“The Revolution of Everyday Life” is the english title given to Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 major contribution to the body of Situationist work – the late-modern strand of left anarchist thinking that so perfectly nailed post WWII capitalism as ‘The Society of the Spectacle” – the title of Guy Debord’s book of the same year.
Where Debord analysed and criticised, Vaneigem moved on to proposition: only by reclaiming the immediacy and agency of daily life as the space of creation of social relations, he suggested – by wresting these away from the reified and spectacular re-enactments of roles through the determined creation of ‘situations’ – encounters within which people find it impossible to play the parts which their society has prefigured for them – could we break free of stultifying and deathly grip of the relentless dollar maximiser that is developed capitalism (see also).
All of this was great stuff, which fuelled not only the widespread youth revolts of 1968, but also the iconoclastic whirlwind of british punk (both Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes were active Situationists) – a whirlwind which was the ‘situation’ which woke me up and has not since ceased in its requirement of me to take responsibility for my whole self – for which I am profoundly thankful.
A situation though, no matter how powerful in its impact, no matter how impossible to ignore as it pushes you face to face with the implicit paradoxes of modern life, is, in the end just that – a situation. The situation is not actually the point – any more than is a koan, the Zen Buddhist equivalent of a situation; a short text designed to produce the ‘great doubt’ in the mind of a student that propels them toward enlightenment.
The point is to take the opportunity to become more alive through this new perspective.
Here, Situationism is found wanting. In its savage critique of reified power, of the ways in which limits to expectation, of freedom and even range of imagination have become the very fabric of culture, in its strident call for profound rejection of these internalised constraints, it prepared the ground for the utter failure of the progressive left over the last 50 years. For the complete and abject failure of those who were awoken to actually enact the revolution of everyday life – to reclaim reality for what it is; our engaged interaction with the unfolding of critical moment after critical moment.
This failure can, at least in part, be explained by the realisation that three generations of progressives have been inoculated with the idea that power is anathema, that governance is deathly, that economy is alienation, that money is the disgusting physical embodiment of other people’s subjugation, that wisdom is a reification of a power structure, that knowledge is an imperialism.
Of course, all of these framings have purchase, each can be the locus for construction of a situation, mountains of evidence can be brought to bear to support every one. In the context of a mature capitalist society, there are hundreds of years worth of devastating facts, billions of distorted lives, millions of cruel deaths, a dangerously degraded biosphere and much, much more which can be adduced.
Nevertheless, it must be accepted that in setting up a dichotomy between acceptance of the pragmatism of power, governance, economy, money, wisdom, knowledge on the one hand, and rejection of all of these on the other, Situationism has, (in hindsight unsurprisingly) been recuperated.
Recuperation is another key insight developed by the Situationists. Simply, the term describes the way in which capitalist culture will absorb any novelty – especially critical novelty – and reformulate it so that it retains its flavour, its appearance, but is rendered toothless, and then re-project it as product. This is not in any sense a conspiracy theory, but a recognition of an inherent tropism. Capitalism understood as a specific mode of reproduction of human relations inherently requires a constant feedstock of novelty. Capitalism understood as an artificial pseudo life form – an autopoietic system – finds in critical attacks the wherewithal with which to power its evolution.
The recuperation of situationism was a big job – it took the combined efforts of a generation of post-structuralist and post-modernist cultural workers (most of whom were unaware of what they were a part, many of whom indeed considered themselves leftists) – but the Occupy years proved the effort had succeeded. A generation of angry and disaffected young people, full of righteous and deeply felt grievance, with no shortage of targets to aim at, no shortage of evidence to point at, no shortage of texts to guide them in their framing of the issues, at a moment in history where modern capitalism was staggering under the impact of a mighty, self inflicted and deeply systemic crisis, had almost no political impact – certainly in comparison with the lasting worldwide influence of the 1968 protests, which by contrast occurred at the apogee of an economic boom that seemed unstoppable.
There are obviously myriad ‘reasons’ for this – but key among them, in my view, is the small likelihood of political impact arising from the actions of people who, taken as a whole, downplayed engagement with power, governance, money, economy, knowledge and wisdom, finding all of them at the least problematic, and in general distasteful.
Who distrusted anything that even smelt as if it had been in a room with these words.
If this sounds like a critique of others, let me be completely clear that it is equally self-criticism. I have spent decades justifying and hedging around my own unwillingness to take responsibility for various of these issues, and when I have done, doing it half-heartedly.
Since Occupy, however, we see growing awareness in progressive circles that the promotion of such distrust and disengagement serves no-one so well as it does the existing hegemony. If the critics of power, of money, of wisdom find engagement with these realities distasteful, they can do little about the ways in which they are abused other than complain.
Transcender thinking is based in a clear understanding that, like it or not, the fabric of culture, of civilisation, is composed of social relations whose weft consists largely of power, governance, economy, money, wisdom and knowledge (the warp, of course, is the fabric of reality – materiality, life, value, desire, meaning). That any worthwhile critique of such social relations must be accompanied by clear and actionable ideas as to how these realities can be transformed, renewed, reframed, remade.
This agenda requires of us that we urgently re-examine our reactions to notions of power, of economy, of knowledge, and understand that our disgust at the ways in which they are used and abused in the service of a destructive system cannot be an excuse for failing to address their reality. That we must realise the inescapability of the requirement to condition how these troubling forces operate in any culture that can support richness, diversity autonomy and freedom.
Of course, arguments like this have been made before, and very often in the service of propositions for leftist projects that emphasise control, discipline, unity of purpose, sacrifice, conflict, sharp distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Let me be clear that this is not such an argument. Such projects are, for me, no more than alternative formulations of the destructive and dangerous system that is wrecking the biosphere and cruelly constraining billions of lives. What I am calling for here is the need to take these troublesome issues so seriously that we understand how deeply we are required to re-engineer the social relations which reproduce them in order to fabricate equitable, just and sane societies.
I am arguing that the Revolution of Everyday Life never really got going, outside of a few secessionist communes.
I am arguing that there is a strong requirement on us, on anyone who can see what is happening, to bring it into existence.
To engage directly, seriously, thoughtfully, constructively, actively, collaboratively in building new social relations around these subjects.
To find structure preserving transformations that can offer pathways to these new social relations.
That can reconstitute the deep social and cultural meaning of these words, these concepts, so that their social usage becomes part of our transcendence of current culture.
So that we can reclaim these words as having transformational meaning – as the carrier waves of new ways of living together.
So that we own these words, so that they become watchwords for new ways of living, instead of relinquishing them to the mindless juggernaut that is driving humanity towards self-extinction, and thereby diminishing our capacity to effect trnscendent change.
I’m setting myself the task of writing, over the next months, propositions for re-framing each of these words in positive, constructive, collaborative and actionable terms. Thus I will come back and insert links here as I go.
Contributions, criticisms, comments welcome!