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Orwell, not Huxley

If you think Huxley is more relevant than Orwell, you are hopelessly out of touch

During early 2017 it's been fashionable to claim that Aldous Huxley's masterwork "Brave New World" is more representative of the modern world than George Orwell's "1984". A good example is this Guardian article whose author informs us that his Dad, Neil Postman, predicted Trump by channelling Huxley. Trump has apparently happened because we are 'Amusing ourselves to death'.

Unfortunately this claim is starkly at odds with world events, yet one hears some version of it roll around every few years. It's not always Huxley that's advanced as the true visionary, sometimes it's Dickens, or Atwood, or Kafka, or Anthony Burgess (for 'A Clockwork Orange'). One should recognize that these visions are not mutually exclusive, but can be complementary. For instance, the common people of Orwell's world are grindingly poor, not just materially, but also spiritually and emotionally. Yet, though we never see it, one knows there is a hidden hierarchy of wealth ruling over them. We might call this social structure Crypto-Dickensian: the masses are kept destitute, but do not know it, for they never see the riches that are denied them. Nevertheless, it is Orwell that overwhemingly predicted the world of the early 21st century.

The main wellspring of anti-Orwell feeling always seems to come from the political left, hence articles in the Guardian. This is in large part because Orwell is a critique of statist totalitarian power, and many on the left are quite keen on statist totalitarian power. Right-wing authoritarian statists, somewhat strangely, don't seem as aggrieved at Orwell. They seem to think they've dodged the Orwell bullet, though of course they have not: Orwell's point is that Leftist and Rightist authoritarian states amount to the same thing. Huxley, however, is a is a critique of capitalist consumerism, an argument political leftists feel more comfortable with.

Of the great dystopians, Orwell and Huxley are probably the most alike, because they present detailed ideas not only of what our final dystopian destination might be, but how we would get there by design. Margaret Atwood's excellent "The Handmaid's Tale" by contrast, (itself heavily influenced by 1984), sees dystopia created more by disaster than by design. The Atwood dystopia is caused by some mysterious nuclear accident that renders most women infertile: it's not a world that anyone sets out to create, but rather one arrived at through panic and chaos. In Orwell and Huxley however both dystopias seem to be created by design, or at least to be places that we arrived at through making a series of choices. In Orwell information is manipulated and rationed, along with two emotions, fear and hate. In Huxley genetics and fetal development is manipulated and rationed, along with a steady, soporific stream of pleasures and entertainments provided to keep the citizenry docile.

The problem with the Huxleyite claim should instantly be obvious: there is no government breeding or genetics program to produce 'Alpha', 'Beta' and 'Gamma' classes of humans suited to certain tasks. The nearest thing we have to that is the education system, and this is rather too chaotic to count as a system of social control. Furthermore, the citizenry are not docile. Quite the opposite. The air is electric these days with a degree of rage, particularly among the working class, that I've not felt since the '80s, if ever. All over the world we see massive demonstrations and citizen activism. As I write this we've recently seen demonstrations in Romania against government corruption, and in South Korea, against a different kind of government corruption. America has just seen the Berkeley riots, the Women's March, the March for Life, and is awaiting the March for Science. The western world is in the midst of a colossal political upheaval in which citizens are rejecting the institutions and parties that have governed them for so long, and the Middle-East has become a horrific bloodbath as a result of it's own citizen uprising. And all this citizen activism isn't new, as the twenty-first century has seen revolution and mass demonstration roll by with the frequency of waves hitting a beach. Occupy, BLM, anti-war protests, anti-fracking protests, anti-pipeline protests, etc, etc. If the state is trying to 'entertain' us to death it's not working.

Let us set aside Huxley for now, and consider Orwell. Orwell imagined a world in which information is controlled and rationed, in which society is maintained on a constant war footing against ever changing enemies, in which citizens are constantly monitored through devices in their homes, and in which hatred and fear of a designated 'other' are manipulated to ensure a tribal loyalty to the state and the larger-than-life figure of 'Big Brother'. How does this map to the modern world?

Firstly our telescreens are monitoring us, as we all know now from the Snowden revelations. As American courts tell their citizenry again and again that they have 'no reasonable expectation of privacy' and the state, through the likes of NSA and GCHQ records and analyzes more and more of our communications, we find ourselves ever more fearful of the judgement that shall surely follow this monitoring. People in the west are starting to fear their states in the same way that citizens of the Soviet Eastern Bloc used to.

