Structures in Marx’s thought

The concept of a social structure has often played a large role in social theorizing. The general idea is that society consists of an ensemble of durable, regulative structures within the context of which individuals live and act. Sometimes structures are interpreted functionally: the ensemble of structures constitute a system, and discrete structures satisfy important social functions. This is a physiological approach to society: what are the chief sub-systems in society and what do they do; how do they fit together to assure the continuing functioning of society?

There is much to fault in this set of ideas about the constituent parts of society — for example, its tendency to reify a continually shifting social reality and its tacit assumption that the social order is a system in functional equilibrium.

But here I want to ask a smaller question: does Marx offer a social ontology that includes enduring social structures?

It would appear that the answer is a resounding “yes”. Marx looks at capitalism as a system. For example, consider this statement from the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

Here and elsewhere Marx picks out the forces of production and relations of production as the fundamental determinants of historical change. He identifies social classes as the chief actors in society. And he offers a conception of the capitalist mode of production as consisting of an economic base — the economic structure — and an ensemble of superstructural elements — law, state, ideology, religion, culture –that stand above the economic structure and serve to preserve its conditions of reproduction. All of this invokes an ontology of social structures, social systems, and functional interdependency (G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence).

The functionalism implicit in this ontology has been deeply challenged (Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx; Daniel Little, The Scientific Marx). The bottom line of these criticisms seems inescapable: there is no basis whatsoever to expect that social structures will develop that are functionally suited to the needs of the social system. There is no process of natural selection for social arrangements. So if there is alignment across structures, we need to seek out the specific social mechanisms that bring it about.

But what about the structuralism? Is this ontology a credible one if it is separated from the functionalist assumption?

Here we need to be very careful at every step of the argument. Marx is right that Britain and France possessed a set of property relations in capital and labor in the mid-nineteenth century. These relations were distinct from those of French feudalism in the fourteenth century. These social relations are durable and coercive. Those differences created different historical dynamics in nineteenth-century Britain and France. So far so good — there were durable, coercive social relations embodied on the two societies, and it doesn’t seem misleading to call these “structures.” Moreover, these structures had historical effects, much as Marx described them to have. Likewise, his definitions of “proletariat” and “capitalist” are rigorous and historically grounded. So Marx succeeds in identifying social structures in particular societies.

But here it is very important to avoid the error of reification: the assumption that the structures of capitalism are substantially the same in every capitalist society, or the same in one capitalist society over time. Rather, there are substantial and causally important differences across the basic economic institutions, and the situations of the great classes, in different capitalist societies. This is one of the central insights of the new institutionalism (Kathleen Thelen, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan). These differences over time and across societies in turn imply that the structuralism of the concept of the capitalist mode of production must be abandoned as well. There is no super-category of “capitalism” and its logic that can be used to subsume the historical trajectories of multiple societies.

Finally, it bears repeating that all theories of structures require microfoundations. Structures do not exist free-standing; instead, they must be embodied on the actions and thoughts of socially constituted individuals. (See Levels of the Social for more on this.) I don’t think Marx would object to this stricture — I think he actually provides an agent-centered political economy himself. But the more holistic advocates of French structuralism (Althusser or Poulantzas, for example) would object strenuously.

So this leaves us with a pretty tame version of a Marxian structuralism. Social structures exist. They vary from society and across time. They are not functionally adapted. There are no transcendent structures possessing a unique historical dynamic. And, finally, all these claims about causally active social structures need to be compatible with microfoundations at the level of the social actors.

What was E P Thompson up to?


Let’s think about E P Thompson. His 1963 book, Making of the English Working Class, transformed the way that historians on the left conceptualized “social class.” But what, precisely, was it about?

Whereas other Marxist historians focused particularly on the large structures of capitalism, Thompson’s eye was turned to the specific and often surprising details of artisanal and working culture in pre-industrial England, the many ways in which the working people at the bottom of English society conceived of themselves and created their own organizations for education and politics in the last half of the eighteenth century. Neither peasant nor middle class, the many segments of working people in England were socially organized by trade and skill, and with remarkably distinct cultural traditions, songs, and political repertoires. They were not, in fact, a “class”. And yet, they became a class — this is the “making” that Thompson’s title refers to.

(Harvey Kaye’s British Marxist Historians offers an excellent survey of the major British Marxist historians — Hobsbawm, Hilton, Dobbs, Thompson, and others.)

