Saturday, October 8, 2011

Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley

When I picked this one up I thought it was a sequel to Brave New World. It isn’t. It’s an essay by Huxley about how “the subtle terrors he prophesied for the 26th century are here now.” Now, being 1958.

It holds up pretty well. There are some things he talks about that are strange and out of place to a modern reader—predictions of future terrors that seem quaint and ill-informed—but many other things he seems to get exactly right. Here’s what he says, for example, about advertising:

The principles underlying this kind of propaganda are extremely simple. Find some common desire, some widespread unconscious fear or anxiety; think out some way to relate this wish or fear to the product you have to sell; then build a bridge of verbal or pictorial symbols over which your customer can pass from fact to compensatory dream, and from the dream to the illusion that your product, when purchased, will make the dream come true. “We no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We do not buy just the auto, we buy prestige.” And so with all the rest. In toothpaste, for example, we buy, not a mere cleaner and antiseptic, but release from the fear of being sexually repulsive. In vodka and whisky we are not buying a protoplasmic poison which, in small doses, may depress the nervous system in a psychologically valuable way; we are buying friendliness and good fellowship, the warmth of Dingley Dell and the brilliance of the Mermaid Tavern. With our laxatives we buy the health of a Greek god, the radiance of one of Diana’s nymphs. With the monthly best seller we acquire culture, the envy of our less literate neighbors and the respect of the sophisticated.

And here’s what he says about political candidates, and their need to appeal rather than explain:

In one way or another, as vigorous he-man or kindly father, the candidate must be glamorous. He must also be an entertainer who never bores his audience. Inured to television and radio, that audience is accustomed to be distracted and does not like to be asked to concentrate or make a prolonged intellectual effort. All speeches by the entertainer-candidate must therefore be short and snappy. The great issues of the day must be dealt with in five minutes at the most—and preferably (since the audience will be eager to pass on to something a little livelier than inflation or the H-bomb) in sixty seconds flat. The nature of oratory is such that there has always been a tendency among politicians and clergymen to over-simplify complex issues. From a pulpit or a platform even the most conscientious of speakers finds it very difficult to tell the whole truth. The methods now being used to merchandise the political candidate as though he were a deodorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything.

Both spot on, if you ask me. And his social commentary is as penetrating as ever, piercing through the veils of myth that are often draped over our society and to its hardened core. For example, here’s how he responds to the view that humans are a social species:

If these views were correct, if human beings were in fact the members of a truly social species, and if their individual differences were trifling and could be completely ironed out by appropriate conditioning, then, obviously, there would be no need for liberty and the State would be justified in persecuting the heretics who demanded it. For the individual termite, service to the termitary is perfect freedom.

And there are other places where he simply explains things in ways I have never heard them explained before. Writs of habeas corpus, for example. I’ve heard them mentioned a lot, and know that presidents like Lincoln have suspended them in times of war, but I’ve never really known what they were. Well, Huxley explains them this way.

A person who is being kept in prison on ground of doubtful legality has the right, under the Common Law as clarified by the statute of 1679, to appeal to one of the higher courts if justice for a writ of habeas corpus. This writ is addressed by a judge of the high court to a sheriff or jailer, and commands him, within a specified period of time, to bring the person he is holding in custody to the court for an examination of his case—to bring, be it noted, not the person’s written complaint, nor his legal representatives, but his corpus, his body, the too too solid flesh which has been made to sleep on boards, to smell the fetid prison air, to eat the revolting prison food.

Now I can see why suspension of such a right is so vilified by libertarians. Even in times of war, an accused should have such a right, shouldn’t he?

But what I really want to touch on is Huxley’s apparent view of the human species and its ability, or lack of an ability, ultimately, to govern itself. He begins his chapter on Propaganda in a Democratic Society this way:

“The doctrines of Europe,” Jefferson wrote, “were that men in numerous associations cannot be restrained within the limits of order and justice, except by forces physical and moral wielded over them by authorities independent of their will. … We (the founders of the new American democracy) believe that man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights, and with an innate sense of justice, and that he could be restrained from wrong, and protected in right, by moderate powers, confided to persons of his own choice and held to their duties by dependence on his own will.” To post-Freudian ears, this kind of language seems touchingly quaint and ingenuous. Human beings are a good deal less rational and innately just than the optimists of the eighteenth century supposed. On the other hand they are neither so morally blind nor so hopelessly unreasonable as the pessimists of the twentieth would have us believe. In spite of the Id and the Unconscious, in spite of endemic neurosis and the prevalence of low IQs, most men and women are probably decent enough and sensible enough to be trusted with the direction of their own destinies.

This is a remarkable chapter, one that trumpets both Huxley’s near-inerrant powers of prognostication, but which also highlights every human’s inability to contextualize the future in anything but the present. As shown above, he readily concedes most of the Jeffersonian view that people can effectively govern themselves (although perhaps not as efficiently as a dictator), but adds one important caveat. They must be given a “fair chance,” which he describes more or less as a prosperous, well-informed democracy. In such a society, people have the best capacity to govern themselves well, and if they succumb to the manipulation of a dictator, that dictator must corrupt at least one of those three conditions—prosperity, freedom of information, or democracy.

And Huxley knows that such corruptions have happened and will continue to happen.

Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, it seemed completely self-evident that the bad old days were over, that torture and massacre, slavery, and the persecution of heretics, were things of the past. Among people who wore top hats, traveled in trains, and took a bath every morning such horrors were simply out of the question. After all, we were living in the twentieth century. A few years later these people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats were committing atrocities on a scale undreamed of by the benighted Africans and Asiatics. In the light of recent history it would be foolish to suppose that this sort of thing cannot happen again. It can, and no doubt, it will.

