Understanding the Politics of Consciousness

Carl Gabriel
5 min readSep 25, 2017

Consciousness is defined by The Cambridge Dictionary as “both the state of being awake, aware of what is around you and able to think” and “the fact of noticing the existence of something.”

Karl Marx, the world-renowned Prussian-born philosopher, economist, sociologist and political theorist of the 19th century, held many invaluable proclamations, one being that consciousness is an individual’s political sense of self, otherwise perceived of as a person’s awareness and understanding of the political economy in which they take part in.

Political economy most commonly refers to interdisciplinary studies drawing upon economics, political science, law, history, sociology and other disciplines in explaining the crucial role of political factors in determining economic outcomes…Thinkers as diverse as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman have all grounded their work on the fundamental observation that politics and economics are inherently linked.

Using this working definition to further grasp the term political economy, let’s return to Marx’s idea of consciousness.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness,” wrote Marx in The German Ideology (1845). Marx argues that it is the binary social and economic positioning of the individual within their society that shapes their political, social and economic attitudes. He writes:

“In the first method of approach the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second method, which conforms to real life, it is the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness.”

In the study of Marx’s writings on ideology, the term false consciousness was developed by philosophers, scholars, and critics as a theoretical — and philosophical concept — arguing that members of the lowest economic and social classes in any society unintentionally misperceive their positioning in that society due to the social relations of production under the systematic forces of capitalism. The term “false consciousness” signifies that one’s inability to identify forms of inequality, oppression…

Carl Gabriel

NYC poet & cultural worker. Follow me on Instagram @carlgabrielnyc