The Worst Book Ever Written by a Situationist

Nothing strengthens foolishness better than to honor it with a polemic. -- Raoul Vaneigem, 2000.

Raoul Vaneigem's A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings: On the Sovereignty of Life as Surpassing the Rights of Man[1] is easily one of the worst books we have ever read, and it is certainly the worst book ever written by a former member of the Situationist International (SI). Indeed, it is so bad that, were it not for the fact that we recently passed six months translating Vaneigem's superb book La Resistance de le Christianisme,[2] we would not have felt the need to write this review. We would simply have said "Avoid Vaneigem's book about human rights" and left it at that. But this would not have been intellectually honest nor particularly helpful to our readers: there is something wrong with Raoul Vaneigem. It isn't simply the case that some of his books are "good" and that others are "bad." It is almost as if there is Vaneigem, the author of a handful of great books, and then there is someone else who calls himself "Vaneigem" and writes books that would be unthinkable and even offensive to "the other Vaneigem."

The central thesis of A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings is that "human rights" are a mere by-product of the rights that the State has accorded to the so-called free market. "The rights of man are no more than specific amplifications of a single right, which is the right to survive merely for the sake of working towards the survival of a totalitarian economy which was imposed untruthfully as the sole means of sustaining the human race," Vaneigem writes. As a result, "the rights of man sanction in a positive form the negation of the rights of the human being": that is, political freedom is a simple compensation for economic unfreedom. As a historical matter,

the upsurge of the rights of man stems from the expansion of free trade [...] The earliest charters of freedoms appear during the ferment of uprisings in the communes, from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, which opposed the entrenched agrarian situation and its parasitical aristocracy with the redoubt of the towns then in full commercial expansion. The air of city freedoms inspired the pre-industrial bourgeoisie to establish a right of recourse against the arbitrariness of the feudal regime, whose predatory parasitism widely hindered the free circulation of merchandise.

The watershed of this period was the Magna Carta (15 June 1215), which, Vaneigem claims, "confirmed an economic revolution which reckoned on a greater energy and profit from the free man selling his labor to the corporations than from the serf bound to the glebe and forced into wearisome corvees."

This is a very simplistic argument, and its weaknesses are clearly exposed when Vaneigem moves on to discuss the declarations of rights that were issued after the Magna Carta. In each case, there is an obvious split or lack of complete overlap between natural rights and those rights that are protected by the law of the land (sometimes this split/difference even appears in the very title of the declaration of rights): "All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity" (The Virginia Declaration of Rights, proclaimed on 12 June 1776); "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen" (emphasis added), adopted by the French National Assembly on 26 August 1789; and "The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen" (emphasis added), written by Olympe de Gouges in 1791. As Giorgio Agamben has pointed out,[3] this split -- which appears in many more documents than Vaneigem mentions -- becomes a crisis when the laws of the land are suspended due to national emergency. Do "natural rights" still exist during such emergencies? Have these rights been completely absorbed into the now-suspended "political rights"? If they have, does this mean that people who are no longer (or have never been) "citizens" are now completely outside all protections and can be imprisoned, tortured or murdered with impunity?

These are not economic problems nor are they problems caused by the economy's domination of society as a whole. They are properly, even exclusively socio-political problems, and -- though Vaneigem is too ill-informed or hasty to take note of the fact -- they were explicitly addressed by the "Founding Fathers" of the United States. In "The Federalist No. 84," Alexander Hamilton pointed out that,

bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent that they are contended for, are not only unnecessary, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colourful pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done, which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? I will not contend that such a provision would confer a regulating power; but it is evident that it would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretence for claiming that power. They might urge with a semblance of reason, that the constitution ought not to be charged with the absurdity of providing against the abuse of an authority, which was not given, and that the provision against restraining the liberty of the press afforded a clear implication, that a right to prescribe proper regulations concerning it, was intended to be vested in the national government. This may serve as a specimen of the numerous handles which would be given to the doctrine of constructive powers, by the indulgence of an injudicious zeal for bills of rights.[4]

Of course, the split between natural rights and political rights reappears in (and tears apart) Vaneigem's A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings. There are certain issues -- contraception, suicide, euthanasia and abortion, what to do with dangerous lunatics, violent rapists and murderers -- that cannot be merely or simply left up to the billions of "free" individuals in the world or, rather, to what Vaneigem calls "a bundle of individual decisions," because these are properly social questions. Who or what holds "the bundle" together? There are no easy answers here, and Vaneigem himself inadvertently proves this to be the case when he refers to certain actions -- "bringing children into the world when they are not assured of the benefits of loving care and sensitive intelligence" -- as "crimes against humanity." Who should or could punish such a crime: the law of natural selection or the law of the land?

