It's not clear that Karl Marx ever used the term "false consciousness" to describe ideology and the way it is used to convince members of the proletariat to act against their own interests politically, but the notion is one that has shown remarkable prescience and staying power as a problem for leftist politics in the last couple centuries or so. It's a useful tool that at least helps to explain how it came to be that Irish immigrants who were apparently no friends of black folks at the time nevertheless joined the Union Army during the civil war to participate in a fight to end slavery in America. It seems to be lurking in the background of the poor kids who got duped into fighting in Korea and Vietnam where it has never been clear that brinksmanship with Mao's China had any real benefit for an American workforce in the middle of the greatest prosperity any labor force has ever had in the history of the world—thanks in no small part to the strength of labor unions in the forties, fifties and sixties; and to President Eisenhower's 70% top marginal tax rate. And frankly, arguments about getting money for school and gaining job skills aside, I can't help but think it's there in the fresh faced kids signing up to learn how to be IED fodder year in and year out in a Military that hasn't had to fight a defensive war in almost four generations now. It also explains to a great degree the question Thomas Frank asked and attempted to answer a few years book in his book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Frank's answer is wrong because Frank is a milquetoast liberal, and like all milquetoast liberals, he has conceded too much to capitalist propaganda to continue to make a coherent argument for a robust leftwing agenda. But the problem he has identified is real, despite the many attempts to discredit his work by right wing "intellectuals" shilling for the GOP. For some reason, the poor and middle class in America, with the notable exception of African Americans who for some reason seem largely inoculated against the capitalist bullshit so many poor and middle class members of other races fall for. (I wonder why that might be? What might it be in the history of the African American experience in the United States that would make them skeptical about the propaganda that free markets and corporate economic autonomy are good for everybody?) Ok, that's enough rhetorical facetiousness for now.
There's nothing at all perplexing about the large blocs of apparently sane and reasonable Americans consistently voting against their own self-interest, and it's the problem that makes all economic theories founded on the absurd presumption that all participants in the economy are rational actors totally wrong, the problem of false consciousness. As I said, false consciousness is more of a short hand for the Marxist critique of the pernicious effect of ideologies on a political body and Marx probably never used the term himself. As best as Marx historians can tell, the term comes from Marx's collaborator Engels who used the term to describe the impact of ideology on the proletariat of Europe in the mid to late nineteenth century. False Consciousness is the exasperating illusion that many people have that they somehow themselves reap the benefits of capitalism and that the system actually works in their favor when in reality it does nothing of the sort. The way it works is this: the powerful, who naturally control public discourse to a very large degree because they are powerful and they own the means of public discourse, create a metanarrative about the progress of history and the results of human work that obscures the rather bald facts about the conditions of the proletariat. This ideology can be anything from a religion that promises a great reward in the afterlife to the myth of class mobility being available to everyone through nothing more than hard work and initiative. The important result is that the metanarrative tells people that whatever their lot in life, if they just do what they're supposed to do and don't make a fuss, they will reap great rewards eventually. In the United States, the name we give to this myth is "The American Dream." It's a constant trope in our culture wherever we look, someone who is smart and has a good work ethic eventually gets what he wants. Moreover, it's the story that all of our most successful people like to tell about themselves, about how they came from humble beginnings, how they rose up through the ranks, how they worked hard for what they've got and therefore have earned it all. This stuff is complete nonsense, but people believe it despite the evidence staring them in the face that it isn't true. Every person in America can probably name three or four people off the top of their heads who they know personally who didn't come from particularly humble beginnings, worked hard for years and years, and at the end of it all wind up more or less where they started. Maybe a little better off, maybe a little worse, but no really great change. Examples of people who truly made great leaps do exist, they're quite abundant, in fact, but the salient fact about the vast majority of those cases is that they are a result of not just hard work, but also of particular natural talents that allowed people who came from humble beginnings to gain extremely valuable and difficult skills. Corporate attorneys, surgeons, investment bankers, successful inventors and entrepreneurs: all of these are career paths that are available to some extremely intelligent people. But they aren't available to everyone. The sad fact is that the vast bulk of us simply don't have the brain power to land those extremely competitive jobs. I don't mean to say that we couldn't do them, with the exception of inventing things, it's not particularly difficult to write a contract, remove an appendix, or run a business. But because they do carry such lucrative rewards and there's only so much demand for that kind of thing, there are huge hurdles to overcome in order to be able to apply for those jobs in the first place, and those hurdles are largely a matter of academic achievement. And, as any slacker like me who ever got an A on an algebra final only to get a C in the class because he never bothered to do his homework will tell you, the only thing Academic achievement really measures is an individuals ability to vigorously go about the task of doing what he or she is told. It is a measure of nothing other than a long and complicated process to thin the applicant pool for highly remunerative occupations that require a lot of skills that in the end are hard to acquire but not so hard that only the very best and brightest can acquire them.
