The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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NOV 2011 Issue

From The Revolution Of Everyday Life

Chapter 6: Decompression and the Third Force

Until now tyranny has merely changed hands. By virtue of their like respect for the principle of the ruler, antagonistic powers have always contained the seeds of their future coexistence. (When the organizer of the game assumes the power of a leader, the revolution dies along with the revolutionaries.) Unresolved antagonisms fester, hiding real contradictions. Decompression is the permanent control of antagonists by a ruling caste. The third force radicalizes contradictions, and leads towards their supersession in the name of individual freedom and against all forms of constraint. Power has no recourse but to smash or co-opt the third force without acknowledging its existence.

Let us take stock. A few million people lived in a huge building with no doors or windows. The feeble light of countless oil lamps vied with the ever-present obscurity. As had been the custom since Antiquity in its wisdom, the upkeep of the lamps was the duty of the poor, so that the lighting waxed and waned with the alternation of revolt and calm. One day a general insurrection broke out, the most violent that this people had ever known. The rebel leadership demanded a fair allocation of the costs of lighting; a large number of revolutionaries said that what they considered a public utility should be free; a few extremists went so far as to clamour for the destruction of the building, which they claimed was unhealthy, even unfit for human habitation. As usual, the more reasonable elements found themselves helpless in face of the violence of the conflict. During a particularly lively clash with law enforcement, a stray projectile breached the thick wall, creating a gap through which daylight streamed in. After a moment of stupefaction, this flood of light was greeted with cries of victory. The solution had been found: all that was needed was to make more openings. The lamps were thrown away or put in museums, and power fell to the window-makers. The partisans of complete destruction were forgotten, and even their discreet liquidation seemingly went unnoticed. (Everyone was arguing about the number and placing of the windows.) Then, a century or two later, their names were remembered when the people, that eternal malcontent, having grown accustomed to large picture-windows, took to asking extravagant questions: ‘To drag out your days in an air-conditioned greenhouse,’ they began to ask, ‘you call that living?’

In our time consciousness fluctuates between that of someone completely walled up and that of a prisoner in a cell. For each of us this fluctuation takes the place of freedom: we go back and forth between the blank wall of our cell and the barred window that bespeaks escape. Any chink that is opened lets in not only light but also hope. The hope of escape, which prisons deliberately foster, can ensure good behaviour from convicts. By contrast, an individual facing a wall with no exit can only feel a raging impulse to knock it down or smash his head against it, which is inevitably undesirable from the point of view of efficient social control. (This is true even if the suicide, failing to emulate the admirable example of the Oriental prince who immolates all his slaves along with himself, does not resolve to take a few others with him from the ranks of judges, bishops, generals, policemen, psychiatrists, philosophers, managers, experts and cyberneticians.)

Someone walled up alive has nothing to lose; the prisoner still has hope to lose. Hope is the leash of the submissive. Whenever Power is in danger of exploding, it opens a safety-valve to lower the pressure. At such times it is said to have changed hands, but in fact it has merely adapted, thus resolving its difficulties.

Against any established power another always arises that is similar but flies the flag of opposition. Nothing is more threatening to the principle of hierarchical government, however, than merciless confrontation between two opponents each driven by a like rage for the total annihilation of the other. In such a conflict, the tidal wave of fanaticism sweeps away the most stable values, turning the entire territory in dispute into a no-man’s-land and ushering in everywhere the interregnum of ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’. History, be it said, offers not a single instance of a titanic conflict of this kind not defused in good time and turned into a comic-opera battle. What is the origin of this process of decompression? It stems from a tacit agreement of principle between the belligerents.

The principle of hierarchy is indeed espoused by the true believers on both sides. Conflicts are never unleashed with impunity, nor are they ever innocent. The capitalism of Lloyd George and the Krupps was challenged by the anti-capitalism of Lenin and Trotsky. From the mirror of the masters of the present, the masters of the future are already smiling back. As Heinrich Heine wrote:

Lächelnd scheidet der Tyran

Denn er weiss, nach seinem Tode

Wechselt Willkür nur die Hände

Und die Knechtschaft hat kein Ende.

