from The Revolution Of Everyday Lifeby Raoul Vaneigem
A new translation from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith
The Age of Happiness
In anachronistic fashion, the modern welfare state provides the guarantees of survival once demanded by the disinherited members of the former production-based society. Affluent survival means the impoverishment of life. Purchasing power is a licence to purchase power, to become an object in the order of things. Oppressor and oppressed alike fall prey - albeit at different rates – to the self-same dictatorship of consumption.
The face of happiness ceased to appear like a watermark in works of art and literature the moment it began to be reproduced endlessly, as far as the eye could see, on walls and hoardings, offering each individual passer-by universal images with which to identify.
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Three cheers for Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham! Happiness is not a myth! ‘The more we produce, the better we shall live’, writes the humanist Jean Fourastié, and another genius, General Eisenhower, takes up the refrain: ‘To save the economy we must buy – buy anything, but buy!’ Production and consumption are the tits of modern society. Thus suckled, humanity grows stronger and more beautiful. A higher standard of living, countless conveniences, entertainment galore, culture for all – in short, a once undreamt-of level of comfort. Meanwhile, on the horizon of the Khrushchev Report, the rosy dawn of Communism is breaking at last, a new age heralded by two revolutionary decrees: the abolition of taxes and free transport for all. Yes, the golden age is in sight – indeed within spitting distance.
Conspicuously absent from this picture of transformation is the proletariat. Could it have vanished into thin air? Taken to the hills? Been put in a museum? Sociologi disputant. Some say that in the advanced industrial countries the proletarian is no more, as witness an avalanche of fridges, TVs, Renault Dauphines, public housing developments and people’s theatres. Others denounce all this as hocus-pocus and point meaningfully to a few remaining workers whose low wages and wretched conditions indisputably evoke the nineteenth century. ‘Backward sectors,’ comes the retort. ‘Pockets still in the process of integration. Surely you won’t deny that the trend of economic development is towards Sweden, Czechoslovakia, the welfare state, and not towards India?’
The black curtain rises: the search for the hungry, for the last of the proletarians, is on. Hurrah for whoever sells him a car and a blender, a basement bar or a home library; for whoever teaches him to see himself in the smiling character in the ever so reassuring ad: ‘Happiness is a Lucky Strike.’
And happy, happy humanity, so soon to receive the care packages addressed to it at such great cost by the rebels of the nineteenth century! How very lucky the insurgents of Lyons and Fourmies have turned out to be – albeit posthumously! The millions of human beings shot, imprisoned, tortured, starved, brutalized and systematically humiliated must surely be at peace, in their cemeteries and mass graves, to know how history has made sure that the struggle in which they died has enabled their descendants, isolated in their air-conditioned apartments, to learn from their daily dose of TV how to repeat that they are happy and free. ‘The Communards went down, fighting to the last man, so that you too could buy a Philips hifi.’ A fine legacy indeed – one that must surely warm the cockles of all those revolutionaries of the past.
Only the present is short-shrifted in this accounting. Ungrateful and uncouth, the younger generation cares nothing for a glorious past offered as a free gift to every consumer of Trotskyoid-reformist ideology. They claim that making demands means making demands for the here and now. They insist that the sense of past struggles was rooted in the present of those who fought them – a present, however, which despite changed historical circumstances they themselves still inhabit. In short, if we are to believe them, a single unchanging project underlies all radical revolutionary currents, namely the project of the whole human being, powered by that will to total life which Marx was the first to equip with a scientific tactical plan. But these are pernicious theories which the holy churches of Christ and Stalin have never missed an opportunity to stigmatize. Higher wages, more refrigerators, more holy sacraments and more National Popular Theatres – surely these should suffice to quell the revolutionary hankerings of today?
Is the welfare state inevitable? Naturally, right-thinking people are bound to deplore the forms taken by opposition to an agenda approved by everyone from Khrushchev to Albert Schweitzer, from the Pope to Fidel Castro, from Louis Aragon to the late Mr Kennedy. In December 1956, for example, a thousand young people ran wild in the streets of Stockholm, setting fire to cars, demolishing neon signs, slashing advertising posters, looting department stores. At Merlebach, during a strike called to force owners to bring up the bodies of seven miners killed by a cave-in, the workers directed their fury at the cars parked at the pit-head. In January 1961, strikers in Liège burned down the Guillemins railway station and destroyed the premises of the newspaper La Meuse. Concerted onslaughts on seaside resorts on the English and Belgian coasts were mounted by hundreds of juvenile delinquents in March 1964. In Amsterdam in 1966 the workers held the streets for several days. Not a month goes by without a wildcat strike pitting workers against employers and union bosses alike. Welfare state? The people of Watts have given their answer.
