Raoul Vaneigem: An appeal to life

Photograph by Guillaume Amat (from the series open fields)

On the occasion of Raoul Vaneigem’s most recent essay, Appel à la vie contre la tyrannie étatique et marchande, we share an interview, in translation, that he gave to the Ballast journal.

Raoul Vaneigem : “To save social benefits? They have already been lost”

Author of some forty books, the Belgian philosopher and medievalist does not let up: it is up to us to change the situation. As a figure of the Internationale situationiste (IS) – who, from 1957 to 1972, opposed the reign of commodities and “alienating work” to better praise “generalised self-management”(1) -, Vaneigem has remained, throughout his life, distant from the mainstream media. The one who published a few decades ago a call for wildcat strikes and sabotage under the name of Ratgeb is now observing the yellow vests’ uprising and the ZADs with undisguised enthusiasm; outside Europe, it is in Chiapas and Rojava that he sees the forms of an emancipatory alternative. Convinced that the ballot box is of no help, his latest book pushes the nail in further; the blow is optimistic: to turn the page on the Homo oeconomicus and to defend the whole of life, that can still be done. We spoke with him.

You wrote in the early 2000s that the words “communism”, “socialism” and “anarchism” are no more than “empty packaging and permanently obsolete”. These three terms, however, have allowed humans to think of emancipation and the end of exploitation. What are they to be replaced by?

In 2000, it had already been some time since ideology, which Marx denounced as falsehood, had emptied of its substance concepts which, stemming from the proletarian consciousness and forged by the desire of emancipation, were no longer more than banners brandished by the protagonists of a trade union and political bureaucracy. Power struggles quickly supplanted the defence of the working class. We know how the struggle for the proletariat turned into a dictatorship exercised against it and in its name. Communism and socialism have proved it. The anarchism of the Spanish revolution  did not escape it – I am thinking of the factions of the CNT and the FAI, complicit with the Catalan Generalitat.(2) Communism, socialism, anarchism were comfortably dilapidated concepts when consumerism reduced them to nothing, including their ideological cover. Political activity became patronage, ideas were no more than those items which supermarket flyers stimulate the sale of.

Advertising techniques have prevailed over political terminology, entangling, as we know, left and right. When we see, on the one hand, the ridiculousness of elections appropriated by a totalitarian democracy that takes people for fools, and on the other hand, the yellow vests’ movement that mocks ideological, religious, political labels, refuses the leaders and the representatives not mandated by the direct democracy of the assemblies and affirms its determination to push forward meaningful human life, it is right to say that all this ideological mess, for which so much blood has been shed, obtaining at best social gains now thrown into the rubbish bin, yes, decidedly, we no longer give a fuck about all of this!

Your last book concludes precisely on this movement. A “joy”, an “immense relief”, you say. What more precisely does this enthusiasm convey?

It expresses nothing more and nothing less than what I say in the Appel à la vie contra la tyrannie étatique et marchande: “It has been since the May 1968 movement of occupations that I have passed – including in the eyes of my friends – for an indefatigable optimist, to whom his own refrains have seduced him. Do me the favour of thinking that I do not care about being right, while a movement of revolt (and not yet revolution, far from it) strengthens the confidence I have always given to this word of freedom, so hackneyed, so corrupt, so grossly rotten. Why should my visceral attachment to freedom be encumbered with reason and unreason, with victories and defeats, with hopes and disappointments, whereas it is only for me to snatch it from every moment of free trade and predation, which kill her, and to restore it to the life upon which it feeds? This moment, I have dream of it since my adolescence. It inspired, more than 50 years ago, the Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations [The revolution of everyday life]. I will not be deprived of the happiness of greeting these yellow vests, which have hardly needed to read the Treatese to illustrate its poetic implementation. How not to thank them, in the name of humanity that they have resolved to free from barbarism?

To parliamentary democracy, you oppose direct democracy based on assemblies. Murray Bookchin is inevitably thought of – even if the IS called him a “confusion inducing cretin”! But two points, at least, separate you: the majority principle and power. Bookchin asserted that only majority law allows for democracy and that the search for consensus induces “insidious authoritarianism”; he also felt that abolishing power is “absurd” and that it only needs to “give it a concrete institutional form of emancipation” …

