The following article doesn’t contain any spoilers. No need to have read the books to follow but if you haven’t I suggest, in a friendly manner, you do so.
In the Twentieth Century, two English writers Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, set out to write the two most iconic science fiction novels about totalitarianism in modern times: “A brave new world” and “1984”. The two novels painted two types of totalitarian societies diametrically opposed. In “A brave new world” Huxley describes a totalitarian system that is, on the surface, benevolent; he paints the picture of a futile and hedonistic society where people are ruled through pleasure and controlled through technology and science. Inversely “1984” represents a world, divided in three blocks, in a perpetual state of war, where workers are oppressed through violence (in all of it’s forms) and are watched over by the all seeing eye of Big Brother, the incarnation of a bureaucratic repressive and omniscient power.
The questions I invite you to explore today are: which of these two dystopias was more accurate in describing our present condition of turmoil and dysfunction? And which of these two typologies of totalitarianism is most likely to function in our modern world?
Both books, at a fundamental level, share a common philosophical enquiry: what is the place of the individual in a world that, through scientific and technological progress, is more and more directed towards mass production and consumption. It is therefore not surprising that both dystopias have many details in common.
Both writers saw a future shaped by weapons of mass destruction, they agreed about the danger of dividing humanity into categories, determined by biological engineering and psychological conditioning (Huxley) or traditional class combined with a sort of loyalty system (Orwell). Both men imagined sex as a key element to implement totalitarianism (on the subject I advise you to watch Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece “The 120 days of Salò”), though in diametrically opposite ways: state-enforced repression and celibacy in Orwell’s book; deliberate, narcotising promiscuity and hedonism in Huxley’s. Manipulation of language and falsification of history is common in both novels. Both novels imagined a future dominated by America. Both men thought that future governments would spend a lot of effort permanently trying to incite economic consumption.
The main difference between these two visions could be considered as a difference in length of vision. Orwell described 20th century totalitarianism following his experiences fighting Fascism in Spain. He saw totalitarian power for what is was during his lifetime. He gave an accurate and terrifying account of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism. His work was the work of an historian of sort. Huxley on the other side was more interested with the speculative idea of what totalitarianism would look like in the future. He created a perfect dystopia using his knowledge of psychology, science and technology to create the “perfect” totalitarian state. His work was the work of a philosopher.
Huxley had the genius intuition of understanding that in the future true totalitarianism could not be implemented through force. Ultimate control would be implemented through pleasure, not pain. Because this is harder to escape. If a dictator, wearing a uniform, oppresses the people through violence he creates a situation that is impossible to maintain on the long run. This is because of three main reasons: first of all the oppressed is aware of being oppressed, secondly he knows who’s oppressing him (the problem of the uniform) and finally (because he knows he’s being oppressed and he knows who’s doing it) it is only a matter of time before the oppressed picks up a weapon and fights back. What Huxley realised is that a truly effective dictatorship needs to make the oppressed believe he’s not oppressed at all but a free agent in a free society, secondly the dictator (power) needs to hide in plain sight and drop the uniform for a suit and a tie, which gives him an air or normality and respectability, and finally he needs to do everything in his power to make sure the people he’s oppressing are happy enough not to revolt. The key to this? In Huxley’s mind it was a mixture of sexual hedonism, medical drugs and consumerism. Again: control through pleasure. Because who’s going to rebel against pleasure?
He understood that a truly Machiavellian dictator would not try to eliminate freedom. All he is required to do is to define what freedom looks like. Or to quote Henry Ford: “You can have your car any colour you want… as long as it’s black”. In Huxley’s mind future totalitarianism will make us love our condition of slaves by giving us the impression of being in control when in reality we do exactly what power wants us to. We think we are free but aren’t. Humanity would be tranquillised by pleasure and drugs and the voluntary distractions of “civilised infantilisation”.
In the man’s own words: “My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power (…) the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
By now you’ve probably gathered that it is the writer’s humble opinion that Aldous Huxley “wins the battle” hands down. I’ve reread “Brave new world” this summer (and its sequel “Return to brave new world”) and was astonished by the accuracy of it’s predictions. From biogenetic as a technological system to breed perfect children that will form the class system of the future (a practice still at it’s dawn but being implemented as I write. On the subject I suggest you read about Dr. Steinberg and the Fertility institute of California), to emotionless, neurotic, promiscuous, impersonal sex promoted as a sign of civilisation, to the wide spread use of legalised antidepressants, anti-anxiety and sedative drugs (even on children), to infantile mass entertainment (I’m looking at you Marvel), to the lullingly, deadeningly, numbly pleasant society promoted left right and center through advertising and television, to pleasure in all of it’s forms as the sacred Graal of capitalism, to sources of distractions as a mean to control the conversation, to science and technology as the new religion it is scary to see how much our society resembles a dystopian fantasy written some 80 years ago.
He even foresaw Facebook (in the form of gigantic card-indexes, true, but he got the gist). Facebook’s mission statement “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” sounds a lot like the new world’s motto “Community, Identity, Stability” and the complete ban on the sight of breast feeding is common to the novel and to the website (being a symbol of our humanity and our relation to nature). Furthermore: the public nature of relationship status, the idea that everything should be shared, and the idea that “everyone belongs to everyone else” are also common themes of the novel and the company. And above all, the idea, perfectly put by Zuckerberg and perfectly exemplifying Huxley’s main theme, that “privacy is an outdated norm”.
But what of Orwell? Well it’s one of those cases of “when the new system doesn’t work revert to the old”. Repressive violence is still very much an option when benevolent totalitarianism fails (for a recent example of this I invite you to read my previous article BACK TO THE FUTURE? – or try to walk around without a mask). Orwell also foresaw the mass surveillance state of our modern day societies. From CCTV cameras with facial recognition, to the patriot act, to accessible (by the state) cameras on your computer, iphone, car, TV and so on we are indeed constantly watched over by Big Brother. Our world also has an increasing number of strongmen leaders (I’m looking at you Trump) who rewrite history and ignore the truth (I’m looking at you every American president probably since Kennedy), and a growing emphasis on crimes-by-thought. We don’t have an official “Two Minutes of Hate”, as Orwell’s state does, but our social media equivalents come pretty damn close. Finally the idea of permanent low-level war as a new norm looks a lot like the 19 year global “war on terror”. Finally the oppression of workers is very much a modus operandi of our economic systems (if you don’t believe me go talk with an Amazon worker).
It is therefore fair to say, and I say this with a heavy heart, that our modern “shining” democracies look more and more like a hybrid of the two novels. And that is not a pretty picture.
Of course there is one country that is ahead of us in the race towards the perfect totalitarian state (but worry not we will soon follow) and that is China. If China proved one thing it’s that capitalism works much better under totalitarian rule than democracy (after all what could we expect from an economic system based on the Hobbesian motto “Homo homini lupus”?). China functions on a thin rope-walking act between “Brave new world” and “1984”, between hedonistic Capitalism and oppressive Communism (although China is communist in name only): total control of it’s citizens – to the point of having a social credit system (a carrot and a stick system that asks you to trade your freedom for small narcissistic or materialistic benefits) – but enough freedom and entertainment for people not to want to rebel. In my pessimism I believe that’s where we’re also heading, and the totalitarian turn our Western societies have taken during this year only confirms it.
I leave the last words to Aldous Huxley for I share his thought: “Though I remain no less sadly certain than in the past that sanity is a rather rare phenomenon, I am convinced that it can be achieved and would like to see more of it”.