We Are More Than Commodities: 'False Consciousness' and Why It's Still Relevant

By Colin Jenkins / hamptoninstitution.org
Oct 25, 2015

"It is not consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." - Karl Marx [1]

In Robert Tressell's literary classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a significant scene occurs in Chapter Seven when some of the book's main cast of characters, a group of English laborers at the turn of the 20th century, gathers during a break in their work to discuss matters of labor, technology, unemployment and poverty. A lengthy conversation ensues:


'I don't see no sense in always grumblin',' Crass proceeded. 'These things can't be altered. You can't expect there can be plenty of work for everyone with all this 'ere labour-savin' machinery what's been invented.'

'Of course,' said Harlow, 'the people what used to be employed on the work what's now done by machinery, has to find something else to do. Some of 'em goes to our trade, for instance: the result is there's too many at it, and there ain't enough work to keep 'em all goin'.'

'Yes,' cried Crass, eagerly. 'That's just what I say. Machinery is the real cause of the poverty. That's what I said the other day.'

'Machinery is undoubtedly the cause of unemployment,' replied Owen, 'but it's not the cause of poverty: that's another matter altogether.'

The others laughed derisively.

'Well, it seems to me to amount to the same thing,' said Harlow, and nearly everyone agreed.

'It doesn't seem to me to amount to the same thing,' Owen replied. 'In my opinion, we are all in a state of poverty even when we have employment--the condition we are reduced to when we're out of work is more properly described as destitution.'

'Poverty,' continued Owen after a short silence, 'consists in a shortage of the necessaries of life. When those things are so scarce or so dear that people are unable to obtain sufficient of them to satisfy all their needs, those people are in a condition of poverty. If you think that the machinery, which makes it possible to produce all the necessaries of life in abundance, is the cause of the shortage, it seems to me that there must be something the matter with your minds.'

'Oh, of course we're all bloody fools except you,' snarled Crass. 'When they were servin' out the sense, they give you such a 'ell of a lot, there wasn't none left for nobody else.'

'If there wasn't something wrong with your minds,' continued Owen, 'you would be able to see that we might have "Plenty of Work" and yet be in a state of destitution. The miserable wretches who toil sixteen or eighteen hours a day--father, mother and even the little children--making match-boxes, or shirts or blouses, have "plenty of work", but I for one don't envy them. Perhaps you think that if there was no machinery and we all had to work thirteen or fourteen hours a day in order to obtain a bare living, we should not be in a condition of poverty? Talk about there being something the matter with your minds! If there were not, you wouldn't talk one day about Tariff Reform as a remedy for unemployment and then the next day admit that Machinery is the cause of it! Tariff Reform won't do away with the machinery, will it?'

'Tariff Reform is the remedy for bad trade,' returned Crass.

'In that case Tariff Reform is the remedy for a disease that does not exist. If you would only take the trouble to investigate for yourself you would find out that trade was never so good as it is at present: the output--the quantity of commodities of every kind--produced in and exported from this country is greater than it has ever been before. The fortunes amassed in business are larger than ever before: but at the same time--owing, as you have just admitted--to the continued introduction and extended use of wages-saving machinery, the number of human beings being employed is steadily decreasing. I have here,' continued Owen, taking out his pocket-book, 'some figures which I copied from the Daily Mail Year Book for 1907, page 33:

'"It is a very noticeable fact that although the number of factories and their value have vastly increased in the United Kingdom, there is an absolute decrease in the number of men and women employed in those factories between 1895 and 1901. This is doubtless due to the displacement of hand labour by machinery!"

'Will Tariff Reform deal with that? Are the good, kind capitalists going to abandon the use of wages-saving machinery if we tax all foreign-made goods? Does what you call "Free Trade" help us here? Or do you think that abolishing the House of Lords, or disestablishing the Church, will enable the workers who are displaced to obtain employment? Since it IS true--as you admit--that machinery is the principal cause of unemployment, what are you going to do about it? What's your remedy?'

No one answered, because none of them knew of any remedy: and Crass began to feel sorry that he had re-introduced the subject at all.

'In the near future,' continued Owen, 'it is probable that horses will be almost entirely superseded by motor cars and electric trams. As the services of horses will be no longer required, all but a few of those animals will be caused to die out: they will no longer be bred to the same extent as formerly. We can't blame the horses for allowing themselves to be exterminated. They have not sufficient intelligence to understand what's being done. Therefore they will submit tamely to the extinction of the greater number of their kind.

