Orwell versus Huxley: John Lanchester

Good piece in UK Financial Times: insightful

Orwell v Huxley: whose dystopia are we living in today?

John Lanchester on how Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four capture the age of Facebook and Trump  The modern world looks to many like a dystopia — a version of “the darkest timeline”, to borrow a term from the American sitcom Community. Whose dystopia, though?

Which writer best imagined this moment of turmoil and dysfunction? The greatest contributions to the tradition of dystopian fiction are two defining masterpieces from the 20th century, both of them bestsellers at the time and ever since: Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The two dystopias have many details in common. Both writers saw a future shaped by weapons of mass destruction — biological and chemical weapons in Huxley’s case, nuclear war in Orwell’s. They agreed about the danger of permanent social stratification, with humanity divided into categories determined by biological engineering and psychological conditioning (Huxley) or traditional class combined with totalitarian loyalty systems (Orwell).

Both men imagined future societies completely obsessed with sex, though in diametrically opposite ways: state-enforced repression and celibacy in the case of Orwell; deliberate, narcotising promiscuity in the case of Huxley. Both men thought the future would be dominated by America. Both men thought that future governments would spend a lot of effort permanently trying to incite economic consumption — not that either man thought of anything as wildly fantastical as quantitative easing.

Both began their books with a short sentence designed to signal a world which was familiar but also disconcertingly futuristic: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories,” begins Brave New World. We are supposed to gasp with amazement at the “only”. Nineteen Eighty-Four begins: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Thirteen! The horror!

Both men were writing warnings: “the message of the book”, said Huxley, was, “This is possible: for heaven’s sake be careful about it.” In his vision, humanity was facing a future world tranquilised by pleasure and drugs and the voluntary distractions of “civilised infantilisation”. For Orwell, humanity was facing a permanent state of war and totalitarian mind-control, summed up by the image of “a boot stamping on a human face, for ever”. For all the overlap, though, they are usually seen as contradictory, conflicting versions of the future. 

The difference between the two dystopias is rooted in one of imaginative literature’s central distinctions. Many writers of speculative fiction — a term preferred over science fiction by Margaret Atwood, among others — like to stress that their work is a vision of the present, magnified and intensified. “The future is here,” William Gibson has said, “it’s just unevenly distributed.” Atwood made it a rule in writing The Handmaid’s Tale that she “would not put any events into the book that had not already happened . . . nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities.”

Orwell did create some technological innovations for his future world, but in essence his Nineteen Eighty-Four is a deep look into the heart of already existing totalitarian societies. Some of the details may be from the straitened world of the 1940s — the novel is pervaded by the smell of boiled cabbage — but the story goes far past that into the depths of the human heart and the totalitarian project to reshape it.

The meeting room named Only Good News — can you guess whether that belongs to Huxley’s World Controller, or Sheryl Sandberg? No one could have been better placed than Orwell to see into this present and project it into the future. His life-long involvement with leftwing ideas was both theoretical — nuances of perspectives from the Independent Labour party to the union movement through anarchism, Trotskyism and Stalinism — and directly lived. It was characteristic of him that when he went to the Spanish civil war to write about it, he found himself unable to stand back and report, but instead, once he saw the reality of what was happening, immediately joined the Trotskyist militia to fight the fascists. The utter ruthlessness with which the Soviet-backed faction suppressed the other groups on the republican side, their willingness to lie and murder their own allies, gave Orwell the impetus and insight to write his great novel about totalitarianism.

It is because of that, in this difficult historic moment, that the Orwell vs Huxley contest might seem to have been concluded in Orwell’s favour. I was recently on a plane just after the start of the school holidays, and in the course of wandering up and down the aisle, noticed the startling fact that three different young people were reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, in three different languages (English, Italian, Portuguese). Not bad for a 70-year-old book. The Orwell estate has always been well run, attentive to the business of keeping his reputation in public view — that was one of the inspirations behind the creation of the annual Orwell prizes for political writing. You could even say that Sonia Orwell, who married him on his deathbed, was being attentive to his reputation in taking his pseudonym as a surname, given that his family knew him as Eric Blair. (This point was made to me by a relative of Orwell’s, someone who thrillingly-to-me knew him as Eric.)

Nothing, however, but nothing, could rival the sales boost provided by Donald Trump. This president embodies the insight that given a willingness to lie without compunction, norms of veracity can be abolished with extraordinary speed. It is one of the central demands of the Party, in Orwell’s book, that you “reject the evidence of your eyes and ears”. Trump put that maxim into effect on his very first day in office, with his insistence that people ignore the evidence of their senses about his Inauguration day crowds. The world is not divided up into three dominant totalitarian superstates, as in the novel, but in a time of ascendant strongmen, dictators, anti-Semites and state-sponsored liars, many of Orwell’s other prophesies have come true.

