Gilets Jaunes occupying a roundabout in France. Photo: Aurélien Adoue

On alienation, the Situationists and everyday revolution

  • August 27, 2019

People & Protest

In this rare interview, former Situationist Raoul Vaneigem shares his thoughts on the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes, technological progress and the failings of intellectualism.

The Belgian-born writer, scholar and theorist Raoul Vaneigem (b. 1934) is best known as the author of the 1967 essay The Revolution of Everyday Life, a wide-ranging inquiry into the alienation of the individual under capitalism and an animated call for a post-capitalist society, grounded in radical self-management and non-hierarchical social relations. He wrote the book during his prolific involvement in the notorious and influential Situationist International (SI, 1957-1972).

Born out of various surrealist avant-gardes of inter- and postwar Europe, the Situationists were a diverse, conspicuously small, but always strident transnational group of Marxian-inspired artists and writers, whose initial pursuit was to suspend the separation of art from the lived everyday. They consciously constructed “situations” that were intended to subvert the bourgeois mundane of consumer capitalism, an order they described as spectacular society — a concept later fully elaborated by Guy Debord — that precluded authentic living and inevitably produced social alienation.

By the time Vaneigem joined their ranks in 1961, the Situationists’ critique had become increasingly political and radical, not only targeting the state and capital, but also the established Left in its many forms. Fiercely anti-authoritarian, theirs was an appeal not only for a reinvention of the everyday, beyond the spectacle in the here and now, but also for class struggle and the violent overthrow of capitalism.

Today, the SI is perhaps best remembered for inspiring a new political language and rhetoric among student activists during the revolutionary Spring of 1968 in France, in which the “Situs” actively participated.

One year before, two very different books had appeared nearly simultaneously and would come to define the movement and its legacy. Vaneigem published his The Revolution of Everyday, while his comrade, the (in)famous filmmaker, lead SI theorist and writer Guy Debord, published the now classic work, Society of the Spectacle.

Vaneigem’s book, the English title of which is an evident allusion to Henri Lefebvre’s classic, a major inspiration of his, proved highly influential and has been translated into more than ten languages. Lesser known are Vaneigem’s written interventions after breaking away from the SI in November 1970, disillusioned with the gradual ossification and increasing authoritarian style of management of what was then still left of the group.

Most of these publications further expand on some of the key themes he explored in his 1967 text: organized religion, the (historical) power of the Church, subversion and dissent. From the late 1980s onward, dividing his time between a countryside retreat and extensive travel, Vaneigem turned his attention to the history of mystical traditions, heresies and millennialism in Medieval Christendom.

He also explored other subjects such as censorship and “free speech,” human rights narratives, and idleness. Recent publications of note include an essay on polyamory, recollections of 1968 and a utopian novel. The idea for this conversation was first conceived in the summer of 2017 in Rome, where Vaneigem was working on his dictionary of heretics and I was pursuing research. Starting from a series of informal nocturnal discussions, its current form was completed through email exchanges over the last two years.

Many thanks go to my friends Kenan Van De Mieroop and Thibault Deleixhe for generously helping with the English translation from the French.

Houssine Alloul: A couple of years ago you agreed to a series of interviews with the French editor of Les éditions Allia, Gérard Berréby, about your childhood, family, and wartime memories, as well as your time in the SI. The result was published in a peculiar, but compelling volume: Rien n’est fini. Tout commence. In it you speak candidly and are critical not only of the Situationists, but of yourself also. What made you share these often very personal recollections?

Raoul Vaneigem: Passing through Flobecq [a municipality in Wallonia], where I was living back then, Gérard Berréby had run up against my refusal to give any interview whatsoever when my daughter Chiara intervened and said to Gérard, “Make him speak! He never tells us anything!” The first interviews were not very encouraging. I was reluctant to evoke anecdotes of the past but Gérard Berréby has cleverly succeeded in extracting from the apparent trivialities and futilities some threads that clarify a good number of substantial ideas of my books.

