Orwell vs. Huxley, fear vs. pacification, and the battleground of individuality
There once were two Englishmen of the 20th century, each with dystopia on their minds. Each penned novels along these lines, their works woven throughout with a feverish blend of gruesome imagination and intelligent extrapolation. George Orwell is one of these Englishmen, of 1984 fame; Aldous Huxley of Brave New World fame, the other.
Orwell produced his legacy masterpiece amid witnessing the grim European spectacles of his day with their dictatorship-disease, hunger for war, and flattening of citizenries. Orwell’s dystopian speculation is clearly inspired by the totalitarian experiments of the 20th century, the effects of which he saw splashed across newspaper fronts and glimpsed from his own windows. His book was an undoubtedly prescient work; after all, 1984 was no fictional dalliance but was instead explicitly intended to be an extrapolation of present events.
Huxley’s own science-fiction installment, Brave New World, followed a similar logic. He too imagined a subordinated population but beyond this feature, the two dystopian prescriptions diverged. Orwell envisioned antagonistic masses subject to forceful suppression and depicted the angered will of the people as ultimately ranking insufficient against the brute power of the state.
Huxley, on the other hand, showcased a society wherein the masses were unnervingly docile. Soothed by modern pleasures and unbothered by the great statist sweep, Huxley’s vision was that of a society mollified and surprisingly amenable to control. The pacification of the masses, he implied, was gradual and perpetrated by a populace blissfully unaware of their own complicity. Seduced by a life of painless ease and technology’s shiny baubles, Huxley memorably warned in his pages that men would come to “love their servitude”.
Orwell, of course, imagined a hostile population, but in his conception, the people’s resistance could stem only from a kind of awareness — from an idea of what was going on and an ideological intuition that it was both morally wrong and spiritually cruel. Huxley’s dystopia-scape is vacant of precisely this unclouded awareness. Neil Postman, American author and 20th-century futurist in his own right, crisply sums up this two-roads-diverged-in-a-wood quandary in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
In admitting our 21st-century present bears more resemblance to a Huxleyian prophesy than to an Orwellian one, we must shine light on a terrible secret: It may not be so much our overlords whom we have to fear, it may just as much be ourselves. With this game-changing distinction made, it’s interesting to then note that Orwell’s prescription for the future contains one unremarked-on thread of optimism: that we as citizens would retain the ability to recognize our own servitude for what it was. Tellingly, such a feat can only be accomplished in a principled people with more than a few shreds of historical memory cleaving to their consciences.
Orwell’s dystopia tells a story of repressed automatons, Huxley’s one of brain-dead compliant masses. Orwell’s dystopia tells a story of the industrialization of fear, Huxley’s one of the industrialization of pacification. Huxleyian characters are too distracted to see — or care, for that matter — the great power exchange which occurred.
In this way, I see the Huxleyian scenario as a kind of existential holocaust. Step into the Huxleyian portal and you will see the will to individuality on its deathbed. That vital awareness of what is going on tip-toes near extinction. If the individual finds himself lulled into the feathery fold of conformity he is able to escape the human burden of critical thought with its breezes of chilly loneliness and heavy weight of consciousness.
Modern peoples nurse a dangerous suspicion that a painless existence is their birthright. Or that, at the very least, it would be the very pinnacle of success if it were achieved. But existence is fundamentally not painless (and we should not actually want it to be). This notion of a life without wrinkles is utterly imaginary — a utopian fabrication that renders us vulnerable to those that inevitably promise it and will snatch something from us in return. Which is to say, we can be sure that something is sacrificed in the transaction. And that elusive ‘something’ would be our very selves.
The truth is, existential anxiety is our due. Suffering is our lot. The relentless assaults and unpredictable mayhem of the world, the continual project of hammering away at our identities, the tiring task of defending our beliefs — these are all inevitabilities of the human species. We must accept the difficulties of the individual experience, even throw our hands around them in sheer gratitude. Why?
It is the case that history will time and again produce hazards to this individuality. Many a rogue leader has ascended national pulpits only to intimidate and suppress the public into merciless submission. Individuality has always been an affront to the top-down project. These days, we face not only this age-old political danger but also the shadowy potentialities of mushrooming technology. Hierarchies of power will always exist in human societies; so it should be no surprise that we find ourselves downstream from government officials and tech elites. But there are perennial concerns about this arrangement.
For example, how to ensure we maintain our sovereignty as individuals when the human-dominating field of tech gallops ahead so fast? This is admittedly difficult. This requires people to care about the loss of individual sovereignty in the first place. This requires people to believe in principles such as privacy and liberty and to forthrightly state as such. This requires people willing to move against the tide.
Let me tell you something about the elites. They are order-hungry. They are captivated by outcomes and are prone to ambivalence when it comes to the bruising effects of the means (à la “the ends justify the means”). One of the crucial distinctions of the elites (which are obvious central elements of dystopian narratives) is that they will disdain individuality. Why? It is messy and cookie-cutter averse. It is unpredictable and non-controllable. It is an obstacle to outcomes; an unforgivable stumbling-block to goals.
In addition, elite figures are tempted to think of citizens as distant abstractions (I’ve called it the seduction of the chessboard). Political figures must temper their ambitions with the (at least American) creed that constitutional rights claim rightful supremacy over any project they might be itching to legislate.
By the same token, tech executives must (though to a lesser extent because they have no ethical binds quite like the Constitution) consider their spiderweb-like intrusion into the marrow of human identity.
With technology, the moral mission presses far less insistently than in the realm of politics, perhaps because technologists understandably see themselves not as stewards but as inventors, driven not only by the ravenous curiosity of making something better (in function, not ethics) but also by the inarguable profit motive.
