Class consciousness

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Class consciousness is a category of Marxist theory, referring to the self-awareness of a social class, its capacity to act in its own rational interests, or measuring the extent to which an individual is conscious of the historical tasks their class (or class allegiance) sets for them.


[edit] Georg Lukács' History and Class Consciousness (1920)

Class consciousness, as exposed by Georg Lukács's famous History and Class Consciousness (1920), is opposed to any psychological conception of consciousness, which forms the basis of individual or mass psychology (see Freud or, before him, Gustave Le Bon). According to Lukács, each social class has a determined class consciousness which it can achieve. In effect, as opposed to the liberal conception of consciousness as the basis of individual freedom and of the social contract, marxist class consciousness is not an origine, but an achievement (i.e. it must be "earned" or won). Henceforth, it is never assured: the proletariat's class consciousness is the result of a permanent struggle to understand the "concrete totality" of the historical process.

According to Lukács, the proletariat was the first class in history that may achieve true class consciousness, because of its specific position highlighted in the Communist Manifesto as the "living negation" of capitalism. All others classes, including the bourgeoisie, are limited to a "false consciousness" which impedes them from understanding the totality of history: instead of understanding each specific moment as a phase of the historical process, they universalize it, claiming it is eternal. Hence, capitalism is not thought as a specific phase of history, but is naturalized and thought as an eternal stage. This "false consciousness", which forms ideology itself, is not a simple error as in classical philosophy, but an illusion which can't be dispelled. Marx described it in his theory of commodity fetishism, which Lukács completed with his concept of reification: alienation is what follows the worker's estrangement to the world following the new life acquired by the product of his work. The dominant bourgeois ideology thus leads the individual to see the achievement of his labour take a life of its own. Furthermore, specialization is also seen as a characteristic of the ideology of modern rationalism, which creates specific and independent domains (art, politics, science, etc.). Only a global perspective can point out how all these different domains interact, argues Lukács. He also points out how Kant brought to its limit the classical opposition between the abstract form and the concrete, historical content, which is abstractly conceived as irrational and contingent. Thus, with Kant's rational system, history becomes totally contingent and is thus ignored. Only with Hegel's dialectic can a mediation be found between the abstract form and the abstract notion of a concrete content.

Even if the bourgeois loses his individual point of view in an attempt to grasp the reality of the totality of society and of the historical process, he is condemned to a form of false consciousness. As an individual, he will always see the collective result of individual actions as a form of "objective law" to which he must submit himself (liberalism has gone so far in as seeing an invisible hand in this collective results, making of capitalisme the best of possible worlds). By contrast, the proletariat would be, according to Lukács, the first class in history with the possibility to achieve a true form of class consciousness, granting it knowledge of the totality of the historical process. The proletariat takes the place of Hegel's Weltgeist ("World Spirit"), which achieves history through the various Volkgeist ("Folk Spirits"): the idealist conception of an abstract Spirit making history, which ends in the realm of Reason, is replaced by a materialist conception based not on mythical Spirits, but on a concrete "identical subject-object of history": the proletariat. The proletariat is both the "object" of history, created by the capitalist social formation; but it is also the "subject" of history, as it is its labour that shapes the world, and thus, knowledge of itself is also, necessarily, knowledge of the reality and of the totality of the historical process. The proletariat's class consciousness is not immediate; class consciousness musn't be mistaken either with the consciousness of one's future and collective interests, opposed to personal immediate interests. The possibility of class consciousness is given by the objective process of history, which transforms the proletariat into a commodity, hence objectifying it. Class consciousness is thus not a simple subjective act: "as consciousness here is not the consciousness of an object opposed to itself, but the object's consciousness, the act of being conscious of oneself disrupts the objectivity form of its object" (in "Reification and the Proletariat's Consciousness" §3, III "The proletariat's point of view"). In other words, instead of the bourgeois subject and its corresponding ideological concept of individual free will, the proletariat has been transformed into an object (a commodity) which, when it takes consciousness of itself, transforms the very structure of objectivity, that is of reality.

This specific role of the proletariat is a consequence of its specific position; thus, for the first time, consciousness of itself (class consciousness) is also consciousness of the totality (knowledge of the entire social and historical process). Through dialectical materialism, the proletariat understands that what the individual bourgeois conceived as "laws" akin to the laws of nature, which may be only manipulated, as in Descartes's dream, but not changed, is in fact the result of a social and historical process, which can be controlled. Furthermore, only dialectical materialism links together all specialized domains, which modern rationalism can only think as separed instead of as forming a totality.

Only the proletariat can understand that the so-called "eternal laws of economics" are in fact nothing more than the historical form taken by the social and economical process in a capitalist society. Since these "laws" are the result of the collective actions of individuals, and are thus created by society, Marx and Lukács reasonned that this necessarily ensued that they could be changed. Any attempt in transforming the so-called "laws" governing capitalism into universal principles, valid in all times and places, are criticized by Lukács as a form of false consciousness.

As the "expression of the revolutionary process itself", dialectical materialism, which is the only theory with an understanding of the totality of the historical process, is the theory which may help proletariat in its "struggle for class consciousness". Although Lukács does not contest the marxist primacy of the economic infrastructure on the ideological superstructure (not to be mistaken with vulgar economic determinism), he considers that there is a place for autonomous struggle for class consciousness.

In order to achieve a unity of theory and praxis, theory must not only tend toward reality in an attempt to change it; reality must also tend towards theory. Otherwise, the historical process leads its life of its own, while theorists make their own little theories, desesperately waiting for some kind of possible influence over the historical process. Henceforth, reality itself must tends toward the theory, making it the "expression of the revolutionary process itself". In turn, a theory which has as goal to help the proletariat achieve class consciousness must first be an "objective theory of class consciousness". However, theory in itself is insufficient, and ultimately relies on the struggle of humankind and of the proletariat for consciousness: the "objective theory of class consciousness is only the theory of its objective possibility".

[edit] Others

One of the curious results of certain class societies (or societies that are generally perceived to be based on class distinctions) is that people belonging to different social classes have different views on the class system as a whole, thus different forms of class consciousness. Typically, in English society, the results would be:

  • Upper class people, e.g. aristocrats, traditionally refer merely to The Lower Classes, without making any distinction between people who are not aristocrats, i.e. they operate in a two-class model
  • Working class people, similarly, traditionally refer merely to 'toffs', i.e. anyone who isn't working class, and also operate in a two-class system, but a different one from Upper Class people
  • Middle Class people, in contrast, see themselves as separate from the Upper Class and Working Class, perhaps on the same bases as people who claim to belong to each, but in addition, draw distinctions between the Upper Middle and Lower Middle classes (or even introduce the notion of Middle Middle Class, for anyone they feel doesn't fall into any of the other categories), i.e. they operate from a 4- or 5-class perspective.

From this observation one can argue that class consciousness in modern English society is quite blurred, a situation which exists in other modern societies as well.

A classical fictional portrayal of a rigid class system and indoctrinated class consciousness is Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World.

[edit] See also

[edit] External link

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