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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
The Perspective of Power

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 1 "The Insignificant Signified"

Because of its increasing triviality, everyday life has gradually become our central preoccupation (1). No illusion, sacred or deconsecrated (2), collective or individual, can hide the poverty of our daily actions any longer (3). The enrichment of life calls inexorably for the analysis of the new forms taken by poverty, and the perfection of the old weapons of refusal (4).

 

1

The history of our times calls to mind those Walt Disney characters who rush madly over the edge of a cliff without seeing it, so that the power of their imagination keeps them suspended in mid-air; but as soon as they look down and see where they are, they fall.

Contemporary thought, like Bosustov's heroes, can no longer rest on its own delusions. What used to hold it up, today brings it down. It rushes full tilt in front of the reality that will crush it: the reality that is lived every day.

*

Is this dawning lucidity essentially new? I don't think so. Everyday life always produces the demand for a brighter light, if only because of the need which everyone feels to walk in step with the march of history. But there are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man's life than in all the philosophies. Even a philosopher cannot ignore it, for all his self-contempt; and he learns this self-contempt from his consolation, philosophy. After somersaulting onto his own shoulders to shout his message to the world from a greater height, the philosopher finishes by seeing the world inside out; and everything in it goes askew, upside down, to persuade him that he is standing upright. But he cannot escape his own delirium; and refusing to admit it simply makes it more uncomfortable.

The moralists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ruled over a stockroom of commonplaces, but took such pains to conceal this that they built around it a veritable palace of stucco and speculation. A palace of ideas shelters but imprisons lived experience. From its gates emerges a sincere conviction suffused with the Sublime Tone and the fiction of the 'universal man', but it breathes with perpetual anguish. The analyst tries to escape the gradual sclerosis of existence by reaching some essential profundity; and the more he alienates himself by expressing himself according to the dominant imagery of his time (the feudal image in which God, monarchy and the world are indivisibly united), the more his lucidity photographs the hidden face of life, the more it 'invents' the everyday.

Enlightenment philosophy accelerated the descent towards the concrete insofar as the concrete was in some ways brought to power with the revolutionary bourgeoisie. From the ruin of Heaven, man fell into the ruins of his own world. What happened? Something like this: ten thousand people are convinced that they have seen a fakir's rope rise into the air, while as many cameras prove that it hasn't moved an inch. Scientific objectivity exposes mystification. Very good, but what does it show us? A coiled rope, of absolutely no interest. I have little to choose between the doubtful pleasure of being mystified and the tedium of contemplating a reality which does not concern me. A reality which I have no grasp on, isn't this the old lie re-conditioned, the ultimate stage of mystification?

From now on the analysts are in the streets. Lucidity isn't their only weapon. Their thought is no longer in danger of being imprisoned, either by the false reality of gods, or by the false reality of technocrats!

2

Religious beliefs concealed man from himself; their Bastille walled him up in a pyramidal world with God at the summit and the king just below. Alas, on the fourteenth of July there wasn't enough freedom to be found among the ruins of unitary power to prevent the ruins themselves from becoming another prison. Behind the rent veil of superstition appeared, not naked truth, as Meslier had dreamed, but the birdlime of ideologies. The prisoners of fragmentary power have no refuge from tyranny but the shadow of freedom.

Today there is not an action or a thought that is not trapped in the net of received ideas. The slow fall-out of particles of the exploded myth spreads sacred dust everywhere, choking the spirit and the will to live. Constraints have become less occult, more blatant; less powerful, more numerous. Docility no longer emanates from priestly magic, it results from a mass of minor hypnoses: news, culture, town-planning, publicity, mechanisms of conditioning and suggestion in the service of any order, established or to come. We are like Gulliver lying stranded on the Lilliputian shore with every part of his body tied down; determined to free himself, he looks keenly around him: the smallest detail of the landscape, the smallest contour of the ground, the slightest movement, everything becomes a sign on which his escape may depend. The most certain chances of liberation are born in what is most familiar. Was it ever otherwise? Art, ethics, philosophy bear witness: under the crust of words and concepts, the living reality of non-adaptation to the world is always crouched, ready to spring. Since neither gods nor words can mange to cover it up decently any longer, this commonplace creature roams naked in railway stations and vacant lots; it confronts you at each evasion of yourself, it touches your elbow, catches your eye; and the dialogue begins. You must lose yourself with it or save it with you.