The words of a worker in Espérance-Longdoz encapsulate the clash between his point of view and that of such sociological watchdogs of our future as Jean Fourastié, Peter Berger, Louis Armand and Abraham Moles: ‘Since 1936 I have been fighting for higher wages. My father before me fought for higher wages. I’ve got a TV, a fridge and a VW. If you ask me, it’s been a dog’s life from start to finish.’
The words and deeds of the new poetry have no room for the welfare state.
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In the kingdom of consumption the citizen is king. A democratic monarchy: equality in consumption (a), fraternity via consumption (b), liberty as per consumption ©. The dictatorship of consumption has completed the abolition of barriers of blood, lineage and race; this would be great cause for celebration were it not for the fact that consumption, with its logic of things, prohibits all qualitative differentiation and permits only quantitative differences between values and human beings.
The distance between those who possess the most and those who possess a small (if ever-increasing)amount has not shrunk; but the intermediate levels have multiplied, and so to speak brought the two extremes, rulers and ruled, closer to the same mediocrity. To be rich nowadays means to possess a large number of impoverished objects.
Consumer goods tend to lose all use-value. Their nature is to be consumable at all costs, as witness the recent American fad for the ‘nothing box’ – an object with no conceivable utility. And as General Eisenhower explained in all candour, the present economic system can be rescued only by turning human beings into consumers, conflating them with the largest possible number of consumable values - which is to say non-values, empty, fictitious, abstract values. After being ‘the most precious kind of capital’, in Stalin’s happy phrase, human beings must now become the most highly prized of consumer goods. Stereotyped images – movie star, poor person, Communist, murderer-out-of-love, law-abiding citizen, rebel, bourgeois - are about to replace humanity with a punch-card system of categories arranged in accordance with an irrefutable robotic logic. Already the idea of ‘teenager’ tends to identify buyers and what they buy, reducing their real variety to a still varied but circumscribed range of commodities (records, guitars, Levis, etc.). You are no longer as old as you feel or as old as you look, but as ‘old’ as what you buy. The time of production, of ‘time is money’, is giving way to the time of consumption (in both the figurative and the material senses of the word), a time measured in terms of products bought, worn out and thrown away - the time of that premature old age which is the eternal youth of trees and stones.
The theory of pauperization is strikingly confirmed today - not, as Marx expected, in terms of goods necessary for survival, since these, far from becoming scarce, have become more and more abundant, but rather in terms of survival itself, which is ever the enemy of real life. Modern comforts seemed at first to promise everyone a life richer even than the dolce vita of the feudal aristocracy. But in fact they turned out to be mere offshoots of capitalist productivity, offshoots doomed to premature old age as soon as the distribution system transformed them into nothing but objects of passive consumption. Working to survive, surviving by consuming and for the sake of consuming: the hellish cycle is complete. According to the logic of the-economy-rules, survival is both necessary and sufficient. This is the basic reality of the bourgeois era. But it is also true that a historical period based on such an anti-human reality must needs be a period of transition, an intermediate stage between the life genuinely lived, if less than transparently, by the feudal masters and the life that will be constructed rationally and passionately by masters without slaves. We have only thirty-odd years left in which to prevent this transitional period of slaves without masters from reaching its bicentennial.
From the point of view of everyday life, the bourgeois revolution has not a few counter-revolutionary aspects. Rarely, on the market of human values, has the conception of existence suffered such a sharp devaluation. Proclaimed so defiantly to the whole universe, the bourgeoisie’s pledge to usher in the reign of liberty and well-being served merely to underscore the mediocrity of a life which the aristocracy had managed to fill with passion and adventure but which, once made accessible to all, resembled nothing so much as a palace split up into servants’ quarters. Thereafter hate would give way to contempt, love to attachment, the ridiculous to the stupid, passion to sentimentality, desire to envy, reason to calculation, and lust for life to desperation to survive. The utterly despicable ethos of profit replaced the utterly detestable ethos of honour; the mysterious and perfectly ridiculous power of birth and blood gave way to the perfectly Ubuesque power of money. The inheritors of the formal abolition of feudalism on 4 August 1789 elevated bank balances and turnover figures to the status of coats of arms, transforming the mystery of nobility into the mystery of the account book.
