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Character mask

A character mask in the Marxian sense is a character masked or disguised with a different
character. The term was used by Karl Marx in various published writings from the 1840s to the
1860s. It is related to the classical Greek concept of mimesis (imitative representation using
analogies) and the Roman concept of persona, but also differs from them. The notion of
character masks has been used by neo-Marxist and non-Marxist sociologists, philosophers and
anthropologists to interpret how people relate in societies with a complex division of labour. As
a critical concept, bearing character masks contrasts with the concept of "role-taking" developed
by sociologists such as George Herbert Mead, Ralph Linton, Talcott Parsons and Ralf
Dahrendorf, as well as Robert K. Merton's idea of a role set, in the first instance because "social
roles" do not necessarily assume the masking of behaviour, and character masks do not
necessarily assume agreement with roles, or that the roles are fixed (see role theory). Peter
Sloterdijk comments:

The concept of character masks refers to the circumstance that, in human societies, people can
take on functions in which they “act out” roles, whether voluntarily chosen, by necessity, or
forced. In those roles, some or all of their true characteristics and intentions may be partly or
wholly masked, so that they appear different from what they truly are - “public face” and
“private thoughts, interests and emotions” diverge. Also, their activity may have broader social
effects that they would rather not know about, which they wish to be unknown or presented in a
certain light, or which they are unaware of, and therefore the effects are mentally disconnected
from their real causes. Accordingly persons and their relationships may no longer be quite what
they seem to be, and there is a difference between their personal and functional (or formal)
relationships. Even if the “masking” is readily observable and known, so that a difference
between the person and a functional role is self-evident, what the true character is, may remain

As a psychological term, "character" is used more in Continental Europe, while in Britain and
North America the term "personality" is used in "approximately" the same contexts. Marx
however uses the term "character mask" analogously to a theatrical role, where the actor (or the
characteristics of a "prop") represents a certain interest or function, and intends by character
both "the characteristics of somebody" and "the characteristics of something". He was writing a
century before role theory became an academically recognized subject in sociology. That did not
mean that the idea of roles did not exist in Marx's time; rather, it meant that a sophisticated
academic language for talking about the sociology of roles did not exist, and therefore Marx
borrowed from theatre and literature to express his idea. His concept is both that an identity
appears differently from its true identity (it is masked or disguised), and that this difference has
very real practical consequences (the mask is not simply a decoration, but performs a real
function and has real effects, even independently of the mask bearer).

Use of the concept

The concept of character masks has been applied by Marxists and non-Marxists to persons and
politicians, groups and social classes, mass media, social movements and political parties, social
institutions, economic or legal relationships, organizations and functions, social systems,
governments, symbolic expressions (including theories, works of art, advertising and
ideologies), historical eras and epochs, and dramatic, literary or theatrical contexts. In each case,
the suggestion is that matters present themselves other than they really are.

There is therefore a link between character masks and the concept of hypocrisy. Yet character
masks need not be hypocritical, insofar as the motive for their use is genuine, sincere, principled
or naive - or a product of (self-)delusion. People can also mask their behaviour, or mask a
situation, without being aware that they are doing so, i.e. they may mask something to
themselves, not just consciously but unconsciously (see false consciousness). Masking need not
involve deliberate lying or fraud. It may merely involve the projection of an image, shape or
sound which the observer chooses to, or is likely to, interpret in a particular way (it could also be
interpreted in many other, quite different ways). In fact, Marx suggests that insofar as people
work in various roles and functions, a character mask can be a "normal" part of the role - just
"part of the job" (see below).

There are numerous novels, thrillers, horror stories and biographies which explore the human
character that exists "behind the mask" from various points of view; often the human character
interpreted by the authors is a politician, hero, law enforcement officer or criminal who is found,
for one motive or another, to exhibit a truly spectacular discrepancy between his masks, and who
or what he (or she) really is - raising important questions about the sheer complexity of possible
human behaviours and motives (if not excitement or moral outrage). There are also numerous
books by religious authors and psychologists dealing with the way in which people seek to
"cover up" the impact of a mistake, a sin, an injury or a trauma by carrying on a pretense which
involves the masking of behaviour. However, while this kind of literature does illustrate that
character masks of all kinds are a durable feature of the human condition - arising out of the
great behavioural flexibility of the human species, acquired through a lengthy process of
evolution - they do not necessarily have anything to do with Marx's critique of bourgeois society
as a whole, and the character masks which Marx thought were specific to (or "characteristic" of)
that society. The human practice of masking, whether for ritualistic, cultural or practical reasons,
predates the origin of class societies by thousands of years, and therefore many kinds of masking
cannot be attributed simply to class conflicts, commercial interests or legal imperatives; they
reflect long-lasting cultural practices (see below).

Levels of masking
The substance of Marx's idea is, that people, their relationships and their worlds take on
character masks, when people:
 cannot stay consistent or survive without them.
 are in truth not (yet) equal to the situation, or in a transitional phase.
 have a special interest, incentive or stake in presenting themselves in a different way,
at variance with the real situation.
 pretend and act "as though" a characteristic applies, because they don't really know
yet what the real motivation is, or hope to bring the characteristic into being.
 in practical life are so used to regarding something in a reified way, that it becomes
"normal", self-evident and a habit.
 aim to dramatize, sanctify, justify or dignify something, even if it was only
ignorance or innocence.
Things can get tricky, and life can be riddled with contradictions. To bridge a difficult moment or
phase, people have to "act". They take on disguises, they hide their true character in some way,
and they present themselves differently from what they really are. People can also become aware
of a phenomenon before they know what it really is or means, what the implications are, or how
to deal with it. They cannot "place" it. This could make them feel embarrassed, helpless or
insecure, and they might initially just call it names which mask what is really going on. The
masks they adopt as a behavioural response to an unfamiliar experience may provide confidence
or forbearance where the situation itself gives no reason for confidence. Effectively, the
significance is thereby either disregarded, downplayed, or assimilated to something else that is
already familiar (see also cognitive dissonance).

Whether or not this involves deliberate deceit or a ruse, depends on the true motivation. It may
not be easily verifiable - the actors may not be very aware of their own motivation. People have
depend on others with trust, but that creates plenty scope for deception, insofar as people assume
things that they really shouldn't in the situation (human gullibility). One of Marx's favourite
relativizing motto's was "de omnibus dubitandum", i.e. one must retain a healthy sense of doubt
about everything, so that one is not fooled by what seems to be totally obvious or self-evident.
There may be more to it, than meets the eye. Indeed, the metaphor of individuals - particularly
intellectuals and political actors - who bear "masks", who "abandon their masks", engage in a
"masquerade" or who are "unmasked", appears many times in Marx's manuscripts and

The "character masks of an era" refer, according to Marx and Engels, to its main symbolic
expressions of self-justification or apologism, the function of which is to disguise, embellish or
mystify ideologically the social contradictions in the real character of the era ("the bits that don't
fit"), so that life can carry on anyway. A purported "mystical truth" in this context is a meaning
(a "naming", a descriptive association or metaphor) which cannot be definitely proved, because
it results from an abstractive procedure or cognition which is not logical, and cannot be tested
scientifically, only experienced.

However, in the end Marx also argues that, insofar as capitalist class society is intrinsically a
very contradictory system - it contains many conflicting and competing forces - the masking of
its true characteristics becomes an integral feature of how it actually operates. Buyers and sellers
compete with other buyers and sellers. Businesses compete about costs, sales, profits and much
more, and they cannot practically do so without confidentiality and secrecy. Workers compete
for job opportunities and access to resources. Capitalists and workers compete for their share of
the new wealth that is produced, and nations compete with other nations. The masks are
therefore not optional, but necessary. And the more one is able to know about others, the more
subtle, ingenious and sophisticated the masks become.

