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The Revolution of Everyday Life:
The Reversal of Perspective

by Raoul Vaneigem


Chapter 21 "Masters Without Slaves"

3

The master without slaves, or the aristocratic supersession of the aristocracy. The master lost out in the same way as God. He topples like a Golem the moment he stops loving mankind, and thus the moment he ceases to enjoy indulging his pleasure of oppressing them. That's when he abandons hedonism. There is little fun just moving things around, dealing with being inert as bricks. With fine discernment. God seeks out living creatures with smooth palpitating flesh whose souls shiver in terror and respect. To confirm His own grandeur, He needs to feel the presence of His subjects, fervent in prayer, competition, cunning, and even insult. The Catholic God is quite good at lending out a little genuine freedom, in the manner of a pawnbroker. Like a cat with a mouse, He lets men alone, until the Last Judgment when He'll gobble them up. Then, towards the close of the Middle Ages when the bourgeoisie enters on the scene, we see Him humanising Himself; paradoxically, for He is becoming an object, just as each man is. When He condemns men to predestination, Calvin's God loses the pleasure of arbitrariness: He's no longer free to crush whom He will, nor when He will. The God of commercial transactions, humourless, as cold and calculated as a discount rate, is ashamed; He hides away. Deus absconditus. The dialogue is broken. Pascal despairs. Descartes does not know what to do with a soul that is suddenly unattached. Later - too late - Kierkegaard will attempt to resuscitate the subjective God by resuscitating men's subjectivity. But nothing can bring God back to life once He has become in men's minds "the great external object"; He is definitely dead, turned to stone, like coral. Moreover, mankind, caught in the rigor mortis of His last embrace (the hierarchical form of power), seems doomed to reification, the death of what's human. The perspective of power offers our gaze nothing but things, fragments of the great divine rock. Isn't it according to this perspective that sociology, psychology, economics, and the so-called "human" sciences - so anxious to observe "objectively" - focus their microscopes?

What forces the master to abandon his hedonism? What prevents him reaching total enjoyment if not his position as master, his prejudice for hierarchical superiority? That renunciation grows greater as hierarchy fragments, as masters multiply and shrink in status, as history democratises power. The imperfect enjoyment of the masters has become the enjoyment of imperfect masters. We have seen the bourgeois masters, Ubuesque plebians, crown their beerhall revolt with the funeral festivity of Fascism. But there will be no more festivities among the masters/slaves, among the last of hierarchical man; only the sadness of things, a gloomy placidity, uneasy role-playing, the awareness of "belng nothing".

What will become of these things that govern us? Must we destroy them? Given an affirmative, those best prepared to liquidate the slaves-in-power are those who've been struggling against slavery all along. Popular creativity, which neither lords nor bosses have managed to break, will never kow-tow to programmatic necessity and technocrats' plans. You might object that less passion and enthusiasm are aroused by liquidating an abstract form and a system than by executing detested masters; that's to see the problem in the wrong light, the light of power. Unlike the bourgeoisie, the proletariat does not define itself in terms of its class enemy; it brings the end of class distinction and hierarchy. The role of the bourgeoisie was uniquely negative. Saint-Just captures it superbly: "What constitutes a republic is the total destruction of what opposes it."

If the bourgeoisie is content with forging weapons against feudalism and therefore against itself, the proletariat, on the other hand, contains its own possible supersession. It is poetry momentarily alienated by the ruling class or technocratic organisation, but always on the point of bursting out. As the sole trustee of the will to live since it has felt to the full how intolerable is mere survival, the proletariat will break the wall of constralnts by the breath of its pleasure and the spontaneous violence of its creativity. It already possesses all the joy to be had and all the laughter to offer. It draws its strength and passion from itself. What it is preparing to build will in addition destroy all that opposes it just as a new tape recording erases the previous one. The proletariat will abolish itself at the same instant that it abolishes the power of things, with luxuriance, a trace of nonchalance and the grace worn by the man who has proved his superiority. The masters wlthout slaves will emerge from the new proletariat; not the conditioned robots of humanism that the self-styled 'revolutionary' leftist onanists dream about. The insurrectional violence of the masses is only one aspect of the proletariat's creativity, its impatience to abolish itself, as strong as its desires to carry out the sentence that survival pronounces upon itself.

I like to distinguish - a specious distinction - three predominant passions in the destruction of the reified order. The passion for absolute power, exercised over objects placed immediately at the service of men; without the mediation of men themselves. It's therefore the destruction of those hooked on the order of things, the slave-owners of fragmented power. "Because we can no longer stand the sight of slaves, we suppress them." (Nietzsche)

The the passion to destroy constraints, to smash the chains. As De Sade says: "Can lawful pleasure compare with the delights which combine far more piquant attractions with the inestimable joy of breaking social constraints and overthrowing all laws?"

