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

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 18 "Spurious Opposition"

3

The individual of ressentiment. The more power is dispensed in consumer size packs, the more circumscribed becomes the sphere of survival, until we enter that reptilian world in which pleasure, the effort of liberation and agony all find expression in a single shudder. Low thought and short sight have long signalled the fact that the bourgeoisie belongs to a civilization of troglodytes in the making, a civilization of survival perfectly epitomized by the invention of the fallout shelter complete with all modern conveniences. The greatness of the bourgeoisie is a borrowed cloak: unable to build truly on the back of its defeated opponent, it donned feudal robes only to find itself draped in a pale shadow of feudal virtue, of God, of nature, etc. No sooner had it discovered its incapacity to control these entities directly than it fell to internal squabbling over details, involuntarily dealing itself blow after blow though never, it is true, a mortal one.

The same Flaubert who flays the bourgeois with ridicule calls them to arms to put down the Paris Commune....

The nobility turns the bourgeois into an aggressor: the proletariat puts it on the defensive. What does the proletariat represent for the bourgeoisie? Not a true adversary: at the most a guilty conscience that it desperately tries to conceal. Withdrawn, seeking a position of minimum exposure to attack, proclaiming that reform is the only legitimate form of change, the bourgeoisie clothes its fragmented revolutions in a cloth of wary envy and resentment.

I have already said that in my view no insurrection is ever fragmentary in its initial impulses, that it only becomes so when the poetry of agitators and ringleaders gives way to authoritarian leadership. The individual of ressentiment is the official world's travesty of a revolutionary: an individual bereft of awareness of the possibility of transcendence; a person who cannot grasp the necessity for a reversal of perspective and who, gnawed by envy, spite and despair, tries to use these feelings as weapons against a world so well designed for his or her oppression. An isolated person. A reformist pinioned between total refusal and absolute acceptance of Power. They reject hierarchy out of umbrage at not having a place therein, and this makes them, as rebels, ideal slaves to the designs of revolutionary "leaders". Power has no better buttress than thwarted ambition, which is why it makes every effort to console losers in the rat race by flinging them the privileged as a target for their rancour.

Short of a reversal in perspective, therefore, hatred of power is merely another form of obeisance to Power's ascendancy. The person who walks under a ladder to prove their freedom from superstition proves just the opposite. Obsessive hatred and the insatiable thirst for positions of authority wear down and impoverish people to the same degree though perhaps not in the same way, for there is, after all, more humanity in fighting against Power than in prostituting oneself to it. There is in fact a world of difference between struggling to live and struggling not to die. Revolts within the realm of survival are measured by the yardstick of death, which explains why they always require self-abnegation on the part of their militants, and the a priori renunciation of that will to live for which everyone is in reality struggling.

The rebel with no other horizon than a wall of restraints either rams their head against this wall or ends up defending it with dogged stupidity. No matter whether one accepts or rejects Power, to see oneself in the light of constraints is to see things from Power's point of view. Here we have humanity at the vanishing point swarming with vermin, in Rosanov's words. Hemmed in on all sides, they resist any kind of intrusion and mount a jealous guard over themselves, never realizing that they have become sterile, that they are keeping vigil over a graveyard. They have internalized their own lack of existence. Worse, they borrow Power's impotence in order to fight Power; such is the zeal with which they apply the principle of fair play. Alongside such sacrifice, the price they pay for purity for playing at being pure is small indeed. How the most compromised people love to give themselves credit for integrity out of all proportion to the odd minor points over which they have preserved any! They get on their high horses because they refused a promotion in the army, gave out a few leaflets at a factory gate or got hit on the head by a cop. And all their bragging goes hand in hand with the most obtuse militantism in some communist party or other.

Once in a while, too, an individual at the vanishing point takes it into their head that they have a world to conquer, that they need more Lebensraum, a vaster ruin in which to engulf themself. The rejection of Power easily comes to embrace the rejection of those things which Power has appropriated e.g., the rebel's own self. Defining oneself negatively by reference to Power's constraints and lies can result in constraints and lies entering the mind as an element of travestied revolt generally without so much as a dash of irony to give a breath of air. No chain is harder to break than the one which the individual attaches to themself when their rebelliousness is lost to them in this way. When they place their freedom in the service of unfreedom, the resulting increase in unfreedom's strength enslaves them. Now, it may well be that nothing resembles unfreedom so much as the effort to attain freedom, but unfreedom has this distinguishing mark: once bought, it loses all its value. even though its price is every bit as high as freedom's.

