How did Dostoevsky anticipate what would happen? For one thing, he took the beliefs of intellectuals seriously. It is one thing to have ideas, it is quite another to define oneself and others by them (and that is what the Russian word intelligent — not exactly “intellectual” — suggests). Dostoevsky asked: what would people who defined themselves by ideology do if given the absolute power a revolution confers? Solzhenitsyn, who experienced the answer, asked a related question: why were previous evildoers, like those in Dickens and Shakespeare, content with a few murders whereas Bolsheviks executed millions? “The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses,” Solzhenitsyn explains, “because they had no ideology. Ideology — that is what … gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.” The sort of ideology Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn had in mind displays two essential attributes: absolute (“scientific”) certainty and the division of people into purely good and purely evil. One does not break bread with someone from another political party. Once one thinks this way — as ever more people do — literally anything is possible to those commanding sufficient power.
The idea that we must choose between two intolerant illiberalisms, one on the Right and one on the Left, is, it seems to me, increasingly common today. It was also quite common in the 1930s. For instance, in 1937 the British House of Commons was debating whether or how to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, and a number of M.P.s insisted that it was necessary to choose between the Fascists and the Communists. But one Member of the House replied,
I will not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazi-ism, I would choose Communism. I hope not to be called upon to survive in the world under a Government of either of those dispensations…. It is not a question of opposing Nazi-ism or Communism; it is a question of opposing tyranny in whatever form it presents itself; and, having a strong feeling in regard to the preservation of individual rights as against Governments, and as I do not find in either of these two Spanish factions which are at war any satisfactory guarantee that the ideas which I personally care about, and to which I have been brought up in this House to attach some importance, would be preserved, I am not able to throw myself in this headlong fashion into the risk of having to fire cannon immediately on the one side or the other of this trouble…. I cannot feel any enthusiasm for these rival creeds.
The Member who so refused to make that choice was Winston Churchill. When many thought that liberalism and democracy were unsustainable, were not long for this world, he stood up for liberalism and democracy anyway. That was the wise course then, and it’s the wise course today.
Re: Yascha Mounk’s article on leftist mobs punishing the innocent: For the ones doing the mobbing, ruining the lives of innocent people is not a bug in their program, it’s an essential feature. There can be no reign of terror when only the guilty are punished.
Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is the great text for understanding this phenomenon. Punishment of the guilty is, from the perspective of social control, an implicit confession of failure. A social order that has proper control over its members will not have to punish them, because they will be obedient. And you make people obedient by instilling discipline: you carefully and thoroughly train them to say what you want them to say and do what you want them to do, and to refrain from saying or doing what you think inappropriate.
However, the disciplinary systems that do this work — schools, for instance — are scarcely less efficient than punishment. What must be created is an environment in which people discipline themselves. But they will only do this when they fear exposure (and subsequent punishment) so much that they will go to extreme lengths to perform their obedience. And people will only exert the energy to enact this ongoing self-policing if they believe that anything they do or say can be seen. They need to believe that they are living in a Panopticon.
This is where social media come in. If everyone has a smartphone and access to social media accounts, then anything you do or say might be recorded and published. Anything those to whom you are related do or say may be recorded and published, to shame you before the entire world. From the perspective of those who lust for social control, this is an ideal situation, because if they make you sufficiently fearful of exposure then you will not only police yourself, you will police your friends and family. And if you can be exposed and punished not only for what you intentionally do and say, but for what you inadvertently do and say, and for what people you know do and say, then you will become obsessively vigilant in your policing.
That is why, for those who want to effect social change by exposure and shaming, punishing the innocent is a feature of their system, not a bug. It increases fear, which increases discipline, not only of oneself but of others. And every employer who fires an employee because they’re afraid of a social-media mob draws us closer to a fully Panoptic society, a social tyranny with an efficiency beyond the dreams of totalitarian societies of the past.