The tyrant dies smiling, for he knows that after his death tyranny will merely change hands, and slavery will never end. Leaders differ just as the ways they dominate differ, but they are always leaders – proprietors of a power exercised as a private entitlement. (Lenin’s greatness certainly has to do with his romantic refusal to assume the position of absolute master implied by the ultra-hierarchical organization of his Bolsheviks; it is this same greatness, be it said, that the workers’ movement has to thank for Kronstadt 1921, for Budapest 1956, and for Batiuchka Stalin.)

The common ground of the opponents thus becomes the site of decompression. To identify the enemy with Evil and crown one’s own side with the halo of Good has the strategic advantage of ensuring unity of action by channelling the energy of the combatants. But such a strategy calls for the enemy’s annihilation. Moderates baulk at such a prospect, especially inasmuch as the radical destruction of the enemy would include the destruction of what their own side has in common with that enemy. The logic of Bolshevism demanded the heads of the leaders of social democracy; those leaders hastily sold out, and they did so qua leaders. The logic of anarchism demanded the liquidation of Bolshevik power, which rapidly crushed the anarchists, and did so qua hierarchical power. The same predictable sequence of betrayals delivered Durruti’s anarchists to the rifles of the Republican alliance of Socialists and Stalinists.

As soon as the organizer of the game turns into a leader, the principle of hierarchy is preserved, and the revolution, now in power, can preside over the execution of the revolutionaries. We must never forget that the insurrectionary project belongs to the masses alone; organizers help it — leaders betray it. The real struggle occurs, to begin with, between organizers and leaders.

The revolutionary careerist measures the balance of forces in quantitative terms, just as any soldier gauges an officer’s rank by the number of men under his command. The leaders of insurrectionary parties real or supposed abandon qualitative criteria on the grounds that quantitative ones are more realistic. But had the ‘Reds’ been blessed with half a million more troops and modern weaponry, the Spanish Revolution would still have been lost. It died under the heel of the people’s commissars. The speeches of La Pasionaria already sounded like funeral orations; pathos-laden cries drowned out the language of deeds, the spirit of the collectives of Aragon — the spirit of a radical minority determined to cut off at a single stroke not just the Fascist head but all the heads of the hydra.

Never, and for good reason, has an absolute confrontation been fought through to the end. So far, the ‘last fight’ has had only false starts. Everything must be begun afresh. History’s only justification is to help us do so.

Once subjected to decompression, seemingly irreconcilable opponents grow old side by side, becoming frozen in a purely formal antagonism, losing their substance, neutralizing each other and mouldering away together. Who could discern the Bolshevik with a knife between his teeth in the Gagarinism of a doting Moscow? Today, by some ecumenical miracle, the slogan ‘Workers of the World, Unite’ cements the union of the world’s bosses. What a charming picture: what the antagonists had in common — the seeds of a power that radical struggle would have rooted out — has matured to the point of reconciling the warring brothers.

Could it really be so simple? Of course not — the farce would lose its bounce. On the international stage, those two old hams, capitalism and anti-capitalism, continue with their repartee. How the spectators shudder at the prospect of a falling-out, how they stamp with glee when peace blesses the loving pair! Is interest flagging? A brick is added to the Berlin Wall; or the awful Mao gnashes his teeth against the backdrop of a Chinese children’s choir singing paeans to fatherland, family and work. Patched up like this, the old Manichaeanism continues on its merry way. To keep current, the ideological spectacle is continually launching new pseudo-antagonisms: are you for or against Brigitte Bardot, Johnny Hallyday, Citroën 3CVs, young people, nationalization, spaghetti, old people, the United Nations, mini-skirts, Pop Art, thermonuclear war, hitchhiking? There is no one who is not accosted at some moment of the day by an advertisement, a news item or a stereotyped image that summons them to take sides over one or other of the prefabricated trifles that work relentlessly to obstruct all sources of everyday creativity. Under the sway of Power’s icy fetishism, particles of antagonism form a magnetic field whose function is to distort the individual’s compass, to abstract individuals from themselves and scramble all their points of reference.

