On 25 August 1686, the Day of Saint-Louis, the pirate Grammont – having taken Campeche, feasted for two months and fired the cannon in honor of the king of France – illuminated the last orgy with a blaze in which was consumed all of the wood, at the time reputed to be the most precious in the world, found in the warehouses of the town. And this man, who exceeded the customary irregularity of the pirates who accompanied him and declared themselves to be libertines, that is to say, atheists, exclaimed while contemplating this most useless and expensive of pillages: "What can they attempt at Versailles that is not salad dressing compared to what we have done?" Several weeks later, quite far in advance of another wastrel [dilapidateur], Arthur Cravan, Grammont disappeared off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and so one could not see what decisive continuation of his disastrous career could have added to this superbly launched challenge (made under the pretext of celebration) to a king whom he only recognized so as to surpass him in luxury. In the manner of Blanqui, exclaiming "Crush the romantics!" during the revolution of 1830, one exulted from being able to "Crush the Sun-King!" before the brutal overthrow of the hierarchies established in the access to abundance. Crush the pharoahic pretensions of the king who, assimilating "the regal and useful course of the sun" to the "infinite good that royalty produces," especially achieved the centralization of his court in the decorum of absolutism, which is the preliminary to all subsequent Statist impoverishment; until then ostentatious expenditure had been put in play in the disorder of the aristocratic rivalries of which the Fronde was the last and paroxysmal example.
A clumsy and authoritarian retort to the feast of Fouquet, Versailles – thanks to the pageantry capable of enchanting generations of petit-bourgeois republicans who laboriously attained a discounted luxury, of which the "Great Century" remains the inaccessible model – gave one the feeling of the accomplished passage from effervescence to etiquette, from excess to pomp: if it is not certain that this is a factory, the construction of which imposes itself between the chateau and an ornamental pond, it is no less the case that the beautiful disorder of life is inhibited there, like the urban troubles from which it was necessary to distance oneself, through all the heavy harmony of the decor. With respect to repression and pomp, one knows, moreover that Marly's machine, which had water to play with at Versailles, was the most powerful machine of the 17th Century. Nevertheless, even though the technical machinery was still relegated to the wings of power, like an instrument of its hydraulic fantasies, this already tempered – symbolically, at least – its ostentation and its pomp according to some notion of public interest, and the equestrian statue constructed on demand by Bernin – too exuberant in its illustration of an insolubly unproductive glory – was finally set aside by its sponsor for a more edifying allegory that presented the benefits of his reign to the judgment of history.
However dubious these benefits might have appeared to its contemporaries, it is, on the other hand, certain that the harnessing of what, until then, had expended itself without reserve to the profit of economic accumulation was greatly favored by the constitution at the Court of a model of hierarchical consumption, governed by fashion and ruling over luxury according to a ladder of appearances that each person strove to climb. Parallel to the military excesses of the Fronde, aristocratic prodigality could still illustrate itself as a mundane and already private diversion in the games of the precious men and women, the charming seriousness of which Tallemant des Reaux described well. But henceforth what was free fantasy became an obligation to appear on the stage of absolutism, to hold a rank from which the State drew glory: "The life of the Court becomes the criteria for a beautiful life. The luxurious standards of consumption that were established in it little by little spread throughout society." Lewis Mumford showed in Technics and Civilization how this standardized luxurious consumption, along with the equipment of military slaughter, at the origin of modern industrial production. And the essential is the fact that luxury progressively ceased to be represented in the unproductive feasts of religion and the fantastic games of those who were beyond needs, so as to be consumed, acquired under the form of commodities.
Material production was then no longer limited, as it had been previously, on the side of poverty as well as on the side of wealth: on the former, by the stability of needs, and on the latter, by expenditures of the excess in pure loss. The accumulation of the means of production, the indefinite growth of the economy, began with the creation of new needs that opened an unlimited field of deployment of dissatisfaction: by promising the democratization of luxury, and by actually banalizing it, the commodity simultaneously attacked what was beyond needs, the free play with wealth and the limited satisfaction that, if it was still not attained, was at least accepted as the sole horizon. As Goethe had one of his characters say, in praise of the incessant movement of commercial activity: "Therefore, consider thus natural or manufactured products, from all parts of the world, and dream of the fashion by which they have, by turns, become indispensable objects." And further on: "You will discover the most insignificant commodity in its relations with the ensemble of commerce and from then on you will hold nothing as insignificant since everything increases the circulation on which your own life nourishes itself" (Wilhelm Meister). But this philosophical satisfaction, which wants to save the commodity from insignificance by discovering in it the exuberance of a movement that exceeds it, is no more than an ideological travesty of what is in fact a worrisome investigation of a wealth that each time escapes in the disappointment of possession; pursued abundance retreats, and demands as compensation that the individual identify his own life with "the ensemble of commerce," and find its nourishment in "circulation." Because wealth is not deposited in any particular commodity; it is, rather, what is missing from each particular commodity and what foils it; like excess and luxury, it is the exclusive property of the infinite movement of negation of all particularity that animates the market abstraction. Money itself, when it is possessed, merely represents the negation of rest: it is the infinite quantified. "This contradiction between the always-definite quantity and the quality of the infinite power of money ceaselessly leads the hoarder to the work of Sisyphus. He is like a conqueror whose each new conquest only leads to a new frontier" (Marx).
