Some 35 years after the May 1968 "events," this short book poses the question of what kind of world we are going to leave to our children. A Letter to My Children and the Children of the World to Come provides a clear-eyed survey of the critical predicament into which the capitalist system has now plunged the world. At the same time, in true dialectical fashion, Vaneigem discerns all the signs of "a new burgeoning of life forces among the younger generations, a new drive to reinstate true human values, to proceed with the clandestine construction of a living society beneath the barbarity of the present and the ruins of the Old World."
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A Change in Civilization Is Taking Place before Your Eyes
You are privileged to have been born at a crucial moment in history. A period when everything is being transformed and nothing will ever be the same again.
The opportunity is unprecedented, but seizing it is daunting, for, as beneficial as it may be in prospect, every change is accompanied by uncertainties, gropings in the dark and missteps. Its fragility exposes it to a confusion that may erode its merits.
On your shoulders still lies the weight of an inhuman past. A past that I fancy I am not alone in wishing to be done with. In the merciless struggle between the old and the new, you have landed right in the middle of the battlefield.
One civilization is collapsing and another is being born. The misfortune of inheriting a planet in ruins is offset by the incomparable joy of witnessing the gradual advent of a society such as history has never known — save in the shape of the mad hope, embraced by thousands of generations, of someday leading a life at last freed from poverty, barbarity and fear.
We were despairing of ever achieving what was commonly deemed a mirage, a utopia, but suddenly its reality is now taking shape before our very eyes.
Little by little a new society is emerging from the mist. For the time being it is no more than a rough sketch, with the best intentions rubbing shoulders with the worst. But you are not only faced by a formless block which you are expected to carve into a living, harmonious sculpture: you are yourselves part of that block.
Before you lies experience that is oddly both solitary and collective: you will each be alone in plunging into it, yet many others will be at your side, likewise busy "sculpting their own existence."
Could there be anything more apt for a human being than combining with others to construct our own happiness along with that of all? From this passionate adventure you will quickly learn three lessons: (1) what is wished for from the bottom of the heart has every chance of coming about; (2) nothing is ever definitively won; and so (3) beware of pride and presumption!CHAPTER 2
The Old Nightmares Still Disturb Our Dreams of Renewal
Let me say a word about the past that burdens me, the future that exhilarates me, and the present in which at every moment a reality I consider intolerable clashes with the living reality to which I aspire.
One need only review the roughly ten thousand years that make up our history to realize what a gulf separates technological from cultural progress. The path from the neolithic forge to the nuclear plant is immeasurably long; that from the sacking of the first city-states some six thousand years before our era and the Nazi camps, the Soviet gulag or the Rwandan genocide is horrifyingly short. From the bronze dagger to the ICBM, the military monster has barely altered.
What weight do technological advances and magnificent art carry alongside the poverty and fear whose permanence seems to reduce the long plaint of suffering humanity to a vain cry?
How can we forget that while Bach's genius was enriching world culture millions of wretches were starving, dying under torture or being massacred by the armies of princes and the laws of the powerful?
I lived in a world where the yoke of tradition obliged you to bow down. Woe unto anyone who dared to stand up and mark themselves off from the enslaved masses! Force, lies and cunning were deployed to persuade them with carrot and stick to get back in line, to rejoin the herd that the power of State, church, and ideologies of every stripe were leading to the slaughterhouse.
Children were then taught that society was divided into two camps: those who eat and those who are eaten. From the tenderest age you were supposed to fight. For whom? For what? The noblest and the most ignominious of pretexts were wheeled out in order to lead us astray into battles that were not ours. In fighting others, we were actually fighting ourselves, unaware for the most part of the evil with respect to which we were at once victims and accessories.
The crime that a mercenary civilization has hitherto perpetrated against childhood is to have set predation above sensitivity and generosity of spirit.
Life as an individual and social adventure was so relentlessly hedged about with obstacles, disillusion and dashed hopes that even rare and wondrous moments of happiness were overwhelmed by cynical mockery born of bitterness and resentment.
Instead of devising a destiny for themselves capable of fulfilling their longing for enfranchisement, servile masses submitted to leaders, elected or self-appointed, who promised them a better life even as they condemned them to poverty and death. Their differences notwithstanding, such sinister figureheads as Hitler, Dollfuss, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco or Mao Zedong were frequently set up as models of everyday behavior. They were, in effect, merely inflated projections of the solid family men and petty office managers who swarm around us like maggots.CHAPTER 3
The Earthquake of the French Revolution
All the same, more than two centuries ago an economic, political and social earthquake overturned the form and structure of a world with foundations so old that it seemed to embody the plan of an eternal God. We now know that the Supreme Being — a veritable succubus battening on humanity — was a fraud perpetrated by priests and princes that was meant to lend an ineffable character to the order of social precedence and regulate the status of masters and slaves.
