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 and exploitation in a capitalist society is due to the commonality of attitudes and beliefs in that society, which in turn, reaffirms, accepts and legitimizes the existence of differing social classes.
Although Marx never used the term “false consciousness,” it was conceived and developed by Marxist scholars, which can help explain its close ties to Marxism and Marxist thought. The Encyclopedia of Marxism writes that “false consciousness refers to ideology dominating the consciousness of exploited groups and classes which at the same time justifies and perpetuates their exploitation.”
Fast forward 45 years after Marx’s death in 1883 London: A new, revolutionary thinker and critic is born on the other side of the pond.
Noam Chomsky, known by today’s academic world as “the father of modern linguistics” and described by the New York Times as “arguably the most important intellectual alive,” is an 88-year-old American linguist, philosopher, historian, cognitive scientist, social critic and political activist, who in many ways can be viewed as a “modern-day Karl Marx” for his revolutionary discourse which critically examines the role of language, the political economy, social classes and systems of power and wealth. (Some writers actually view Chomsky as “America’s Socrates,” rather than America’s Marx.)
Chomsky was named by the London Times in 1970 as one of the “makers of the twentieth century.” The 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll voted him as the world’s top public intellectual. He’s written over a hundred books and scholarly journals, ranging from the study of linguistics and sociology to politics, war, mass-media and history.
From 1980 to 1992, then a professor at MIT, Chomsky was found to be “the most cited living person in that period and the eighth most cited source overall — just behind famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and just ahead of philosopher Georg Hegel.” During that twelve year period, only Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato and Freud were cited more than him.
Chomsky is known for his enlightening, yet arguably controversial quotes such as: “The general population doesn’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know” or “The most effective way to restrict democracy is to transfer decision-making from the public arena to unaccountable institutions: kings and princes, priestly castes, military juntas, party dictatorships, or modern corporations.”
Quotes like these should make us wonder why one of the world’s leading thinkers would make such claims, just as we should question why Karl Marx similarly argued that the brute forces of capitalism are imposed by the bourgeoisie on the proletariat, and so on.
Although Marx and Chomsky both hold extremely critical views on capitalism and its effects, it is nonetheless important to continue to ask the same questions they did and to seek the answers in their works and its criticisms.
If we ask “how does society work,” an uninformed answer can be said to be just one person’s perception. But a more-informed answer can be developed through the study of sociology, philosophy and politics, all of which are formed by established communities of scientific research and sociological theory-development.
In regards to the study of political science and the reality of political outcomes, we should ask ourselves:
Do people work for society or does society work for people? Does the average, everyday, worker have influence on policy-makers? Which social classes are more aware of who is representing their local community boards and state governments? Is the average person aware of what issues and policies their local officials are running on? Are they aware of the voting laws in their districts? Do they care to vote or even know how to? Why do some believe their vote doesn’t matter? What factors attribute to “common public opinion” or lack there of on the individual basis?
These questions are supposed to make us think and seek answers, and someone like Marx or Chomsky would tell you that “becoming aware,” or gaining political consciousness of the social and economic structures in which we all participate in, is the first step in challenging those structures.
If we seek to understand society’s structures and how they operate — just as Marx did in his day and Chomsky does in ours — we will be committing a great service to the public’s consciousness, and to the voices of those around us who believe we should always be questioning the status quo by expanding the public’s consciousness of politics.