Dostoevsky and society, or why existential angst matters for your politics

The book club I am part of just finished Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and I thought the novel raised some valuable questions about contemporary politics.

Originally published in 1864

The text is existential (book club’s current theme) in that it is an intimate character study of someone grappling with the consequences of existing as a self-conscious being. The Narrator is agonisingly self-aware, both of his behaviour and thoughts, but also of the absence of any objective standard against which to organize or assess them. Confronted by this potent cocktail of freedom and awareness, he is unable to act or think without doubt immediately undermining it. He agonises over his inability to act morally, while also rejecting morality. This produces paralysis, angst, and anger, which for The Narrator lacks any real object, because it is simply the human condition.

To be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness

Can it be that I’ve been arranged simply so as to come to the conclusion that my entire arrangement is a hoax?

Where are the primary causes on which I can rest, where are my bases? Where am I going to get them? I exercise thinking and consequently for me every primary cause frags with it yet another, still more primary, and so on ad infinitum. Such is precisely the essence of all consciousness and thought, so once again it’s the laws of nature

it turns out, there isn’t even anyone to be angry with; that there is an object to be found, and maybe never will be; that its all a sleight-of-hand, a stacked deck, a cheat, that its all just slops- nobody knows what nobody knows who

why was it that, as if by design, in those same, yes, in those very same moments when I was most capable of being conscious of all the refinements of “everything beautiful and lofty” as we once used to say, it happened that instead of being conscious I did such unseemly deeds… precisely when I was most conscious that I ought not to be doing them at all

From a footnote on the first page, Dostoevsky makes clear that The Narrator does not exist in isolation, and that the book also concerns his relationship to society:

“such persons as the writer of such notes not only may but even must exist in our society, taking into consideration the circumstances under which our society has generally been forced”

This raises the implicit question: What does the existence of people like The Narrator mean for how society is organised?

Dostoevsky presents two contrasting positions:

The first includes the utilitarianism, utopian socialism, and scientific rationalism popular among intellectuals in the 1860s. Lets call it optimistic rationalism. It deals with the above question by partly assuming it away. It believed people were rational and therefore that their ‘true interests’ could be objectively determined. According to this worldview, people were fundamentally knowable, in part because they had consistent and coherent inner workings that could be discovered (at least partially) from the outside.

This in turn makes a society which maximises the good and happiness of all possible. Society emerges as a kind of engineering problem; it requires careful management by those who can design the institutions and systems to encourage people to act in their own best interest. It is a profoundly optimistic worldview.

no one is taking my will from me here; that all they’re doing here is busily arranging it somehow so that my will, of its own will, coincides with my normal interests, with the laws of nature, and with arithmetic

This worldview struggles to comprehend a character like The Narrator, a man whose self-awareness has revealed his preferences, only to dissolve them. Pressed, they might attribute his condition to a lack of information. Maybe he does not understand his own interests well enough, and needs better information (perhaps presented more cleverly?) or some well-meaning guidance? Pressed further still, the only way to maintain belief in human rationality in the face of persistently ‘irrational behaviour’ is to assume either willful stubbornness, or a moral failing. And so optimism can slide into a kind of frustrated paternalism.

The heady optimism of the 1860s has come and gone, but the foundations of this worldview live on. It finds expression in statements like: “they are voting against their self-interest!” The politics and economics of the 1980s to the GFC echoed this worldview; a politics of technocratic management and careful triangulation of voter preferences; where major debates had been resolved and a future of minor technical fixes beckoned. The shock of Trump is the shock of discovering vast reservoirs of madness and fury where least expected.

Dostoevsky does not flesh out the opposite position directly, but we get hints from how he discusses optimistic rationalism.

By presenting The Narrator’s self-awareness as a solvent which dissolves his ability to think or act consistently, Dostoevsky is attacking the idea that people are consistent, coherent, or rational. The Narrator takes a perverse pride in doing what is not right for himself, declaring that “two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing.” Dostoevsky presents individuals as unpredictable, unstable, and dangerous – even (perhaps especially) to themselves. Unlike later French existentialists, Dostoevsky does not appear to think the The Narrator’s self awareness and freedom are conducive for human flourishing. It is fundamentally a rejection of rational individualism as a foundation for society.

man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one can want even against one’s own profit, and one sometimes even positively must (this is my idea now). One’s own free and voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness – all this is that same most proftable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil

there is only one case, one only, when man may purposely, consciously wish for himself even the harmful, the stupid, even what is stupidest of all: namely so as to have the right to wish for himself even what is stupidest of all and not be bound by an obligation to wish for himself only what is intelligent.

the whole human enterprise seems indeed to consist in man’s proving to himself every moment that he is a man and not a sprig

Two times two is four has a cocky look; it stands across your path, arms akimbo, and spits. I agree that two times two is four is an excellent thing; but if we’re going to start praising everything, then two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing

Dostoevsky was a tsarist with conservative Orthodox christian beliefs, opposed to liberal democracy. It is no leap to read into his critique of individualism the belief that people need traditional structures and rules to guide them and make society function.

This matters because the book, and the beliefs it catalogs are grappling with the breakdown of traditional structures brought on by industrial and political revolution alongside massive social change. The novel is a deeply conservative and pessimistic view of man with the scaffolding of tradition removed.

Like optimistic rationalism the echoes of this worldview can still be heard today. Resurgent conservatism and illiberalism are rooted in a similar skepticism. The growing rejection of science and democratic institutions seems to vindicate Dostoevsky’s pessimism (although as I’ve discussed here, this is more nuanced than it appears).

In our own period of turmoil and instability, the novel is useful in a few ways:

  • Your reaction to The Narrator and the positions I’ve sketched helps indicate your own political beliefs.
  • A reminder that a society of emancipated individuals is likely to always have arguments, bouts of madness, and a permanent sense of incompleteness. For some (like myself) this is a reminder that the Enlightenment dream of an emancipated and self-governing society is a never-ending project. For pessimists it is grounds for abandoning it.

Most important for me is the challenge the novel throws to contemporary liberals. Liberalism goes through periodic crises and by all accounts we are living through one now. In response, many liberals have responded illiberally. Restricting freedom of speech is an obvious example, but I am also concerned about liberals who want politics calm again, returned to the experts and politicians, and out of the rough and tumble of democratic politics. Some of the hand wringing over populism betrays a disregard for democracy when it produces uncomfortable outcomes.

The novel forces us to confront the individual at their most impulsive and unpleasant, in a moment of feverish and incoherent action. We watch someone willingly descend into a kind of grinning madness that is simultaneously inseparable from their humanity.

This is an important reality for liberals to watch and accept. To be a liberal is to accept the exercise of freedom almost regardless of form (outside a select few circumstances). It is easy to be a liberal when everything is going well. It is in the moments where people show themselves at their most unreasonable that liberalism’s radicalism shines through.

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