Capitalist Ideology in Anti-Capitalist Politics

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The ideology of the ruling class so permeates our capitalist society that many anti-capitalist activists often accidentally reference that ideology's set of theoretical assumptions when planning their own actions.

Karl Marx observed the power of the ruling class to control our mode of thought, or method of thinking, in his work The German Ideology. He wrote:

"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas…."

This control over the individuals' mode of thought is not to be understood simply as control over what an individual thinks of specific issues, such as one's opinion of the "Ground Zero Mosque," or even something as important as the wars in the Middle East. It also refers to the total set of assumptions a person takes-for-granted when judging this world around him/her, and which presents him/her with what appears to be the only positions available when other positions, or opinions, are indeed possible – if only he/she were to have knowledge of this other set of assumptions.

The set of assumptions present in each individual may vary, but not to such a degree that it is impossible for social scientists, such as sociologists and marketers, to identify trends in social thought and make approximate predictions based on them. Marx, often credited as being one of the first sociologists, refers to the sum of an individual's assumptions as his/her consciousness. When this consciousness is based on an ideology formulated by a group outside of the individuals' influence, putting them in a position in which they are essentially in another's control, Marx states that they are in a state of false consciousness.

Capitalism, as a system defined by class antagonisms, perpetuates false consciousness among the entire subordinate class.

Marx's The German Ideology then focuses on the philosophy of Max Stirner, a specific philosopher present in Marx's time whom Marx identified as perpetuating false consciousness. Stirner, an idealist anarchist, did not observe the power of ideology, ignoring material conditions on which it is based, and erroneously postulated that the class problem capitalism presents could be done away with by simply encouraging individuals to adopt a new principles. Marx rightly pointed out that, as consciousness follows ideology and ideology is so controlled by the ruling class, a critical amount of real, material organization to produce a new consciousness would have to come into the control of the working class itself before the majority of that class could adopt a consciousness which would make possible a revolution that would lead to a classless society.

Most modern anarchists have cast aside the views of Stirner, as his theoretical predecessors adopted materialist views that recognize individuals' socialization.

Regardless, the views of many in contemporary anarchist, and socialist, organizations are still today influenced by capitalist ideology's false consciousness.

In the United States, much of this can be blamed on the capitalists' suppression of the peoples' movements of the 1960s. As discussed in Adam Curtis's documentary film series "The Century of the Self," many active in the politically anti-capitalist organizations of that time were demoralized when the oppression of the peoples' movement in 1968 unveiled the complexity of revolutionary action. This caused many of the activists to turn inward, to become preoccupied with new forms of spirituality, and to turn political action into something resembling an individual morality. Simultaneously, political policy experts and corporate marketers were able to, in varying degrees, adapt to what had become but cultural values among the younger generation. It became possible to be rebellious in one's style, and to represent one's values in lifestyles represented by the purchasing of certain products or the mimicking of certain subcultures present in capitalism.

Even those who remained politically conscious became influenced by this change, which continues to confound many leftists today. Disconnected from theory, leftists have started to judge actions in and of themselves. Radicals are tempted to judge their actions based on principles, often resembling a moral system, rather than a timeless, theoretical method.

The contemporary theorist Slavoj Zizek commented on this phenomenon when we said, in effect, that he was surprised to find many in the anti-war movement of 2003 to be more interested in taking a stand against the war "to save their beautiful souls," deriving guidance from a personal moral idea of their own, more so than a set of theoretical assumptions that saw the war as an extension of a soon-to-be commonly experienced oppression.

The problem with relying on this method to guide one in political action lies not so much in the fact that it has represented itself in a moral form, but that it individuates political action so that it becomes nothing more than a reaction to the actions of capitalism, and further allows the individual to be satisfied with his/her personal actions rather than broadly-felt results.

The best example of this can be found within the anti-consumerism idea.

Anti-consumerism has a noble goal, encouraging people to look beyond the spectacle marketers build around products and focus on the way in which those products actually come into being. The problem with the current anti-consumerism movement is that it draws from assumptions rooted in false-consciousness, tending to place responsibility for corporate action on individual consumers.

The movement against consumerism encourages people simply to not buy products which are produced in ways that harm the environment or violate workers rights. The idea is similar to that which drives boycotts. However, the anti-consumerism movement wants not to influence companies to change specific business practices, but to go so far as to defy practices that are essential to remaining competitive in capitalism. What the movement does not realize is that it is relying on the capitalist concept that the consumer is the determining source of capitalism's features. Popularized by the Austrian School of economics, the notion is that one dollar equals one vote, and that the capitalist economic system is a democracy. This notion is terribly flawed, as it is immediately apparent that some people have far more dollar votes than others. To further complicate the matter, the cheapest commodities also tend to be those produced by the largest, most economically efficient firms. One ends up blaming the very victims of globalization, the poor and all those whose oppressions intersect with poverty, for dependence on commodities produced by such exploitative companies.

