The Brave New World of 1984

  1. Entertained to Death

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” —Harry S. Truman

It’s a scene straight out of a dystopian novel. After Kellyanne Conway defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s use of the term “alternative facts,” sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984 soared, driving it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. This isn’t the first time real world events have intersected with the long afterlife of the book. According to the Washington Post, “Sales of the novel also enjoyed a marked spike in 2013—one edition experiencing a 10,000 percent jump in sales—following the leak of National Security Administration documents.”[1] Given the mind-bending distortions of language indulged by the Trump administration, it’s clear we are indeed living in a 21st century Orwellian dystopia, or at very least an empire in the final stages of terminal decline.

Already by the time of the 1966 edition shown here, Brave New World had sold nearly 3 million copies in 33 editions. It and 1984 should be read together to get a full picture of autocracy.

That said, I’ve always maintained that the novels 1984 and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley need to be read together as companion volumes if one wants a true picture of the social engineering that has taken place during the past half century or so. As other commentators have pointed out, Orwell’s vision was extrapolated from the post World War II communist bloc developing in Russia and Eastern Europe. The coercive methods of control adopted by the Big Brother state in 1984 were reminiscent of the Stalinist cadre that operated by means of brutal repression and a Ministry of Truth-style media. It’s a totalitarian state that was envisioned as early as 1921 in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, predating the publication of Brave New World by more than a decade and 1984 by nearly 30 years. We was certainly an influence on Orwell and probably Huxley too, though he denied it.[2]

A young Aldous Huxley.

By contrast to the punitive regimes envisioned in We and 1984, Huxley’s dystopia maintains its control by genetic engineering, the state-sanctioned drug ‘soma,’ and the programmed sensual indulgence of its members. As Huxley himself commented in Brave New World Revisited, a series of essays about the novel published in 1958, “In light of what we have recently learned about animal behaviour in general, and human behaviour in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behaviour is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behaviour by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.”[3]

As Huxley explains, overt repression, in the long run, doesn’t tend to work as well as learning how to keep a population sensually gratified. “Almost everyone starts out with a prejudice in favour of beer, cigarettes and ice boxes,” he wrote, “whereas almost nobody starts out with a prejudice in favour of tyrants.”[4] The collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s proves the point. Continual repression tends to result over time in either open rebellion or a self-destructive internal rot. Meanwhile, Western nations have been engineering a subtle form of state control that owes more to the current glut of personal digital devices and 24/7 wall-to-wall entertainment than it does to any overt forms of repression. The irony is that for many of us, entertainment has become a refuge from the exponentially increasing stresses of modern living. But its role as a pacifier of citizens has been known at least since the Roman Empire, when, Huxley wrote, “the populace was kept in good humour 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 bumble-puppy) 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.”[5]

Zamyatin’s novel We was an early example of the dystopian novel that influenced Orwell and Huxley.

Thought control is another essential tool in the dictator’s armory and in Brave New World this is accomplished through hypnopedia, exposing sleeping children to a steady stream of whispered propaganda designed to instill unquestioning obedience to the social order. Although the technique has since been discredited,[6] in modern advertising we have far more proven methods in use for brainwashing. With some homes now leaving their TVs on steadily from early morning ’til late evening, children often grow up in a media saturated environment, with its subtle conditioning of values via ads promoting consumption. As the documentary The Corporation noted, advertising companies employ PhD psychologists to advise staff on expert methods of manipulation, among them the ‘nag factor.’ “Targeting children makes a lot of sense from a marketing perspective,” writes The Corporation author Joel Bakan, “as it allows advertisers to bypass media-savvy parents and engage the considerable persuasive power children wield over their parents. Children are also easier to manipulate than adults… the youngest viewers… cannot distinguish advertising from regular television programming…” [7] Multiply this sophisticated psychological manipulation by 24/7 saturation bombing via movies, TV and pop-up ads on digital media, and you have a brainwashing environment easily analogous to Brave New World’s sleep conditioning. “The average American child sees 30,000 commercials a year on television alone… Comparing the marketing of yesteryear to the marketing of today is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb,” explains Harvard Medical School expert Dr. Susan Linn. “The advertising that children are exposed to today is honed by psychologists… And also it’s everywhere. They can’t escape it.”[8]

