other words, these ideals, which have become a mainstay of American political and economic thought, are able to foster a consciousness that enables one to perceive inequality as individually, rather than structurally determined.
Through journalistic investigation informed by ideological biases, the media obfuscates social phenomena that would connect inequality to its structural causes. Subsequently, media attention to issues of poverty and its proliferation are rare. When stories on poverty do appear, the underprivileged contextualize within the axiom of personal choice or unavoidable misfortune. Frequently, however, they are seen as undeserving and simply experiencing the consequences of their own laziness. Hence, those who are among Americas privileged class become deserving simply by the fact that they are successful. Success speaks to individual character traits (i.e. innate intelligence or hard work) and the privileged become mythical symbols of what it means to be a success—the definition of success. Therefore, those who, because they are victims of endemic processes, are perpetually underprivileged become—by definition—lazy, unintelligent and therefore deserving of their subjugated status. Far from the elevation of consciousness, meritocratic ideology posits inequality as “natural,” normal and justified.

Hegemony also fosters “false-consciousness” by pacification and the elimination of counter-ideologies. Gillian Epstien’s analysis of Beverly Hills 90210 enables her to formulate a brand of “media politics.” This form of “media politics” is able to “naturalize” the presence of media within the private sphere. Furthermore, once it is in place, the media is able to “educate” viewers with regard to appropriate media behavior. Subsequently, the viewer is encouraged to abandon their political views in favor “media politics,” through the act of “re-reading” media narratives to be consistent with one’s own views. Finally, the ultimate goals of these “media politics” are to both script and facilitate an enjoyable media experience, which becomes an end in itself. Therefore, this analysis of “media politics” illustrates the co-optive power of hegemonic epistemology, which can eliminate resistance through the pacification of struggle.

Co-optation speaks to the versatility of hegemony and its ability to adapt to changing conditions evolving from the often-contradictory concessions it incorporates. Consequently, what follows is a discussion regarding the creation of a consumer based society, through which the privileged class is able to simultaneously co-opt discontent and benefit from the accumulation of social value in commodities. Herbert Marcuse is worth quoting at length with regard to the power of consumerism:
The productive apparatus and the goods and services which it produces ‘sell’ or impose the social system as a whole. The…[commodities] carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers and, through the latter, to the whole. The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness…And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals in more social classes, the indoctrination they carry…becomes a way of life…and as a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change.

By speaking about the ability of embedded “attitudes and habits” to “militate against qualitative change,” the question becomes: To what extent are consumeristic ideologies able to incorporate subaltern classes into the status quo by producing a consumeristic value system that seems mutually beneficial?

George Ritzer claims that what is understood as advantages about consumer society has to do with elements he terms “McDonaldization.” Using McDonalds as a metaphor to discuss aspects of modern society, Ritzer holds that society is increasingly characterized by the rationality of every day life in the form of efficiency, quantification, calcubility, predictability and greater control. Thus, when the consumer partakes of a McDonaldized world, they are meant to experience benefits such as saved time, greater ability for positive cost/benefit analysis and a reduction in consumer anxiety. Furthermore, Ritzer contends that because McDonaldization has begun to characterize most aspects of life in modern—consumer—society, the irrationality of McDonaldization is a consequence of being controlled by consumption, from which human reason is squelched, and therefore, the ability to critique society is diminished.

The material conditions that gave rise to the powers of Consumerism stem from the advent of Fordism and Taylorism in the early twentieth century. Indeed, these methods of production greatly resemble McDonaldiztion as far as they promoted the deskilling of workers, highly routinized work roles and the homogenization of commodities they produced. Subsequently, the boost in low cost production that spawned from these and other aspects of Fordism/Taylorism enabled workers to afford many of the commodities they produced. Therefore, with a growing number of citizens able to participate in consumption, the social significance of the demand side of economics was greatly increased. Hence, the embedded attitudes and behaviors of consumerism are essential to understanding the consciousness that militates against qualitative change.

