False Consciousness and What We Really Want

APRIL 18, 2019

Was listening to Thich Nhat Hanh talk on technology yesterday. He tells story of being at Google talking about how to develop technology to be weller and more mindful. He suggests the specific example of having a mindful bell every 15m. A smart young engineer objects that isn’t this telling people what they need? Don’t people themselves know best what they need? Immediately TNH responds: ah, but there are real needs and false needs (TODO: check his phrasing). Think of food: there is a real need to eat because you are hungry. But many people eat to run away from their suffering. The same is true with consuming sense impressions. There are real needs but many of us are consuming apps because we are running away from our suffering – our loneliness, our anxiety etc.

What struck me was the unhesitating way that TNH responded to this classic objection of “why do you know better” (especially common in the US). It was just obvious to him that what people do and what they really need / want are often unrelated. This was just a given based not only on the carefully refined teachings of his tradition but, most importantly, his own personal experience and practice.

This basic ontological fact I think is of profound and central importance to political philosophy. It is ignored or maligned by most dominant political traditions in the west. The assumption that the individual a) “knows what they want” b) “does what they want”, is baked into western political philosophy especially the dominant liberalism. It is a view of the individual as absolutist monarch in their domain: absolutely in control and absolutely clear. This assumption is the great flaw in the flawless (or at least very robust) diamond of the dominant (dare i say hegemonic) liberalism. Once we start pushing on that flaw the whole thing breaks wide open – as we will see below.

But first, why this attachment to what is so obviously a false premise. We don’t need buddhist ontology, modern psychology or behaviour economics to tell us that humans struggle to know what they want and do what they (truly) want – we can just read shakespeare or reflect on our own lives.

I suspect the ontological implausibility of this assumption is ignored, at least in part, because there is a fear that undermining this represents a slippery slope towards political illiberalism. Specifically, once we allow that you (or I) don’t know what I truly want then, by implication, there is something that is more truly what I want and some other person or group may claim to a) know that b) be entitled to act on that knowledge to determine or shape what I do, get or have.

The classic expression of this would be the conception of false consciousness in Marxism: the communist revolution would clearly be beneficial for the proletariat so why didn’t they all support it (or worse: even voted for reactionary parties “opposed to their interests”)? How could this be? The answer was that they suffered from “false consciousness” – somehow they had been bamboozled or got confused. As a result, rather than the true consciousness of their interests and their role as proletarians in the overthrow of capitalism, they had a false consciousness that kept them passive and enslaved to the system. So far, so good. But what was really troubling was the political implications of these psychological assertions. False consciousness presumed and implied he proletariat should be aware of their interests and, thus, supporting the communist revolution. And, if they were mistaken, then one would be justified in acting for them – and more that that ignoring that they did say. And who specifically would be justified in doing this? Well, those who did know better, those who had invented the very idea of false consciousness – the communist vanguard. Thus, a reasonable argument that a group were not pursuing their interests became a reason to remove their agency and to act, not only on their behalf, but, potentially, directly against their explicit wishes.

Thus, one could draw a straight line between this kind of psychological paternalism and the gulag, the purges – all the horrors of communist authoritarianism in the 20th century.

This in turn damned the psychological belief: false consciousness (and really any kind of paternalism) is a slippery slope. And, it is therefore essential that we regard individuals as rational and capable. Their autonomy and capacity must not be questioned. It is a case of the fruits damning the tree – if these kind of psychological beliefs gave rise to these rotten political beliefs the psychological beliefs must be rotten too. Conversely, the success of liberal (or even libertarian) politics (at least versus authorianism – not exactly a tough benchmark to beat) gives support to belief in individual rationality and capacity.

But is that right?

On simple logical grounds this seems dubious. The psychological claims should stand on their merits not on their implications. [It is a kind of reverse drunkard and the lamp-post: we don’t search where is the light is because we are worried what we might find.]

Furthermore, the false consciousness case contains an obvious flaw: the belief that some of the proletariat were not pursuing their real interests need not imply or justify communist dictatorship. As we noted at the start, buddhist psychology has had similar assuptions about humans for thousands of years yet buddhism is not only non-violent in principle but remarkably non-violent in practice. This would suggest that the implications from psychology to politics is much more open-ended than the false conscioussness story would imply.