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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
The Reversal of Perspective

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 23 "The Unitary Triad: Self-Realisation, Communication And Participation"

6. The project of participation

A society based on organised survival can only tolerate false, spectacular forms of play. But given the crisis of the spectacle, playfulness, distorted in every imaginable way, is being reborn everywhere. From now on it has all the features of social upheaval and, beyond its negativity, the foundations of a society of real participation can be detected. To play means to refuse leaders, self-sacrifice and roles, to embrace every form of self-realisation and to be utterly, painfully, honest with all one's friends (1). Tactics are the polemical stage of the game. Individual creativity needs an organisation concentrating and strengthening it. Tactics entail a certain kind of hedonistic foresight. The point of every fragmentary action must be the total destruction of the enemy. Industrial societies have to evolve their own specific forms of guerilla warfare (2). Diversion is the only possible revolutionary use of the spiritual and material values distributed by consumer society: supersession's ultimate deterrent (3).

1

Economic necessity and play don't mix. Financial transactions are deadly serious: you don't fool around with money. The elements of play contained within feudal economy were gradually squeezed out by the rationality of money exchanges. Playing with exchange means to barter products without worrying too much about strictly standardised equivalents. But from the moment that capitalism forced its commercial relationships on the world, fantasy was forbidden; and the dictatorship of commodities today shows clearly that it intends to enforce these relationships everywhere, at every level of life.

The pastoral relationships of country life in the high Middle Ages tempered the purely economic necessities of feudalism with a sort of freedom; play often took the upper hand even in menial tasks, in the dispensing of justice, in the settling of debts. By throwing the whole of everyday life onto the battlefield of production and consumption, capitalism crushes the urge to play while at the same time trying to harness it as a source of profit. So, over the last few decades, we have seen the attraction of the unknown turned into mass-tourism, adventure turned into scientific expeditions and the great game of war turned into strategic operations. Taste for change now rests content with a change of taste...

Contemporary society has banned all real play. It. has been turned into something only children do. And today children themselves are getting more and more pacifying gadget-type toys rammed down their throats. The adult is only allowed falsified and recuperated games: competitions, T.V. sport, elections, gambling... Yet at the same time it's obvious that this kind of rubbish can never satisfy anything as strong as people's desire to play - especially today when game-playing could flourish as never before in history.

The sacred knows how to cope with the profane and deconsecrated game: witness the irreverent and obscene carvings in cathedrals. Without concealing them, the Church embraced cynical laughter, biting fantasy and nihilistic scorn. Under its mantle the demonic game was safe. Bourgeois power, on the contrary, puts play in quarantine, isolates it in a special ward, as if it wanted to stop it infecting other human activities. Art is this privileged and despised area set apart from commerce. And it will stay that way until economic imperialism refits it in its turn as a spiritual supermarket. Then, hunted down everywhere, play will burst out everywhere.

It was in fact from art that play broke free. The eruption was called Dada. "The dadaist events awoke the primitive-irrational play instinct which had been held down an the audience", said Hugo Ball. On the fatal slope of plague and mockery Art dragged down in its fall the whole edifice which the Spirit of Seriousness had built to the greater glory of the bourgeoisie. So that today the expression on the face of someone playing is the expression on the face of a rebel. Henceforward, the total game and the revolution of everyday life are one.

The desire to play has returned to destroy the hierarchical society which banished it. At the same time it is setting up a new type of society, one based on real participation. It is impossible to foresee the details of such, a society - a society in which play is completely unrestricted - but one could expect to see the following characteristics:

- rejection of all leaders and all hierarchies;

- rejection of self-sacrifice;

- rejection of roles;

- freedom of genuine self-realisation;

- utter honesty.

*

Every game has two preconditions: the rules of playing and playing with the rules. Watch children at play. They know the rules of the game, they can remember them perfectly well but they never stop breaking them, they never stop dreaming up new ways of breaking them. But for them, cheating doesn't have the same connotations as it does for adults. Cheating is part of the game, they play at cheating, accomplices even in their arguments. What they are really doing is spurring themselves on to create new games. And sometimes they are successful: a new game is found and unfolds. They revitalise their playfulness without interrupting its flow.

The game dies as soon as an authority crystallises, becomes institutionalised and clothed in a magical aura. Even so playfulness, however lighthearted, never loses a certain spirit of organisation and its required discipline. If a play leader proves necessary, his power is never wielded at the expense of the autonomous power of each individual. Rather it is the focus of each individual will, the collective counterpart of each particular desire. So the project of participation demands a coherent organisation allowing the decisions of each individual to be the decisions of everyone concerned. Obviously small intimate groups, micro-societies, offer the best conditions for such experiments. Within them the game can be the sole ruler of the intricacies of communal life, harmonising individual whims, desires and passions. Especially so since this game will reflect the insurrectionary game played by the group as a whole, forced upon them by their intention to live outside the law.

