False Consciousness Theory in Feminism and Anti-Speciesism

In recent weeks, I have had a series of engaging conversations with my colleague, friend and Feminist Law Prof  David Cassuto, an animal law theorist.  I admit to knowing little about animal law.  I nevertheless am fascinated by what I perceive (at least initially) as  similarities in the themes and methodologies of feminist theorists and anti-speciesist theorists.  

Both feminist legal theory and anti-speciesism make use of the concept of the Marxian false consciousness, described here by Engels in his 1893 Letter to Mehring:

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously indeed but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or his predecessors’.

From the feminist perspective, the false consciousness critique is typically use to devalue (as”inauthentic”) a choice made by another.     The example I use in teaching this concept to students is a woman’s statement”I like wearing high heels.”   Her feminist critic might say,”You think wearing high heels is your personal preference, but you have been conditioned by an androcentric society to want to wear high heels, because that is what men like and benefit from.”   (Note to self: If CBS News broadcasts”Tips on How to Navigate High Heels”here, shouldn’t this be an indication that it heels aren’t functional footwear?  See related posts by Ann here, here and here.)

Between and among anti-speciesists, the imagined exchange might go something like this.  

Person A:”I choose to have a fish as a pet and I think there is nothing wrong with that because it makes me happy and it makes the fish happy.”  

Person B:   “You think it is ok to have a fish as a pet because society has conditioned you to think that it makes you happy and makes the fish happy, because that is what a speciesist society likes and benefits from.”

The argument, in both feminism and anti-speciesism, is that when the chooser chooses a pre-chosen choice, that choice is less authentic, valid, worthy of respect than a choice that is not pre-chosen.   But if we embrace the implications of the Marxist critique, then there shouldn’t be any intellectual room for an unchosen choice.   In other words, the critique itself arises out of culturally constrained circumstances that shape the critique.   The self-righteous tone  of the false consciousness claim is especially problematic for feminists, for whom choice is a dominant value.   Choice can double back.   If I chose my choice, even if my choice was pre-chosen, the choosing is what matters, not the choice.   Yikes.

-Bridget Crawford

(cross-post from Animal Blawg)

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8 Responses to False Consciousness Theory in Feminism and Anti-Speciesism

  1. Pingback: False Consciousness Theory in Feminism and Anti-Speciesism « Animal Blawg

  2. thebewilderness says:

    This may be somewhat beside the point, but it is my contention that the advantage to wearing high hells is that while you are still looked down on by men, you are not so very far down as you would be without the heels.
    Not much of a benefit, but I’m guessing it is the basis for liking them. Certainly a more reasonable basis for doing a thing than many other absurd things that we do.

  3. rootless says:

    I think your infinite-regress criticism gets at the biggest failing of false consciousness theory: its unstated assumption that there’s also true consciousness, which is the property of the class-for-itself or the Party or whichever historical force is immune to “ideology” in the bad, mystified sense. This immunity is conferred, in orthodox Marxism, ny the same historical forces that cast a fog of false consciousness over everyone else; the inconsistency is managed by invoking dialectical inversion and suchlike magic cures for muddy thinking. Myself, I’m inclined to think that (as Marx himself hinted in “Eighteenth Brumaire”) there isn’t anyplace “behind History’s back;” the heel-wearer and the heel-shunner, the goldfish owner and the goldfish emancipationist, are products of history and can’t appeal to it for moral authority or for a weapon against their adversaries.

  4. Bridget Crawford says:


    Your point is an excellent one. The moral authority is unreliable at best, and silencing at worst. However, I have trouble not falling down the slippery slope into the abyss of wondering how there can be any Truths at all. How can I maintain that some things are just wrong, if my judgment is overwhelmed by ideology? (Not that you have the answers to these questions; just thoughts inspired by your comment.) This seems especially thorny for us feminists who want to say that a woman should have the right to control her own body, that sexualized subordination is wrong. Your thoughts?

  5. Ann Bartow says:

    I like the chapter on false consciousness in Ann Scales’ book Legal Feminism. If you google “Ann Scales false consciousness” you ought to be able to read part of it courtesy of Google Books. My copy is at the office, unlike me, or I’d offer some excerpts here.

  6. Barbara Burke says:

    When I read this post heading the other day, I went straight to Ann Scales’ book as I remembered she devoted a whole chapter to false consciousness. Between her chapter seven and these postings, I think I am gaining an understanding of the concept. . . .
    BTW, Professor Bartow, your Baltimore presentation was phenomenal last week! I am writing about the conference for my law school paper; and I am hoping you will blog about it here.

  7. rootless says:

    How can I maintain that some things are just wrong, if my judgment is overwhelmed by ideology? (Not that you have the answers to these questions; just thoughts inspired by your comment.)

    I don”t; I’ll certainly read Ann Scales, who’s a new name to me. I don’t know how to steer safely between the Positivist Rock and the Relativist Whirlpool. I knew, and still know, that what my fellow-railroaders believed (about California’s tax structure and the innate character of Black people etc.), beliefs that made them support Prop. 13 in 1978 in the face of arguments from labor leadership, was a pack of lies and myths; it was a “bad ideology,” a coherent but false account of their world, whose consequences made ther lives measurably worse. But what I tried to offer in its place was a “good ideology”–closer to verifiable facts and stripped of some outrageous falsehoods, but a coherent view rather than The Truth unadorned. I suspect this is all we get; a mashup of neo-Kantian epistemology and exstentialist ethics. But I retired from the Answer Man gig decades ago.

  8. ambrose says:

    The chains on the woman’s foot in the picture resemble chains on elephant feet.

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