My intention was above all to show how a radical movement had been able to lapse into the ideology and authoritarianism that it combated, and had slipped back into the worst failings of the past. But the critics of the book failed to tackle this problem and preferred to focus attention onto the stories of a childhood and adolescence in a small town where life was punctuated by the exploitation of the workers and the awareness of an unavoidable insurrection.

You also speak about the figure of your father, a railway worker, anticlerical and militant syndicalist, who possessed a copy of Alfred Defuisseaux’s 1886 Le Cathéchisme du Peuple. Both your father and this now obscure Belgian pamphlet seem to have had quite an impact on your later thinking.

More than the readings, however important they were, it was quotidian life that nourished my thought, prey to the confusion of emotions. I was fortunate to be cherished by a family who, despite dismal wages, multiplied the opportunities to feast (it is not, my father used to say, because we are miserable that we must live miserably). None of these domestic conflicts, which push teens to scream, “family, I hate you,” has afflicted me.

On the other hand, I received the full brunt of the cruelty of social exploitation: the laborer blunted by work, who drank his pay and beat his wife, the abused children and animals, the cynicism and the contempt of the bourgeoisie from uptown and the endemic hatred that the lower city stirred into them, where I lived and where the porphyry quarries were.

I am delighted to find again today in the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) this insurrection resulting from the intolerable kind of life that is forced upon us. And one can see how much the phenomenon escapes the understanding of the intellectuals, these fishes wriggling in the aquariums of power, voracious and frightened brood that believes in the supremacy of the intellect, their intellect.

In Rien n’est fini you also recount your memories of growing up in the border town of Lessines and going to school in the Flemish town of Geraardsbergen, recounting how animosity toward Flemings was non-existent, but eclipsed by a general awareness of “la question sociale.” Today the Flemish working classes seem seduced by (far-)right Flemish nationalist parties and so enthralled by their racialist and Islamophobic speech that they do not seem to notice the neoliberal agenda they are helping to push through. How did this happen?

The bureaucratization and clientelism of the so-called workers parties and unions have eroded working-class conscience; consumerism has succeeded in dismantling proletarian consciousness. The proletariat has regressed to a state of plebs, resigned and riotous, to which it was confined before the nineteenth century, as I explained in my Contribution à l’émergence de territoires libérés de l’emprise étatique et marchande.

When social consciousness disappears, refusal becomes blind and engulfs in the most repulsive emotions that the extreme right excels at manipulating. What resurfaces today, with the Gilets Jaunes movement, is not a proletarian consciousness, but a human consciousness struggling against all barbarities.

The legacy of king Leopold II who pillaged the Congo, remains a contentious issue in Belgium, painfully symbolized in the political indecisiveness on what to do with the many statues that litter the country, glorifying his reign. But in your conversation with Berréby you remember how half a century ago he was already criticized in parts of Belgium. In the collective imaginary of the working people of Léssines he was a tyrant. What do you think about the ongoing debates about removing the statues of Leopold II and other Belgian colonialists?

Nothing more than about the statues of Hitler, Stalin, and Franco. We no longer have to tolerate the honors paid to the perpetrators of crimes against humanity that were Leopold II and the red rubber torturers. I would prefer that the cleaning up of this rubbish of the past be done in a great collective movement also cleaning up the garbage of the present, rather than small clandestine individual actions, as meritorious as they may be.

Another ghost that haunts the former Belgian Metropole is that of the first Prime Minister of liberated Congo: Patrice Lumumba. In January 1961, after Mobutu’s coup, he was brutally executed without a trial. Among Belgian conservatives his political legacy is still contested, demonstrated by the longstanding debates about naming a square after him in Brussels’ Matongé quartier.

At the time of his murder, protest marches took place in several capitals over the world and in some places the local Belgian embassy was even attacked. How did the Situationists deal with the Lumumba assassination?

He is the only statesman whose intelligence, courage and humanity we have acknowledged. The question is not whether, once established at the head of the Congo, he would not have been corrupted, like so many other good intentions, by the exercise of power. It is his assassination that is inexpiable.

We don’t bother asking pardon nor apologies from those who commissioned it [the murder], but may they, with their accomplice, king Baudouin, that silly weasel, molder in the trash bins where the past we no longer want ends by rotting away.

