Marxism, Alienation, the Unhappy Consciousness and Gnostic Trickery

descartes demon

Here I just want to lay out, to supplement my last post, a quick note on what seems to me an epistemological error in Marxist philosophy — one that results from an inability to follow dialectical logic to its conclusion and arises out of the skepticism and Unhappy Consciousness that results. I will not, as is typical, quote the passages in Hegel that discuss skepticism and the Unhappy Consciousness in the typical way but instead I will insert sentences where I see fit. For those interested they can be found here. I see no point in quoting them because Hegel’s thought cannot readily be quoted as it exists in an ever-unfolding continuum.

Let us begin with skepticism. It is, as is well-known, the philosophical position that we cannot know anything because the external world is tricking us in some way. An early modern formulation is to be found in Rene Descartes’ Meditations:

I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment.

As we can see, from the outset the skeptical position is tied up with belief in God. This is not surprising since what Descartes is really putting forward here is a Gnostic view of the world; a world in which the demiurge — that is, the creator — is not God at all, but instead some sort of malevolent devil and thus all we experience through our senses is Evil and fraught with trickery.

What we see here taking place is a fundamental splitting in the process of thought. No longer is the mind able to confront the external world directly; instead a distance must be taken and the whole thing must be considered false (think Neo in the film The Matrix). I use the term “splitting” with perfect awareness of its modern-day psychological meaning as this is indeed a similar process; all the Good and True is assumed to be “in here” — in the mind — and all the Bad and Untrue is assumed to be “out there” — in the world.

When Hegel discusses skepticism and the Unhappy Consciousness this is also what he sees. He sees a self-consciousness that has pulled itself in two — it has compartmentalised, in the modern psychological jargon. Hegel writes that:

It is itself the gazing of one self-consciousness into another, and itself is both, and the unity of both is also its own essence; but objectively and consciously it is not yet this essence itself — is not yet the unity of both.

Self-consciousness gazes upon what it thinks to be an external object — the world — filled with trickery and Evil. But in reality, this external object is always already part of the subject; it is but another aspect of self-consciousness, but a part that has been compartmentalised. The Unhappy Consciousness puts all the things it doesn’t like — such as the idea that it might fall into error — on the side of the external world and then closes back in upon itself. To overcome the Unhappy Consciousness, for Hegel, is to recognise that the external world is always already part of the subject; it is but a reflection of the unfolding of self-consciousness itself.

Marxism falls on the wrong side of the Unhappy Consciousness. It posits not that the external world is inherently Evil, but that it has been hijacked by Evil forces — the capitalist class — who spread their False Consciousness and Ideology among people, tricking and fooling them and not allowing them to see the Truth. But the Marxist — given his secret knowledge — is able to see through the ruse and understand that in order to restore the world to a Happy, Non-Alienated state he must simply defeat the Evil forces.

In truth this is simply a concoction. The world only appears in such a way if our self-consciousness reflects such a world. If we choose to view the world in this way we view the world in this way; meanwhile falling into the trap of Unhappy Consciousness as we fail to recognise that the whole narrative is really just that: a narrative.

Will the Marxist overcome what he or she perceives to be alienation if they succeed in taking over the State? Highly unlikely,as this “alienation” is merely the result of their own self-consciousness’ inability to overcome a rather difficult dialectical hurdle. More likely that, due to their Unhappy Consciousness, they will blame all their failings to realise Utopia on hidden enemies and conspirators; Evil forces continuing to spread trickery among people and keep them alienated and unaware. Such will, as it always does, lead to tyranny.

Addendum: Just to be clear before I start getting comments on this. My use of psycho-pathological terms above is not to suggest that Marxists are mentally ill. In fact, psychologists and psychiatrists are quite aware that we find many of these mechanisms brought into use by religions and cults. Just because a person is a member of such religions and cults does not mean that they exhibit mental illness; quite the contrary, they may be very well adjusted. Marxism, like Scientology or Praxeology, undoubtedly makes use of psychological blindspots in order to sell itself to its followers. But it does not follow that the followers are psychologically maladjusted in any way.

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About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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5 Responses to Marxism, Alienation, the Unhappy Consciousness and Gnostic Trickery

  1. jayesquire says:

    ‘Will the Marxist overcome what he or she perceives to be alienation if they succeed in taking over the State?’

    You what? Why would taking over the State abolish alienation? Alienation originates in production, not politics. The claim that this is ‘merely’ a personal failing on the part of Marxists rather than a genuine insight about power structures in the workplace is silliness to my eyes. Also, the Marxist criticism of so called Marxist states in the past does not depend simply on ‘conspirators’ but also on the real conditions [that is, majority peasants, international pressure, and so on]. In any case, the criticism of these states that they did not truly empower workers at the point of production [or any other point for that matter] is not some sort of Utopian compensation but actually a pretty valid criticism about states that claimed to be ‘socialist’!

    • The vast majority of this comment has nothing to do with the post. But let me just clarify one point: when I said “take over the State” I was insinuating that they would be attempting to change from a capitalist mode of production to a socialist or communist mode. That should have been obvious and I think you were nit-picking, to be honest.

  2. Tom Hickey says:

    “Marxism falls on the wrong side of the Unhappy Consciousness. It posits not that the external world is inherently Evil, but that it has been hijacked by Evil forces — the capitalist class — who spread their False Consciousness and Ideology among people, tricking and fooling them and not allowing them to see the Truth. But the Marxist — given his secret knowledge — is able to see through the ruse and understand that in order to restore the world to a Happy, Non-Alienated state he must simply defeat the Evil forces.”

    Good point. Whether Marx was influenced by anthropological study of primitive societies or discovered in later as evidence of his own intuition, Marx’s thinking is grounded in the myth of the noble savage who had neither been spoiled by civilization and nor experienced what Freud would later describe as “civilization and its discontents.” Marx did encounter Lewis Morgan’s description of ancient society late (1881), and Morgan’s Ancient Society influenced Engels and subsequent Marxist thought.

    Even today, a lot of radical thinking on the left takes ancient society as its model of consensus governing rather than hierarchical institutional government, and views sharing the commons and communalism as natural instead of private property and markets based on atomistic individualism.

  3. Gerry Healy says:

    I don’t think that for Marx alienation was simply down to capitalists spreading false consciousnesses but because (in his view) capitalism leads to people becoming truly alienated from themselves in their work.

    Man’s essential nature is to affirm himself through the production of goods that require creativity . Under capitalism he becomes alienated because he becomes a laborer producing commodities,

    Such alienation can be overcome via enhanced class consciousness – I supposes that is somewhat inline with your views of avoiding “the trap of Unhappy Consciousness”

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