I have had this on my to-read list for years. This is the first Situationist text that I have read and its influence is obvious, while reading it I recognized a lot that I had seen before in other cultural artefacts that came after it, from punk bands as Crass with which I sort of grew up to anarchist and political zines I’ve read over the years. As with everything, it’s good to finally read the original. It is also good read one of the main ’68 texts yourself rather than just the usual historically appropriated accounts of what it was all about. With the events May ’68 in your mind, it’s crazy to see to what extent writers like Vaneigem sort of expected something along those lines to happen. But it is also shocking to see to what extent we have actually regressed in achieving the radical changes Vaneigem envisioned.
The foundation of Vaneigem’s theory was to me surprisingly orthodox Marxist. Most of his account of history is basically the same as the one you can find in the communist manifesto. The bourgeoisie superseded the feudal system, which enabled capitalism and the creation of the proletariat. But the dominance of the bourgeoisie is only a transitional phase in the development of humanity, as the very same capitalism that they created allowed for the progress in productive forces and technology which will allow the proletariat to take over and finally actualize the egalitarian visions. The main thing that Vaneigem and the Situationists add is that it is not just about material conditions, which in the rich industrialized countries took the proletariat beyond the struggle of survival, it is the poverty of everyday life. The poverty of choice offered by our shallow consumer society, the lack of imagination, the alienation, and that all the liberal freedoms offered are a sham. “Anyone who talks about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life – without grasping what is subversive about love and positive in the refusal of constraints – has a corpse in his mouth”. According to Vaneigem, we’re past the struggle of survival, as in many parts of the world we have achieved a decent enough standard of material well-being. We’ve got our fridges and televisions. Now we want to live, not just survive. He loathes the work-ethic that was (and to a smaller extent still is) a big part of the Left, in for example the right-to-work campaigns and simplistic narrowing of class struggle to wage-bargaining. He reminds that the Latin word for labour means suffering. “Today the love of a job well done and belief in the rewards of hard work signal nothing so much as spineless and stupid submission”.
It is easy to see the appeal of all this, it´s not material poverty that pisses off young radicals in the ‘rich West’, it is this poverty of everyday life that makes us want to throw bricks at the cops. Vaneigem wants to give free reign to subjectivity, to our individual desires to live intensely. The theory he sets out is logical and coherent, but to me ultimately unsatisfying. You can write of the ‘rich West’ all you like, and we’re still free from the risk of starvation, but what’s left of the fat Keynesian-Fordist welfare state? This radical critique written in the heydays of welfare state capitalism made me angry. Angry at the so-called ‘social-democrats’ that have been destroying the welfare state, our social security, social housing, labour rights, healthcare-system and public services, by completely giving into neoliberal reforms. But also angry at Vaneigem, that constantly belittles all the achievements of that welfare state that was once ours, and which was achieved by socialist parties, through trade-union organizing, and militant leftists of all these ‘-isms’ that he loathes (Socialism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism etc). I wish we still had expanding welfare state with its annual wage increases that he bemoans. I am not saying that we should go back to the welfare state of the past and leave it at that, far from it, I completely support Vaneigem’s analysis of the poverty of everyday life, but I think that the revolution required to overthrow it is much more probable with the leftist militantism of the 60s and 70s that he despises still around.
What it basically comes down to is that I detest the puritanism of it all. This puritanism is present in Vaneigem´s writing and also in many other anarchist writings. He is against all kinds of hierarchy, against all kinds of reform and against any kind of sacrifice, as your actions should always come from your own true inner self (what is this true inner self anyway and how can we know?*), never from an “ideology” or leader. Never cooperate with more ‘reformist’ organizations. No mass organizations. Only self-managed communities and small radical cells. “I have already said that the confused conflict between so-called progressives and reactionaries comes down to the issue whether people should be broken by the carrot or the stick”. No nuance seems to be possible for Vaneigem, all reform is reactionary. “I want to live intensely, for myself, grasping every pleasure firm in the knowledge that what is radically good for me will be good for everyone.” Alright, it’s fine if you want to have fun in your actions towards social change and revolution, but don’t fucking belittle all those other people that work fucking hard for social change in different ways, because you’re whole theory is only rationalizing your own selfish ego by pretending everything will change because you and some others are “intensely following their inner desires”. If you don’t want work hard improving the political consciousness of the ‘masses’, then don’t, but fuck off belittling those who do. I mean, get real, politics is dirty. If you’re truly serious about achieving social change** then prepare to get your hands dirty and know that some foul Machiavellian shit needs to be pulled off by someone somewhere sooner or later.