The urge to play is incompatible with self-sacrifice. You can lose, pay the penalty, submit to the rules, spend an unpleasant quarter of an hour, that's the logic of the game, not the logic of a Cause, not the logic of self-sacrifice. Once the idea of sacrifice appears the game becomes sacred and its rules become rites. For those who play, the rules, along with the ways of playing with them, are an integral part of the game. In the realm of the sacred, on the contrary, rituals cannot be played with, they can only be broken, can only be transgressed (not to forget that pissing on the altar is still a way of paying homage to the Church). Only play can deconsecrate, open up the possibilities of total freedom. This is the principle of diversion, the freedom to change the sense of everything which serves Power; the freedom, for example, to turn the cathedral of Chartres into a fun-fair, into a labyrinth, into a shooting-range, into a dream landscape...

In a group revolving around play, manual and domestic chores could be allotted as penalties, as the price one pays for losing a point in a game. Or, more simply. they could be used to employ unoccupied time, as a sort of active rest; assuming, as a contrast, the value of a stimulant and making the resumption of play more exciting. The construction of such situations can only be based on the dialectic of presence and absence, richness and poverty, pleasure and pain, the intensity of each pole accentuating the intensity of the other.

In any case, any technique utilised in an atmosphere of sacrifice and coercion loses much of its cutting edge. Its actual effectiveness is mixed up with a purely repressive purpose, and to repress creativity is to reduce the productivity of the machine repressing it. Work can only be non-alienating and productive if you enjoy doing it.

The role one plays must be the role one plays with. The spectacular role demands complete conviction; a lucid role, on the contrary, demands a certain distanciation. One has to watch oneself over one's own shoulder, in much the same sort of way that professional actors like to swop jokes sotto voce in between two dramatic tirades. Spectacular organisation is completely out of its depth with this sort of thing. The Marx Brothers have shown what a role can become if you play with it. The only pity is that the Marx Brothers were stuck with the cinema. What would happen if a game with roles started in real life?

When someone begins to play a permanent role, a serious role, he either wrecks the game or it wrecks him. Consider the unhappy case of the provocateur. The provocateur is the specialist in collective games. He can grasp their techniques but not their dialectic. Maybe he could succeed in steering the group towards offensive action - for provocateurs always push people to attack here and now - if only he wasn't so involved in his own role and his own mission that he can never understand their need to defend themselves. Sooner or later this incoherence in his attitude towards offensive and defensive action will betray the provocateur, and lead him to his untimely end. Add who makes the best provocateur? The play leader who has become the boss.

Only desire to play can lead to a community whose interests are identical with those of the individual. The traitor, unlike the provocateur, appears quite spontaneously in revolutionary groups. When does he appear? Whenever the spirit of play has died in a group, and with it, inevitably, the possibility of real involvement. The traitor is one who cannot express himself through the sort of participation he is offered and decides to 'play' against this participation,. not to correct but to destroy it. The traitor is an illness of the old age of revolutionary groups. Selling out on play is an act of treachery which justifies all others.

2

Tactics. Tactics are the polemical stage of the game. They provide the necessary continuity between poetry as it is born (play) and the organisation of spontaneity (poetry). Of an essentially technical nature, they prevent spontaneity burning itself out in the general confusion. We know how cruelly absent tactics have been from most popular uprisings. And we also know just how offhand historians can be about spontaneous revolutions. No serious study, no methodical analysis, nothing approaching the level of Clausewitz's book on war. Revolutionaries have ignored Makhno's battles almost as thoroughly as bourgeois generals have studied Napoleon's.

A few observations, in the absence of a more detailed analysis.

An efficiently hierarchised army can win a war, but not a revolution; an undisciplined mob can win neither. The problem then is how to organise without creating a hierarchy; in other words, how to make sure that the leader of the game doesn't become just "the Leader". The only safeguard against authority and rigidity setting in is a playful attitude. Creativity plus a machine gun is an unstoppable combination. Villa and Makhno's troops routed the most experienced professional soldiers of their day. But once playfulness begins to repeat itself, the battle is lost. The revolution fails so that its leader can be infallible. Why was Villa defeated at Celaya? Because he fell back on old tactical and strategic games, instead of making up new ones. Technically, Villa was carried away by memories of Ciudad Juarez, where his men had fallen on the enemy from the rear by silently cutting their way through the walls of house after house. He failed to see the importance of the military advances brought about by the 1914-18 war, machine gun nests, mortars, trenches, etc. In political terms, he failed to see the importance of gaining the support of the industrial proletariat. It's no coincidence that Obregon's victorious army which wiped out Villa's Dorados included both workers' militias and German military advisers.