And if, as Marshall Macluhan said, “the medium is the message,” then the current obsession with ‘smart’ phones, iPads and other digital gadgets has reached critical proportions, creating generations of children addicted to their devices. In a New York Post article by Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, based on his book Glow Kids, he argued that, “young children exposed to too much screen time are at risk of developing an addiction ‘harder to kick than drugs.’ …Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex—which controls executive functioning, including impulse control—in exactly the same way that cocaine does.”[9] Author Nicholas Carr adds, “The Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”[10] And it’s clear from neurological research that the rapid-fire, short attention span nature of digital media is literally rewiring our brains, and probably not for the better. Yet school boards everywhere are investing wholesale in iPads as ‘educational devices’ despite studies showing they lead to a decline in academic outcomes.[11] National Post journalist John Robson wrote of the absurdity of a new stationary bike with a video screen being marketed for small children. “In terms of developing young minds, very little could be more beneficial than going outdoors, on foot or on an actual bike, exposing your brain to reality in all its dimensions… Pry your kid away from artificiality in all its forms.”[12]

  1. Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

In Brave New World, due to the sterilization of women and the use of their ovaries in “hatcheries” designed to condition fetuses to fit specific social castes, sexual freedom is universal and another useful tool in keeping the population from resisting the established order. This too has contemporary resonance. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, at first viewed with horror by the governing elite, has turned out to be incredibly useful in keeping people distracted. And isn’t it just possible that the millions of pounds of hormone-disrupting pesticides and herbicides sprayed on food crops every year[13] is a causative factor in the current wave of “gender dysphoria”? Gender and sexual orientation tend to be core issues of personal identity, so if these are in question, it’s a matter of all-consuming importance to individuals. Understandably, that can leave little time or energy for political action beyond the identity politics of the group with which they identify, further fracturing resistance to the State’s broader agenda. But, as usual in Western culture, we skip right past causative factors and rush to normalize the effects, since any serious examination of root causes could lead to a dent in corporate profits.

Robert Whitaker’s book chronicles the addiction of America to psychiatric drugs of questionable efficacy.

The One Percent were similarly dismayed by the rise of the drug culture in the ’60s amongst youth, though it was a hypocritical concern, given that they’d already been medicating adults with questionable drugs such as Miltown since the 1950s. Huxley in Brave New World Revisited wrote extensively of the various drugs being road tested during that era, and was right to see a fulfillment of his prophetic vision. In the social order of Brave New World, a drug known as ‘soma’ is handed out with the paycheques, inducing a state of either euphoria or restful sleep depending on the dose. While the socialist distribution of soma in the novel parts ways with today’s multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical profits, its prevalence in daily life is true to form. A recent report by epidemiologist Elizabeth Kantor of Harvard University charted an increase in the use of prescription drugs in America from 51 percent to 59 percent just between 1999 and 2002. “However, one of the most startling increases was in the use of antidepressants, with use steadily growing at every two-year measuring period,” doubling from 6.8 percent to 13 percent of Americans.[14] Yet despite the fact that these drugs are prescribed as ‘safe and effective’ medical treatments, notes author Robert Whitaker, “the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States has skyrocketed,”[15] from one in every 468 Americans suffering from mental illness in 1955 to one in every 184 by 1987, with that figure rising annually. “Canadians now take 50 million prescriptions for antidepressants a year, so we can’t be that happy in our Brave New World,” writes John Robson.[16]

