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

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 9 "Technology and Its Mediated use"

Contrary to the interests of those who control its use, technology tends to disenchant the world. Mass consumption society strips gadgets of any magical value. Similarly, organisation (a technique for handling new techniques) robs new productive forces of their subversive appeal and their power of disruption. Organisation thus stands revealed as nothing but the pure organisation of authority (1). Alienated mediations make man weaker as they become indispensible. A social mask disguises people and things. In the present stage of privative appropriation, this mask transforms its wearers into dead things, commodities. Nature no longer exists. To rediscover nature means to reinvent it as a worthwhile adversary by constructing new social relationships. With the expansion of material equipment, the old hierarchical society is bursting at the seams (2)

 

1

The same bankruptcy is evident in non-industrial civilisations, where people are still dying of starvation, and automated civilisations, where people are already dying od boredom. Every paradise is artificial. The life of a Trobriand islander, rich in spite of ritual and taboo, is at the mercy of a smallpox epidemic; the life of an ordinary Swede, poor in spite of his comforts, is at the mercy of suicide and survival sickness.

Rousseauism and pastoral idylls accompany the first throbbings of the industrial machine. The ideology of progress, as one finds it in Condorcet or Adam Smith, emerged from the old myth of the Four Ages. With the age of iron leading into the golden age, it seemed 'natural' that progress should fulfil itself as a return: a return to the state of innocence before the Fall.

The belief in the magical power of technology goes hand in hand with its opposite, the movement of disenchantment. The machine is the model of the intelligible. There is no mystery, nothing obscure in its drive-belts, cogs and gears; it can all be explained perfectly. But the machine is also the miracle that is to transport man into the realms of happiness and freedom. Besides, this ambiguity is useful to its masters: the old con about happy tomorrows and the green grass over the hill operates at various levels to justify the rational exploitation of men today. Thus it is not the logic of disenchantment that shakes people's faith in progress so much as the inhuman use of technical potential, the way that its mystical justification begins to grate. While the labouring classes and the underdeveloped peoples still offered the spectacle of their slowly decreasing material poverty, the enthusiasm for progress still drew ample nourishment from the troughs of liberal ideology and its extension, socialism. But, a century after the spontaneous demystification of the Lyons workers, when they smashed the looms, a general crisis broke out, springing this time from the crisis of big industry: Fascist regression, sickly dreams of a return to artisanry and corporatism, the Ubuesque master-race of blond beasts.

Today, the promises of the old society of production are raining down on our heads in an avalanche of consumer goods that nobody would venture to call mana from heaven. You can hardly believe in the magical power of gadgets in the same way as people used to believe in productive forces. There is a certain hagiographical literature on the steam hammer. One cannot imagine much on the electric toothbrush. The mass production of instruments of comfort -- all equally revolutionary according to the publicity handouts -- has given the most unsophisticated of men the right to express an opinion on the marvels of technological innovation in a tone as familiar as the hand he sticks up the barmaid's skirt. The first landing on Mars will pass unnoticed on Blackpool beach.

Admittedly, the yoke and harness, the steam engine, electricity and the rise of nuclear energy all disturbed and altered the infrastructure of society (though this was almost accidental). But today it would be foolish to expect new productive forces to upset modes of production. The blossoming of technology has seen the birth of a super-technology of synthesis which could prove as important as the social community, that first of all technical syntheses, founded at the dawn of time. Perhaps more important still; for if cybernetics was taken from its masters, it might be able to free human groups from labour and from social alienation. This was precisely the project of Charles Fourier in an age when utopia was still possible.

But between Fourier and the cyberneticians who control the operational organisation of technology lies the distance between freedom and slavery. Of course, the cybernetic project claims that it is already sufficiently developed to be able to solve all the problems raised by the appearance of a new technique. But don't you believe it

1: The permanent development of productive forces, the exploding mass production of consumer goods, promise nothing. Musical air-conditioners and solar-ovens stand unheralded and unsung. We see a weariness coming, and one that is already so obviously present that sooner or later it's bound to develop into a critique of organisation itself

2: For all its flexibility, the cybernetic synthesis will never be able to conceal the fact that it is only the superseding synthesis of the different forms of government that have ruled over men, and their final stage. How could it hope to disguise the inherent alienation that no power has ever managed to shield from the weapons of criticism and the criticism of weapons?

