I love Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World. So much so, in fact, that I chose to write
my Advanced Higher Dissertation about it. Published in 1931, it reflected Huxley’s concerns over the consequences of living in a society powered solely by the forces of profit and consumerism, of control by happiness and pleasure. I wasn’t blown away upon first reading it, mostly because I rushed through it in a day whilst trying to find a counterpart to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but having studied it and allowed it to retire in my mind, I felt a return was needed. What struck me most upon re-reading the book was how many parallels there are with modern life. Similar sentiments are shared in the preface, where it’s suggested that the fall of Communism and the triumph of neo-liberalism has brought us over-closer to the world of Brave New World. So I thought it worth a brief blog post discussing whether or not the novel did predict the direction of society’s future.
The book opens with an audacious sequence within, essentially, a baby factory, where clone groups are created and assigned into castes, which determines their occupation and social class. While this technology sort of exists, and is being developed through stem-cell research, it’s a divisive moral issue and not something I can see being implemented anytime soon. Huxley appears correct to assume that society cannot survive without a class system, however; although less obvious than in his time, divisions in wealth and status are just as significant now as they were then.
Where I think Brave New World is most relevant is in its portrayal of economics. There are frequent jokes about how everything in Huxley’s world is based on the level of consumption it can create – so, children are given hi-tech games rather than a ball, people are conditioned to hate nature so they’ll play outdoor sports rather than go for walks, etc. They worship Henry Ford, creator of the modern assembly line. This obsessive, mad need for economic growth above all else has many parallels with our world of today. Sure, the people are happy, but that’s only because it suits the ruling oligarchs to have a happy, consuming, unquestioning population. Huxley never addresses the issue of living in a world of finite resources, but this is surely a flaw of both the book’s economic model and of our own. There is virtually no debate on whether we actually need growth. If there’s any doubt of the level of consumerism in society today, simply turn up to see a movie at the cinema on time. You’ll endure 20 minutes of highly-paid efforts to sell you useless things like expensive cars and perfume. I rarely watch an advert without thinking of Brave New World, now.
Granted, there is an argument for economic growth if a country is (a) developing and (b) growing in population size. I suppose for (a) there is no ‘end point’ of development for a country but I would mark it at a point where the living standards of the population have reached an acceptable level. (b) is fairly straight forward; if a population grows, you need to produce more stuff to sustain the growth in order to prevent lifestyle changes. However – and this could be Brave New World’s greatest flaw – neither of these conditions exist in Huxley’s world. The oligarchs actively prevent scientific and technological progress, and they have capped the population at a level most suited to worldwide stability. So, why is there such a need for growth and consumption? I’m not an economics expert by any means so perhaps I misunderstand the arguments.
I don’t think we’re quite yet at the level of art mutilation as we see in the book; thus far we’re still allowed Shakespeare and the Bible. At least half of the world has no significant censors on cultural endeavors, whereas in Brave New World, the ideas of conflict, love, jealousy, and family are prohibited as dangerous concepts for society, which has never quite been so radical in even the most oppressive dictatorships in reality; indeed, many dictatorships need a strong patriarchal model and a scapegoat to act as an object of hate in order to survive. The destruction of knowledge, however, is more convincing. While on the lowest end of its atrocities, the German Nazi regime’s systematic destruction of books never fails to sicken me. Though again, apart from some oddball countries like North Korea, this is less prominent today.
Politically, the world of today bears no resemblance to that of Brave New World. Far from being united, we are continuing to splinter into ever-smaller countries through the principle of self-determination. Half the world is democratic, half is dictatorial but no country really fits the mold of being a ‘benign dictatorship’.
Finally, I think most of us could testify that consumerism and economic growth has not led to the stress-free, thoughtless blissful life which Huxley envisaged. There could be parallels made between the drug soma and high rates of drug use in the developed world today, most prominently alcohol but also illegal drugs as well as the use of anti-depressants, but, other than Linda – who spent time outside of ‘civilisation’ – there’s never such a great dependence on soma. Modern life is extraordinarily stressful, with jobs, lack of jobs, taxes, relationships, lack of relationships, bullying, death, natural catastrophes, etc etc. We are far from abolishing unhappiness.
In many ways, Brave New World is an ingenius satire on the nature of modern life, but we’re not quite yet at that terrifying state Huxley imagined. Who knows, though – perhaps it’s not far off?