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

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 18 "Spurious Opposition"

Survival is life reduced to economic imperatives. In the present period, therefore, survival is life reduced to what can be consumed (seventeen). Reality is giving answers to the problem of transcendence before our so-called revolutionaries have even thought of formulating this problem. Whatever is not transcended rots, and whatever is rotten cries out for transcendence. Spurious opposition, being unaware of both these tendencies, speeds up the process of decomposition while becoming an integral part of it: it thus makes the task of transcendence easier but only in the sense in which we sometimes say of a murdered man that he made his murderer's task easier. Survival is non-transcendence become unlivable. The mere rejection of survival dooms us to impotence. We have to retrieve the core of radical demands which has repeatedly been renounced by movements which started out as revolutionary (eighteen). There comes a moment of transcendence that is historically defined by the strength and weakness of Power; by the fragmentation of the individual to the point where he or she is a mere monad of subjectivity; and by the intimacy between everyday life and that which destroys it. This transcendence will be general, undivided and built by subjectivity (1). Once they abandon their initial extremism, revolutionary elements become irremediably reformist. The well-nigh general abandonment of the revolutionary spirit in our time is a soil in which reformisms of survival thrive. Any modern revolutionary organization must identify the seeds of transcendence in the great movements of the past. In particular, it must rediscover and carry through the project of individual freedom, perverted by liberalism; the project of collective freedom, perverted by socialism; the project of the recapture of nature, perverted by fascism; and the project of the whole person, perverted by Marxist ideologies. This last project, though expressed in the theological terms of the time, also informed the great medieval heresies and their anticlerical rage, the recent exhumation of which is so apt in our own century with its new clergy of "experts" (2). People of ressentiment are the perfect survivors people bereft of the consciousness of possible transcendence, people of the age of decomposition (3). By becoming aware of spectacular decomposition, a person of ressentiment becomes a nihilist. Active nihilism is prerevolutionary. There is no consciousness of transcendence without consciousness of decomposition. Juvenile delinquents are the legitimate heirs of Dada (4).

1

The question of transcendence. Refusal is multiform; transcendence is one. Faced by modern discontent and incited by it to bear witness, human history is quite simply the history of a radical refusal which invariably carries transcendence within itself, which invariably tends towards self-negation. Although only one or two aspects of this refusal are ever seen at a time, this can never successfully conceal the basic identity of dictatorship by God, monarch, chief, class or organization. What idiocy it is to evoke an ontology of revolt. By transforming natural alienation into social alienation, the movement of history teaches us freedom in servitude: it teaches us both revolt and submission. Revolt has less need of metaphysicians than metaphysicians have of revolt. Hierarchical power, which has been with us for millennia, furnishes a perfectly adequate explanation for the permanence of rebellion, as it does of the repression that smashes rebellion.

The overthrow of feudalism and the creation of masters without slaves are one and the same project. The memory of the partial failure of this project in the French Revolution has continued to render it more familiar and more attractive, even as later revolutions, each in their own way abortive (the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik Revolution), have at once clarified the project's contours and deferred its enactment.

All philosophies of history without exception collude with this failure, which is why consciousness of history cannot be divorced from consciousness of the necessity of transcendence.

How is it that the moment of transcendence is increasingly easy to discern on the social horizon? The question of transcendence is a tactical question. Broadly, we may outline it as follows:

  1. a) Anything that does not kill power reinforces it, but anything which power does not itself kill weakens power.

    b) The more the requirements of consumption come to supersede the requirements of production, the more government by constraint gives way to government by seduction.

    c) With the democratic extension of the right to consume comes a corresponding extension to the largest group of people of the right to exercise authority (in varying degrees, of course).

    d) As soon as people fall under the spell of Authority they are weakened and their capacity for refusal withers. Power is thus reinforced, it is true, yet it is also reduced to the level of the consumable and is indeed consumed, dissipated and, of necessity, becomes vulnerable.

    The point of transcendence is one moment in this dialectic of strength and weakness. While it is undoubtedly the task of radical criticism to identify this moment and to work tactically to precipitate it, we must not forget that it is the facts all around us that call such radical criticism forth. Transcendence sits astride a contradiction that haunts the modern world, permeating the daily news and leaving its stamp on most of our behaviour. This is the contradiction between impotent refusal i.e., reformism and wild refusal, or nihilism (two types of which, the active and the passive, are to be distinguished).