The passion to straighten out a miserable past, to re-excite old disappointed hopes as much in each individual life as in the history of crushed revolutions. Just as once it was legitimate to punish Louis XVI for the crimes of his predecessors, so today there's no lack of passionate reasons, as it's impossible to take revenge on things, to wipe out the memory of the executed Communards, the torture of the peasants of 1525, the assassination of workers, revolutionaries hunted down and shot, civilisations obliterated by colonialism, so much pain in free souls from past misery that the present has never eradicated. The correction of history has become passionate because it is possible: to swamp the blood of Babeuf, Lacenaire, Ravachol and Bonnot in the blood of the hidden descendants of those who, as slaves of an order founded on profit and economic mechanisms, thought to put cruel checks on human emancipation.

The pleasure of overthrowing power, being master-without-slaves and righting the past is what lies uppermost in the subjectivity of each of us. In the revolutionary moment, every man is invited to make his own history himself. Freedom of realization as a cause, while ceasing to be a cause, always espouses subjectivity. Only such a perspective can loosen the riot of intoxicating possibilities and the giddy feeling when every delight is within the grasp of all.

*

Take care that the old order of things doesn't collapse on the heads of those demolishing it. The avalanche of the consumable could drag us down in the final fall if people don't take care to arrange collective shelters against the conditioning of the spectacle and hierarchical organisation; shelters from which further offensives will be launched. The microsocieties that are now forming will realise the former masters' project as they free it from its hierarchical mould. The supersession of the "grand seigneur bad man" will apply to the letter that admirable principle of Keats: "Everything that can be annihilated must be annihilated so that children may be saved from slavery".

This supersession must operate simultaneously on three levels:
1. Supersession of patriarchal organisation.
2. Supersession of hierarchical power.
3. Supersession of the arbitrarily subjective, the authoritarian whim.

1. - Lineage contains the magic strength of the aristocracy, the energy transmitted from generation to generation. By undermining feudal mastery, the bourgeoisie was led against its will to undermine the family. And it acts the same way towards the organisation of society... I've already said that this very negativity surely represents its richest, most 'positive', aspect. But what the bourgeoisie lacks is the possibility of supersession. What would the supersession of an aristocratic type of family imply? We would have to answer: the formation of coherent groups where individual creativity is totally invested in collective creativity and strengthened by it; where the immediacy of the lived present takes over the energy potential which in feudal times derived from the past. The relative weakness of the master paralysed by his own hierarchical system brings to mind the weakness of the child brought up within the bourgeois family framework.

The child acquires a subjective experience of freedom unknown to any other animal species. but he remains for all that subjectively dependent upon his parents - he needs their care and their solicitude. What differentiates child from animal is that the child possesses a feeling of the continuous transformation of the world, or poetry, to an unlimited degree. At the same time he is denied access to the techniques that adults use most of the time against such poetry, for example against children by conditioning them. And when children, in their maturity, finally acquire the techniques, they have lost, under the weight of constraints, what made their childhood superior. The universe of the masters of old falls under the same curse as the universe of children: they have no access to the techniques of liberation. Consequently they are condemned to dream of world transformation and live according to the laws of adaptation to it. One was quite justified in believing that hierarchical organisation was the best means of concentrating social energy in a world where that energy didn't enjoy the valuable support of machinery. But once the bourgeoisie develops highly effective techniques for transforming the world, then hierarchical power becomes anachronistic, and acts like a brake on the development of human power over the world. The hierarchical system, man's power over man, prevents the recognition of worthwhile adversaries, thwarting the real transformation of one's surroundings. Instead, it just saddles one with the need to adapt to the environment and conform to the state of things. That's why:

2. In order to smash the social screen that messes up our vision, we postulate the categorical rejection of any hierarchy within the group. The very notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat deserves attention. On most occasions, the dictatorship of the proletariat turns into dictatorship over the proletariat, and becomes institutionalized. Now, as Lenin wrote: "The dictatorship of the proletariat is a relentless struggle, both bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative, against the forces and tradition of the Old World." The proletariat cannot set up a lasting domination, since it cannot exercise a dictatorship that no-one wants. Conversely, the absolute need to smash the enemy obliges it to concentrate in its hands a strongly coherent repressive power. So it's a matter of passing through a dictatorship that itself negates itself, as the party "whose victory must also be its defeat", the proletariat itself. The proletariat, through its dictatorship, must immediately make its own negation its first priority. It has no choice but to liquidate, in a short space of time, bloodily or not as circumstances permit, those who stand in the way of its project of total freedom and those who oppose the ending of its existence as proletariat. It must utterly destroy them as vermin. Every single individual must root out the slightest inclination for prestige and the most trivial hierarchical pretensions, and raise against these roles a calm impetus towards authentic life.

3. - The end of roles means the triumph of subjectivity. Once this subjectivity is finally recognized and set at the centre of concern, contradictorily it brings a new objectivity into being. A new world of objects, or, if you prefer, a new nature, will create itself out of the needs of individual subjectivity. Here too a relationship is established between childhood's perspective and that of the feudal masters. In the one as in the other, even though in a completely different manner, the possibilities are masked by the screen of social alienation.

