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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
Impossible Communication or Power as Universal Mediation

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 7 "The Age of Happiness"

The contemporary welfare state belatedly provides the guarantees of survival which were demanded by the disinherited members of the production society of former days (1). Richness of survival entails the pauperisation of life (2). Purchasing power is licence to purchase power, to become an object in the order of things. The tendency is for both oppressor and oppressed to fall, albeit at different speeds, under one and the same dictatorship: the dictatorship of consumer goods (3).

1

The face of happiness vanished from art and literature as it began to be reproduced along endless walls and hoardings, offering to each particular passerby the universal image in which he is invited to recognize himself.

Three cheers for Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham: happiness is not a myth! "The more we produce, the better we shall live," writes the humanist Fourasti*, and another genius, general Eisenhower, takes up the refrain: "to save the economy, we must buy, buy anything." Production and consumption are the dugs of modern society. Thus suckled, humanity grows in strength and beauty: rising standards of living, all mod. cons, a choice of entertainments, culture for all, the comfort of your dreams. On the horizon of the Khrushchev report, the rosy dawn of Communism is breaking at last, a new era heralded by two revolutionary decrees: the abolition of taxes and free transport for all. Yes, the golden age is in sight; or rather within spitting distance.

In this upheaval one thing has disappeared: the proletariat. Where on earth can it be? Spirited away? Gone underground? Or has it been put in a museum? Sociologi disputant. We hear from some quarters that in the advanced industrial countries the proletariat no longer exists, what with all these stereograms, TV sets, slumberland mattresses, mini-cars, tower blocks and bingo halls. Others denounce this as a sleight of hand and indignantly point out a few remaining workers whose low wages and wretched conditions do undeniably evoke the 19th century. "Backward sectors", comes the retort, "in the process of reabsorption". Can you deny that the direction of economic development is towards Sweden, Czechoslovakia, the welfare state, and not towards India?

The black curtain rises: the hunt is on for the starving, for the last of the proletarians. The prize goes to the one who sells him his car and his mixer, his bar and his home library; the one who teaches him to see himself in the leering hero of an advertisement that reassures him: "You smile when you smoke Cadets."

And happy, happy humanity so soon to receive the parcels which were redirected to them at such great cost by the rebels of the nineteenth century. The insurgents of Lyon and Fourmies have certainly proved luckier dead than alive. The millions of human beings who were shot, tortured, jailed, starved, treated like animals and made the objects of a conspiracy of ridicule can sleep in peace in their communal graves, for at least the struggle in which they died has enabled their descendants, isolated in their air-conditioned rooms, to believe on the strength of their daily dose of television that they are happy and free. The Communards went down, fighting to the last, so that you too could own a Philips hi-fi stereo system. A fine future, and one to realize all the dreams of the past, there is no doubt about it.

Only the present is left out of the reckoning. Ungrateful and uncouth, the younger generation doesn't want to know about this glorious past which is offered as a free gift to every consumer of Trotskyist-reformist ideology. They claim that to make demands means to make demands for the here and now. They recall that the meaning of past struggles is rooted in the present of the men who fought them, and that despite different historical conditions they themselves are living in the same present. In short, one might say that radical revolutionary currents are inspired by one unchanging project: the project of being a whole man, a will to live totally which Marx was the first to provide with scientific tactics. But these are pernicious theories which the holy churches of Christ and Stalin never miss a chance to condemn. More money, more fridges, more holy sacraments and more GNP, that's what is needed to satisfy our revolutionary appetites.

Are we condemned to the state of well-being? Peace-loving citizens will inevitably deplore the forms taken by the opposition to a programme which everybody agrees with, from Khrushchev to Schweitzer, from the Pope to Fidel Castro, from Aragon to the late Mr. Kennedy.

In December 1956, a thousand young people ran wild in the streets of Stockholm, setting fire to cars, smashing neon signs, tearing down hoardings and looting department stores. At Merlebach, during a strike called to force the mine-owners to bring up the bodies of seven miners killed by a cave-in, the workers set about the cars parked at the pit head. In January 1961, strikers in Liege burned down the Guillemins station and destroyed the offices of the newspaper La Meuse. Seaside resorts in England and Belgium were devastated by the combined efforts of hundreds of mods and rockers in March 1964. In Amsterdam (1966) the workers held the streets for several days. Not a month goes by without a wildcat strike which pits the workers against both employers and union bosses. Welfare State? The people of Watts have given their answer.