By laying down the basis for a perfect power structure, the cyberneticians will only stimulate the perfection of refusal. Their programming of new techniques will be shattered by the same techniques turned to its own use by another kind of organisation. A revolutionary organisation

2

Technocratic organisation raises technical mediation to its highest point of coherence. It has been known for ages that the master uses the slave as a means to appropriate the objective world, that the tool only alienates the worker as long as it belongs to a master. Similarly in the realm of consumption: it's not the goods that are inherently alienating, but the conditioning that leads their buyers to choose them and the ideology in which they are wrapped. The tool in production and the conditioning of choice in consumption are the mainstays of the fraud: they are the mediations which move man the producer and man the consumer to the illusion of action in a real passivity and transform him into an essentially dependent thing. The stolen mediations separate the individual from himself, his desires, his dreams, and his will to live; and so people come to believe in th myth that you can't do without them, or the power that governs them. Where power fails to paralyse with constraints, it paralyses by suggestion: by forcing everyone to use crutches of which it is the sole supplier. Power as the sum of alienating mediations is only waiting for the holy water of cybernetics to baptise it into the state of Totality. But total power does not exist, only totalitarian powers. And the baptism of cybernetics has already been cancelled owing to lack of interest.

Because the objective world (or nature, if you prefer) has been grasped by means of alienated mediations (tools, thoughts, false needs), it ends up surrounded by a sort of screen: so that, paradoxically, the more man transforms himself and the world, the more it becomes alien to him. The veil of social relations envelops the natural world totally. What we call 'natural' today is about as natural as Nature Girl lipstick. The instruments of praxis do not belong to the agents of praxis, the workers: and it is obviously because of this that the opaque zone that separates man from himself and from nature has become a part of man and a part of nature. Our task is not to rediscover nature but to make a new one, to reconstruct it.

The search for the real nature, for a natural life that has nothing to do with the lie of social ideology, is one of the most touching naïvetés of a good part of the revolutionary proletariat, not to mention the anarchists and such notable figures as the young Wilhelm Reich.

In the realm of the exploitation of man by man, the real transformation of nature only takes place through the real transformation of the social fraud. At no point in their struggle have man and nature ever been really face to face. They have been kept apart by what mediates this struggle: hierarchical social power and its organisation of appearance. To transform nature was to socialise it, but they certainly made a mess of the job. There is no nature other than social nature, since history has never known a society without power.

Is an earthquake a natural phenomenon? It affects men, but it affects them only as alienated social beings. What is an earthquake-in-itself? Suppose that at this moment there was an earthquake disaster on Alpha Centauri. Who would it bother apart from the old farts in the universities and other centres of pure thought?

And death: death also strikes men socially. In the first place, because the energy and resources poured down the drain of militarism and wasted in the anarchy of capitalism and bureaucracy could make a vital contribution to the scientific struggle against death. But above all because it is in the vast laboratory of society (and under the benevolent eye of science) that the foul brew of culture in which the germs of death are spawned is kept on the boil; (stress, nervous tension, conditioning, pollution, latrogenic disease...) Only animals are still allowed to die a natural death... some of them.

Could it be that, after disengaging themselves from the animal world by means of their history, men might come to envy the animal's contact with nature? This is, I think, the childish meaning which should be seen in the search for the 'natural'. But if we could enrich it and set it off in the right direction such a desire would mean that we had superseded 30,000 years of history.

What we have to do now is to create a new nature that will be a worthwhile adversary: that is, to resocialise it by liberating the technical apparatus from the sphere of alienation, by snatching it from the hands of rulers and specialists. Only at the end of a process of social disalienation will nature become a worthwhile opponent: in a society in which man's creativity will not come up against man himself as the first obstacle to its expansion

*

Technological organisation can't be destroyed from the outside. It's collapse is the result of internal decay. Far from being punished for its Promethean aspirations, it is dying because it never escaped from the dialectic of master and slave. Even if the cybernauts did come to power they'd have a hard time staying there. The very best they can offer has already been turned down in these words from a black worker to a white boss (Presence Africaine, 1956): "When we first saw your trucks and planes we thought that you were gods. Then, after a few years we learned how to drive your trucks, as we shall soon learn how to fly your planes, and we understood that what interested you most was manufacturing trucks and planes and making money. For our part, what we are interested in is using them. Now, you are just our metal-workers."

 

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