Leftist Book Reports: Brave New World
Leftist Book Reports: Brave New World
(Bold numbers are meant to be read as footnote indicators)
“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
- Neil Postman 1
On January 26th, news outlets reported Amazon had sold out of copies of Orwell's classic 1984 2. While I don't wish to downplay the quality or importance of one of the great English novels, 1984 often overshadows another dystopian sci-fi novel published eighteen years earlier. That book is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In what follows, I will highlight a few key points about the future Huxley imagines and how it relates to our current social climate.
In contrast to Orwell's Oceania, Huxley's England is controlled not by fear and authoritarianism but by pleasure, drugs, and hypnosis. In its opening scene, we join a group of students touring a hatchery. Human beings are no longer born (ideas of birth and motherhood are too obscene to be uttered in decent society), but rather decanted through an elaborate system of incubation and treatment. In a word, human beings are mass-produced.
Mass production is raised to the level of religious awe in Huxley's world. God has been replaced wholesale with Henry Ford: all crosses have had their tops cut off to make letter T's, bibles are locked away while Ford's My Life and Work is one of the only remaining books, Ford is the 'Greater Being' whose coming they await at Solidarity Services.
Like cars, humans are also made to various specifications. Hatchery embryos are treated according to their social class. Alphas, the highest class, are permitted extra levels of oxygen while incubating, while lower social classes are oxygen deprived for a period so that their physical and mental stature accurately reflects their social status. The lowest classes also have their fetuses poisoned with alcohol leaving them deformed and mentally stunted. Like many of Huxley's details, the reader laughs at their inventiveness, then shudders as they consider their real-life corollaries. One is inclined to think of the ubiquity of liquor stores in poor neighborhoods and the rigid enforcement of class hierarchy. To be very contemporary, one can also think about Betsy DeVos, and what (greater) role inherited wealth will play in the future of education.
Later, we are taken to a nursery where napping children are conditioned by being made to listen to recorded platitudes in their sleep. Repetition of these truisms makes up a substantial portion of the book's dialogue, hammering home their ideological importance. Even the conditioning is class specific—with appropriate prejudices conditioned into each respective group. A few details about this conditioning are particularly interesting. One, each class is conditioned to be happy that it's a part of the class it was born into. Even the lowest born are grateful for their status because they will never have to work as hard as the higher classes. Secondly, at least in the case of the upper classes, they are aware of this conditioning. In an early scene, Lenina, one of the main characters, says to Henry, another member of the upper classes, “I'm glad I'm not an Epsilon.”3 Epsilons are the lowest social class; the Epsilons we encounter are all small and deformed and seem to be barely able to speak. Henry replies, “And if you were an Epsilon...your conditioning would have made you no less thankful that you weren't a Beta or an Alpha.”4 Later in their conversation, they echo one of their conditioned platitudes: “Everybody's happy now.”5
Any outlying moments of unhappiness are assuaged by soma. Soma is a synthesized drug which, depending on the dose, can produce effects ranging from mild euphoria to blissed out catatonic trips—all with no immediate side effects. Functionally all inhabitants of Huxley's England take soma daily. Through Lenina, we see how soma both provides for recreation and relieves the discomfort of any unpleasant situation. Even the lowest classes are rationed a dose of soma at the end of every work day. In short, through the use of drugs, commodity consumption, and brainwashing, modern society is constantly happy - a fact that is at the heart of Huxley's challenge.
Huxley offered a number of warnings about the direction he saw society heading for in 1931. The book by turns addresses: capitalist mass production, feminism, entertainment, sex religion, and science, to name only a few—all this to say, it has lost none its relevance. At the heart of Huxley's exploration of these issues is a question about happiness. The book's sixteenth chapter consists primarily of a conversation between John-- a 'savage' who has lived his whole life outside of civilization—and Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe. An interesting bit of common ground for the two men is they are the only two living people who have read Shakespeare—whose writings are functionally banned. Mustapha Mond is not a true believer, he recognizes that his society's art is stupid compared to Shakespeare. Mond also matter-of- factly acknowledges: exploiting lower class workers, keeping science “most carefully chained and muzzled,” eliminating God from the public mind, exorcising virtue, etc.6 Interestingly, Mond claims none of this is to his preference . Mond explains that the above conditions, are the price that must be paid for a stable society. The prioritization of pleasure over “truth or beauty or knowledge” comes as a direct consequence of that belief.7 We learn the present social conditions were brought into place after an only alluded to event called the Nine Years' War. To wit:
“What's the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? That was when science first began to be controlled—after the Nine Years' War. People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We've gone on controlling ever since. It hasn't been very good for truth, of course. But it's been very good for happiness.”8
If we look at this dystopia Huxley created, particularly if we compare it to something like Orwell's, two things are very striking. In 1984, though there are some genuinely haunting similarities, the society itself still seems (relatively) far flung. By contrast, the 'brave new world' Huxley imagined seems like it's already here. Granted, babies aren't decanted out of bottles, but real class mobility is almost as fanciful. Children aren't being made to listen to moral instruction in their sleep, but media and advertisement has never been more pervasive. Science has yet to develop the perfect drug, as evidenced by the fact that deaths from drug overdose have steadily climbed year by year, rising from 17,415 in 2000 to 52,404 in 2015 9.
Secondly, and perhaps most horrific, unlike Orwell's society, Huxley's is not wholly undesirable. Say we take for granted that the parallels between Brave New World and modern western civilization are accurate. Who cares? Why does that matter? If you have a good life if you are happy, what's the problem? On this point, I think it's important that we not fall victim to the very dangerous assumption that we ourselves are unconditioned. Isn't the implicit message of all advertising, the most pervasive, most American message: get what's yours at any cost? It is the message Huxley lampoons in making Ford's biography gospel, and was it not also the message of our presidential election? America first, deport the illegal immigrants, ban the Muslims, silence the environmentalists, “we'll take our country back.”10 It's the message on every television and radio, it is piped into grocery stores, it's on our Facebook feeds, its what we watch while we wait for Youtube videos to load—it's the message we have been sold our entire lives.
Those reading are likely aware of the joys of truth, of beauty, or knowledge, of transcendental experience of one kind or another, of love. But are these joys capable of bulwarking the future of our society against the more visceral immediate pleasures of corporate consumption, its drugs, its ideology? The choice is ours to make.
1 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin
Books 1986), vii.
2 The Hill, '1984' sells out on Amazon http://thehill.com/blogs/in-the- know/in-the- know/316338-1984-
sells-out- on-amazon (January 26, 2017)
3 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (Electronic edition, RosettaBooks 2010), Ch5. Par 11.
4 Huxley, Ch5. Par 12.
5 Huxley, Ch5. Par 14.
6 Huxley, Ch16, Par 53.
7 Huxley, Ch16. Par 65.
8 Huxley, Ch16. Par 65.
9 National Institue on Drug Abuse, Overdose Death Rates https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-
topics/trends-statistics/overdose- death-rates (January, 2017)
10 USA Today, Trump to Phoenix: 'Don't worry, we'll take our country back'
immigration-phoenix- visit/30042291/ (July 12, 2015)