One of the centrepieces of Marx's critique of political economy is that the juridical labour
contract between the worker and his capitalist employer obscures the true economic relationship,
which is (according to Marx) that the workers do not sell their labour, but their labour power, i.e.
their capacity to work, making possible a profitable difference between what they are paid and
the new value they create for the owners of capital (a form of economic exploitation). Thus, the
very foundation of capitalist wealth creation involves a "mask". More generally, Marx argues
that transactions in the capitalist economy are often far from transparent - they appear different
from what they really are. This is discovered, only when one probes the total context in which
they occur. "What the money is for" may seem obvious at first sight, but it may turn out to be
something quite different. Hence Marx writes:

This implies another level of masking, because the economic character masks are then
straightforwardly ("vulgarly") equated with authentic behaviour ("there is no more to it, than
meets the eye"). The effect in this case is, that the theory of "how the economy works" masks
how it actually works, by conflating its surface appearance with its real nature. Its generalities
seem to explain it, but in reality, when one gets down to specifics, they don't. The theory works,
"except when it doesn't", and it is therefore (ultimately) arbitrary. Either things are studied in
isolation from the total context in which they occur, or, generalizations are formed which leave
very essential bits out. Such distortion can certainly be ideologically useful to justify an
economic system, position or policy as a good thing, but it can become a hindrance, if we really
need to know how the economy works - to know it, we have to be able to see what is behind the
 For example, on 5 November 2008 (Guy Fawkes day), the British Queen Elizabeth
II visited the London School of Economics and was given an academic briefing on
the causes and implications of the credit crunch. According to Professor Luis
Garicano of the LSE Centre for Economic Performance, she then asked: "If these
things were so large, how come everyone missed them? Why did nobody notice
it'?". Garicano answered her along the lines that "At every stage, someone was
relying on somebody else and everyone thought they were doing the right thing." In
other words, everybody was "keeping up appearances", until a "financial tsunami"
engulfed all of them.

Significance of character masks

The use of masks in rituals or ceremonies is a very ancient human practice across the world,
although masks can also be worn for protection, in hunting, in sports, or in wars. A spirit, if it
exists in nature or in people, is itself unobservable, it "works through" something (a medium); it
is the awareness of a meaning which can be only evoked, represented or expressed symbolically
- with images, sounds, shapes and movements which make people feel that the spirit is there.
Masks have often been used for exactly this purpose. Thus, people believed that the bearer of the
mask made contact with the spirit it expressed (different cultures or religions have different
stories about how exactly that works). That meant that a special power and status was attributed
to the mask and its bearer; not just anyone could handle it, it was sacred. The spirit, the belief,
the mask and the power were directly connected with each other. Nowadays many people no
longer believe this, but nevertheless they will still wear certain clothes, or go to a church, a
concert or another place for the same purpose: to come into contact with a certain significance,
to have a certain very personal experience. If they cannot reach it, they feel unhappy, uninspired
or alienated, or they might just watch television.

The oldest masks that have been discovered are 9,000 years old, being held by the Musée "Bible
et Terre Sainte" (Paris), and the Israel Museum (Jerusalem). Most probably the practice of
masking is much older - circa 30,000-40,000 years - but insofar as it involved the use of war-
paint, leather, vegetative material or wooden masks, the masks probably haven't been preserved
(they are visible only in paleolithic cave drawings, of which dozens have been preserved). At the
neanderthal Roche-Cotard site in France a flintstone likeness of a face was found which is about
35,000 years old, but it is not clear that it was intended as a mask. In the Book of Genesis, one
can read how Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover "their nakedness" after eating the fruit
from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Carnival of Venice dates back to 1268 AD.
The North American Iroquois tribes used masks for healing purposes (see False Face Society).

The face often conveys a person’s intention or character most directly, but the masked persons
can gain a certain power or advantage, because they can see through the mask, while remaining
unseen themselves in some way. The use of masks therefore facilitates control by the actors over
what people are able to see. Inversely, the attraction for the spectators may be that they don't see
what they don't want to see, and see something else (that they do want to see).

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

The mask as symbolic device expresses exactly this combination of "knowledge and lack of
knowledge"; the real intentions or motivations that lurk behind the mask are uncertain to the
spectator, precisely because of the disguise, even if it is believed or known that they must be
there. A character mask however is not simply “a masking of the character who bears it”. In the
technical sense used in theatre, it is a specific type of mask.

Namely, it contrasts with a neutral mask, which simply aims to remove one sense of character
from the body of the actor bearing it - by hiding a part or all of the physical presence (the actors
are present, yet absent; absent, yet present. They are there and not there at the same time; remote
and close; themselves, yet strangers - evoking a sense of puzzle, suspense, intrigue, distance,
anonymity, a mystery or a mystique). It might be thrilling and captivating, or it might be
disturbing and offensive, depending on the context (in actor training, a counter-mask is
sometimes also used: the actors are invited to imagine themselves in the opposite role to the ones
they are supposed to play, to help define the meaning of their intended role with a clear contrast).

The specific function of a character mask in theatre is to transform the bearer into a different
personage, or a different role – a new character is then fixed and defined by the mask, in a
simplified and invariant way, and animated by supporting body movements. Various different
character masks (or different “hats”) can in principle be worn by the same actor in succession, in
which case the same actor acts out various different roles.

The five relevant points are that:

 Unlike neutral masks, which only remove character expression, or aim at no
character expression (an impersonal expression), a character mask not only hides
some or all of the true expression of the acting person, but in addition aims to
express a completely different character, intention or feeling, in an invariant way.
The character mask therefore always has a double significance: negating one
characteristic and creating another, i.e. hiding and positively expressing
characteristics at the same time.
 There is no real point in bearing the mask if there is no one else around, other than
for protection or medical purposes etc. The mask assumes a social relationship of
some kind, and it mediates that social relationship. It assumes that somebody is
 The important restriction of a character mask is, that the actor is identified by it as a
character, and therefore has to act according to that character. The character mask
therefore provides less flexibility than the neutral mask, because if the actor behaves
contrary to his character mask, the act is simply not convincing.
 The disguise of the mask may also offer a certain freedom or behavioural flexibility
to the bearers which they would not have without it; if they can consciously choose
their mask, and change masks in a convincing way, this enlarges their behavioural
 Masks, which cover one meaning with a new meaning, mediate the co-existence of
two opposites - identity and non-identity, being and non-being - or fix a transitional
state between one form of being and another. The concept of the "mask" is therefore
an eminently dialectical category.

In Marx's social theory, the character mask personifies the economic, social, cultural, political or
official function which a person or group (or a thing) performs in a particular role, usually in a
way which obscures the real relationships involved. When commercial relationships invade
every sphere of life in bourgeois society, he argues, people are necessarily forced to act in ways
other than they really are, in varying degrees, and therefore are obliged to mask themselves.
They may not physically bear any masks or veils, but nevertheless they constantly “act out” roles
which the business of making money (or legal requirements) obliges them to do, possibly using
various media and props. If they were unwilling to do so, with the appropriate attitude,
transactions or functional obligations would fail, and they would not succeed in the marketplace,
in public life, or in political service.

