Detail from the Russian poster for the 1957 Polish film Kanal, directed by Andrzej Wajda and set during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Photo by Getty
Subterranean metaphors have been a powerful tool of political resistance. Today, is there anywhere left to hide?
In early 1942, a slim book appeared in London under the title Underground Europe Calling. Its author was the Austrian refugee Oscar Pollak. ‘Underground’, the introduction begins,
has become a catchword, handled by the tabloid press, flashed by the films. Imagination colours it with all the thrills of romance. In actual fact, underground work is quite different. It is terribly slow and wary. It is painstaking drudgery on the edge of prison and death. The catacombs are romantic only when you look down into them from the bright day above: inside they are dark, narrow and chilly – and very uncomfortable to live in. Yet their oppressive gloom holds the hope of future light.
Pollak was trying to pinpoint where the antifascist resistance was playing out across Europe during the Second World War. His vision combined physical areas under the earth – basements and bunkers and bolt-holes – with the secret social spaces that resisters occupied above ground. Pollak’s notion of insurgency blended the light of emancipation with the darkness of deceit, yielding a galvanising mythos of the ‘underground’.
In our own time, the idea of resistance has a renewed urgency and appeal. But we won’t be able to fight a fresh wave of authoritarianism without appreciating the symbols that animated the antifascist imagination of the past – in particular, the underground. That symbol has very deep roots in European and US culture, but over the course of the 20th century it was transformed from a threatening zone of subversion into a liberating space of political resistance. This shift of location and moral valence was partly a matter of necessity. Fascist regimes brutally suppressed public displays of defiance such as protest marches, critical publications and civil disobedience, so resistance was forced to retreat into the private sphere. Antifascists adopted aliases, worked cover jobs, communicated in code, and took covert photographs, all the while maintaining the appearance of ordinary lives.
These were more than just conspiratorial techniques. The resistance relied on an imaginative vocabulary that connected dissidents to one another via a network of subterranean passageways, snaking beneath the surface of everyday interactions. Being underground meant an ethics of spying, subversion, and subterfuge; of dissimulation and double-crossing; of cloak-and-dagger and conspiracy. Ironically this duplicity helped people see things for how they truly were. A buried world, hidden from the state, created forms of solidarity and self-understanding that shaped what was politically possible.
Is there anywhere left to hide today? Government surveillance, smartphones and social media have made our private lives increasingly public. The solipsistic cult of consumerism and convenience encourages us to spend away our cares, while alliances across social boundaries seem increasingly elusive. Where we’ve arrived charts just how far the idea of the underground has shifted in the public imagination, from a symbol of freedom to a hollowed-out token of postwar counterculture, buffeted by the tides of postmodernism and embraced, ambivalently, by 21st-century digital activists. The notion of the underground has come full circle, back to its origins as a space of conspiratorial activity that corrodes the public good. Joining an underground army is scarcely imaginable or desirable for most of us. And that’s a major problem for any would-be antifascists.
The concept of a subterranean realm dates as far back as Hades, the underworld of classical mythology. Homer describes how Odysseus journeyed to this land of death, a ‘shadowy hall’ in ‘the dark earth’. Later, Plato’s Republic featured a similar pattern of descent and redemption in the allegory of the cave – after which Dante, in The Inferno, swapped Hades for a Christian Hell, and Plato’s philosopher-king for the poet himself.
Modern visions of the underground diverged from their origins in the ancient and medieval worlds. The shock of industrialisation in the 19th century politicised the metaphor and made it more human, as people flocked to subterranean occupations such as coalmining and subway construction. The US critic Wendy Lesser calls this ‘technological downward progress’: activities where workers’ pride in broaching new telluric frontiers blended with the fear and fascination of ancient myth. ‘Old ideas which had been attached to fantastic tales now gained association with actual places one could touch and see,’ she wrote in The Life Below Ground (1987)…