Brexit, Literature, Politics

How Dostoevsky helps make sense of the Brexit & Trump backlash

The Russian literary heavyweight’s message to the Left: the smug championing of rational thought simply won’t work

In 1863 Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky wrote a book called ‘What Is To Be Done?’ It advocates rational egoism – a theory outlining how a utopian society could be created if only people made rational decisions about how to advance and converge their individual happiness with that of the local community’s. It went on to influence Lenin’s socialist vision of Russia.

notes wikipedia
“What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”   Pic – Wikipedia

This broadly describes a liberal outlook of society and institutionalised political correctness is a by-product of this; express yourself freely but be sensitive to the wider community in your choice of language. Whilst this may seem like a sensible idea to many – including comedian Stewart Lee – Dostoevsky would have anticipated the backlash. In Notes from the Underground, whilst he doesn’t explicitly mention political correctness, he mocks Chernyshevsky vision of a socialist utopia, stating that ‘choice is utterly and stubbornly opposed to reason’ and that Chernyshevsky’s smug championing of reason will only lead to rebellion. It’s human nature. After all, ‘what is a man without desires, without free will and without choice[?]’

A rebellion against political correctness and the mainstream media is often cited as a core force behind the rise of Trump and Brexit. Under the finger-wagging of political correctness people feel like they are being attacked and unjustifiably labelled as racist, homophobic or sexist in the process. The winning campaigns tapped into this narrative with devastating efficiency. Trump has repeatedly attacked political correctness and the mainstream media, we apparently live in a ‘post-truth’ world, whilst Michael Gove’s statement that Britons are ‘sick of experts’ caught great traction for ‘Leave’ supporters before the EU referendum. People became sick of being told what to think and say, invigorating the growing wave of populism.

Notes from the Underground deals with a huge range of issues not covered by this article, but when pundits have struggled to find an adequate, rational answer for why people voted Leave, it’s hard not to see sense in what Dostoevsky says about human nature. Economists and business leaders said it was a bad idea. University graduates said it was a bad idea. The Prime Minister said it was a bad idea. But this all just contributed to the rebellion: ‘one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests…however wild it may be…what man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.’

Feature pic: Flickr