You are reading a State of Dystopia post. These entries note the news events that put us on the cyberpunk dystopia timeline. Read them now to see the future we’re going towards. Or read them in the future to figure out where things went wrong.
In 1932, Brave New World was published by Aldous Huxley. Met with mixed reviews at the time, Brave New World has since come to be revered as a classic work of dystopia. It’s set hundreds of years in the future, in which mankind has achieved “utopia.”
Perhaps what most sets Brave New World apart from other dystopian works is the complete absence of any violent oppressive force. There’s no violent repression because there are no rebellions, and there are no rebellions because everyone is happy:
Everyone is born into a rigid caste system, and perfectly content with their station in life. Alphas, at the top, are the intellectuals. The global government that runs this utopia is largely staffed by this caste. Those in lower castes are bred to be less intelligent, with the Epsilons (at the bottom) being severely stunted from birth. There are no families, no meaningful or loving relationships, and sexual activity is highly encouraged, but for recreational purposes only.
In addition to the fact that everyone is conditioned from birth to love their station in life, recreational drugs are widely available and used regularly by all members of society, to keep people docile. Mass entertainment is also a regular component of life, and serves the same purpose. There’s no hunger, homelessness, or war.
Obviously, we don’t live in that exact world today. Violent repression hasn’t disappeared, poverty is still all-too-real, and our caste systems generally hold more gray areas. But key elements of his work are undeniably present today, and as I will argue in this post, are increasingly outsized.
In 1958, decades after he wrote Brave New World, Huxley wrote an essay entitled Brave New World Revisited. (It’s available for free online.) In it, he discussed how on-track the world was to the scenario of his novel. That essay is the real inspiration of this post (back-up title: “Brave New World Revisited, Revisited”).
That’s the real question of this post — 89 years after Brave New World, and 63 years after Brave New World Revisited how close are we to Huxley’s nightmare? My pitch: our present situation is Brave New World with cyberpunk characteristics.
What Brave New World and Revisited got right and wrong
Let me be first to say that Huxley got a ton of things wrong. A good deal of the essay makes the case that overpopulation is taking too severe of a toll on the planet, is reducing the quality of life for everyone, and is accelerating authoritarianism. Some elements of his arguments are not baseless, but generally speaking, the Malthusian argument is outdated for a reason.
Several things Huxley mentions are dated, like how brainwashing works. Huxley also argues that hypnopaedia, or teaching people through their sleep, could soon become the favored tool of the ruling class.
The use of pleasure-giving drugs to pacify people is a recurring element in the novel and essay. Huxley probably gives a bit too much weight to this as a top-down strategy used by the ruling class (we never really ended the War on the Drugs), but it’s possible shifting attitudes towards drugs could turn this into a prediction that ages remarkably well.
On the whole, however, the foundational idea of Brave New World and its pursuant essay has only become more relevant with time: ‘soft’ control (particularly that which appeals to the urge for pleasure) being far more effective than brute force.
A couple scenes from the original novel that illustrate this:
- In the beginning of the novel, sleeping children hear recited phrases from a lesson on class consciousness. This might seem like a critique of soviet propaganda of the time, but that’s unlikely: the children getting the lessons are Deltas, the manual laborers near the bottom of the caste system. They are being taught their place.
- In the climax, one of the main characters incites a revolt among a group of Deltas, and throws out the drugs used to placate them. When police intervene, they don’t stop the riot by brutalizing the laborers — which would’ve been the norm at the time Huxley was writing — they simply release the drug in a vaporous form, while a voice on loudspeaker asks why everyone isn’t happier. The workers are reduced to tears and begin apologizing to one another. They resume their planned drug rations immediately after.
As for prescient quotes from the essay, let’s start with Huxley’s comparison of his own Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984:
In the context of 1948, 1984 seemed dreadfully convincing. But tyrants, after all, are mortal and circumstances change. Recent developments in Russia and recent advances in science and technology have robbed Orwell’s book of some of its gruesome verisimilitude.
In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.
This also stands out:
[…] We may expect to see in the democratic countries a reversal of the process which transformed England into a democracy, while retaining all the outward forms of a monarchy. […] The democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms — elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest — will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. […] Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.
And this, on media concentration:
As lately as fifty years ago, every democratic country could boast of a great number of small journals and local newspapers. Thousands of country editors expressed thousands of independent opinions. Somewhere or other almost anybody could get almost anything printed. Today the press is still legally free; but most of the little papers have disappeared. The cost of wood-pulp, of modern printing machinery and of syndicated news is too high for the Little Man. In the totalitarian East there is political censorship, and the media of mass communication are controlled by the State. In the democratic West there is economic censorship and the media of mass communication are controlled by members of the Power Elite.
And this, in reference to the dangers of advertising:
But unfortunately propaganda in the Western democracies, above all in America, has two faces and a divided personality. In charge of the editorial department there is often a democratic Dr. Jekyll — a propagandist who would be very happy to prove that John Dewey had been right about the ability of human nature to respond to truth and reason. But this worthy man controls only a part of the machinery of mass communication. In charge of advertising we find an anti-democratic, because anti-rational, Mr. Hyde — or rather a Dr. Hyde, for Hyde is now a Ph.D. in psychology and has a master’s degree as well in the social sciences. This Dr. Hyde would be very unhappy indeed if everybody always lived up to John Dewey’s faith in human nature.
A case study: organized labor
We can find proof of Huxley’s concept in the defeat of organized labor in the U.S. In the 1800s and early 1900s, when bosses wanted to shut down union drives or strikes, they just sent in thugs to beat workers. Or kill them. See, for example, the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, in which thousands of people in private militias and police fought against thousands of miners (this is sometimes described as the largest armed uprising in the U.S. since the Civil War); or the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which private militias and the National Guard fired away at thousands of encamped miners and their families.