The wails close in and we can't breath. The more people struggle for breath, the worse it gets. The ambiguity of the signs of life and freedom, which oscillate between their positive and negative forms according to the necessary conditions imposed by global oppression, tends to generalize a confusion in which one hand is constantly undoing the work of the other. Inability to apprehend oneself encourages people to apprehend others on the basis of their negative representations, on the basis of their roles and thus to treat them as objects. Old bachelors, bureaucrats all, in fact, who thrive on survival have no affective knowledge of any other reason for existing. Needless to say, Power's best hopes of co-optation lie precisely in this shared malaise. And the greater the mental confusion, the greater its chances.

Myopia and voyeurism are the twin prerequisites of humanity's adaptation to the social mediocrity of the age. Look at the world through a keyhole! This is what all the experts urge us to do, and what the individual of ressentiment delights in doing. Unable to play a leading part, they rush to get the best seat in the auditorium. They are desperately in need of minute platitudes to chew on: all politicians are crooks, de Gaulle is a great man, China is a workers' paradise, etc. They love to hate an individualized oppressor, to love a flesh-and-blood Uncle Joe: systems are too complicated for them. How easy it is to understand the success of such crass images as the foul Jew, the shiftless native or the two hundred families! Give the enemy a face and immediately the countenance of the masses apes another most admirable face, the face of the Defender of the Fatherland, Ruler, Fuhrer.

The individual of ressentiment is a potential revolutionary, but the development of this potentiality entails passing through a phase of larval consciousness: to first become a nihilist. If they do not kill the organizers of their ennui, or at least those people who appear as such in the forefront of their vision (managers, experts, ideologues, etc.), then they will end up killing in the name of an authority, in the name of some reason of state, or in the name of ideological consumption. And if the state of things does not eventually provoke a violent explosion, they will continue to flounder in a sea of roles, locked in the tedious rigidity of their spite, spreading their saw-toothed conformism everywhere and applauding revolt and repression alike; for, in this eventuality, incurable confusion is their only possible fate.

4

The nihilist. Rozanov's definition of nihilism is the best: "The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round...No more coats and no more home."

Nihilism is born of the collapse of myth. During those periods when the contradiction between mythical explanation Heaven, Redemption, the Will of Allah and everyday life becomes patent, all values are sucked into the vortex and destroyed. Deprived of any justification, stripped of the illusions that concealed it, the weakness of humanity emerges in all its nakedness. On the other hand, once myth no longer justifies the ways of Power to us, the real possibilities of social action and experiment appear. Myth was not just a cloak for this weakness: it was also the cause of it. Thus the explosion of myth frees an energy and creativity too long syphoned away from authentic experience into religious transcendence and abstraction. The interregnum between the collapse of classical philosophy and the erection of the Christian myth saw an unprecedented effervescence of thought and action. A thousand life-styles blossomed. Then came the dead hand of Rome, co-opting whatever it could not destroy utterly. Later, in the sixteenth century, the Christian myth itself disintegrated, and another period of frenetic experimentation burst upon the world. Nothing was true anymore, and everything had become possible. Gilles de Rais tortured a thousand children to death, and the revolutionary peasants of 1535 set about building heaven on earth. But this new period of dissolution differed in one important respect from all previous ones, for after 1789 the reconstruction of a new myth became an absolute impossibility.

Christianity neutered the explosive nihilism of certain gnostic sects, and improvised a protective garment for itself from their remains. But the establishment of the bourgeois world made any new displacement of nihilistic energy on to the plane of myth impossible: the nihilism generated by the bourgeois revolution was a concrete nihilism. The reality of exchange, as we have seen, precludes all dissimulation. Until its abolition, the spectacle can never be anything except the spectacle of nihilism. That vanity of the world which the Pascal of the Pensées evoked, as he thought, to the greater glory of God, turned out to be a product of historical reality and this in the absence of God, himself a casualty of the explosion of myth. Nihilism swept everything before it, God included.

For the last century and a half, the most lucid contributions to art and life have been the fruit of free experiment in the field of abolished values. De Sade's passionate rationalism, Kierkegaard's sarcasm, Nietszche's vacillating irony, Maldoror's violence, Mallarmé's icy dispassion, Jarry's Umour, Dada's negativism these are the forces which have reached out to confront people with some of the dankness and acridity of decaying values. And also, with the desire for a reversal of perspective, the need to discover alternative forms of life the area which Melville called, "that wild whaling life where individual notabilities make up all totalities." Paradox:

a) The great propagators of nihilism lacked an essential weapon: the sense of historic reality, the sense of the reality of decay, erosion, fragmentation.

b) Those who have made history in the period of bourgeois decline have been tragically lacking in any acute awareness of the immense dissolvent power of history in this period. Marx failed to analyze Romanticism and the artistic phenomenon in general. Lenin was wilfully blind to the importance of everyday life and its degeneration, of the Futurists, of Mayakovsky, or of the Dadaists.