  2. The diffusion of hierarchical power may broaden that power's realm but it also tarnishes its glamour. Fewer people live on the fringes of society as bums and parasites, yet at the same time fewer people actually respect an employer, a monarch, a leader or a role; although more people survive within the social organization, many more of the people within it hold it in contempt. Everyone finds themself at the center of the struggle in their daily life. This has two consequences:

    a) In the first place, the individual is not only the victim of social atomization, he or she is also the victim of fragmented power. Now that subjectivity has emerged onto the historical stage, only to come immediately under attack, it has become the most crucial revolutionary demand. Henceforward the construction of a harmonious collectivity will require a revolutionary theory founded not on communitarianism but rather upon subjectivity a theory founded, in other words, on individual cases, on the lived experience of individuals.

    b) Secondly, the extreme fragmentariness of resistance and refusal turns, ironically, into its opposite, for it recreates the preconditions for a global refusal. The new revolutionary collective will come into being through a chain reaction leaping from one subjectivity to the next. The construction of a community of people who are whole individuals will inaugurate the reversal of perspective without which no transcendence is possible.

  3. A final point is that the idea of a reversal of perspective is invading popular consciousness. For everyone is too close for comfort to that which negates them. This proximity to death makes the life forces rebel. Just as the allure of faraway places fades when one gets closer, so perspective vanishes as the eye gets too near. By locking people up in its decor of things, and by its clumsy attempt to insinuate itself into people themselves, all Power manages to do is to spread the discontent and disaffection. Vision and thought get muddled, values blur, forms become vague, and anamorphic distortions trouble us rather as though we were looking at a painting with our nose pressed hard against the canvas. Incidentally, the change in pictorial perspective (Uccello, Kandinsky) coincided with a change of perspective at the level of social life. The rhythm of consumption thrusts the mind into that interregnum where far and near are indistinguishable. The facts themselves will soon come to the aid of the mass of humanity in their struggle to enter at long last that state of freedom aspired to though they lacked the means of attaining it by those Swabian heretics of 1270 mentioned by Norman Cohn in his Pursuit of the Millennium, who "said that they had mounted up above God and, reaching the very pinnacle of Divinity, abandoned God. Often the adept would affirm that he or she had no longer 'any need of God.'"

    2

    The renunciation of poverty and the poverty of renunciation. Almost every revolutionary movement embodies the desire for complete change, yet up to now almost every revolutionary movement has succeeded only in changing some detail. As soon as the people in arms renounces its own will and starts kow-towing to the will of its counsellors it loses control of its freedom and confers the ambiguous title of revolutionary leader upon its oppressors-to-be. This is the "cunning", so to speak, of fragmentary power: it gives rise to fragmentary revolutions, revolutions dissociated from any reversal of perspective, cut off from the totality, paradoxically detached from the proletariat which makes them. There is no mystery in the fact that a totalitarian regime is the price paid when the demand for total freedom is renounced once a handful of partial freedoms has been won. How could it be otherwise! People talk in this connection of a fatality, a curse: the revolution devouring its children, and so on. As though Makhno's defeat, the crushing of Kronstadt revolt, or Durruti's assassination were not already writ large in the structure of the original Bolshevik cells, perhaps even in Marx's authoritarian positions in the First International. "Historical necessity" and "reasons of state" are simply the necessity and the reasons of leaders who have to legitimate their renunciation of the revolutionary project, their renunciation of extremism.

    Renunciation equals non-transcendence. And issue-politics, partial refusal and piecemeal demands are the very thing that blocks transcendence. The worst inhumanity is never anything but a wish for emancipation that has settled for compromise and fossilized beneath the strata of successive sacrifices. Liberalism, socialism and Bolshevism have each built new prisons under the sign of liberty. The left fights for an increase in comfort within alienation, skillfully furthering this impoverished aim by evoking the barricades, the red flag and the finest revolutionary moments of the past. In this way once-radical impulses are doubly betrayed, twice renounced: first they are ossified, then dug up and used as a carrot. "Revolution" is doing pretty well everywhere: worker-priests, priest-junkies, communist generals, red potentates, trade unionists on the board of directors.... Radical chic harmonizes perfectly with a society that can sell Watney's Red Barrel beer under the slogan "The Red Revolution is Coming." Not that all this is without risk for the system. The endless caricaturing of the most deeply felt revolutionary desires can produce a backlash in the shape of a resurgence of such feelings, purified in reaction to their universal prostitution. There is no such thing as lost allusions.