'As we have seen, a great deal of the work which was formerly done by human beings is now being done by machinery. This machinery belongs to a few people: it is worked for the benefit of those few, just the same as were the human beings it displaced. These Few have no longer any need of the services of so many human workers, so they propose to exterminate them! The unnecessary human beings are to be allowed to starve to death! And they are also to be taught that it is wrong to marry and breed children, because the Sacred Few do not require so many people to work for them as before!'

'Yes, and you'll never be able to prevent it, mate!' shouted Crass.

'Why can't we?'

'Because it can't be done!' cried Crass fiercely. 'It's impossible!'


Anyone who has ever taken part in a similar conversation with fellow workers knows that this fictional account couldn't be any more real, even over a century later. While it occurred in an imaginary, 1900-ish English setting, it surely resonates in a 21st-century American reality where collective working-class dissonance - what is referred to in Marxist circles as "false consciousness" - remains ignorant to the casual effects of capitalism. The conversation is packed with the typically tragic ironies of impoverished, insecure workers searching for any reason to explain their collective plight absent of blaming a system, let alone the faces of that system, which uses and discards them as it pleases. The lone conscious worker, Owen, does his best to enlighten the bunch. The main opposition comes from Crass, a character who symbolizes the epitome of false consciousness, not only in his ignorance of the system but perhaps even more so in his ill-informed, emotional pushback, which echoes the misleading narrative so often presented through mainstream channels. When pressed toward realizing the truth of his existence - and more importantly, the reason for it - Crass' dissonance hardens into an acceptance of hopeless despair summarized by those fatal words we've become all too familiar with - "that may be the case, but there's nothing we can do about it... it's just the way it is."

Such dissonance is expected in a highly divisive and unequal class society, especially when the prospect of a highly-conscious working class represents the single biggest threat to the few that benefit from this artificial arrangement. The key in forging this collective dissonance is found in turning a blind eye to material conditions and replacing the physical reality created by these conditions with a worldview shaped directly by ruling-class interests, which are accepted as being in line with the interests of all - a phenomenon which Antonio Gramsci referred to as cultural hegemony. In The German Ideology, Marx emphasized this cultural dynamic which inevitably stems from capitalism:

"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch." [2]

The false consciousness that is theorized by Marx and exposed in this particular scene of Tressell's book has real effects that continue to plague the working class. Unemployment, underemployment and poverty have characterized the typical working-class existence for the past four centuries; and, rather than being correctly viewed as manufactured realities, have gradually become accepted as an inescapable part of human life on earth. However, they are hardly inescapable or necessary. And this understanding may only be realized through an assessment of the mechanisms of capitalism.


Feudalism to Capitalism, Peasant to Worker

Unemployment has been a staple of the capitalist system since its birth from the remnants of feudalism. In purely mechanical terms, it is easy to see why this is the case. Since capitalism rests on a fundamental relationship between capitalist and worker, whereas the worker's labor is used to extract profit for the capitalist, its foundation is characterized by exploitation. However, this exploitation may only be realized if the masses of people are placed in a position where they are transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold. Since humans are inherently autonomous beings, artificial material conditions must be constructed in order to separate them from the rights of basic necessities, such as housing, food, water, etc., so they are then compelled to offer themselves on the labor market to be used as the owners of the means of production (capitalists) see fit. This is not a natural process; hence, the reason why wage-labor is historically viewed as not much different than chattel slavery. InCapital, Marx tells us:

"But in order that our owner of money may be able to find labour-power offered for sale as a commodity, various conditions must first be fulfilled. The exchange of commodities of itself implies no other relations of dependence than those which result from its own nature. On this assumption, labour-power can appear upon the market as a commodity, only if, and so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is, offers it for sale, or sells it, as a commodity. In order that he may be able to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammelled owner of his capacity for labour, i.e., of his person. He and the owner of money meet in the market, and deal with each other as on the basis of equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other seller; both, therefore, equal in the eyes of the law. The continuance of this relation demands that the owner of the labour-power should sell it only for a definite period, for if he were to sell it rump and stump, once for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity. He must constantly look upon his labour-power as his own property, his own commodity, and this he can only do by placing it at the disposal of the buyer temporarily, for a definite period of time. By this means alone can he avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it." [3]

This is not an intended or natural element of human life; rather, it is an artificial arrangement constructed by those who wish to own the world. "One thing, however, is clear - Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power," explains Marx. "This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production." [4] The capitalist epoch is surely not the first to base itself on such arrangements, but it is the latest.