Consider North Korea, an inherited communist dictatorship many of whose features — a society based on hierarchies of loyalty to the leadership — might have been directly transcribed from Nineteen Eighty-Four. 

Wait a minute, though. Orwell was right about many things, but Huxley was right too. Huxley’s background was similar to Orwell’s — not only did they both go to Eton, Huxley went back there as a young man (and even taught Orwell French). Despite that, Huxley’s milieu was very different, scientific and philosophical rather than politically engaged. The Huxleys were scientific and liberal aristocracy: Aldous’s great-uncle was the poet laureate Matthew Arnold; his grandfather Thomas was “Darwin’s bulldog”, the first high-profile public defender of Darwin’s ideas; his brother Julian was a prominent biologist and public figure, the first director-general of Unesco, co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund. Julian was also a leading eugenicist, dedicated to the idea that science could be used to weed out inferior genetic stock for the public good.

The emotional texture of Brave New World is very different from that of Nineteen Eighty-Four; there is a playfulness, a lightness, not at all like the grim, repressed, grey-toned landscape of Orwell’s novel. The question of eugenics offers us a clue to the reason for this. Huxley was interested in eugenics, which held a fascination for many intellectuals of the left as well as of the right. He came to see it as a sinister field — correctly, since the thought that the poor have genetic traits which could and should be bred out of them is indeed one of the darkest and most dangerous ideas of the 20th century. But he had first felt the lure of the idea that modernity can improve us, that science can cure some of the pain and difficulty of being human. The fact that Huxley had been tempted by these thoughts helped him depict his ideas with a lighter, more exploratory touch than Orwell. 

Huxley’s dystopia was the other sort of speculative fiction from Orwell’s: not a deep burrowing into the present, but a projection of existing trends into the future. He genuinely was trying to think about what the future would be, if things carried on in the direction they were headed. He was well placed to see trend lines in many of the sciences and made good guesses about where they were going. As a result, we can make a strong claim that it is he, and not Orwell, who did a better job of predicting modern life in the developed world.

The revolutionary change in attitudes to sex, for instance, is not something many people foresaw in 1932, but Huxley did: the separation of sex and reproduction is complete in Brave New World, as it is near-complete in modern life. He guessed correctly about the development of new technologies in contraception, and guessed correctly about their consequences too. In Brave New World promiscuity is not just normal, it is actively encouraged; total frankness in all aspects of sexuality, ditto. Sex is a distraction and a source of entertainment, almost a drug. Huxley would have looked at our world of dating apps and sexualised mass entertainment — and perhaps especially shows such as Love Island and Naked Attraction — and awarded his predictions a solid A+. (Naked Attraction is a Channel Four dating show on which people choose a partner based on whether or not they like the look of their genitals. The audience sees the genitals too. When you describe this show to people, they often think they’ve misunderstood, and that you can’t mean that people stand with their faces concealed and their genitals exposed and are chosen by a prospective partner on that basis — but that’s exactly what happens. I recommend this programme to anyone who doesn’t agree that norms around sexuality have changed.)

Orwell saw a future in which the state discouraged sex. In this respect he was completely wrong and Huxley was completely right. Huxley was also more broadly right about pleasure. Orwell wrote about a world which was sensually constrained, pinched, grey — that was one of the main respects in which he was channelling the spirit of the 1940s.

Huxley looked ahead, and saw a future in which life was very pleasant — lullingly, deadeningly, numbly pleasant. Undemanding pleasures and unchallenging entertainments are central to the functioning of society. Sources of distraction play a vital role. The “feelies”, the main source of mass entertainment, are all about escape from the self. “When the individual feels, society reels,” is the motto, and every effort is made to stop people from feeling strong emotion. The preferred method for this is soma, a side-effect free drug which guarantees dissociated happiness. Here, again, Huxley could look at the modern use of antidepressants, anti-anxiety and sedative medications, and conclude that he had nailed it. 

One particular area of Huxley’s prescience concerned the importance of data. He saw the information revolution coming — in the form of gigantic card-indexes, true, but he got the gist. It is amusing to see how many features of Facebook, in particular, are anticipated by Brave New World. Facebook’s mission statement “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” sounds a lot like the new world’s motto “Community, Identity, Stability”.