Specifically, they must adapt their own behavioural expressions to the behaviour and
relationships of things traded in markets, and to abstract legal rules. To reconcile their true
personality with their “political personality” or “business personality”, and reconcile personal
interests with state or market interests, they have to mask off some or all of their personal
motivations. Keeping personal motivations out of the business or official situation indeed
becomes regarded as “normal”, “cultured”, “businesslike” and “civilized”. Indeed, people are
admired when they can "naturally" fulfill a role, as if they are "made for the role". In that case, it
appears that they have made life-choices which placed them in a role in which they can fully
express who they are. Incongruence between authentic behaviour and an “act” may then become
difficult to detect, and it may be sensed only as a kind of guile.

Abstractly, the masking processes in capitalist society mediate and reconcile social
contradictions, which arise from three main sources:
 relations of production (ownership relations defined by property rights), which
create and maintain a class-divided society, in which citizens are formally equal
under the law but unequal in reality; class interests are represented as common
interests and vice versa. The state formally serves "the general interest" of society,
but in reality it mainly serves the general interest of the ruling class, and more
specifically what the elite considers to be the general interest of society.
 relations of exchange in the marketplace, where buyers and sellers bargain with each
other, and with other buyers and sellers, to get the "best deal" for themselves,
although they have to cooperate to get it (they must give something to receive
something). Supposedly this is a "level playing field" but in reality it is not, simply
because some command vastly greater resources than others.
 the combination of relations of production and exchange, in the general process of
competition, in which competitors have an interest in hiding certain information,
while presenting themselves outwardly in the most advantageous way. Specifically,
people are placed in the position where they both have to compete and to cooperate
with each other at the same time, at a very advanced (or at least civilized) level, and
to reconcile this predicament involves them in masking. This requirement exists in
all kinds of types of society, but in bourgeois society it takes specific forms,
reflecting the element of financial gain which is involved in the way people are
relating or are related.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx & Engels had stated that:

This "naked self-interest" seems to contradict the idea of "masking" in bourgeois society.
Supposedly market trade creates transparency and an "open society" of free citizens. In reality,
Marx & Engels claim, it does not. The "nakedness" may not reveal very much other than the
requirements of trade; it is just that the cultural patterns of what is hidden and what is revealed
differ from feudal society and ancient society. Even in "naked commerce", the possible methods
of "masking" what one is, what one represents or what one does, are extremely diverse. Human
languages and numerical systems, for example, offer very subtle distinctions of meaning that can
"cover up" something, or present it as different from what it really is.

Sources of the concept

The Greek Aristotelian philosopher Theophrastus (circa 371-287 BC) is credited with being the
first in the West to define human character in terms of a typology of personal strengths and
weaknesses. Indeed, Marx’s idea of character masks appears to have originated in his doctoral
studies of Greek philosophy. Independently from Marx, Jean Paul also used the concept. Perhaps
the concept was also inspired by Hegel's discussion of masks in his The Phenomenology of

The shift in Marx’s use of the concept, from dramaturgy and philosophy to political and
economic actors, was in addition probably influenced by his well-known appreciation of drama,
including the plays of Goethe and Shakespeare (mentioned in Das Kapital), the novels of Miguel
de Cervantes and Honoré de Balzac, Dante's and Heinrich Heine's poetry and, possibly, the
Italian Commedia dell’arte (troupes of actors, each with a specific role, who travelled through
Europe since the mid-16th century and improvised scenarios or skits on stage using masks).
Certainly, European writers and thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries (the era of the
Enlightenment) were very preoccupied with human character and characterology, many different
typologies being proposed; human character was increasingly being defined in a secular way,
independent of virtues and vices defined by religion (exemplified respectively by saints and
sinners). The growth of commerce and commercial calculation created a new level of human
behavioural complexity and motivations, which could not easily be captured in terms of
theological categories (or only in a supremely abstract way, rather remote from real life).
Criticizing Hegel's philosophy of justice in 1843, Marx concludes:

The first known reference by Marx to character masks in a publication appears in an 1846
circular which Marx drafted as an exile in Brussels. It occurs again in his polemic against Karl
Heinzen in 1847, called Moralizing criticism and critical morality and in part 5 of a satirical
piece written in 1852 called Heroes of the Exile.

In chapter 4 of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), a story about the sovereign’s
dissolution of the French legislative assembly in 1851 in order to reign as imperial dictator,
Marx describes how Bonaparte abandoned one character mask for another, after dismissing the
Barrot-Falloux Ministry in 1849. In this story, character masks figure very prominently. Contrary
to Hegel's belief that states, nations, and individuals are all the time the unconscious tools of the
world spirit at work within them, Marx insists that:

The concept is subsequently also mentioned five times in Capital, Volume I, and once in Capital,
Volume II; here the reference is specifically to economic character masks, not political character
masks. However, both the official Moscow translation of Capital, Volume I into English
(essentially the 1887 English edition translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling), as well
as the revised 1976 Penguin translation of Capital, Volume I into English by Ben Fowkes,
deleted all reference to character masks, substituting a non-literal translation which is not
accurate. The translation by David Fernbach in the Penguin edition of Capital, Volume II is

Marx’s concept of character masks has therefore been little known in the English-speaking
world, except through the translated writings of the Frankfurt School and other (mainly German
or Austrian) Marxists using the term. Tom Bottomore’s sociological dictionary of Marxist
thought has no entry for the important concept of character masks. The Penguin Dictionary of
Critical Theory likewise does not refer to it. David Harvey, the world-famous New Left
popularizer of Marx's writings, does not mention the concept at all in works such as his The
Limits to Capital. However, Dieter Claessens mentions the concept in his 1992 Lexikon and the
more recent German-language Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism has a substantive entry
for character masks by Wolfgang Fritz Haug. Haug suggests that the conjunction of “character”
and “mask” is “specifically German”, since in the French, English, Spanish, and Italian editions
of Capital, Volume I, the term “mask”, "bearer" or “role” is used, but not “character mask”. But
since “character mask” is a technical term in theatre and costume hire, it is not “specifically
German”, and most existing translations are simply inaccurate.

Translation issues in Das Kapital

The relevant five passages in Marx's Capital, Volume I, with the translation corrected to restore
the original literal meaning according to the German edition, are the following (the page
references provided in the notes are to the Penguin edition in English):

In Capital, Volume II, there is also the following passage:

In Capital, Volume III, Marx does not explicitly refer to character masks. He only notes, that the
theories of the political economists invert cause and effect, means and ends, as well as objects
and subjects, which has the result that the capitalist system can no longer be understood in an
theoretically integrated way, even though people experience it all in one go, as a total
experience. Marx aims to show that this misapprehension is the natural effect of the observable
form taken by business relations, which mask the real social relations involved. The overall
result, he suggests, is a mosaic of eclectic, fragmented theories which mask the real essence of
the matter - they suffice for pragmatic policy purposes perhaps, within the limits of their
application, but are scientifically incoherent from the point of view of explaining the capitalist
system as a whole.