What is the mystery of money? The clear answer is that money represents a sum of beings and things that can be appropriated. The nobleman’s heraldic shield expresses God’s choice and the real power exercised by his chosen; money is no more than a sign of what might be acquired: a draft on power, a possible choice. The feudal God, apparently the foundation of the social order, was really only the pretext for it, its glorious rationale. Money, that odourless god of the bourgeois, is likewise a mediation, a social contract. A god swayed no longer by prayers or oaths but by specialized science and technology. A deity whose mystery resides no longer in a dark, impenetrable totality but rather in the sum of an infinite number of partial certainties; no longer in the unique value of lordship but rather in the value of all the beings and venal things that a million dollars, say, puts within reach of its possessor.
From the pre-eminence of blood to the power of money, from the pre-eminence of money to the power of novelties, Christian and socialist civilization has now attained its highest stage: a civilization of the prosaic and the trivial. The perfect dwelling-place for Nietzsche’s ‘little man’.
Purchasing power is a licence to purchase power. The old proletariat sold its labour power in order to subsist; what little leisure time remained proletarians spent as best they could in conversation, arguments, tavern games, country matters, going on the tramp, festivity and riot. The new proletariat sells its labour power in order to consume. When they are not too busy working themselves to death in hopes of a promotion, workers are invited to buy objects – a car, a suit and tie, some culture - that will signal their social rank. We have reached the point where the ideology of consumption becomes the consumption of ideology. Never underestimate the importance of East-West exchanges! In the West, homo consumator buys a bottle of whiskey and receives the lie that comes with it; in the East, Communist man buys ideology and gets a bottle of vodka for free. Paradoxically, Soviet and capitalist regimes are on the same path, the one by virtue of a production-driven economy, the other by virtue of a consumption-driven one.
In the USSR, the surplus labour of a worker does not, strictly speaking, enrich the comrade-manager of the enterprise. It merely increases that manager’s power as organizer and bureaucrat. The surplus value here is a surplus value of power. (But this new-fangled surplus value is nevertheless subject to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall: Marx’s laws of economic life are now borne out in the economy of life.) The manager earns his surplus power not from money-capital, but from a primitive accumulation of confidence-capital generated thanks to the passive absorption of ideology. The car and the dacha thrown in as a bonus to reward services to country, proletariat, output and the Cause clearly prefigure a form of social organization in which money will indeed have disappeared, giving way to honorific distinctions, ranks, a mandarinate of muscle and specialization.
As differences grow in number and shrink in significance, the real distance between rich and poor diminishes, and mankind is levelled into mere variations on poverty. The logical culmination of this process would be a cybernetic society composed of specialists ranked hierarchically according to their aptitude for consuming - and having others consume - the doses of power necessary for the functioning of a gigantic social apparatus of whichthey themselves would be at once the programme and the outcome. A society of exploiters/exploited where some slaves would be more equal than others.
This leaves the ‘third world’. The old forms of oppression. That the serfs of the latifundia should be the contemporaries of the new proletariat seems to me a perfect formula for an explosive mix from which total revolution will emerge. Who would seriously suggest that the peons and Indians of South America will be satisfied with land reform and fully equipped kitchens and lay down their arms when the best paid workers in Europe are demanding a radical change in their way of life? No, the revolt against the welfare state will set the minimum demands for revolutions worldwide. Those who forget this will learn the hard way what Saint-Just meant when he observed that ‘those who make revolutions by halves will have merely dug their own graves’.
About the Author
RAOUL VANEIGEM was born in Lessines, Belgium, in 1934. A leading light in the Situationist International in the 1960s, he is a prolific writer and a relentless critic of late capitalism.
His Traite de savoir-vivre a l'usage des jeunes generations, known in English translation as The Revolution of Everyday Life, was written during the Cold War in 1963-65. It is one of two influential books, the other being Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, published by the Situationist International just months before the May 1968 upheavals in France. The extract presented here is from a completely revised translation forthcoming next fall from PM Press (www.pmpress.org).
DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH is a longtime resident of Brooklyn who has translated Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Jean-Patrick Manchette.