Historically speaking, Henri Lefebvre’s three-volume The Critique of Everyday Life was a great influence on the New Left, ’68 and all that. Lefebvre also continues to be an influence on the work of David Harvey, Fredric Jameson etc. Rather then discussing Lefebvre’s historical importance, this summary will outline Lefebvre’s argument and emphasizing The Critique of Everyday Life’s contemporary relevance.
Lefebvre’s premise is that “the only real critique was and remains the Critique of the Left…Because it alone is based on knowledge.” Lefebvre acts on this premise by arguing for a Marxian endevour at odds with the vacuous formalism of the official Stalinist Marxism of his time. Emphasizing the sociological basis of Marx’s thought and the central importance of Marx’s concepts of alienation, fetishism and mystification, Lefebvre’s argues these categories should by used to critique everyday life.
These extended quotations demonstrate how Lefebvre conceptualizes and formulates the critique of everyday life.
“We need to think about what is happening around us, within us, each and everyday. We live on familiar terms with people in our own family, our own milieu, our own class. This constant impression of familiarity makes us think that we know them, that their outlines are defined for us, and that they see themselves as having those same outlines. We define them. and we judge them. We can identify with them or exclude them from our world. But the familiar is not the necessarily known. “ 14-15
“For us, in our society, with the forms of exchange and the division of labour which govern it, there is no social relation- relation with the other-without a certain alienation. And each individual exists socially only by and within his alienation, just as he can only be for himself within and by his deprivation (his private consciousness.) 15-16
“To sum up, work, leisure, family life and private life make up a whole which we can call a ‘global structure’ or ‘totality’ on condition that we emphasize its historical, shifting, transitory nature. If we consider the critique of everyday life as an aspect of a concrete sociology we can envisage a vast enquiry which will look at professional life and leisure activities in terms of their many-sided interactions. Our particular concern will be to extract what is living, new, positive—the worthwhile needs and fulfilments- from the negative elements; the alienations.” 42
“so to reach reality we must indeed tear away the veil, that veil which is forever being born and reborn of everyday life, and which masks everyday life along with its deepest and loftiest ambitions” 57
“The true critique of everyday life will have as its prime objective the separation between the human (real and possible) and bourgeois decadence, and will imply a rehabilitation of everyday life. 127
To undertake this Critique of everyday life, Lefebvre articulates how the critical knowledge contained in six Marxian categories can be utilized as a “beacon” in the critique of everyday life. These six categories are still issues of utmost importance in contemporary theory. They are of contemporary relevance and share striking affinities with Wendy Brown’s contemporary work Tolerating Aversion. Following my posting of notes on Brown’s work, I will compare Lefebvre and Brown and discuss why they are remarkably relevant and important.
A) Critique of Individuality. (Central theme; the ‘private’ consciousness’)
“And nowadays we are still struggling with this deep- in other words everyday-contradiction: what makes each of us a human being also turns that human being into something inhuman. More biological than truly human, this organization ( i.e. capitalism ) smothers the individual, dividing him and stunting his development at the very moment it is striving to create him as a human individual….How can this organization be superseded? By practical and theoretical participation in work and in the knowledge of work, in the social and human totality. If the world is to be transformed, this is one of the fundamental problems…we must supersede the “private consciousness.” 150
B) Critique of Mystifications (central theme: the ‘mystified consciousness)
“the private consciousness and the mystified consciousness go hand in hand, reinforcing each other and becoming increasingly entrenched as a result of instabilities which have their origins in real life and not in pure ideas” 153
C) Critique of Money ( central theme: fetishism and economic alienation)
“Although deprivation and alienation are different for the proletarian and the non-proletarian, one thing unites them; money, the human being’s alienated essence. This alienation is constant, i.e. practical and everyday.” 161
D) Critique of Needs (Central theme; psychological and moral alienation)
Consumpton does not satisfy a need. Nor do the needs the culture industry creates.
