In the last couple of weeks, it has been something of a big “human interest” story that people have been buying George Orwell’s 1984 en masse in a reaction to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Naturally, commentators have flocked to this, clucking that this is proof that dystopia is looming above us, that we’re soon going to be visited by the Ministries of Truth and Love, and, of course, that we have always been at war with Eurasia
I’m not going to get into how essentially every Republican has been accused of this since Nixon at least. Nor am I going to get into how Orwell may not have necessarily agreed with these newfound fans of his—after all, while Orwell certainly criticized fascism (what Mr. Trump is accused of being by “the resistance”), he was certainly no fan of communism either, as explicitly illustrated by both 1984 and Animal Farm (and yes, as I showed in this article, Trump has somehow been accused of being both a fascist AND a communist. It’s either ignorance or the CommuNazis from The Simpsons have become reality).
No, instead, I’m going to point out how it’s kind of a moot point to start whining about how in 2017, America is well on its way to the dystopic setting found in a classic of English literature. And that’s because not only America but really the entire Western world has already been living in a dystopic setting from a classic work of English literature. And that dystopia is the counterpoint to Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face forever”. The main dystopia we are living in is the dystopia in which people shackle themselves, drugging themselves into a blissful oblivion. And that dystopia is, of course, the dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (to be fair, there’s a bit of Orwell as well in our real-life dystopia).
Let us briefly analyze Brave New World and 1984 and see their similarities and differences: both works are set in future dystopias in which one man futilely seeks to go against the grain of his society and make some sort of meaningful change. Both books created a great series of neologisms that are still used in political commentary today, especially Orwell’s: one regularly hears terms such as “newspeak”, “thoughtcrime”, “Big Brother”, “Two Minutes Hate”, and, of course, “Orwellian”. But in looking at the function of each fictional dystopia, how does each compare to modern Western society?
Orwell warned that, essentially, oppression will come from above. This is personified in the “boot” metaphor, coming from above and trampling us all. And such a thing may very well still come.
However, Huxley’s dystopia took into account something that Orwell did not—the seemingly infinite human appetite for distraction and meaningless pleasure. Rather than having some external government mandate censoring our capacity to learn and educate ourselves, Brave New World prophesied that you wouldn’t need to censor books or education, you would just need to make a society in which nobody would ever come down with the desire to so much as open a book (which was, in truth, the message of another classic dystopic novel, that being the American Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451).
As mentioned above, there are some Orwellian elements to our modern dystopia: surveillance is rampant, as are newspeak and prolefeed and “Two Minutes Hate” (note that Brave New World also has its own forms of social conditioning). But have you noticed that censorship only comes up on occasion? Or that there are no military parades? Really, there isn’t much in the way of overt, “boot stamping on a human face”-style oppression in the West today. There are two reasons for this: one is that people would catch on to it. The other is that the powers that be don’t need it.
Take a look at the vices of modernity: the addictions to pornography, the rampant obesity, the fact that grown adults dedicate hundreds of hours of their lives to fantasy sports, and the fact that “poop-socking” has become such a problem that video games have intermissions telling people to use toilets. It doesn’t take much imagination to transpose these with the orgy-porgy, the centrifugal bumblepuppy, and the feely that Huxley depicted.
The sexualization of children in modern pop culture would probably be approved by Mustapha Mond, yes?
How is the nigh-shamanistic worship of science you see on Facebook (ie: people expressing their “love” of science, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the popular social dogmas of today) any different from the reverence given to Henry Ford in Brave New World?
It seems to me that our modern dystopia is largely Huxley with a touch of Orwell, and not a strict Orwellian tyranny. Mindless pleasure for the proles (in describing his “prolefeed”, Orwell’s bread and circuses seem too intellectual, since they were at least books), and more overt censorship and oppression for those smart enough to take notice. Half the job of making the people weak, stupid, afraid, and defenseless was done by the people.
It seems that our enlightened rulers have cribbed from both literary dystopias in making their progressive utopia—so why all the focus on Orwell? Perhaps because his dystopia is more overt and “punchy”—or maybe people are afraid they’ll recognize more in Huxley, and thus choose to ignore it. And that is an outcome that Huxley himself would have seen coming.