In response to people's concerns with what they consume, even Starbucks offers a "fair-trade" coffee among its "free-trade" selection now. If one protests using capitalist ideology as a basis, Starbucks can conveniently place blame for their exploitative practices on all those who do not buy their fair-trade coffee, since "the consumer holds the power."

Countered by the dominant ideology again and again, individual activists start to lose hope. Many in the anti-consumerism movement, and anti-globalization movement in general, have become fascinated with the concept of living "off the grid." The end result of political action being conceived of as something defined by personal life decisions convinces the individual that removing themselves from the capitalist system is the best course of action. In a society defined by capitalist ideology, the individual removes themselves from society.

The capitalist class could be no happier.

To challenge capitalism requires more than personal conviction. It requires real, mass action. It requires class consciousness.

Class consciousness is not only the knowledge of how capitalism splits people into haves and have-nots, but the actual realization of the fact that one is in a class with other people. Marx focuses on this in this early works, where he calls for the end of discrimination and a realization that all people, regardless of race, nationality, sex, gender and economic class, ought to be self-determining. Lenin expounds on this idea in his book What Is To Be Done?, declaring that Communists are to not to merely fight for the aid of the workers in the economic field, but to lead to their emancipation, along with the emancipation of minority groups experiencing ethnic discrimination, and those who, in his time, were affected by the criminalization of youth associations.

All oppressed people are included in the what Marxists call the proletariat, distinguished from the capitalist class by the ways in which they lack power and by their common claim to self-determination.

Once this is understood, anti-capitalist politics are redefined. Politics is recognized as more than just the sum of acts of performed by individuals, but as something that make individuals accountable to their class.

If one does not recognize class, and the importance of mass action, it is tempting to view the revolutionary process as nothing more than a series of proclamations, and do little more than seek to capitalize on the spontaneous uprisings of the oppressed. The movement is isolated, anti-capitalist sentiment ebs and flows, and "leaders" preach among whatever choir exists at any given time. As real, whole class consciousness goes unrecognized, strategy takes backstage to tactics, and opportunities to build an anti-capitalist movement are squandered.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx explains that this type of anti-capitalist action is the result of revolutionaries still relying on the capitalist ideology, and labels the activists engaged in such actions as petty-bourgeois revolutionaries. The proletariat forms stronger bonds, but does not recognize itself. Expanding on this idea, Lenin distinguished between what he called "doctrinaire" Marxists and "orthodox" Marxists in a pamphlet titled Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Lenin criticized political movements of the doctrinaire type, who used the Marxist label but who represented Marxism as a set of principles rather than a guiding theory. This led such parties to shun all reform, to shirk responsibility for their communities by refusing to participate in politics (including electoral work) when such engagement would have yielded positive results for the oppressed, and to damage their own movement by refusing to build toward socialism in steps that would have expanded democratic power.

As emancipation is the goal of those seeking the overthrow of capitalism, the people themselves must be the guide of political action. At the end of Marx and Engels' Communist manifesto it is written that Communist parties are not to be separate from the proletariat, but are to be active within in the proletariat, guiding while, at the same time, representing the class at whatever stage of struggle they are in. Lenin, repeated this sentiment when he countered doctrinaire reluctance to work in reactionary trade unions. He wrote that it was even more importance for Communists to work among those still harboring petty chauvinisms, because that is the only way such chauvinisms can be countered and eradicated.

In our current situation, we in the anti-capitalist movement cannot count on the mere dissemination of our ideas to bring about change. The overwhelming majority of socialization in our society results from individuals' involvement in the consumption of ideologically capitalist media, in capitalist work places, in capitalist defined recreationally activity, etc. Our ideas have to be linked with action, and we must engage in struggles which afford us the opportunity to mingle with others in our class – the proletariat. Practical action to build our influence must be undertaken, and if popular reforms lead to our increased influence, we must unabashedly use reform to further class consciousness.

Theory is what allows for strategy, and tactics – one's actions – must adapt with regard to the stage of struggle the people themselves are engaged in in any given time and place.

As ideology is the result of socialization, and the means of any form of production, exchange, and other social organization performs socialization and builds ideology, we must not retreat from our current society, scared or repulsed by its current manifestation, but engage it with a transformative theory drawn from our class experience.

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  • Rhonda: Having quite divergent basis for our respective views of the very nature of reality I do not believe it is possible to reconcile our differences.

    I must note, however, that revenue is not limited to capitalism, has been present throughout history in countless other economic systems, and would continue to exist under socialism or communism. The difference is that, beginning with socialism, the revenue generated by an industry would be allocated by a democratic vote of workers in the industry and representatives elected by the people.

