Have 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.
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.
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 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.
The major problem with Selected Works pertains 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 four-letter words every so often to fake-shock his students.
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.