    The new wave of insurrection tends to rally young people who have remained outside specialized politics, whether right or left, or who have passed briefly through these spheres because of excusable errors of judgement, or ignorance. All currents merge in the tide race of nihilism. The only important thing is what lies beyond this confusion. The revolution of daily life will be the work of those who, with varying degrees of facility, are able to recognize the seeds of total self-realization preserved, contradicted and dissimulated within ideologies of every kind and who cease consequently to be either mystified or mystifiers.

    ***

    If a spirit of revolt once existed within Christianity, I defy anybody who still calls himself a Christian to understand that spirit. Such people have neither the right nor the capacity to inherit the heretical tradition. Today heresy is an impossibility. The theological language used to express the impulses of so many fine revolts was the mark of a particular period; it was the only language then available, and nothing more than that. Translation is now necessary not that it presents any difficulties. Setting aside the period in which I live, and the objective assistance it gives me, how can I hope to improve in the twentieth century on what the Brethren of the Free Spirit said in the thirteenth: "A man may be so much one with God that whatever he does he cannot sin. I am part of the freedom of Nature and I satisfy all my natural desires. The free man is perfectly right to do whatever gives him pleasure. Better that the whole world be destroyed and perish utterly than that a free man should abstain from a single act to which his nature moves him." One cannot but admire Johann Hartmann's "The truly free man is lord and master of all creatures. All things belong to him, and he is entitled to make use of whichever pleases him. If someone tries to stop him doing so, the free man has the right to kill him and take his possessions." The same goes for John of Brunn, who justifies his practice of fraud, plunder and armed robbery by announcing that "All things created by God are common property. Whatever the eye sees and covets, let the hand grasp it." Or again, consider the Pifles d'Arnold and their conviction that they were so pure that they were incapable of sinning no matter what they did (1157). Such jewels of the Christian spirit always sparkled a little too brightly for the bleary eyes of the Christians. The great heretical tradition may still be discerned dimly perhaps, but with its dignity still intact in the acts of a Pauwels leaving a bomb in the church of La Madeleine (March 15, 1894), or of the young Robert Burger slitting a priest's throat (August 11, 1963). The last and the last possible instances of priests retrieving something genuine from a real attachment to the revolutionary origins of Christianity are furnished in my opinion by Meslier and Jacques Roux fomenting jacquerie and riot. Not that we can expect this to be understood by the sectarians of today's ecumenizing forces. These emanate from Moscow as readily as from Rome, and their evangelists are cybernetician scum as often as creatures of Opus Dei. Such being the new clergy, the way to transcend heresy should not be hard to divine.

    ***

    No one is about to deny liberalism full credit for having spread the thirst for freedom to every corner of the world. Freedom of the press, freedom of thought, freedom of creation if all their "freedoms" have no other merit, at least they stand as a monument to liberalism's falseness. The most eloquent of epitaphs, in fact: after all, it is no mean feat to imprison liberty in the name of liberty. In the liberal system, the freedom of individuals is destroyed by mutual interference: one person's liberty begins where the other's ends. Those who reject this basic principle are destroyed by the sword; those who accept it are destroyed by justice. Nobody gets their hands dirty: a button is pressed, and the guillotine of the police and state intervention falls. A very fortunate business, to be sure. The State is the bad conscience of the liberal, the instrument of a necessary repression for which deep in their heart they deny responsibility. As for day-to-day business, it is left to the freedom of the capitalists to keep the freedom of the worker within proper bounds. Here, however, the upstanding socialist comes on the scene to denounce this hypocrisy.

    What is socialism? It is a way of getting liberalism out of its contradiction, i.e., the fact that it simultaneously safeguards and destroys individual freedom. Socialism proposes (and there could be no more worthy goal) to prevent individuals from negating each other through interference. The solution it actually produces, however, is very different. For it ends up eliminating interferences without liberating the individual; what is much worse, it melds the individual will into a collective mediocrity. Admittedly, only the economic sphere is affected by the institution of socialism, and opportunism i.e., liberalism in the sphere of daily life is scarcely incompatible with bureaucratic planning of all activities from above, with manoeuvering for promotion, with power struggles between leaders, etc. Thus socialism, by abolishing economic competition and free enterprise, puts an end to interference on one level, but it retains the race for the consumption of power as the only authorized form of freedom. The partisans of self-limiting freedom are split into two camps, therefore: those who are for liberalism in production and those who are for liberalism in consumption. And a fat lot of difference there is between them!