3

Too many corpses strew the paths of individualism and collectivism. Under two apparently contradictory rationalities has raged an identical gangsterism, an identical oppression of the isolated man. The hand which smothered Lautréamont returned to strangle Serge Yesenin; one died in the lodging house of his landlord Jules-Françoise Dupuis, the other hung himself in a nationalized hotel. Everywhere the law is verified: "There is no weapon of your individual will which, once appropriated by others, does not turn against you." If anyone says or writes that practical reason must henceforth be based upon the rights of the individual and the individual alone, he invalidates his own proposition if he doesn't invite his audience to make this statement true for themselves. Such a proof can only be lived, grasped from the inside. That is why everything in the notes which follow should be tested and corrected by the immediate experience of everyone. Nothing is so valuable that it need not be started afresh, nothing is so rich that it need not be enriched constantly.

*

Just as we distinguish in private life between what a man thinks and says about himself and what he really is and does, everyone has learned to distinguish the rhetoric and the messianic pretensions of political parties from their organization and real interests: what they think they are, from what they are. A man's illusions about himself and others are not basically different from the illusions which groups, classes, and parties have about themselves. Indeed, they come from the same source: the dominant ideas, which are the ideas of the dominant class, even if they take an antagonistic form.

The world of isms, whether it envelops the whole of humanity or a single person, is never anything but a world drained of reality, a terribly real seduction by falsehood. The three crushing defeats suffered by the Commune, the Spartakist movement and the Kronstadt sailors showed once and for all what bloodbaths are the outcome of three ideologies of freedom: liberalism, socialism, and Bolshevism. However, before this could be universally understood and admitted, bastard or hybrid forms of these ideologies had to vulgarize their initial atrocity with more telling proofs: concentration camps, Lacoste's Algeria, Budapest. The great collective illusions, anaemic after shedding the blood of so many men, have given way to the thousands of pre-packed ideologies sold by consumer society like so many portable brain-scrambling machines. Will it need as much blood again to show that a hundred thousand pinpricks kill as surely as a couple of blows with a club?

*

What am I supposed to do in a group of militants who expect me to leave in the cloakroom, I won't say a few ideas -- for my ideas would have led me to join the group -- but the dreams and desires which never leave me, the wish to live authentically and without restraint? What's the use of exchanging one isolation, one monotony, one lie for another? When the illusion of real change has been exposed, a mere change of illusion becomes intolerable. But present conditions are precisely these: the economy cannot stop making us consume more and more, and to consume without respite is to change illusions at an accelerating pace which gradually dissolves the illusion of change. We find ourselves alone, unchanged, frozen in the empty space behind the waterfall of gadgets, family cars and paperbacks.

people without imagination are beginning to tire of the importance attached to comfort, to culture, to leisure, to all that destroys imagination. This means that people are not really tired of comfort, culture and leisure but of the use to which they are put, which is precisely what stops us enjoying them.

The affluent society is a society of voyeurs. To each his own kaleidoscope: a tiny movement of the fingers and the picture changes. You can't lose: two fridges, a mini-car, TV, promotion, time to kill... then the monotony of the images we consume gets the upper hand, reflecting the monotony of the action which produces them, the slow rotation of the kaleidoscope between finger and thumb. There was no mini-car, only an ideology almost unconnected with the automobile machine. Flushed with Pimm's No.1, we savour a strange cocktail of alcohol and class struggle. Nothing surprising any more, there's the rub! The monotony of the ideological spectacle makes us aware of the passivity of life: survival. Beyond the pre-fabricated scandals - Scandale perfume, Profumo scandal - a real scandal appears, the scandal of actions drained of their substance to the profit of an illusion which the failure of its enchantment renders more odious every day. Actions weak and pale from nourishing dazzling imaginary compensations, actions pauperized by enriching lofty speculations into which they entered like menials through the ignominious category of 'trivial' or 'commonplace', actions which today are free but exhausted, ready to lose their way once more, or expire under the weight of their own weakness. There they are, in every one of you, familiar, sad, newly returned to the immediate, living reality which was their birthplace. And here you are, bewildered and lost in a new prosaism, a perspective in which near and far coincide.

4

The concept of class struggle constituted the first concrete, tactical marshalling of the shocks and injuries which men live individually; it was born in the whirlpool of suffering which the reduction of human relations to mechanisms of exploitation created everywhere in industrial societies. It issued from a will to transform the world and change life.

Such a weapon needed constant adjustment. yet we see the First International turning its back on artists by making workers' demands the sole basis of a project which Marx had shown to concern all those who sought, in the refusal to be slaves, a full life and a total humanity. Lacenaire, Borel, Lassailly, Buchner, Baudelaire, Hölderlin - wasn't this also misery and its radical refusal? perhaps this mistake was excusable then: I neither know nor care. What is certain is that it is sheer madness a century later, when the economy of consumption is absorbing the economy of production, and the exploitation of labour power is submerged by the exploitation of everyday creativity. The same energy is torn from the worker in his hours of work and in his hours of leisure to drive the turbines of power, which the custodians of the old theory lubricate sanctimoniously with their purely formal opposition.

People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths.

 

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