Immediately after the collapse of the USSR you published a little parodical booklet: Lettre de Staline à ses enfants enfin réconciliés de l’Est et de l’Ouest. In it we hear a self-satisfied Stalin speaking from the hereafter thrilled that — finally — his project has been globalized. Could you say something about this book and your reading of the end of the Cold War?

The Stalinist empire collapsed under the blows of the consumerist offensive that had conquered the West and spread to the entire planet. Deprived of the totalitarian ogre that served it as a stooge, the Free World appeared in the nakedness of its lie. Parliamentary democracy, stripped of the advertising mantel that the “cold war” had wrapped it in, soon revealed itself, under the pressure of finance-capitalism, to be a democratic totalitarianism increasingly similar to bureaucratic state capitalism shamelessly dubbed “communism.” Stalinism, which, in the name of the proletariat, established a ruthless dictatorship over this proletariat, had become a model for political patronage, forced into obedience to the demands of international capitalism.

In 2009 your prefaced a new edition of the 1912 Les Libertins d’Anvers by the renowned 19th-century Flemish novelist and social critic Georges Eekhoud, which deals with the 16th-century Anabaptist “sect” led by Loy Pruystinck. Just like in Eekhoud’s case, your social criticism has always gone hand in hand with the critique of organized religion, in particular the Church. Does this explain your continuing scholarly interest in the history of medieval heretics?

It is less the history that interests me than the line of resistance to oppression crossing through the centuries and perpetuating until today this paradoxically timeless feeling of freedom. It is also the timelessness of the lie that is pleasant to denounce as a lie that no power can dispose of.

Much ink has been spilled on the SI and you have talked about it before. Let us restrict ourselves to a few questions about your own involvement in it. The Situationists have often been critiqued for being isolationist and exclusivist — elitist even, like you assert yourself in Rien n’est fini — more at home in avant-garde milieus of artists and intellectuals than in those of the urban working class. Yet the SI was always unambiguous in its call for proletarian revolution. Could you elaborate?

One of the failings of the SI has been its intellectualism, the thought that an idea can guide one toward the happiness of the masses, where it rarely reigns. The Gilets Jaunes have not read me any more than the rioters who took the Bastille had read Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire. Who cares? They will become conscious by themselves, in their own way and at their own pace, of their actions and their potential strength. For me, in my corner, what consolation to see disintegrate and perish this old world that I have abhorred since my childhood!

One of the most important contributions of the SI lied in its systematic critique of commodity fetishism and the spectacle. In an age of the gradual privatization of everything — from education and research to health care and public transport — when more and more of life takes place online on social media owned by corrupt tech giants who amass, store and sell our personal data, in short, in a time when social relations are mediated more than ever before through images and representations, what is there to learn from the Situationist project?

The thought that nourished the radicalism of May 1968 is still slowly making its way. It must be remembered that it was about nothing less than to found a self-managed society where the assemblies of direct democracy would put an end to the State, the protector of the exploiters and the oppressor of the exploited. The alliance of the communist party and the government back then broke a revolutionary élan that also gangrened from within the rise of petty leftist leaders.

That there are no leaders among the Gilets Jaunes and that only the endorsement of the assemblies accredits a spokesman marks a clear progress improvement from the 1968 occupy movement.

The SI’s work and especially its criticism of “Art” has often been misrepresented or read in disconnect from its express intention to extend Marx’s anti-capitalist critique. Its main journal, the Internationale situationniste, was filled with quotations from his work. In your 2008 memoirs, you point out how the Situs were returning to the original Marx and Fourier, at the same time when some in the Left were gushing about the big men of the moment (Mao, Castro).

Today, Marx, both the man and his work, is regaining some popularity, with the release of a number of new biographies and very recently even a much-lauded biopic about Marx as a young revolutionary. What do you make of this renewed interest?

The film about the young Marx is part of this spontaneous cleansing of a Marx too long caricatured by socialist and Bolshevik doctrines. The twilight of idols offers a second life to those whom our contempt for life has turned into statues.

