The Revolution of Everyday Life

Survival and false opposition to it

Published in The Revolution of Everyday Life 1967

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).


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.'"


    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.


    Chapter 18 "Spurious Opposition"


    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.


    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!


Page generated by the dadaPHP system.

0.0136 sec.