The French Revolution put an end to an economy based for nearly seven thousand years on agriculture and the appropriation of land. God died on the scaffold along with the hapless Louis XVI, destroyed as the symbol that he embodied. The twin peaks of the monarchic and divine principle — crown of a hierarchical pyramid whose cohesion was the guarantor of an unshakeable tyranny — were thus chopped off. Once deprived of the sacrosanctity of its summit, the decapitated pyramid was bound to collapse, no matter how hard ideological dictatorships from Robespierre to Mao might strive to restore its unified and mythical structure.
The fall of the ancien régime and the rejection of its monarchic and religious totalitarianism signaled the triumph of the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. Thanks to the Revolution of 1789 the thinking of the Encylopedists — the Diderots, d'Alemberts, D'Holbachs, Chamforts, Rousseaus, Voltaires, and Mesliers — achieved concrete form and fueled the project of moving from dream to reality.
The hope of achieving a genuinely human life aroused a collective fervor never before seen in history. For the first time, perhaps, human beings sensed that living is not the same thing as surviving and that any existence worth the name does not consist in scrabbling for subsistence day after day like the birds, who as Louis Scutenaire says, "eat only in great fear."
Survival is indeed the concern of the animal and not the human world.CHAPTER 4
The False Promise of Free Trade
Much as religious obscurantism, narrow-mindedness, and prohibitions on free thinking arose from the economic and social stagnation inherent to the structure of agrarian enclosure, so the Declaration of the Rights of Man was largely the product of an economic innovation, namely the free circulation of goods and persons that marked the absolute victory of the bourgeoisie over aristocratic tyranny.
What happened then? The answer is that free trade, which had promised the inauguration of a free life, swiftly turned that dream into a nightmare.
It very soon became apparent that the freedom granted to trade handed profit and the avaricious spirit of "enrich yourselves" the power to reject, prohibit or hollow out the very human rights that it had helped establish.
As of 1792, the two rival factions of revolutionary power both bent their efforts to this task, each after its own fashion. The liberal Girondists had no problem conflating human and commercial liberty. And as for the statism of Robespierre and the Jacobins, liberty was the grease they used to lubricate the guillotine. Let us remember Manon Phlipon's cry: "Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!" Nor should we forget that Olympe de Gouges was beheaded for calling for equality between woman and man.
Capitalism's victory over the agrarian economy made the "captain of industry" the model of the new man — a Prometheus whose dynamism and technical genius were supposed to steer society toward well-being. But no sooner had capitalism smashed the shell of an archaic economy than it emerged in its turn as a hermetic structure, an immutable world where all change was confined to an enclosed field strictly hedged about by the quest for profit and the repression of whatever hindered that quest. Those who had rid themselves of agrarian despotism now found themselves under the heel of financial tyranny.
To justify the exploitation of the proletariat, industrial capitalism propagated an ideology of technical and social progress cynically identified with a frenetic growth of profit accruing to the owner class. A battery of laws favoring the freedom to enrich oneself and the destruction of a freedom to live, the cries of which had to be gagged.CHAPTER 5
From Productivism to Consumerism
The drive to maximize profit has always governed the development of capitalism. It was what gradually replaced the coerced obligation to produce with the no less imperative duty to consume. Whereas the production of goods and the extraction of raw materials had since the nineteenth century constituted the main sector of the economy and the chief source of revenue, the 1950s saw the emergence of a new emphasis that precipitated a considerable disordering of customs and attitudes.
The necessity of production had created a working class whose intensive labor and wretched wages enriched the bosses and the bourgeoisie. These new slaves differed from serfs under the ancien régime in but one respect: their growing consciousness of the unjust fate that condemned them to poverty even as they produced the wealth of a nation. In consequence they arrogated to themselves the right to contest the bourgeoisie's lies and oppression. They felt that they had a historical mission in the sense that their emancipation would entail the end of class society and lay the foundations of an egalitarian regime.
To arm itself, the working class drew on the same Enlightenment philosophy which had helped the bourgeoisie overthrow the tyranny of the ancien régime and proceed to set up its own despotism. The authoritarian and patriarchal power of the monarchist and theocratic order against which thinkers of bourgeois background had rebelled was thus encountered by the proletariat in a secularized form, divested of God but just as ferociously repressive as ever.CHAPTER 6
The Illusion of Consumable Well-Being
The second half of the twentieth century saw the all-powerful sector of industrial production gradually give ground to consumption. The very survival of capitalism depended on this new emphasis.
The fact was that the uprising of colonized peoples threatened to deprive the industrialized nations of their source of raw materials. How could this danger be avoided? The solution found by a so-called democratic Europe was to replace the exploitation of rebellious colonies by the colonization of their own toiling masses, an option that had the distinct advantage of requiring no recourse to force.
The proletarians of the colonialist nations were thus invited to a feast of false pretenses: the worldwide banquet of generalized consumption. (The United States had already successfully tried out this new form of servitude.) The exploited soon got used to adopting the dress of consumers as soon as they doffed their work overalls or white collars.