Of the three conditions necessary for people to have their “fair chance,” it is freedom of information that Huxley sees as the most threatened and most vulnerable, even in otherwise prosperous and democratic societies.

Mass communication, in a word, is neither good nor bad; it is simply a force and, like any other force, it can be used either well or ill. Used in one way, the press, the radio and the cinema are indispensable to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator’s armory. In the field of mass communications as in almost every other field of enterprise, technological progress had hurt the Little Man and helped the Big Man. As lately as fifty years ago, every democratic country could boast of a great number of small journals and local newspapers. Thousands of country editors expressed thousands of independent opinions. Somewhere or other almost everybody could get almost anything printed. Today the press is still legally free; but most of the little papers have disappeared. The cost of wood-pulp, of modern printing machinery and of syndicated news is too high for the Little Man. In the totalitarian East there is political censorship, and the media of mass communication are controlled by the State. In the democratic West there is economic censorship and the media of mass communication are controlled by members of the Power Elite. Censorship by rising costs and the concentration of communication power in the hands of a few big concerns is less objectionable than State ownership and government propaganda; but certainly it is not something of which a Jeffersonian democrat could possibly approve.

And here, I think, is where Huxley gets it wrong, where he succumbs to the natural limitations of his own mortal worldview. Huxley did not live to see and could not have imagined the rise of something we call the Internet and the communications power it has put back in the hands of the Little Man. The Power Elite still control a good deal of the messages that are broadcast, but the rise of Internet narrowcasting through blogs and Twitter feeds and YouTube videos have stemmed the fatalistic asymptotic slide towards fewer and fewer voices. The Big Man may still win out in the end, but interestingly, if he doesn’t, if we remain awash in the millions of viewpoints never more than a few mouseclicks away, then we may need to worry about Huxley’s other primary caution about propaganda in a democratic society. In the end, the battle will not be between information and misinformation. It will be between the relevant and the irrelevant. Never, he cautions, underestimate man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

In the past most people never got a chance of fully satisfying this appetite. They might long for distractions, but the distractions were not provided. Christmas came but once a year, feasts were “solemn and rare,” there were few readers and very little to read, and the nearest approach to a neighborhood movie theater was the parish church, where the performances, though frequent, were somewhat monotonous. For conditions even remotely comparable to those now prevailing we must return to imperial Rome, where the populace was kept in good humor by frequent, gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment—from poetical dramas to gladiatorial fights, from recitations of Virgil to all-out boxing, from concerts to military reviews and public executions. But even in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distraction now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema. In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature (the feelies, orgy-porgy, centrifugal bumblepuppy) are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation. The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly “not of this world.” Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx’s phrase, “the opium of the people” and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.

The Internet, for all it has done to empower the communications and viewpoints of the Little Man, has brought with it a whole new world of distractions in which that Little Man may happily and willingly enslave himself.

There are times when Huxley almost seems to say that there isn’t anything malevolent or perhaps even conscious about these corruptions of the Jeffersonian vision for human self-governance. They may very well be the intrinsic and inevitable result of our own human nature. But he always returns to a description of how that nature—as self-emergent as it may be—will be manipulated by those who seek to do so. As he is wrapping up near the end of his short text, he refers directly to the oligarchs that are consciously turning the screws of our society.

Under the relentless thrust of accelerating over-population and increasing over-organization, and by means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms—elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest—will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial—but democracy and freedom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.

And although I’m much more persuaded by the idea that decay is our natural and not our calculated fate, there are times when I think something like this has already happened—that the American nation has been corrupted by just the kind of conscious but non-violent totalitarianism Huxley describes in this paragraph. But the argument is undercut, I think, but his own use of the term “non-violent totalitarianism.” Can such a thing actually exist? Isn’t totalitarianism, by its very definition, violent? Doesn’t it have to be? How else could freedom be restrained? And if the term is self-contradictory, then I have to find another way of approaching the concept.

If I’m right, and totalitarianism is by definition violent, then perhaps Huxley is wrong about the non-violence. In this construction, our oligarchs and their solider-policeman servants do and will use violence whenever it is necessary to protect their carefully orchestrated status quo. This is the view of conspiracy theorists.

Or perhaps Huxley is wrong about the Pickwickian decay of democracy and freedom being non-violent? In this construction, the oligarchs have succeeded in enslaving us without resorting to torture and murder, but by our own numbing need for security at any price. It is only non-violent in the sense that we have agreed to submit rather than be bashed in the head. This is the view of cynics.

Or perhaps Huxley’s whole view is utter hogwash. No such takeover has happened—violent or otherwise—and we are as free as we have ever been. ‘Ever been’ are the key words there. If you believe we have always been free—at least, in the view of Americans, from the founding of our unique nation—then this construction results in the view of patriots. If you believe, however, that we have never actually been free, in 1776 or at any other time in human history, then this construction sets up the view of the anarchist, who believes the oligarchs have rigged the game from the very beginning.

Which view do you hold?


  1. Thank you for this insightful summary. Orwell is cited much more frequently than Huxley as a predictor of totalitarian oppression, and I don't know whether that is entirely fair. Huxley's description of the "Democracy and Freedom" propaganda campaign is chillingly on target. Very good point about the internet restoring the variety and accessibility of free expression. May it please continue!

    1. Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate your comment. Orwell, I think, is a better dramatist than Huxley. He couches his totalitarian predictions in more thrilling and accessible narratives.

    2. "Brave New World" is chillingly real. I think of Orwell as a better known horror story teller, and I remember "1984" and it's imagery a little more clearly. Both had similar ideas and predictions. Did they know each other? I will revisit "Brave New World" and "1984."