Commentators often describe Thompson’s central contribution as being the provision of a detailed understanding of “class consciousness” in counterpart to Marx’s conception of a “class in itself” — a group of people defined in terms of their relation to the system of property relations. On this line of interpretation, Thompson provided one of the missing links within Marxist theory, by demonstrating how the transition from “class in itself” to “class for itself” was accomplished.

This is too simplistic a reading of Thompson, however. For one thing, Thompson’s book demonstrates the very great degree of contingency that attached to the historical construction of the English working class when we consider this process in cultural detail. But to find that the process is contingent, is also to negate the Marxist idea that there is a necessary and direct connection between a group’s structural position in the property system and its social consciousness. For another and related reason, Thompson’s story goes well beyond Marx’s in its emphasis on the independent agency of English working people. Their organizations, their ideas, and their political strategies were not simply derivative of the structural situation of “labor and capital”, but rather were the result of specific acts of leadership, creativity, and popular mobilization.

So let’s consider the main elements of Thompson’s historiography. What was his goal as a historian of this period of England’s social history? In writing the book, Thompson took a huge step forward in creating the field of social history, and he established a paradigm of historical writing that guided a generation of historians. His goal is almost ethnographic: he wants to discover the many threads of thought and culture that passed through the many segments of English working people. He takes ideas and ideology very seriously — and recognizes that the ideas of English Methodism and the rhetoric of liberty were profoundly important in these segments of English society. In particular, the ideas and the modes of organization that were associated with Methodism, were deeply formative for the laborers’ and artisans’ consciousness that was being forged.

Just as important as these elements of “high” culture, Thompson articulates his concept of the “moral economy” of the crowd — the idea that there is a shared set of norms in popular culture that underlie social behavior. He identifies popular disturbance — riots, strikes, and expressions of grievances of various kinds — as a crucial indicator of political behavior and popular consciousness. And he tries to demonstrate that the popular disturbances of the eightheenth and nineteenth centuries were governed by a set of norms that were popularly observed and enforced — about price, about social obligation, and about justice. The “bread riot” was not a chaotic or impulsive affair. And this becomes an important theme in the consciousness of the working class that Thompson describes: a consciousness that denounces political oppression as deeply as it decries exploitation.

In other words, Thompson’s version of working class consciousness invokes liberty and justice as much as it does deprivation and material factors. “In the end, it is the political context as much as the steam-engine, which had most influence on the shaping consciousness and institutions of the working class” (197). “The people were subjected simultaneously to an intensification of two intolerable forms of relationship: those of economic exploitation and of political oppression” (198).

The culmination of this retelling of the multi-threaded histories of English working people is indeed “a working class consciousness” — a more or less coherent social and political philosophy that supported a political program and a morality of equality and solidarity. “Thus working men formed a picture of the organization of society, out of their own experience and with the help of their hard-won and erratic education, which was above all a political picture. They learned to see their own lives as part of a general history of conflict between the loosely defined ‘industrial classes’ on the one hand, and the unreformed House of Commons on the other. From 1830 onwards a more clearly defined class concsiousness, in the customary Marxist sense, was maturing, in which working people were aware of continuing both old and new battles on their own” (712).

Thompson’s book remains an innovative and pathbreaking classic — and one that can continue to provide new ideas about how to understand society.

(See this post on ChangingSociety for more discussion of E. P. Thompson.)

Was Alexis de Tocqueville a social scientist?

Alexis de Tocqueville is sometimes counted among the founding influences in modern sociology — one of the intellectual progenitors of the discipline in the 1830s-50s.  An aristocrat in post-revolutionary France, de Tocqueville played several roles  in his life: historian, politician, traveler, and social observer.   My question here is a specific one: in what ways did Tocqueville’s writings and thinking make an important contribution to sociology?  And is there anything in his writings that can serve as an important angle of view today as we consider new approaches to sociology?

Tocqueville’s relevance to sociology derives from at least three features of his thinking: his enormous interest in social observation — in France, in Britain, in Algeria, and in America; his historical approach to understanding society — the importance of placing contemporary changes into a historical context; and his causal and comparative imagination — his desire to discover the causes of some of the patterns and differences he discerned in comparable societies.  

