by Brad Nelson
One of the main intellectual points regarding Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is whether or not it is more prescient than Orwell’s 1984. Huxley’s novel came first and it came before Stalinism. Huxley imagined a quite intrusive and coercive central government, but not necessarily a violent one. He saw it (and we can surely relate to this) as moving in increments to a nanny state where the inducements of pleasure, stability, and safety are ultimately more persuasive than violent coercion of the Stalinesque type.
Much of this analysis is just paraphrasing Christopher Hitchens’ excellent forword to the edition that I read. Some of it comes from Huxley’s own defense of his work which comes in his comments from Brave New World Revisited which I found to be mostly forgettable.
I found the real power of Brave New World not to be the possible coming dystopia that it describes. Its power is in its description of how our society is now to a large extent. Orwell’s 1984 we can somewhat comfortably read as science fiction. And if we think of it at all in terms of our own world, we can comfortably place the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Cuba, and other “hard nanny” states as happening to someone else. As Joseph Stalin said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
But Brave New World is all too real. It may be a little ahead of where we are in the West, but we can see the same themes we experience today being taken to their natural conclusion in the novel. In essence, in Brave New World we see playing out before us the maxim that the way we form society is inevitably about balancing the interests of freedom vs. that of security — and what happens if you regularly choose security.
The Brave New World of Huxley’s novel values human happiness as highly as we have come to do, if for different reasons. Having just come through a horrendous nine-years planetary war, the populous in the novel are in a mood for stability. And Huxley’s Brave New World prizes stability over all else because it regards stability as the surest means to produce happiness, and there is no greater goal than happiness, at least as far as that world is concerned. And this is so not just because happiness is a good thing in itself but because it produces, yes, stability.
This is what is so brilliant about this novel. We see this same “stability über alles” ideology from people such as John McCain. If there is such thing as a “neocon,” it would be a person who forgoes that supposedly small-minded thing held by zealous Christians and other kooks that we call “right and wrong.” Instead, it is the truly smart people who simply believe they can push the right buttons and achieve the most important goal of all: stability. This is why nitwits such as McCain can be for Gaddafi one moment and the Muslim Brotherhood the next.
As with McCain and his type, its not rabid zealousness or heated ideology that propels Huxley’s new world into a bad place. In Huxley’s novel, it is not a greedy, power-mad, Soviet-style upper-echelon who rules disingenuously under the guise of “freedom” when it’s really all about power and privilege for this upper echelon. Brave New World, unlike 1984, is not a book about doublespeak, euphemisms, and lies. It’s simply about control and stability in the pursuit of pleasure and stability…by a populous and a political elite who see both as the highest goals for society.
This is ratified daily in our own lives with the prefusion of “conflict avoidance” or “conflict resolution” types who put stability and peace over common sense, plain right and wrong, or simple justice. It is indeed possible for people to become accustomed to thinking in this way as the default and only lens with which to see the world.
If you lived in or around the old Soviet Union (or present-day China, Cuba, or North Korea), you probably might see more relevance in Orwell’s 1984 novel where, indeed, all hell breaks loose and humanity is choked under the iron boot of coerced conformity and political repression. But if you live in the West today, you might blanch when reading Brave New World or, quite possibly, might not see the message in it at all. My guess is that many people would read this novel and sort of pooh-pooh the stupid people who would ever construct a society like that and perhaps think they got what they deserved — even while taking part in the incremental building of just such a society themselves.
It certainly occurred to me while reading this that many would not see the irony and probably could not see the irony, which is like dipping your toes in the icy-cold and clear waters of reality, something that is not so popular these days. You have people running around spouting vapid cliches such as “a woman’s right to choose” while giving in to letting the government choose their health care for them, which is the direct and true equivalent of giving the government control over your entire body, not just the reproductive organs. Brave New World is closer than we think. And because many people don’t think, this is exactly why this is so.
1984 and Brave New World have some overlap and some differences in terms of hard coercion versus a soft, Soma-like coercion. And yet each shares the idea of total and intrusive coercion as the means to organizing society. Freedom isn’t even on the radar. Another difference is that in 1984, it is about the growth of a government class at the expense of everyone else. It’s about power, even if the rational is couched in doublespeak in order to bamboozle the low-information voter. This reveals itself via the violent means that those in power are more than willing use in order to gain and maintain their power. The mask of “for your own good” comes off and thus the true intent is exposed.