It was a mistake to underestimate Bookchin and the importance of ecology. It was not my only mistake nor the only one of the IS. But this mistake has a cause. It lies in the confusion (of which the Treatise is not exempt) between intellectuality and the awareness or consciousness of the self and the world, between the intelligence of the head and the sensible intelligence of the body. Recent events help clarify the notion of intellectuality. The yellow vests who stubbornly chant in the face of the state “We are here, we are here” make the intellectual elites of all kinds shudder, those who, progressive or conservative, claim the mission of thinking for others. There is therefore nothing astonishing if the sectarians of the left and of the critique of criticism (3) hasten to mock them with all of their condescension! The vulgar who fill the streets, what are they? They have empty heads, no program, no thought. Hey! These workers, peasants, small traders, craftsmen, entrepreneurs, retirees, teachers, the unemployed, workers exhausted by the search for a salary, the homeless poor, schoolchildren without a school, taxed and tolled motorists, lawyers, scientific researchers; in short, all those who are simply revolted by the injustice and arrogance of the undead who govern us. Men and women of all ages have suddenly ceased to congregate in a gregarious mass: they have left the fluffy flocks of the silent majority. They are not nobodies, they are people reduced to nothing and they have become aware of it. And they have a project: to establish the preeminence of human dignity by breaking the profit system that devastates life and the planet.

Their ground is lived reality, the reality of a salary, a small allowance, an insufficient retirement, an existence more and more precarious, where the share of real life is becoming scarce. This reality runs up against a gymnastics of numbers and figures practiced in high places. If the subtlety of the calculations is misleading, the end result is by contrast of an exemplary and alarming simplicity: be satisfied with the alms granted by the public authorities (that you finance) and hurry up to die, as respectful citizens of the statistics counting the excessive number of old people and other links which weaken the chain of what is profitable. This gap between life and its abstract representation makes it possible to better understand today what intellectuality is. Far from constituting an element inherent in the nature of Man, it is an effect of its denaturation. It results from a historical phenomenon, the transition from a society based on a gathering economy, to a system, mainly agrarian, practicing the exploitation of nature and Man by Man. The emergence of City-States and the development of societies structured into dominant class and dominated class, subjected the body to the same division. The hierarchical character of the social body, composed of masters and slaves, goes on preserving, over the centuries, with a scissiparity (4) that affects the body of man and woman. The head – the chief – is called to govern the rest of the body, the Spirit, celestial and terrestrial, tames, controls, represses the vital impulses just as the priest and the prince impose their authority on the slave. The head assumes the intellectual function – the privilege of the masters – which dictates its laws to the manual function, an activity reserved for slaves. We are still paying the cost of this lost unity, of this rupture which delivers over the individual body and the carnal body to an endemic war with itself. No one escapes this alienation.

Ever since nature, reduced to a commodity object, became (like woman) a hostile, frightening, despicable element, we are all prey to this curse, which by itself alone is able to eradicate a newly natural evolution, a humanity in symbiosis with all forms of life. A warning to all of those who are tired of the nonsense of ecologism! In the recent past, there have been workerists who were foolish enough or devious enough to glorify the status of proletarians, as if they were not marked by the seal of an indignity, of which only a classless society would free them. Who today can we see infatuated with this intellectual labour, a labour that is one of the major reasons for existential misery and the incomprehension of oneself and the world? Sniffer dog-like individuals on the lookout for power to exercise, candidates for a leadership position, aspirants to the role of guru. When a movement claims a radical rejection of leaders and representatives not mandated by the individuals who make up an assembly of direct democracy, it has nothing to do with these intellectuals proud of their intellectuality. It does not fall into the trap of anti-intellectualism professed by the intellectuals of fascistising populism (“When I hear the word culture, I take out my revolver” (5) only reflects the intellectual bias of obscurantism and militant ignorance, so prized by religious fundamentalism, as by the neo-Nazi camp). It is not the denunciation of croaking leaders in the self-management assemblies that we need, it is the pre-eminence given to solidarity, to human meaningfulness, to the awareness of our potential strength and our creative imagination. Admittedly, the deliberate implementation of a larger project is still groping and confused, but at least it is already the expression of a healthy and calm anger that decrees: no one will give me any orders anymore, no one will bark at me again!

As for the question of the majority and the minority, I have more than once explained myself on this subject. In my opinion, the vote in a self-managed assembly can not be reduced to the quantitative, the mechanical. The law of numbers does not fit well with the quality of choice. Why should a minority bow to a majority? Is it not falling back into the old duality of strength and weakness? It might Pass for situations where urgency requires avoiding endless discussions and procrastination, but even if it is a matter of deciding a trifle without any harmful consequences, consultation, palaver, conciliation, harmonisation of points of view, in other words the overcoming of opposites, is undeniably preferable to the power relation implied by the dictatorship of numbers. Let’s try not to have to work in an emergency. A fortiori, I think that, were it to be adopted by a large majority, an inhuman decision – a punishment, a death sentence for example – is inadmissible. It is not women and men who must be put out of harm’s way, it is a system, they are the machines of exploitation and profit. The human sense of one will always prevail over the barbarism of many.

