A Matter of Will

Most mighty Caesar, let me know some cause,
Lest I be laughed at when I tell them so.

The cause is in my will: I will not come;
That is enough to satisfy the senate.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

In “Notes from the Underground” Dostoevsky explores the idea of acting against one’s “best interests” simply from a desire to express one’s will, which can be greater than any rational calculation of profit. In fact, being reminded of a rational profit can even spur one further into doing the opposite simply because of the desire to assert oneself, to show the world that one is free.

Political pundits tend to think within a limited sphere of rational self-interest, which is why they are left at a loss when they are confronted by what are to them irrational choices of the people, recently expressed by events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Moreover, they cannot understand the popularity of authoritarian leaders like Putin and Erdogan, or why there is still a living remnant of Stalinism in Russia. To them, politics is an almost scientific matter of making the right choices in order to yield the most material gains. But people’s choices are often irrational and not concerned with material gain. What they want is to express their own will in order to show that they exist, that they are free, which can even be done, somewhat paradoxically, through the support of a dictator. If the Western leaders are attacking a dictator, his people will support him in spite of what they are told—resisting him would make them feel like victims, supporting him makes them feel like free people asserting their sovereignty. Authoritarian propaganda does not appeal to material self-interest—it appeals to pride.

People’s actions are not governed by cold, rational calculation, but by their desire to express their will, which is why, when they feel their dignity under threat, when they feel that they are being treated with contempt as ignoramuses to be instructed and told what to do, the choices they make may appear quite surprising.

June 2018