On the other hand, the power brokers in government of Huxley’s Brave New World are all nice nannies. They really do mean well, even if this does leave them in charge. They coerce via “free stuff” and quite literally require the population to take “Soma,” which is a pot-like drug that induces a pleasant stupor in which people no longer even care about taking care of themselves and making their own choices. This is exactly the sort of world that Mark Steyn describes in America Alone in Europe where, even without the use of drugs, the population is anesthetized by entitlements to the point where, at most, they concern themselves with the details of planning their next vacation but leave all the adult-sized decisions to the state.
The rationale for Big Government in Brave New World is less about deceiving people about the political class’s intentions (1984‘s doublespeak, etc.) than giving them what they want (or can get them hooked on). In 1984, the goal of the state is complete and total power over the individual, and that individual must constantly be kept down via threats of violence, actual violence, and lots and lots of propaganda. But in Brave New World, the people are somewhat given what they want. There is no need for violence.
In our own world of today, of course, we have some of both. We don’t yet have the outright violence of the police state (although there are inklings of that such as with the IRS’s persecution of the Tea Party). But we do have plenty of politically correct coercion by the state in various ways (often under the guise of either the environment or “sensitivity”). But we also have ourselves voting ourselves more and more “free stuff” and entitlements and bringing about our own infantilization. We don’t need the state to require Soma as a pacifying/stupefying drug. But even if one were needed, we’ve shown ourselves more than willing to vote for such a drug (pot) of our own free will…what’s left of it, anyway.
1984 is a terrific novel. But in many ways, it’s not terribly groundbreaking. Basically the world of 1984 comes down to a power struggle between the haves and the have-nots. And although this power struggle is given new and marvelously chilling trappings, especially in the use of propaganda and thought control, is not terribly unique. The idea of some type of oligarchy asserting itself through deadly force as a minority over a much larger majority is as old as time. And their ways of doing so (the divine right of kings, the word of Allah, whatever) have been various, including the heavy use of propaganda. What is new is to see people in a democracy or republic freely handing over to the would-be oligarchy their power in exchange for vapid and transitory emotional therapeutic “stability” or peace. We see people voluntarily retreating from the challenges of life, not this life being forcibly taken from them as in 1984.
Certainly much overt coercion is also contained in Brave New World wherein there is strict control over what people can read or say. But although the lies and control implicit in the 1984 paradigm are about the naked acquisition and holding of power, the dalliance with mental fascism in Brave New World is much more in service to the intention to actually produce a better society, not just a powerful and privileged oligarchy (although there is some of that too). And that intention doesn’t make the methods any less chilling, but it does perhaps turn Brave New World into a much more relevant commentary on our own lives and time.
I think 1984 is, at bottom, a novel about power, and although there is an attempt to make-over society, behind this attempt is not social utopia (which is just a guise) but a political hegemony. Brave New World is much more about trying to find the meaning of life and having demagogues such as Nancy Pelosi more than willing and ready to feed our utopian fantasies because she, too, holds those fantasies. (And I see people such as Obama being way more Orwellian.)
This modern Huxleyian method of pursuing an earthly Utopia may use quite mad and unwise methods and principles to achieve it, but if there is no god (and nothing greater than government), if there is nothing truly more important than the pursuit of happiness in this world, then the society of Brave New World immediately gains the kind of legitimacy that the society of 1984 never had.
And this is what makes Brave New World potentially more dangerous — and perhaps even inescapable to some extent. (Try repealing an entitlement, for example. It’s never actually been done except for one minor event that isn’t relevant to the present discussion.) And I think it’s the society we see being built around us even now. And maybe this is somewhat inevitable. If you can think of no greater goal in life than the pursuit of happiness and pleasure, then any kind of noble or inevitable suffering or struggling will seem quite quaint and wasteful, if not the very definition of evil.
Still, the two novels blend one idea into the other. They are both about trying to do a make-over of society. They’re both about power and control. They’re both about ingrained aristocracies. But Brave New World will surely have you thinking much more about the very meaning and purpose of life while 1984 may simply have you condemning the evils of fascism, as important as that may be to do.
