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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
The Reversal of Perspective

by Raoul Vaneigem

Chapter 21 "Masters Without Slaves"

Power is the social organisation which enables masters to maintain conditions of slavery. God, State, Organisation: these three words reveal well enough the amount of autonomy and historical determination there is in power, three principles have successively held sway: the domination principle (feudal power), the exploitation principle (bourgeois power) and the organisation principle (cybernetic power) (2). Hierarchical social organisation has perfected itself by desacralisation and mechanisation, but its contradictions have increased. it has humanised itself to the extent that it has emptied men of their human substance. it has gained in autonomy at the expense of the masters; (the rulers are in control but it's the strings that make them dance), today, those in power are perpetuating the race of willing slaves, those whom Theognis said were born with bowed heads, they have lost even the unhealthy pleasures of domination. Facing the masters/slaves stand the men of refusal, the new proletariat, rich in revolutionary traditions. From these the masters without slaves will emerge, together with a superior type of society in which the lived project of childhood and the historical project of the great aristocrats will be realised (l) (3).

In the Theages Plato writes: "Each man would 1ike if posslble to be the master of all men. Or, better still, God." A mediocre ambition in view of the weakness of masters and gods. For if, in the last analysis, the pettiness of slaves derives from the allegiance to their rulers, the pettiness of rulers and of God Himself comes from deficiencies in the nature of those ruled. The master knows alienation by its positive pole, the slave by its negative pole; total mastery is equally refused both of them.

How does the feudal lord behave in this dialectic of master and slave? Slave of God and master of men - and master of men because he is slave of God, as the myth would have it - we see him condemned to blend within himself the disgust and respectful interest that he has before God, for it is to God that he owes his obedience, and it is from him that he derives his power over men. In short, he reproduces between God and himself the type of relationship that exists between nobles and king. What is a king? A chosen one among the chosen, and one whose succession generally occurs as a game in which equals compete. Feudal lords serve the king, but they serve him as his equals in power, they submit themselves to God in the same way as rivals and competitors.

One can understand why the masters of old were unsatisfied. Through God they enter into the positive pole of alienation; through those they oppress, into its negative pole. What desire could they have to be God, knowing the boredom of positive alienation? And at the same time, how could they not want to rid themselves of God, the tyrant over them? The "To be or not to be" of great men has always been expressed by the question, insoluble in their epoch, of how to deny God, and yet preserve Him, that is, to supersede and realize Him.

History bears witness to two practical attempts at such a supersession: that of the mystics and that of the great refusers. Meister Eckhart declared: "1 pray God to absolve me from God". Similarly, the Swabian heretics of 1270 said that they had raised themselves above God, and that, having attained the highest degree of divine perfection, they had abandoned Him. On another tack, the negative tack, certain strong personalities like Elogabalus, Gilles de Rais and Erszebet Bathory, strove, as one can see, to attain a total mastery over the world by the liquidation of intermediaries, those who were alienating them positively, their slaves. They approached the total man via a total inhumanity. "Against Nature". So the passion for an unbounded rule and the absolute refusal of constraints form the same single route, an ascending and descending road on which Caligula and Spartacus, Gilles de Rais and Dosza Gyorgy stand side by side, together yet separate. However, it is not enough to say that the integral revolt of slaves - I insist the integral revolt, and not its deficient forms whether Christian, bourgeois or socialist - unites with the extreme revolt of the masters of old. In fact, the will to abolish slavery and all its sequels (the proletariat, servants, submissive and passive men) offers a unique chance to the will to rule the world with no other limit than a reinvented nature, and the resistance of objects to their own transformation.

That chance is inscribed in the historical process. History exists because the oppressed exist. The struggle against nature, and then against the different social organisations of the struggle against nature, is always the struggle for human emancipation, for the total man. The refusal to be a slave is really what changes the world.

So what is the goal of history? History is made "under certain conditions" (Marx) by slaves against slavery. Thus it can only pursue one aim: the destruction of masters. For his part, the master never stops trying to escape from history, to refuse it by massacring those who make it, and who make it against him.

Some paradoxes:

1. The most human aspect of the masters of old resides in their claim to absolute mastery. Such a project implies the absolute blockage of history, and thus the extreme refusal of emancipation. That is to say, total inhumanity.