I suppose that the books that brought him the greatest recognition reflect these three features of his intellectual persona.  Democracy in America combines his appetite for discovering and describing the small but telling details of a society — the features that mark it as an individual distinct from other contemporary societies, along with an interest in discovering the causes and effects of large features of the societies he observed.  This is an intriguing combination of the particular and the general, the small and the large in a modern society.  (This feature of his sociological imagination makes me think most of Simon Schama’s historical writing — for example, in Landscape And Memory.)  On the side of explanation, Tocqueville was interested in finding the ways in which environment, morality, and civic arrangements combined to produce distinctive patterns of behavior and modes of thought; these become large causal factors in his writings, to which he attributes some of the distinctive features of American values and behavior. And he singled out large features of American society for special study — democracy, town and village life, the relations among the classes of society, the workings of education, and the workings of American market institutions. 

The Ancien Regime and the Revolution illustrates Tocqueville’s historical imagination and his effort to place the largest event of the century — the French Revolution — into a context of moral and civic factors that combined to make the revolution inevitable.   And other lesser books, such as his Recollections of 1848, reflect a combination of these interests in the particular details of a social event with an effort to provide a causal analysis of the way in which it unfolds — the revolutionary upheavals in Paris in 1848.  (These are, of course, the same upheavals to which Marx referred in the Communist Manifesto as the “spectre that is haunting Europe.”)  It is very interesting to contrast Tocqueville’s first-hand observations of the June days of the revolution of 1848, including especially the bloodshed against the workers of Paris, with Marx’s more theoretical writings about the same short period of time in The Civil War in France.  And it is interesting as well to note that Tocqueville was by no means a neutral observer of these events — any more than Marx was.  Tocqueville was a partisan, supportive of the repression inflicted by the state in the name of order.  This too is of some interest when we consider Tocqueville’s relation to the founding of sociology.

But in the end, I think it is not a mistake to conclude that Tocqueville brought an important set of ideas to contemporary sociology — the effort to create a scientific understanding of the modern world.  All of the features identified here — a passion for close observation and description, an interest in the discovery of social causes, an imagination that proceeds through comparison and contrast, and a framework of thought that emphasizes the importance of history — are in fact useful intellectual components for contemporary sociology.  Tocqueville’s conservative view of the world certainly interacted with his observations and recommendations.  His was certainly not “dispassionate” or value-free social science. But at the same time, we might consider whether a Tocqueville in Shanghai today might not discover some pretty interesting details, processes, and mechanisms that could contribute a deeper sociology of China.  And the fact that Tocqueville’s thinking did not proceed from the naturalism that motivated others of the founders — Comte, Spencer, and Durkheim, for example — is on the positive side of the balance sheet as well.  Tocqueville did not operate on the assumption that there must be a single underlying law that explains the processes that he observed in Manchester, Boston, or Algiers; instead, he was content to observe the diversity of the social phenomena he discovered and to tease out some possible, historically limited causal hypotheses about how these historically specific phenomena might work.  

So as we reconsider the intellectual composition of the discipline of sociology, it is worthwhile reconsidering Tocqueville.

Alienation and anomie

It is interesting to compare Durkheim and Marx on their ideas about modern consciousness. Durkheim focused on social solidarity as one of the important functions of a social order: individuals had a defined place in the world that was created and reinforced by the social values of morality, religion, and patriotism. He observed that these strands of solidarity are stronger or weaker in different societies, and he also observed that some modern social forces tend to break down these moral strands of social cohesion — the creation of large cities, for example. In his theory of suicide, he highlights the situation of “anomie” to refer to the circumstance of individuals whose relationship to the social whole is weak, and he explains differences in suicide rates across societies as the result of different levels of solidarity and its opposite, anomie.

Marx’s concept of alienation involves a somewhat different kind of separation and breakdown — separation of the person from his/her nature as a free producer and creator, and separation of the person from his/her natural sociality. Marx thinks of affirming social relations as founded on equality and freedom. So modern capitalist society is destructive of true sociality.

What is interesting in this comparison is that both Durkheim and Marx appear to be diagnosing a similar feature of modernity. In Durkheim’s case there is an implicit contrast between a pre-modern world in which individuals have a well-defined social and moral place and the contemporary world in which these strands of solidarity are breaking down. In Marx’s case the contrast is forward-looking. Marx compares the present — the factory — with the future — a society of free, equal, social producers. But in each case the theorist is grappling with an absence in modernity — an absence of a social and moral setting that gives the individual a basis for self-respect and sociable collaboration with others. The social itself is breaking down. (This is a theme with other social theorists as well; for example, in Tönnies’ distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Peter Laslett’s title The World We Have Lost, England Before the Industrial Age captures some of the same idea.)