Secondly information is being controlled and rationed at the state level. That's also what the Snowden revelations are about. We weren't supposed to know about this stuff. America has secret courts, the 'FISA' courts, whose pronouncements are kept completely secret. Nor are we supposed to know about what's being agreed in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a US/EU trade deal being thrashed out in secret. Presumably there's a lot of other stuff that we aren't allowed to know, that we don't know we aren't allowed to know (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, 'secret secrets'). Orwell's cryptocracy may be embryonic, but it is increasingly here.

And we have the endless war too, the war on terror. Yesterday's ally in Afghanistan is today's enemy, and the enemy morphs through a confusing range of identities. As I write Iran appears to be the latest target, despite the fact that as a Shia state they should be the west's natural ally against the extremist-Sunni Al Quada and ISIS.

But the biggest change in the 21st century is the reintroduction of the two-minutes hate. In the last five years the political left has been taken over by an ideology that targets white men as the problematic group in the same manner that other fascist systems targeted Jews in the past. This has lead (as some of us predicted. Yes, I'm going to keep pointing that out) to the complete collapse of the political left and the rise of the new far right, the 'alt' right, which uses the same system of targeting a demographic group, except this time it's Muslims and Mexicans. Almost as a sideshow antisemitism is increasingly back in fashion on both the right and the left. As many of us foresaw this change of tack has had cataclysmic consequences for the left, which is in retreat most everywhere. The far right, which until recently was all but extinct as a political force, is suddenly resurgent everywhere. This turnaound is a result of the left being transformed into something the far right can defeat, as it's now essentially a copy of the far right. But whereas the far right targets minorities and elevates the majority, the new left targets the majority and elevates the minority. In a democratic system there's no contest here: movements that alienate the majority find themselves in the dustbin of history. Meanwhile the ascendant far right uses the same tactics, stoking fear and hatred in order to create a strong tribal identity for it's supporters.

We are not entirely within Orwell's world yet though. In Orwell's world there is no room for dissent or variety of opinion, thought and action are limited to what is allowed by the state. The current political chaos in western society is in some ways an indication that we still have the freedom to think, to argue, and to fall out over politics. Indeed, state power is nothing like as total as in 1984, for the technologies and tactics of Orwell's "Ingsoc" ruling party have become strangely democratised: it's not just our state that is spying on us, but other states, corporations, criminals and any hacker who can break into your laptop or phone.

Nevertheless it should be obvious to anyone with even a passing awareness of modern events, and of the great dystopians, that it's Orwell who truly defines the age we live in. How then can it be so that many cite Huxley instead? Partially this is due to a human urge that Huxley would have understood very well: fashion. As more and more people are reading 1984 it becomes necessary for the intellectual to assert a position that defines him from the common mob. But it would be wrong to accuse the true Huxleyite of this. The people who do this are followers who latch onto the Huxleyite's unusual claim as being 'the next big thing'. The true Huxleyite is a more serious and honest thinker, and we must look deeper into his argument to understand him.

The Huxleyite always points to new media and tuts disapprovingly. People are watching too much TV, they are playing too many computer games, that stuff will rot their brain. They should be reading books and newspapers, which are informative and educational. This is total nonsense. The Guardian article claims:

a written sentence has a level of verifiability to it: it is true or not true or, at the very least, we can have a meaningful discussion over its truth. But an image? One never says a picture is true or false. It either captures your attention or it doesn't.

But written sentences are no different from images. Poetry, for instance, does not make any claim to verifiability, indeed verifiability is often irrelevant to the form. The same is true of much fiction. Furthermore people say a picture is true or false all the time: "is that real, or was it photoshopped?" Images do not just catch your attention, unless they are artistic in nature. Many images are statements. Consider for instance the image of a shellshocked boy in Alleppo, which people are arguing is or isn't real. Consider the images of crowds at Trumps inauguration, which again are the subject of fierce debate. Finally the claim about 'an image' is dishonest, because the sentence is not the atomic unit of text, it is not equivalent to an image. The equivalent of the image is the word. If I was to present you with a word, say 'artichoke' and ask you if it was true or not true, you would correctly say that it was neither, for it was not a statement on it's own. So it is that most images are not statements on their own (though some can be, as can a few words, e.g. if a shout 'Fire!'). However most visual forms are a series of still images strung together to create a narrative, and at that point, as with a sentence, we can argue about their truth.

Even more dishonest though is the claim that modern 'screen time' is mostly spent with images. The guardian article introduces TV as the villain of the piece, but then cunningly expands the focus to include other screen-based media:

The soundbite has been replaced by virality, meme, hot take, tweet. Can serious national issues really be explored in any coherent, meaningful way in such a fragmented, attention-challenged environment?