The strength of revolutionary armies lies solely in their creativity. Frequently the first days of an insurrection are a walk-over simply because nobody paid the slightest attention, to the rules by which the enemy played the game: because they invented a new game and because everyone took part in its elaboration. But if this creativity flags, if it becomes repetitive, if the revolutionary army becomes a regular army, then you can see blind devotion and hysteria try in vain to make up for military weakness. Infatuation with past victories breeds terrible defeats. The magic of the Cause and the Leader replaces the conscious unity of the will to live and the will to conquer. In 1525, having held the princes at bay for two years, 40,000 peasants whose tactics had given way to religious fanaticism, were hacked to pieces at Frankenhaussen; the feudal army only lost three men. In 1964, at Stanleyville, hundreds of Mulélists, convinced they were invincible, allowed themselves to be massacred by throwing themselves on to a bridge defended by two machine guns. Yet these were the same men who previously had captured trucks and arms consignments from the A.N.C. by pitting the roads with elephant traps.

Hierarchical organization and its counterpart, indiscipline and incoherence, are equally inefficient. In a traditional war, the inefficiency of one side overcomes the inefficiency of the other through purely technical superiority; in revolutionary war, the tactical poetry of the rebels steals from the enemy both their weapons and the time in which to use them, thus robbing them of their only possible superiority. But if the guerillas begin to repeat themselves, the enemy can learn the rules of their game; at which point counter-guerilla can, if not destroy, at least badly damage a popular creativity which has already hobbled itself.

*

If troops are to refuse to kow-tow to leaders, how can the discipline necessary for warfare be maintained? How can disintegration be avoided? Revolutionary armies tend to oscillate between the Scylla of devotion to a Cause and tile Charybdis of untimely pleasure seeking.

Stirring pleas, in the name of freedom, for restraint and renunciation lay the foundations of future slavery. But equally, premature rejoicing and the quest for small pleasures are always followed closely by the mailed fist of the bloody weeks of "restoring order". Discipline and cohesion can only come from the pleasure principle. The search for the greatest possible pleasure must always run the risk of pain: this is the secret of its strength. Where did the old troopers of the ancien régime find the strength to besiege a town, be repulsed ten times and still attack ten times more? In their passionate expectation of festivity - in this case, it must be admitted, largely looting and rape - of pleasure all the sweeter for having been attained so slowly. The best tactics go hand in hand with anticipation of future pleasure. The will to live, brutal and unrestrained, is the fighter's deadliest secret weapon. A weapon which should be used against anyone who endangers it: a soldier has every reason to shoot his officers in the back. For the same reasons, revolutionary armies will be stronger if they make each man a resourceful and independent tactician; someone who takes his pleasures seriously..

In the coming struggles, the desire to live life to the full will replace pillage as a motive. Tactics will merge with the science of pleasure - for the search for pleasure is already pleasure itself. Lessons in these tactics are given free every day. Anyone who is ready to learn, from his everyday experience, what undermines his independence and what makes him stronger, will gradually earn his colours as a tactician.

However, no tactician is isolated. The will to destroy this sick world calls for a federation of the tacticians of everyday life. It's just such a federation that the S.I. intends to equip technically without delay. Strategy is collectively building the launching-pad of the revolution on the tactics of individual everyday life.

*

The ambiguous concept of 'humanity' sometimes causes spontaneous revolutions to falter. All too often the desire to make man the heart of a revolutionary programme has been invaded by a paralysing humanism. How many times have revolutionaries spared the lives of their own future firing-squad, how many times have they accepted a truce which meant no more to their enemies than the opportunity of gathering reinforcements? The ideology of humanity is a fine weapon for counter-revolution, one which can justify the most sickening atrocities (the Belgian paras in Stanleyville).

There can be no negotiation with the enemies of freedom, there's no quarter which can be extended to man's oppressors. The annihilation of counter-revolutionaries is the only 'humanitarian' act which can prevent the ultimate inhumanity of an integrally bureaucratised humanism.