Marx’s argument in Das Kapital

In the Preface to the first edition of Capital, Volume I, Marx noted explicitly:

He goes on to explain why:

Marx's idea is, that in order to survive at all, human beings necessarily depend on co-operative
social relations; if they did not enter into these social relations, they would be dead as a doornail.
By that very fact, social roles are conferred on them, whatever they might think about that.
Another way of putting this is, that individuals can exist as individuals only in relation to other
individuals, and, as they interact, they place each other in roles, whether consciously or

Marx’s subsequent argument about character masks in capitalism can be summarized in six
 Roles: The first step in his argument is that when people engage in trade, run a
business or work in a job, they adopt and personify (personally represent) a certain
function, role or behaviour pattern which is required of them to serve their
obligations; their consent to the applicable rules is assumed to succeed in activities.
They have to act this way, because of the co-operative relationships they necessarily
have to work with in the division of labour. People have to conform to them,
whether they like it or not. To work together, they have to work together.
Subjectively they may know very well that this is the case, and they may indeed be
required to know it in order to function; nevertheless, these social relationships are a
real constraint, which they cannot simply “jump out of”. They are initially born into
these social relationships, and “socialized” into them in the process of becoming
“well-adjusted adults” - to the point where they internalize their meaning, and accept
them as a natural reality. They are part of a class-divided social order already before
they are able to know what it means. Consequently, they can learn to act
spontaneously and automatically in a way consistent with these social relations, even
if that is not always an unproblematic process (the cultural notions which different
social classes regard as normal and appropriate may clash).

 Interests: The second step in his argument is that in acting according to an

economic function, employees serve the impersonal (business, legal or political)
interests of an abstract authority, which may have little or nothing to do with their
own personal interests. They have to keep the two kinds of interests separated, and
“manage them” appropriately in a “mature, professional” way – perhaps with a
poker face. In this way, they “personify” or “represent” interests, and who they
personally are, may well be completely irrelevant to that – it is relevant only to the
extent that their true personality fits with the role (“the right person for the right
job”, or “the function creates the organ”). People are slotted into functions insofar as
they have characteristics which are at least compatible with the functions. They
always have a choice in how they perform their role and how they act it out, but they
have no choice about taking it on. If they succeed in their role, they can advance
their position or career, but if they fail to live up to it, they are demoted or fired.
Capitalism is about making money, and to make money, people have accept and to
take on certain roles; if they did not make money, they would become destitute, or
be completely dependent on the charity of others or on social insurance. Human
individuality is then conceptualized in terms of the relationship between buyer and
 Masking: The third step in his argument is, that the practices just described
necessarily lead to the “masking” of behaviours and personalities, and to a
transformation of personality and consciousness. It is not just that people can rarely
be “all of themselves” while performing a specialized function in the division of
labour, and must also express something new and different. There are also many
competing, conflicting and contradictory interests at stake – and these must
somehow be dealt with and reconciled by the living person. Different interests have
to be constantly mediated and defended in everyday behaviour, with the aid of
character masks; these masks exist to mediate conflict. It means that people are
obliged or forced to express certain qualities and repress other qualities in
themselves. In doing this, however, their own consciousness and personality is
altered. To be part of an organization, or “rise to the top” of an organization, they
have to be able to “act out” everything that it requires in a convincing way, and that
can only happen if they either have, or acquire, real characteristics which are at least
compatible with it. That requires not just an “acculturation” process, but also
sufficient behavioural flexibility, intelligence, acumen and creativity - so that a
person does not inappropriately “fall out of the role” (in the movies, this is called a
blooper or an outtake). They actually have to “be” (personify) what the function
requires, their identity and the function must match sufficiently. Discord between
identity and function is tolerated only in contexts where it does not matter. The
relations of production defining the distinctive mode of production of a society
(organization, property rights, technologies) create types of character masks which
have an historically specific meaning. The masks which are accepted and credible in
one time or place, may not be in another.

 Inversion: The fourth step in his argument concerns an inversion of subject and
object. It is not just that the commercial relationships between things being traded
begins to dominate and reshape human behaviour, and remake social relations. In
addition, human relations become the property of things. Inanimate things
(commodities, services, financial claims, legal entities), and the relationships
between them, are endowed with human characteristics (or even a “soul”). They
become “actors” relating in their own right to which people much adjust their
behaviour, and they are also theorized in that way. A symbolic language and way of
communicating emerges, in which inanimate “things” are personified. A market (or a
price, or a stock, or a state etc.) is said to “do this, or do that” - it gains an
independent power to act. Marx calls this commodity fetishism (or more generally,
"fetishism"), and he regards it as a necessary reification of the symbolizations
required to traverse life’s situations in bourgeois society. It is necessary, because the
relationships between people are constantly being mediated by the relationships
between things, where any individual has little or no control over that. People have
to accept that, and work with it, like it or not. If however persons are treated as if
they are things, and things are treated as if they are persons, then the effect of that is,
that character masks may acquire greater weight, power and importance than the
persons behind them. It means that people are eventually unable to take their mask
off, as Marx himself suggests, even if they would like to, because the masks are
controlled by the business relationships between things being traded, and by broader
legal, class, or political interests. If they are actually unable to take the mask off,
they have effectively submitted fully to the power of abstract, impersonal market
forces and legal rules, or at least they accept, conform and obey these external
requirements fully; it rules their minds.

 Alienation: The fifth step in the argument is that on the world’s stage, the “dance of
masked people, and of the things they have endowed with an independent power to
act and relate” - in a reified “theatre of life” where the essence of the matter differs
from how it appears - leads to pervasive human alienation (the estrangement of
people from themselves, and from others in contacts which have become impersonal
and functional). It durably distorts human consciousness at the very least, and at
worst it completely deforms human consciousness. It mystifies the real nature, and
the real relationships, among people and things - even to the point where they can
hardly be conceived anymore as they really are. The masks influence the very way
in which realities are categorized. People’s theorizing about the world also becomes
detached from the relevant contexts, and the interpretation of reality then involves
multiple “layers” of meanings, in which “part of the story” hides the “whole story”.
What the whole story is, may itself become an almost impenetrable mystery, about
which it may indeed be argued that it cannot be solved. The real truth about a person
may be considered unknowable, but as long as the person can function normally, it
may not matter; one is judged simply according to the function performed - with the
aid of character masks, the pretence is kept up. In what Marx calls “ideological
consciousness”, interests and realities are presented other than they really are, in
justifying and defining the meaning of what happens. People may believe they can
no longer solve problems, simply because they lack the categories to “think” them,
and it requires a great deal of critical and self-critical thought, as well as optimism,
to get beyond the surface of things to the root of the problems.

 Development: the last step is, that Marx argues that effectively capitalist market
society develops human beings in an inverted way. The capitalist economy is not
primarily organized for the people, but people are organized for the capitalist
economy, to serve other people who already have plenty of wealth. In an
increasingly complex division of labour offering little job security, there is more and
more external pressure forcing people to act in all kinds of different roles, masking
themselves in the process. Yet, by that very fact, they also acquire more and more
behavioural and semiotic flexibility, and develop more and more relational skills and
connections. They have to “be” many different things, to survive. The necessity to
work and relate in order to survive – while producing a growing mass of capital
wealth – thus accomplishes the “economic formation of society” at the same time,
even if in this society people lack much control over the social relations in which
they must participate. It is just that the whole development occurs in an imbalanced,
unequal and uncoordinated way, in which the development of some becomes
conditional on the lack of development by others. Commercial interests and political
class interests ultimately prevail over the expressed interests of individuals. In the
periodic economic crises, masses of people are condemned to the unemployment
scrapheap, no matter what skills they may have; they are incompatible with the
functioning of the bourgeois system, “collateral rubbish” that is swept aside. Even
highly developed people can find that society regards them as worthless – which
quite often tends to radicalize their opinions (see extremism and radicalization).

