Dostoevsky's Luzhin tops Wolfowitz and co. (2003)

Who is the greatest neoconservative of all time? Monetarist economist Milton Friedman? World Bank president James Wolfensohn? “Prince of Darkness” Pentagon advisor Richard Perle?

None of the above. The greatest neoconservative of all time, I submit, is a fictional character: the penniless student Raskolnikov from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment.

Dostoevsky’s character lived in a garret under the roof of a high, five-storied house, that “was more like a cupboard than a room,” in a revolting part of Czarist St. Petersburg. Raskolnikov was “exceptionally handsome, above the average in height, slim, well-built, with beautiful dark eyes and dark brown hair,” but he walks through his poverty-stricken life like a ghost, with all “accumulated bitterness and contempt in the young man’s heart.”

While Raskolnikov lies agonizing on a cot in his tiny St. Petersburg apartment, his friend, the businessman Pyotr Petrovitch Luzhin, prattles on:

Science now tells us, love yourself before all men, for everything in the world rests on self-interest. You love yourself and manage your own affairs properly and your coat remains whole. Economic truth adds that the better private affairs are organized in society- the more whole coats, as it were, there are, the more solid are the foundations of our social life and the greater is the general wellbeing of the people. Which means that by acquiring wealth exclusively and only for myself I'm by that very fact acquiring it, as it were, for everybody. The idea is simple, but unhappily it has been a long time reaching us, being hindered by idealism and sentimentality. And yet it would seem to want very little wit to perceive it...”

Sound familiar? Luzhin’s argument about the benefits of self-advancement, and the rejection of any sentimental ideas limiting its pursuit, is the same one we’ve heard over and over from neocon pundits and policy wonks alike, who offer it up as some modern revelation from the Reagan/Thatcher revolution.

Luzhin is unaware Raskolnikov has actually carried his argument to its logical conclusion, having killed a slovenly sixty-year old pawnbroker for her money. During the killing her sister Lizaveta entered and he murdered her as well, burying the spoils.

So while Luzhin made the case taking what you can in this world for your own purposes, it was his friend who put the program into effect. If Luzhin was the chief financial officer of Greed Inc., Raskolnikov was its hand-on, axe-wielding CEO.
The penniless student committed his crime to save his sister Dounia from marrying just to provide for him. Initially, he rationalized the case for the old woman’s murder by telling himself she is old, unpleasant, and stupid. In the cost-benefit analysis, it was a no-brainer — yet Raskolnikov’s conscience tortures him. To take by force, to snuff out a life —even with expected benefits to others in mind — how can it be justified, ever?

In his book on money,
Frozen Desire, former Financial Times reporter James Buchan has this to say on the moral anguish of Dostoevsky’s character:

“Raskolnikov’s guilt arises not from an offence against law or custom, which the author shows us to be quite arbitrary in Tsarist Petersburg; but from pursuing the economic ideology to its conclusion. In prosecuting his economic interest in the blood and brains of an old woman money-lender, Raskolnikov has destroyed his very humanity. For that is the end of economics: the world reduced to a scorching slum, its women to whores, its men to murderers.”

With this in mind, what is the difference between Raskolnikov’s fictional mindset, and today’s media-mediated reality, forever signaling that without riches and fame you are nothing? What is the difference between Pyotr Petrovitch Luzhin arguing the case for taking what you can, and his successors in the mirrored canyons of Wall Street, or their counterparts in the Vancouver board of Trade, who wrote a letter to Bush in support of the now-forgotten war on Iraq?

And is there any significant difference between dispatching the aged, the sick, and the poor immediately, or doing it by degree?

Luzhin and Raskolnikov; Marley and Scrooge; Kudlow and Cramer; the Dulles Brothers; the Campbell brothers: from the floors of fictional garrets to the halls of financial power, the neocon theme is timeless. Only the instruments of money change, and those who dance to its tune.