Nihilism and historical consciousness have yet to join forces: Marx smashing something better than the street lamps in Kentish Town; Mallarmé with fire in his belly. The gap between these two forces is an open door to the hordes of passive liquidators, nihilists of the official world doggedly destroying the already dead values they pretend to believe in. How long must we bear the hegemony of these communist bureaucrats, fascist brutes, opinion makers, pockmarked politicians, sub-Joycean writers, neo-Dadaist thinkers all preaching the fragmentary, all working assiduously for the Big Sleep and justifying themselves in the name of one Order or another: the family, morality, culture, the flag, the space race, margarine, etc. Perhaps nihilism could not have attained the status of platitude if history had not advanced so far. But advanced it has. Nihilism is a self-destruct mechanism: today a flame, tomorrow ashes. The old values in ruins today feed the intensive production of consumable and "futurized" values sold under the old label of "the modern"; but they also thrust us inevitably towards a future yet to be constructed, towards the transcendence of nihilism. In the consciousness of the new generation a slow reconciliation is occurring between history's destructive and constructive tendencies. The alliance of nihilism and transcendence means that transcendence will be total. Here lies the only wealth to be found in the affluent society.

When the individual of ressentiment becomes aware of the dead loss which is survival, they turn into a nihilist. They embrace the impossibility of living so tightly that even survival becomes impossible. Once you are in that void, everything breaks up. The horrors. Past and future explode; the present is ground zero. And from ground zero there are only two ways out, two kinds of nihilism: active and passive.

***

The passive nihilist compromises with his own lucidity about the collapse of all values. They make one final nihilistic gesture: throw a dice to decide their "cause", and become its devoted slave, for Art's sake, and for the sake of a little bread.... Nothing is true, so a few gestures become hip. Joe Soap intellectuals, pataphysicians, crypto-fascists, aesthetes of the acte gratuit, mercenaries, Kim Philbys, pop-artists, psychedelic impresarios bandwagon after bandwagon works out its own version of the credo quia absurdum est: you don't believe in it, but you do it anyway; you get used to it and you even get to like it in the end. Passive nihilism is an overture to conformism.

After all, nihilism can never be more than a transition, a shifting, ill-defined sphere, a period of wavering between two extremes, one leading to submission and subservience, the other to permanent revolt. Between the two poles stretches a no-man's-land, the wasteland of the suicide and the solitary killer, of the criminal described so aptly by Bettina as the crime of the State. Jack the Ripper is essentially inaccessible. The mechanisms of hierarchical power cannot touch him; he cannot be touched by revolutionary will. He gravitates round that zero-point beyond which destruction, instead of reinforcing the destruction wrought by power, beats it at its own game, excites it to such violence that the machine of the Penal Colony, stabbing wildly, shatters into pieces and flies apart. Maldoror takes the disintegration of contemporary social organization to its logical conclusion: to the stage of its self-destruction. The individual's absolute rejection of society as a response to society's absolute rejection of the individual. Isn't this the still point of the reversal of perspective, the exact point where movement, dialectics and time no longer exist? Noon and eternity of the great refusal. Before it, the pogroms; beyond it, the new innocence. The blood of Jews or the blood of cops.

***

The active nihilist does not simply watch things fall apart. He criticizes the causes of disintegration by speeding up the process. Sabotage is a natural response to the chaos ruling the world. Active nihilism is pre-revolutionary; passive nihilism is counter revolutionary. And most people waltz tragicomically between the two. Like the red soldier described by some Soviet author Victor Chlovsky perhaps who never charged without shouting, "Long Live the Tsar!" But circumstances inevitably end by drawing a line, and people suddenly find themselves, once and for all, on one side or the other of the barricades.

You learn to dance for yourself on the off-beat of the official world. And you must follow your demands to their logical conclusion, not accept a compromise at the first setback. Consumer society's frantic need to manufacture new needs adroitly cashes in on the way-out, the bizarre and the shocking. Black humour and real agony turn up on Madison Avenue. Flirtation with non-conformism is an integral part of prevailing values. Awareness of the decay of values has its role to play in sales strategy. More and more pure rubbish is marketed. The figurine salt-shaker of Kennedy, complete with "bullet-holes" through which to pour salt, for sale in the supermarket, should be enough to convince anybody, if there is anybody who still needs convincing, how easily a joke which once would have delighted Ravachol or Peter the Painter now merely helps to keep the market going.