A seventh step could in principle be added, namely a big crisis in society which sparks off a
revolution and overturns the existing capitalist system. In that case, it could be argued, the false
masks are torn off, and people have to stand up for what they really are, and what they really
believe in. But that is a possibility which Marx did not comprehensively theorize in Das Kapital.
His experience as an exile was only as commentator on the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris
Commune. He does not himself provide any clear picture of a society in which character masks
would become unnecessary (unnecessary, because everybody would be able to be naturally
themselves all the time). In Capital he comments only that:

In The Age of Extremes, the last sequel in a series of books, the eminent Marxist historian Eric
Hobsbawm describes the "tormented history" of the 20th century. It combined enormous
economic and population growth with a never-ending succession of wars, plagues, upheavals
and disasters. He bemoans the failure of prediction: how badly people have been able to
understand their own future. Arguably, however, this pessimism is itself a "mask", since one can
prove that at least some people accurately forecast each of the main historical events that
happened; the problem is not primarily with the forecasting, but whether the forecasts are taken
seriously. If people think they will lose more than they gain if the forecast is true, or if it
becomes known, they are likely to mask the forecast - i.e. a true, honest forecast may not be in
their interest, or they just don't want to believe it because it doesn't suit them. They want to
believe what is good for themselves, even if it masks the truth.

Engels on character masks

The "mask metaphor" also appears already in the early writings of Friedrich Engels, and his
influence on Marx is often underestimated. In 1894, Engels referred to character masks in his
Preface to Capital, Volume III - when rebutting a criticism of Marx's theory by Achille Loria.
This was 11 years after Marx died, and after a lot of effort to get Marx's manuscript to a
publishable standard. Rather unkindly and cuttingly, Engels wrote:

Sganarella and Dulcamara were originally characters in the Commedia dell'arte (Sganarelle is
also a mistrustful bourgeois character - in Molière's 1660 play Sganarelle, ou le Cocu imaginaire
- who believes his wife is cheating him, and Dulcamera is the itinerant medicine man -
essentially a quack - in Gaetano Donizetti's opera L'Elisir d'Amore). Leaving aside Engels's
personal attack, Engels's substantive sociological suggestion seems to be that:
 in a society's progressive, constructive era, its best characters come to the fore, and
no character masks are necessary for them.
 when society degenerates and submits to intolerable conditions, it not only gives rise
to all sorts of dubious, talentless characters who cannot lead the way forward, but
also society's dignity can only be sustained by masking off the social contradictions.
 based on comprehensive knowledge of a country and its national psychology, it is
possible to specify the types of personalities who exemplify the nature of the era.

The problem with this kind of argument is just that, in defining the meaning of what is
happening in society, it is very difficult to provide definite scientific proof that this meaning is
the objective truth. It remains an interpretation, which may make sense of things at a certain
level, without providing the whole truth. Engels's comment illustrates that the concept of
character masks is not infrequently used in a polemical way.

Engels, like Marx, also used the notion of a “mask” in the more general sense of a political
“guise” or “disguise”, for example in several of his historical analyses about religious
movements. Engels argues in Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany (1851) that:

In his article On the history of early Christianity (1894–95), Engels suggests that:

Marxist theories about character masks

In his biography of Marx, Franz Mehring refers to character masks, but more in the sense of
Weberian ideal types. The communist dramatist Bertolt Brecht made extensive use of neutral and
character masks in plays such as The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Person of
Szechwan, to support what he called "the alienation effect" (see distancing effect). Karl Renner
and Franz Leopold Neumann used the concept in the context of a sociological analysis of
bourgeois law.
György Lukacs referred to the “very important category of economic character masks”.
However he restricted the application of the idea to capitalists only, claiming that Marx had
considered capitalists as “mere character masks” – meaning that capitalists did not do anything
"without making a business out of it", given that their activity consisted of the correct
management and calculation of the objective effects of economic laws. Marx himself never
simply equated capitalists with their character masks; they were human beings entangled in a
certain life predicament, like anybody else. If Marx discussed capitalists purely in terms of their
function, that was because individual differences were irrelevant to what the function required
them to do - either they adapted themselves to the function, or failing that, could not function as
capitalists. At most one could say that capitalists had more to hide, and that some had personal
qualities enabling them to succeed in their function, while others lacked the personal
prerequisites. According to Lukacs, the character masks of the bourgeoisie express a “necessary
false consciousness” about the class consciousness of the proletariat.

In the post-war tradition of Western Marxism, the concept of character masks was theorized
about especially by scholars of the Frankfurt School, and other Marxists influenced by this
school, though it also appears in Marxist-existentialist thought, such as in the writings of Jean-
Paul Sartre.

Writing about the Marxist theorist Theodor W. Adorno, a leader of the Frankfurt School, Rolf
Tiedemann comments:

Adorno argues that Marx explained convincingly why the appearance-form and the real nature of
human relations often does not directly coincide, not on the strength of a metaphysical
philosophy such as transcendental realism, but by inferring the social meaning of human
relations from the way they observably appear in practical life - using systematic critical and
logical thought as a tool of discovery. Every step in the analysis can be logically and empirically
tested. The assumption is only, that these relations cannot mean "just any old thing", because
they require shared meanings in order to be able to function and communicate at all. These
shared presuppositions have an intrinsic rationality, because human behaviour - ultimately
driven by the need to survive - is to a large extent purposive (teleological), and not arbitrary or
random (though some of it may be). The apparent "irrationality" of emotions and desires is in
reality also strongly linked to human purposes, and therefore explicable. Feelings appear
"unreasonable" only because it is unclear what role they play in human motivations - if one has
never had a feeling, it is difficult to understand that feeling - but if an emotion or desire is
considered "inappropriate", that does not of itself mean that it isn't part of the total behavioural
strategy an organism with a nervous system has in coping with situations.

The human meanings are therefore not indeterminate, but determinate, being controlled by the
real things which people have to do in life. To achieve a goal and get something done, people
necessarily have to think in a certain way, or at least the possible variability of their thinking is
usually limited (see also parametric determinism). If there is a very great difference between
what they think and what they do, causing confusion, this can be solved by getting back to the
related practical activities. Philosophy is thereby "sublated", because the focus shifts from
abstract generalities to explaining the meaning of specific practical activity.

The Frankfurt School was especially interested in how capitalist market culture affects human
subjectivities and personal life, and the ways in which it might distort the “authentic self” and
estrange human relations. It asked question such as, "What human factors made Nazism
possible?". In this way, the German Marxist scholars tried to focus problems of the human
psyche, by relating them to the capitalist system which gives rise to them - a phenomenological
“science of the human subject” intended to avoid both psychologism and sociologism. They
were also concerned with how people might rebel against or liberate themselves from the
character-masks of life in bourgeois society, through asserting themselves authentically as social,
political and sexual beings.
 This type of analysis suggests that human alienation is never complete, because in
the end people cannot very well deny their true nature, no matter how cleverly they
mask themselves or manipulate their behaviour. If there is too much “masking”,
human processes become dysfunctional, and break down; in order to operate, the
symbol systems ultimately do require shared truths which are the same for all, or are
accepted by all. Nevertheless categories and distinctions can be contrived so that
some are included, and others are excluded - creating "insiders" and "outsiders". The
trick in capitalist society is just to understand the true motivation of others, while
masking your own. But while part of reality is masked, the truth is usually bound to
“leak out” in one form or another, anyway. The mask can hide the face, but it cannot
hide the movements of the whole body – Michel Foucault in fact claimed
provocatively that in contemporary Western culture, "the project of the science of
the subject has gravitated, in ever-narrowing circles, around the question of sex."
Others nowadays argue the issue is not really about sex as such, but about gaining a
meaningful, unmasked intimacy, or more generally, about gaining access to the
other, and to what the other has.