E) Critique of Work ( Central theme: the alienation of the worker and of man)
“Analysis must therefore distinguish between the real ‘human world’ on the one hand, the totality of human works and their reciprocal action upon man, and, on the other, the unreality of alienation.
But this unreality appears to be infinitely more real then anything authentically human. And this appearance contributes to alienation; its becomes real, and as a result a great abstract ‘idea’ or a certain form of the State seems infinitely more important than a humble, everyday feeling or a work born of man’s hands. “ 169
F) Critique of Freedom (Central theme; man’s power over nature and over his own nature)
The Marxist definition of freedom is concrete and dialectical. The realm of freedom is established progressively by ‘The development of human powers as an end in itself)…it is won progressively by social man. For Power, or, more exactly, the sum total of powers which constitute freedom belong to human beings grouped together in society, and not to the isolated individual….in the realm of necessity, human needs become degraded…they just keep on working, and their lives are spent just staying alive. This, in a nutshell, has been the philosophy of everyday life—and still is.
(a) “the associated producers must…govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power.”
(b) The material and moral parameters of practical (everyday) life, which are determined by private property, must be transformed.
(c) Through activities devoted to satisfying and controlling immediate necessities, there must be a growth in the sphere of ‘the true realm of freedom, the development of human powers, as an end in itself, [which] begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis.’ This sphere, this ‘spiritual’ domain of man, consists in the first place in a social and rational organization of free leisure. As Marx asserts in Capital; ‘ the reduction of the working day is the basic requisite.’
This utilization of Marx results in Lefebvre’s programmatic sketch for a critique of everyday life;
(A) It will involve a methodological confrontation of so-called ‘modern’ life on the one hand, with the past, and on the other- and above all- with the possible, so that points or sectors where a ‘ decadence’ or a withdrawal from life have occurred- the points of backwardness in terms of what is possible- the points where new forms are appearing, rich in possibilities can be determined.
(B) Studied from this point of view, human reality appears as an opposition and ‘contrast’ between a certain number of terms; everyday life and festival- mass movements and exceptional movements- triviality and splendour- seriousness and play- reality and dreams, etc.
The critique of everyday life involves and investigation of the exact relations between these terms. It implies criticism of the trivial by the exceptional- but at the same time criticism of the exceptional by the trivial, of the ‘elite’ by the mass- of festival, dreams, art and poetry, by reality.
© Equally, the critique of everyday life implies a confrontation of effective human reality with its ‘expressions’; moral doctrines, psychology, philosophy, religion, literature.
From this point of view, religion is nothing but a direct, immediate, negative, destructive, incessant and skilful criticism of life- skilful enough even to give itself the appearance of not being what it really is.
Philosophy was an indirect criticism of everyday life by an external (metaphysical) ‘truth.’ It is now appropriate to examine the philosophy of the past from this perspective—and that is the task facing ‘today’s’ philosopher. To study philosophy as an indirect crticism of life is to perceive (everyday) life as I direct critique of philosophy
(d) The relations between groups and individuals in everyday life interact in a manner which in part escapes the specialized sciences. By a process of abstraction these sciences infer certain relations, certain essential aspects, from the extraordinary complexities of human reality. But have they completed this task? It seems that once the relations identitifed by history, political economy or biology have been extracted from human reality, a kind of enormous, shapeless, ill-defined mass remains. This is the murky background from which known relations and superior activities (scientific, political, aesthetic) are picked out.
It is this ‘human raw material’ that the study of everyday life takes as its proper object. It studies it both in itself and in its relation with the differentiated superior form that it underpins. In this way it will help to grasp the ‘total content’ of consciousness; this will be its contribution towards the attempt to achieve unity, totality—the realization of total man.
Going beyond the emotional attempt by philanthropists and sentimental (petty-bourgeois) humanists to ‘magnify’ humble gestures, and beyond that allegedly superior irony which has systematically devalued life, seeing it merely as back-stage activity or comic relief in a tragedy, the critique of everyday life- critical and positive- must clear the way for a genuine humanism, for a humanism which believes in the human because it knows it.” 251-252