To return to Vaneigem's simplistic sketch of modern history: at the end of the 20th century, economic expansion -- after reaching and conquering the entire planet -- came to an end. As a result, human rights are now in a period of "decline within democracies" and are subject to "prohibition by despotic regimes." In an attempt to sound "cynical" (that is, uncompromised by illusions), he writes, "there are no grounds for anyone to be surprised, upset or made indignant because the freedoms bestowed on men should have been taken away from them, and, having been emptied of their meaning or negated through the use that is made of them, [that they] should everywhere become inaccessible and illusory, even in the very principle of hope that nourishes them."

And so, what is to be done, today, at this moment of crisis, which neatly coincides with the beginning of a new millennium? Well, "we cannot limit ourselves to demanding liberties which have come out of free trade," nor can we "be satisfied with abstract rights in a society where economic ascendancy abstracts human beings from themselves." What should we demand, what would be satisfactory? Because he is thought to be a revolutionary, Vaneigem feels obliged to offer his readers a revolutionary formulation, fourteen pages into this 133-page-long book:

We recognize no power other than the pre-eminence of life. Wherever the will to live and its awareness claim an undivided sovereignty, the very notion of rights cancels itself out. All we need is to be human in order to attain an awareness of never being human enough.

But the revolution, though it is apparently already underway, hasn't yet destroyed "the will to power" and replaced it with "the will to pleasure." First, there needs to be a period of a gradual transition: "The transitional phase which marks the passage from an archaic society to a new society [...] Gradual emancipation from compulsory work authorizes everyone to allocate their time as they see fit [...]." And what should we be doing during this "transition"? Waiting! "While we wait for a guaranteed basic income for everyone [...] As a transitory measure, while waiting for the inauguration of a social system based on free prevision [...]." And how long will we have to wait for this transition to be completed, and -- other than waiting -- what should we be doing in the meantime? Vaneigem has given his answer by way of personal example: he filled up 119 pages of a book with 58 declarations of human rights!

Our readers will probably not be surprised that every single one of these "articles" either comes from or belongs in what Vaneigem himself (in the book's last paragraph) calls the "land of make-believe in which children pretend to die, kill, to flatten mountains and make mountains out of plains." Let us take "Article 10b3" as our example, although any of the other 57 articles (and/or any of their respective subsections) would have sufficed[5]: "Every human being has the right to replace state governments with a world federation of small local collectivities in which the quality of the individual guarantees the humanity of societies." Only those who are completely incapable of logic will need it explained to them that "Article 10b3" is impossible, even after any or all "revolutionary" transformations of society have been completed: it could only be through coercive force that "every human being" -- the key word here being "every" -- could instaurate "small local collectivities" and create a worldwide federation of them, but then such a situation have nothing to do with "humanity"!

But our readers -- especially those who believe that Vaneigem is or was a genuine revolutionary -- will be shocked, if not nauseated when they learn what Vaneigem thinks is powering the "gradual" "transition" to a fully and truly human society. It is not the proletariat, the working class, nor even human beings; it is capitalism itself or, rather, what Vaneigem calls "neo-capitalism."[6]

We are engaged in a process of economic transformation where the exploitation of nature and of human beings by other human beings has reached its stage of stagnation, and is gradually giving way under the impact of a new economy [...] The economic transformation under way opens on to a transformation of culture. The former is already at work on producing renewable sources of energy, organic farming and technologies destined to rebalance the environment. The latter is in our hands, exposed to the confusion that always accompanies the conjunction of an old era's ending and the coming of the new, forcing a path through the rubble [...] The economy experienced a reaction of self-preservation at the end of the second millennium. The will to recover some fresh dynamism set its hopes on a regeneration of use value and quality. The rise of organic farming, the development of natural sources of energy, the emergence of a civil, humanitarian ethics and the return to use value, all laid down the objective conditions for a time which, liberated from measurement in terms of productivity and consumption, is in the process of becoming the time of market humanism, from which we still have to set it free in order to make it the time of pleasure [...] The decline of the old economy ushers in a new form of harvesting. By drawing on the arsenal of technical progress which is in continuous anarchic development, the new economy has the capacity to add to the profusion of good things which the earth richly offers for the benefit of humankind as a whole [...] The reconversion of the huge market of technologies by a neo-capitalism which takes advantage of a planetary reconstruction that is human and environmentally sound will bring about the application to peaceful ends of a great many discoveries inspired by the art of war and destruction. It is up to us to ensure that the passage from the archaic economy to the setting up of natural sources of energy, organic agriculture, an ethic of human respect and 'clean' merchandise goes hand in hand with that ending of the conditions of survival which will be brought about by the creative making of life.

