Understanding Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

An Overview of Two of Marx's Key Concepts

Demonstrators gather in front of a McDonald's restaurant to call for an increase in minimum wage on April 15, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The demonstration was one of many held nationwide to draw attention to the cause.
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Class consciousness and false consciousness are concepts introduced by Karl Marx and further developed by social theorists who came after him. Class consciousness refers to the awareness of a social or economic class of their position and interests within the economic order and social system. In contrast, false consciousness is a perception of one's relationships to social and economic systems as individual in nature, and a failure to see oneself as a part of a class with particular class interests relative to the economic order and social system.

Marx's Theory of Class Consciousness

Marx's concept of class consciousness is a core piece of his theory of class conflict, which focuses on the social, economic, and political relationships between workers and owners within a capitalist economic system. A class consciousness is an awareness of one's social and/or economic class relative to others, and the economic rank of this class within society. To have a class consciousness is to understand the social and economic characteristics of the class of which one is a member, and an understanding of the collective interests of their class within the given socio-economic and political orders.

Marx developed this concept of class consciousness as he developed his theory of how workers could overthrow the system of capitalism and then create new economic, social, and political systems based on equality rather than inequality and exploitation. He wrote about the concept and the overall theory in his book Capital, Volume 1, and with his frequent collaborator Friedrich Engels in the impassioned Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Within Marxist theory, the capitalist system was one rooted in class conflict--specifically, the economic exploitation of the proletariat (the workers) by the bourgeoisie (those owned and controlled production). Marx reasoned that this system only functioned so long as the workers did not recognize their unity as a class of laborers, their shared economic and political interests, and the power inherent in their numbers. Marx argued that when workers realized all of these things, they would then have a class consciousness, which would lead to a revolution of workers that would overthrow the exploitative system of capitalism.

Georg Lukács, a Hungarian theorist who followed in the tradition of Marx's theory, elaborated on the concept by explaining that class consciousness is an achievement, and one that is in contrast or opposition to individual consciousness. It results from the group struggle to see the "totality" of the social and economic systems.

When Marx wrote about class consciousness he perceived class as the relationship of people to the means of production—owners versus workers. Today it is still useful to use this model, but we can also think about the economic stratification of our society into different classes based on income, occupation, and social status.

The Problem of False Consciousness

According to Marx, before workers developed a class consciousness they were actually living with a false consciousness. Though Marx never used the actual phrase in print, he developed the ideas that it represents. A false consciousness is, in essence, the opposite of a class consciousness. It is individualistic rather than collective in nature, and produces a view of oneself as an individual in competition with others of one's rank, rather than as part of a group with unified experiences, struggles, and interests. According to Marx and other social theorists who followed, a false consciousness is dangerous because it encourages people to think and act in ways that are counter to their economic, social, and political self-interests.

Marx saw false consciousness as a product of an unequal social system controlled by a powerful minority of elites. The false consciousness among workers, which prevented them from seeing their collective interests and power, was created by the material relations and conditions of the capitalist system, by the "ideology" or dominant worldview and values of those that control the system, and by social institutions and how they function in society.

According to Marx, the phenomenon of commodity fetishism played a key role in producing false consciousness among workers. He used this phrase—commodity fetishism—to refer to the way capitalist production frames relationships between people (workers and owners) as relationships between things (money and products). Marx believed that this served to hide the fact that relations of production within capitalism are actually relationships between people, and that as such, they are changeable.

Italian scholar, writer, and activist Antonio Gramsci built on Marx's theory by explaining further the ideological component of false consciousness. Gramsci argued that a process of cultural hegemony guided by those holding economic, social, and cultural power in society produced a "common sense" way of thinking that provided legitimacy for the status quo. He explained that by believing in the common sense of one's age, a person actually consents to the conditions of exploitation and domination that one experiences. This common sense, the ideology that produces false consciousness, is actually a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the social relations that define the economic, social, and political systems.

An example of how cultural hegemony works to produce false consciousness, that is true both historically and today, is the belief that upward mobility is possible for all people, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, as long as they choose to dedicate themselves to education, training, and hard work. In the U.S. this belief is encapsulated in the ideal of "the American Dream." Viewing society and in one's place in it with this set of assumptions, of "common sense" thinking, frames one in an individualistic way rather than in a collective way. It places economic success and failure squarely on the shoulders of the individual and the individual alone, and in doing so, does not account for the totality of the social, economic, and political systems that shape our lives.

Decades worth of demographic data show us that the American Dream and its promise of upward mobility is largely a myth. Instead, the economic class that one is born into is the primary determinant of how one will fair economically as an adult. But, so long as a person believes in this myth, they live and operate with a false consciousness rather than a class consciousness that recognizes the way that the economic system is designed to spare only the tiniest amount of money to workers while funneling money to the owners, executives, and financiers at the top.