2. The desire to escape from history makes you vulnerable. If you try to flee you lose your cover, and are more easily attacked; a determined immobility can no more resist waves of attack by lived reality than it can the dialectic of productive forces. The masters are the sacrificial victims of history; from the height of the pyramid of the present, contemplating three thousand years of history, one can see them crushed by it, either in terms of a definite plan, a strict programme, or a line of force which allows one to conceive of a Sense of History (the end of the slave world, the feudal world and the bourgeois world).

Because they try to escape it, the masters slot themselves tidily in the drawers of history: they enter into linear temporal evolution in spite of themselves. On the other hand, those who make history, the revolutionaries, slaves drunk with total freedom, seem to act "sub specie aeternitatis", under the sign of the intemporal, driven by an insatiable taste for an intense life, pursuing their aim through various historical conditions. Perhaps the philosophical notion of eternity is linked with historical attempts at emancipation,.. perhaps this notion will one day be realised, like philosophy, by those who carry within them total freedom and the end of traditional history.

3. The superiority of the negative pole of alienation over the positive pole is that its integral revolt makes the project of absolute mastery the only solution. Slaves in struggle for the abolition of constraints reveal the moment through which history liquidates masters, and beyond history, there is the possibility of a new power over the things that they encounter, a power which no longer appropriates objects by appropriating people. But in the very course of a slowly elaborated history, it has been inevitable that the masters, instead of disappearing, have degenerated; there are no longer any masters, only slave-consumers of power, differing among themselves only in the degree and quantity of power consumed.

The transformation of the world by the productive forces was bound slowly to realise the material conditions of total emancipation, having first passed through the stage of the bourgeoisie. Today, when automation and cybernetics applied in a human way would permit the construction of the dream of masters and slaves of all time, there only exists a socially shapeless magma which blends in each individual paltry portions of master and slave. Yet it is from this reign of equivalent values that then new masters, the masters without slaves, will emerge.

I want in passing to hail de Sade. He is, as much by his privileged appearance at a turning point in history as by his astounding lucidity, the last of the great aristocrats in revolt. How do the masters of the Chateau of Selling assure their absolute mastery? They massacre all their servants and reach an eternity of delight by this gesture. This is the subject of 120 Days of Sodom.

Marquis and sans-culotte, D.A.F. de Sade unites the perfect hedonist logic of the grand seigneur badman and the revolutionary desire to enjoy without limitations a subjectivity which is at last freed from the hierarchical framework. The desperate effort he makes to abolish both positive and negative poles of alienation ranges him at once among the most important theoreticians of the total man. Its high time that revolutionaries were reading de Sade with the same care that they set about reading Marx. (Of Marx, as we know, the revolutionary specialists know mostly what he wrote under the pseudonym of Stalin, or at best of Lenin and Trotsky.) At any rate, nobody who wants to change daily life radically will be able from now on to ignore either the great refusers of power, or those masters of old who came to feel cramped in the power that God granted them.


Bourgeois power fed on the crumbs of feudal power. It is crumbled feudal power. Eaten away by revolutionary criticism, trodden underfoot and broken up, (without this liquidation ever reaching its logical conclusion - the end of hierarchical power), aristocratic authority survived the death of the aristocracy in the form of parody, the pain-stricken grin. Awkward and stiff in their fragmentary power, making their fragment a totality (and the totalitarian is nothing else), the bourgeois rulers were condemned to see their prestige fall apart at the seams, rotted by the decomposition of the spectacle. As soon as myth and authority lost their credibility, the form of government could only be either burlesque terror or democratic bullshit. O look at Napoleon's pretty children! Louis Philippe, Napoleon III, Thiers, Alphonse XIII, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. Franco, Salazar, Nasser, Mao, de Gaulle... ubiquitous Ubus in the four corners of the world spawning more and more cretinous miscarriages. Yesterday they still brandished their twigs of authority like Olympian thunderbolts; today the apes of power glean no more from the social scene than a little dubious respect. Certainly, the absurdity of a Franco is still lethal - no-one would dream of forgetting it - but one should always remember that the stupidity of power will be a deadlier killer than stupidity in power.

