Invisible power and false consciousness

In invisible power, ‘real’ interests are hidden from B’s knowledge.  For example, as a woman, B does not know that it is not her ‘real’ interest to be subservient to her husband A.  She does not know her ‘true’ interests and therefore, in Marxist terms, has a ‘false consciousness’.

This step into Marxist ‘false consciousness’ has been heavily criticized, as elitist, authoritarian and unverifiable.  Haugaard usefully turns the slippery slope of false consciousness into something constructive.  As ‘false’ implies a ‘true’ consciousness, he drops objectivity altogether and differentiates between tacit and discursive knowledge.  Tacit knowledge is that experienced but not articulated.  The test for Lukes’ third dimension is recognition of that knowledge if someone articulates it.  Once articulated (sometimes through explicit ‘consciousness-raising’ activities), it is then up to B to judge for his/herself ‘whether what is presented discursively is consonant with practical [or tacit] consciousness knowledge’ (Haugaard, 2003: 102).  According to Gaventa (2006: 29), consciousness cannot be false because ‘if consciousness exists, it is real to its holders’.

Scott says that there are thick and thin versions of false consciousness.  ‘The thick version claims that a dominant ideology works its magic by persuading subordinate groups to believe actively in the values that explain and justify their own subordination’ (Scott, 1990: 72).  Scott says that he does not believe this theory as he sees so much resistance from subordinate groups, rather than whole-hearted belief in the systems that dominate them.  ‘The thin theory of false consciousness, on the other hand, maintains only that they dominant ideology achieves compliance by convincing subordinate groups that the social order in which they live is natural and inevitable.  The thick theory claims consent; the thin theory settles for resignation’ (Scott, 1990: 72).

Such theories about consciousness are also linked to Gramsci’s concepts hegemony. To read more about hegemony go to other forms of power.

For more on false consciousness see chapter four, ‘False Consciousness or Laying it on Thick’,  in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts by James Scott.

References in this section for further reading

Gaventa (2006) ‘Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis’, in Eyben, E., Harris, C., and Pettit, J. (eds), Exploring Power for Change, IDS Bulletin 37(6): 11-22.

Haugaard, Mark (2003) Power a Reader, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Scott, James. C.  (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Yale University Press, New Haven.

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