Decompression, in short, is the manipulation of antagonisms by Power. The opposition of two terms is usually made meaningful by the intervention of a third. As long as there are only two poles, they cancel each other out, since each derives its significance from the other; and since it is impossible to choose between them, we are led into the realm of tolerance and relativity that is so dear to the bourgeoisie. How easy it is to understand the importance for the apostolic Roman hierarchy of the dispute between Manichaeanism and Trinitarianism. In the wake of a true fight to the death between God and Satan, what would be left of ecclesiastical authority? Nothing — as the millenarian crises clearly showed. That is why the secular arm performed holy offices, why the pyres crackled alike for God-loving and devil-loving mystics, as for any theologian rash enough to question the principle of the Three in One. The temporal masters of Christianity were determined that they alone should adjudicate the struggle between the Master of Good and the Master of Evil. They were the great intermediaries through which the choice of one side or the other had to pass; they controlled the paths of salvation and damnation, a control more important to them than salvation and damnation themselves. On earth, they set themselves up as judges without appeal, while submitting themselves to judgement solely in an afterlife whose laws were of their own devising.

The Christian myth defanged the bitter Manichaean conflict by offering believers the chance of individual salvation; this was the breach opened up by the Hairy Man of Nazareth. In this way mankind escaped the rigours of a clash that would lead inevitably to the destruction of values, to nihilism. But by the same token it lost the chance to reclaim itself by means of a general upheaval, the chance to take its proper place in the universe by chasing out the gods and the afflictions they brought. The essential function of decompression would therefore appear to be the shackling of humanity’s deepest desire, the desire to be itself and itself alone.

In all conflicts pitting two antagonistic forces against each other an intractable upsurge of individual demands comes into play and often succeeds in imposing its dangerous requirements. So much so, in fact, that one may reasonably speak of a third force. This force is to the individual perspective what the force of decompression is to the perspective of Power. A spontaneous by-product of every struggle, the third force radicalizes insurrections, exposes false problems, and threatens Power in its very structure. Its roots are omnipresent in everyday life. It is what Brecht was referring to in one of his Mr Keuner stories: ‘When a proletarian was brought to court and asked if he wished to take the oath in the ecclesiastical or the lay form, he replied “I’m out of work”.’ The third force initiates not the withering away of constraints but rather their supersession. If prematurely crushed or co-opted, its energy can be turned in the opposite direction and enlisted by decompression. The salvation of the soul is thus nothing but the will to live co-opted by myth, mediated, and emptied of its real content. By contrast, their peremptory demand for a full life explains the hatred incurred by certain Gnostic sects or by the Brethren of the Free Spirit. During the decline of Christianity, the struggle between Pascal and the Jesuits mobilized the reformist doctrine of individual salvation and compromise with heaven against the project of achieving godliness through the nihilistic destruction of the world. Once rid of the dead wood of theology, the third force went on to inspire Babeuf’s struggle against the million doré, the Marxist project of the whole man, the dreams of Fourier, the unleashing of the Paris Commune, and the violence of the anarchists.

Individualism, alcoholism, collectivism, activism — the very variety of -isms shows that there are a hundred ways of being on the side of Power. There is only one way to be radical. The wall to be knocked down is immense, but it has been breached so many times that before long a single cry will be enough to bring it crashing to the ground. May the formidable reality of the third force — all the individual passions that have fuelled the insurrections of the past — emerge at last from the fog of history. It will then become clear that everyday life embodies an energy which can move mountains and abolish distances. The long revolution will soon make its mark on reality, tossing its unknown or nameless authors pellmell into the ranks of Sade, Fourier, Babeuf, Marx, Lacenaire, Stirner, Lautréamont, Léhautier, Vaillant, Henry, Villa, Zapata, Makhno, of the Communards, the insurrectionaries of Hamburg and Kiel, Kronstadt and Asturias — in short, of all those precursors who have not yet played their last cards in a game that we have only just joined: the great gamble on freedom. 


Raoul Vaneigem, A new translation from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith

RAOUL VANEIGEM was born in Lessines, Belgium, in 1934. A leading light in the Situationist International in the 1960s, he is a prolific writer and a relentless critic of late capitalism.

His Traite de savoir-vivre a l'usage des jeunes generations, known in English translation as The Revolution of Everyday Life, was written during the Cold War in 1963-65. It is one of two influential books, the other being Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, published by the Situationist International just months before the May 1968 upheavals in France. The extract presented here is from a completely revised translation forthcoming next fall from PM Press (

DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH is a longtime resident of Brooklyn who has translated Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Jean-Patrick Manchette.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

All Issues