When Dostoevsky began publishing “The Demons” in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the pages of Russki Vyestnik, the world was in turmoil. Marxist thought was in the ascendant, industrialisation was galloping ahead, new social ideas were emerging. Nietzsche had come out with his radical critique of Christianity and all of Western culture based on Christian illusions. “The Demons” captured the spirit of these times. This tale of a group of young revolutionaries who long to bring about a great social upheaval to overthrow the old order is still considered a prophetic work. Dostoevsky made a keen assessment of the impending dangers that revolution could bring. The cruelty and unscrupulousness he ascribed to the revolutionaries were mirrored in the dreadful regimes of Stalin and his successors.
We do not know how our society and politics will look in a year’s time, or after that. Yet one thing is certain: major systemic changes are on their way. Will they derive from dissatisfied grass-roots social groups or will they be brought on by policies to combat climate change? In everyday life, we see that people have reached a boiling point. Every moment sees another revolt, protest, or riot. On the surface, there is no common denominator: the unrest in the USA after the murder of George Floyd, the months of protests in Hong-Kong against Chinese authoritarianism, the class-based rage of the gilets jaunes in France, or the supremacist demonstrations of the populists. Yet it would seem that all these movements are joined by the same emotion, and that is anger.
In 2019, Todd Phillips’s Joker broke box-office records. The story of a mentally ill man shunted off to the margins of an all-powerful and unjust social system drew viewers all over the world. The HBO Chernobyl series stoked high emotions in its first week and swiftly gained a reputation as a cult series, perhaps the best in the history of the station. The vast popularity of the two productions shows people’s fascination with images of the system falling apart. Before the collapse of the USSR, people said, “everyone knows this system cannot last much longer,” but no one believed it would end. Things are much the same with liberal democracy and capitalism in our day. It seems impossible to imagine a better political, social and economic structure, yet disillusionment and anger are growing among those who are excluded from the benefits these two projects offer. And those on the outside are a highly diverse mix: sexual, religious and ethnic minorities, the “folk” and the collapsing proletariat, the precariat, and the “millennials” and “zoomers”, children of the “boomers”, who left few places for their children on the job market, and also brought the natural balance of things to a sheer precipice, with scenes that seem torn from disaster films becoming an everyday reality.
What will the revolution of the twenty-first century be like (for that there will be one seems certain)? Will it be condemned to spectacular failure, much like the revolution started by Verkhovensky? Is a positive revolution at all possible? In an era of advanced technology, in-depth social discourse, political correctness and carbon-free projects, might the “Demons” of the nineteenth century reveal themselves to be Angels?