The world in which “we haven’t any use for old things” dovetails with Mark Zuckerberg’s view that “young people are just smarter”. The meeting room whose name is Only Good News — can you guess whether that belongs to Huxley’s World Controller, or Sheryl Sandberg? The complete ban on the sight of breast feeding is common to the novel and to the website. The public nature of relationship status, the idea that everything should be shared, and the idea that “everyone belongs to everyone else” are also common themes of the novel and the company — and above all, the idea, perfectly put by Zuckerberg and perfectly exemplifying Huxley’s main theme, that “privacy is an outdated norm”.

We can still change direction. There will be life after Trump and Putin. There may even be life after ‘Naked Attraction’ and Facebook This theme, of an attack on privacy, is central to Orwell’s vision too. Thought crime is one of the most serious crimes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is at this point that we can start to see his and Huxley’s novels not as competing visions of the future but as complementary, overlapping warnings. Our world has sex on display everywhere, entertainment to take you out of your mind whenever you want, and drugs to make you stop feeling. It also has an increasing number of strongmen leaders who rewrite history and ignore the truth, and a growing emphasis on crimes-by-thought.

We don’t have an official “Two Minutes Hate”, as Orwell’s state of Oceania does, but our social media equivalents come pretty close. The idea of permanent low-level war as a new norm looks a lot like our 18-year global war on terror — in fact the GWOT would fit in nicely in Orwell’s world of acronyms and Newspeak. The idea of a society permanently stratified into inherited or genetically determined social classes maps well on to a modern world where the most unequal societies are also the ones in which people are most likely to inherit their life chances.

A globally dominant society ruled by a party and a strong leader, a society which uses every possible method of surveillance and data collection to monitor and control its citizens, a society which is also enjoying a record rise in prosperity and abundance, and using unprecedented new techniques in science and genetics — that society would look a lot like a blend of Orwell’s and Huxley’s visions. It would also look a lot like modern-day China. The developing Chinese “citizen score”, a blend of reputational and financial and socio-political metrics, used to determine access to everything from travel and education and healthcare, is such a perfect blend of dystopias that we can only credit it to a new writer, Huxwell. Some commentators on the subject have begun saying that the citizen score is being misunderstood, that it is only a Chinese attempt to develop something as all-encompassing and socially determinative as we in the fortunate west already have with credit rating agencies. They’re missing the point: that isn’t what’s good about the citizen score. It’s what’s bad about it.

Huxley and Orwell both wrote their books to try and prevent their dystopias from coming true. Their success at prophecy is also their failure — because the righter they are, the more their projects didn’t do what they were supposed to. Neither man would have thought that a reason to give up hope. Their warnings are still valid. We can still change direction. There will be life after Trump and Putin. There may even be life after Naked Attraction and Facebook. Last word to Huxley, in the foreword to his dystopia, written 20 years later: “though I remain no less sadly certain than in the past that sanity is a rather rare phenomenon, I am convinced that it can be achieved and would like to see more of it”.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Processes, Philosophy of Conflict, Rise of China, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ideology

Someone recently asked me what Ideology I followed, I replied: “We had to choose a word for an English essay when I was about 15 and I chose ideology as my word and defined it I recall “as a way to simplify the world by lying about it” or something like that. Not really changed my view” 

And then added when challenged how my essay continues to this day: 

Here’s the evolving continuation: By definition if you eschew ideology, your take is a work in progress subject to life long revision in the light of Bayesian observations and adjustments.

I tried on for size: Anglicanism, Adam Smith free marketism, Conservatism (Pressure for Economic and Social Toryism or PEST), anti-racism, feminism, existentialism, Tolstoy Anarchism, Pacifism, Marxism, (Pabloist and Gramsci flavors), Labour Partyism, socialism, Freudianism, Gestaltism, Taoism, Post Modernism I did not try, Manufacturism, Welsh Hill Tribalism, environmentalism, Popperianism (I met Popper once) mixed with Kuhnianism, and even tried on the odd day recently (an optimistic friend) Optimism….and none fitted.

So I took a bit from each,of these, and built myself an Isaiah Berlin Fox-not-a-Hedgehog (“The Fox knows many things, the Hedgehog just one”) SLR camera to view the world, with a huge range of interchangeable lenses: long/short, detail/depth of field, wide angle, fish-eye etc. added the filters and tools of the scenario-based futuring of Peter Schwartz, mixed with Philip Tetlock’s forecasting scepticism. Then added Philip Kitchen’s Modest Scientific Realism (RWOT: there is a real world out there) to my Popperian and Bayesian leanings, and retained a focus on inequality (no civilizational survival with high inequality) and the planet’s future as strong focus points, and mixed well and I got non-ideologicalist-non-ism…and learning intelligently from history.

Oh and yes I admit to still being a Keynesian of the Classical not Samuelson-Hicks BS corrupted version. And a follower of Albert Hirschman whom I nearly met, missed him by minutes in MIT one day 🙂 And I am still a passionate Manufacturist….something I share with Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson….and Dennis Healey.

