- This 1931 novel predicted modern life almost to a (model) T.
- While other dystopias get more press, Brave New World offers us a nightmare world that we've moved steadily towards over the last century.
- Author Aldous Huxley's ideas on a light handed totalitarian dictatorship stand in marked contrast to the popular image of a dictatorship that relies on force.
When most people think of what dystopia our society is sprinting towards, they tend to think of 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Hunger Games. These top selling, well known, and well-written titles are excellent warnings of worlds that could come to pass that we would all do well to read.
However, one lesser-known dystopian novel has done a much better job at predicting the future than these three books. Brave New World, written in 1931 by author, psychonaut, and philosopher Aldous Huxley, is well known but hasn’t quite had the pop-culture breakthrough that the other three did.
This is regrettable, as it offers us a detailed image of a dystopia that our society is not only moving towards but would be happy to have.
For those who haven’t read it, Brave New World is the description of a nightmare society where everybody is perfectly happy all the time. This is assured through destroying the free will of most of the population using genetic engineering and Pavlovian conditioning, keeping everybody entertained continuously with endless distractions, and offering a plentiful supply of the wonder drug Soma to keep people happy if all else fails.
The world state is a dictatorship which strives to assure order. The dictatorship is managed by ten oligarchs who rely on an extensive bureaucracy to keep the world running. The typical person is conditioned to love their subservience and either be proud of the vital work they do or be relieved that they don’t have to worry about the problems of the world.
Global stability is ensured through the Fordist religion, which is based on the teachings of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud and involves the worship of both men. The tenets of this faith encourage mass consumerism, sexual promiscuity, and avoiding unhappiness at all costs. The assembly line is praised as though it were a gift from God.
Huxley’s dystopia is especially terrifying in that the enslaved population absolutely loves their slavery. Even the characters who are smart enough to know what is going on (and why they should be concerned) are instead content with everything that is happening. Perhaps more terrifying than other dystopian novels, in Brave New World there is truly no hope for change.
The similarities between the world of today and the world of the book are many, even if our technology hasn’t quite caught up yet.
While the human assembly line described in the first part of the story is still a far-off fantasy, the basic concepts that make it work are already here. Today, people make choices to influence the genetic makeup of their children regularly.
Pre-natal screening has created the ability for many parents to decide if they wish to carry a disabled fetus to term or not. In Iceland, this has resulted in the near eradication of new cases of Down Syndrome in the country. Almost 100% of detected cases lead to an abortion shortly after.
Similarly, testing for a child’s sex before birth is a well-known procedure that leads to a wide gender gap in many countries. Less well known is the process of sperm sorting, which allows for a couple to choose the gender of their child as part of the process of in-vitro fertilization.
The above examples suggest we’re open to soft eugenics already. Imagine what would happen if people could determine their child’s potential IQ before birth, or how rebellious they will be as a teenager. It would be difficult to suggest that the development of such technology would not be hailed as progress by those who could afford to use it. Huxley’s visions of a genetically perfected upper caste might be available soon.
As this article suggests, some choice in baby design is already here and more will be available soon.
The characters of Brave New World enjoy endless distractions between their hours at work. Various complex games have been invented, movies now engage all five senses, and there are even televisions at the feet of death beds. Nobody ever has to worry about being bored for long. The idea of enjoying solitude is taboo, and most people go out to parties every night.
In our modern society, most people genuinely can’t go thirty minutes without wanting to check their phones. We have, just as Huxley predicted, made it possible to abolish boredom and time for spare thoughts no matter where you are. This is already having measurable effects on our mental health and our brain structure.
Huxley wasn’t warning us against watching television or going to the movies occasionally; he says in this interview with Mike Wallace that TV can be harmless, but rather against the constant barrage of distraction becoming more important in our lives than facing the problems that affect us. Given how stressful people find the idea of a tech-free day and how we take our pop culture so seriously that it was targeted for use by Russian bots, he might have been onto something.
Brave New World‘s favorite pill, Soma, is quite the drug. In small doses it causes euphoria. In moderate doses, it causes enjoyable hallucinations, and in large doses, it is a tranquilizer. It is probably a pharmacological impossibility, but his concept of a society that pops pills to eradicate any vestige of negative feelings and escape the doldrums of the day is very real.
While it seems odd to say that we are moving towards Brave New World in this era when official policy is opposed to drug use, Huxley would suggest we consider it a blessing, since a dictatorship that encouraged drug use to zonk out their population would be a powerful, if light handed one.