The transition between feudalism and capitalism was not seamless, according to Marx, but rested on similar dynamics. "In England," he writes, "serfdom had practically disappeared in the last part of the 14th century. The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a still larger extent, in the fifteenth century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden." [5] This period of transition, which was neither feudalistic nor capitalist, facilitated the transformation from an obligatory, formal dependence which characterized the relationship between lord and peasant to an informal dependence that materialized under capitalist relations. "The economic structure of capitalistic society," Marx writes, "has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former." [6]

While the hierarchical dynamics remained intact during this transition, the possibility of forging a collective resistance developed alongside the new relationships that were introduced under capitalism. This was noted by Marx on many occasions, perhaps most clearly in his take on the peasantry in revolutionary France in 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon':

"The small peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another, instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by France's bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small-holding, admits of no division of labour in its cultivation, no application of science, and, therefore, no multiplicity of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient; it itself directly produces the major part of its consumption and thus acquires its means of life more through exchange with nature than its intercourse with society ... Insofar as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that divide their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile contrast to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no unity, no national union, and no political organisation, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own names, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented." [7]

This strain in Marxist thought continued for decades. In a 1919 edition of L'Ordine Nuovo, Gramsci remarked on what he perceived as the mentality shaped by the peasant experience in feudal settings:

"The psychology of the peasants was, in such conditions, uncontrollable; real feelings remained hidden, implicated and confused in a system of defence against exploitations, merely egotistical, without logical continuity, materialized in sham indifference and false servility. The class struggle was m ixed up with banditry, blackmail, burning forests, laming livestock, kidnapping women and children, with attacks on the municipality: it was a form of basic terrorism, without steady and effective consequences. Objectively then the psychology of the peasant was reduced to a tiny sum of primordial feelings caused by the social conditions created by the parliamentary-democratic state: the peasant was left completely at the mercy of the landowners and of their sycophants and corrupt public officials, and the main worry in their lives was to defend themselves physically against unexpected natural disasters, against the abuses and barbaric cruelty of the landowners and public officials. The peasant has always lived outside the domain of the law, without a legal personality, without moral individuality: he has remained an anarchic element, the independent atom in a chaotic tumult, held back only by fear of the carabiniere and of the devil. He did not understand discipline; patient and tenacious in the individual struggle to take scarce and meagre fruits from nature, capable of great sacrifice in family life, he was impatient and wildly violent in the class struggle, incapable of posing a general aim and of pursuing it with perseverance and systematic struggle." [8]

Long before false consciousness became a concern within the capitalist working classes, the consensus idea in Marxian circles warned against this "narrow-minded" mentality carried forth from the peasantry of feudal society. While the societal structures between feudalism and capitalism largely remained the same, especially in regards to how the subaltern related to the power structure (peasant to lord, tenant to landowner, worker to capitalist), the individualistic, survivalist posture of the peasant was confronted with the possibility of a collective resistance that would present itself under the newly-formed structures of capitalism, where workers would be corralled together in packs. Gramsci noted this inevitable transition and its effect on consciousness, especially in regards to the working classes in what he described as "capitalistically backward" nations like Russia, Italy, France and Spain:

"In reality large ownership has remained outside free competition: and the modern state has respected its feudal essence, developing juridical formulae such as holding in trust, which maintain in fact the existence and privileges of the feudal regime. The mentality of the peasant has thus remained that of the servant of the soil, who revolts violently against the "bosses" on particular occasions, but is incapable of thinking himself part of a collective (the nation for the owners and the class for the proletarians) and of developing systematic action and permanent revolt to change the economic and political relations of social existence." [9]

With the arrival of capitalism came the reality of a collective struggle and, subsequently, the capability of the peasant-turned-worker "thinking himself part of a collective" - something that, as Gramsci noted, was impossible on the sporadic and disconnected feudal landscape.


