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

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 8 "Exchange and Gift"

The nobility and the proletariat conceive human relationships on the model of giving, but the proletarian way of giving supersedes the feudal gift. The bourgeoisie, the class of exchange, is the lever which enables the feudal project to be overthrown and superseded in the long revolution (1). History is the continuous transformation of natural alienation into social alienation, and the continuous strengthening of a contradictory movement of opposition which will overcome all alienation and end history. The historical struggle against natural alienation transforms natural alienation into social alienation, but the movement of historical disalienation eventually attacks social alienation itself and reveals that it is based on magic. This magic has to do with privative appropriation. It is expressed through sacrifice. Sacrifice is the archaic form of exchange. The extreme quantification of exchange reduces man to an object. From this rock bottom a new type of human relationship, involving neither exchange nor sacrifice, can be born (2).

1

The bourgeoisie administers a precarious and none-too-glorious interregnum between the sacred hierarchy of feudalism and the anarchic order of future classless societies. The bourgeois no-man's-land of exchange is the uninhabitable region separating the old, unhealthy pleasure of giving oneself, in which the aristocrats indulged, and the pleasure of giving through love of oneself, which the new generations of proletarians are little by little beginning to discover.

'Fair exchange' is the favourite absurdity of capitalism and its essentially similar competitors. The USSR 'offers' its hospitals and technicians, just as the USA 'offers' its investments and good offices, and supermarkets 'offer' 'free gifts'.

But the fact is that the meaning of giving has been rooted out from our minds, feelings and actions. Remember Breton and his friends offering roses to the pretty girls on the Boulevard Poissoniere, and immediately arousing the suspicion and hostility of the public.

The infection of human relations by exchange and bargaining is plainly linked to the existence of the bourgeoisie. The fact that exchange persists in a part of the world where it is claimed that there is a classless society suggests that the shadow of the bourgeoisie continues to rule under the red flag. Especially as the pleasure of giving, which appears in all industrial societies, defines very clearly the frontier between the world of calculation and the world of exuberance, of festivity. This style of giving has nothing to do with the prestige-gift practiced by the nobility, hopelessly imprisoned by the notion of sacrifice. The proletariat really does carry the project of human fullness, the project of total life: a project in which the aristocracy had failed, albeit failed magnificently. But let's give the devil his due: it is through the historical presence and mediation of the bourgeoisie that such a future becomes accessible to the proletariat. Is it not thanks to the technical progress and the productive forces developed by capitalism that the proletariat is in a position to realize, through the scientifically elaborated project of a new society, the egalitarian visions, the dreams of omnipotence and the desire to live without dead time? Today everything confirms the mission, or rather the historical opportunity of the proletariat: the destruction and supersession of feudalism. And it will do it by trampling underfoot the bourgeoisie, which is doomed to represent merely a transitional period in the development of man, albeit a transitional period without which the superseding of the feudal project would have been inconceivable: an essential stage, then, which created the lever without which unitary power would never have been overthrown, and above all could never have been transformed and corrected according to the project of the whole man. The invention of God shows that unitary power was already a world for the whole man, but for a whole man standing on his head. All that was required was to turn it right side up.

No liberation is possible this side of economics; in the world defined by economics there is only a hypothetical economics of survival. With these two truths the bourgeoisie is spurring mankind on towards the supersession of economics, towards a point beyond history. So the bourgeoisie is doing an even greater service than that of putting technology at the service of poetry. Its greatest day will be the day it disappears.

 2

Exchange is linked to the survival of primitive hordes in the same way as privative appropriation; both together constitute the fundamental axiom on which the history of mankind has been built up to the present day.

When the first men found that it gave them more security in the face of a hostile nature, the formation of hunting territories laid the foundations of a social organization which has imprisoned us ever since. (Cf.Raoul and Laura Makarius: Totem et exagomie.) Primitive man's unity with nature is essentially magical. Man only really separates himself from nature by transforming it through technology, and as he transforms it he disenchants it. But the use of technology is determined by social organization. The birth of society coincides with the invention of the tool. More: organization itself is the first coherent technique of struggle against nature. Social organization -- hierarchical, since it is based on private appropriation -- gradually destroys the magical bond between man and nature, but it preserves the magic for its own use: it creates between itself and mankind a mythical unity modelled on the original participation in the mystery of nature. Framed by the 'natural' relations of prehistoric man, social organization slowly dissolves this frame that defines and imprisons it. From this point of view, history is just the transformation of natural alienation into social alienation: a process of disalienation becomes a process of social alienation, a movement of liberation only produces new chains; until the will for human liberation launches a direct attack upon the whole collection of paralyzing mechanisms, that is on the social organization based on privative appropriation. This is the movement of disalienation which will undo history and realize it in new modes of life.