    Further, there is no reason to believe individuals of exceptional talent would cease to gain the respect and admiration of others in a socialist system. They would enjoy an increased influence on society and history as their talent allows, but would not be able to amass economic power which, in our current system, allows them to become deprived and/or act injuriously without fear of accountability.

    Posted by , 11/26/2011 3:09pm (7 years ago)

  • When the producers of goods are reduced to enemies of the state and all men are then economically equal and equally poor- where will the Marxists get their needed revenue? This ideology is based on falacy and the foundation of Capitalism is built on true freedom based on natural law...God's laws- not mans ability to reason away God's sovereign plan for all men- equal opportunity and freedom to fail or succeed and accept genetic predispositions as to the gifts, abilities, and attributes of one individual over another is what makes for the rich diversity you Marxists claim to embrace- this is uttter lunacy and hypocrisy at it's obvious worst! So what will you do when there is nothing left to take by force??? Wil the elites then decide who eats and who doesn't- can the State better decide what is right better than God????

    Posted by Rhonda Welsch, 10/18/2011 11:05am (7 years ago)

  • CBK: Three things.

    1) It's not that I think boycotts necessarily represent false consciousness, but that I think false consciousness is represented by what people believe the affects of boycotts could be. The same could be said of the person who is so bent up over shopping locally. This activity might change this or that policy (which may be worth changing!), but one certainly is in a state of false consciousness if they think it is going to create systemic change.

    2) The article is theoretical, and is meant to provide a basis for the practical action being engaged in by the Communist Party rather than outlining specific courses of action. To find that, it is much better to read the People's Weekly World.

    3) I'm not sure where I exonerate "brutal 'Communist' dictators". Anyway, wouldn't it be much more of a step to simply refer to them as Communist, with no quotes, and own up to past mistakes?

    Mike D: Lenin is a mixed bag -- not all good, not all bad. We can certainly learn a lot from Lenin, about what to do and what not to do. I encourage you to read "Left-Wing Communism" in addition to what you have read from Chomsky. After engaging in anarchist politics for years before becoming "conservative" (lol) I find Chomsky a little too aloof/pure. Political action often gets dirty, as it is quick and involves the juggling of all sorts of groups with relative knowledge on each other.

    Posted by Jean Paul Holmes, 10/26/2010 8:53pm (8 years ago)

  • Tres bien. I think your general thesis is totally correct. My only reservation is my beef with leninism. I agree with Chomsky's perception of 1917 - more of a coup than a revolution. To put it vaguely (i wont purport to be an expert, at all) my understanding is that lenin disbanded the organic workers' councils and committees, which should have been used to increase workers' autonomy and thereby emancipation. This view was shared by Rosa Luxemberg and other mainstream marxists at the time, who understood Lenin's was am authoritarian deviation from socialism.


    Posted by Mike D, 10/16/2010 11:48pm (8 years ago)

  • It is pleasing that the offer aptly summarizes the indulgent emotionalism and spirititualization of many in the current manifestations of left-leaning reform movements, as opposed to a Programmatic approach that is not merely content with a given victory or a given expression of solidarity. Two objections however:

    The author aptly points out the fallacy of assumptions underlying A CERTAIN TYPE of boycott activity - namely, that consumer activity is the determinant force in the economic sphere, and thus responsible or facilitative of capitalist oppression. While this is clearly an erroneous position that allows for the fantastic example of Starbucks' "Fair Trade" option (among their many other "Exploitative Coffee" options), there is another side of the "anti-consumerist" movement that IS rooted in revolutionary praxis and not just left-leaning bourgeois solipsism. The author himself admits that some persons and entities possess many more votes than others in the Capitalist "parliament". FOR THIS VERY REASON, the one who intentionally pumps his wages into the few goods and services produced by local businesses or corporations that do not employ sweatshop labor (like Justice Clothing or, for all intents and purposes, American Apparel), and strategically avoids multinationals and sweatshop-reliant companies as much as possible, he brings INVESTMENT INCENTIVE to the domestic production model and increases the viability of businesses willing to operate at higher floor costs for the sake of human justice. Furthermore, by intentionally shopping locally, the progressive consumer increases the distribution of wealth that would be necessary to instigate a more robust effort at political reform or revolution. While the author correctly argues that despising poorer persons who are not able to make such decisions is counter-productive, it is silly to draw from this the conclusion that boycott movements are a form of false consciousness and therefore should be abandoned. On the contrary, we ought to build the alternatives to the worst forms of capitalist wealth extraction and purveyors of slave-equivalent labor by supporting the alternatives as much as possible by shifting our buying patterns. This will then form the basis for the viable political reform or elimination of such entities and their practices.

