In a recent discussion, the popular historian Yuval Noah Harari opined: For the past few decades we had a very simple and very attractive story about what’s happening in the world. And the story said that economics is being globalized and politics is being liberalized and the combination of the two will create paradise on earth… And 2016 is the moment when a very large segment of the Western world stopped believing in this story. [1]

In particular, the recent past has presented a profound challenge to what the political theorist Francis Fukuyama termed “the end of history”: the belief that liberal democracy represented the natural endpoint of human political development.

While such debates may seem unique to our era, in fact another version of this discussion took place in the middle of the nineteenth century in response to the construction of Crystal Palace in London.

The Crystal Palace was constructed in London to house the first major world fair, the 1851 Great Exhibition and provided an emblem of the supposed international peace and prosperity inaugurated by the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution. At the time, it was the largest glass structure then created.

The exhibition itself featured fifteen thousand contributors displaying over one-hundred thousand objects across an area of more than ten miles. Among the exhibits was the “mountain of light”—the world’s largest diamond from India—as well as a sixteen-foot telescope and a prototype of the modern fax machine.

This pageant of human ingenuity was so popular that admissions numbered over six million. While the Palace was intended as a temporary structure, a version of it remained standing for many years, before being destroyed by fire in 1936. [2]

Among the Crystal Palace’s astounded visitors was its greatest critic, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his later account of his travels in London and other European capitals, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863), Dostoyevsky described his experience of visiting the gleaming structure.

Fyodor-Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky | Photo from Wall Street International

For Dostoyevsky, the building did not provide a symbol of humanity’s triumphant march towards progress, rather “some kind of prophecy from the Apocalypse being fulfilled before your very eyes”.

Dostoyevsky argued that, far from displaying the variety of human achievement, the Crystal Palace embodied a terrifying conformity and a rejection of spiritual values in favor of empty materialism:

You look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people obediently streaming here from all over the earth — people coming with a single thought, peacefully, insistently and silently crowding into this colossal palace and you feel that something final has been accomplished, accomplished and brought to a close… You feel it would require a great deal of eternal spiritual resistance and repudiation not to surrender, not to succumb to the impression, not to bow down to fact and not to idolize Baal, that is, not to accept what exists as your ideal. [3]

The Crystal Palace so exercised Dostoyevsky that he made it an obsession of the eponymous narrator of his subsequent novel Notes from the Underground(1864).

Dostoyevsky’s unnamed speaker is provoked into terrified rage by the very order and transparency promised by this structure, confessing: “I am afraid of this edifice that is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that stick one’s tongue out at even on the sly”. In Dostoyevsky’s view, the Palace projected a rationalism and utopianism out of step with irrational, flawed humanity:

In the Crystal Palace it [suffering] is inconceivable: suffering is doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a “crystal palace” if there could be any doubt about it? And I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. [4]

Dostoyevsky resented the palace’s effort to enclose participants within an ideal environment of comfort and luxury, regarding it as an attempt to deny the difficulty of existence and insulate human beings from meaningful moral choices.

For many of Dostoyevsky’s contemporaries, the Russian writer’s comments appeared cranky and parochial.

However, as time passed, and the European Empires imploded in the First and Second World Wars, and later as the Socialist project dissolved in the Soviet Union, Dostoyevsky’s critique of the internationalist optimism embodied by the Crystal Palace came to appear increasingly prophetic.

Recently, the relevance of Dostoyevsky’s criticisms to contemporary debates on globalization has been highlighted by the German theorist Peter Sloterdijik. Sloterdijk labels Notes from the Underground“ the first expression of an anti-globalization stance”.

Sloterdijk claims that the Crystal Palace offered “a new aesthetics of immersion” prefiguring later environments such as shopping malls, exhibition centres, amusement parks, e-villages, even the Twin Towers.

Crystal-Palace-Grand-entrance

Crystal Palace – Grand entrance | Photo from Wall Street International

Like the Crystal Palace, each of these structures circumscribe us within a controlled space in which we can sample various products from across the world but are insulated from more troubling realities.

He echoes Dostoyevsky by insisting that “[w]herever everyone is the other and no one themselves, humans are cheated of their ecstasy, their loneliness, their own decisions, and their own direct connection to the absolute outside, namely death”.

In particular, such locations seek to disguise the political and economic exclusion on which they depend. Sloterdijk observes: “[t]he comfort installation builds its most effective walls in the form of discriminations – walls of access to monetary fortunes that separate the haves and have-nots…while on the outside, the more or less forgotten minorities attempt to survive amid their traditions, illusions and improvisations”. [5]

What relevance does Dostoyevsky’s reaction to the Crystal Palace have to the world today? Most obviously, they imply that much of the reaction against globalization and multiculturalism has been brought about by increasing inequality: too many have been refused entry to the Crystal Palace of contemporary globalization.

But more profoundly, considering today’s situation in light of Dostoyevsky’s comments reveals to us that the debates that are taking place may be less rational than we assume. Commentators have provided numerous coherent and compelling explanations for the rise of right-wing populism.

But they may have overlooked an additional dimension highlighted by Dostoyevsky: a feeling that the post-1989 world order imposed a dull uniformity, offering material progress at the cost of a more profound human desire for meaning.

For instance, for many supporters, Donald Trump’s impulsive and confrontational behavior provides a means of sticking out their tongue to an exclusionary, politically bankrupt liberal elite.

 

Crystal-Palace-Fountain

Crystal Palace – Fountain | Photo from Wall Street International

At the same time, however, Dostoyevsky’s response alerts us to the dangers of both right- and left-wing utopianism. Both the dream of a hard Brexit and Trump’s promise of a Wall answer to a desire to construct an alternative, nationalist Crystal Palace in place of the globalized version of the post-Cold-War era.

Yet, in left-wing calls for the creation of “safe spaces”, we find an analogous aspiration to fashion an environment protected from difference and difficulty.

To some extent, we might say, every human being seeks to create their own personal Crystal Palace. Most of all, then, Dostoyevsky shows us that our own desires to create and live in a world that accords with our own ideals can become a weakness, sheltering us from inconvenient realities.

Recent challenges to the belief in the “end of history” therefore provide us with an opportunity to examine the imperfections of our own perspectives, so as to expose the delusions that have created the contemporary situation.

Notes

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Yuval Noah Harari at TED Dialogues: Nationalism vs. globalism: the new political divide.
[2] Information from: Hermione Hobhouse, The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition: Art, Science and Productive Industry: A History of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851(London and New York: Continuum, 2001).
[3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, trans. David Patterson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988).
[4] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground, trans. Constance Garnett, ed. and intro. Charles Guignon and Kevin Aho (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, Inc., 2009) both p. 26.
[5] Peter Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital: For a Philosophical Theory of Globalisation, trans. Wieland Hoban (London: Polity, 2013) p. 169, p. 169, p. 172, p. 194.