Effectively, the bourgeoisie's accession to power represents man's victory over natural forces. But as soon as this happens, hierarchical social organization, which was born out of the struggle against hunger, sickness, discomfort... loses its justification, and can no longer escape taking full responsibility for the malaise of industrial civilizations. Today men no longer blame their sufferings on the hostility of nature, but on the tyranny of a perfectly inadequate and perfectly anachronistic form of society. When it destroyed the magical power of the feudal lords, the bourgeoisie pronounced the death sentence on the magic of hierarchical power itself. The proletariat will carry out this sentence. What the bourgeoisie began by historical processes will now be finished off in opposition to its own narrow conception of history. But it will still be a historical struggle, a class struggle which will realize history.

The hierarchical principle is the magic spell that has blocked the path of men in their historical struggles for freedom. From now on, no revolution will be worthy of the name if it does not involve, at the very least, the radical elimination of all hierarchy.

 *

 As soon as the members of a horde mark out a hunting territory and claim private ownership of it, they find themselves confronted by a hostility which is no longer the hostility of wild animals, weather, inhospitable regions, or sickness, but that of human groups who are excluded from the hunting-grounds. Man's genius found a way out of the animal dilemma: destroy the rival group or be destroyed by it. This way was through treaties, contracts and exchanges, which are the basis of primitive communities. Between the period of nomadic food-gathering hordes and that of agricultural societies, the survival of clans required a triple exchange: exchange of women, exchange of food and exchange of blood. Magical thinking provides this operation with a supreme controller, a master of exchanges, a power beyond and above the contracting parties. The birth of the gods coincides with the twin birth of sacred myth and hierarchical power.

Of course this exchange is never of equal benefit to both clans. The problem is always to ensure the neutrality of the excluded clan without actually letting it into the hunting territory. And agricultural societies refined these tactics. The excluded class, who were tenants before they became slaves, enter the landowning group not as landowners, but as their degraded reflection (the famous myth of the Fall), the mediation between the land and its masters. Why do they submit? Because of the coherent hold over them exercised by the myth -- although it's not the deliberate intention of the masters (that would be to credit them with a rationality which was still foreign to them). This myth conceals the cunning of exchange, the imbalance in the sacrifice which each side agrees to make. The excluded class really sacrifice an important part of their life to the landowner: they accept his authority and work for him. The master mythically sacrifices his authority and his power as landowner to the dominated class: he is ready to pay for the safety of his people. God is the underwriter of the transaction and the defender of the myth. He punishes those who break the contract, while those who keep it he rewards with power: mythical power for those who sacrifice themselves in reality, real power for those who sacrifice themselves in myth. History and mythology show that the master could go as far as to sacrifice his life to the mythical principle. The fact that he payed the price of the alienation which he imposed on others reinforced the master's divine character. But it seems that a make-believe execution, or one in which he was replaced by a deputy, soon released the master from such a hard bargain. When the Christian God delegated his son to the world, he gave generations of bosses a perfect model by which to authenticate their own sacrifice.

Sacrifice is the archaic form of exchange. It is a magical exchange, unquantified, irrational. it dominated human relationships, including commercial relationships, until merchant capitalism and its money-the-measure-of-all-things had carved out such a large area in the world of slaves, serfs and burghers that the economy could appear as a particular zone, a domain separated from life. When money appears, the element of exchange in the feudal gift begins to win out. The sacrifice-gift, the potlatch -- that exchange-game of loser-takes-all in which the size of the sacrifice determines the prestige of the giver -- could hardly find a place in a rationalized exchange economy. Forced out of the sectors dominated by economic imperatives, it finds itself reincarnated in values such as hospitality, friendship and love: refuges doomed to disappear as the dictatorship of quantified exchange (market value) colonises everyday life and turns it into a market.