The spectacle is the brainscrambling machine of our penal colony, The master-slaves of today are its faithful servants, the extras and stage-managers. Who will want to judge them? They will plead not guilty and in fact they aren't really guilty. They don't need cynicism so much as spontaneous confessions, terror so much as acquiescent victims, or force so much as herds of masochists. The alibi of the rulers lies in the cowardice of the ruled. But now everyone is governed, manipulated as things by an abstract power, by an organisation-in-itself whose laws are imposed on the self-styled rulers. Things are not judged, they are just stopped from being a nuisance.

In October 1963 Monsieur Fourastié reached the following conclusions on the subject of the future leader: "The leader has lost his almost magical power; he is and will be a man capable of provoking actions. Finally, a reign of workgroups will develop to prepare decisions. The leader will be a committee president, but one who knows how to sum up and make decisions." (My italics). You can see the three historical phases characterising the evolution of the master:

1. The principle of domination, linked with feudal society.

2. The principle of exploitation, linked with bourgeois society.

3. The principle of organisation, linked with cybernetic society.

In fact, the three elements are inseparable; one cannot dominate without exploiting and organising at the same time; but their importance varies with the epoch. As one passes from one stage to the next, the autonomy and the role of the master wane and diminish. The humanity of the master tends towards zero, while the inhumanity of disembodied power tends towards infinity.

According to the principle of domination, the master refuses slaves an existence which would limit his own. With the principle of exploitation, the boss allows the workers an existence which fattens and develops his own. The principle of organisation classifies individual existences like fractions, according to their managerial or executive faculties. (A shop-steward would, for example, be defined in terms of long calculations involving his productivity, his representativeness, etc., as 56 per cent directing function, 40 per cent executive function and 4 per cent ambiguity, as Fourier would have said.)

Domination is a right, exploitation a contract, organisation an order of things. The tyrant dominates according to his will to power, the capitalist exploits according to the laws of profit, the organiser plans and is planned. The first wants to be arbitrary, the second just, the third rational and objective. The aristocrat's inhumanity is a humanity seeking itself; the exploiter's inhumanity tries to disguise itself by seducing humanity with technical progress, comfort and the struggle against hunger and disease; the cybernetician's inhumanity is the inhumanity which accepts itself. In this manner, the master's inhumanity has become less and less human. A systematic extermination camp is far more horrifying than the murderous fury of feudal barons throwing themselves into gratuitous war. And what lyricism there still is even in the massacres of Auschwitz compared with the icy hands of generalised conditioning which the cyberneticians' technocratic organisation reach out towards the future society, that is so close!

Make no mistake: it's not a matter of choosing between the "humanity" of a lettre de cachet and the "humanity" of a brain-washing. That's the choice between being hanged and being shot! I simply mean that the dubious pleasures of dominating and crushing underfoot tend to disappear. Capitalism formally introduced the need to exploit men without passionately enjoying it. No sadism, no negative joy of inflicting pain, no human perversion, not even the man "against nature". The reign of things is accomplished. In renouncing the hedonist principle, the masters have renounced mastery. It is the task of the masters without slaves to correct this self-denial.

What the society of production sowed is reaped today by the dictatorship of the consumable. Its principle of organisation merely perfects the real mastery of dead things over men. Whatever power remained to the owners of the instruments of production disappeared when their machines escaped them and passed under the control of the technicians who organise their use. Meanwhile, the organisers themselves are gradually ingested by the charts and programmes which they have so carefully worked out. The simple machine wil1 be the leader's last justification, the last support for his last trace of humanity. Cybernetic organisation of production and consumption must necessarily control, plan and rationalise daily life.

These small-time masters are the specialists, masters/ slaves who pullulate all over daily life. No one need worry, they don't stand a chance. Already by 1867, at the Congress of Basel. Francau, a member of the First International, was declaring: "We've been towed along by marquesses of diplomas and princes of science for far too long. Let's look after our own affairs and however inept we are we can't make more of a mess than what they've done in our name." Ripe words of wisdom, whose meaning grows as specialists proliferate and encrust individual life. Those who succumb to the magnetic attraction exercised by the huge Kafkaesque cybernetic machine are nicely divided from those who follow their own impulses and try to escape from it. The latter are the trustees of everything human, since from now on nobody can lay any clalm to it in the name of the masters of old. There are only things falling at the same speed in a vacuum on the one hand, and, on the other, the age-old project of slaves drunk with total freedom.


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