    The contradiction in socialism between radicalism and its renunciation is well exemplified by two statements recorded in the minutes of the debates of the First International. In 1867 we find Chémalé reminding his listeners that "The product must be exchanged for another product of equal value; anything less amounts to trickery, to fraud, to robbery." According to Chémalé, therefore, the problem is how to rationalize exchange, how to make it fair. The task of socialism, on this view, is to correct capitalism, to give it a human face, to plan it, and to empty it of its substance (profit). And who profits from the end of capitalism? This we have found out since 1867. But there was already another view of socialism, coexistent with this one, and we find it expressed by Varlin, Communard-to-be, at the Geneva Congress of this same International Association of Workingmen in 1866: "So long as anything stands in the way of the employment of oneself freedom will not exist." There is thus a freedom locked up in socialism, but nothing could be more foolhardy than to try and release this freedom today without declaring total war on socialism itself.

    Is there any need to expatiate on the abandonment of the Marxist project by every variety of present-day Marxism? The Soviet Union, China, Cuba: what is there here of the construction of the whole man? The material poverty which fed the revolutionary desire for transcendence and radical change has been attenuated, but a new poverty has emerged, a poverty born of renunciation and compromise. The renunciation of poverty has led only to the poverty of renunciation. Was it not the feeling that he had allowed his initial project to be fragmented and effected in piecemeal fashion that occasioned Marx's disgusted remark, "l am not a Marxist"? Even the obscenity of fascism springs from a will to live but a will to live denied, turned against itself like an ingrowing toenail. A will to live become a will to power, a will to power become a will to passive obedience, a will to passive obedience become a death wish. For when it comes to the qualitative sphere, to concede a fraction is to give up everything.

    By all means, let us destroy fascism, but let the same destructive flame consume all ideologies, and all their lackeys to boot.

    ***

    Through force of circumstance, poetic energy is everywhere renounced or allowed to go to seed. Isolated people abandon their individual will, their subjectivity, in an attempt to break out. Their reward is the illusion of community and an intenser affection for death. Renunciation is the first step towards a man's co-optation by the mechanisms of Power.

    There is no such thing as a technique or thought which does not arise in the first instance from a will to live; in the official world, however, there is no such thing as a technique or thought which does not lead us towards death. The faces of past renunciations are the data of a history still largely unknown to us. The study of these traces helps in itself to forge the arms of total transcendence. Where is the radical core, the qualitative dimension? This question has the power to shatter habits of mind and habits of life; and it has a part to play in the strategy of transcendence, in the building of new networks of radical resistance. It may be applied to philosophy, where ontology bears witness to the renunciation of being-as-becoming. It may be applied to psychoanalysis, a technique of liberation which confines itself for the most part to "liberating" us from the need to attack social organization. It may be applied to all the dreams and desires stolen, violated and twisted beyond recognition by conditioning. To the basically radical nature of our spontaneous acts, so often denied by our stated view of ourselves and of the world. To the playful impulse, whose present imprisonment in the categories of permitted games from roulette to war, by way of lynching parties leaves no place for the authentic game of playing with each moment of daily life. And to love, so inseparable from revolution, and so largely cut off, as things stand, from the pleasure of giving.

    Remove the qualitative and all that remains is despair. Despair comes in every variety available to a system designed for killing human beings, the system of hierarchical power: reformism, fascism, philistine politicism, mediocracy, activism and passivity, boyscoutism and ideological masturbation. A friend of Joyce's recalls: "l don't remember Joyce ever saying a word during all those years about Poincaré, Roosevelt, de Valera, Stalin; never so much as a mention of Geneva or Locarno, Abyssinia, Spain, China, Japan, the Prince affair, Violette Nozière...." What, indeed, could he have added to Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake? Once the Capital of individual creativity had been written, it only remained for the Leopold Blooms of the world to unite, to throw off their miserable survival and to actualize the richness and diversity of their "interior monologues" in the lived reality of their existence. Joyce was never a comrade-in-arms to Durruti; he fought shoulder to shoulder with neither the Asturians nor the Viennese workers. But he had the decency to pass no comment on news items, to the anonymity of which he abandoned Ulysses that "monument of culture," as one critic put it while at the same time abandoning himself, Joyce, the man of total subjectivity. To the spinelessness of the man of letters, Ulysses is witness. As to the spinelessness of renunciation, its witness is invariably the "forgotten" radical moment.

    Thus revolutions and counterrevolutions follow hard upon one another's heels, sometimes within a twenty-four hour period in the space, even, of the least eventful of days. But consciousness of the radical act and of its renunciation becomes more widespread and more discriminating all the time. Inevitably. For today survival is non-transcendence become unliveable.

 

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