Thus, only this "infinite power" that money incarnates, the permanent self-valorization of the world of things, socially represents the true wealth, not as a result but as a process, in which the preceding know-how must each time be thrown into the furnace of production, of economic progress. To the movement that carries society far from all previous stability, the revolutionary bourgeoisie in vain opposed its ideal of Spartan frugality and voluntary egalitarianism; it no longer had time to restore the old bases of satisfaction and historic action. Instead of enjoying itself and periodically exhausting itself in disorders and institutionalized, ritualized destruction [dilapidation], human negativity was at once repressed and captured by the cycle of productive work, in which it turned 'round, thereby making the economic machine turn. Hegel – more radical than Goethe and anyone else [at that time] because he was less concerned with positive consolations – could thenceforth praise in technique the "restlessness of the subjective, of the Concept, placed beyond the subject": the Spirit of the World functioned all alone. It has not ceased to do so today, when it manifests itself under the modest signature of Chernobyl, for example, so well placed "beyond the subject" that this subject, the real human being, is no more than the lack of spirit, the source of error. But Hegel also foresaw this: "Finally, the abstraction of production makes work ever more mechanical and, in the end, it is possible that man will be excluded and that the machine will replace him" (Principles of the Philosophy of Right).
The attachment to things, the anguished need for their possession, is the ordinary neurosis through which the desire for abundance seeks to satisfy itself, "curbed" in production and deprived of the ritualized forms of its sublimation: the mania of the collector, the vain search for a useless accomplishment, represents the shrill form of the frustration of the consumer. But, for all that, what announced itself as an ascension to luxury was realized as an extension of necessity. Thus Mumford wrote the following to summarize how the banalization of the conventional signs of luxury contributed to the growth of manufacturing production: "One can remark with irony that it is with the capital amassed in his workshops of junk in Soho that Matthew Boulton helped James Watt during the period in which he was perfecting the steam engine." Junk is, among the savages who aspire to practice luxury in gratuitousness and unproductive expenditure, the fallacious ambassador of efficiency, of the economy that always enslaves them more and more to work. Junk carries the flag [les couleurs] of the commodity, but it must borrow them (sic) from the world that the commodity is in the process of abolishing. Its false brilliance reflects for a moment longer the splendor of a disappearing luxury, which the powers in their rivalries dilapidates; and which testifies to the beauty of many Italian towns that are, in the overlapping of ostentatious architectural expenditures, like a petrified potlatch. To the Towers of San Gimignamo, which uselessly fly towards the sky, to play with the wealth that is offered to all as decor, the world of junk replied with the somber and solitary obstinacy of William Beckford, who twice rebuilt the Tower of Fonthill, which he wanted to be always taller and which, due to its repeated collapses, consumed the most important fortune in England. At least Beckford, still enjoying the aristocratic privileges of wealth, could really celebrate – to the great scandal of his milieu – the sumptuous festival of which [his novel] Vathek was the literary echo. If the whole life of he who was like Louis II without a kingdom or a Ferdinand Cheval without a wheelbarrow (but who inscribed on his Ideal Palace "The fairies of the East come to fraternize with the West"), if the meditated disaster of his excess – which wasn't only architectural – was a violent challenge to what began to unfurl with the industrial revolution, one can say more generally that, beyond aesthetics and his taste for the Gothic and its profusion of vain ornaments, it is fitting to understand that, under the name of Romanticism, he above all expressed a protest against the downfall of luxury, against the poverty of a world in which splendor had to be borrowed from the past and in which art, like junk, is essentially nostalgia. Schiller's famous affirmation, according to which man is only fully man when he is at play, is inscribed upon the threshold of the modern hell of production, in which the principle of efficiency no longer leaves any place for play, in which mutilated man works to produce the consumable substitutes for the faculties that have been amputated from him.
