Why the World is Sabotaging Itself

The Meaning of Hate and the Price of Envy

My friend Walker’s tale is such a strange, ironic, and weird one, that I often use it to think about what’s going wrong with the whole world. By the tender age of 35, he was the most successful of us all — the kids who’d grown up in our neat little suburban neighborhood, right at the lonely edge of the world, just like all the other ones. But by the age of 36, Walker was the most unsuccessful one of all of us, too.

by umair haque   |   Eudaimonia
It happened like this. At age 14 or so, something changed. He was a happy little nerd, playing D&D with the rest of us. But now a fire seemed to be burning in his eyes. He started lifting weights, running, competing, bickering, talking back to teachers. Macho Walker — where had he come from? But his venom and fury was reserved, most of all, for his dad — who was a teacher, too. A humble, gentle fellow, who’d talk to you for hours, about the Civil War. Walker seemed to genuinely despise him. He’d spare no opportunity to really humiliate him. He aspired to bigger things now. Things that glittered.

So by age 18, he was in the Ivy League. By 22, an investment bank. By 25, a hedge fund. And by 35, helping run the outfit, he was richer than the rest of us put together. The kind of money which would buy cars as gifts, and people as toys, if you know what I mean.

And then something even stranger happened. Walker made a bad trade, and a bad investment. Then another one, and another one. He had an affair. And then another one. His hedge fund fired him. His fortune vanished. His wife, slamming the door, left him. And do you know where, within the space of a year, he found himself? Living in the very same basement, with the very same dad, that he’d once been so bitterly desperate to escape from.

How funny. How strange. How ironic. Or is it? We love celebrating our mistakes and failures and missteps. But what we should really be doing is trying to understand why we make them. Because if in the above you’ve gleaned the idea that Walker was sabotaging himself all along, and there was nothing he wanted more than to somehow go nowhere at all, then, my friend, you are precisely correct.

One way to see Walker’s life is to say: here’s a man who overreached, and got taught a lesson. By whom, though? To what end? A better way, I think, is to say: here’s someone with a dire and profound need to blow up every single thing they had worked so hard for, so that he could never have to go anywhere all. But why would anyone want to do that?

Replace hate in your vocabulary with envy. And this strange, fatal trait humans have, of undoing themselves, will soon enough become clearer. So clear, I hope, that you’ll understand something that economists and political scientists are struggling with: why do people make choices that blow up their very own societies? That, too, is a kind of self-sabotage. But let’s take it slowly, one step a time.

We don’t really hate people so much as we envy them. There’s a part of us — hidden, carefully kept away from the world’s prying eyes — which wants what they have, which desires what they are. That is our unconscious, of course, and hate is a kind of unconscious envy. The feeling is that we see someone — and instinctively, we feel as if we “hate” them. That we must destroy them. But why would we need to destroy someone who hasn’t hurt us?

Now, the funny thing is that in this case, the grade-school psychology is actually a little true. Bobby hates Julie, that means he looooves her!! Yes, hate is a kind of love, too. A perverse kind. One where we long to become the person we envy, so much, so intensely, that we would rather destroy them — precisely so that we can stand in their place. Hate really means: “I want to be you.”

Do you see how strange that is? How funny it is, too? Envy drives us in the direction of becoming the envied — as much as we suppose that we are going somewhere else, in the direction of our conscious goals. Bang! Self-sabotage. The conscious mind works, grasp, strives, at its conscious goals — money, career, fame, relationships. The unconscious mind, laughing, undoes it all, with a misplaced word, a foolish decision, a compulsion that can’t be let go of — that affair, that missed meeting, that email that was never replied to.

Who did Walker envy? It was right there hidden in plain sight. The dad he’d always scorned. The fellow he saw as a mediocre nobody, barely able to provide for his family, no swashbuckling investment banker replete with McMansion, yacht, bulging bank account. Why would Walker have envied him? Probably because his dad never seemed to need any of that stuff in the first place. Walker’s dad wasn’t about those accolades. He was just a humble teacher. He didn’t need, want, or even worry about trophies, prizes, and status. So Walker came to envy this sense of quiet dignity, security, and ease his dad had — it was the one thing he never seemed to be able to cultivate for himself. On the surface, it seemed to us as if Walker was always mocking and taunting him — but more genuinely, Walker wanted desperately to be all that he was, but couldn’t figure out how to.

