Everyday Life, Socialism, Electronic Machines and Organization: Segments from “On Some Criteria of Social Development and Socialism” (1964)
by Henri Lefebvre
translated by Uroš Pajović
EVERYDAY LIFE AND SOCIALISM
Let us throw a quick glance at what is new in the contemporary world, after Marx and after Lenin. Surely, there are many novelties; not only is the socialist society a great novelty, but even in this bourgeois society, where the works of Marx and Lenin were once forbidden, they are now printed in collections with great print runs, as “pocket editions!” That is a novelty whose clear character is easy to perceive. If Marxism is spreading, if Marx has reached so far, isn’t it because the Marxist thought had lost its strength, had been partly benumbed?
Among the predicted and unpredictable novelties, let us randomly name: technical development and the appearance of technological alienation — the strengthening of the State all over the world (except in Yugoslavia) — the importance and the effect of “mass media” etc.
It seems that two phenomena require a deeper exploration, which would bring to light their connection that otherwise might not be instantly observable. Before anything, a bursting of an ancient social form which seemed tied to the essence of sociability: the city. In a series of large, developed countries, and particularly the capitalist countries, the city is exploding from all sides. This poses a decisive problem: the invention of a new urbanism. It involves the crystallization of a more and more definite level of praxis: everyday life.
It is not so easy to explain what everyday life consists of. There is a banal way of defining everyday banality: the description and inventory of objects, the analysis of family life. Let’s get rid of these banalities. The everyday is too simple, too close. We are there — and we are not there. Young people, students, are not there yet. Intellectuals always remain a little besides everyday life, and philosophers are deliberately on the fringe, insofar as they constitute a philosophical world by opposing it to the non-philosophical, the world of ignorance, folly, or madness, of empiricism and the everyday. Precisely what Marx said was to be exceeded. As for those who are merged in everyday life, they have a predominant aspiration: not to see it, to flee it. The cinema, sentimental press, holidays, hobbies, all satisfy (rather poorly) this aspiration. Finally, and very importantly: the daily cannot be defined by biological needs: to eat, to drink, to sleep, to reproduce. The social and cultural modalities of satisfaction or dissatisfaction are decisive.
The society we know in France has the practice of selling spectacle en masse as merchandise and as a means of domination. This is what we call loisirs (“leisures”), and why everything is made into a spectacle. The world is turning into a spectacle which unravels in front of the eyes and the ears of passive observers, non-participants who are outside events. The participant, as such, isn’t, or no longer is, “conditioned.” This form of submission is rough. It is de-realized: a pure view of pure spectacle.
This isn’t all. The organization, which extends to the needs of man as a consumer, applies an analytical reasoning already confirmed by the organization and division of labor (technical and social).
The organization separates aspects of everyday life. It dissociates functions in the everyday already determined for what it is; these functions are labor, habitation, private and family life, leisures. Such a functional conception of the everyday determines structure. Functions are separated in space and in time alike. Among other consequences, there is also the explosion of the city which used to represent exactly the unity of these functions and their subjugation to higher activities. The modern man, in Paris and elsewhere, works here, lives there, and enjoys leisure any way he can, if possibly elsewhere, and as far as possible. The everyday is crystallized by dissociating, or rather: within these disociations, and through them. Indeed, the sectors of everyday carry general traits in their separation and by the mere fact of their separation. Which are these general traits? Passivity, non-participation, turning into spectacle. During the leisures, images are thrown upon inert and fascinated individuals. In the sector of labor, the centers of decision-making are getting more and more distant; the production process is no longer comprehensible to those who labor; labor itself is changing (it becomes surveillance, handling switches, control—whereas the one who controls is themself also controlled). Finally, in family life and habitation, individuals and groups receive, from the outside, apartments and urban organization – commercial products.
The general unease, more or less felt by a group, is crystallized in different questions: such as that of habitation and urbanism, or the education and raising of youth. People don’t accept the everyday, and in most cases ethics and dominant culture recommend acceptance, resignation, passivity. […] Social development and socialism can and must fight against the everyday defined in this way—dissociated, functionalized, structured—just as much as against the dissociation of the human being. They can and must reject it. And, if it already exists, they can and must radically transform it, renewing the unity of understanding and acting, the act and the knowledge (connaître). This would mean the unity of consciousness and activity within a higher practice. This goal can and must enable to master the everyday. The man must rule his everyday life, that is, become its master. Here, then, one definition and one new dimension of freedom.