Anyone who identifies with a territory or a language, you write, strips herself/himself of her/his vitality and humanity. But being uprooted and without a mother tongue, is this not the fate of robots alone?

Curious alternative to having to choose between either belonging to a geographical entity, or the wandering of the exile. For my part, my homeland is the Earth. To identify myself with the human being in the making, becoming – what I strive to be – dispenses me from moulding myself into nationalism, regionalism, ethnic, religious and ideological communalism, succumbing to these archaic and morbid prejudices that perpetuate the traditional robotisation of behaviors. You invoke mafia internationalism of globalisation. I wager on an international human race and I have before me the relevance of a peaceful insurrection that concretises it.

You call on people to not collaborate with the State, this valet “of banks and multinational companies”. In short: to no longer pay taxes. Many anti-capitalists continue to believe in what Bourdieu called “the left hand” of the state – public services, for example – and that still deserve to be saved. Must we cut off both of its hands without hesitation?

Save social benefits? They are already lost. Trains, schools, hospitals and pensions are being scrapped by the State bulldozer. The liquidation continues. The profit machine, of which the State is only an ordinary cog, will not go back. The ideal conditions would be for it would be to maintain an atmosphere of civil war, enough to scare souls and make the chaos profitable. The hands of the State only know how to handle money, cudgels and lies. How can one not rather trust the hands of those who at intersections, in the houses of the people, in the assemblies of direct democracy, are busy with the reconstruction of the public good?

You said you were in favor of a “monthly allowance” – what others call a basic income or universal income. But without a State, how is it to be instituted?

The principle of allowing everyone not to fall below the threshold of misery was based on a good intention. I abandoned before the evidence. It was a case of deluding oneself about the intelligence that at the time had not deserted the heads of the rulers. A certain Tobin had proposed to carry out on the financial bubble, threatened with apoplexy, a salutary puncture of some 0.001%, which would have made it possible to avoid the financial implosion and to invest the amount of the tax in the preservation of social benefits . The accelerated mindlessness of state “elites” now excludes a measure which, moreover, the last residues of socialism had not dared to adopt. The State is henceforth no more than a Leviathan reduced to the grand puppet-like function of police officer. Everything takes root at the base. This is where we will learn to guard ourselves against the fallout of the great state nonsense and the plan to drag us into its collapse. If we see so many sociologists, political scientists, philosophical nullities, come out of their holes, is it not because the boat is sinking? Everything is to be rebuilt and reinvented: teaching, therapies, science, culture, energy, permaculture, transport. That the debates, the palaver, the reflections be located on this ground, and not in the ethereal spheres of economic, ideological and intellectual speculation! Is it not up to us to reinvent a money of exchange and a solidarity bank which, by preparing for the disappearance of money, would make it possible for everyone to have a minimum subsistence?

You defend the Zapatista of Chiapas and communalist Rojava. These two experiences are based, in part, on an army: the EZLN and the YPG-J. How does your call to “found territories” free from power and the global market grasp the issue of self-defense, since the State will sooner or later send in its cops or army?

It goes without saying that each situation has a specificity that requires appropriate treatment. Notre-Dame-des-Landes is not Rojava. The EZNL is not an export product. To each territory in the process of liberation, its own forms of struggle. Decisions belong to those who are on the ground. However, it is worth remembering: the way of apprehending beings and things varies according to the perspective adopted. The orientation given to the struggle has a considerable influence on its nature and its consequences. Behavior differs altogether if one fights barbarism militarily with the weapons of barbarism or if one opposes as an accomplished fact this irrepressible right to life, which sometimes regresses but is never vanquished and begins again without end. The first option is guerrilla warfare. Paramilitary leftism demonstrated by its defeats that entering the enemy’s field was to bow to its strategy and to submit to its law. Victory of the allegedly emancipating clashes has done still worse. The insurrectional power turned its guns against those who had allowed it to triumph. In L’État n’est plus rien, soyons tout, I hazarded the formula, “Neither warriors nor martyrs“. It provides no answer, it only asks the question: how to make the will to live and its human conscience a weapon that does not kill, an absolute weapon? The energy that the militant rioters [casseurs] waste in setting fire to garbage containers and smashing windows, would it not be more judicious in the defense of the ZADs, struggling against the construction of nuisances and cost-effective uselessness? A similar question is valid for the protesters who sporadically carry the illusion of obtaining measures in favor of the climate. What is to expected from States which are responsible for and the beneficiaries of the polluting economy? The massive presence of protesters would have been better where this economy is poisoning a region, a territory. Would not the encounter of a blind violence with a peaceful but resolute will have the chance of founding a kind of insurrectional pacifism, whose obstinacy would gradually break the yoke of the profit-making State?