There is a word for this ideology: it is neo-liberalism, and it is espoused by any number of "progressive" politicians and "green capitalists." There is a very good reason that, in its review of this book, Le Monde said that "all opponents of globalization should carry it in their luggage": this book will help make sure than the "anti-globalization" movement never becomes an anti-capitalist movement.

But this critique of A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings -- valid though it may be -- assumes that the real subject of this book is indeed "human rights" and that Vaneigem wrote it to be read by "opponents of globalization." These assumptions might be false; there are certainly insufficient when it comes to how many of the "rights" enumerated by this book concern (attempt to justify) such things as "the freedom to shun deliberately those subjects for which they feel no curiosity or attraction," "the right to ugliness, to flaws, to what is unaccomplished, to what falls short, the self-same pleasure of the sketch, the botched draft, the skew-whiff line, the false note," "regression, crudeness or silliness," "baby talk, deliberate errors, childish puns and private languages," "the right to rest, to be lazy, to gorge oneself, the right to regression or to non-conformity, the right to oppose, to contradict, to act the clown or the fool," "the wildest speculations, the most lunatic assertions," "the most far-fetched fiction, the most ephemeral lie," and "the most abstruse speculations, crazy systems, immense stretches of the imagination, geometries of the impossible." Precisely because these various kinds of self-betrayal so well describe the very book in which they are justified, one gets the impression -- no, one is convinced -- that the real subject of A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings is Vaneigem's resignation from the Situationist International (SI), and that he only wrote it for himself, to make himself feel better about what happened back in 1970.

Vaneigem says nothing about the SI in particular,[7] but he says a great deal about groupings of revolutionaries, and none of them are favorable.

The factitious antinomy between individualism and collectivism, normal and abnormal, conformist and anti-conformist, banal and extravagant has always functioned as a trap for rebels, insurgents and outlaws. How could singularity avoid self-betrayal when it takes up a stance of insubordination which derives its meaning from the subordination against which it fights? [...] The ties of solidarity are a hindrance unless they are willingly bound by the affinities which animate a common desire for pleasure, independence and individual creativity. Wherever the will to live abolishes the will to power, those who come together save themselves most surely from the ways of thinking that have turned groupings, associations, collectivities and other fellowships into hotbeds of resentment, hatred and bogus attachment [...] The spirit of subversion has made its claims even through vandalism, by assuming the right to destroy, to soil and degrade a world which, appropriated by those who decreed themselves the masters, did not belong to us [...]

But these are not the worst practices of groupings like the SI. No, their worst practice is that they make judgments. According to Vaneigem, no one should ever make judgments of anyone else: "the right to make mistakes implies a refusal to judge or to be judged," "the propensity to judge derives from the trade in things being applied to the trade in people." As so, where does this leave someone like Raoul Vaneigem, who was judged to be all talk and no action, and who consequently was forced to resign from the SI? Alone, completely alone. He pretends that he is happy with being all alone: "Being alone is not the same thing as being forsaken," he writes; "there is no solitude we inhabit that does not ultimately live in the world" (emphasis added). "We"?! Who is this "we"? Who is the "we" here, in this bold statement, "We are resolved no longer to follow any of the ways that lead to the concentration-camp universe of master and slaves"? Elsewhere Vaneigem quotes Heinrich von Kleist -- "I can be happy only in my own company, because it is where I am allowed to be completely true" -- either forgetting or hoping that his readers do not know that Kleist killed himself at the age of 34.

19 June 2007

[1] Written in French, dated 11 December 2000 and published by le cherche midi editeur in 2001, this book was translated into English by Liz Heron and published by Pluto Books in 2003.

[2] Written in French in 1992 and published by Librairie Artheme Fayard in 1993, we translated it into English as The Resistance to Christianity. In our translator's introduction to this book, we noted the intensity of the antagonism between Vaneigem and Guy Debord, another member of the Situationist International, but tried to maintain a neutral position: "we do not wish to choose sides."

[3] See Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995) or State of Exception (2002). We discuss these books at some length here.

[4] Another passage in this text offers an excellent retort to Vaneigem's entire project: "It has been several times truly remarked, that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince [...] It is evident, therefore, that according to their primitive signification, they have no application to constitutions professedly founded upon the power of the people, and executed by their immediate representatives and servants. Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain every thing, they have no need of particular reservations [...] This is a better recognition of popular rights, than volumes of those aphorisms, which make the principal figure in several of our state bills of rights, and which would sound much better in a treatise of ethics, than in a constitution of government."

