Cultural Hegemony and False Consciousness

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. 

Frederich Engels letter to Franz Mehring, July 14, 1893

One of the consequences of pearl-clutching and hand-wringing over a so-called free speech ‘crisis’ on college campuses was blowback to postmodernism. Popularized by some of the members of the “Intellectual Dark Web” who have wondered if thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida could be the root causes to shameful incidents such as Bret Weinstein‘s Evergreen State tribulations and the assault on Charles Murray at Middlebury College. Conflated with Marxism, the right-leaning commentariat has seized on a narrative that college students have been radicalized by academics preaching postmodern thought and Marxist economics, and a few jumps later make the connection to “identify politics” exposed by left-leaning political parties. An entire intellectual movement is thus rendered another dumb talking point: postmodernism has something to do with effete intellectuals aligned with wimpy Gen Zs with green hair who hate free speech and love Bernie Sanders.

Postmodernism has much to offer, and while just as imperfect as any system of thought, its dismissal as an intellectual blind alley is unwarranted, and its conflation with Marxism is just not right. It is unclear how this connection was made. Maybe there seems to be overlap due to postmodernism building upon Neo-Marxist critical theory (with origins in the Frankfort School), or perhaps it is just that postmodernism provides the analytical tools that breakdown the underpinnings of a society’s organization and, once exposed, leaves Marxism as a potential cure for social injustice. Maybe these ideas are simply fellow travelers, with leftists who like both relativism and redistribution.

Regardless, there has been a lot of recent dialogue in the media about the ideologies that underpin the far-left who have seized upon the anti-Trump/anti-Republican moment to forward a socialist agenda. They say there is a rich, white patriarchy with nearly absolute power that both exploits and discriminates against women, every race, every gender, every sexuality, and every non-Christian religion. Few agree with the extreme far-left — at least not right now (more on this in a moment) — but there is sympathy for the positions in the center-left deranged by Trump’s Presidency.

If as bad as the far-left claims, why is the US so stable? The answer for why the lumpen proletariat has not fallen into open rebellion: false consciousness.

The term “false consciousness” refers to the Marxist idea of the working class taking on the values of an elite wealthy class, despite those values not being in the best interests of that working class. The people in that group just do not have the perspective to recognize they have subscribed to a set of rules and adopted values that work against them. Mainstream Democrats attempted to riff on this idea by applying it to working class voters who vote Republican and, therefore, against their economic self-interest — an idea that has recently come back after its brief appearance in the mid-00’s, thanks to the Trump election. Ironically, all it takes is a bit of postmodernist thinking to destroy an argument like this: How do we know the society’s cultural values did not predate the stratification of the economy? How do cultural values end-up being neatly distributed by economic class? Why should a voter only vote based on economics? Is it so hard to imagine that other values are held to be more important than a person’s economic self-interest?

A stronger far-left argument in the same vein is the idea of cultural hegemony. This is the idea that a ruling class exhibits influence over culture, in addition to government and the law. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist political philosopher, challenged orthodox Marxism arguing that capitalism was not only a political and economic concept, but a cultural one encompassing multiple aspects of a society. There are always laws, police, and armies to enforce order. But there were also the ‘softer’ aspects of the society that worked in lockstep with the dominant capitalist class. There are educational institutions, churches, and employers. There are families and neighborhoods. There are arts and entertainment. All of these elements use a language and follow social norms that support the hierarchy’s internal order, presenting incentives to every person to cooperate or to live with consequences of going against the grain. With that element of individual consent — coupled with the illusion of participatory democracy’s mass elections — the working class reified capitalist values in that culture, ultimately serving the dominate capitalist class. Thus the capitalist domination, or hegemony, over a culture.

Do not dismiss Gramsci because he was a Marxist. There’s a lot to be said about cultural hegemony, and thinkers like Douglass North (on institutional influence in keeping order in a society) and Deidre McCloskey (on popular ideals and their impact on economic development) have explored similar analyses.