What’s even more disturbing is that childhood—that state once held by society as sacrosanct—has now been invaded by this onslaught of drugs. “Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in children,”[17] writes Whitaker, with more than 500,000 children on the disability rolls in the US for some form of mental illness. Given the dubious efficacy of modern SSRI antidepressants (test data have so far failed to confirm any statistically significant improvement in depression compared with placebo),[18] it’s arguable that this huge rise in mental illness is as much worsened as improved by these drugs. “Twenty years ago, our society began regularly prescribing psychiatric drugs to children and adolescents, and now one out of every 15 Americans enters adulthood with a ‘serious mental illness.’”[19] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in December 2013 on a study that covered the period 2005–2010, noting that, “more than six percent of adolescents reported the use of psychotropic medications.”[20] Even more worrying, the National Health Interview Survey for 2011–2012 reported that, “Seven and one-half percent of children aged 6–17 years used prescribed medication during the past six months for emotional or behavioral difficulties,” with the highest portion of this group concentrated among families living below the poverty line. [21]

From that perspective, the pharmacological experiment in treating mental illness may be judged mostly an abject failure, as Whitaker’s extensive research shows. However, it has had the effect of making generations of people dependent upon these drugs. And cultivating dependency is always a useful means of keeping a population subservient, just as much so as financial slavery through debt. Huxley’s ‘soma’ was itself a kind of idealist’s view of the effectiveness of pharmacology, just in its infancy in the 1930s when he wrote Brave New World and only beginning to flourish in the ’50s when he wrote Brave New World Revisited. Soma was supposed to have no side effects, an unrealistic expectation for any drug, however benevolent. The very notion of medicating children as young as six with psychotropic drugs, when their brains and immune systems are still in the vulnerable stages of early development, is insane. This is what happens when public health policy is driven by the profit motive. In a way it’s too bad hypnopedia doesn’t work. At least it would be a whole lot less toxic.

  1. Hybridizing Dystopia: Where Do We Go From Here?

So what we have today is a hybrid dystopia comprised of elements of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. The total surveillance state envisioned by Orwell has been a reality since the inception of the Patriot Act in the US and similar security bills in Canada and Britain. The ubiquitous screens in 1984 that double as ‘news’ networks and surveillance devices in every home have a close analogue in the so-called ‘smart grid,’ enabled by electrical ‘smart meters’ and the ‘Internet of things’ now being rolled out. We’re reassured that the only data being collected has to do with our consumption habits but as Wikileaks has already made clear, Americans and Canadians are routinely spied upon by their governments in the ongoing ‘war on terror.’ It reminds me of a scene from Terry Gilliam’s brilliant film Brazil, in which a shopping centre is blown apart by a terrorist bomb and the wrong man is eventually arrested and tortured. This has already had a real life counterpart in the tragic story of Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar, who was extradited to Syria and tortured based on misinformation from intelligence agencies. Gilliam also seems to have realized when he made the film in 1985 that the Western world’s future dystopia would be the bastard child of 1984 and Brave New World.

Orwell, it turns out, got a lot right in 1984, but Huxley nailed the consumer capitalist nightmare.

And as the very first press conference held by the Trump government made clear, we also now have a world power willing to employ the Orwellian principle of ‘doublethink’ with concepts like ‘alternate facts.’ Certainly they aren’t the first to do so—Hitler and Stalin made good use of the technique as well. “In the case of a word like democracy,” Orwell wrote in his classic essay Politics and the English Language, “not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy… Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.” The US government has traditionally made this a hallmark of their propaganda operations, just as the perpetually warring nations of 1984 did, justifying invasions and regime overthrow as ‘bringing democracy’ to those in need.

Also like the fictional nations of Orwell’s novel, the US since its inception has been in a more or less constant state of war as a primary support of its domestic industries. Between 1898 and 1934 alone, notes author Joel Andreas, “the Marines invaded Cuba four times, Nicaragua five times, Honduras seven times, the Dominican Republic four times, Haiti twice, Guatamala once, Panama twice, Mexico three times, and Colombia four times.”[22] Although unlike the political powers in 1984, who maintained the fiction of war as a means of social control, American wars have been quite real and quite profitable. Just in 2004, the US military portion of the federal budget accounted for 51 percent of all government spending.[23] Already by 1950, General Electric chairman Charles Wilson admitted that without keeping the populace convinced of the imminent threat of war, “it would be impossible for Congress to vote the vast sums now being spent to avert this danger…”[24] In a page straight out of Orwell’s novel, GE—a producer of military hardware—would go on to acquire radio and TV stations to reinforce this message.[25]

Addicted to War is an indispensable companion to the reading of American history.