 The “human drama of life” in a world of masks then concerns the issue of whether
people can find a place in the world in which they can finally take their masks off,
and be truly themselves (a comedy ), or whether they remain trapped and die in an
estranged, inauthentic existence with their masks still on (a tragedy; the intermediate
variant is a tragicomedy). In this sense, "dramatizing" means acting out a human
predicament to engender a sympathetic understanding of it, to illuminate "a world"
in which people may live, so that a more objective, understanding appraisal of it is
possible. In postmodern thinking, overcoming the limitations of individual
understandings depends greatly on the willingness to "see it their way", or "stand in
their shoes". If the mismatches (dislocations between person and position) result
from “wrong” choices by the individual, the moral sentiment is to blame the
individual, but if the mismatches arise from uncontrollable circumstances, the
individual can hardly be blamed; in that case, the community or state of which he is
part may be held responsible, or the mismatches may be regarded as accidents (or
unsolvable "mysteries"). Consequently, the public cultural controversies of
bourgeois society typically converge on the question of how much control people
really can have, are allowed to have, or can be expected to have over their
circumstances. In liberal-democratic societies, it is primarily a debate about the
limits and potentials for human freedom in civil society - and how much can be, or
should be, tolerated; and about the entitlement to public funds by different
individuals, organizations and groups of citizens ("why they should, or should not
get the money"). Which positions seem credible, is influenced by the norms of social
classes and distinctive groupings in society; since they can change, ideas of
"normality" and "human rights" can also change. People have no excuse for not
enjoying life, if the resources are available for them to enjoy it; if they do not enjoy
it nevertheless, this is regarded as unreasonable and a personal failing (or even as

 The “masking” of an alienated life, and the attempts to counteract it, are thought of
in these Marxist theories as co-existing but contradictory processes, involving
constant conflicts between what people really are, and what they should be
according to some external requirement imposed on them – a conflict which is not
simply puberal, but which persists throughout life, and thus involves a perpetual
struggle from which people can rarely totally withdraw – because they still depend
for their existence on others, and have to face them, masked or unmasked. They
have no choice about being affected by the struggle, only about what side they
decide to take in it. Essentially it is a contestation of norms, which could be the
norms of social classes, ethnic groups, some influential lobby, managers etc.
Behind these norms, there are material interests (who gets the money, power,
status and access to resources). The distinctive pattern of these contradictory
processes is very much shaped by the overall culture of the epoch, based on the
given trading practices, organizational forms, the stock of ideas inherited from the
past, and the technologies used to produce things. It follows that different times
call for different character masks.

To the extent that the commercial and public roles impose heavy personal burdens, and little
space exists anymore “to be oneself”, people can experience personal stress, mental suffering
and personal estrangement (alienation), sometimes to the point where they “lose themselves”,
and no longer “know who they are” (identity crisis). There are then five main possibilities:
 People may continue to function routinely ("the silent compulsion of economic
relations"), sublimating, suppressing or masking the contradictions, perhaps in a
schizoid way, or by becoming withdrawn.
 People may learn flexibly to project many different "selves" to different people
and in different situations, as in Robert Jay Lifton's protean self.
 People may mutate, change abruptly or re-invent themselves, letting go altogether
of their old identity, and living according to a completely new identity, whether
voluntarily or because they are forced to do so.
 People may be unable to function socially anymore at all, because they cannot
reconcile their own way of being anymore with what is required of them – and
thus cannot “keep up pretenses”. Their self-contradictory situation may distort
their consciousness so strongly, that normal (or acceptable) behaviour breaks
down. This is likely to happen, especially if they are already vulnerable in some
relevant way.
 People can also take charge of their lives in the theatre of life, rejecting a victim
role. If they are no longer afraid, despondent or downhearted, and don't allow
themselves to be forced anymore into a role they hate, they can feel more free to
discover the life they want themselves. Or, they can engage in an identity politics
to assert who they really are, rejecting requirements which conflict with what they
consider to be their real identity. This "struggle for recognition" is analyzed in
modern times for example by Axel Honneth, who, however, attributes identity
problems to a reified intersubjectivity, rather than to the very structure of
capitalist organization, as argued by Karl Marx and György Lukács, or to a
master-servant relationship, as in Hegel. Honneth implies that people cannot
easily change the structure, but they can change themselves and the way they
relate. And it does not help, if they believe there is a structure which doesn't really

Ultimately, there exists no individual solution to such identity problems, because to solve them
requires the positive recognition, acceptance and affirmation of an identity by others – and
this can only happen, if the individual can “join in” and receive social acknowledgement of
his identity. Marx himself tackled this problem – rather controversially – in his 1843/44 essay
On the Jewish Question.

Some Marxists have politically lampooned the spectacle that, while some West European
governments (such as the French) aim to prohibit Islamic women from wearing headscarves,
niqāb and burqa (hijab), they are constantly "masking" what they do themselves, even
although it may not involve a piece of cloth. The suggestion is that officials "cannot see the
wood for the trees", or that there is an exaggerated fear of not being able to see something.
Others argue the fears are justified. For example, the Dutch media personality Theo van
Gogh, always eager to "take the mask off everything" while reaching out to the Other, was
murdered in Amsterdam in 2004 by Mohammed Bouyeri sometime after van Gogh screened a
short film attacking the attitude of Islam towards women.

Much of the scientific controversy about the concept of character masks centres on Marx’s
unique dialectical approach to analyzing the forms and structure of social relations in the
capitalist system: in Das Kapital, he had dealt with persons (or “economic characters”) only
insofar as they personified or symbolized - often in a reified way - economic categories, roles,
functions and interests (see above). Evidently Marx felt justified in this approach, because he
considered that the capitalist market system really and necessarily required the reification of
human relations in order to operate. That stumped many readers.

According to Marx, the capitalist system functioned as a “system”, precisely because the
bourgeois relations of production and trade, including property rights, were imposed on
people whether they liked it or not. They had to act and conform in a specific way to survive
and prosper, and could not very well jump out of the ways in which they were related. As the
mass of capital produced grew larger, and markets expanded, these bourgeois relations
spontaneously reproduced themselves on a larger and larger scale, be it with the assistance of
state aid, regulation or repression. However, many authors have argued that this approach
leaves many facets of capitalist social relations unexplained.

Marx’s concept of character masks has been interrogated by scholars primarily in the
German-language literature (see references). Werner Sombart stated gruffly in 1896 (two
years after Capital, Volume III was published) that:

The historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has recorded how, in the Soviet Union,

Those who supported the revolution and its communist leadership were politically defined as
"proletarian" and those who opposed it were defined as "bourgeois". Abandoning bourgeois
and primitive norms, and becoming a cultured, socialist citizen, was "akin to learning a role".
In the 1920s, the proletarian writers' association RAPP adopted the slogan "tear off each and
every mask from reality". This was based on a quotation from Lenin, who had said that the
"realism of Tolstoy was the tearing off of each and every mask"(sryvanie vsekh i
vsiacheskikh masok). The communist authorities kept detailed files on the class and political
credentials of citizens, leading to what historians call "file-selves".

