False consciousness is term probably coined by Friedrich Engels to describe a scenario where a subordinate class embraces the ideology of the ruling class, even though the ideology guarantees their subordination. In the communist view of things, workers embraced the bourgeois values of capitalist society, even though it meant they remained at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It was an interesting bit of projection that has been a feature of radicalism since the beginning.
To be a radical in the conventional sense of Western politics starts with a heavy dose of self-deception. Radicals are rarely from the subordinate class. Almost always they are from the ruling elite. They are intellectuals raised in leisure, but convinced they are the authentic voice of the masses. The rare few from the masses have been elevated because they confirm the bourgeois radical’s need for affirmation. As a reward, the striver gets to live in the farmhouse with the pigs.
A glaring example of radical self-delusion is in this clip from the Jimmy Dore Show in which the host discusses the revolution with Chris Hedges. For those unfamiliar, Dore is a comic who has made himself rich doing left-wing comedy. Chris Hedges is an activist who caters to the NPR crowd. He used to write for the New York Times and got famous trafficking in conspiracy theories during the Bush years. He is the type who claimed Bush was a fascist and Iraq was the Sudetenland.
The clip is interesting because both men are convinced they are opposed to the system, when in fact they are products of the system. This is not an act. They truly think they are the avant garde trying to organize a revolt against the system. Further, both seem to think they are working class heroes, leading the proletariat in their struggle against the bourgeois oppressor class. There are times when they sound like a museum exhibit explaining the 1930’s union movements.
Jimmy Dore is a rich guy who lives in a two-million dollar home in California, while Hedges is a rich guy who lives in a mansion in Princeton New Jersey. That is one of the tonier neighborhoods in America. They owe everything that truly matters to them to the system they pretend to oppose. If there was a revolution, they are the on the first train cars heading to the gulags. The only thing more ridiculous than these two talking revolution is the fact that they seem to believe it.
An amusing sidebar here is that they both have put a lot of effort into retconning their life story to match their roles. Hedges claims to have grown up working class, but his family sent him to elite boarding schools. But hey, the Chaffee school is pretty much a juvenile detention center. Dore carries on like his father was Archie Bunker, but in reality, he was a cop who owned a construction business. The system they claim to oppose has been very good to the both of them.
Other than the entertainment value, the reason to pay attention to these sorts of people is they offer an insight into the people in charge. The typical person in mainstream politics suffers from the same sort of self-delusion. Few have ever done real work or known anyone who does real work. Their entire lives have been inside the world of make believe, where they struggle with other actors, pretending to care about the people outside the bubble.
Just as conservatism is a bone the system throws to middle-class white people to keep them busy; socialism is a bone tossed to upper-middle class white people to make them feel special. One of the remarkable features of the Bernie Bro phenomenon is that it is whiter than a Klan rally. Scroll through the clips of the Jimmy Dore show or the Young Turks and it is nothing but palefaces. In no way does this brand of radicalism look anything like the people they claim to represent.
The self-delusion is not a one-way street. There are cynical people in politics, for sure, but most really believe what they are saying. Elizabeth Warren holds court in her mansion telling the wealthy hens in her circle about how she is fighting for working families and the victims of Wall Street. They all congratulate themselves on being the conscience of the people. All of these people are high on their own fumes, which is what keeps them from facing reality.
The thing about the concept of false consciousness is that Engels was inadvertently signaling what would become a prominent feature of radicalism. It is not the subordinate classes that are the victims, but rather the radicals themselves. Whether it is civic nationalists and their utopian fantasies about the Constitution or the middle-class socialists and their utopian fantasies about economics, radicalism requires the participants to live in a state of smug self-delusion.
Perhaps it is the nature of all political systems to delude the beneficiaries, so they do not have to face the reality of their position. The king can know himself, but his court must believe they are acting in the name of honor. The crafty political operator can be as cynical as he likes, but his supporters must see him as a man of virtue, selflessly serving the republic. In liberal democracy, it is the narcotic of radicalism played out in the comfort of the gated mansion.
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