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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
Survival and false opposition to it

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 17 "Survival Sickness"

Capitalism has demystified survival. It has made the poverty of daily life intolerable in view of the increasing wealth of technical possibilities. Survival has become an economizing on life. The civilization of collective survival increases the dead time in individual lives to the point where the death forces are liable to carry the day over collective survival itself. The only hope is that the passion for destruction may be reconverted into a passion for life.

Up until now people have merely complied with a system of world transformation. Today the task is to make the system comply with the transformation of the world.

The organization of human societies has changed the world, and the world in changing has brought upheaval to the organization of human societies. But if hierarchical organization seizes control of nature, while itself undergoing transformation in the court of this struggle, the portion of liberty and creativity falling to the lot of the individual is drained away by the requirements of adaptation to social norms of various kinds. This is true, at any rate, so long as no generalized revolutionary moment occurs.

The time belonging to the individual in history is for the most part dead time. Only a rather recent awakening of consciousness has made this fact intolerable to us. For with its revolution the bourgeoisie does two things. On the one hand, it proves that people can accelerate world transformation, and that they can improve their individual lives (where improvement is understood in terms of accession to the ruling class, to riches, to capitalist success). But at the same time the bourgeois order nullifies the individual's freedom by interference; it increases the dead time in daily life (imposing the need to produce, consume, calculate); and it capitulates before the haphazard laws of the market, before the inevitable cyclical crises with their burden of wars and misery, and before the limitations invented by "common sense" (``You can't change human nature," "The poor will always be with us", etc.). The politics of the bourgeoisie, as of the bourgeoisie's socialist heirs, is the politics of a driver pumping the brake while the accelerator is jammed fast to the floor: the more the speed increases, the more frenetic, perilous and useless become the attempts to slow down. The helter-skelter pace of consumption is set at once by the rate of the disintegration of Power and by the imminence of the construction of a new order, a new dimension, a parallel universe born of the collapse of the Old World.

The changeover from the aristocratic system of adaptation to the "democratic" one brutally widened the gap between the passivity of individual submission and the social dynamism that transforms nature the gap between people's powerlessness and the power of new techniques. The contemplative attitude was perfectly suited to the feudal system, to a virtually motionless world underpinned by eternal gods. But the spirit of submission was hardly compatible with the dynamic vision of merchants, manufacturers, bankers and discoverers of riches -the vision of those acquainted not with the revelation of the immutable, but rather with the shifting economic world, the insatiable hunger for profit and the necessity of constant innovation. Yet wherever the bourgeoisie's action results in the popularization and valorization of the sense of transience, the sense of hope, the bourgeoisie qua power seeks to imprison people within this transitoriness. To replace the old theology of stasis the bourgeoisie sets up a metaphysics of motion. Although both these ideological systems hinder the movement of reality, the earlier one does so more successfully and more harmoniously than the second: the aristocratic scheme is more consistent, more unified. For to place an ideology of change in the service of what does not change creates a paradox which nothing henceforward can either conceal from consciousness or justify to consciousness. Thus in our universe of expanding technology and comfort we see people turning in upon themselves, shrivelling up, living trivial lives and dying for details. It is a nightmare where we are promised absolute freedom but granted a miserable square inch of individual autonomy -a square inch, moreover, that is strictly policed by our neighbours. A space-time of pettiness and mean thoughts.

Before the bourgeois revolution, the possibility of death in a living God lent everyday life an illusory dimension which aspired to the fullness of a multifaceted reality. You might say that humanity has never come closer to self-realization while yet confined to the realm of the inauthentic. But what is one to say of a life lived out in the shadow of a God that is dead: the decomposing God of fragmented power? The bourgeoisie has dispensed with a God by economizing on people's lives. It has also made the economic sphere into a sacred imperative and life into an economic system. This is the model that our future programmers are preparing to rationalize, to submit to proper planning -in a word, to "humanize." And, never fear, they will be no less irresponsible than the corpse of God.

Kierkegaard describes survival sickness well: "Let others bemoan the maliciousness of their age. What irks me is its pettiness, for ours is an age without passion...My life comes out all one colour." Survival is life reduced to bare essentials, to life's abstract form, to the minimum of activity required to ensure people's participation in production and consumption. The entitlement of a Roman slave was rest and sustenance. As beneficiaries of the Rights of Man we receive the wherewithal to nourish and cultivate ourselves, enough consciousness to play a role, enough initiative to acquire power and enough passivity to flaunt Power's insignia. Our freedom is the freedom to adapt after the fashion of higher animals.