While today we have a war on drugs, it is not on all drugs. Anti-depressants, a powerful tool for the treatment of mental illness, are so popular that one in eight Americans are on them right now. This doesn’t include the large number of Americans on tranquilizers, anti-anxiety medications, or those who self-medicate with alcohol or increasingly legal marijuana.
These drugs aren’t quite Soma, but they bear a striking resemblance in function and use.
In the book, the stability of the world state is partly based on total employment. A character informs us that automation has been purposely stalled to assure everybody can work since free time would give them enough extra time to think about their condition. Mass employment relies on mass consumption, however, and numerous systems are in place to assure everybody keeps using new products even when they don’t need anything.
Consumerism is a significant element in all major economies today. While it makes sense that a company would have an incentive to keep us buying things to remain profitable, Huxley’s point is that consumerism can also be used to keep us pointlessly chasing after items that we think we need to be happy as a distraction from exploring other pursuits.
While Huxley thought a dictatorship would have to condition people to want to buy new things and throw out last year’s products to buy similar but newer ones, the lines and fights at Black Friday sales suggest otherwise. Or the lines for every new release of the iPhone.
And just in case you thought it was only corporations getting in on the pressure, don’t forget George Bush wanted you to fight terror by shopping.
In our modern lives, a similar view on happiness as exists in the novel is developing. In his book The Happiness Industry, William Davies argues that modern capitalism has come across the concept of making happiness the only acceptable mental state and run with it to make more money. Our new found slew of Corporate Happiness Officers and self-help gurus are all designed to keep us happy, consuming, and unwilling to question the larger system in place, he argues.
This notion is summarized in his book in one, jargon-laden, sentence:
The relentless fascination with quantities of subjective feeling can only possibility divert critical attention away from broader political and economic problems.
While claims that we are redefining unhappiness as unacceptable might seem overblown, the standard manual of mental illness now says grieving for deceased loved ones more than a few days is problematic. Perhaps Mr. Davies is onto something.
Huxley expressed concern in his follow-up book Brave New World Revisited that the increasing complexity of technology and global problems had led to a concentration of power both in business and government. This concentration, he argued, not only made people more comfortable with the idea of being subjugated but also made dictatorship easier to enact.
Today, we have a higher concentration of wealth and power than ever before. In the United States, the top 1% are richer than ever, six corporations control 90% of the media, and the power of undemocratic institutions such as corporations or byzantine bureaucracies are greater than ever before. Many Americans choose not to vote and have the same influence on their government that they would if they had no right to vote.
This can lead to situations little different than that of 1984 but without the hard-totalitarian edge that came with it. In 1984 there was only one television station, and there was no attempt to hide the fact that the government controlled it. In the United States today dozens of seemingly different networks are controlled by a few conglomerates and often promote the same worldview and opinions as a result.
Huxley himself warned against this very situation when he talked about how we were approaching his dystopia back in 1958:
Well, at the present the television, I think, is being used quite harmlessly; it’s being used, I think, I would feel, it’s being used too much to distract everybody all the time. But, I mean, imagine which must be the situation in all communist countries where the television, where it exists, is always saying the same things the whole time; it’s always driving along. It’s not creating a wide front of distraction it’s creating a one-pointed, drumming in of a single idea, all the time. It’s obviously an immensely powerful instrument.
Despite being able to find this out or turn the channel, millions of people willingly continue to watch what might be called propaganda from friendly faces. Indeed, they love it. This soft totalitarianism is often hard to detect or state an objection to, which Slavoj Zizek argues is the point.
Huxley thought we could save ourselves, though we had to act quickly. While his concerns around overpopulation and eugenics have been shown to be bunk by the march of history, his other ideas still have merit.
In his follow up book Brave New World Revisited, he argues for the decentralization of power as a means to restore the value of democratic government to the typical person who might otherwise realize their vote is meaningless and lose faith in democracy as a result. He suggests that we can better educate people for freedom by drawing their attention to the methods of demagogues and sleazy advertisers. He encouraged those seeking freedom to move to the countryside or to establish stronger neighborhood ties in the cities to resist the pressure to only engage with others as an economic unit and not as a full human being.
He was also warm to the ideas of syndicalism and worker cooperatives, which seek to restructure workplaces to feature workers democratically managing them. He saw this as both a way to decentralize the economy and improve democratic participation.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was a prediction of a nightmare he thought we would be safe from for at least a few hundred years when he wrote it in 1931. By 1958 he realized he had been very optimistic. While we aren’t entirely doomed to the pleasant slavery he envisioned quite yet, the march of progress continues to bring us the tools which make it ever simpler to enact. If we will make the choices needed to avoid it or if we will willingly cry out to be saved from our freedom remains to be answered.