Tweets and 'hot takes' are text-based media. They are sentences, and thus we can have a debate about their truthiness. True, some tweets are mostly visual, but five minutes on twitter would show you that the great majority of tweets are textual sentences. And as for 'Can serious national issues really be explored?' in these textual medias: yes, they can, and are. People are constantly discussing and exchanging real information, because they can string tweets together into a back and forth conversation. Admittedly, very many of these conversations are raging flamewars, but even with those some information gets transferred, it's just that the participants rarely admit to each other. However, they at least go away thinking "I won't be caught by that argument again".

And tweets and other instant messages are only the visible surface of the new textual age, the visible part of the iceberg. Below the waterline is email, where more detailed and complex conversations are constantly going on. Indeed, we've never been immersed in so textual an environment as we now are. In the 80s to mid 90s the received wisdom was that books were dying, because you couldn't make youngsters read. They only wanted to watch TV and play computer games, and would grow up to be functionally illiterate. Then Harry Potter came out and that argument was blown clean out of the universe. The appearance of the ebook reader and the mobile phone has brought about a revolution in reading. The internet, a predominately text-based medium, can provide you with almost anything you want to know. People regularly get lost in wikipedia, drawn in by the siren song of easily accessible knowledge, until family or friends stage a rescue to drag them, twitching and mumbling back to the mundane world.

The Huxleyite claim *might* be true of the TV era, in which case peak Huxley was probably the early nineties. If we accept the claim that broadcast media have a soporific effect, making the population passive, then we have to face an ugly possibility. The television came into most households post World War Two, and since then we've enjoyed an era of relative peace, at least in the western world. Now, however, television's dominion is ended, and a new text-based media is riling the people up. This presents the possibility of a dystopia coming from something we always thought of as utopian: an age of chaos and bloodshed due to people being too politically involved. This new chaotic age of text is provoking an Orwellean response from the state as it tries to keep the masses under control.

But the Huxleyite fetishizes one form of media, the paper book. We are often told "Orwell feared that the state would ban books. Huxley feared that no one would want to read them." Quoting Neil Postman, who has historically been the major Huxley champion:

"The reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. This is not easy because he comes to the text alone. In reading, one's responses are isolated, one's intellect thrown back on its own resources. To be confronted by the cold abstractions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, without the assistance of either beauty or community. Thus, reading is by its nature a serious business. It is also, of course, an essentially rational activity."


Yet with Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Martian, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, books are as popular as ever. But wait! What is this! Why, all these books are mere entertainment! None of them are 'serious business'! Truth be told there's nothing special about the book, it's as often used to entertain as inform, like any medium.

All the stuff about books then is misdirection, the real issue here is entertainment, it is triviality, it is lack of gravitas. The Huxleyite is repelled by our society that spins out wonders and novelties. He complains that we're drowning in information, so that we do not know what's important, we do not think, we do not see what's real. Entertainment, he says, makes us passive and egotistical, we become 'couch potatoes' drained of any meaning.

But while 'couch potato' syndrome may be causing an obesity epidemic, it's not making us passive. We've never been more engaged. Yes, the information environment is poisoned with many lies, but it always was. The only antidote is to charge into it and talk to as many people as possible and form the best opinion we can. And so we do, making friends and enemies, building up our knowledge and opinions on things, coming together into groups to pursue all manner of projects. Entire new subcultures of hackers and makers have appeared of people trying to create and discover. Open-source software is constantly being produced by hobby programmers. In social media argument and counter-argument rages back and forth. Youtube is full of channels in which people express their thoughts in movie and game reviews, mythbusting, howto videos, and even debate and discussion on topics like the controversial 'Em-Drive'. New discoveries and wonders and achievements are reported by the scientific world on a daily basis, and ever more people want to know about them. People event want to be involved with them, they want to contribute. There are now many online projects like 'Galaxy Zoo' in which scientists ask for unpaid help from citizens to examine stellar images, or ancient documents, or something else.

And look at our entertainments, a lot of them have political content. Even something like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has a lot in it for people to argue over. Indeed, Orwell and Huxley themselves are examples of this, people come to such stories as entertainments, but they walk away with questions and ideas. I grew up in a time when science-fiction on the big screen and TV was always struggling because so many people just couldn't handle even the most basic science-fictional ideas. But today's audiences are hugely more scientifically literate, or at least science-fictionally literate, which is often the same thing.

So, for Huxley's followers to claim that we are being 'Entertained to death' in the age of Trump, and to claim that Huxley predicts/explains Trump, seems very odd. All the current chaos is down to people being active, engaged and enraged. It's a real stretch to claim that it's due to people being 'pacified' by media. And all this is being suddenly claimed because, in the last year, people have voted the wrong way. With Brexit and Trump, and likely with other upcoming elections, the results are not going as ruling elites expect them to. But prior to this shocking turnaround, when people were voting inline with expectation (i.e. were voting how the elites wanted them to vote) we weren't hearing so much talk about the brainwashed masses.

