The Underground Man
by Bharath Vallabha
Why did Donald Trump win in 2016? Many on the Left have settled on two answers: white anxiety and economic anxiety. No doubt poor whites, especially in middle America, are a big part of Trump’s base. Still, this explanation doesn’t ring true to me. For a simple reason.
I was tempted to vote for Trump. I am a middle-class, brown guy with a PhD living on the East coast. According to the left, I am almost by definition supposed to be anti-Trump. I am in many ways, and I voted for Clinton. But even in the midst of his name-calling campaign tactics and general disregard for truth, I was still tempted. Why?
I find a clue in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Here is a key part of that insightful, probing text:
What do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason, I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.
What is the underground man struggling against? Why does he want to deny that twice two makes four? It’s not math as such that he cares about. It is the idea that math – and more generally science – can explain him as a person that he finds oppressive.
The Enlightenment project of scientifically understanding the world and ourselves is, of course, inspiring. It was a vast cognitive achievement for humankind. But what Dostoevsky caught hold of was the underbelly of this narrative of inspiration. It is the raw anxiety and sense of helplessness of thinking that someone – a scientist or philosopher or economist or programmer – can understand me better than I can understand myself; that he knows the root of my humanity better than I do, and so can control and manipulate me in ways which I cannot anticipate or defend against. This is what the Underground Man feels. Like an animal in the cage of the scientist.
I feel the anxieties the Democrats want to account for. The anxieties behind the #MeToo Movement, Black Lives Matter, gay rights, Bernie Sander’s campaign and so on. I left a tenure-track job in part because at the time I felt overwhelmed by its Eurocentrism.
But I left academia also because I felt it wasn’t addressing the anxiety of the underground man. That anxiety – of feeling that human science doesn’t ever let you out of its grasp and aims to control every aspect of your being – goes beyond issues of gender, race, class, education, etc. It is a human anxiety.
I don’t feel it when I think of science in the abstract. But I feel it vividly when I think of the bubbles of power that are forming in big tech companies, elite universities and the financial system. When I think of Google or Apple headquarters, I feel like the underground man interacting with his “social superiors”: tinged with a toxic mix of admiration, envy and anger. Admiration for the good they are doing. Envy for the power and money they have. Anger for the seeming nonchalance with which they are taking control of my life, my data, my mind even and my modes of human interaction. They are not just helping me. They are transforming me and the world as I knew it. And they are driven not by a big-picture awareness and concern for all people, but by concerns for promotions and prestige.
Trump spoke to this side of me. One doesn’t have to be a white nationalist to feel something different is happening now than in the past centuries; that we are on the verge of a seismic shift in human existence; that people three generations from now might look at me the way I look at people from the Stone Age. Maybe this is an exaggeration. But it doesn’t feel like one. A part of me wants to say, “Stop! It’s going too fast! Let me catch my fucking breath!” But it’s unclear to whom I should say this or who could actually slow it down.
It is a sign of the power of this anxiety that even though I disagreed with Trump a lot, I resonated with the emotional stance he was taking, whatever his reasons for that stance. And I felt alienated from the Democrats’ constant attitude of “Onward and Upward! Any hesitation regarding the future is a sign of racism, sexism…”
As Trump promoted a fantasy of the past, Hilary Clinton promoted a fantasy of the future. What Clinton and the Democrats did – and are still doing for the most part – is combine concerns for social justice (which I share) with a rejection of the anxieties about the future that is being created (which I don’t share). Worse, they are identifying any such anxiety with backwardness, as if the underground man is really at heart just a white supremacist, so we can ignore his concerns.
This is a losing strategy, as is becoming evident around the world. To feel the underground man’s concerns, you don’t have to white or male or Brahmin, etc. When the Borg or Skynet comes for us, it is not coming just for the patriarchy. It is coming for all of us.
Dostoevsky grasped that a part of us worries that a world dominated by science and reason is like being colonized by the Borg. He didn’t talk about cell phones, Twitter, cloning and robots. But to my mind he got just right the mood of anxiety when one is nervous about the pervasiveness of such changes.
This is not a comprehensive defense of the underground man. He toys with the prostitute Liza’s future in order to make himself feel better. He gets her hopes up for a better life, only to turn her away. This is enabled by patriarchal structures. But the solution isn’t to tell him, “Give up sexism! Be better!” Dostoevsky captures this by highlighting the underground man’s difficulty in changing. He says to Liza, “They won’t let me… I can’t be good!” With this admission of futility, he sees that he isn’t the hero he pretended to be, and Liza sees it as well:
Why was I ashamed? I don’t know, but I was ashamed. The thought, too, came into my overwrought brain that our parts now were completely changed, that she was now the heroine, while I was just a crushed and humiliated creature as she had been before me that night.
How can the underground man help Liza when he cannot – and will not – help himself? In the very first paragraph of the story he admits, “I am perfectly well aware that I cannot ‘pay out’ the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well–let it get worse!”
This is the tragedy of the underground man, which Liza sees through and for which she pities him. He is so anxious about reason controlling him that he is unable to exercise reason even for his own benefit. Like a delusional man who thinks he has to fight his arm because it is attacking him, the underground man takes an oppositional stance to reason and is left with nothing but moments of euphoria in asserting his freedom. In the process, he is cut off from reality and engulfed by fantasy. As he says at the end, “We are so divorced from it that we feel at once a sort of loathing for real life, and so cannot bear to be reminded of it. Why, we have come almost to looking upon real life as an effort, almost as hard work, and we are all privately agreed that it is better in books.”
I am reminded of this when I see a Trump rally. I feel similarly when I see liberal protesters denying the greatness of George Washington. In both cases, there is a deep anxiety and a desperate attempt to feel in control through the affirmation of the will. Nothing is as delusional as that moment in anger when one feels, “If only I yell louder and show my displeasure more, I can be in control again.”
There is a philosophical debate to be had between the Right and the Left. But debate presupposes a sense of a shared world. Currently, the Right and the Left have transformed from philosophical positions into conflicting fantasies that cannot acknowledge the possibility of the other. Fantasies do not oppose, but rather, repress one another.
The fantasies of the Right and the Left have this in common: they are unable to look through the pain and fear of the transformations we are going through clear-eyed and with hope. To be optimistic in this way requires what the underground man couldn’t manage: to hold onto reason as a humanizing good which can bring people together, even while being critical of the dehumanizing forces of technological modernity.