Much later, in 1973 (16 years before Slavoj Žižek entered the intellectual scene) the German
New Left critic Michael Schneider claimed that:

According to the German educationist Ute Grabowski,

When in 1975 the German weekly Der Spiegel asked members of the Red Army Faction what
the murder of the social democrat Günter von Drenkmann (a high court judge in Berlin) by
the Movement 2 June on 10 November 1974 had accomplished, they replied:

Questions subsequently arose about ten issues:

 whether behaviour is in truth an "act" or whether it is "for real", and how one
could know or prove that.
 whether character exists at all, if "masks mask other masks" in an endless series.
 how people make other people believe what their real character is (see also
 the extent to which masks "of some sort" are normal, natural, necessary and
inevitable in civilized society (or given a certain population density).
 whether there can be objective tests of character masks as a scientific concept, or
whether they are a polemical, partisan characterization.
 the extent to which the device of "character masks" is only an abstraction or a
metaphor, or whether it is a valid empirical description of aspects of real human
behaviour in capitalist society.
 what is specific about the character masks of capitalist society, and how this
should be explained.
 whether the "masks" of a social system are in any way the same as the masks of
 to what extent people are telling a story about the world, or whether they are
really telling a story about themselves, given that the mask may not be adequate
and other people can "see through it" anyway.
 whether Marx's idea of character masks contains an ethnocentric or gender bias.

Jean L. Cohen complained that:

Marx’s "big picture" of capitalism often remained supremely abstract, although he claimed
ordinary folks could understand his book
(he had tried to enliven the first volume with many examples and illustrations). Most people -
other than academics, artists and bankers etc. - do not usually think that abstractly, because
they see no point in it. In particular, it seemed to many scholars that in Marx’s Capital people
becomes "passive subjects" trapped in a system which is beyond their control, and which
forces them into functions and roles. Thus, it is argued that Marx’s grandiose portrayal of the
capitalist system in its totality is too “deterministic”, because it downplays the ability of
individuals as “active human subjects” to make free choices, and determine their own fate
(see also economic determinism). The theoretical point is stated by Peter Sloterdijk as follows:
:*A humanist theory was in fact pioneered by the non-Marxist psychologist Carl Gustav Jung.
In his psychological theory – which is not necessarily linked to a particular theory of social
structure – the persona appears as a consciously created personality or identity fashioned out
of part of the collective psyche through socialization, acculturation and experience. Jung
applied the classical term persona, explicitly because, originally, it meant the mask which the
actor bears, expressing the role he plays. The persona, he argues, is a mask for the "collective
psyche", a mask that ‘pretends’ individuality, so that both self and others believe in that
identity, even although it is really no more than a well-played role through which the
collective psyche is expressed. Jung regarded the “persona-mask” as a complicated system
which mediates between individual consciousness and the social community. But he also
makes it quite explicit that it is, in substance, a character mask in the classical sense known
to theatre, with its double function: both intended to make a certain impression to others, and
to hide (part of) the true nature of the individual. The therapist then aims to assist the
individuation process through which the client (re-)gains his "own self" - by liberating the
self both from the deceptive cover of the persona and from the power of unconscious
impulses. Jung's theory has become enormously influential in management theory; not just
because managers have to create an appropriate "management persona" (a corporate mask)
and a persuasive identity, but also because they have to evaluate what sort of people the
workers are, in order to manage them (for example, using personality tests and peer reviews).

:*In the antihumanist, structural-functionalist philosophy of the French Marxist Louis

Althusser, individuals as active subjects who have needs and make their own choices, and as
people who "make their own history", are completely eradicated in the name of "science". In
fact, Althusser recommended the psychological theory of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan
in the French Communist Party journal La Nouvelle Critique specifically as a "science of
the (human) unconscious". In the glossary of his famous book Reading Capital (co-written
with Etienne Balibar), Althusser announces:

::In this quasi-religious reification of what Marx says - which dominated Marxist theory for
decades - abstract forces like "relations of production", "political struggle" and "ideology"
are the active subject, and real people are not. Althusser seems to have believed that, aided by
the superior vantage point of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, he could raise himself subjectively
far above the human world, in order to view that world from an extraneous, "objective" and
super-human viewpoint.

::Such a malformed "totalizing perspective" - which, by destroying the dialectics of

experience, cannot reconcile the ways in which people "make history" and are "made by
history", and therefore falls from one contradiction into another - invites the objection that it
leads to totalitarianism. Specifically, in the bid of Marxist ideologists to grab state power,
extract a surplus from the workers and manage the introduction of the grandiose "new
order", armed with an ideological tyranny of categories, real human beings become
"expendable" and are trampled underfoot. It is alleged to be a kind of "upward mobility"
strategy utilizing sympathy for the oppressed and exploited, and social envy. This (fairly
cynical) interpretation leads logically to the idea that Marxism or Marxism-Leninism is itself
a character mask, by which leftists who are desirous of power and influence which they do
not have, disguise their real motives. This is hotly disputed by many Marxists, who claim
Marxism is something that grows out of their lives.

In response to this kind of problem, many critics have tried to theorize human subjectivity in
capitalist society more (the “human face” of capitalism) - sometimes using the concept of
“character masks” - to shed light on how people personally experience the social
contradictions and hypocrisies in capitalist society. Here, the meanings which people actually
have and use are a starting point for understanding the bigger picture. C. Wright Mills called
this approach the sociological imagination, the idea being that understanding the link
between "private troubles" and "public issues" requires creative insight by the researchers,
who are personally involved in what they try to study. The analytical question for social
scientists then is, how much the concept of “character masks” can really explain, or whether
the concept is made to do “too much work” (i.e. that its application is overextended or
overworked, as with Althusser).

For example, Jon Elster argued that:

Faced with the problem of understanding human character masks - which refers to how
human beings have to deal with the relationship between the "macro-world" (the big world)
and the "micro-world" (the small world) - scholarship has often flip-flopped rather uneasily
between structuralism and subjectivism, inventing all kinds of dualisms between structure and
agency. The academic popularity of structural-functionalism has declined, "role definitions"
have become more and more changeable and vaguer (even in job designations), and more and
more, the Althusserian argument has been inverted: human behaviour is explained in terms
of sociobiology. This is certainly closer to Marx's idea of "the economic formation of society
as a process of natural history", but often at the cost of "naturalizing" (eternalizing) social
phenomena which belong to a specific historical time - by replacing their real, man-made
social causes with alleged biological factors. On this view, humans are essentially, and
mainly, animals. Elias Canetti notes in this regard:

Slaves on this view are essentially beings placed outside human society, not social beings
proper, i.e. beings considered as not able or not permitted to relate in a human sense, and
therefore fitted only for slave work.
 In game theory, there are no human beings or animals, only actors, constraints,
opportunities and interests which are abstracted, defined and grouped in certain
ways according to assumptions; character masks are dealt with mainly in terms of
information asymmetry and opportunism. The game theorists' idea of rationality
is, that for any human activity, there are costs and benefits, and people will
typically act to maximize the benefit that accrues to themselves, and minimize
their costs (a type of utilitarianism). This assumption may not be completely true
at all times, but as a statistical generalization it is regarded as sufficiently valid to
enable successful prediction. Sometimes it is more beneficial and less costly to
cooperate, at other times it is more beneficial and less costly to compete, or
maintain a neutral, non-involved position. The basic limitation of this viewpoint,
often noted by juridical specialists, is just that cultured human beings have a
multiplicity of interests at one and the same time, which interact simultaneously
in ways which may not be so "rationally" explicable (unless one knows them
personally really well). What people think the costs and benefits are, how they
weigh that up, and how they respond to situations can be complicated, and involve
sub-conscious, spiritual, emotional and social influences. Thus, while game
theory can usefully shed light on what basic interests are involved, its picture of
what the real human motivations are (or were) may be either too simple, or too
complex. "Too simple", because vital parts of human character are ignored. "Too
complex", because reasons are invented which are not really there. This is
acknowledged by many modern managers and politicians, who therefore
sometimes hire in specialists in theatre, to explain or model the meaning of
human situations. In the United States, the actor Ronald Reagan became
president, and Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California; evidently
they had the "human skills" to perform the function convincingly. It suggests,
that the concept of "character masks" is not at all an "out-dated, 19th century
concept". Evidently people do feel a need for drama and narrative to understand
the world, and understand themselves better - even if it's only a TV soap. Without
this playfulness, life becomes shallow and boring, but more importantly, people
then no longer feel part of things, or don't believe anything much, which makes it
difficult to get them to co-operate or compete. In turn, that makes it difficult to
have control over them because they do not respond to anything much. On 17
March 2011, it was reported that Centcom is paying a Californian corporation to
develop an "online persona management service" allowing one US serviceman or
woman to control "up to 10 separate identities based all over the world". The
Centcom contract stipulates that each fake "online persona" must have a
convincing background, history and supporting details; up to 50 US-based
controllers will be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without
fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".