A Ford worker summed up his difference of opinion with the B.F.Skinners, Doxiadis', Lord Robenses, Norbert Weiners and other watchdogs of the future in the following terms: "Since 1936 I have been fighting for higher wages. My father before me fought for higher wages. I've got a TV, a fridge and a Cortina. If you ask me it's been a dog's life from start to finish."

In action, as in words, the new poetry just doesn't get on with the Welfare State.

2

In the kingdom of consumption the citizen is king. A democratic monarchy: equality before consumption, fraternity in consumption, and freedom through consumption. The dictatorship of consumer goods has finally destroyed the barriers of blood, lineage and race; this would be good cause for celebration were it not that consumption, by its logic of things, forbids all qualitative difference and recognizes only differences of quantity between values and between men. The distance has not changed between those who possess a lot and those who possess a small but ever-increasing amount; but the intermediate stages have multiplied, and have, so to speak, brought the two extremes, rulers and ruled, closer to the same centre of mediocrity. To be rich nowadays merely means to possess a large number of poor objects.

Consumer goods are tending to lose all use-value. Their nature is to be consumable at all costs. (Recall the recent vogue of the nothing-box in the USA: an object which cannot be used for anything at all.) And as General Eisenhower so candidly explained, the present economic system can only be rescued by turning man into a consumer, by identifying him with the largest possible number of consumable values, which is to say, non-values, or empty, fictitious, abstract values. After being "the most precious kind of capital", in Stalin's happy phrase, man must now become the most valued of consumer goods. The stereotyped images of the star, the poor man, the communist, the murderer-for-love, the law-abiding-citizen, the rebel, the bourgeois, will replace man, putting in his place a system of multicopy categories arranged according to the irrefutable logic of robotisation. Already the idea of 'teenager' tends to define the buyer in conformity with the product he buys, to reduce his variety to a varied but limited range of objects in the shops, (Records, guitars, Levis...). You are no longer as old as you feel or as old as you look, but as old as what you buy. The time of production-society where 'time is money' will give way to the Time of consumption, measured in terms of products bought, worn out and thrown away: a Time of premature old age, which is the eternal youth of trees and stones.

The truth of the concept of immiseration has been demonstrated today not, as Marx expected, in the field of goods necessary for survival, since these, far from becoming scarce, have become more and more abundant; but rather in relation to survival itself, which is always the enemy of real life.

Affluence had seemed to promise to all men the Dolce Vita previously lived by the feudal aristocracy. But in the event affluence and its comforts are only the children of capitalist productivity, children doomed to age prematurely as soon as the marketing system has transformed them into mere objects of passive consumption. Work to survive, survive by consuming, survive to consume, the hellish cycle is complete. In the realm of economism, survival is both necessary and sufficient. This is the fundamental truth of bourgeois society. But it is also true that a historical period based on such an antihuman truth can only be a period of transition, an intermediate stage between the unenlightened life that was lived by the feudal masters and the life that will be constructed rationally and passionately by the masters without slaves. Only thirty years are left if we want to end the transitional period of slaves without masters before it has lasted two centuries.

3

With regard to everyday life, the bourgeois revolution looks more like a counter-revolution. The market in human values has rarely known such a collapse. The aristocratic life with its wealth of passions and adventures suffered the fate of a palace partitioned off into furnished rooms, gloomy bedsitters whose drabness is made even more unbearable by the sign outside which proclaims, like a challenge hurled at the Universe, that this is the age of freedom and well-being. From now on hatred gives way to contempt, love to cohabitation, the ridiculous to the stupid, passion to sentimentality, desire to envy, reason to calculation, the taste for life to the fear of death. The utterly contemptible morality of profit came to replace the utterly detestable morality of honour; the mysterious and perfectly ridiculous power of birth and blood gave way to the perfectly ubuesque power of money. The children of August 4th 1789 took bankers' orders and sales charts as their coats of arms; mystery was now enshrined in their ledgers.

Wherein lies the mystery of money? Clearly in that it represents a sum of beings and things that can be appropriated. The nobleman's coat of arms expresses God's choice and the real power exercised by his elect; money is only a sign of what might be acquired, it is a draft on power, a possible choice.

The feudal God, who appeared to be the basis of the social order, was really only its magnificent crowning excuse. Money, that odourless god of the bourgeois, is also a mediation; a social contract. It is a god swayed not by prayers or by promises but by science and specialist know-how. Its mystery no longer lies in a dark and impenetrable totality but in the sum of an infinite number of partial certainties; no longer in the quality of lordship but in the number of marketable people and things (for example, what a hundred thousand pounds puts within the reach of its possessor).