[5] Another "good" choice here would have been section 2 of "Article 27," which is made up of questions, not "declarations": "How are we to bring about the elimination of the institutions of police and criminality, by which they are simultaneously incited and repressed, if we continue to maintain within ourselves the way of thinking of a cop, giving it licence to subjugate us in the ordering of our everyday affairs and even in our movements of protest and subversion? How are we to guard against an increase in epidemics, epizootics and disasters which are allegedly natural, if we put them down to bad luck, instead of sabotaging the tyranny of profit which provokes them, more and more frequently, through chaotic disorganization, negligence and contempt for humanity?" Vaneigem obviously has no answers to these questions, and so has no business pretending that he is capable of writing "a declaration of the rights of human beings."

[6] There is a strong similarity between Vaneigem's serene confidence in the ability of capitalism, through its own development, to produce the "new society" and the confidence displayed in Facing Reality, a book that was written in 1958 by C.L.R. James, Grace C. Lee and "Pierre Chaulieu" (a pseudonym for Cornelius Castoriadis) and reprinted in 2006 by Factory School. In the latter volume, the "socialist society" already exists on the factory floor, in the ways in which the workers have banded together to make things run smoothly. The task of "the Marxist organization" in such miraculous circumstances is rather simple and passive: "Our task then is to recognize the new society, align ourselves with it, and record the facts of its existence."

[7] But the SI -- Guy Debord, in particular -- had a great deal to say about Raoul Vaneigem, and all of it is worth citing here. According to Debord, writing in the "Communique from the SI concerning Vaneigem," which was offered in response to Vaneigem's letter of resignation from the SI, his former friend and collaborator wrote his superb book Treatise on Living for the Younger Generations (1967) precisely so that he would not have to actually live it out or live up to its demands. Why? Because Vaneigem is fundamentally a "timid" man:

Apart from his opposition, affirmed once and for all, to the commodity, the State, hierarchy, alienation and survival, Vaneigem is quite obviously someone who is never opposed to anything in the specific life that is made for him [...] Vaneigem seems to have never wanted to face the simple fact that he who speaks so well commits himself to being there a little in a number of analyses and practical struggles, under pain of being radically deceptive.

In other words, Vaneigem's life was "disastrously" divided between bold theory and timid practice. "Nevertheless," the "Communique" goes on to say, "the importance of this book [the Treatise on Living] does not escape anyone, because (over time) no one, not even Vaneigem, can escape its conclusions." And so, painfully aware of his failure to truly become Vaneigem, Vaneigem "disappeared" over the course of the years 1965-1970; he contented himself with the way things were in 1961, when he first joined the SI. He continued to rely upon "a certain generality, a certain abstraction, sometimes even the usage of the tone of the lyrical utterance." From him, "the goal [revolution] being total, it was only envisioned in a pure present: it was already here as a whole insofar as one could try to make it believed, or it remained quite inaccessible; one never succeeded in defining it or approaching it [...] The vulgar problems of real society and real revolution could be instantaneously abolished even before one had the displeasure of considering them."

After his resignation from the SI, Vaneigem "disappeared" again: except for an "introduction" to a volume by Ernest Coeurderoy, he published nothing under his own name. In 1974, when he published From Wildcat Strike to Total Self-Management, he took the pseudonym "Ratgeb." Once again, Debord's analysis was harsh but very insightful. In a letter to Eduardo Rothe dated 21 February 1974, he wrote:

What today prevents the Vaneigems from writing -- even in the quantity of their fuckery, they have been very sober -- is the fact that the epoch no longer simply demands a vague response to the question "What is to be done?" [...] It is now a question, if one wants to remain in the present, of responding to this question almost every week: "What is happening?" It is this richness of the return of modern history that puts their poverty into the light of final judgment, and condemns them to silence.

Vaneigem, still believing himself to be in 1961, had not yet caught up to 1968, when revolution returned to modern life, not to mention 1974, when the Portuguese Revolution went further than any before it, even the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Nine years later, when Vaneigem finally published a book -- The Book of Pleasures (Encre, 1979) -- under his own name, Debord noted that little had changed. "Vaneigem can only follow the road that was traced for him" in the "Communique of the SI concerning Vaneigem." "Fundamentally," Vaneigem's Book of Pleasures is "the repetition of a unique stupidity," which was, in Debord's words (letter to Paolo Salvadori dated 30 November 1979):

The French or Russian worker, the black miner from South Africa or the peasant in the Andes -- without considering anything else -- goes from pleasure to pleasure, and thus the revolution will quickly be made. Long live strategy, death to the realities of refusal! What has always defined the parish priests is the promise of paradise.

The only difference that Debord could detect in Vaneigem was that, "after ten years of reflection, he dares to spout a great stream of resentment, finding himself so alone. He returns to childhood; he denies time; he hates all judgments (not without motivations); he no longer refuses anything, except refusal."

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