In the world of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the eponymous Buffy is heir to a millennia-old line of young women chosen to defend human civilization. Ages ago, Earth was ruled by powerful, malevolent demons; today’s vampires and the other supernatural creatures are remnants of that era who not infrequently attempt to retake their one-time realm. While the various vampires and demons and ancient evil gods have differing attitudes regarding how much they choose to hide their existence from the human world, the organizations protecting the planet from these threats seem to be universally clandestine. Buffy herself takes great pains to conceal the fact that she is The Slayer, both to protect herself and her loved ones from being deliberately targeted by monsters out to destroy her, and so that she can attempt to maintain some semblance of a normal life when she’s not out putting stakes through unbeating hearts. The Watchers’ Council, the global organization that trains Slayers and maintains international demon-fighting operations, is secretive and exclusive to a degree that makes the Illuminati look like Costco.
Buffy’s home base – Sunnydale, California – is located on a Hellmouth, a sort of dimensional rift that amplifies supernatural forces and serves as a lightning rod for demonic creatures. Thus there’s an unusually high degree of weirdness that typically goes on in the town, and yet the majority of its ordinary citizens remain comically oblivious to the true nature of the unsolved murders, mysterious disappearances, and brazen monster attacks that regularly occur. That tendency to ignore, rationalize, and/or forget about anything that violates their sense of normality has come to be referred to as Sunnydale Syndrome. So it would seem as if, for the most part, Buffy and the Watchers have done an effective job of keeping harsh reality away from the masses.
But is that really such a good thing? What is the real reason for leaving the population in the dark about of the evil legions lurking just beyond their field of vision? The “Weirdness Censor” trope in the work of Joss Whedon is not just a convenient way to tell stories about monsters while keeping the background world relatively relatable to the audience. It’s also a commentary on the very real tendency of people to disregard inconvenient facts, to avoid cognitive dissonance.
With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what we see is a dialectic between two competing conceptions of the theory of False Consciousness - in political philosophy, this is the phenomenon of people believing things about the structure of their society that are untrue; the lies are usually deliberate on the part of some higher-status group, but they are often enabled or reinforced by the deceived masses themselves. The primary argument about False Consciousness that’s put forward throughout Buffy is rooted in the dispute between the Marxist description of the idea verses that of classical economic philosopher Adam Smith.
To Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (credited with theorizing modern Socialism), False Consciousness is characterized by the elite capitalists, at the top of the economic class structure, causing the proletariat (working class) to believe that the structure of capitalist society is advantageous to everyone, while the reality is that capitalism is in fact exploitative and destructive to the proletariat and only beneficial to the owners of the means of production – i.e. the capitalists themselves. Because capitalists are in control of the institutional apparatus of society, including the media, their message becomes the normative ideology. Regular people are conditioned to believe that capitalism is the best socio-economic model, and that anyone who follows its rules correctly will inevitably “win,” and graduate from the lower economic classes to the higher ones. This is known as “upward mobility.”
But Marxism holds that upward mobility is a red herring, an idea introduced by capitalists to prevent the lower classes from rising up against them. If people think that they can improve their situation by out-competing their fellow workers, they will only end up creating more wealth for the capitalists – they make themselves desirable to the market by working longer hours for less money, which actually leaves them significantly behind. Still under the illusion of False Consciousness, the idea that they can improve their situation from within the system, they will go their whole lives creating wealth for capitalists while acquiring none of their own. It’s like trying to go up the down escalator; you end up having to run as fast as you can just to stay where you are.
In Buffy, part of the metaphor is very clear: the citizens of Sunnydale are the Proletariat, content to live their mundane lives. They’re oblivious to the fact that they’re actually just the lowest spot on the food chain – that to the vampires they’re nothing but walking vending machines. Despite the frequency of situations wherein they can observe their fellow humans being chewed up by this system, the people refuse to believe that there is anything wrong. It’s not just that they’re unaware of their own exploitation; at times they actively choose to ignore the reality because it’s too bizarre, horrible, and depressing to think about. As if what they don’t know can’t hurt them; as if, as long as there are no vampires, everything is fine.
Certainly the Marxist reading of False Consciousness here is the most obvious one, but analyzing the class structure in Buffy problematizes this. Sunnydale’s muggles are clearly the proles, but who are the capitalists? It would have to be the vampires and other demons, yet their behavior in the series doesn’t bear out that reading. They are not actively attempting to conceal their existence from humans at all – when they stay out of the limelight (and the sunlight) it is for purely practical purposes, and they don’t much care whether or not the humans know about them or not. There is no attempt by the vampires to affect Sunnydale’s ideology; the humans’ False Consciousness is purely self-imposed. Indeed, in the third season episode “The Wish,” we get a glimpse of an alternate universe in which Buffy never came to Sunnydale – the town is overrun by vampires, totally and blatantly under their control, and this appears to suit them just fine. Unlike the proletariat’s belief that he or she can improve his station by playing by the rules of capitalists, the functioning of human society is not essential for vampires’ exploitation of people to work.