Overcoming False Consciousness

"Only if false consciousness is transformed into true consciousness, that is, only if we are aware of reality, rather than distorting it by rationalizations and fictions, can we also become aware of our real and true human needs." - Erich Fromm [10]

As capitalism evolved in the United States, so too did the probability of widespread, working-class consciousness. This was evident throughout the first half of the 20th century, which birthed a radical labor movement that garnered many key victories. However, despite this period of working-class progress, capitalism ultimately prevailed. The late-1900s brought higher concentrations of wealth, tax schemes beneficial to the wealthy, increased inequality, and an overall deterioration of the industrialized working classes which, after fighting for decades to carve out a piece of the pie, were decimated by globalization.

Our new reality is now shaped by crippling and lifelong debt, poverty wages, chronic underemployment and unemployment, and rampant insecurities regarding access to basic necessities. The problems faced by Owen, Crass, and the entire working crew showcased in Tressell's book are the same problems we face now. They are the same fundamental problems faced by working-class people centuries over: a lack of autonomy, a lack of control, and a near-total absence of self-determination. And, ironically, with the onset of globalized capitalism, the ownership class has become more connected than ever, while the working class has become more disconnected than ever. This disconnectedness, and the reversal of many of the hard-fought gains won by organized labor, has created an environment that breeds false consciousness.

The modern, disconnected working class has become less reliant on one another and more susceptible to the corporate culture directed from the top. This hegemonic culture now influences everything from public schooling to advertising and marketing to entertainment to the workplace. Naturally, the isolation and "social dislocation" that has accompanied this culture (and the material conditions shaped by globalized capitalism) "breeds a reactionary form of nostalgia." [11] This cultural effect helps explain the tendencies of members of the working class to embrace divisive (and ultimately self-destructive) ideologies such as racism, misogyny and homophobia, to vote against their best interests, to worship wealth and celebrity culture, and to gravitate toward proto-fascist elements such as the Tea Party. In this sense, the persistence of false consciousness is directed, or at least stimulated, from above. "To deny this," as Michael Parenti wrote, "is to assume there has been no indoctrination, no socialization to conservative values, no control of information and commentary, no limitation of the topics to be considered in the national debate… and that a whole array of powers have not helped pre-structure how we see and define our own interests and options." [12]

False consciousness is, at its core, an ideological problem; but it is shaped by the realities created by capitalism - exploitation, isolation, and dehumanization - as well as the mechanisms that force capitalist culture upon us, mainly derived from the privatization and profitization of elements that influence thought, such as education systems and media. Thus, the hegemonic culture that dominates working-class thought serves as a deceptive foundation whereas the appearance of conscious thought, and even the conscious seeking of knowledge, is not as free-flowing as it appears to those who actively engage in this process. Friedrich Engels explains:

"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. 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." [13]

Overcoming false consciousness will require a complete rejection of hierarchical relationships from within the working class, especially in regards to education. Since public education is trending in an opposite direction, with highly-structured and authoritative elements being introduced through legislation like No Child Left Behind, programs like Common Core, and privatization efforts centered in the charter school movement, informal programs must develop. This will require interaction. This will require a willingness to discuss difficult topics, and attempts to cut through hardened and callused dissonance, ala Tressell's protagonist, and a rejection of traditional notions of education as being characterized by formal, top-down, dictating interactions. This will require an understanding that "there is no such thing as a neutral educational process," and that "education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world." [14] This will require the realization that we are more than just commodities.



[1] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). Accessed athttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

[2] Karl Marx, The German Ideology. Part 1: Feuerbach, Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, The Illusion of the Epoch. Accessed athttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01b.htm

[3] Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1, Chapter Six. Accessed athttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch06.htm

[4] Ibid

[5] Marx, Capital: Volume 1, Chapter 27. Accessed athttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch27.htm

[6] Marx, Capital: Volume 1, Chapter 26. Accessed athttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch26.htm

[7] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), Chapter 7. Accessed athttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch07.htm

[8] Antonio Gramsci, Workers and Peasants. L'Ordine Nuovo, 2 August 1919. Translated by Michael Carley. Accessed at 

[9] Ibid

[10] Erich Fromm, Marx's Concept of Man, (New York, NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1961), 1-85. Accessed at http://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/index.htm

[11] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

[12] Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths: Reflections on Politics, Media, Ideology, Conspiracy, Ethnic Life and Class Power (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1996), 210.

[13] Friedrich Engels in a letter to Franz Mehring, July 14, 1893. Accessed athttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_07_14.htm

[14] Richard Shaull, Preface to Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Paulo Freire). (2000) New York : Continuum

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