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False consciousness is a term used by sociologists and expounded by some Marxists for the way in which material, ideological, and institutional processes in capitalist society mislead members of the proletariat and other class actors. These processes are thought to hide the true relations between classes and the real state of affairs regarding the exploitation suffered by the proletariat.
Although Karl Marx frequently denounced ideology in general, there is no evidence that he ever actually used the phrase "false consciousness". It appears to have been used—at least in print—only by Friedrich Engels.
Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker. Consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. [...]
It is above all this appearance of an independent history of state constitutions, of systems of law, of ideological conceptions in every separate domain, which dazzles most people. If Luther and Calvin "overcome" the official Catholic religion, or Hegel "overcomes" Fichte and Kant or if the constitutional Montesquieu is indirectly "overcome" by Rousseau with his "Social Contract," each of these events remains within the sphere of theology, philosophy or political science, represents a stage in the history of these particular spheres of thought and never passes outside the sphere of thought. And since the bourgeois illusion of the eternity and the finality of capitalist production has been added as well, even the victory of the physiocrats and Adam Smith over the mercantilists is accounted as a sheer victory of thought; not as the reflection in thought of changed economic facts but as the finally achieved correct understanding of actual conditions subsisting always and everywhere [...]
Here Engels expresses semantic baggage associated with the term ideology, i.e. that it implies a lack of objectivity, which the term had at the time of its introduction from German (due in no small part to a reaction to Hegelianism). This has somewhat substantially been lost over the nearly two centuries since then as "ideology" has come to be equated with "world view" or "philosophy". False consciousness is theoretically linked with the concepts of the dominant ideology and cultural hegemony, and to a lesser extent with cognitive dissonance.
Marshall I. Pomer has argued that members of the proletariat disregard the true nature of class relations because of their belief in the probability or possibility of upward mobility. Such a belief or something like it is said to be required in economics with its presumption of rational agency; otherwise wage laborers would be the conscious supporters of social relations antithetical to their own interests, violating that presumption.
- Eagleton, Terry (1991). Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso. p. 89. ISBN 84-493-1797-5.
- "Letter to Mehring". 1893.
- Marshall I. Pomer (October 1984). "Upward Mobility of Low-Paid Workers: A Multivariate Model for Occupational Changers". Sociological Perspectives. 27 (4): 427–442. ISSN 0731-1214. JSTOR 1389035.
- This phenomenon is most accentuated in the United States, and has given rise to what some European Marxists[who?] refer to as "class transference".