Coming forward to the social theories of the late twentieth century, these issues continue to fascinate some social observers. Robert Putnam’s work on trying to measure the changing density of civic involvement (social capital) is a different perspective on Durkheim’s concept of solidarity. (Another great title — Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community.) Sociologists who focus on disaffected young people are raising similar issues. And the New Left sociology and theory of workers’ alienation from society picks up where Marx left off on this issue.

Is the time right for a new round of thinking about the nature of social consciousness and social solidarity? Do we need some new concepts of how ideas and identities contribute to a social whole? Is the study and theorizing of social subjectivity an important aspect of the challenge of sociology?

Alienation and subjectivity

Marx provided a rigorous basis for analyzing the facts about exploitation in a class society. This is on the materialistic side of the equation — interests, resources, consumption. But he also provided what must be considered pathbreaking writing about workers’ subjectivity — their state of consciousness, their subjective frameworks for understanding the world they inhabit, and the ways in which their identities are forged. At a distance of one hundred seventy years, this effort at analysis of subjectivity seems remarkably current. It harmonizes with the cultural turn in some of the social sciences and with feminist theorizing about the lived experience of women. It suggests the value of empirical ethnographic work on the experience and mentality of workers. And it is unfinished business.

What Marx had to say about the subject is mostly expressed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The concept of alienation refers to separation from something important. In EPM Marx analyzes the structure of the production process in a factory in capitalism. And he finds that the nature of this process works to alienate the worker from the product (limited consumption), the labor process (because his/her labor is commanded rather than freely expressed), from one’s social nature (because of factory work rules that prohibit talking and collaborating), and from “species-being” (the worker’s essence as a free, social, self-directed creator). So the causes of worker alienation are to be found in the workings of coercive relations of production that deny the worker the opportunity for free creativity and self-expression.

There are several other concepts in Marx’s work that get some grip on subjectivity — the fetishism of commodities, the idea of class consciousness, and the idea of ideology and ultimately false consciousness. These are all concepts through which Marx sought to explore the main features of worker subjectivity — the ways in which ideas and mental frameworks structure one’s experience of the world and the ways in which these mental structures are “determined” or influenced by social relations. And a central concern of Marx’s was to understand the subjectivities underlying political consciousness and mobilization.

There are two important points here. First, there is the formulation of an important intellectual task — that of formulating a set of concepts that permit us to analyze and explore mentality or consciousness. And this body of research should also give us a basis for understanding political behavior. People’s thoughts and assumptions influence their politicl behavior. Second, and more distinctive of Marx, is the formulation of an agenda of explanation, a sociology of consciousness. Marx wants to discover some of the ways that historical circumstances, economic structures, and social relations of production influence or determine these features of historically situated consciousness. He wants to know how it is that “the hand mill gives you the feudal lord”. The theory of ideology is one such effort — a causal theory that says that the interests of powerful people shape the consciousness of the worker. But it is evident that this theory is just the beginning.

Likewise, Marx offers a materialist theory of alienation. Social circumstances — the social relations of production and the factory system — produce a subjective effect — the worker’s alienation. And similarly with commodity fetishism, reification, and false consciousness. These ideas moved forward in the twentieth century in the hands of Antonio Gramsci (in his concepts of hegemony and the intellectual) and in the thinking of theorists in the Critical Theory tradition (Horkheimer, Adorno, Wellmer).

The reason I think it is worthwhile recalling this history in a few hundred words is that our goal is to — understand society. This means finding the concepts necessary to probe objective social factors and causes. But equally it requires coming to grips with subjectivity and its historical and social conditions. So finding the tools that will allow us to describe, analyze, and explain the fluid formations of mentality, identity, and consciousness is a leading challenge for a more satisfactory social science. And Marx’s early ideas about alienation and fetishism provide some good starting points.

Is there such a thing as capitalism?

Marx’s central theoretical concept is “capitalism.” He wanted to provide a theory of the capitalist mode of production; he wanted to discover the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production; and he believed that there was a compact structural identity that is shared by capitalist economies. Later Marxist economists refined the concept somewhat by distinguishing among various stages of capitalist development, with thinkers such as Ernest Mandel and Paul Sweezy focusing on “late capitalism”.