It is in this context, the transition from the rationality of production to the rationality of consumption, that we can begin to explore how consumerism masks exploitation and domination, while it simultaneously militates against qualitative change. Indeed, the fast pace, changing nature of modern society trumpets the value of saving time and greater control. Thus, so the story goes, the values of McDonaldization seem to be self-explanatory. Who, in their right mind, would rather spend more money or more time accomplishing a task than need be? Returning to Ritzer, however, the question becomes “Efficiency for whom?” Much in the same way that the rationalization of production offered owners increasing profit margins, the rationalization of consumption does as well. In this case, the rationalization of society has placed a larger burden of surplus-value creation on the consumer through the solicitation of unpaid labor in the performance of tasks previously done by paid labor. Therefore, in this sense, we can understand one aspect of consumerism that simultaneously exploits and invites consumers to reap an illusionary benefit.

Another aspect of consumerism is its annunciation, by some, as a salvific cure for society’s ills. Thus, by offering a wide array of choices from which to consume, consumer-capitalism claims to have finally incorporated all of society into a Deified market. Subsequently, the alienation so prevalent in modern society, manifested in lack of interpersonal bonds or feelings of loneliness and depression, can be cured by the consumption of fetishized commodities (i.e. dial-a-porn or Hawaii.com). Furthermore, consumption becomes the alternative to protest through the purchase of commodified forms of resistance, such as a Che Guevara or Malcolm X T-shirt. In this sense, “consumerism as a way of life” can be more aptly termed “commodification as a way of life.” Thus, by drawing people into the market, consumerism is able to perpetuate the necessary conditions for accumulation through the commodification of every day life, and therefore, “we live capitalism through its commodities, and by living it, we validate and invigorate it.” Finally, if “consumerism as a way of life” is as prevalent as researchers claim, it has transcended the need for epistemic justification, and it is plausible to argue that to this extent, false-consciousness has garnered a material force of its own.


In answering the “what” of false consciousness, the author has shown a connection between social development and consciousness. The former provides the parameters or possibilities for both the latter and the action(s) that are often necessary consequences of consciousness, whether false or otherwise. For example, one cannot overlook the social, political, and economic events following WWII, which certainly allowed for a certain advancement of “Americanism” and traditional liberal-economic ideals. In this sense, we might do well to focus our attention on both the material and ideational developments that have best served the structural aspect of hegemony in the United States.
In order to answer the “who” of false consciousness, the author has demonstrated a level of privileged class cohesion within the Gramscian State. This allows the author to formulate the hypothesis that false-consciousness is best understood as a function of hegemony. In this respect, false-consciousness, though sensitive to social development, is a product of strategic implementation by those who are in a position to exert control over various disseminatory appendages. Moreover, this suggests that false-consciousness permeates the fabric of every day life and understanding for the average American citizen. Thus, rather than “testing” false consciousness through questionnaires and surveys (something that would include both a definition of false consciousness and the assumption that participants can escape it in order to answer questions), researchers may fare better engaging in what Paulo Freire terms “critical epistemology.”

Critical epistemology includes the effort to unmask social relations that produce the dominant ideas in a given society, as well as, reaffirm their historical production. Peter McLaren is worth quoting at length, regarding the power of critical epistemology:

Critical epistemological practice not only examines the content of knowledge but also its method of production. It seeks to understand how ideological constructions are encoded and administered, how metonymic and synecdochial gestures are performed so as to obscure relations of domination and oppression, how the interpretive and interpellative frameworks by which we organize our sentiments construct ruling stereotypes and how the governing categories of our everyday discourse render invisible and obscure real social relations of exploitation.

Finally, this critical-epistemological praxis would be incomplete without the appropriate social scientific understanding of the processes that spawn and perpetuate social development. Again, if one can accept the interconnection between social development and consciousness, one can also expect consciousness to progress dialectically. George Lukacs helps us to understand there are ways to decode interests in any given situation and make the connection between interests and consciousness that would exist if false-consciousness did not. As Bertell Ollman notes, this stage of capitalism is “characterized by far greater complexity and much greater change and interaction than existed earlier,” and “the efforts to keep us from grasping what is taking place have never been so systematic or so effective.” In order to understand fully “the way things are,” we must participate in Ollman’s six step dialectical method. The actions that would flow from an informed consciousness would involve all aspects of social life—political, economic, leisure etc.
It is from these perspectives, an understanding of “the way things are,” where they are going and “what is to be done,” that one can hope to begin to bridge the gap between interests and consciousness. In the end, educators, researchers, politicians and community members can hope to address the alienation and inequality experienced by growing segments of the United States by putting into practice both the study and redress of false consciousness. A better society is conceivable when we finally illuminate the appropriate consciousness and render false consciousness helpless in both its epistemic and material formations.


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