Lastly: power must be totally destroyed by means of fragmentary acts. The Struggle for purely economic emancipation has made survival possible for everyone by making anything beyond survival impossible. But the traditional workers movement was clearly struggling for more than that: for a total change in people's way of life. In any case, the wish to change the whole world at one go is a magical wish, which is why it can so easily degenerate into the crudest reformism. Apocalypticism and demands for gradual reform end up by merging in the marriage of reconciled differences. It isn't surprising that pseudo-revolutionary parties always end by pretending that compromises are the same as tactics.

The revolution cannot be won either by accumulating minor victories or by an all-out frontal assault. Guerilla war is total.

This is the path on which the S.I. is set: calculated harrassment on every front - cultural, political, economic and social. Concentrating on everyday life will ensure the unity of the combat.

3

Diversion. In its broadest sense, diversion is an all embracing re-entry into play. It is the act by which play grasps and reunites beings and things which were frozen solid in a shattered hierarchic array.

One evening, as night fell, my friends and I wandered into the Palais de Justice in Brussels. The building is a monstrosity, crushing the poor quarters beneath it and guarding, like a sentry, the fashionable Avenue Louise - out of which, some day, we will make a breathtakingly beautiful bombsite. As we wandered through the labyrinth of corridors, staircases, and suite after suite of rooms, we discussed what could be done to make the place habitable; for a time we occupied the enemies' territory; through the peer of our imagination we transformed the thieves den into a fantastic fun-falr, into a sunny pleasure dome, where the most amazing adventures would, for the first time, be really lived. In short, diversion is the basic expression of creativity. Day-dreaming diverts the world. People divert, just as Jourdain did with prose and James Joyce did with Ulysses, spontaneously and with considerable reflection.

It was in 1955 that Debord, struck by Lautréamont's systematic use of diversion, first drew attention to the virtually unlimited possibilities of the technique. In 1960, Jorn was to write: "Diversion is a game which can only be played as everything loses its value. Every element of past culture must either be reinvested in reality or be scrapped." Debord, in Internationale Situationniste no. 3, developed the concept still further: "The two basic principles of diversion are the loss of importance of each originally independent element (which may even lose its first sense completely), and the organisatlon of a new significant whole which confers a fresh meaning on each element." Recent history allows one to be still more precise. From now on it's clear that:

- as more and more things rot and fall apart, diversion appears spontaneously. Consumer society plays into the hands of those who want to create new significant wholes;

- culture is no longer a particularly privileged theatre. The art of diversion can be an integral part of any rebellion against the nature of everyday life;

- since part-truths rule our world, diversion is now the only technique at the service of a total view. As a revolutionary act, diversion is the most coherent, most popular and the best adapted to revolutionary practice. By a sort of natural evolution - the desire to play - it leads people to become more and more extreme, more and more radical.

*

Our experience is falling to pieces about our ears, and its disintegration is a direct consequence of the development of consumer society. The phase of devaluation, and thus the possibility of diversion, is the work of contemporary history. Diversion has become part of the tactics of supersession; an essentially positive act.

While the abundance of consumer goods is hailed everywhere as a major step forward in evolution, the way these goods are used by society, as we know, invalidates all their positive aspects. Because the gadget is primarily a source of profit for capitalism and the socialist bureaucracies, it cannot be used for any other ends. The ideology of consumerism acts like a fault in its manufacture, it sabotages the commodity coated in it; it turns what could be the material equipment of happiness into a new form of slavery. In this context, diversion broadcasts new ways of using commodities; it invents superior uses of goods, uses by which subjectivity can strengthen itself with something that was originally marketed to weaken it. The problems of tactics and strategy revolve around our ability to turn against capitalism the weapons that commercial necessity has forced it to distribute. Methods of diversion should be spread as an ABC Of The Consumer Who Wishes To Stop Being So.

Diversion, which forged its first weapons from art, has now become the art of handling every sort of weapon. Having first appeared amidst the cultural crisis of the years 1910-25, it has gradually spread to every area touched by social decomposition. Despite which, art still offers a field of valid experiment for the techniques of diversion; and there's still much to be learnt from the past. Surrealism failed because it tried to reinvest dadaist anti-values which had not been completely reduced to zero. Any other attempt to build on values which have not been thoroughly purged by a nihilistic crisis will end in the same way; with recuperation. Contemporary cyberneticians have taken their 'combinatory' attitude towards art so far as to believe in the value of any accumulation of disparate elements whatsoever, even if the particular elements haven't been devalued at all. Pop Art or Jean-Luc Godard, it's the same apologetics of the junk-yard.

Diversion, self-critical language, is our only possible means of communication. There are no limits to creativity. There is no end to diversion.

 

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