The way forward for citizens of conscience is obviously away from policies of constant war, corporate bailouts at public expense, exponentially increasing poverty, and the indoctrinating of our children in consumerism. The million-dollar question, of course, is always: How? Clearly the fracturing of dissent that has been fostered by digital media and the pursuit of identity politics will need to be halted, if not reversed, if any progress is to be made. It will require the kind of broad solidarity movements that effectively brought about women’s right to vote, rights for blacks and gays, and the labour movement of the Great Depression era. That requires getting our kids off the soma of digital addiction, while replacing ‘clicktivism’ and social media campaigning with boots-on-the-ground, face-to-face community building of unions and civic associations. Otherwise, Huxley warned, “A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time… not here and now… 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.”[26]

Huxley wrote of the need for “education for freedom,” something the Left has long understood. Unfortunately, education alone isn’t enough in a sociopolitical paradigm maintained by the subtle coercions and brainwashing of consumerism. Huxley makes the point by using the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale as a metaphor: “In charge of advertising we find an anti-democratic… Mr. Hyde—or rather a Dr. Hyde, for Hyde is now a PhD in psychology and has a master’s degree as well in the social sciences… And he does this… simply in order to find out the best way to take advantage of their ignorance and to exploit their irrationality for the pecuniary benefit of his employers.”[27]

Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation. Wikimedia Commons.

In other words, Huxley foresaw that, as The Corporation’s Joel Bakan points out, social justice advocates are up against expert professional manipulators. It will take far more than good values and goodwill to defeat them. Thankfully progressives have their own experts, such as cognitive linguist George Lakoff, a former adviser to the Democratic Party whose books and articles apply his research to political action.[28] His work refutes the common misconception of humans as ‘rational actors’ who simply need to be educated properly in order to make the correct choices. Huxley hinted at this in Brave New World Revisited when he wrote: “Such an education for freedom should be… an education first of all in facts and in values—the fact of individual diversity and genetic uniqueness and the values of freedom, tolerance and mutual charity which are the ethical corollaries of these facts. But unfortunately correct knowledge and sound principles are not enough. An unexciting truth may be eclipsed by a thrilling falsehood. A skillful appeal to passion is often too strong for the best of good resolutions. The effects of false and pernicious propaganda cannot be neutralized except by a thorough training in the art of analyzing its techniques and seeing through its sophistries.”[29] This latter recommendation—what amounts to a kind of Media Literacy 101—while undoubtedly a great idea, has yet to happen, though I’ve long been an advocate of having such courses taught in high school. And “a thrilling falsehood” certainly describes many of the “alternate facts” espoused by members of the Trump team, who—like ‘Dr.’ Hyde—know how to push the right hot buttons to get the reaction they want. As Lakoff has explained, Right-wing strategists have long understood that people respond to values statements, not facts or policy papers.[30]

Huxley winds up his dystopian critique by arguing for the teaching of “a set of generally acceptable values based upon a solid foundation of facts. …the value of charity and compassion, based upon the old familiar fact, lately rediscovered by modern psychiatry… that, whatever their mental and physical diversity, love is as necessary to human beings as food and shelter; and finally the value of intelligence, without which love is impotent and freedom unattainable.”[31]

NOTE: For more discussion of Orwellian/Huxleyan dystopia, check out ‘Welcome to dystopia—George Orwell experts on Donald Trump’ at The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/25/george-orwell-donald-trump-kellyanne-conway-1984

Neil Postman’s son Andrew Postman has written that his father’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, forewarned that we’d be facing a Huxleyan, not an Orwellian future: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=211477&subid=15377526&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

And finally, the venerable Margaret Atwood, thanks to her celebrity, gets the jump on me in this well-thought out essay: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/extracts/2017/feb/margaret-atwood-introduces-a-brand-new-world/#Tw4JxOPHSsVTRlqm.99

FOOTNOTES & SOURCES:

[1] Travis M. Andrews, “Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 spike after Trump spokesperson presents ‘alternative facts’’’, Washington Post, January 25, 2017. http://news.nationalpost.com/news/world/sales-of-george-orwells-1984-spike-after-trump-spokesperson-presents-alternative-facts accessed February 2, 2017.

