Orwell and Huxley were both right

I often assigned Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. Several times, I ambitiously assigned both books to the same class. Students thought that both novels raised challenging ideas; but they were merely warnings, unlikely to come true, at least not in the extremes presented.

I wonder what they think now that both books have come true?

That two so different depictions of society can both be true makes more sense when we understand that 1984 describes the culture of the state, while Brave New World describes the state of the culture.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, media guru Neil Postman wrote: “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” 1984 describes a sophisticated totalitarian state, one which maintains political control by enslaving the minds and emotions of its citizens. Brave New World describes an equally-sophisticated pleasure state, one which maintains cultural control by fostering triviality in the minds and emotions of its citizens.

Each of these dire futures would be bad enough on its own. Working together, terror and triviality render the state powerful and the people clueless.

What follows here will be, of necessity, the barest outline of the evidence for my claim of these writers’ clairvoyance. You are sure to find omissions, generalizations, and oversimplifications to annoy even the most benign critic. I ask only that you consider the limitations of the present medium, and that you consider whether or not the general thrust of the argument is reasonable, despite the incompleteness of the explanation.

_ . _

The society of 1984 is run by The Party, embodied by Big Brother. It is a culture in which thought is limited by Newspeak and directed by Doublethink;  extreme patriotism is reinforced by constant war with a demonized enemy; freedoms are sacrificed to security; and economic welfare is undermined by the needs of a military economy.

Using the United States as an example, since it is doubtlessly the society in which these factors are most prominent, we see that the summary above corresponds to major features of American life.

Political life is spectacularly skewed by the distorted rhetoric of public debate. This is thanks primarily to the right’s successful capture of the political vocabulary. There’s a scary genius behind the fervour with which millions of Americans now associate the word “government” with an attack on freedom, knee-capping effective governance and increasing power for the corporate, political, military and religious elites.

The restricting inequities of capitalism become the libertarian opportunities of free enterprise, and any critique of its obvious flaws is an attack on The American Way, leaving corporations free from restraint, while tens of millions live in poverty, and tens of thousands live on the streets.

Providing universal medical care and enforcing serious pollution controls are demonized as socialist and anti-democratic, so that millions are afraid to get sick and hundreds of millions face the consequences of  industrial poisoning and climate change. An entire society acts against its own best interests because the enemies of the people, the corporations and their politician lackeys, have tricked them into thinking that their own best interests are anti-American.

Controlling the debate is a powerful tactic, but waving the flag is the state’s true weapon of mass destruction. There is no limit to the power of Old Glory. The Flag is everywhere, from diner menus to used car lots to suburban churches. From kindergarten kids pledging allegiance to the flag to start the school day to the singing of The Star Spangled Banner before every event from a World Series game to a local church picnic, it is impossible to overstate the American cult of patriotism.

This extreme national pride is reinforced by the oldest political ally of them all – The Enemy. For forty years, the USSR in particular and communism in general filled that role. And after the fall of the Soviet Union? Only a dozen lean years passed before the great political gift of International Terrorism, which supplied a new enemy, Islam. (That a substantial number persist in the belief that Bush II instigated the 9/11 attacks shows that people have some perception of the power The Enemy gives to the state.)

The demonizing of Islam in the name of fighting terrorism has led to many infringements of basic liberties, most notably The Patriot Act. With an unconscious historical irony (or a lesson learned?) a new national Department of Homeland Security was established. Defending “The Homeland” became the irrefutable rationale for shredding constitutional guarantees at home and for fighting aggressive wars abroad.

Once the need for military might is accepted, there are no financial, legal or moral limits to what can be done in the name of The Homeland. Huge budget deficits, thousands of casualties (hundreds of thousands, if you count “the enemy,” which you don’t), the distortion of the domestic economy, the destruction of good will and moral authority abroad – all of these are sacrificed to the need to defeat The Enemy and protect The Homeland. Could this be more like 1984?

_ . _

Brave New World largely downplays the political sphere in favour of a satirical depiction of the ultimate consumer society. Some of its features are not (or not yet) true, but the tenor and intent of the novel’s culture are on target. Unfortunately, Huxley’s description fits Canada as well as it does the United States.

Huxley describes a culture of trivial personal pleasures, one in which serious arts wither and conformity to the superficial is enforced. The cult of consumerism floods all areas of daily life.

Drug use is mandatory in the novel; in our society it is heavily encouraged, if the frequency and intensity of pharmaceutical advertising are any indication. There’s a pill for everything from sagging skin to flagging libido to an unrealized life.

An unrealized life is the greatest evil in today’s culture. The deification of celebrities offers the hope that you, too, can be noticed and important, while the ubiquity of YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook make instant if fleeting fame actually possible.

If you can’t be famous, at least you can satisfy all of your material desires. Why be caught with last week’s cellphone or yesterday’s jeans when the unending gratifications of credit-driven consumption can keep you constantly and pleasantly distracted?

Mass media disseminate and reinforce the superficial. Without rehashing Media Studies 100 more than is necessary, television and the internet offer a fragmented, flash card version of the world. They don’t so much discourage thoughtful engagement as make it impossible, by their very natures. News is flashing images, politics is lashing soundbites, and anything that doesn’t instantly grab is just as instantly gone, and on to the next six-second stimulus.

Surrounded by celebrity gossip, “reality” TV, material excess, a thriving self-help industry and an even more thriving personal drug culture, many people not only live their lives without anything resembling conscious thought but also are incapable of understanding how vacuous they are. Personal pleasure and instant gratification and mini attention spans and minimal awareness of anything outside the scope of yourself – this is the description of the perfect citizen, if you’re into political control. Bread and circuses, maximus!

_ . _

Combine the novels’ systems and you have the recipe for the perfect dystopia – one part thought control, and one part intellectual infancy.

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4 thoughts on “Orwell and Huxley were both right

  1. Orwell was particularly insightful by identifying doublespeak , where the ownership of public expression directs any debate . He was working in the field himself in wartime Britain for the BBC and he understood how the news dissemination could be skewed
    to favour of the war effort . He saw the potential for taking a word like “war” and projecting it as “peace” He could not foresee the trivialising of the news itself .
    Huxley’s position is more arguable. Mill did defend beer and skittles as tied to personal liberty . Controlling my trivial pleasures is only justified when there is evident harm to others.

  2. Orwell was, as we know, always interested in the impact of language. Something I didn’t mention in the posting, due to self-imposed space restrictions, was the rewriting of history. In the current U.S. example, WMD and the false assumption of Saddam’s involvement in 9-11 come immediately to mind.

    As for Huxley, I don’t believe that the leaders in BNW wanted to restrict “trivial pleasures” so much as to ensure their practice, to the exclusion of deeper feelings. The Party in 1984 literally destroyed ideas they hadn’t created. In BNW, it was the intellectual and emotional depth that made one desire the experience of ideas that was targeted. The evident harm wasn’t to others, but to oneself.

  3. Ron,
    This is the best of your blogs that I have read. You’re firing on all cylinders here. In my not too well informed opinion, Margaret Atwood accomplishes the same, only in a more up-to-date setting.

    • Thanks, Peter. As you know, I like Atwood’s ventures into the future. The Handmaid’s Tale is masterful, and I quite enjoyed the more recent pair (Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood).

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