When the West’s Days of Reckoning came in 2016, we naturally turned to George Orwell, master of modern dystopia, to make sense of Trump, Brexit and the return of the far-right in Europe. We took to the streets — or rather Twitter — crying, ‘It’s just like 1984!’ Dystopia had made a comeback. We lapped up The Handmaid’s Tale, Black Mirror and Blade Runner 2049 with gleeful horror. Our concern shot Orwell’s novel to the top of Amazon’s chart.
These are cautionary tales for dangerous times. Stories of science-fictional wastelands,
Brave New World, published in 1932, envisioned a society in which the state deprives its subjects of freedom by administering a potent cocktail of consumerism, technology and hedonism. In the London of 2540 AD (or 632 AF — ‘After Ford’), 10 World Controllers exercise absolute political control. But they don’t need a Big Brother police state. Instead, universal access to sex, drugs and leisure keep the population subdued in blissful passivity. The means of pleasure are deployed as instruments of policy, ‘for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation’. Sound familiar? It should.
In 1958, Huxley considered how far his fiction had already been fulfilled. The result was Brave New World Revisited, a brilliant top-down critique of postwar Western democratic capitalism. Presciently, he identified the ‘new propagandists’ of the political class, and marvelled at voters’ ‘near infinite capacity for distraction’. Less than three decades after Brave New World’s publication, Huxley saw that the outlandish society of the World State was not so far-fetched as his early readers had thought. Reading it now, you have to pinch yourself to remember that he was writing in the 1950s.
In a chapter titled ‘The Arts of Selling’, Huxley prophesies the Trump phenomenon. Troubled by the increasing use of the mass media to ‘merchandise’ politicians to the electorates, he wrote: ‘All speeches by the entertainer candidate must be short and snappy’. Only then could ‘the great issues of the day be dealt within five minutes at most — preferably in 60 seconds flat’. Television was transforming the news into a rapid and proliferating series of images, a form of entertainment that prized ‘the unreal’ and the ‘more or less totally irrelevant’. You can contest facts, he said, but not images.
‘The methods now being used to merchandise the political candidate,’ Huxley wrote, ‘positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything’. The 60 seconds of 1958 is now even shorter. How much can be said in 140 characters? Ask the President.
Huxley noted that politicians increasingly appealed to the ‘blind impulses, unconscious cravings or fears’ of their subject-citizens. This kind of propaganda ‘avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals’. That was the Fifties. If this was political speculation then, it is reality now: #MAGA, Drain the Swamp or Yes We Can. Take your pick.
Social media have proved to be the perfect if not inevitable format for this kind of politics. The Donald baits Kim Jong-un with his big button. The Kremlin trolls another Western election. Serious issues between nuclear superpowers are thrashed out in a digital playground. All the while, the boundaries of truth and fact are warped by the size of the following and the brashness of the slogan. Get ready Russia, because those missiles are coming!
For Huxley, the irrationality of our leaders is only part of the problem. While he focusses on the burgeoning mass communications industry, the bigger picture was far more sinister, and based on our own collective unconscious. That is where our ‘near infinite capacity for distraction’ comes in. Ever the paranoid prophet, Huxley devoted a great chunk of Revisited to the pervasive impact of every day distractions.
In the Fifties these were the radio, the cinema and magazines. A society where most people did not live in the ‘here and now’ would languish in a mass state of psychological delusion. As this fictional, consumer-generated reality expanded, he warned that slipping into ‘irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy’ would make it ever more difficult ‘to resist the encroachments of those would manipulate and control’ us.
And this was 60 years ago. Huxley was nervous in the Fifties. Today he would cower in horror. The average American now spends 74 hours a week staring at laptops, tablets and smartphones. Nearly three billion people — 37 per cent of the global population — are active users of social media. Around 2.5 billion of them access their accounts through mobile phones. Apple recently confirmed that, on average, its users unlock their phones 80 times per day. The ‘metaphysical fantasy’ now lives in our pockets. We have instantaneous access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — platforms that encourage us to engineer and get lost in our own personal fictions. Huxley’s ‘irrelevant other world’ of infinite recreation has become a creeping reality.
Yet Huxley was no technophobe. He believed that ‘mass communication is neither good nor bad; it is simply a force’. Cambridge Analytica’s grand harvest of personal data confirms what we already should have admitted. The Big Guys may not be all that benevolent. Our response? #deletefacebook. As if Twitter and WhatsApp wouldn’t dream of mishandling such valuable information.
Soma, the Brave New World drug used to pacify those who resist the World State, has the effect on its users of ‘raising a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and people’s minds’. In Revisited, Huxley conceded that there were not yet any state-administered hallucinogens, but warned that dictators might harness LSD, a drug that fascinated him. Drugs, both illicit and those bought and supplied by the state, have become facts of daily life. Around one in eight Americans over the age of twelve use antidepressants, and prescription painkillers have caused a national opioid crisis.
Huxley’s soma is akin to Ecstasy, and even more intoxicating. The World Controllers have perfected soma’s formula to give users ‘all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects’. For the past 50 years, Americans across the social spectrum have turned to prescription drugs for their own ‘soma holidays’. Misuse of prescription ‘medications’ outstrips heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine use combined. Americans comprise 5 per cent of the world’s population, but consume 80 per cent of all prescription opioids. By 2016, opioid abuse was causing 46 deaths a day. And still the crisis deepens, as our soma equivalents continue to transport us from the humdrum of routine to a numbed paradise: ‘the warm, the richly coloured, the infinitely friendly… how delightfully amusing everyone was!’
Which brings us to sex, perhaps the most insidious method of control in Brave New World. When the protagonist, Bernard Marx, confesses his love to an alluring colleague, he is dismayed to find her she reciting the World State’s policy on fun between the sheets: ’Everyone belongs to everyone’. This is possible because pleasure and reproduction have become totally separate activities, with eugenic breeding managed in the World State’s laboratories.
Today Tinder, just one of the many apps that commodify and repackage our sex lives, receives 1.6 billion screen swipes and generates 26 million matches per day. 79 per cent of Tinder users are millennials. Pornography was the first internet business model, and it remains the most reliable one. In 2017, Pornhub, one of countless competing free porn sites, averaged 81 million visitors per day. Meanwhile, the affluent but infertile select eggs and sperm like amateur eugenicists, and rent wombs as the laboratories of production.
When Huxley revisited the Brave New World of 1932, he saw that vision as becoming all too real. It is alarmingly prophetic in describing our own reality. The toxic triviality that Huxley warned about now lies beneath the buzzwords of our contemporary vocabulary: alternative facts, fake news, post-truth. As he saw, we are all complicit in this dystopia of leisure. Unlike his former pupil Orwell, Huxley showed that in the West, we need not control by coercion. We control by confusion. Now, that’s really scary.
Guy Davies is a freelance journalist based in London.