For the Huxleyite Trump won because he was a great showman who bamboozled the masses. But his record-low approval rating shows that he's actually not very good at bamboozling people. The truth worse: it's not that Trump is so good at what he does, it's that the established political forces are so incompetent. Firstly, the established parties seem incapable of putting forwards a good candidate or a good argument. This year's Democrat campaign was doomed by selecting one of the most unpopular political figures in America as the candidate, and by a campaign that devolved into "it's time for a woman president", which just wasn't a good enough argument to win. The Brexit 'Remain' campaign was similarly limp.

Worse, people's trust levels are so low that they don't believe anything politicians tell them. Currently Democrats are outraged at Trump voters who are saying "I didn't expect him to actually do the things he said he was going to do!" But that's the true issue of modern politics, it's not that we live in an era of entertainment, it's that we live in an era of lies. Politicians on both sides have failed to keep their promises so reliably in the 21st century, and have been caught lying so often, that people no longer take anything they say during an election campaign seriously. In fact, so established is this expectation that people seem to feel Trump is actually *breaking the rules* by sticking to his word. And this is not just a question of thinking that the establishment is lying to us: many people are starting to feel that the establishment doesn't know what it's doing at all. The 2008 financial crisis, the mistaken belief in non-existent WMDs in Iraq, the ongoing failure to defeat AlQuada/ISIS, all of these have led to a feeling that the 'experts' don't know what they're doing. And with all the spying and secrecy of recent years, people are starting to fear their own governments. Unable to trust or believe in anything, people are voting negatively, they've voting for anyone or anything that they believe will hurt the system.

But the Huxleyite ignores all of this, and we begin to see where the Huxleyite is really coming from. In a recent article in "The Federalist" we are told "We Should Fear Hedonism, Not Just Totalitarianism", and that:

The nightmare of a society debased by its own affluence and hedonism, increasingly turning both to drugs and suicide, is far closer to America under Trump. There is no need for Big Brother when people willingly withdraw from public life. Winston Smith took every spare moment to read, to write, and to meet his secret lover. But in a country where Americans fill their spare time with substance abuse, pornography, and moronic television shows, there are few Winston Smiths to be found-and no need for them in a state that doesn't much care what anyone does, so long as everyone stays away from politics.


Yeah, right, because hedonism totally makes you want to kill yourself, doesn't it? This is the kind of nonsense that makes me a little angry, because it represents such a gulf between the political class and the common people. It's not hedonism that drives people to take their own life, it's despair. It's not having a job, it's not having a place in the world, it's believing that things will never get better, it's a lack of joy or pleasure in life that drives people to end it. Trump's campaign correctly identified those groups of people who were not doing well in modern America, who were not enjoying much hedonism. Many of them may not have liked the look of Trump, but he was the wildcard candidate. Let's not forget that people voted for Obama believing that they'd get change, but for whatever reason they didn't, not really. Now they're going to vote for the craziest option to see if that works. Wouldn't you?

As for there being 'few Winston Smiths' to be found, we've seen people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning step up to do what they believe is politically right, and they wind up in jail. So this claim that "There is no need for Big Brother" is nonsense. The state is spying on us, keeping secrets from us, locking up whistleblowers, and breaking up demonstrations with watercanon. So much for the velvet glove!

It seems to me that the Huxleyite's fear of 'hedonism' is detached from the rest of his argument. His claim that people are becoming passive lotus-eaters hooked on pleasure is demonstrably false, for people are everywhere engaging with the world at full tilt. Indeed, the new communications technology is making this happen because it allows anyone to engage with the whole world. Unfortunately this isn't entirely good, some people engage with the world by becoming radicalized and going off to fight for ISIS or worse, but nothing is ever an unmitigated good. However, the Huxleyite's fear of hedonism is unconditional, and the current peak in the ongoing chaos is just another excuse for him to make that argument. Today's Huxleyite is just another Puritan complaining that people are having too much fun.

Perhaps though, the time will come when we return to a Huxleyite era. Some new technology, maybe sexbots or truly immersive virtual reality, may make people passive consumers once more. Let me tell you the signs to look for. There will be far fewer demonstrations on the streets, far fewer arguments online. People will stop building stuff in their backyards and on github. Eventually the NSA and GCHQ will be wound up as being unnecessary, and whistleblowers will not need to be locked up, for no-one will care what they say. However, from where we are right now, that day seems a long way away.