 The more recent postmodern criticism of Marx’s portrayal of character masks

concerns mainly the two issues of personal identity and privacy. It is argued that
modern capitalism has moved far beyond the type of capitalism that Marx knew.
Capitalist development has changed the nature of people themselves, and how
one's life will go is more and more unpredictable. There is no longer any clear
and consensual view of how “personal identity” or “human character” should be
defined anyway (other than by identity cards) and therefore, it is also no longer
clear what it means to “mask” them, or what interests that can serve. Roles are
constantly being redefined to manipulate power relationships, and shunt people
up or down the hierarchy. This is a postmodernist argument along the lines that
"people are what they do", or "who they think they are", and that could change
any minute. Human behaviour is then explained either as a biological effect or as
a statistical effect, estimated by probability theory. Some Marxists regard this
perspective as a form of dehumanization, which signifies a deepening of human
alienation, and leads to a return to religion to define humanity. On this view,
people cannot manage the forces they have created, and need God (see further
e.g. claims to be the fastest-growing religion). Modern information technology
and the sexual revolution, it is nowadays argued, have radically altered the whole
idea of what is “public” and what is “private”. Electronic devices nowadays
enable people to reach into the most intimate details of other people’s lives, with
much greater efficiency, and on a much greater scale. Increasingly, information
technology becomes a tool for social control; the powerful command information
about others, while releasing only just enough information to impose their
authority, and prove their own superiority. Some Marxists even refer to the spectre
of totalitarian capitalism. Human individuals then appear to be caught up in a
stressful battle to defend their own definition of themselves against the definitions
imposed or attributed by others, in which they can become trapped. It can lead to
post-colonial research. People become very concerned about whether things are
done in the right order, timing or sequence, or indeed whether their lives are lived
in the "right" sequence of activities; after all, if things are done in the wrong
order with the wrong timing, too much information may be released, or not
enough information is released. For their own story to be convincing in life's
theatre, the appropriate information has to be released at the appropriate moment.
If the wrong information leaked out at the wrong moment, their lives could be
disadvantaged or ruined (see also impression management).

That means that “masking” processes begin to play new roles, very different from what Marx
could conceive. Computer programmers nowadays refer to "interfacing", "input-masking"
and "error-masking", suggesting a whole new world of digital "masks" in cyberspace. It is
not just that employers and officials can bear “character masks”, but that ordinary workers
are motivated to mask themselves and their activities against what they perceive as intrusion
by businesspeople, officials and others who seek to acquire personal information about
citizens, in order to control, police, exploit or manipulate their lives. Thus, paradoxically,
many people nowadays believe that the pursuit of liberty requires masking one’s activities,
simply to maintain the personal privacy necessary to stay in control of one’s own life; the
more possibilities that modern technology offers to share information, the more circumspect
people become about giving information out. It creates a new stimulus for the autonomist
movement. It can also lead to the panic or paranoia of conspiracy theory, where people no
longer understand the real meanings and effects of human action, and believe their lives are
being manipulated by unseen, hidden forces - without being able to find out who they are.

Scholars noticed that, in the end, Theodor W. Adorno - who had argued there are "no
individuals" in modern society, only "persons" filling, and defined by, specific functions and
roles in capitalism - became quite pessimistic about the prospects of human society. In 1963,
Adorno wrote:

In The principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch however remained hopeful. Faced with the same
situation, one was pessimistic, the other optimistic.

If one successfully unmasks something, one understands it for what it really is, and can
handle it; inversely, if one understands something and can handle it, it is unmasked. Yet, as
Marx notes,
Economic analysis not only studies the total social effect of human actions, which is usually
not directly observable to an individual, other than in the form of statistics or television. The
“economic actors” are also human beings who create interactions and relationships which
have human meanings. Those meanings cannot be observed, they are in people’s heads, and
actively created in their social relationships.

People can of course watch television, read a wikipedia article on their laptop, or flick
magazines, where meanings are constructed ready-made for them (Adorno’s “culture
industry”). They can get so used to doing this, that they think the meaning is “out there”
rather than constructed in their own heads and bodies, and in their interactions with others.
The meaning then seems to be a property of things, so they say: “things have meaning” (see
also brainwashing). In reality, things have meaning, only because humans, or other sentient
organisms, ‘’can and do give meaning to them’’. Because people have brains, they can figure
out that meaning. And because they have free will (they can make their own choices), they
can also assert their own meaning, even if only negatively (non-acceptance or non-

To seek to “unmask” the capitalist system, Marx argued, is a work of critical-scientific theory.
It means ordering what we can observe, aided by theory and past experience, so that the real
meaning of the system is understood as a whole, and the puzzle is solved. The scientific goal is
reached, when one can prove with satisfaction, that one’s definition is so good, that it can
withstand the test of all relevant scientific criticisms. It is a big task. Marx warned his French
readers that:

Yet, since every meaning can always be challenged by another, and new meanings are formed,
reaching the whole truth is really a perpetual task. Its result always has to be defended
against competing claims. One can, in the end, only lay claim to the truth as one can know it,
from one’s own standpoint. Marx said he welcomed serious scientific criticism of his own
contribution, he was not afraid of it.

In the end, Marx argues, capitalism cannot be fully unmasked by means of pure scientific
thought only. That is because its ever-changing repertoire of masks is part of the very nature
of the system itself, and scientific discoveries can also be masked. They are masked, because
scientific pursuits are influenced by property rights and financial interests. They can get
stolen (or abused), although the theft may be represented as a "trade", where one party just
failed to pick up the goods (in an unpublished manuscript, Marx refers specifically to the
"theft of alien labour-time"). The idea is, "let other people do what they will to solve a
difficult problem, and we will just skim off the result for ourselves". If people depend on its
existence, or if it gets in the way of enjoying their lives, there is always another justification
for exploitation. Exploitation can occur under the motto of "love" and "peace". In bourgeois
theory, the "sanctity of private property" prevails, but in practice, as Marx argued at length, it
doesn't - what is sacrosanct is only one's own property, not someone else's. The right of a
person to his own creativity and its results has to be continually defended, and this can
involve the use of masking.
Capitalism unmasks itself in the course of development, when its internal contradictions
become so great, that they cause collapse - impelling the revolutionary transformation of
capitalism by human action into a new social order, amidst all the political conflicts and class
struggles. Scientific inquiry, Marx felt, should be an aid in the cause of human progress, to
ensure that the new social order emerging will be better than the old one, a real open society.
Human progress is achieved, to the degree that people really abolish the oppressions of people
by other people, and oppressions by the blind forces of nature.