Alienation, False Consciousness, Passive Revolution and Reformism.

Throughout the globalised system of capitalist production, grassroots discontent with the economic and political status quo has produced a number of national counter-hegemonic mass mobilizations. All are born of alienation, but their social origins, goals, modalities and outcomes differ.

Alienation is a product of environment, natural and human. Even if conforming in the main to universal standards of conduct, individual (and later collective) social subjects become emotionally detached from the realities of everyday existence.  The causes are many–disaffection with a job or lack of employment prospects, racial difference, inter-personal difficulties, environmentally-caused psychological disorders, etc. This promotes a social outlook that grows increasingly hostile in the measure that adverse life conditions are interpreted to be the result of circumstances created or exacerbated by the socio-economic and political elite. That leads to various types of “anti-social” behaviour, individual and collective, which constitute expressions of the resentment that alienation breeds. Some of this behaviour is little more than petty acts of rebellion. Others pose a more serious threat. Individual and small-group alienation can often be treated as a psychological and criminal problem. Mass alienation resulting in grassroots mobilization is another thing because it involves horizontal solidarity and networking between self-perceived disenfranchised groups rallying in opposition to a common (elite) enemy. However, this does not mean that there is ideological coherence in the oppositional claims of the alienated.

The reason is simple. One product of alienation is false consciousness. False consciousness is a condition where the individual and collective social subject thinks about the causes of alienation in ways that run contrary to material self-interest under the assumption that the reasons for deteriorating or negative life circumstances are rooted in cultural or ideological factors rather than structural realities. Rather than confront the macroeconomic presumptions and biases inherent in a market-driven system of private (and increasingly corporate) ownership, consumption and exchange, false consciousness focuses on behavioral differences rooted in primordial beliefs, identities, ideological differences or contrary collective action.

Under conditions of collective false consciousness there is often a yearning for a return to tradition or a retrenchment of in-group identification along national, ethnic, religious or racial lines, sometimes with overtly nostalgic class content. This mainly occurs with descendent class fractions (for example, the industrial working class in the US) whose position in the social division of labour has been eroded by structural changes wrought by the globalization project. Confronted by this slippage in class status, descendent class fractions such as the white Christian middle classes in a host of liberal democracies blame their condition of so-called “others:” immigrants, religious minorities, non-traditional or opposition ideological movements, etc. In an effort to reclaim their past status, declining social groups are willing to condone anti-establishment, non-institutionalised forms of political competition because for them the threat is existential. When these forms of collective action take on a restorative or revanchist tone, they are considered to be passive revolutions.*

Passive revolutions are not genuine social revolutions. Although they can be violent, they do not destroy and transform the socio-economic and political parameters of society. Instead, they seek to use non-institutional means to reclaim a previous status quo in which they prospered. Because contemporary and future structural conditions preclude a return to a previous form of production and its attendant social division of labour, these groups are prone to extremism in the measure that they are denied their self-perceived just rewards. The starkest examples of passive revolutionary movements were European fascism and Latin American national populism. Although each had a different socio-economic core (Southern European fascism was a mixture of working class and small property owners’ movements, whereas Northern European fascism was urban middle class based, with national populism being a combination of urban working class and peasant movements depending on the specific country in which it manifested itself), they all had the commonality of being a reaction against something rather than a source of substantive forward-looking change to the basic parameters of society.

Not that all progressive counter-hegemonic grassroots movements are necessarily revolutionary. Many progressives seek to improve upon rather than transform the status quo. They do not seek to question its basic foundations but to make it more humane (hence the refrain “people before profits”). Coupled with an aversion to violence on the part of most progressive groups in liberal democratic societies, this leads to counter-hegemonic strategies that are not wars of position or of maneuver. Instead, they are collectively reformist rather than revolutionary in nature.

Given the above, from an elite perspective counter-hegemonic grassroots mobilization is best handled via state reformism and reform mongering. State reformism is the adoption of a conciliatory and concession-based policy approach by which elites give up certain prerogatives and agree to modify certain institutional frameworks in order to allow for more popular voice and benefit. Although the distribution of benefits between dominant and subordinate groups may be altered by such arrangements, overall control of material conditions, ideological context and political office remain in the hands of the elite. Reform mongering is the piecemeal allocation of concessions to social groups based upon the persistence of their demands and their strategic importance in the social division of labor (which can also be part of a divide-and-conquer strategy). Things such as civil rights and labor legislation represent examples of reform mongering in capitalist regimes, with broader programs such as the US New Deal and Great Society are examples of reformism at work.

This brings up the issue of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements in the US, the England riots and the mass mobilizations that have occurred in France, Greece and Spain among other places. While some of the mobilizations have been progressive, there has been plenty of passive revolutionary sentiment embodied in them as well. The Tea Party movement is a glaring example of the phenomena, but the rise of right-wing nationalism throughout Europe is also emblematic in that regard. Even the ethereal “Waitakere Man” has, if only latently, as much passive revolutionary as it does reformist traits, with very little progressive revolutionary consciousness evident in the collective “him.”