    Secondly, I am tired of the following trend in Communist-inspired writing: "Theory is what allows for strategy, and tactics – one's actions – must adapt with regard to the stage of struggle the people themselves are engaged in in any given time and place." Mao makes much of this "adapt revolutionary struggle to local conditions and manifestations" line but never specifies WHAT THAT MEANS for his own time. It is a trite and empty formula to claim for the need to effectively adapt to the given stage of class mobilization without SPECIFYING HOW ONE OUGHT TO DO SO. Also, stop with the constant exonerations of the brutal "Communist" dictators of the USSR, the PRC, Cuba. Lenin may have had some decent theoretical insights into the extension of Marxist principles for a socialist nation state, but he certainly should not be reified to a spiritual icon, infallible and ultimate, along with the canon of Communist thinkers and approved revolutionaries. Many of these dictators (Mao and Stalin in particular) committed terrible atrocities that did nothing to forward the socialist cause of increasing the masses "self-determination," enfranchisement or ownership of the means of production. Their covert State Capitalism was worse in most respects than the systems they claimed to be seeking to reform. Marx should be respected and valued by our ability to challenge the more cumbersome of his doxa and criticize as flawed and inconsistent the canonized cohort of his successors. Respect the actual goals of socialism by remaining critical and not resorting to silly doctrines: e.g. the incorrect notion of the law of declining value.

    Posted by CBK, 10/16/2010 2:58pm (8 years ago)

  • Eric: Thank you for the additional insight. I will make sure to re-read the 'Thesis on Freuerbach' with this idea in mind.

    I have begun building on several "themes" I have noticed within Marxist-Leninist theory. The themes tend to unify after I think them through long enough, which has been quite rewarding (it's like solving a riddle, x100).

    Frustrating that people continue to think of the U.S.S.R. as wholly described by the U.S.'s caricature.

    Tony: Thank you also. I see your point, and I often think that problem comes from the way radicals think of class consciousness as embodying a certain set of hard, unreasoning principles. The times I mention principles in the article, that is what I'm thinking of.

    I owe a lot of this article to working with you, and the many other people that work brought me into contact with. That, and actually seeing change happen because of my work.

    It's like ultra-left AA :)

    Posted by Jean Paul Holmes, 10/09/2010 5:55pm (8 years ago)

  • Excellent article, Colan! One comment that I would add: Some on the left view Class Consciousness as static, as something set-in-stone.

    However, it isn't. It's fluid, ever-changing. It takes into account new information, new ways of organizing and new forms of struggle.

    In fact, it is a dynamic exchange of ideas, values and beliefs. It is reciprocity of shared class convictions that lead to higher levels of understanding and unified action.

    Additionally, we can not have a dynamic exchange of ideas that lead to action if we retreat. A transformative theory must at-first engage people where they are at, in the society in-which they live, not where we would like them to be.

    Your article does a great job of explaining the dialectical connection between raising consciousness while fighting for immediate victories.

    To those on the left who shun the most immediate of struggles, they would do good to learn one simple, but often ignored reality: The most revolutionary thing we can do right now is win! As we can't build long-term, sustained unity out of defeat and disillusionment. As we can't make life better for working class folks by marching them off the side of a cliff.

    Great article! In solidarity.

    Posted by TonyPec, 10/08/2010 10:41am (8 years ago)

  • Thanks for this interesting article. I want to expand on it by referencing Mark in "Theses on Feuerbach", where he writes:

    "Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence, in The Essence of Christianity, he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation. Hence he does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary”, of “practical-critical”, activity."

    What Marx describes as "revolutionary" or "practical-critical" activity is actually central to the whole theory of Marxism as I understand it. What Marx is saying can be restated as a) We learn by doing, and b) we need to apply critical analysis to our work in order to strengthen it. There is therefore a dynamic between action and theory that is unbreakable in Marxism.

    I took a history class once in which the professor was able to completely and accurately describe Marx's theories. Then he ended by saying "But of course, he has been proved to be completely wrong." It struck me that it is impossible to understand Marx independent of engagement in struggle. It is also impossible, for me at least, to understand how to struggle without a revolutionary theory, which is Marxism/Leninism.

    I believe that one of the issues that contributed to the inability of socialism in the Soviet Union to defend itself from capitalist incursion was the ascendancy of the bureaucracy to control of the party structures. Too many of the leaders were career comrades rather than workers rising from the ranks. Bureaucratic development is important but should not be taken as equivalent to the impact of "practical-critical" activity by workers fighting for their own needs against exploitation. We are exposed to different experiences based on our economic class or position in society. We learn from our experiences and the application of practical-critical theory to them. I think this is one of the most important and least discussed areas of Marxism/Leninism.

    Thanks for this interesting article.


    Posted by Eric Brooks, 10/06/2010 11:22pm (8 years ago)

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