The Left has often been critiqued for their opposition against automation. In their Accelerate Manifesto, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek launch a sweeping call to embrace technological development in order to forge a post-capitalist future, while cautioning for “techno-utopianism.” You, too, have criticized the idea of seeing technological progress as a panacea to end with suffering and boredom. Can you explain?

I especially emphasized the gap between human progress and technical progress. In a few millennia we have gone from the spear to missiles but between a peasant of the Bronze Age and a worker from Saint-Nazaire [major French port and manufacturing town on the Atlantic coast], one would look in vain for great changes in the precariousness of existence, the necessity to work, the fear, the need to be competitive, the anguish of assuring one’s sustenance, the obedience to those masters who, too, survive more poorly than the princes of the past. Technical progress has only tempered the inhuman conditions that have made our history the dump of barbarism.

The ultimate political goal of the late SI was explicit. As proclaimed in one piece: “we relentlessly remain ‘nineteenth century.’ History is still young, and the proletarian project of a classless society, even if it began badly, is still more of a radically new curiosity than the achievements of molecular chemistry and astrophysics put together or the billions of fabricated events channeled by the spectacle. Despite our ‘avant-gardism’ and thanks to it, it is only to this movement that we want to return.”

But in its anti-authoritarian streak, wary of party-dominated organization, the SI’s actual political program in favor of multiple workers’ councils steeped in direct democracy also remained purposefully open-ended where it concerned assembly and organized struggle. You have always supported grassroots initiatives, but what future do you see for large-scale syndicalism, with its impressive history? I am thinking, for instance, of the high days of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The movement of self-managing assemblies that is emerging today is the heir (though it is not yet fully aware of it) of all the struggles for emancipation that have shaken history. Where they stopped, where they were crushed, they will resume and, without even mentioning victory or defeat, they will start again without interruption, like the life that inspires them.

You have always been quite wary of cynicism and pessimism. The popular little booklet you published in 1995, A Warning to Students of All Ages, ends on this note: “One doesn’t live as long as expected if one doesn’t fully develop one’s capacities.” Your most recent book, Propos de table, presents a collection of high-spirited musings on living in the moment. Explain.

The existential crisis, which is at the center of the current social crisis, highlights the importance of individuals as subjects, as opposed to the objects they become in the eyes of the State and the economy. What is called reification is the transformation of a living being into an object, a commodity, a turnover, a statistic, a rate of profit. In the long run, this contempt is not bearable. The subject rebels against the thing to which one wants to reduce it. He claims a real life.

Play, imagination, self-experimentation has a central place in your critical work. You see them as indispensable tools for resisting and ultimately superseding the spectacular colonization of daily life in consumer societies, but also as a necessary antidote to the Spartan culture cultivated in some of the old leftist revolutionary parties. What place can humor and playfulness have in any future left project?

The festive character of a protest or insurrectional movement is a sign of good health. It is not a passive party, an entertainment, a recreation, as De Gaulle thought, a drink that [once ordered] needs to be paid sooner or later. It is the manifestation of a joie de vivre that needs to spread and revive unceasingly. If the party stops, it becomes a funeral; it digs its own grave.

So let us end where your The Revolution of Everyday Life began: how to live? More than half a century ago you wrote: “Everything starts from subjectivity, and nothing stops there. Today less than ever. From now on the struggle between subjectivity and what degrades it will extend the scope of the old class struggle.” What with the revolution of everyday in the face of an ever more pervasive and all-consuming spectacle?

The spectacle is still dominant but it is disintegrating on all sides — it is true that the mediatic lie did no go at it heavy-handedly. Life is far from being sovereign but it springs, unpredictably, from where we least expect it. The real guerrilla is there, with its weapons that do not kill.


Raoul Vaneigem

Raoul Vaneigem is a Belgian writer known for his 1967 book The Revolution of Everyday Life. He was born in Lessines and studied romance philology at the Free University of Brussels from 1952 to 1956. He was a member of the Situationist International from 1961 to 1970.

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Houssine Alloul

Houssine Alloul is a historian and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Antwerp, Belgium.

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