Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The background
It's hard to know where Aldous Huxley was coming from when he wrote Brave New World (BNW) in 1931. He was the brother of Julian Huxley, whose eugenicist ideas made him a darling of the Rockefellers and Fords. These old robber baron families' tax-free foundations have busied themselves for over one-hundred years researching both methods of social control, and schemes to centralize world political power into the hands of a few supranational organizations. Through Rockefeller inside connections at the United Nations, Julian Huxley became the first Director-General of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). He clarified UNESCO's purpose in 1947, writing:
"..."Thus even though it is quite true that any radical eugenic policy will be for many years politically and psychologically impossible, it will be important for UNESCO to see that the eugenic problem is examined with the greatest care, and that the public mind is informed of the issues at stake so that much that now is unthinkable may at least become thinkable."
Brave New World envisions a world where "unthinkable" genetic tinkering and extreme forms of behavior conditioning form the basis of a rigid social structure run by an oligarchy of ten "Controllers". In this Brave New World, the population is divided into able Brahmins ("Alphas") in management, less able "Betas" and "Gammas" in skilled labor, still less functional "Deltas" in unskilled labor, and severely deficient "Epsilons" composing the lowest class. Naturally social mobility is impossible.

This is a tale of the "Scientific Dictatorship" as described by Bertrand Russell (another Rockefeller beneficiary). It is a vision of social engineering and political rule using scientifically-perfected techniques developed with the budding social sciences of psychology and sociology. Russell's intent was to produce a system of governance more gradual, more manipulative and more easily-accepted, but also more pervasive and permanent than traditional approaches to rule. The origins of this fantasy go back to Sigmund Freud, who first developed psychoanalysis and its component ideas about the structure of the subconscious mind, but the idea really took off with Freud's nephew Edward Bernays. Bernays built a career incorporating his uncle's ideas into methods of social manipulation in the forms of advertising and political propagandizing. He taught large corporations to harness mass media in ways that would bypass the logical, conscious, thinking brain and instead make direct appeals to the subconscious -linking consumer products to sex and other wish-fulfillment of the Id. Huxley adds to the story by enhancing media brainwashing with the mood-altering drug "Soma".

So is Brave New World a cautionary tale, or a piece of predictive programming? Is Aldous Huxley warning us, or rubbing our faces in his brother's master plan?

The story
Brave New World's plot is not complicated. It describes an all-powerful World State where the social sciences Huxley observed in 1931 have been extrapolated out six hundred years into the future. Robber baron Henry Ford is worshipped as a sort of hero/god, to the point that the calendar’s zero-year has been reset to his birthday, and all his ideas about standardization and automation have evolved into something of a State religion. Consumerism in general has become so shrill, so excessive, so garish and all-pervading that children are conditioned to hate nature (since it generates no revenue), and to only play games that require prodigious expensive equipment. In a world where babies are grown in vats, there is no family structure, and sex has been shorn of any associations with love. Instead, it has been converted into a tool promoting group cohesion, and a distraction to prevent individuals from spending time alone, when they might reflect and dream up dissenting thoughts.

So much of this book is wrapped up in the premise, the characters and plot are almost incidental. When characters Bernard and Linda take a vacation to New Mexico to view a "savage" (i.e. Native American) village, they find a European woman who has opted out of life in the World State, and who has given birth to a son ("John the Savage"). They bring him back home to London, which serves as a convenient plot device for comparing the World State to John's traditional indigenous sensibilities. Naturally this does not go well, but no further detail is needed here.

Pick your poison
The two best-selling dystopian novels are Brave New World and George Orwell's [book:1984|5470], so there is a natural temptation to compare the two. The totalitarianism of Huxley's World State is as thorough, intrusive, and pervading as that of the Oligarchical Collectivists in 1984, but it is of a very different character. It appears less authoritarian in its direction, less overtly brutal in its enforcement, and far more sophisticated in its organization. In essence, it is the political expression of seductive Madison Avenue advertising:
Calvin Klein
...whereas 1984 channels the artless propaganda of monolithic socialist states:

Citizens in the Brave New World have illusions of choice that Winston Smith never does. If I had to pick, I guess living in BNW would be the lesser of two evils. Unlike what is seen in 1984, the creeping, seductive nature of tyranny in Brave New World favors persuasion over confrontation, but in the end, the control achieved is as complete. By utilizing genetics to alter the biology of the individual, you might argue that Brave New World is actually more invasive and from the standpoint of "natural law", more offensive.

Looking around the world we know today, it is hardly necessary to point out that elements of both dystopias abound.

Me, me, me and what I think
I lost my dystopian virginity to 1984, so when I read Brave New World several months later, I was simply more difficult to shock. BNW was not the jaw-dropping experience 1984 had been. I think that may also be attributable to the fact that my world (i.e. America in the 1980's) already manifested so much of what Huxley predicted. In my review of 1984, I wrote that I see Orwell everywhere these days. That is true, but I know plenty of people who don't (or won't). In contrast, I think everybody sees Brave New World all around us. We all live in a highly advertisement-saturated environment, which creates a bubble of unreality which takes some effort to break out of. This experience seems commonplace now, but only because it has developed gradually over decades. It may not feel threatening, because the function of advertising is easy to understand: it's commerce-driven. It's there because it generates money for millions of businesses who each decide independently to use it. That proves mass media is a directionless dumb beast, not a highly-directed tool of oppression... doesn't it?

I don't think it does. Bernays, Russell, Julian Huxley and the men who funded them all knew what they were doing. The same foundations and ruling class dynasties are still with us today, and while they may not figure prominently in the popular imagination, their influence in our economic engines and political processes is enormous.

media oligarchy

It may be that much of the mass media we are exposed to these days really is free of the malevolent intents of Bernays and his ilk, but I think Huxley is trying to tell us that at least some of it is a component of a larger plan dreamed up by the social schemers (and their megalomaniacal patrons) his brother ran with.

The scientific revolution was more powerful and more profound than any political revolution. The tools of observation, hypothesis formation, data collection, analysis, revision, and reevaluation were the Promethean torch which took us from living in caves to skyscrapers. It is chilling to think that the awesome power of science could be harnessed as a tool of subjugation to push most of us into a neo-feudal state of subservience, instead of elevating us on a pathway to perpetual enlightenment and self-actualization. As technology marches forward, gaining momentum as it goes, I wonder whether Huxley's dark vision might be inevitable. Through most of human history, powerful elite minorities have ruled over an unknowing, uncaring, complacent or defeated majority. Maybe Science isn't a game-changer in that equation. If not, maybe we would have been better off without it.

I'm not inclined to go down that path. Technology is a tool; the idea that technology lies at the root of our problems is as flawed as looking to technology to solve all our problems. Social problems need to be solved (or averted, I hope) by changing attitudes. The key to preventing a Brave New World does not lay in halting the progress of science or industry; it lies in prizing the one thing missing from Huxley's nightmare state: civil liberties.

It's like the bumper sticker says: THE ANSWER TO 1984 IS 1776!

-Good Luck!

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