This said, the premier danger lies in the tornado storm brewing between technology and politics. The two together is a deadly combination given that technology does not overtly engage in forced deprivation, hollowing out a sense of blatant loss, but rather, fattens the public, drowning them in smooth conveniences and sparkling diversions. Technology can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing in this manner.
We must also understand that just as much as we must expect our overlords to heed their ethical whispers, so too must we hold ourselves to a similar standard. We too often presume control and conformity only operate top-down. This is false. There is almost always some element of the two-way street present. The power sloshing between the elites and the masses is constantly in flux. We are the other half of the equation. And we mustn’t deny what agency we do possess. (Denial in this sense would indicate our own existential anxiety, would point to our nervousness at taking up the mantle of individual responsibility.)
I have repeatedly warned that recent generations do not understand the price tag of freedom. Freedom of the sort that Western nations lavished with near love letters for centuries and which finds itself enshrined in our founding documents is not naturally-occurring and certainly not randomly-occurring either.
On freedom: It is synthetic; it is an intentional pact made among men. It doesn’t grow in the wild; it grows only under the precise conditions of the greenhouse with its walled protections and hovering, diligent caretakers.
All this to say, with little understanding of how susceptible individual freedom is to exploitation (and managing only a glazed stare when we do witness it occurring), we as people will be no match for the Huxleyian progression involving the emerging tornado of tech and politics which will ransack us of individual sovereignty with ease. Huxley predicted, after all, that we would scratch away our side of the power transaction by our own hands.
That we would grow disillusioned, say, with the supposedly old and wrinkled notion of individual liberty and become bored with verbally defending it. In this state of affairs, the tension crackling between the masses and the elites would snap and those in power would find their abilities to control and mold their populations to have temptingly expanded.
Dwight Eisenhower, Republican president circa the 1950s, once counseled the following: “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both”. This warning eerily patterns the Huxleyian scenario wherein the masses lose perspective and can be found merely drowning in the myriad indulgences of the present, demanding things from their leaders and caring not a whit for demanding ethics.
Such a world like Huxley’s is stripped of free will and chillingly, no one is the wiser. If only we could see that we are closer to this dystopia than the papery folds of a fictional work would have us think. Technology’s rise has marched in step with the deep inroads of psychology in the past two centuries. Do understand that this is the operative combination for the Huxleyian scenario. Do understand that it is not by overt force that we find ourselves led, like sheep to their slaughter, into the tangle of invasive psychology-gaming technologies. Rather, it is by the appeal of convenience and pleasure, by the bored flicking-away of lurking misgivings because we heed that persuasive little murmur percolating in our heads, “oh, but the times are different now”.
We cannot allow the intellectual discoveries of our forebears (those incredible inroads into psychology & technology, for instance) to produce our own fall from grace as free agents in a democratic society. We must be very careful with how we handle the new things we produce. Such tremendous advancement ought to mean we determinedly anchor ourselves in liberty and individuality that much more, but in practice, the opposite actually occurs. Should this be surprising? I don’t think so. In practice, the accumulation of luxury has the effect of a sedative; the faster we accumulate, the more our defenses decay.
In Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited he wrote,
“That so many of the well-fed young television-watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing, but not too surprising. “Free as a bird,” we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unrestricted movement in all the three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo.
Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone — or at least by bread and circuses alone. [. . .] ‘In the end,’ says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s parable, ‘in the end they will lay their freedom at your feet and say to us, make us your slaves, but feed us.’”
To abdicate responsibility and to receive privileges, is this not the way the wind flows today?
He continues with similar metaphorical portent, but this time with a dash of hope,
“When things go badly, and the rations are reduced, the grounded dodos will clamor again for their wings… The young people who now think so poorly of democracy may grow up to be fighters for freedom. The cry of “Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty,” may give place, under altered circumstances to the cry of “Give me liberty or give me death.””
Until those desperate circumstances which would provoke such an uncharacteristic aggressive demand for true liberty are breached, we have only a stretch of in-between time assumedly spent in careless slumber.
Again, I return to the warning that we have ourselves to fear perhaps most of all. We as individuals may be our own worst enemies. What if we allow our own eventual domination out of sheer laziness? This is a far more unsettling dystopian prospect because it does not pattern itself along the Orwellian lines of the valiant and piercingly-aware individual against the oppressive state but instead, involves opposition both external and internal, the latter squeamishly squirreled away in the depths of the human soul itself.
Avoiding tumbling into this scenario would mean we need to face the gravely necessary existential quest of man to own himself. Do not think this notion is just philosophical melodrama. It was Nietzsche that warned,
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened, but no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Indeed: no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
But I am not so sure the frosty isolation of this path beckons to many modern people who thirst after motherly care from government and think nothing of becoming glassy-eyed addicts to the full gamut of neurology-exploiting technologies in the vicinity. Now, I am not glamorizing a simpler, more rugged past for its own sake. I am bemoaning the slipping anchors our country used to have firmly moored.
As far as dystopian considerations go, the Huxleyian scenario is the true danger with its slow rot of decadence, moral ambivalence, and compliant sacrifice of individuality.
Totalitarian systems have habitually sought to crush the human spirit. And so we must not be misled into believing that the probable Huxleyian scenario with its soft edges and delicious promises (you will own nothing and be happy, anybody?) is anything but the old villain of totalitarianism tarted up in a new disguise.
It is one thing to lose our grip on society, it is quite another to lose it on ourselves and become traitors to the one thing no one can ever truly take from us without our sanction: our minds.