The dominant ideological tendency towards reactionary or reformist rather than revolutionary perspectives poses problems for progressives because the three ideological strands that are the most difficult to overcome in any parametric struggle are cultural tradition, nationalism and religion. When these are combined in a reactionary groundswell against the usurping “others,” they make for a formidable obstacle to substantive change, especially when elites tacitly support their emergence as a hedge against mass collective action that is focused on structural transformation.

The so-called Arab Spring is a variant on the theme. Although some believe the uprisings to be revolutionary, they are in fact reformist at best and passive revolutionary at worst. There is no doubt that post-Gaddafi Libya will remain capitalist, sectarian and tribal, albeit under different (most likely authoritarian) leadership. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds true for Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and other Arab states, to say nothing of Iran should popular discontent magnify to the point of unstoppable mass uprising. Revolts are not revolutions because of their reformist and passive revolutionary character.

The lesson in all of this is to recognize that alienation may be at the root of the thirst for socio-economic and political change, but false consciousness often intrudes on perceptions of the proper “solution set” to the point that the passive revolutionary option remains as viable if not more so than reformist alternatives, with the chances of genuine social revolution lessened to the extent that false consciousness, be it spontaneous or manicured, prevails in society.

In sum: passive revolutionary sentiment in the body politic in modern capitalist society constitutes the biggest obstacle to progressive change. With corporate elites dominating the media discourse and actively encouraging such beliefs, the task of the grassroots mobilizer becomes all the more difficult because the first step required is to promote an ideological conversion amongst non-believers who are indoctrinated to believe that the status quo is worth defending, even if in modified form.

Couple that with the limited revolutionary consciousness of the organized labour movement in most advanced capitalist democracies, the reformist nature of the likes of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the apathy and narcissism that is another manifestation of alienation, this augers poorly for the prospects of parametric grassroots change in the near future.

* Left for another time is discussion of ascendant class fractions in the contemporary capitalist context, not all of who (such as finance elites) embody the spirit of progressive change.


9 thoughts on “Alienation, False Consciousness, Passive Revolution and Reformism.”

  1. Would Iran’s (I use this term tentatively) “regressive revolution” be an example of false consciousness, i.e. return to Islamic fundamentalism, and therefore a passive revolution?

  2. From a materialist perspective, yes. Note that the Tudeh (Communist) Party was initially at the forefront of the revolution against the Shah, but were displaced by the mullahs once the latter was overthrown. This confirms the difficulties of marxist revolutionary praxis in contexts in which primordial beliefs hold sway.

  3. So if revolutions involve regime change, and passive revolutions arn’t a revolutions proper, the Iranian revolution doesn’t constitute a true regime change?

  4. Tom:

    Passive revolutions can involve (often violent) regime change. But unlike social revolutions proper, which seek to engage in parametric change (that is, a basic change to the socio-economic and political organisation of society), passive revolutions seek to reaffirm or restore a status quo via “extraordinary” means.

    l_f: Let me mull the link over and get back to you.

  5. Pablo has identified well what OWS is not. It is interesting that OWS seems to have achieved some cut through of false consciousness though by boldly recategorising society into two. The 1%ers and the 99%ers-them and us. This will not do for many but it does cut to the chase and expose the Tea Party and the status quo of US politics. What programme could the Tea Party possibly support except more neo liberalism?

    Certainly what OWS has done is crack the cone of silence on class society making a bit of room for the politics that dare not speak its name-socialism. The kind that requires genuine rather than passive revolution. Where the OWS goes or doesn’t go is up to the people. Many adults learn by doing with subsequent reflective feedback cycles. There has been precious little ‘doing’ for several decades in a collective way by much of the western working class. Certainly the state forces will pile in if OWS becomes an obstacle to the US ruling class. The spooks will all be on overtime at the moment.

    I have generally used ‘false consciousness’ in a direct manner referring to people’s unwillingless to unite in their own best economic and social interests. Manifested in New Zealand by obviously working class people voting tory rather than social democrat. The right try to put an aspirational or social explanation on this. To paraphrase Karl, does social being shape thinking or vice versa? Scientific American recently cited “Last Place Aversion” as another take on why people may find it difficult to unite.

  6. Thanks TM. I hope that you are right. I also hope that this movement surpasses what was achieved by the anti-globalisation movement seen at protests such as that in Seattle 99 (and one a year or two later in Italy in which a Kiwi died). The heterogeneity of the causes being espoused is going to be difficult to surmount in a coherent praxis, much less in the making of a United Front, but tactical and strategic allies can be identified in the face of the strategic enemy. The latter is now much more obvious and identifable as a result of the crises of the last half decade, so that is one step forward.

    I subscribe to the view that social conditions determine consciousness (“thinking”), but that material conditions determine, or at least are the most influential factor, in setting the social conditions into which one is born and lives. Thus without a consistent critique of the organisation of production and distribution, i.e., a critique of the model of accumulation, then any progressive movement is reformist at best.

    But it is better to tried to promote real change and have failed than have to never tried at all (although I suspect the majority would say that those who try and fail are just naive losers who do not see how the system is stacked against anything but reform-mongering).

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