The problem is that Vaneigem lacks a theory for social change. Vaneigem explicitly does not want to write a “what is to be done” step-guide towards revolution ala Lenin, but the question of how you want to achieve the social change towards a radically different system remains. Without it, what remains is merely an intellectual legitimation for petty violence, vandalism and shoplifting. There are never enough of those of course, but still. The system is not scared of you living out your “true inner desires”. Vaneigem’s idea is that everyone’s harmonized individual perspectives will successfully construct a new coherent and collective world. But how do you get there? Vaneigem expected that people were fed up and would soon collectively live out their subjectivity, but this simply never really ended up happening, perhaps except for a month in ´68. In the last chapters Vaneigem becomes a bit clearer on what the revolutionary approach ought to be. “Each phase of the revolutionary process is a faithful reflection of the ultimate goal.” Prefigurative politics it is I suppose.
I hoped that the part on culture, the spectacle, and how capitalism and the commodity form corrupts culture and leisure time would inspire me, but after reading the brilliant Culture Industry essays last year this part wasn’t much more than an Adorno-for-5-year-olds. I was quite curious about the part on sexuality, but the whole Wilhelm Reich fetish is weird to me and seems and typical 60s. Then there’s Vaneigem loathing the moralism of many leftist side-issue struggles and he beats up the anti-racist and anti-antisemetic hobbyhorses of the Left (“we’re all just niggers to the rulers of this land” to quote Crass) which is entertaining, but I am not sure whether I agree.
There were some parts that I really liked though. It is filled with a vast array of highly quotable sentences. Besides, I found the conceptualizations of roles, specialists, stereotypes and power actually rather insightful. On the masochistic nature of humans in their everyday life for instance:
“Consider a thirty-five-year-old man. Each morning he starts his car, drives to the office, pushes papers, has lunch in town, plays poker, pushes more papers, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, greets his wife, kisses his children, eats a steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love and falls asleep. Who reduces a man’s life to this pathetic sequence of clichés? A journalist? A cop? A market researcher? A populist author? Not at all. He does it himself, breaking his day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of prevalent stereotypes.”
“The satisfaction of a well-played role is fuelled by his eagerness to remain at a distance from himself, to deny and sacrifice himself”
“We live our roles better than our own lives”
And on power:
“Slaves are not willing slaves for long if they are not compensated for their submission with a shred of authority”
“There is no Power without submission”
“Power is partial, not absolute”.
His concept of Power is vague and abstract, but you do get a sense of what he means. I like the insight that those that climb the ladder, the specialists, subject themselves to Power the most. The specialists are the masters-as-slaves. The more they climb the hierarchy, the more Power, but also the more restricted on what they can do with this Power. I do sort of agree here, changing the system from within by climbing the system’s hierarchy most of the time does not work at all. Vaneigem expected the proletariat to collectively rise and live out their subjectivity. To let us all become masters-without-slaves. Sadly, WE’RE STILL WAITING. Anyway. Let’s end this critique with the spectacle of some more brilliant Vaneigem quotes.
“The millions of humans being 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”
“To consume is to be consumed by inauthenticity, nurturing appearances to the benefit of the spectacle and the detriment of real life”
“Whatever you possess possesses you in return. Everything that makes you into an owner adapts you to the order of things”
“the feeling of humiliation is simply the feeling of being an object”
“the abstract, alienating mediation that estranges me from myself is terribly concrete”
* Vaneigem is also not going to convince me that he wrote all these books and read even more out of a “pure inner desire to live intensely”) I mean, everyone seeks to rationalize their own behaviour, but nobody truly knows why we do what we do. I just do not believe in some sort of repressed pure inner desire that exists somewhere in all of us.
** It’s kind of typical of this day and age that I say social change rather than revolution. The word revolution simply isn’t part of me and many other’s vocabulary as it seems too far away.