My question here is a simple one. From the point of view of social ontology and concept formation in sociology — does it make sense to think of capitalism as a single thing with multiple instances across time and space? Is there a reason to think that “England, 1880,” “Germany, 1910,” “Japan, 1960,” “United States, 1980,” and “France, 2000” are all instances of a single economic system?

Consider briefly Marx’s account of the core features of capitalism. It is an economic system based on a particular and distinctive property system: private property in the means of production (capital) and private ownership of labor by the worker (labor). The worker is free to sell his/her labor power to multiple owners of capital; but, having been separated from all other forms of access to means of production, the worker is not free to withhold his/her labor altogether. So the worker is dependent on the capitalist for access to the means of subsistence; and the capitalist is dependent upon the worker as the creator of surplus value. It is a system that is premised on surplus extraction by owners of capital from the producers of value (workers). It is a system based on accumulation: constant growth and expansion of the appropriation of surplus value (profits). And it is a system based on accumulation rather than consumption. And, finally, Marx believes that these social institutions create an institutional logic for capitalist economies that is different from other modes of production — a tendency towards technological innovation, a tendency towards a falling rate of profit, the creation of an “industrial reserve army,” and the creation of a tendency towards economic crisis. It is this claim that permits Marx to assert that he has produced a theory that encompasses a whole class of social formations, rather than being simply a description based on a single case, British capitalism of mid-nineteenth century.

In order to carry this concept through, we would need to postulate that there is a core set of economic features and institutions that constitute the “essence” of capitalism; that these core features recur across multiple historical social formations; and that the differences that exist across historical cases are non-essential, accidental, epiphenomenal, or super-structural.

And differences there are, of course. One important dimension of difference is the degree and nature of state involvement in the economy. But other differences are equally important: the subtle but distinctive differences in property systems that exist in England, Germany, Japan, or the United States; the differences that exist in regulatory regimes (such as those documented by Frank Dobbin); the cultural differences that exist across “capitalist” societies with respect to attitudes towards wealth, the environment, or inequalities; and so on for a continuing and broad range of differences across societies.

Given this fact of sociologically important differences across historical instances of capitalism, we appear to have two theoretical choices. The first is to postulate that the common, core institutions of capitalist societies impose a logic of development on capitalist societies that is more fundamental than any of the evident differences across instances. The other is to judge that the concept of capitalism is simply a nominal social category, grouping together a number of societies which have some similarities and also important differences. Or, following Weber, we might say that capitalism is an ideal type, an organizing and idealized concept that singles out a set of features that often hang together, but recognizing that no particular society perfectly exemplifies all these features.

It seems to me that Marx fell into a fetishim of his own in reifying the capitalist mode of production as a general historical category. We are better off following the lead of the new institutionalists, recognizing that every society has a somewhat different configuration of basic institutions; and acknowledging that these differences make a difference in the development and historical trajectory of these societies. There are important commonalities across many or most of the societies that Marx would call “capitalist” — a deep conflict of interest between capital and labor, a likelihood that economic property ownership will support political power and influence, and other common features. But to judge that “every capitalist society develops in the same way” goes well beyond what history or theory would support. Instead, we need to have specific, factual analysis of each of the societies we are interested in, and should highlight the differences that exist as well as the commonalities that recur. This finding takes us further down the road of emphasizing particularity and difference as much as generalization and regularity in social science theorizing.

Does historical materialism have a place in today’s social sciences?

Marx’s theory of historical materialism came with a few central concepts, a large hypothesis, and a heuristic for social research. The concepts include class, the forces and relations of production, the economic structure, the superstructure, and the idea of determination (“in the last instance”, as Althusser and Poulantzas put it) between the economic structure and elements of the superstructure. The heuristic is, “Look to the circumstances of property and class — the material circumstances of society — in order to discover the causal relationships that exist in large social change across history.” The large hypothesis is that the historical dynamic created by tension between the forces of production (the level of technology and labor skills) and the relations of production (the property relations) creates a set of imperatives and constraints for social change that leads to the formation and transformation of other social elements, such as the state, morality, or culture. Class and class conflict play a central role in mediating the effects of the economic structure on other aspects of society.

Are these elements of historical materialism still of value to sociology and historical explanation?