Considered in this way, not in the perspective of necessity but of its contrary, "luxury" – as was attempted, not without several quite ridiculous blunders concerning modern problems, by Georges Bataille in "The Notion of Expenditure" and The Accursed Share – the economic and anti-economic history of human societies assuredly acquires different, brilliant colors than those that – thanks to the people who retroactively impose the stinginess of market calculations – spoil the beauty of what was accomplished, what was made in the depth of the desire to accede to the free expenditure of life, to the affirmation of human prodigality. Nevertheless, the action that pushes the question of abundance, of the collective access to abundance (and thus the idea that we must own all that has been manifested the luxurious values of life in the past), to be posed lucidly and rationally must not, in its turn, lead us to retrospectively consider history by loaning to the recovered epochs the possible freedoms that are ours in this respect. Abundance has always existed, but nowhere has it existed abundantly: either because everyone did not enjoy it or because, when everyone did enjoy it, they did not do so all of the time. No doubt abundance really lived can only be particular to a human group engaged in a collective adventure, when it has its own practical values, its own language, its own rules of the game. Thus, Huizinga wrote the following with respect to the descriptions furnished by Malinowski of the rituals of reciprocal gift-exchange practiced by the Melanesians: "The entire event unfolded in an atmosphere of reciprocal obligation, trust, friendship, free hospitality, noble exploits, generosity, honor and glory. The navigations were often adventurous and full of dangers" (Homo ludens). But today, to recover the particularity of practices of abundance, this diversity and all the rival requirements of which it can be the occasion, it is necessary to attack the general form that has taken dispossession in market wealth, abstract abundance, in which all direct pleasure is denied.
The universal right to wealth that the commodity instaurates by destroying all privileged and ritualized participation in expenditure: this abstraction realizes itself in the always-increasing distance from the usage of abundance. The ostentation of the rich only realizes itself with the aid of signs of an absent life, in the accumulation of objects that are irremediably deprived of all that their mode of usage does not know how to provide. The consumer of the abundant commodity is the secularized version of the ascetic ideal embodied by the hoarder. He also pursues the appropriation of wealth under its general, abstract form, by renouncing wealth in its material reality, in the particularization and in the manifestations of his life. Because he is ignorant of his real needs, to the profit of the arbitrary forms that they assume in the spectacle, he misrecognizes both deprivation and its reversal. One can see the point at which one can revive the meaning of human abundance at the opposite extreme of the existing counterfeits in this paradoxical luxury, in which the spectacle has taken its completed form and where the ideal of the hoarder's renunciation has attained its best formulation in the motto of Benjamin Franklin, who developed the famous precept time is money: in American society, the truth of wealth – which flees from all parts of the needy ostentation of the privileged consumers of appearances – is experienced in the exuberant and desperate life of the most miserable: the Blacks. Faced with the sordid American dream, the Blacks have thrown – as a denial of all that one wants to reduce them to, and of all that one has believed to gain thereby – the insult of a sovereign scorn, which is dispensed in the most useless of luxuries: music. In hardly more than 50 years, jazz has completed the cycle that leads all art to detach itself from the collective practices of a game with repertory forms and to affirm itself in an individualized production that takes innovation as its rule, and thus sinks into a negative movement in which it only expresses the loss of a common language. But previously, at its point of incandescence – disengaged from the conventions of folklore, but without losing itself in the cacophony of impossible communication – it had, as a savage postface to the history of art, prolonged for another instant the ability to represent an authentic luxury, to manifest the gratuitousness of life. Having passed beyond this point, but without betraying the negation that it incarnated in a positive expression, jazz only has the choice between the beaten tracks of formal decomposition, which would reduce it to the sub-dadaism of official American culture, and the difficult road of a supercession of all representation in the insurrection of the Blacks. One knows what has become of jazz, and today it remains something to be collected by the aesthetes of the microgrooves.