[2] Wikipedia entry for Zamyatin’s novel We. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_(novel)

[3] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1965 edition, p. 5.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 49.

[5] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 36.

[6] Jonas Mikka Luster, MS Medicine and Healthcare, Goethe University Frankfurt, “What is Hypnopedia and How Does it Work?”, https://www.quora.com/What-is-hypnopedia-and-how-does-it-work, accessed February 2, 2017. See also Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep-learning

[7] Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Penguin Group Canada, 2004, pp. 120, 121–22.

[8] Joel Bakan, The Corporation, ibid., p. 123.

[9] Nicholas Kardaras, “The Frightening Effects of Digital Heroin,” New York Post, August 27, 2016, http://nypost.com/2016/08/27/its-digital-heroin-how-screens-turn-kids-into-psychotic-junkies/, accessed February 2, 2017.

[10] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton & Co., New York / London, 2011 edition, p. 116.

[11] “Investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance, says a global study from the OECD. The think tank says frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results.” Sean Coughlin, “Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD,” BBC News, September 15, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34174796 accessed February 3, 2017.

[12] John Robson, “Developing Minds, Bodies Need Reality,” National Post, January 9, 2017 p. A8.

[13] “Roundup, which contains the active molecule Glyphosate, was described as an endocrine disrupter because non-cytotoxic concentrations inhibited progesterone synthesis in vitro.” Study conducted by Fiona Young, Dao Ho, Danielle Glynn and Vicki Edwards at the Department of Medical Biotechnology at Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia. Many other studies verify this data.

[14] Justin Karter, “Percentage of Americans on Antidepressants Nearly Doubles,” Mad in America website, https://www.madinamerica.com/2015/11/percentage-of-americans-on-antidepressants-nearly-doubles/ accessed February 2, 2017.

[15] Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, Broadway Books, New York, 2015 edition, pp. 5, 6.

[16] John Robson, “Developing Minds, Bodies Need Reality,” National Post, January 9, 2017 p. A8.

[17] Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, ibid., p. 8.

[18] “The new drugs, it turned out, were no more effective than the old ones,” writes Whitaker. “Erick Turner from Oregon Health and Science University, in a review of FDA data for 12 antidepressants approved between 1987 and 2004, determined that 36 of the 74 trials had failed to show any statistical benefit for the antidepressants.” Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, ibid., p. 155.

[19] Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, ibid., p. 246.

[20] CDC, “Psychotropic Medication Use Among Adolescents: United States, 2005–2010,” CDC website, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db135.htm#x2013;2010</a> accessed February 2, 2017.

[21] CDC, “Use of Medication Prescribed for Emotional or Behavioral Difficulties Among Children Aged 6–17 Years in the United States, 2011–2012,” April 2014, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db148.htm#x2013;17%20Years%20in%20the%20United%20States,%202011–2012%20</a>, accessed February 2, 2017.

[22] Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism, AK Press, 2004, p. 7.

[23] Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism, ibid., p. 1.

[24] Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism, ibid., p. 59.

[25] In 1984, enemies of the state are just as carefully cultivated, “object(s) of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other.” 1984, Penguin edition, 1983, p. 14.

[26] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 37.

[27] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., pp. 47, 48.

[28] See George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Chelsea Green Publishers, Vermont, 2004.

[29] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 104, italics mine.

[30] Don Hazen writes in the Introduction to Don’t Think of an Elephant!: “As polls dramatically underscored (in the 2004 American election), many Americans voted their moral identity and values, often at the expense of their economic interests.” Ibid., p. xi.

[31] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 107, italics mine.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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