Huxley believed that his version of dystopia was the more plausible one. In a 1949 letter, thanking Orwell for sending him a copy of “1984,” he wrote that he really didn’t think all that torture and jackbooting was necessary to subdue a population, and that he believed his own book offered a better solution. All you need to do, he said, is teach people to love their servitude. The totalitarian rulers in Huxley’s book do this not by oppressing their citizens but by giving them exactly what they want, or what they think they want — which is basically sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — and lulling them into complacency. The system entails a certain Trump-like suspicion of science and dismissal of history, but that’s a price the inhabitants of Huxley’s world happily pay. They don’t mourn their lost liberty, the way Orwell’s Winston Smith does; they don’t even know it’s gone.
Siddhartha DebThere is much in Orwell’s novel that translates poorly into the contemporary moment. There exists a comfortably predictable and, to my mind, uninspired approach to the dystopic novel and its powers of prognosis, a Pavlovian response that involves reaching for a copy of George Orwell’s “1984” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” whenever extreme turbulence hits the West. Together they make up a short reading list, if a rather familiar one, redolent of high school literature classes and expanding, if forced, to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” That’s it, we’re done — a brief tour in four books to dystopias where the individual’s sense of freedom is always under threat from the totalitarian state.
The last few months have been hard, no doubt, the news more distressing by the hour, but there is still something perversely groupthinkish in the fact that the impulse of resistance has homed in on the same book, and that a measure of opposition to the horrors of the Trump administration is the climb of “1984” to No. 1 on Amazon. There is much in Orwell’s novel, in fact, that translates poorly into the contemporary moment. From its texture of material deprivation, the loosely packed cigarettes and boiled cabbages recalling wartime rationing in Britain, to its portrayal of Ingsoc, Big Brother and various Ministries (Truth, Peace, Love, Plenty), all of which assume control by a heavily centralized State, it is a work very much of the ’40s as experienced by an English intellectual.
In “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” the American media critic Neil Postman in fact argued that Huxley’s novel was far more relevant than Orwell’s when it came to the United States, where the dominant mode of control over people was through entertainment, distraction, and superficial pleasure rather than through overt modes of policing and strict control over food supplies, at least when it came to managing the middle classes. Three decades after Postman’s account, when we can add reality television, the internet and social media to the deadly amusements available, “Brave New World” can still seem strikingly relevant in its depiction of the relentless pursuit of pleasure. From the use of soma as a kind of happiness drug to the erasure of the past not so much as a threat to government, as is the case in Orwell’s dystopia, but as simply irrelevant (“History is bunk”), Huxley marked out amusement and superficiality as the buttons that control behavior.
His relentless focus on the body, too, seems inspired, his understanding of what Michel Foucault identified as “biopolitics,” extending to the individual body as well as to entire populations and, in “Brave New World,” playing out as a eugenic system based on caste, class, race, looks and size. As for his depiction of the “savage reservation” in New Mexico, this seems to foreshadow the fetishization of the natural on the part of one of the most artifice-ridden populations in the history of the world.
A great deal funnier, subtler and darker than Orwell’s book, Huxley’s satire nevertheless has its limitations. A World State? Games of escalator squash? In any case, why stop at one of two books, as if the literary realm must mimic the denuded, lesser-of-two-evils choices of electoral politics? There are other powerful fictional dystopias that speak to the United States of today, including a significant portion of the oeuvre of Philip K. Dick and Octavia E. Butler. There is J.G. Ballard’s hallucinatory Reagan-era “Hello America,” with a future United States that has many contending presidents, including President Manson, who plays nuclear roulette in Las Vegas. Why not read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Sandra Newman’s “The Country of Ice Cream Star” and Anna North’s “America Pacifica” and Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” and Claire Vaye Watkins’s “Gold Fame Citrus” and Vanessa Veselka’s “Zazen” and Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Water Knife”? If the world is going dark, we may as well read as much as possible before someone turns off the light.Continue reading the main story
The survival of each of the three Orwellian States was based on the following interior and exterior strategies: the State had to subdue its citizens into a mindless mass which executed the will of Big Brother; the State had to fuel the hatred of the population against its enemy through a constant state of limited war; at all times the State should have the capacity to destroy the other States so that each one's military strength would be a deterrent to all-out war; and, finally, the States should periodically change their alliances to prevent the union of two States against the third.
Today, on the threshold of the real year 1984, we ask ourselves how much of Orwell's fictional world has become reality and what the prospects are for a more sensible world.
In our 1984, Big Brother will not conquer the world. However, the warnings of George Orwell are more than ever relevant. Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia do not exist and Big Brother did not succeed in destroying individual thought. However, in a large part of our world, he did succeed, through the management of the news and the censorship of the written and spoken word, in severely impairing man's ability to think freely. Even in the free world, many maintain, inroads have been made: commercial interests try to doctor the news and sometimes succeed, elected officials are tempted to misrepresent the truth, Government agencies attempt to and sometimes do invade the privacy of the individuals, and military leaders feel compelled to hide some of their activities.