On the contrary, it’s Buffy and the Scoobies, and the Watcher’s Council and so on – ostensibly the good guys – who are the ones trying so hard to keep the truth away from the humans. Under a Marxist reading, they ought to be the revolutionaries, the ones seeking to liberate the people from their hidden supernatural oppression. Buffy should be trying to raise consciousness, not suppress it. But the opposite is true. Secrecy is the trade of everyone who’s interested in protecting society, whereas honesty – or at least a total indifference to any pretense of dissimulation – is the province of the vampires.
Yet it also can’t be the case that Team Buffy are the capitalists in this reading – they’re neither representative of the dominant ideology nor do they have any particular influence on the world at large. The Watcher’s Council is powerful when we first meet them, but their power doesn’t derive from any governmental structure or control of the means of production. “The System” is clearly demonic – the metaphor becomes even clearer in later seasons of the Buffy spinoff Angel, where Angel (Buffy’s ex, the vampire with a soul) becomes CEO of the unrepentantly evil interdimensional law firm Wolfram & Hart. As a good guy, Angel attempts to use his newly gained influence to enact change from within the system. But Wolfram & Hart, capitalistic and opportunistic to the core, also has no compunctions about making very visible displays of their power when it suits them to do so, and they’re not particularly concerned about humans finding out what they’re up to. They rely on Sunnydale Syndrome (which extends far beyond Sunnydale), but they don’t promote or enforce it.
So Joss Whedon clearly wants us to look at False Consciousness in Buffy from a non-Marxist perspective. In fact it’s the argument of Adam Smith, one of the classic heroes of market capitalism, that Buffy’s portrayal of False Consciousness fits with best.
Smith, a Scottish philosopher who lived in the late Eighteenth Century, described a phenomenon akin to False Consciousness nearly a hundred years before Marxism’s description. In his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith admits that, indeed, the perceived necessity of our prevailing economic ideology is essentially a lie. Marx points out that the heart of capitalism lies in workers selling their labor to the owners of the means of production for less than that labor is worth, which is what allows capitalists to amass wealth while the actual work is done by others. Smith anticipates this, explaining that it’s not at all true that this sort of economic organization is the natural order of things, although the operation of society depends on the large majority of people believing that this is the case. A person could live quite effectively, Smith says, without any of trappings of economic ideology. If one were to spend all day every day providing for one’s own needs, one could do so. Self-sufficiency outside of competitive economic systems is absolutely possible, says Smith, however if everyone were to live that way it would only assure that there could be no such thing as civilization. Everything – literally absolutely everything – that is not strictly necessary for physical survival is a result of the fact that humans mistakenly believe that anything except that which is strictly necessary for physical survival is nevertheless necessary. That is to say: all culture is a result of this delusion. Any able-bodied adult is hypothetically capable of producing all the food they need to go on living, protect themselves from predators, etc. But meaning is something else. Co-operation, the division of labor that leads to the capability to create things that no individual person could possibly create – the logical and inevitable extension of which is of course capitalism – derives from a kind of false consciousness, the idea that If I can do X, Y, and Z better than anyone else, I can be better off than I am in some essential way. When we recognize that our strengths compliment someone else’s weaknesses, and vice versa, we’re able to enter into social structures that are intended to be for our mutual benefit. This situation certainly can and is exploited. But its necessary presupposition is that providing for oneself at 100% efficiency is not worth it, and that selling one’s labor for less than it may be worth in some objective sense actually provides more benefit. Cooperation and competition are not only two sides of the same coin, but amplify each other. To Marx, False Consciousness is a way for the higher classes to rig a zero-sum game in their own favor. To Smith, False Consciousness’s potential profits, both material and not, are practically unlimited.
The upshot is that, false as our consciousness may be, art would be impossible without it. Animals in the wild don’t do anything but struggle to survive for their entire lives. Without our sense of False Consciousness, Smith says, humans would be exactly the same. Buffy the Vampire Slayer could not exist if a very large number of people did not work together to create it rather than each and every one of them growing or hunting enough food to survive outside of “exploitative” systems like capitalism. Marx and Smith both admit that we’re operating under a delusion. Marx, however, holds that this delusion oppresses us, while Smith insists that it frees us.
Under Smith’s theory, it’s easy to conceptualize Buffy’s message about False Consciousness. The people of Sunnydale are absolutely deluded. They willfully ignore the reality of their situation. But they have to. If they acknowledged the truth, if they paid any attention to the man behind the curtain, the world would not be a better place: civilization would collapse. The vampires know this, Wolfram & Hart know this, but they don’t care. Buffy and her team know this, the Watcher’s Council know this, and that’s the reason they’re so intent on keeping humanity in the dark. In classic Lovecraftian style, the reality of human existence is too horrific to contemplate. Art, science, religion, technology, magic – it’s all an outgrowth of this belief that something better is possible. That if we keep on running we can reach the top of the down escalator. Ultimately, maybe we can’t. But pretending that we can is what makes life not just bearable but noble.