Bataille wrote in 1933: "Today, the great and free social forms of unproductive expenditure have disappeared. However, it is not necessary to conclude from this that the very principle of expenditure has ceased to be situated as the end of economic activity [...] Only generosity and nobility have disappeared and, with them, the spectacular counterpart that the rich would render to the poor" ("The Notion of Expenditure"). Since the time that Bataille wrote these lines, the progress of class society has manifestly consisted of endowing itself with the means that allow it, with neither generosity nor nobility, but with the efficacy of cold calculation, to render to contemporary poor people the "spectacular counterpart" from which they were excluded; that is to say, today practically everyone, from the satisfaction of elementary needs to participation in luxurious expenditure. Conforming to the particular logic of the economy, such a counterpart absorbs an always-growing part of the excess productivity that one does not put to emancipatory usage: the spectacular substitute for life consumes the energy that could be devoted to surpass this substitute. But, as this expenditure still does not suffice to maintain the pressure of economic necessity, the unleashing of the artificial and the construction of a pseudo-reality is accompanied by the destruction of all the realities on which survival rests: this is a recoil in which the arbitrary in the usage of technical power negatively expresses possible freedom. And in this indefinite outbreak of the struggle for the satisfaction of need, society disastrously consumes the power that it could joyously waste in surmounting the economy.
When it began to reformulate itself upon the refusal of work, including the artistic work that represented for subservient society an activity that was emancipated from necessity – a luxurious game – the revolutionary programme of communist abundance could still, with the grain of Marxist reasoning, consider that capitalism had accomplished its historical task by creating a productive apparatus that could permit an egalitarian satisfaction of needs, and that this very development, with the material powers thus accumulated, thenceforth posed to humanity the problem of a free expenditure of life that, generalized, was at the same time the supercession of art and the economy. Against the retrograde claims of reformism – which only gave as its objective to the workers' struggles the ascension to a minimum of survival, condemned them to indefinitely pursue the satisfaction of needs under the arbitrary forms and the always-increased artificial necessities of this society – it [the revolutionary programme] affirmed: "Life is to be lived beyond" (Potlatch, #4, July 1954). It seems established that, on the basis of technical development, with the possibility of an automation that would discharge men from all the constraints of non-creative activity, the content of the modern revolution thenceforth becomes the employment of the time and energies thus liberated: to give it a programme that really responds to the principal problem of the era – overdevelopment without wealth – which could pass for the definition of a new wealth, in total opposition to the inept lie of the so-called "society of consumption." Beyond the socialization of vital goods, it would be a question of indicating by means of appropriate propaganda the excessive liberty of a possible game, which alone would give a passionate meaning to the fact that the question of subsistence can be rationally dominated: "Revolutionary thought must make the critique of everyday life in bourgeois society; [it must] spread another idea of happiness. The Left and the Right are in accord on the image of poverty, which is a matter of having no food [privation alimentaire]. The Left and the Right are also in accord on the image of the good life [...] Beefsteak will be replaced as the sign of the masses' right to live" (Internationale Situationniste #2, December 1958).
Thirty years later, it is not deceptive to summarize the situation by saying that we have gained nothing beyond beefsteak, and that we have lost beefsteak itself. That is to say, by acceding to abundant consumption, we have seen beefsteak effectively "replaced" by something in which there is a lot of merchandise and very little meat. Not only has the dominant society (in its own way, that is, by gradually and partially automating production) succeeded in surmounting technical development by neutralizing human energy, which is thereby rendered vacant, but also by creating "jobs" [emplois] in this sector (thus preventing the creation of a new use [emploi] of life), but this society has also ceaselessly lengthened the detour by which we reach vital goods, diligently unburdening at each stage of sophistication a part of its content (to the profit of costly synthetic substitutes). And the end of the day, what everyone accedes to (if everyone indeed accedes to it, because it is still necessary to pay for these aliments of death) literally no longer exists. The threshold of abundance has thus paradoxically been freed from both the costs of the satisfaction of elementary needs, with the result that beefsteak – if one has the least interest in quality or even merely the non-noxious – once again becomes a revolutionary demand. In a world turned upside-down, the most absurd excesses are the rule where proportion [la mesure] and exact knowledge obviously impose themselves (in the appropriation of nature); and in those places where the free effervescence of human freedom can manifest itself completely at its leisure, there reigns the most sordid parsimony, passivity and repetition.