It would take some time, however, for it to dawn on them that by leaving one factory where they were subjected to the constraints of production and entering another where the seduction of consumable goods relieved them of their wages, they were being doubly exploited.
The capitalists won on two fronts: on the one hand, their profits suffered less from the workers' incessant strikes and demands, while, on the other, the access of the majority to consumer goods hitherto reserved for the bourgeoisie disarmed the proletariat by surreptitiously inciting it to work in order to consume more. That class's new standing — easily mistaken for a promotion to the bourgeoisie — eventually succeeded in devastating class consciousness and causing the workers to forget the very term "proletarian."
A class, however, is defined by being, not having. The bourgeoisie is in this sense a mongrel class, the only class that tends to reduce its being to having. For the aristocracy being is simply the privilege of birth, the risible basis of an odious tyranny. The being of the proletariat is an "obligation to become," a being that strives to abolish classes, beginning with its own, by identifying itself with that movement of "being" which overturns the hegemony of "having."CHAPTER 7
Consumerism Has Reduced All Values to Market Value
The shift from productivism to consumerism had a truly seismic effect on a world hitherto ruled by constraints, authority, hierarchy and respect for religious and ideological values.
The power of the bosses was essential for the imposition of production norms. It eroded slowly but surely in favor of a democracy of the supermarket according to which individual choice prevailed without any limits save one, namely the obligation to pay for "freely chosen" purchases.
Persuading people to do whatever makes them happy had one great merit: it sold things. The advertising media set about hyping the indispensability of a host of harmful, mediocre and useless products. Relentless harrying subjected the ear, even the subconscious, to a sort of raucous waltz designed to substitute a gamut of false needs and artificial desires for the melodies of an authentic life unmoved by the oompahs of fake brass bands.
On the other hand, the illusion of individual free choice added attractive colors to the ideology of pleasure billed as hedonism. Consumerism threw overboard all the ethical and religious scruples that had smothered sensual appetites under the weight of sin and guilt. Even the ancient virtue of sacrifice, preached for centuries, now found itself in grave jeopardy.
This economic new wave also encouraged — though quite unintentionally — a critique of work, to which the bourgeoisie had dedicated a veritable cult. The moral virtue of toil and its celebration lost much of its credibility when it became clear that the chief thing work could buy was happiness on the installment plan.
Consumerism has altered age-old behavior. The liberation of women and children, concern for animals, and respect for nature have all proved fertile fields for the development of new, profitable commodities susceptible of sensitizing consumers to the welfare of babies, young girls, and dogs.CHAPTER 8
The Revolution of Everyday Life
Not until the uprising of May 1968 in France was it possible to gauge the degree to which consumerism, the promise of a society of well-being and the attendant disillusionments had created favorable conditions for a genuine revolution of everyday life.
As a result of the blows struck against age-old traditions by the new economic dispensation, the young generation of the time undertook to sweep away all the values inherited from an archaic society that a modernizing bourgeoisie had adapted to its own requirements: patriarchy, hierarchy, church, army, work, sacrifice, dominance of the male, and the paterfamilias, contempt for women, children, and nature. Nothing at that moment escaped virulent criticism. Censorship was mocked. The supposed crime of blasphemy was no more, likewise the principle of lèse-majesté, the moral order in general, and respect for dignitaries ecclesiastical and secular alike.
Sad to say, whatever fails to take deep root in everyday experience and its liberatory impulses soon sinks and disappears in the morass of ordinary corruption. Of course, the purpose of the vogue for consumable freedoms was hardly the emancipation of men and women. Rather, it was governed by a slogan(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
PREFACE TO THE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE EDITION,
A Change in Civilization Is Taking Place before Your Eyes,
The Old Nightmares Still Disturb Our Dreams of Renewal,
The Earthquake of the French Revolution,
The False Promise of Free Trade,
From Productivism to Consumerism,
The Illusion of Consumable Well-Being,
Consumerism Has Reduced All Values to Market Value,
The Revolution of Everyday Life,
Finance Capital: Money as Mains Sewerage,
For and Against Culture,
After Master Thinkers, Unthinking Slaves,
Populist Regression, the Culture of Nothing, and the Dumbing Down of the Masses,
Consciousness and Emotion,
The Intellectual Bloodstain,
Ideology: An Illness of Being,
The Man of Ressentiment: The Revenge of the Body Frustrated in Its Desires,
The Last Struggle: An Endemic War between the Party of Death and Commitment to Life,
A New Con Game: Ecological Neocapitalism,
What Is Most Lacking Is Awareness of the Self and the World,
Bidding Farewell to an Inhuman Past,
Disentangling the Thread of Life from the Past That Has Hidden It,
Love of Life Needs No Ethic,
Transcendence of Survival Implies the Birth of a New Kind of Life,
You Are the Children of an Endless Spring,
Fighting for Life Is Not Fighting against Death,
For a Festive Society,
AFTERWORD by John Holloway,
ABOUT THE AUTHORS,