And for light relief, I add a few lines from Tony Hoagland’s fine poem: “What Narcissism Means to Me” 🙂

“There’s Socialism and Communism and Capitalism
said Neal,
and there’s Feminism and Hedonism,
             and there’s Catholicism and Bipedalism and Consumerism,

but I think Narcissism is the system
that means the most to me

and Sylvia said that in Neal’s case
narcissism represented a heroic achievement in positive thinking.”

Posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict Humor, Conflict Poetry, Conflict Processes, Economic Conflict, Environmental Conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Philosophy of Conflict, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict | Tagged , | Leave a comment

In Times of Rapid Change Do Conservatives Necessarily Go Nuts and Cease to be Conservatives?

I simply cannot understand how the conservatives I grew up with, who were pragmatic, un-dogmatic and open to reasoned argument, have been replaced by the Conservative barking mad Brexiters, and at one remove in the US, the Trump supporters and all. I can’t actually call any of them conservatives because they are rampant destroyers of the tested status quo, not to mention the planet.

But when you look at Northern Ireland, the ultra conservative reactionary DUP there, they are heart set on ensuring a united Ireland by supporting Brexit and not allowing the one thing that might make Northern Ireland prosperous and thus preserve the status quo: a special status for it within the EU but also within the UK…

The Catholics will be the majority in Northern Ireland by 2030ish and then all the retrograde Unionist nonsense will likely be consigned to the dust bin of history with or without more violence. 75% of Conservatives in the rest of the UK already don’t give a toss for the union with Northern Ireland or maintaining peace there, such is their Brexit madness…

I guess in times of rapid change conservatives go nuts? They don’t embrace reform to avoid more extreme change but seek to turn the clock back to a non existent past.

Posted in Brexit, Economic Conflict, US Political Conflict | Tagged , | Leave a comment

2008 Financial Crash and All That

So after 2008 we had a huge melt down of the global economy, which only resolute and smart but perhaps not wise intensive care by the US Federal Reserve saved the world from plunging into the return of the 1930s. Oh wait a minute history never repeats itself cos the starting conditions are different: really??

And from which Crash in many ways we have not recovered. When this last happened in the 1930s, economics reinvented itself, although Samuelson and Hicks and others made sure much of the reinvention was reversed or went off half cock and Friedman and others getting Nobel Prizes for BS economics completed the process of undermining classical Keynesian economics.

But despite the fact that economics, as taught in universities, spare me business schools, sans economic history, sans a history of economic thought, sans non Neo Classical orthodoxy, and sans any connection with reality. This economics is almost useless for reforming our current economy, as it heads to 1930s redux aka the Trump Slump as it will be called. Inequality and debt founded over financialized non value add centric planet destroying economies is what we have.

And despite that no one on the Left or progressive side can be assed to even learn a bit of economics, let alone drive it kicking and screaming towards major intellectual innovation and reform of its whole structure. Bah!…It’s the economy, stupid. Populism is not some culturalist bigoted preference at root.

I think that uses my rant allowance for the week…. 

Posted in Economic Conflict, US Political Conflict | Tagged | Leave a comment

Mansplaining: How to Tell if You Are

Thanks to Kim Goodwin for this: 

Posted in Conflict Art, Conflict Humor, Marital and Relationship Conflict, Ways to handle conflict | Tagged | Leave a comment

Ombrophobia and Trump

Ombrophobia: an abnormal fear of rain apparently correlated with bone spurs.

No automatic alt text available.

Posted in Conflict Humor, US Political Conflict | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

US Mid-Term Elections: A Personal Reflection

I am afraid that last night was nothing like as good as it should have been, especially the Senate result, which means Trump can now easily put judicial and Supreme Court appointments through and rig the courts. 

But for me the real disappointment continues to be the Democratic Party, that still has not really grasped how Trump operates, still has not found the anti-dote to demolish him, and his lies; and above all still has not found an economics strategy to unite the country against the Plutocracy. Dems are still split left/right, establishment/insurgency rather than bonded around a new vision for the country way better than Trump BS and lies. They have no real counter narrative and the result showed that: Trump disliked, Dems not that liked in contrast.

Last night to me showed that without a change in strategic direction and a far more formidable candidate than I see on offer, Trump is headed for re-election in 2020. But hey I am Cassandra hoping my prophecies will head off disaster….. 

And as per Joe Hill: don’t waste time mourning, analyze, learn the lessons, strategize and organize!

No automatic alt text available.

Posted in Economic Conflict, US Political Conflict | Tagged , , | Leave a comment