It is the vigilance of the citizens that has prevented Big Brother from starting his reign in the free world. This vigilance, Orwell would say today, may not relent if freedom is to be saved.
Orwell's imaginary States do not exist, but the world order of 1984 resembles in some ways the world of ''1984.'' Indeed, there are two major world powers with a third one on the rise. They seem to divide the world into three zones of influence.
The Eastern totalitarian states govern their people and their satellites with iron hands; governments and individuals must please their masters in all they do, write and ''think aloud.'' The survival of these regimes, they believe, rests on the blind obedience of the citizens.
The Western zone, called the free world, lives in the shadow of the military and economic might of the United States. It does not resemble Oceania in which Winston lived. Governments and people of the Western world are free to disagree, to criticize and to act independently. But the free countries know very well that, in the end, limits are placed on their freedom. Their freedom and prosperity depends in a large measure on their allegiance to the world power of the West. Why, indeed, would European countries agree to have nuclear missiles placed on their soil, knowing very well that the Soviet Union would retaliate; why did Japan agree to ''voluntary'' reductions in exports and liberalization of its import regulations, knowing that these measures would hurt their own economy?
The relationship between the major powers also has its Orwellian side. Balance of power between the world leaders is still considered the best prevention against war. Did we not hear recently that more and better weapons mean a more secure world peace? China tries desperately to catch up with the other powers by acquiring nuclear capability. The United States places missiles in Europe to respond to the nuclear arsenal in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union counters with an increase in nuclear warheads all over the world. (Did the world of today replace Big Brother's slogan ''War is Peace'' with ''Nuclear Arms is Peace''?) Changing alliances have always been the diplomatic game that nations play around the world, often to facilitate conquest, sometimes to strengthen their defenses. Today, the nations of the world continue that game: friendship with China serves to counter the egomaniac dreams of a former ally.
In the real 1984, world powers do not rule the world, their carefully designed world order is marred by the erratic behavior of a number of young nations that pride themselves on being called ''non-aligned.'' Some of them have been able to interfere in the global plans of the world powers or to endanger the economic health of the industrialized nations. Some of these countries are so unstable that they threaten not only the peace in their region but also the tenuous harmony between the great powers. Their instability could be a greater threat to world peace than the cold war that pitches the great powers against each other.
When the United Nations convened for the first time in 1945, it was the hope of its founders that the organization would build a new order of peace and end all warfare in the world. The signers of the Charter stated that they were ''determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.'' After 40 years, the record of the U.N. can be called outstanding in many areas but dismal in the prevention of war. The great world powers, it is true, have not made use of their nuclear arms against each other, but their nuclear arsenals have grown immensely and other countries have joined the ''elite'' group of nuclear powers.
Furthermore, in these four decades, conventional wars have brought death to millions of people, destruction and misery to large areas of the world. Two years after the signing of the Charter, China was engulfed in a civil war, Hindus and Moslems fought each other in India and Pakistan, and Arabs and Jews began their chronic battles in Israel. Since then, few years have passed without armed confrontations. The United Nations has not been able to free humanity from the horrors of war.
The United Nations is not a world government, it is a forum in which nations can air their grievances, seek redress of the wrongs they have suffered, and hope that the major powers will not veto the organization's decision to separate fighting factions. The effective power of our local and national governments lies in the fact that they have the means to enforce the laws through their police. The United Nations does not have such means.
To become a world government, the Security Council of the United Nations must be transformed in an executive body that can call on the armed forces of its member states to impose its will, deter the nations from violence, and return the national borders as they were before the conflict. It must also have means to regulate economic relations between nations so that poverty does disappear and a more equitable partition of the world's wealth can be achieved. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic expectation for the forseeable future. Few countries, if any, are willing to abdicate part of their sovereignty to a world government that has the means to impose its decisions on them. Few, if any, of the rich nations are willing to share their wealth or their technology with underdeveloped countries.
World order and peace cannot be established if the nations of the world are not willing to solve their conflicts without the use of violence; if the world powers are not willing to abandon their expansionist aims to reduce simultaneously their nuclear arsenal, and reverse the buildup of conventional weapons; if the industrial nations are not willing to transfer some of their technological know-how to underdeveloped countries, if the people and their leaders are not willing to moderate their religious, ethnic, cultural and national fervor for the well-being of the others and the peaceful coexistence of all the peoples of the world.
Perhaps, one day, in the 21st century, the people of the world will agree that the time has come to establish a new world order. In the meantime nations and people can only continue the dialogue that is going on in different parts of the world and in the United Nations and that keeps the hope for peace and justice alive. And citizens can continue to heed the warnings of ''1984.''
Dr. Edmond van den Bossche of Bronxville is an associate professor of French and director of the International Studies Program at Manhattan College in Riverdale.Continue reading the main story