The everyday thus becomes the political. Its problems must enter the political problems. They enter them through different channels, for example, the channel of urbanism. These enormous problems, which have so far been resolved generally in a bad or mediocre way, tend to overcome the separation of politics and the everyday. […]
ELECTRONIC MACHINES AND BASIC NETWORKS
This exploration has allowed us to throw a certain light on socialism, or at least its theoretical notion, which is constantly transformed, displaced, enriched. It historicizes and varies itself. It sets itself at a point where several channels meet, several directions of thought, in relation to reality and new conditions. The revolution doesn’t anymore oppose to reforms in an incompatible and antagonistic way, and neither does transformation to evolution, nor socialism to capitalism, bloc to bloc, without a common denominator. In particular, the revolutionary transformation appears—for a reflection which explores the whole of social development—as an ensemble of reforms and towards that a determined political act which takes away from the bourgeoisie the ownership of the means of production and the management of social affairs.
After the October Revolution, Lenin simply and strongly defined socialism with the following formula: “The Soviets plus electrification,” that is, a deepened political democracy, a development of Russian economy and a modernization of the country. What remains today of this aspiration? How valuable is it for industrially developed countries?
The notion of deepened political democracy remains as justified as half a century ago, and the notion of “councils” (soviets) has the same significance. Let us notice, however, that the Yugoslav experience of self-management [autogestion/samoupravljanje] has come to enrich the idea of fundamental democracy. On the other hand, an apparent need has surfaced to represent all the interests and all the groups, exceeding the representation of producers and workers as such, but not weakening their essential character. Social needs exceed the needs of producers as such, and production in socialism needs to truly be subordinated to social needs. Here, as well, is the Yugoslav experience irreplaceable.
And electrification? It since long ago has not been able to provide a slogan for or be a symbol of technical advancement. What provides the program and the symbol today? Electronics, cybernetics. Let’s acknowledge everything these terms encompass. Scientific knowledge has become, among other victories, the knowledge and theory of information. Machines can gather and arrange in a coherent way a large amount of natural and human facts.
Let us think about this. Machines and the elaboration of received information are necessary for the construction of plans and programs. In themselves, they provide a dangerous power for those who manage and operate them. This means they carry the danger of serving the caste of technocrats and political dictators. They are necessary means and dangerous instruments. How to use them? That is, towards which goal to employ them? The answer is: to serve social needs, about which information can be acquired at the base of society, in order to compare and develop one plan or program at the top.
Taken individually, the basic organisms could end up entangled in an incomprehensible chaos; they could appear and disappear, vegetate or try to impose. We should, then, observe them primarily as sources of information, in order to produce a plan and program from a more general confrontation of facts.
Without programming, for which modern machines are crucial, the basic democracy risks defeat. Without such democracy, technocrats and state powers which decide claim machines and programs. Today, then, we can offer a new formula to define socialism: “democracy through a complex network of basic organisms—electronic devices and the treatment of information as programmatic givens…”
It is clear that these elements of socialism will not merge without conflict. In order to discover contradictions, formulate problems, suggest and discuss solutions, in order to choose one of the solutions, a “third term” is necessary: political organism and environment. Isn’t that the role of the Party? Under the condition, of course, that we define it as a political place and environment, according to its role: to clearly highlight the contradictions (and not to hide them)—to openly discuss and publicly propose solutions (and not impose them).
Is it necessary to emphasize that these solutions and hypotheses only apply to developed, highly industrialized countries? They only pertain to certain aspects of the contemporary, that is, the epoch in which technology could conquer society and people at the highest levels, just as it allows them to conquer nature, but not to claim their own nature as well. •
Henri Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist, best known for pioneering the critique of everyday life, for introducing the concepts of the right to the city and the production of social space, and for his work on dialectics, alienation, and criticism of Stalinism, existentialism, and structuralism.
This essay was originally written in Korčula in 1964, and originally published in French in Praxis International 1, no. 2-3 (1965) and in Serbo-Croatian translation by Sonja Popović-Zadrović in Smisao i perspektive socijalizma [The Sense and Perspectives of Socialism], edited by Danilo Pejović and Gajo Petrović (Praxis), and published by The Croatian Philosophical Society in March 1965.