Survival is life in slow motion. How much energy it takes to remain on the level of appearances! The media gives wide currency to a whole personal hygiene of survival: avoid strong emotions, watch your blood pressure, eat less, drink in moderation only, survive in good health so that you can continue playing your role. "Overwork: the executive's disease," said a recent headline in Le Monde. We must be economical with survival for it wears us down; we have to live it as little as possible for it belongs to death. In former times one died a live death, one quickened by the presence of God. Today our respect for life prohibits us from touching it, reviving it or snapping it out of its lethargy. We die of inertia, whenever the charge of death that we carry with us reaches saturation point. Unfortunately there is no branch of science that can measure the intensity of the deadly radiation that kills our daily actions. In the end, by dint of identifying ourselves with what we are not, of switching from one role to another, from one authority to another, and from one age to another, how can we avoid becoming ourselves part of that never-ending state of transition which is the process of decomposition?

The presence within life itself of a mysterious yet tangible death so misled Freud that he postulated an ontological curse in the shape of a "death instinct." This mistake of Freud's, which Reich had already pointed out, has now been clarified by the phenomenon of consumption. The three aspects of the death instinct -Nirvana, the repetition compulsion and masochism -have turned out to be simply three styles of domination: constraint passively accepted, seduction through conformity to custom, and mediation perceived as an ineluctable law.

As we know, the consumption of goods -which comes down always, in the present state of things, to the consumption of power -carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction and the conditions of its own transcendence. The consumer cannot and must not ever attain satisfaction: the logic of the consumable object demands the creation of fresh needs, yet the accumulation of such false needs exacerbates the malaise of people confined with increasing difficulty solely to the status of consumers. Furthermore, the wealth of consumer goods impoverishes authentic life. It does so in two ways. First, it replaces authentic life with things. Secondly, it makes it impossible, with the best will in the world, to become attached to these things, precisely because they have to be consumed, i.e., destroyed. Whence an absence of life which is ever more frustrating, a self-devouring dissatisfaction. This need to live is ambivalent: it constitutes one of those points where perspective is reversed.

In the consumer's manipulated view of things -the view of conditioning -the lack of life appears as insufficient consumption of power and insufficient self-consumption in the service of power. As a palliative to the absence of real life we are offered death on an instalment plan. A world that condemns us to a bloodless death is naturally obliged to propagate the taste for blood. Where survival sickness reigns, the desire to live lays hold spontaneously of the weapons of death: senseless murder and sadism flourish. For passion destroyed is reborn in the passion for destruction. If these conditions persist, no one will survive the era of survival. Already the despair is so great that many people would go along with the Antonin Artaud who said: "l bear the stigma of an insistent death that strips real death of all terror for me."

The individual of survival is inhabited by pleasure-anxiety, by unfulfillment: a mutilated person. Where is one to find oneself in the endless self-loss into which everything draws one? They are wanderers in a labyrinth with no centre, a maze full of mazes. Theirs is a world of equivalents. Should one kill oneself? Killing oneself, though, implies some sense of resistance: one must possess a value that one can destroy. Where there is nothing, the destructive actions themselves crumble to nothing. You cannot hurl a void into a void. "If only a rock would fall and kill me," wrote Kierkegaard, "at least that would be an expedient." I doubt if there is anyone today who has not been touched by the horror of a thought such as that. Inertia is the surest killer, t he inertia of people who settle for senility at eighteen, plunging eight hours a day into degrading work and feeding on ideologies. Beneath the miserable tinsel of the spectacle there are only gaunt figures yearning for, yet dreading, Kierkegaard's "expedient," so that they might never again have to desire what they dread and dread what they desire.

At the same time the passion for life emerges as a biological need, the reverse side of the passion for destroying and letting oneself be destroyed. "So long as we have not managed to abolish any of the causes of human despair we have no right to try and abolish the means whereby people attempt to get rid of despair." The fact is that people possess both the means to eliminate the causes of despair and the power to mobilize these means in order to rid themselves of it. No one has the right to ignore the fact that the sway of conditioning accustoms them to survive on one hundredth of their potential for life. So general is survival sickness that the slightest concentration of lived experience could not fail to unite the largest number of people in a common will to live. The negation of despair would of necessity become the construction of a new life. The rejection of economic logic (which only economizes on life) would of necessity entail the death of economics and carry us beyond the realm of survival.

 

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