Bang! Walker soared to the heights of fortune, furiously trying to outdo the dad he “hated.” And soon enough, for reasons he could scarcely understand, found himself living under the very same roof with the very same dad who he’d always scorned. What was life trying to teach him? Maybe that envy had driven him right back to where he began. He didn’t destroy his dad. He only destroyed himself. Or that bizarre persona he’d built up, at any rate. He’s still right there, in the basement, all plywood and pipes, needing to be his dad — not in the sense of a career, but in the way of qualities, virtues — but unable to really understand that he does.

And that brings me to why I wrote this little essay. We live in a time, it seems to me, where hate is rising steeply, sharply, exploding like a malign firework. But peel back hate, and you will find envy. And envy unconsciously drives us to become the envied, sabotaging ourselves every single step we try to take forward, so that we go backward. Isn’t that what the world is doing?

Think about the fascists — and by that, I mean extremists, who you probably don’t think of as genuine “fascists”, but nonetheless are. Who do they hate, so viciously and so ardently? The weak, the vulnerable, the powerless. Little children, especially. Put a little refugee kid in front of a fascist, and strange thing will happen — instead of cooing and smiling, the fascist will snarl and rage. But why? Why would anyone hate a…baby? A baby can’t even threaten a little puppy. Left to itself, the baby will die in days. A human child is the most helpless thing in the world. So what is driving the hate? It can’t possibly be because of any genuine threat or danger the baby presents.

Envy must be. The fascist envies the baby precisely because the baby gets — at least ideally — all that the fascist secretly wants, needs, and aches for. Security. Safety. Nourishment. A sense of being the center of the universe. A kind of unconditional love. The feeling of counting and mattering, to a strong and capable parent. The fascist doesn’t hate the baby so much as he envies it, in a bitter, poisonous way. He needs to destroy it precisely so that he can be it.

And he will do anything, unconsciously, to make that true. That is why the fascists are sabotaging themselves, too. Have you noticed? They aren’t marching for better healthcare, jobs, wages, and lives. Instead, they’re turning to demagogues and strongmen. But those demagogues and strongmen turn right around and prey on the fascists. Trump promised to protect Trumpists (LOL, if you must) — and every week, another factory closes, thanks to his tariffs — one full of people who voted for him, who are now bewildered: how could he do that to me?! Do you see what I mean by self sabotage?

We have a strange and terrible paradox to explain in the world today. Why do people vote for politicians who abuse and hurt them? Why are they choosing leaders who devalue and mistreat them? Economist and political scientists have no explanation whatsoever — because this behaviour isn’t just irrational: it makes a mockery of irrationality, too. It has a kind of logic — it’s predictable, by now. Only no one can say why.

The reason is psychological. People driven by envy will sabotage themselves until, at last, they have become the thing that they envy. Even if they’re ruined and wrecked in the process. Even if their democracies burn and their societies wither. Even if they themselves suffer terribly along the way.

The Trumpists, by the way, won’t stop until they’ve become what they envy — remember the babies? Unfortunately, the great problem is that no one seems interested in giving that to them: a feeling of safety, security, mattering, counting. Americans, who know only the language of cruelty and violence, are hell-bent on condemning and blaming and belittling them. But I think it’s wiser to see them as victims, too — as much as they are also fools and marks and even predators. Of what, precisely?

I won’t pretend there’s any easy solution for all the above. There isn’t. It’s more accurate to say capitalism has broken the minds of whole societies at this point — leaving minds only capable of envy, but therefore, also machines of mass self-sabotage. We’re all victims of the same thing today, and that is capitalism, failing, imploding, sputtering out, leaving us with all its messes — inequality, climate change, stagnation, extremism — to clean up. But the biggest of these messes is that capitalism broke not just the planet, the economy, or the future, but minds and spirits, too. Capitalism’s essence is envy, and that is why, over and over again in history, all too easily, when the wheels of the machine slow down, what it really seems to produce is bitter, enraged hate. We’ve all been failed in that sense. The only difference between us, really, is that some of us know it — and some can’t quite bring themselves to admit it, see it, or understand it, and so there they are, the poor, broken, shattered things: envying little babies.

Can you imagine anything more pathetic and strange? Who would I be myself if I hated such a person, right back, for hating me? I’d be a mirror image of them, wouldn’t I? What kind of world can people sneering at each other in mirrors build? So what I will say is simply this. You should watch out for all the above. Maybe you too are sabotaging yourself — if not your whole society, like a Trumpist — in ways that you don’t yet know.

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