The concepts associated with the theory of historical materialism are legitimate macro-sociological tools for organizing and analyzing social institutions and structures within particular societies. Their utility depends on the degree to which they permit the historian to identify and explain in detail the real social processes that are underway in the society under examination. There is no a priori basis for judging that this conceptual scheme is superior to other alternatives (as Marx sometimes seems to suggest). Rather, we need to evaluate the materialist conceptual scheme through its fecundity in identifying causal mechanisms and processes within the empirical phenomena under study.

The heuristic too remains insightful — as long as we keep in mind the fact that historical change has many causes. It is fair to say that material factors have historical influence — levels of technology influence other social institutions such as the educational system, the property system creates a set of interests that have important political effects on mobilization, and struggle over the control of social wealth is plainly an important historical factor. And it is a productive strategy for historians to examine in details the ways in which material circumstances produce other kinds of social change through the actions of historically situated actors. Further, careful study of the material circumstances of a society shed important light on the circumstances of life for the almost invisible ordinary people.

The master hypothesis of historical materialism is the least enduring. Marx’s reading of history within the lenses of historical materialism was simply too deterministic, too unidirectional, and too single-factored, to provide a credible basis for explaining historical change. The difficulty with the hypothesis is its comprehensiveness and its suggestion that there is only one major historical dynamic. But take any particular historical outcome of interest — the dynamics leading to a rebellion in North China, for example. Material conflicts of interest are likely enough to be part of the motivations of the participants, and the powers associated with various groups derivative from their control of wealth and property are plausibly related to the ability of various groups to play an influential role in the developing events. However, there are plainly other social and causal factors that are unrelated to the property system — for example, a history of drought or flooding in the region, the structure and tenacity of kinship systems, the nature of local morality and justice sensibilities, the degree of transportation interconnectedness of the region, and indefinitely many other factors.

It is implausible, then, to suppose that a single factor — whether material class circumstances, ideology, or other social characteristics — is the sole important causal factor in large historical processes. Historical processes are contingent and conjunctural, so the effort to discover a single key to explain all large historical processes and outcomes is futile. At the same time, it is plausible enough that the circumstances and institutions associated with technology and property have historical effects; and in fact, it is straightforward to describe the microfoundations through which these institutions interact with ordinary human behavior and choice to lead to social outcomes. This assessment suggests that historians and sociologists are well justified in including the concepts and heuristics of historical materialism in their tool kit, but that they would be well advised to reject the almost metaphysical certainty of the grand hypothesis.

(See Gerald Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History, for an analytic philosopher’s pathbreaking treatment of historical materialism.)

Why "false consciousness"?

The most frequently visited page on my research web site (out of more than 90 articles) is an encyclopedia article on false consciousness. Moreover, many of these visitors come from the developing world, including especially the Philippines. I am curious about these facts.

False consciousness is a Marxist concept. It refers to the hypothesis that oppressed people have a worldview that systematically conceals the reality and causes of their oppression. The concept is associated with Lukacs, Althusser, and Gramsci.

But once again, why so much current interest in the concept? It is common to observe that “Marxism is dead”–no longer a useful tool of analysis in the 21st century. But here we find a lively interest in a particular Marxist concept. Why is this concept so frequently searched on Google?

I cannot confidently answer the question. But here are a few possibilities.

First, oppression and economic exploitation are certainly not gone from the scene. And yet there is little organized economic struggle going on in the world today. Perhaps critical thinkers in developing countries are turning to false consciousness as a possible diagnosis.

Second, the rhetoric of globalization suggests that everyone gains from these processes of international trade and the global movement of capital. And yet the locally visible realities appear quite different in Chiapas or Manila. So perhaps the mis-match that appears to exist between representation and reality about the effects of globalization brings thoughtful observers back to the theory of false consciousness.

Third, it is a fact that media (including the Internet) have massive and growing ability to shape public consciousness and ideas. Perhaps this is the most visible mark of the twenty-first century. It is natural to ask, in whose interests does this shaping take place? And what kinds of systematic and deliberate bias are embedded in this media stream? What is the connection between “interest” and “representation”? Perhaps it is logical that third-world thinkers are turning to Lukacs and Gramsci in order to find tools for analyzing this system of consciousness-formation.

So perhaps the interest we found on the topic of false consciousness is understandable, a response to some current and powerful features of the current economic and social system.