All of that is to say that while they are examples of class mobility, the kids who grow up poor and end up making huge amounts of money doing mergers and acquisitions or doing face lifts, and frankly for the amount of work those people do just to get those jobs they're probably still being under payed a lot of the time, they are exceptional cases in a system that is gamed to make them rare and not at all evidence of what comes from hard work and extensive education. If you don't believe me, go down to your local community college and have a chat with the guy teaching Chem 101 about why it is that after the decade he spent getting his Ph.D. and all the hard work and research that went into his dissertation and probably several publications he's spending his time teaching stoners the periodic table rather than say working for General Electric doing cutting edge research on next generation batteries. I'll bet you a substantial amount of money it's because there are a million people with his qualifications who all worked just as hard as he did, and for whatever reason he didn't win the research grant lottery. And yeah, the chances are he's kind of a dick and nobody really ever liked working with him. And that matters too, but it has nothing to do with how hard he worked or how smart he is.
And yet, while we are constantly faced with example after example of people who, if social mobility were a fact of life, would be extremely wealthy and successful who are only really of moderate means, there are still all manner of people with little more than a high school or undergraduate education making firmly middle class or lower incomes who look at a top individual income tax rate of 37% and in one breath say it's far too high and should be cut, and in the next breath complain that the deficit is too big and that the federal budget also should be smaller despite the fact that the three biggest federal expenditures of defense, social security, and medicare are all programs that they generally support and don't want to see taken away. These actions run starkly contrary to the interests of a middle class that is finding it increasingly difficult to save for retirement and so probably need a more robust social security system, who see almost no benefit from the defense expenditures which are largely vapor that goes into the hands of a very few people, or is spread so thin that our troops are both poorly equipped and underpaid to fight the adventure wars we've been sending them on since 1950, and who will almost certainly be unable to afford to pay for their own health care in their old age and so will rely on medicare to keep them alive for their last two decades plus on earth. Further, for those who do get more education, they're heavily reliant on federal money to pay for the schooling, money which they will struggle to pay back and which should be a cost borne by their employers since it is their employers who are benefitting the most from a highly skilled workforce, but who still underpay everyone while they rake in massive profits to be doled out to shareholders, most of whom put no work at all into what the company produces and yet still profit off the surplus labor of the highly skilled workers so employed.
This aspect of American politics is not new, but it is false consciousness and almost baldly so, as we saw during the last congress where extremely mild efforts to try to improve the lot of everyone in the United States through modest limits on the cost of health care was decried by the people who benefit the most from health care reform as "socialism" that many of them firmly believe takes something away from them when it is actually only giving them a small fraction of what should be theirs by right. It's there in the absurdity of that man who stood up in protest and said he didn't want the government to take over his Medicare. It's there in all those poor dumb kids spouting nonsense about honor and duty as they hand over their freewill to the military industrial complex so that they can get sent overseas to get blown to bits and come back if they come back at all carrying psychic wounds that will be with them for the rest of their lives and all of it for nothing that makes Americans more free or more secure in any way shape or form, but that only perpetuates a global energy supply system that is slowly strangling us all. It's there in the anti-intellectualism of the right, decrying as "liberal elites" anyone who bothers to point out that their situation is shit and they deserve better, at once saying that they respect hard work and success and turning right around and spitting in the face of the people who have worked hard to achieve highly specialized knowledge in their field, people who know what the fuck they're talking about, and dismissing them out of hand as somehow less in touch with reality than a guy like Rush Limbaugh (a multimillionaire dope fiend who has managed to ruin half a dozen marriages at last count and yet still has the brass to get on the radio and shout about elitists who don't care about family and America). Another word for false consciousness might be cognitive dissonance, the simultaneous holding of two or more contradictory beliefs. Except that with false consciousness what's dissonant isn't the fact that ones beliefs contradict one another, what's dissonant is anything that points out that fact and attempts to correct it. That's what is behind the Tea Party movement. That's what is the matter with Kansas. And until the left realizes that by accepting the terms of capitalism before it engages in political discourse it's only going to allow the right to continue to guide the narrative in the direction of this false consciousness, then we will all continue to exploited and equality will remain impossible.