Consciousness of decay reached its most explosive expression in Dada. Dada really did contain the seeds by which nihilism could have been surpassed; but it just left them to rot, along with all the rest. The whole ambiguity of surrealism, on the other hand, lies in the fact that it was an accurate critique made at the wrong moment. While its critique of the transcendence aborted by Dada was perfectly justified, when it in its turn tried to surpass Dada it did so without going back to Dada's initial nihilism, without basing itself on Dada-anti-Dada, without seeing Dada historically. History was the nightmare from which the surrealists never awoke: they were defenseless before the Communist Party, they were out of their depth with the Spanish Civil War. For all their yapping they slunk after the official left like faithful dogs.

Certain features of Romanticism had already proved, without awakening the slightest interest on the part of either Marx or Engels, that art the pulse of culture and society is the first index of the decay and disintegration of values. A century later, while Lenin thought that the whole issue was beside the point, the Dadaist could see the artistic abscess as a symptom of a cancer whose poison was spread throughout society. Unpleasant art only reflects the repression of pleasure instituted by Power. It is this the Dadaists of 1916 proved so cogently. To go beyond this analysis could mean only one thing: to take up arms. The neo-Dadaist larvae pullulating in the shitheap of present-day consumption have found more profitable employment.

The Dadaists, working to cure themselves and their civilization of their discontents working, in the last analysis, more coherently than Freud himself built the first laboratory for the revitalization of everyday life. Their activity was far more radical than their theory. Grosz: "The point was to work completely in the dark. We didn't know where we were going." The Dada group was a funnel sucking in all the trivia and garbage cluttering up the world. Reappearing at the other end, everything was transformed, original, brand new. Though people and things stayed the same they took on totally new meanings. The reversal of perspective was begun in the magic of rediscovering lost experience. Subversion, the tactics of the reversal of perspective, overthrew the rigid frame of the old world. This upheaval showed exactly what is meant by "poetry made by everyone" a far cry indeed from the literary mentality to which the surrealists eventually succumbed.

The initial weakness of Dada lay in its extraordinary humility. Think of Tzara, who, it is said, used every morning to repeat Descartes' statement, "l don't even want to know whether there were men before me." In this Tzara, a buffoon taking himself as seriously as a pope, it is not hard to recognize the same individual who would later spit on the memory of such men as Ravachol, Bonnot and Makhno's peasant army by joining up with the Stalinist herds.

If Dada broke up because transcendence was impossible, the blame still lies on the Dadaists themselves for having failed to search the past for the real occasions when such transcendence became a possibility: those moments when the masses arise and take their destiny into their own hands.

***

The first compromise is always terrible in its effects. Dada's original error tainted its heirs irrevocably: it infected surrealism throughout its history, and finally turned malignant witness neo-Dadaism. Admittedly, the surrealists looked to the past. But with what results? While they were right in recognizing the subversive genius of a Sade, a Fourier or a Lautréamont, all they could do then was to write so much and so well about them as to win for their heroes the honour of a few timid footnotes in progressive school textbooks. A literary celebrity much like the celebrity the Neo-Dadaists win for their forebears in the present spectacle of decomposition.

The only modern phenomena comparable to Dada are the most savage outbreaks of juvenile delinquency. The same contempt for art and bourgeois values. The same refusal of ideology. The same will to live. The same ignorance of history. The same barbaric revolt. The same lack of tactics.

The nihilist makes one mistake: they do not realize that other people are also nihilists, and that the nihilism of other people is now an active historical factor. They have no consciousness of the possibility of transcendence. The fact is, however, that the present reign of survival, in which all the talk about progress expresses nothing so much as the fear that progress may be impossible, is the outcome of a series of past revolutionary defeats. The history of survival is the historical movement which will eventually turn these defeats into harbingers of victory.

Awareness of just how nightmarish life has become is on the point of fusing with a rediscovery of the real revolutionary movement in the past. We must reappropriate the most radical aspects of all past revolts and insurrections at the point where they were prematurely arrested, and bring to this task all the violence bottled up inside us. A chain explosion of subterranean creativity cannot fail to overturn the world of hierarchical power. In the last reckoning, the nihilists are our only allies. They cannot possibly go on living as they are. Their lives are like an open wound. A revolutionary perspective could put all the latent energy generated by years of repression at the service of their will to live. Anyone who combines consciousness of past renunciations with a historical consciousness of decomposition is ready to take up arms in the cause of the transformation of daily life and of the world. Nihilists, as de Sade would have said, one more effort if you want to be revolutionaries!

 

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