In the economy of free-trade capitalism, dominated by imperatives of production, wealth alone confers power and honour. Master of the means of production and of labour power, it controls the development of productive forces and consumer goods and thus its owners have the pick of the myriad fruits of an infinite progress. However, as this capitalism transforms itself into its contrary, state-planned economy, the prestige of the capitalist playing the market with his millions fades away and with it the caricature of the pot-bellied, cigar-puffing merchant of human flesh. Today we have managers, who derive their power from their talent for organization; and already computers are doing them out of a job. Managers, of course, do get their monthly paychecks but do they do anything worthwhile with them? Can they enjoy making their salary signify the wealth of possible choices before them: building a Xanadou, keeping a harem, cultivating flower-children? When all possibilities of consumption are already organized, how can wealth preserve its representable value? Under the dictatorship of consumer goods, money melts away like a snowball in hell. Its significance passes to objects with more representational value, more tangible objects better adapted to the spectacle of the welfare state. Consumer goods are already encroaching on the power of money, because wrapped in ideology, they are the true signs of power. Before long its only remaining justification will be the quantity of objects and useless gadgets it enables one to acquire and throw away at an ever-accelerating pace; only the quantity and the pace matter, because mass-distribution automatically wipes out quality and rarity-appeal. From now on the ability to consume, faster and faster, great quantities of cars, alcohol, houses, TV-sets and girlfriends will show how far you've got up the hierarchical ladder. From the superiority of blood to the power of money, from the superiority of money to the power of the gadget, the nec plus ultra of Christian/socialist civilization: a civilization of prosaism and vulgar detail. A nice nest for Nietzsche's "little men".

Purchasing power is a license to purchase power. The old proletariat sold its labour power in order to subsist; what little leisure time it had was passed pleasantly enough in conversations, arguments, drinking, making love, wandering, celebrating and rioting. The new proletarian sells his labour power in order to consume. When he's not flogging himself to death to get promoted in the labour hierarchy, he's being persuaded to buy himself objects to distinguish himself in the social hierarchy. The ideology of consumption becomes the consumption of ideology. The cultural d*tente between east and west is not accidental! On the one hand, homo consomator buys a bottle of whisky and gets as a free gift the lie that accompanies it. On the other, Communist man buys ideology and gets as a free gift a bottle of vodka. Paradoxically, Soviet and capitalist regimes are taking a common path, the first thanks to their economy of production, the second thanks to their economy of consumption.

In the USSR, the surplus labour of the workers does not, strictly speaking, directly enrich their comrade the director of the enterprise. it simply strengthens his power as an organizer and a bureaucrat. His surplus-value is a surplus-value of power. (But this new-style surplus-value is nevertheless subject to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Marx's laws of economic life are confirmed today in the economy of life.) He earns it, not on the basis of money-capital, but on the basis of a primitive accumulation of confidence-capital gained by his docile absorption of ideological matter. The car and the dacha which are thrown in to reward his services to the Socialist Fatherland, to Output and the Cause, foretell a form of social organization in which money will indeed have disappeared, giving way to honorific distinctions of rank, a mandarinate of the biceps and of specialized thought. (Remember the special treatment given to Stakhanovites, to 'heroes of space' and scrapers of catgut and canvas.)

In capitalist countries, the material profit gained by the employer from both production and consumption is still distinct from the ideological profit which the employer is no longer alone in deriving from the organization of consumption. This is all that prevents us from reducing the difference between manager and worker to the difference between a new Jaguar every year and a mini lovingly maintained for five. But we must recognize that the tendency is towards planning, and planning tends to quantify social differences in terms of the ability to consume and to make others consume. With the differences growing in number and shrinking in significance, the real differences between rich and poor is diminishing, and mankind is levelled into mere variations on poverty. The culmination of the process would be a cybernetic society composed of specialists ranked hierarchically according to their aptitude for consuming and making others consume the doses of power necessary for the functioning of a gigantic social computer of which they themselves would be simultaneously the programme and the printout. A society of exploited exploiters where some slaves are more equal than others.

There remains the third world. There remain the old forms of oppression. That the serfs of the latifundia should be the contemporaries of the new proletariat seems to me a perfect formula for the explosive mixture from which the total revolution will be born. Who would dare to suppose that the South American Indians will be satisfied with land reform and lay down their arms when the best-paid workers in Europe are demanding a radical change in their way of life? From now on, the revolt against the State of Well-Being sets the minimum demands for world revolution. You can choose to forget this, but you forget it at your peril... as Saint-Just said, those who make a revolution by halves do nothing but dig their own graves.

 

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