When judging Brave New World in terms of literature, one must try to remember that many of the ideas that Huxley was dealing with were somewhat original with him and have since been repeated (often badly) ad nauseum in science fiction novels and movies. That said, the novel itself is a bit one-dimensional and not as deep and rich as one might have hoped for. However, Huxley’s novel is only a couple hundred pages and they flow briskly. It’s a pleasant read. But it’s also a bit thin. One wishes this were just the outline for a far grander novel. But it’s still very much worth the read. But in terms of just high literature regarding the subject of dystopias, I recommend Orwell’s novella, Animal Farm. Of the three, I think it is the better work. It’s truly a chilling work.
If you read Brave New World (and there may be no need to if you simply watch Chris Matthews or MSNBC), be sure to dig up the version with the foreword by Hitchens. But read that foreword only after reading the novel. Let the novel speak for itself first.
More on the ins and outs of Huxley’s Brave New World:
In Huxley’s Brave New World there are various classes of people and they are all genetically engineered. This Wiki article elaborates:
The castes are: the Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons (with each caste further split into Plus and Minus members). Alphas and Betas are the top level of society: they make decisions, teach, and dictate policy. Each Alpha or Beta is the product of one egg being fertilized and developing into one fetus in artificial wombs located on an assembly line in Hatchery and Conditioning Centres. The other castes, however, are not unique biologically but multiple clones of one fertilization, created using the Bokanovsky process.
The opening of the book spends much time elaborating on the various castes and the quite ingenious and technical ways in which they are made. And yet, oddly enough, this state of affairs is not really central to the story. There are no hammer-throwers at the end of the novel who smash the test tubes and bring the system down. The way the system works is that it does indeed work. Each caste is bred to do its particular job and to love doing that job, much like a border collie can run and run and run seemingly forever and love it. That doesn’t necessarily make the selective breeding right, but it does make it tolerable, even enjoyable. And thus each caste in Huxley’s Brave New World doesn’t have to be forced to do its job (either menial work or supervisory work). It wants to do that job because it’s minutely and quite specifically bred for it. Huxley’s society has just taken what we do to animals and expanded it to people.
Despite the rather odd caste system that is genetically and psychologically programmed to the nth degree, I don’t think the central issue of this book is about that, nor do I think it is centrally about the ethics of genetics, or even the dangers of a totalitarian state. Nor, as you might expect, is this book about an uprising of the lower classes or even of the higher classes growing a conscience and ending the servitude of the lower castes. This book is all about soul and arguably only about soul. I’ll explain that further in a moment.
The system put into place by the powers that be in Brave New World is not about maximizing control, per se. They could have done that by making all of the castes the lowest ones who would be the most easily controlled because they would be the weakest and stupidest. Nor was it about maximizing riches, for they could have bred only intelligent, productive, inventive castes of people. This was tried as an experiment and, sure enough, anarchy broke out…or anarchy as viewed by the powers-that-be because such a society quickly stratified itself according to one’s naturally abilities…much like a free capitalist one does. But it was quite unstable in terms of being in a controllable steady state. Instead what they see society as is one big machine and their goal is to keep it running smoothly, productively, and unceasingly.
It’s indeed inherently condescending (if not outright evil) to create people who are the equivalent of ditch-diggers and who are happy at ditch-digging. But that can indeed be the case with people (dumb or smart) of our own world. And we are also arguably happiest sometimes when we’re doing this kind of work. Some people are more suited to it than others. And if you specifically genetically and psychologically program people for such work, even more so, or at least you can easily suppose. The system put into place in Huxley’s Brave New World must first and foremost be stable. One might rightly ask if the orchestrators of this society would have made everyone suffer evenly and constantly if that had turned out to be a stable situation. But despite the inherent condescension of genetically engineering some people to be inferior (as they see it), their goal does seem to have happiness as its goal as much as stability. All the odd restrictions and customs in that society are geared to keeping everyone in their place, performing a specific function, and happy as can be. They even provide a perfect pill to beat the blues as they arise: Soma.