Nevertheless, unproductive activity suppressed by the anti-historical maintenance of market profitability returns as an irrationality that is socially supportable by the compulsive absurdity of individual behaviors. Thus, as if to justify the idea that the automobile should principally be an idiotic plaything, and secondarily a means of transportation, we see the young generations, unable to construct a way of life [savoir-vivre], devote themselves to an expedited way of death [savoir-mourir], by employing the means of permitted circulation in a superabundantly aberrant fashion. This destructive excess – excessive with respect to the normally programmed rate of usury (concerning the vehicles as much as their users) – evokes the operations of snipers who act on the margins of the great campaigns of destruction in which this society catastrophically expends its power. There obviously are not a lack of humanists to be indignant about the irresponsibility of all those who throw themselves down the roads, after making themselves suitably intoxicated, but these protectors of survival want to ignore the fact that it is not drunkenness that is absurd, nor the will to play with machines, but the constraints that weigh down upon the deployment of all this, determining a usage that is so poor that its only excess is auto-destruction (if one dares to say so). The modern poor people who give the end of work such a rivalry of risks and waste use the commodity that best summarizes the cost of this work, what it costs and what it allows; it is all this that they put into play in the sole goal of recovering the real prestige that attaches itself to the scorn of riches. It is for this prestigious sacrifice that alcohol prepares people: alcohol would only be an obstacle if it was a question of circulating efficiently, and it is precisely this that is not a concern.
No matter what the drug, only the construction of superior games could put an end to the pathology of substitute expenditures that, in their repetitive fixations, reproduce the world of constraints that these expenditures want to repudiate. How could this society – which only knows how to organize the muddles of material and human resources on a grand scale – really judge the muddles that so many desperate people make of their own lives and demand that each person subscribe to this madness as a necessity? All the successes of domination over the last thirty years have consisted of planning a regularized destruction of goods, which replaces the old economic function of war. Without difficulty, market abundance has been, at the simple level of consumed objects and supposed satisfactions, the contrary of what it said it was: the subservience to an indefinitely renewed productive labor, integrated usury supporting the methods of advertising so as to impose the change of what remains fundamentally identical, and the ephemera of the necessary thus began to annul the material conditions of luxury. But the perpetuation of what can define as the monstrous paradox of this society, which makes people work to maintain work, obliged one to carry the destruction further, quite beyond the sphere of the usual objects. The current disaster – from ordinary waste to regularized catastrophes – is like a frightening potlatch of destruction by which humanity searches to recover, in the ruins of its illusions, the truth of its needs as well as its true wealth. The fact that the costs of its own devastations today become properly incalculable by the existing society: in its way, this fact expresses how accumulated power can come forth from the economy without, for all that, surmounting it: by prolonging beyond all proportion the enslavement of men and the destruction of life.
In the light of this overturning of abundant production by its contrary, one can re-read what the situationists wrote in 1960 concerning the supercession of "the old division between imposed work and passive diversions" that must allow "the automatization of production and the socialization of vital goods": "Thus liberated from all economic responsibility, liberated from all debts to the past and others, man will dispose of a new use-value, incalculable in money because it is impossible to reduce it to the measurements of salaried work: the value of play, of life freely constructed" ("Manifesto of 17 May 1960," Internationale Situationniste #4). The surplus-value that has been expropriated from us henceforth shows itself in the monstrous excess of Statist arbitrariness, of which it can certainly be said that it is "liberated from all debts to the past and others" and even all economic responsibility. Material power, accumulated in the hierarchical framework of the past, instead of being reoriented by an emancipatory project, can no longer be distinguished from the powers of the owners of monopolized survival. In 1776, bringing Boswell to the workshops in which he manufactured Watt's steam engine in serial fashion, Boulton is said to have said: "Here, sir, I sell what everyone desires to have: power." The crux of the matter being that the English word power signifies both ability and power (in the sense of energy). What everyone wants to have – the material ability to emancipate oneself from immediate needs – is thus returned to and against us by socially taking the form of a power that undertakes to definitively keep us in the "system of needs" that already convinced Hegel to conclude upon the necessity of a State bureaucracy: a "system of mutual physical dependency" as constraining and coherent as the surveillance of the stockpiles of nuclear waste.
Thus the project of revolutionary reappropriation cannot today hold anything as historically established: satisfaction and excess must be reconstructed together, and only a society that can rationally organize this can devote itself freely to reinventing them. It will be a question – in the autonomy of individuals and groups, as a moving frontier in dynamic contradiction – of recovering the opposition of needs and luxuries, of which the alienating forms – in the division between work and leisure – have finally ruined all aptitude to produce and enjoy, to measure and play, to accumulate and squander. But from now on, in this decomposition – which we defined in the "Prospectus" that announced the publication of this Encyclopedia as "one of the paradoxes of our situation" – "it is necessary for us to develop a critique that leads beyond this state of affairs and, at the same time, re-takes for our account certain qualities and values (made precise and deepened) that bureaucratization annihilates and that, previously, it seemed possible to directly supercede in the abundance of a free construction of life." And this is why, we, who are so little disposed to have a sense of proportion, must also acquire it.