You mention the “rioters“[casseurs]. And you have, more than once, argued that the “vandalism” does not serve liberation, but “restores” order. The yellow vests’ uprising turned many “non-violent” people into sympathisers of the Black Blocks: only the “rioting”, they say in essence, made power react, only the fire shook Macron. Is this wrong?

What a beautiful victory, that of shaking up a technocrat who has the brains of a cash drawer! The state has not yielded anything, it can not, it does not want to. Its only reaction was to overestimate the violence, resort to physical and media hype to divert attention away from the real thugs, those who ruin the public good. As I said, breaking shop windows, so dear to journalists, is an expression of blind anger. Anger is justified, blindness no! The quickening waltz of cobblestones and tear-gas moves nothing. And it is government authorities that win. What will prevail is the development of human consciousness, it is the increasingly firm resolution, despite the lassitude and the doubts marked by fear and media cowardliness. The power of this determination will continue to grow because it does not care about victory or defeat. Because, without leaders or recuperating representatives, it is there and it assumes on its own – and for all of us – the freedom to access an authentic life. Be assured: democracy is in the street, not at the polls.

In 2003, with Le Chevalier, la Dame, le Diable et la mort, you devoted beautiful pages to the animal question. It has since become a daily fixture in “public debate”. You spoke more recently of a “new civilisation” to create: can it turn the page on the daily massacres of animals on which our societies still stand?

The devastated biotopes, the pesticides, the massacre of the bees, the birds, the insects, the marine fauna stifled by the dumping of plastics, the concentrating breeding of animals, the poisoning of the ground, the air, the water, so many crimes that the profit economy perpetuates with impunity, in complete pre-manufactured legality. To the indignant who proclaim “We must save humanity from disaster”, the corpses that govern us oppose the spectacle of unsustainable promises. They cynically reiterate the irrevocable nature of their decree: we must save the economy, profitability, money and pay, for this noble ideal, the price of misery and blood. Their world is not ours. They know it, they do not care. It’s up to us to decide our life and our environment. It’s up to us to mock their bureaucratic, legal, police constraints, breaking their grip on the grassroots, where we are, where it suffocates us. As the sans-culottes of 1789 used to say, “You don’t give a damn about us? You will not being doing so for much longer!” We are moving towards a form of life based on a new alliance with the natural environment. It is in such a perspective that the fate of animals will be approached, not in a charitable or compassionate spirit, but in terms of a rehabilitation: that of the animality that constitutes us and that we exploit, torture, repress, in the same way that we mistreat, repress, abuse those inferior brethren who are also our inner brethren.

You often talk about “the preeminence of the human“. How to assume the singularity of the Homo Sapiens while reminding her/him, at the time of the Anthropocene, that s/he should become smaller, since s/he represents only 0.01% of the biomass?

It is high time that the Ya Basta!, Its Enough!, were applied to this dogma manufactured by a system of exploitation which, by satisfying the masters, propagated the belief in the debility and the native weakness of the human being. We have not stopped beating him down, this poor old parent. For a long time, s/he has been nothing but a dejection of the gods, ground down according to their caprices. S/he was marked with an ontological curse, a natural malformation, a state of permanent puerility, which required the tutelage of a master. S/he ends today in a waste bin, where s/he is reduced to an object, a number, a statistic, a market value. Everything except to recognise in her/him creativity, potential wealth, a subjectivity that aspires to express itself freely. You continue to preach the anguish of the infinite spaces of the Pascalian Jansenist, while a revolution of everyday life privileges the individual and initiates her/him to a solidarity capable of freeing her/him from the selfish calculation and individualism in which s/he was imprisoned by the gregarious society. While men and women lay the foundations of an egalitarian and fraternal society, the sermon that propagandists of voluntary servitude tirelessly preach is still finds its trumpets! The only infinite spaces that fascinate me are those where the immensity of a life to be discovered and created opens before us. Yesterday we shouted “Into the cage, the shouting heralds of kings and priests! “. They are the same, now reconverted. Into the cage, the shouting heralds of the market!


1. Internationale situationniste, n° 11, October 1967, p. 39.

2. In September 1936, two months after the nationalist uprising, various CNT militants, enter the government of Catalonia.

3.In 1845, Marx and Engels published the pamphlet The Holy Family, subtitled Critique of Critical Criticism. Against Bruno Bauer and Company.

4. Multiplication by division.

5. A phrase inspired by Act 1, Scene 1 of the play Schlageter, by Hanns Johst: “When I hear speak of culture … I lift the safety on my Browning“. It will then be regularly attributed to Goebbels and Göring, of the Nazi party..

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