Merchant and industrial capitalism accelerated the quantification of exchange. The feudal gift was rationalized according to the rigorous model of commerce. The game of exchange became a matter of calculation. The playful Roman promise to sacrifice a cock to the gods in exchange for a peaceful voyage remained outside the grasp of commercial measurement because of the disparity of the things that were exchanged. And we can well imagine that the age in which a man like Fourquet could ruin himself in order to shine more brightly in the eyes of his contemporaries produced a poetry which has disappeared from our times, which take as their model of a human relationship the exchange of 35p for an 8oz. steak.

And so sacrifice came to be quantified, rationalized, measured out and quoted on the stock exchange. But what is left of the magic of sacrifice in a world of market values? And what is left of the magic of power, the sacred terror that impels the model employee to tip his hat respectfully to the boss? In a society where the quantity of gadgets and ideologies produced represents the quantity of power consumed, exercised and used up, magical relationships evaporate, leaving hierarchical power exposed to the full blast of opposition. When the last bastion falls, it will be either the end of a world or the end of the world. It's up to us to knock it down before it falls down by itself and drags us all with it.

Rigorously quantified, first by money and then by what you might call 'sociometric units of power', exchange pollutes all our relationships, all our feelings, all our thoughts. Where exchange is dominant, only things are left: a world of thing-men plugged into the organization charts of the computer freaks: the world of reification. But on the other hand it also gives us the chance radically to restructure our styles of life and thought. A rock bottom from which everything can start again.

 *

 The feudal mind seemed to conceive the gift as a sort of haughty refusal to exchange, a will to deny interchangeability. This refusal went with their contempt for money and common measurement. Of course, sacrifice excludes pure giving; but there was often so much room for play, humanity and gratuitous gestures that inhumanity, religion and seriousness could pass for accessories to such preoccupations as war, love, friendship, or hospitality.

By giving themselves, the nobility united their power with the totality of cosmic forces and claimed control over the totality which myth had made sacred. The bourgeoisie exchanged being for having and lost the mythical unity of being and the world: the totality fell into fragments. Semi-rational exchange in production implicitly makes a creativity that is reduced to labour-power equal in value to its hourly wage. Semi-rational exchange in consumption implicitly makes consumer-experience (life reduced to the activity of consumption) equal in value to an amount of power which indicates the consumer's position in the hierarchical organization chart. The sacrifice of the master is followed by the last stage of sacrifice, the sacrifice of the specialist.

In order to consume, the specialist makes others consume according to a cybernetic programme whose hyperrationality of exchange will abolish sacrifice... and man. If pure exchange ever comes to regulate the modes of existence of the robot-citizens of the cybernetic democracy, sacrifice will cease to exist. Objects need no justification to make them obedient. Sacrifice forms no part of the programme of machines, or of the antagonistic project, the project of the whole man.

 *

 The crumbling away of human values under the influence of exchange mechanisms leads to the crumbling of exchange itself. The insufficiency of the feudal gift means that new human relationships must be built on the principle of pure giving. We must rediscover the pleasure of giving: giving because you have so much. What beautiful and priceless potlatches the affluent society will see -- whether it likes it or not! -- when the exuberance of the younger generation discovers the pure gift. The growing passion for stealing books, clothes, food, weapons or jewelry simply for the pleasure of giving them away gives us a glimpse of what the will to live has in store for consumer society.

Prefabricated needs are confronted with the unitary need for a new style of life. Art, the economics of experience, has been absorbed by the market. Desires and dreams work for Madison Avenue now. Everyday life has crumbled into a series of moments as interchangeable as the gadgets which occupy them: mixers, stereograms, contraceptives, euphorimeters, sleeping pills. Everywhere equal particles vibrate in the uniform light of power. Equality, justice. Exchange of nothings, restrictions and prohibitions. Nothing moving, only dead time passing.

We will have to renew our acquaintance with the feudal imperfection, not in order to make it perfect but in order to supersede it. We will have to rediscover the harmony of unitary society and liberate it from the divine phantom and the sacred hierarchy. The new innocence is not so far removed from the ordeals and judgments of God: the inequality of blood is closer to the equality of free individuals, irreducible to one another, than bourgeois equality is. The cramped style of the nobility is only a crude sketch of the grand style which will be invented by masters without slaves. But what a world is trapped between this style of life and the mere way of living on, surviving, which ravages so many existences in our time!

 

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