There are other details galore. Sex is not for procreation but for recreation. In fact, it’s considered extremely odd (and, indeed, heretical) to just have one long-term partner instead of joining with many in a constant stream of sex partners. Forget about anything so “progressively” crude as handing out condoms in high school. That would be way behind the times. This society teaches (requires, really) even children of the age of nine or younger to engage in erotic sex play with each other.
And the society that has been created does indeed seem to be a stable one. People are happy, although not very free (according to our standards, at least). This society does not seem on the verge of bursting apart at the seams. They’ve done a quite technically brilliant job of it, really. And in the novel we get a crashing contrast between the lifestyle of the Savage (an American Indian who lives on a reservation) and that of the Brave New Worlders who comprise the other 99% of the planet. And kudos to Huxley because he does not fall into the Noble Savage trap. Hardly. The world on the reservation is harsh, dirty, and just generally very unpleasant, not the “spiritual” nirvana most stupid white people would suppose it to be. But the Indians are (within the confines of electrified wire) quite free while the Brave New Worlders are quite unfree but live enormously easier and more healthy lives, at least physically.
And this is why I mentioned the central theme of this book being about soul and only about soul. There is obviously something missing in the lives of the Brave New Worlders, and it is not something as romantically attractive (from a distance, at least) as Savage-like hardship and back-to-natureness and all that sort of rot. And yet all that stuff perhaps does run parallel to what they are missing. And all that harsh and uncontrolled stuff is indeed quite attractive to the people who have been living inside the safety net of the Brave New World. They’re all terribly attracted to the Savage when he comes to visit them in their world. And, you betcha, you can draw parallels to the attraction people have to that guy who died in a rusted-out bus in Alaska a while back, the naive yute looking to “find himself” in the wilderness, or whatever. I think it was Sean Penn who made a movie about that. The parallel is stunning and didn’t occur to me at all until after I had read this book.
The Savage didn’t like the filth and decay (moral decay included) that he lived in within his wild and untamed reservation. But neither was he all that fond of the Brave New World environment. The Brave New Worlders were specifically bred to like their role in the world, but even then, many of them were attracted to the Savage. Many of them too felt the yearners for something more than just material comfort. Some people too (although quite a minority) yearned for the love of just one person and not many. They yearned for books and solitude and for original thoughts of their own rather than the carefully-planned everything which was their lives, as comfortable and safe as those lives may have been.
That’s why I say this book is ultimately about soul. Remember, these people in the Brave New World were bred and programmed to like what they were given. Our human minds are shaped by natural selection to desire a great number of things. And if deprived of these things it would be no surprise at all to eventually yearn for them. But why should the carefully genetically-crafted humans have a yearning for things that is no longer an innate desire? And we just have to assume that it isn’t natural genetic variability that is making some Brave New Worlders yearn for just one sex partner or to yearn for time alone or to yearn for the beauty of nature (something that is bred out of them because it is not productive). Huxley, for better or for worse, intentionally or unintentionally, is bringing us eye-to-eye with a large metaphysical question: Does man have an innate something that can never be satisfied with mere pleasure? And if this is so, is this so because the universe has some kind of Grand Theme to it other than just getting by day-by-day with as little hardship as possible?
Ultimately, I think this is the very theme of “Brave New World.” And I don’t think it’s a question that is answered, nor do I suppose that Huxley thought he could have answered it. We’re wonderfully shown two sides of the same coin, and there seems little place for our heart and intellect to run to for shelter. It’s either-or. We see the mean degradation of living a poor and highly superstitious life of the Savage. And we see the other side of the coin, the antiseptic bankruptcy of the safe, stable, and quite pleasant life of the Brave New Worlders. If neither chasing pleasure nor living like we suppose the Noble Savage does is completely fulfilling, then what else is there? This is the wonderful question that Huxley raises and it’s a question that seemingly has only two answers: The best we can do is feed our pleasures – or – there is more to life than meets the eye. Either satisfying immediately our every desire is the point, or there is something substantial and real about reality that makes not doing that and yearning for something more a very sane thing to do, even if one can’t quite fill in all the details of that yearning.
Because no philosopher or theologian has unambiguously answered this question, I really didn’t expect Huxley to either. And he hasn’t. But I think he has framed the question well.