If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Orwell vs Huxley

Here's an interesting question: who was the best predictor of the state of our current society - George Orwell or Aldous Huxley?

For those without the instant recall of Great Works of Lit, I'm talking about:
  • George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, describes a nightmare world of surveillance, misinformation, betrayal and fear. Big Brother is the shadowy figure who rules the state, and every room has a telescreen which pumps out state propaganda and simultaneously watches your every move and gesture.
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, published in 1932, describes another nightmare world, but this time it is a state which makes sure everyone is happy and distracted from serious thought, where one's own pleasure is the only duty and where unhappiness is a crime against society.
I have read them both several times, although I have to admit that I have never yet read Nineten Eighty-Four in one sitting. It is so depressing that I have always read about three-quarters of it and then had to put it down for a week or two before finishing it with a clear head.

Both books try to create a world which is a nightmarish warning about how our own society could develop - Orwell critiquing the repression of Soviet Russia and Huxley the more insidious attractions of the capitalist West. Both have ideas which are uncannily accurate direct hits on British life in the early 21st Century.

Nineteen Eighty-Four
has its constant surveillance of the population, the promotion of war (and the threat of war) to keep the people fearful and loyal, the existence of an elite who are above the law, and the mass of the 'proles' who are ignorant and kept amused and in their place by cheap drink and popular entertainment. Orwell invented the concept of 'Newspeak', a reduced and officially-approved form of English which removed the ability for independent thought by removing the language it could be expressed in - a remarkable foretaste of political correctness and 'speech codes'. Gordon Brown in 'tractor production statistics' mode always reminds me of the stream of targets and achievements put out by the telescreens.

The society of Brave New World has constant non-reproductive sex as a recreational activity, 'soma holidays' which are eerily reminiscent of LSD (only synthesised six years after the book was written), and a promotion of consumption and meaningless entertainment to keep the population distracted and free from serious thought. Life is pleasant, even and worry-free, as long as you conform.

I am a big fan of both books, although BNW is the easier read. Neil Postman [1], in Amusing Ourselves To Death (1985) thought that Huxley was the more prescient of the two, and I am inclined to agree. NEF almost seemed to be a blueprint of the post-war Eastern Bloc societies, and certainly there are things in there that chillingly remind us that our rulers in safe, liberal Britain still have the compulsion to identify, trace, watch and control us. (See any edition of any national newspaper of the last ten years for examples.) But BNW seems to understand that people are more easily controlled if you make give them nice things to keep them occupied and away from dangerous thoughts - a modern version of panem et circenses. Perhaps the reality is a combination of both.

I was reminded of all this through an article on B3ta, which links to a rather well-done cartoon summary of the arguments. Worth a look.

If anyone reading this blog (either of you, har har) has a view on this, please feel free to comment.


As a footnote, let me record how sad I feel if ever anyone mentions the words 'Big Brother' amongst people under 30. No-one picks up the origin of the name, and everyone immediately thinks of the Channel 4 programme, thus neatly proving Huxley's point.

[1] I first came across this chap during my teacher training year in 1975-6, when his Teaching as a Subversive Activity was required reading amongst nascent pedagogues. Required reading by the College tutors, I meant to say. When subversiveness is promoted by the establishment, you just know it isn't going to turn out well.

2 comments:

  1. endemoniada_8819 July 2009 16:36

    Time for a spot of fence-sitting: I think both authors were disturbingly visionary. A case could definitely be made for Huxley taking the laurels, simply because he had nearly twenty years historical disadvantage to base his predictions on.
    The old adage about extreme right- and left-wing views being near-identical is certainly quite neatly evidenced when comparing the two.
    For me, the current visible effects on society owe more to BNW's bread-and-circuses, opium for the masses, cult of the self(ish) dystopia. Huxley certainly had a good grasp on how constant bombardment with triviality would overwhelm any serious attempts at dissent. Nonconformists become just another marginalised freakshow indistinguishable from any of the other attention-seeking spectacles pumped out through every media outlet.
    That said, I also consider an awful lot of the underlying influences to those visible effects are better covered in the rather darker annals of 1984. The thought-crime and punishment aspects, the reinvention of language and history at will, the endless shadowy government departments making ever more restrictive rules are extremely Orwellian.
    Huxley, in many respects, let peer pressure do the work of ostracising undesirables, Orwell tended to have them simply vanished and erased from history. Not unlike our current anti-terror legislation, for example.
    Sadly, totalitarianism does not have to be driven by stupid people. It can be capable of picking the right tools for any particular job: whether that be sleight-of-hand in a velvet glove, or a more crushing steel fist. Given time, there is less need for the former - my suspicion is that, if we continue on the current trend, a couple of decades down the line it'll be a much more clear-cut argument in Orwell's favour.
    Not good, I agree, since it's far and away the more depressing read of the two!

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  2. I think fence-sitting is the only appropriate response, to be honest. They were both right, in their own ways. The way it seems to me, the surface of today's society is all Huxley - mindless entertainment and (you hit the nail on the head) nonconformists derided as a freak show rather than debated with. It's when you look below the surface that Orwell seems to be on the money - ID cards, RIPA, hate speech and all that. Either is frightening, and I don't see it ending any time soon, no matter who gets in at the next election.

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