Matt Forney
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Raoul Vaneigem Selected Works 1962-1979 by Raoul Vaneigem

Raoul-VaneigemHave you ever wondered why all economic systems end up in the same place? Communism, capitalism, libertarianism, social democracy, Falangism, feminism; at the end of the day, barely anything distinguishes them, at least if you’re one of the proles, the poor, unlucky bastards stuck shoveling the coal or picking the cotton. Whether it was the U.S. or the U.S.S.R., Sweden or Singapore, every nation organizes itself around work and production, carrying with a whole host of mechanisms designed to strip everyone involved of their humanity. The cult of mercantilism is so ingrained in our society that it even cripples our ability to enjoy ourselves or love others.

The Who may have sung about how they wouldn’t get fooled again, but the human race has been getting fooled all the way back to Moses’ day.

Raoul Vaneigem is one of the thinkers who witnessed the Cold War and saw the inherent absurdity of the conflict between Russia and America; both sides purported to stand for freedom and prosperity, but used the exact same methods of social dehumanization and statist repression to maintain control. While he began his career as a member of the Situationist International, Vaneigem progressively rejected Marxism as yet another false opposition and began formulating his own alternative to the status quo.

Now, the best of his works have been compiled in this Kindle title.

Trevor Blake sent me a copy of Selected Works after my review of Ernest Mann’s I Was Robot resulted in a dramatic uptick in sales. Like Mann, Vaneigem’s work focuses on the deleterious nature of our consumption-based economy and social structure. Unlike Mann, who was focused on the negative externalities of work, Vaneigem takes aims at the way that work retards our minds and cripples our ability to relate to our loved ones:

Roles have become impoverished within the context of a fragmentary power eaten away by that which had been made not sacred, just as the spectacle represents an impoverishment in comparison with myth. They betray its mechanisms and artifices so clumsily that power, to defend itself against popular denunciation of the spectacle, has no other alternative than to initiate such denunciation itself by even more clumsily replacing actors or ministers, or by organizing pogroms of prefabricated scapegoats (agents of Moscow , Wall Street, the Judeocracy or the Two Hundred Families). Which also means that the whole cast has been forced to become hams, that style has been replaced by mannerisms.

Selected Works covers a wide scope of Vaneigem’s writing, most notably his legendary 1967 manifesto The Revolution of Everyday Life, which had a significant influence on the May 1968 uprising in Paris. In Everyday Life, Vaneigem deconstructs the fundamental nature of mercantile society and how it perverts human desires and motives to perpetuate itself:

Consumer goods are tending to lose all use-value. Their nature is to be consumable at all costs. (Recall the recent vogue of the nothing-box in the USA: an object which cannot be used for anything at all.) And as General Eisenhower so candidly explained, the present economic system can only be rescued by turning man into a consumer, by identifying him with the largest possible number of consumable values, which is to say, non-values, or empty, fictitious, abstract values. After being “the most precious kind of capital,” in Stalin’s happy phrase, man must now become the most valued of consumer goods. The stereotyped images of the star, the poor man, the communist, the murderer-for-love, the law-abiding-citizen, the rebel, the bourgeois, will replace man, putting in his place a system of multi copy categories arranged according to the irrefutable logic of automation. Already the idea of ‘teenager’ tends to define the buyer in conformity with the product he buys, to reduce his variety to a varied but limited range of objects in the shops, (Records, guitars, Levis…). 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-society where ‘time is money’ will give way to the Time of consumption, measured in terms of products bought, worn out and thrown away: a Time of premature old age, which is the eternal youth of trees and stones.

While Vaneigem wrote Everyday Life during his tenure in the Situationist International, he had already begun to turn against much of the mindless Marxist cant that characterized his contemporaries. The volumes that immediately follow it, “Contributions to the Revolutionary Struggle, Intended to Be Discussed, Corrected, and Principally, Put Into Practice Without Delay” and “The Book of Pleasures,” show this, as he puts forth a concrete plan of action for changing the world:

The men who carried out the massacres against the Paris Commune and the Commune of Budapest have taught us that the repression is always ruthless and that the peace of graveyard is the only promise that is ever honored by the forces of the Statist order of things. When the confrontation reaches the stage where the repression will spare no one, let us not spare any of these cowards who merely await our defeat as their opportunity to play the executioner. We must put their residential areas to the torch, eliminate hostages and ruin the economy so that not a trace remains of that which has prevented us from becoming all is left remaining.

“The Book of Pleasures” is the other cornerstone piece of Selected Works, and the last in the volume. In it, Vaneigem argues that mercantile society survives in part by muzzling the human capacity for pleasure in a million subtle ways, from referring to the orgasm as la petite mort to symbolically “castrating” men, women and children. He also lays into feminism for seeking to replace patriarchal oppression with a new form of oppression. At points the book reads a little like something a delusional hippie would spout off after one too many acid trips, particularly with asides like this:

Few people breathe with the love of self. We should take our cue from lovers who drink each other’s saliva, lick each other’s sweat, and drop for drop sip cyprine and sperm. They utterly give up worrying whether other people think they smell saintly or sulfurous.

Reading that made me flash back to the section in Hooking Up where Tom Wolfe talks about how the hippies’ horrifying lack of hygiene led them to develop diseases that had been eliminated millennia ago.

That’s one of the bigger problems with Selected Works. The others pertain to Vaneigem’s prose style. I’m not sure how much of it is due to translation issues (Vaneigem is Belgian and wrote all of his books and essays in French), but much of Selected Works reads awkwardly and starchily. Vaneigem’s habit of slipping in curse words every so often doesn’t help, and makes him come off as pathetically as the high school teacher who says “damn” or “hell” every so often to fake-shock his students:

We have only the eyes in our heads left. With our intellect we scan the labyrinths of inauthentic life. In the old story a child who gazes on his mother’s sex is struck blind. The stories told in modern education go one better: by all means stare at your mother’s cunt but don’t enjoy it. Thought stares and no longer lives in experience.

My other issue with Selected Works is the absence of any kind of introduction from Trevor, which would have helped ease me into the currents of Vaneigem’s thought. Additionally, the earlier short works in the book (“Basic Banalities” and “Some Theoretical Topics That Need to Be Dealt with Without Academic Debate or Idle Speculation”) are a slog to get through; combined with the absence of an introduction, this could dissuade less tolerant readers from reading long enough to get to the good stuff.

In spite of all the book’s flaws, as well as the weirdness in “The Book of Pleasures,” I highly recommend Selected Works. Even if you disagree with Vaneigem’s ideas and conclusions, his writings are thought-provoking and force you to re-evaluate your prejudices and beliefs. Not many books can do that. If you have any interest in philosophy or anti-consumerist thought, you need to read this book.

Click here to buy Raoul Vaneigem Selected Works 1962-1979.

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  • Thursday

    I can appreciate the point he is making about how all industrial societies share a lot more than many people are willing to admit, but to say the West and the Soviet Union were the same for most people is, at best, a vast overexaggeration.

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