Who can have forgotten? Childhood solitudes would open on primaeval vastness, and every stick was a magic wand. Then we had to adapt, become social and sociable. The solitude was depopulated, the children chose despite themselves to grow old, and the vastness closed up like a story book. Nobody in this world completely escapes the sewers of puberty. Childhood itself is slowly colonised by consumer society. Those under ten join "teen-agers" in the great consumer family and grow older faster as "junior consumers'. It's impossible at this point not to feel the similarity between the historical dethronement of the masters of old and the growing decadence of the kingdom of childhood. Never before has the corruption of humanity reached such an intensity. Never before have we been so near and yet so far from the total man.

The caprices of the masters of old, the lords, were insidiously inferior to the whims of the child, for they demanded the repression of other men. Whatever subjectivity there is in feudal arbitrariness - as I choose I shall give you riches or death - is spoilt and fettered by the poverty of its realisation. The master's subjectivity is only realised by denying the subjectivity of others, and thus by loading itself with chains; it chains itself by chaining others.

The child does not have this privilege of imperfection. In one fell swoop he loses his right to pure subjectivity. He's taunted with childishness, encouraged to behave like a grown-up. Any everyone grows up, suppressing his childhood to the point where cretinism and death pangs convince him that he's managing to live like an adult.

The child's game like that of the great noble, needs to be freed and given the honour it is due. Today, the moment is historically favourable. It's a matter of saving childhood and its sovereign subjectivity, childhood and the laughter which is like the rippling of spontaneity, childhood and its way of relying upon itself to light up the world, and the objects within it, in a strangely familiar light - by realizing the project of the masters of old.

We have lost the beauty of things, their way of existing, by letting them die at the hands of power and the gods. Surrealism's magnificent dream tried in vain to bring them back to life and suffuse them with poetry. But the power of imagination alone is not enough to shatter the framework in which social alienation imprisons things, for it doesn't return them to the free play of subjectivity. In the light of power, a stone, a tree, a concrete mixer, or a cyclotron are dead objects, crosses planted on the will to see them differently and change them. And yet, beyond what they have been made to mean, I know I shall find their exhilaration again. I know what emotion a machine can awaken when brought into the game, into fantasy and freedom. In a world where everything is alive, including trees and rocks, nothing is just passively contemplated. Everything speaks of joy. Subjectivity's triumph gives everything life; and isn't the fact that dead things exercise an intolerable domination over subjectivity really the best chance, historically, of arriving at a superior way of life?

What does it take? The realisation in today's language - that is to say, praxis - of what a heretic once declared to Ruysbroeck : "God can know, wish, do nothing without me. With God I have created myself and I have created all things, and it is my hand that supports heaven and earth and all creatures. Without me nothing exists."

We must discover new frontiers. If the bounds of social alienation still imprison us, at least they no longer deceive us. For centuries men have remained before a wormeaten door, piercing little pin-holes in it with growing ease. One kick is now enough to knock it down, and that's when everything begins. The proletariat's problem is no longer to seize power, but to put a definite end to it. On the other side of the hierarchical world, the possibilities come to meet us. The primacy of life over survival will be the historical movement which will unmake history. We have yet to invent worthwhile adversaries. It is up to us to find them, and to join them through the looking-glass of childhood.

Will we see men resume the cosmic communication that the first inhabitants of the earth must have known, only this time on a higher level reaching way above prehistory, and without the fearful trembling of early man defenceless before its mystery? In short, will men impose a human meaning on the universe which would most beneficially replace the divine meaning with which it was invested at the dawn of time?

And this other infinite, man as he really is? Could he not one day govern his body, this constant flow of nerves, his beautiful muscular system and his wayfaring through dreams? Couldn't the exploits of individual will finally freed by collective will get beyond the already sinister degree of control that police conditioning can impose on the human being? We know how to make a dog. a brick and a cop out of a man; do we know how to make a man?

We have never really believed our infallibility. We have left that claim - out of pride perhaps - to unalterable forms and wrinkled old men: power, God, the Pope, the boss, the others. And yet every time we refer to Society, God, or All-powerful Justice, we're really talking about our own power, even though, it's true, we are talking rather badly and indirectly. We are one step above prehistory. It's the dawn of another human organisation, a society where individual creativity gives its energy free reign, to shape the world according to each individual's dreams harmonised by all.

Utopia? Get stuffed! How condescension drivels! Who doesn't behave as if this world wasn't the dearest thing he owned? Sure, there are many who've let go, and now fall as despairingly as once they held on. Everyone wants his subjectivity to win out: we must therefore base the unity of men upon this common desire. No-one can strengthen his subjectivity without others helping him, without the aid of a group which has itself developed a subjective centre, a faithful reflection of the subjectivity of its members. The Situationist International is so far the only group to decide to defend radical subjectivity.

 

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