In the spring of 1931, a very tall, cerebral, chronically short-sighted and rather tweedy Old Etonian called Aldous Huxley, sat down at his home on the Côte d’Azur to write a book about the modern world and what he believed was its current predicament. He wrote quickly, finishing it in August barely four months after he had started writing, and it was on the bookstalls by February 1932.
Eighty years on we are still reading Brave New World. It still seems part of our argument with ourselves about the kind of society we have created – or which has been created for us. Like that other major 20th century dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (who was briefly taught by Huxley at Eton), the book, which ought perhaps to have been banished by now to the museum of literary curiosities, is a constant reference point for current debates. Why?
When Orwell published his novel in 1949, he sent it to Huxley who praised it with his usual courtesy but insisted that his book was better prophecy. At the start of the Cold War that might have seemed a deliberately perverse or eccentric judgement – the Orwellian nightmare of the boot stamped on the face looking much more plausible as an image of modern political repression than the manipulations of ‘soft power’ in Huxley’s smiling dystopia of drug-induced passivity, propaganda slogans in the form of mindless advertising jingles, and eager conformity.
Although, regrettably, there are parts of the globe where old-fashioned brutal Orwellian repression flourishes, for the societies of today’s developed world the idea that freedom and individual self-determination might be voluntarily signed away and that in Huxley’s phrase, people might be persuaded to ‘love their servitude’, is far from a fanciful and outmoded conceit. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations about illegitimate mass surveillance, opinion polls have clearly demonstrated that in the UK, at least, a majority of the population is just fine about their emails, phone calls and other private communications being examined by the State without warrant. Every day we dutifully tick the boxes that Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft tell us to tick, and their profits swell on the basis of information they have garnered about us and our habits. One of the great contemporary illusions is that the Internet is a vast space of wholly untrammelled creative freedom, controlled by us, not by those big corporations, the digital oligarchs, who are surely the equivalent of Mustapha Mond, Huxley’s World Controller.
Just before writing Brave New World Huxley had been reporting for magazines on the industrial north east (Orwell wasn’t the only Old Etonian to go down a coalmine in the Depression), including the vast ICI plant at Billingham. ICI was run by Alfred Mond, a British industrial pioneer, like Henry Ford, the founding father of modern capitalist mass production, who becomes in Brave New World the omnipresent deity. The ubiquity of Ford in the novel as the originator of the standardised production of human beings is an aspect of the novel that is often underplayed but it is central to Huxley’s message. The world of the novel is one that worships ‘Our Ford’. People take the name of Our Ford in vain and there are feast days like Our Ford’s Day. ‘A love of nature keeps no factories busy’, goes one of the jingles invoked by a character horrified that someone wants to take a walk in the country.
As usual Huxley is prescient. ‘Outdoor leisure’ has been commandeered by giant corporations that reap vast profits from our unwillingness to stroll on the moors unless kitted out with hundreds of pounds’ worth of gear and tackle. (Astonishingly, he predicted in 1932 the TV flickering unwatched in the corner of the geriatric ward).
Orwell was concerned principally with political totalitarianism; Huxley’s fear was that modern consumer capitalism was turning us into obedient morons and Ford’s advocacy of industrial efficiency and ‘labour saving devices’, which Huxley dubbed ‘creation-saving devices’, was in danger of creating a mass society of drones, not merely controlled but unable to enjoy any truly creative work. There were clear echoes here of the 19th century critiques of Ruskin and William Morris – for example, the latter’s notion of ‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’. One of the puzzling things about Huxley, given that he was directly descended from liberal Victorian thinkers like Thomas Huxley and (on his mother’s side) Matthew Arnold, was his apparent unwillingness to make those direct connections with earlier critics. Perhaps it was part of his determination to be a man of the 20th century who had put Victorianism behind him.
The point about those famous babies in bottles in the Central London Hatchery in the novel’s opening scene is not that they were some sort of anticipation of modern debates about embryo research and ‘test tube babies’, but that human beings were being manufactured in uniformity, their obedience subsequently reinforced by child-conditioning, their adult wills softened into inanity by the drug soma (the latter pretty clearly expressing Huxley’s feeling about the way mass media culture worked).
John, ‘the Savage’ in the novel, who ends by committing suicide, is someone who claims ‘the right to be unhappy’ as an alternative to this lobotomised happy dystopia. It is contemporary consumer capitalism, and its need to sell to us relentlessly and to have us as loyal and responsive clients (whilst informing us that we are actually exercising free choice) that Huxley is opposing. His World Controllers are not obviously odious or evil people; they don’t feel the need to be since the people will gladly do what they want without coercion.
Huxley still has his critics, especially, as I have discovered when presenting papers at academic conferences, in the universities. His critique of mass culture, his defence of liberal individualism, of the free critical intelligence, is often turned back on him as if it were a mandarin affront to the common man and woman and their pleasures – a looking down his nose at popular culture, rather than a desire to set the people free to determine its own choices. The dreary British cultural debate, mired as it is in old-fashioned prejudices and tied up in knots by inverted snobberies and unexamined class clichés, struggles still with Huxley. There is no end in sight.
But that struggle is a tribute to his continuing power to provoke and unsettle, to make us think.