On August 14, 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal announcing the “Accountable Capitalism Act” that would hijack the corporate decision-making of the largest corporations in the US, expropriating those businesses to serve Democratic Party ends. The ideas behind this bill are sinister and wrong-headed, and the consequences are potentially disastrous, as clearly argued by Richard Epstein and the Mises Institute. On August 23, 2018, the Washington Post reported that Bernie Sanders announced plans to introduce legislation that would force companies with 500 or more employees to repay the government for any government benefits paid out to employees. Again, this is a taking of private property for left-leaning ends, a virtual blank check to dispense government largess. Both Warren and Sanders are potential presidential candidates, riding the wave of fascination with socialism. Many political commentators believed Bernie Sanders could have defeated Donald Trump by mobilizing younger voters in the key swing (or purple) states where Hillary Clinton lost. The groundswell for ‘democratic socialism’ is ominous. Indeed, the always compelling Peter Schiff has presented a hypothesis that the Trump Administration’s probable failure coupled with a major recession will set the table for socialist-leaning Democrats to win the Presidency and Congress in 2020.

A country in which legislation like that of Warren and Sanders, two mainstream politicians, could even be suggested seems to reveal, at the very least, a weakening in capitalism’s cultural hegemony. Going back to Gramsci, the cracks in capitalism’s dominance may be even greater, and may serve to explain Sanders’ presidential campaign — something that had been a phenomenon to the commentariat in 2015-16.

Gramsci’s strategy for Marxism was for the working class to develop its own influential culture to counter that of the ruling, capitalist class. Today if there is a so-called ‘ruling class’ in the US, it is a cultural-intellectual-political elite in continuous discourse with the world through media, entertainment, commerce, and politics. It is not strictly a capitalist elite like in Gramsci’s day; in fact, this contemporary elite seems to be dominated by the left, perhaps not far-left socialists but certainly a center-left neoliberals. The media is full of people on the left. Higher education is the dominated by leftist intellectuals and administrators. The coastal elite in the US are blue state urbanites, centers of banking, professional firms, and corporate headquarters in New York City (Wall Street and media), Boston (biotech), Washington DC (media, law/lobbying, and career politicians and bureaucrats), Los Angeles (entertainment), and the Bay Area (Silicon Valley). The influence of Hollywood alone, with egalitarian political messages and moral values embedded in its content, must call into question capitalism’s hold over America. This is an elite that tolerates commerce and private property, and is too eager to promulgate collectivism, social justice, and equality of outcomes.

The inevitable impact of left-leaning elites is openness among the electorate to socialism, battering the once dominant cultural position of capitalism. Even if you take issue with the idea of a left-leaning elite, consider that there appears to be a new kind of “false consciousness” at play.

Entrepreneurs, financiers, and corporate leaders seem to go out of their way to virtue signal. Like the Cultural Revolution, some rich people feel they have to publicly confess their crimes and ask Congress to tax them more. Nearly every major corporation makes donations to nonprofits, encourages volunteering, supports its employees doing community service on company time, and strives for an inclusive workplace and diverse workforce. Perhaps the 2007-08 Financial Crisis caused a loss of faith in neoliberalism, or perhaps it was the constant hounding in the press about income inequality. As a result, aspiring to get rich is nothing one will publicize or else be excoriated in social media. Getting rich is something one may want to hide from the rest of the world. Self-interest is anti-social, and the current cultural moment makes a person feel guilty to be well-off.

In other words, entrepreneurs, financiers, and corporate leaders are no longer part of the dominate class by virtue of their status; to be part of the dominate class, these former elites must adopt the values of the culturally dominate class which go against their economic self-interest. These acts of contrition simply reenforce the far-left and its sway over culture. In this way, the groundwork is laid for more socialism in the US.

Engaging in a career, building-up your human capital, putting yourself and your capital at-risk, and being a steward over your assets. Maximizing shareholder value, following fiduciary duties, and adhering to contracts and the law. These used to be the values of a dominate class. Perhaps it is just the working class Trump voter and those entrepreneurs and business people in the red states who are the last holdouts of the old cultural regime.

Perhaps a flirtation with socialism and the inevitable disaster of its policies will cause a swing against statism and a backlash against the culture that undermined individual rights, free markets, and private property.

Copyright © Chicago Fog 2018
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