raoul vaneigem: back to life

I. Life is not an object 

We have merely learned to die, now is the time to learn to live.
We are at the breaking point between two civilizations. The old world collapses, hesitating to disappear; the new one emerges, hesitating to impose itself.
The shock-wave that agitates the planet shakes our existence and reveals its root. From now on no ideology has the power to mask that.
The rock of ancient truths is shattered.

Giving up living to avoid dying. No past has ever obtained the assent of the crowds to such astonishing absurdity. Up till now, no era has allowed itself to be cretinized amicably.

One of the legendary members of the Internationale situationniste  in the 1960’s, Raoul Vaneigem (now 88) is still writing and publishing. In a new text, Retour à la vie (Back to life), he recapitulates in his own rather exalted style his ideas about the need for an overall self-government of everyday life (l’autogestion généralisée de la vie quotidienne). In four parts, it deals with the commodification of life in capitalism, the crisis and alienation of contestation movements, generalized self-government and the project of a human and sovereign life, and perspective change.

The text will be published in French by L’insomniaque, October 2022. You can also find the most recent version and an Italian translation on Barravento. A Dutch translation was made by Geert Carpels for Globalinfo. There, at the bottom of the page, you’ll find the entire text in Dutch as pdf. Since there doesn’t seem to be an English translation yet, I have tried to make one of the fourth part, Le renversement de perspective.

IV. The reversal of perspective

The agro-market economy has erected against the free development of the human being a dike that the waves of emancipation constantly bump into. During centuries, tumults, revolts, insurrections have always regressed in front of this gigantic obstacle, though without weakening and exhausting their assaults.

If nowadays the ramparts of oppression are cracking and falling apart, this is less caused by the violence that strikes them from outside than by a distortion that paralyzes them internally.

From the outset, the war that merchant civilization had decided to wage against nature was doomed to triumph only by hastening its defeat. It took ten thousand years to convince its last victims. What is ten thousand years compared to the three million years that lead from our ancestor Lucy to the rock paintings of Lascaux?

We wander between the shivering of the dying winter and the shudders of the reborn spring. The tremor that accompanies what grows or clings to what falls is not the same.

The reversal of perspective is the free choice offered to the human being. It revokes the imperatives, the passwords. The new era has for itself the consciousness that explores it and makes it visible.

Proposing a sort of plan or program would be a mistake if that would substitute the poetic power that awakens the individual to his creative abilities.

No one knows by what means the homo economicus will break the secular spell that so easily convinced him of his native impotence. Will it be a trauma like the unexpected flooding of Pavlov’s laboratory that erased the reflex of submission, successfully tested on dogs? Or, more luckily, a turnover leading to a salutary reversal of perspective, focusing our energy on a sovereign life and on the human consciousness that it has granted us and which, more often than not, has remained alien to us?

We are fighting for a return to life. We don’t care about challenging death.

Life is not a project, it has no meaning. It is we who give it meaning, we to whom it has delegated the faculty to intervene in its process of experimental proliferation, to avoid, if we want, the recourse to death that usually regulates the destruction of surpluses – the overflow of births, creatures, trees, the accumulation at the expense of being.

We carry within us life in the humble spark of its immensity. Our destiny is to humanize it.

To agree that there is no other supreme being than the human being, we must first strip ourselves of the role of master that a distorted history has imposed on us. The time has come to terminate forever the foolish, cruel and devastating superiority that made us reign over animals, plants, stones.

There is no ethical injunction here. We only wish to annihilate the suffering we inflict on them while burdening ourselves. To what degree of deadly, chasing or military stultification must we descend to forget that these so-called inferior realms are part of our constituent elements?

Our struggles have remained confined to the terrain that was militarily marked by our enemies who drag us there and trap us. Of life, on the other hand, they only know the sword that cuts it. They won’t need more of it as long as we offer them our throats!

If, on the other hand, we make sure to escape their windmill blades, it is their own heads they will cut. The parody of a world war of which Ukraine now carries the filthy fool’s cap, demonstrates once again that only a pitiful and bloody masquerade conceals the collapse of the states.

The drums are pierced, they no longer blow the eardrums. Their wars don’t concern us in any way! We are neither arms dealers, nor bankers, nor political puppets.

How can we imagine a peaceful self-defense, a guerrilla where life would harass the enemy to the point of precipitating his debacle? Fourier, who has little sympathy for revolutions, proposes a solution which, under his apparent candor, signals avenues to be explored. His phalanstères, open to the rich and the poor, maintain a segregation between the table where the wealthiest feast on the exquisite dishes to which they are accustomed, and the more frugal dishes with which the lower classes are satisfied. Now, the joy that reigns among the poor contrasts so much with the gloom and hedonistic blandness that sadden the rich that they gradually desert the tables with an unattractive opulence to join the poor who make the slightest delights into joy.

The story is part of the visionary reality of this theoretician of the attraction of passions. However, the poetic evocations of a Phalansterian society are not without suggestive echoes in a project of self-government that has the advantage of being anchored in history, where it has indisputably proven its fulfillment.

Today Fourier’s observation points to the oligarchs who are exhausted by the incontinences of possessions, mummified in the wrappings of their boring pleasures, while, from streets to roundabouts, from cities to villages, the poor celebrate the eternal spring of life.

The table of universal commensality is open. Those whose scorched hearts have become the emblem of greed are unlikely to escape the banquet of nothingness.

Life doesn’t need us to be by itself. We however need life to exist and it has accommodated us, without discernment. What will amaze future observers of our past is that, endowed with the ability to harmonize the living or let it rebalance by destroying us, we have chosen, until now, the egalitarianism of death rather than the egalitarian enjoyments offered us free of charge.

Everywhere the insurrections of everyday life spell the end of suicidal capitalism. The lie suffocates under too many maimed words.

Autonomous and proud of our anonymity, we are the artisans of a return to the living that resonates at the boundaries of the universe. We put an end to the selfish calculation and servitude that have made the earth into a valley of tears.

We will create a world where the human being will die but at the threshold of his fullness, in the brilliance of his satisfied potentialities, although not yet satisfied in their entirety.

Life never says a last word.

Raoul Vaneigem, 7 March 2022, revised 14 April 2022

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