If there are two books that I would recommend above all to anyone living in the West in the early 21st century, they would be George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Written less than 20 years apart, each in its own way, provides a clear and far-seeing insight into modern society.
The key is to actually understand them.
Immediately after Donald Trump became president, it was widely reported that sales of 1984 suddenly spiked. Apparently, many “liberals” believed, like ancient oracles pouring over a goat’s entrails, that they would be able to divine some guidance from its pages for the years ahead. Unfortunately, it seems that if they gleaned anything at all from Orwell’s masterpiece, it was as entirely mistaken as Hillary Clinton’s bizarre conclusion that its core message was “trust the government”. Indeed, one could be forgiven for suspecting that the “liberal” left read the book as an instruction manual rather than a warning.
They would appear to have done the same, if they have read it at all, with Brave New World.
Both books serve as a warning, in different ways. Both got a great deal right, much more than what they got wrong. Both were, of course, written for their own times. But great science fiction (as both may be loosely so classed) doesn’t try to “predict”. Instead, great SF looks very carefully at the past and the present, and then refracts them through a “futuristic” prism. Technology changes, people do not.
So, what did Huxley and Orwell see, and what did they say? And what does that tell us about today? Each examined modern society with remorselessly clear eyes, though they refracted it in different ways.
Orwell’s particular focus was on totalitarianism. Nazism and Fascism had just been defeated when he wrote 1984, while Stalinism was in full, toxic bloom; Maoism festered on the horizon. Orwell realised that “right” or “left”, totalitarianism is grimly indistinguishable. He distilled the characteristics of totalitarianism into the nightmare vision of “Ingsoc” – “Socialist England”.
To anyone living in the West in the 21st century, Orwell’s delineation of the key characteristics of authoritarianism should be shockingly familiar. The obsession with controlling thought by manipulating language. Modern “liberals”, with their gimlet-eyed policing of “WrongThink”, have created a language of control – Political Correctness – as grim and relentless as Newspeak.
But, where Orwell worried about the “boot stamping on a human face – for ever”, Huxley’s focus was on a society ruled by triviality, so distracted that it happily embraced its slavery.
Huxley’s vision of a high-tech “World State” should also be disturbingly recognisable: a borderless society rigidly stratified into high-caste “Alphas” and low-caste “Epsilons”, where all are distracted by superficial entertainment, and drugged insensate.
The modern west is increasingly divided into wealthy, university-educated elites and a once-working-class despised as “deplorables”, “chavs” and “bogans”. The wealthy happily gobble party drugs, the poor console their gutted lives with opioids. In Brave New World, “soma” keeps the population soothed: psychiatrists now seriously suggest seeding drinking water with psychotropic drugs.
Two separate passages, one from each book, suffice to demonstrating their startling relevance.
In 1984, Winston Smith observes that One could not learn history from architecture any more than one could learn it from books. Statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets — anything that might throw light upon the past had been systematically altered.
Modern authoritarians are determined to rewrite the past in order to control the present. Politically incorrect people and events are consigned to the Memory Hole by censorship and “de-platforming”. Islamic fanatics blow ancient Palmyra and Nineveh to rubble, and Western “liberals” tear down statues, rename streets, and ban books.
In Brave New World, “Resident World Controller” Mustapha Mond, guiding a tour around a communal school, astounds them by confiding that, For a very long period…erotic play between children had been regarded as abnormal (there was a roar of laughter); and not only abnormal, actually immoral (no!).
Later, he asks the school nurse about the childrens’ lessons: “We had Elementary Sex for the first forty minutes,” she answered. “But now it’s switched over to Elementary Class Consciousness.”
Modern elites are likewise obsessed with sexualising children, and with class-obsessed identity politics. Like Huxley’s “World State”, the elite assiduously arrogate to themselves the right to condition childrens’ minds, Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too-all his life long…But all these suggestions are our suggestions!
Orwell cautioned that the elite would rule with an iron fist, conditioning thought by brutality and rigid control of language and history. Huxley worried that the elite would simply distract us into loving our chains. Each, in their way, got it right.
For a long time, furrowed-browed cultural critics concluded that Huxley had the upper hand because the Iron Age of totalitarianism was past. But, as we have seen since 2016, when the masses shake off the spell of the mass media, the elite are as ready as ever to resort to the jackboot, the fist, and the destruction of history to get their way.