If you ran a coal mine in the 1910s or 20s, your crimes paid off. You may have gotten some scrutiny, but coal miner union membership plummeted in the years following the Battle of Blair Mountain. And yet, by the 1930s, the Great Depression had amped up labor militancy. So much so that it might have been what got us the New Deal. Some argue FDR ushered in sweeping economic reforms because he wanted to save capitalism from the increasingly influential left (see: Hoover Institution, Howard Zinn), and some believe the New Deal effectively saved America from fascism as well.
So to avoid revolution from either direction, about a third of American workers ended up in a union at the peak of union density. Years and years of violence from big businesses had somehow resulted in high tax rates and a labor movement with large sway in government. But we’ve been leaving that power dynamic behind for a long time, and it hasn’t been because management returned to murdering employees.
Right now is a time of strife too. Why hasn’t a militant labor movement re-emerged? Consider a recent example, brought to us by Amazon:
In 2020, at least 30% of the employees at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, signed a petition sent to the National Labor Relations Board, notifying them of their intent to hold a vote on unionizing. The government sanctioned the vote, and the battle was on.
Amazon’s response was as non-violent as a Gandhi march. No guns. No cops. Not even a single tear gas canister. Instead, workers were forced to attend meetings about the dangers of organized labor, received texts almost daily, and couldn’t even use the bathroom without seeing PSA-style posters. Workers who spoke out at the forced propaganda meetings would get their worker IDs photographed in front of everyone, but to date, there aren’t even reports of anyone being fired in retaliation.
Don’t get me wrong here — I’m not saying that union membership declined in the neoliberal era because companies got better at using propaganda. My point is that this is how power maintains itself right now, and it seems to work out just fine. Case in point:
The resulting vote was a landslide for Amazon. Only about half of the workers voted, and of those that did, over twice as many voted against unionization as the number that voted for it. Why?
One likely factor was an inherent division between workers: the original labor petition was for a unit of 1,500 employees. Amazon, as employers are allowed to do under U.S. labor law, determined the potential union (and therefore vote) would have to include all workers at the fulfillment center—an additional 4,300 temp workers and independent contractors. Why would Amazon want the threat of a far larger bargaining unit? Because it multiplied the number of people that labor organizers would have to contact and educate against Amazon’s scare tactics. Thousands of precarious workers getting daily propaganda from their employers, in a low-wage environment, with functionally no workplace rights…it’s not an easy group to reach out to. Especially in Alabama.
And workers aren’t stupid. Propaganda works, but it’s not like workers immediately believe anything and everything they’re told. Amazon’s messaging was likely effective because it was (somewhat) truthful: we pay you relatively well, and if you’re going to cede some autonomy to an organization, it may as well be the devil you know.
The minimum wage in Bessemer, Alabama, is $7.25 an hour. If you’re an independent contractor, how many other jobs in the area pay Amazon’s $15? In such a low-wage environment, with vanishingly few private-sector unions, who would want to pay union dues for a job that’s already considerably better than everything else available to the working class?
A couple of quotes from workers who voted against unionizing are pretty telling:
Eady also cited Amazon’s “decent pay and benefits” as another reason he voted against the union.
Jennings agreed. “I think we make really good money for what we do,” she said.
Not “okay money.” Not “good money.” “Really good money.”
So America’s eminent megacorp didn’t need to use violence to stop its workers from unionizing. It probably didn’t even need to use as much propaganda as it did. It just needed to ensure its workers knew their place in the caste system, much as Brave New World’s authorities did.
Gig work, surveillance, loneliness, and mass entertainment
Let’s zoom out a bit. Amazon’s easy victory in Alabama is far from the only recent example of Huxley’s trends at work.
When on-demand gig platforms wanted to stop California from forcing them to recognize their drivers as employees (with accompanying benefits, like a minimum wage), they did the same thing that Amazon did in Alabama. Every Uber driver got messages on their app about the advantages of gig work. Meanwhile, the state was plastered with advertisements about how Uber would not tolerate racism, and how black people had “the right to move.” (“Move” is a curious word choice, but probably coincidental, right?)
Put simply, Big Gig reminded their precarious workforce of its place in the modern economy, promised to be better overlords, and simultaneously told the wealthier class of Californians that having digital servants that can be summoned with a few taps is, actually, morally righteous because it’s antiracist.
Perhaps the most clear-cut case of Huxley’s ideas in action is the surveillance state — despite the comparisons mass-spying programs draw to 1984. While there’s no doubt that the government’s legal powers have expanded in a distinctly Orwellian fashion, an enormous component of today’s surveillance state is privatized and derives its power from the consumer lifestyle. We know the gist of this well enough by now: we all use devices, apps, and websites that track our every move. And with every next-gen product that tech companies release, they push the envelope a little further.
At the same time, an emerging cottage industry is turning consumers into informants:
In the U.S., one in ten police departments can access footage captured by the Ring smart doorbell without a warrant. The popular app Nextdoor fosters, in addition to mundane neighborhood drama, paranoia about crime, and it also partners with local police. The up-and-coming neighborhood security app Citizen has users report on everything suspicious in their areas. (The company recently encouraged users to hunt down a falsely accused arson suspect.)
As for the leaders of the security state, even after they retire, they reinforce the power hierarchy peacefully through the private sector. Top intelligence officials advise monolithic companies (think former NSA director Keith Alexander joining Amazon’s board of directors); train the new elites at top schools (former FBI director James Comey taught courses on ethical leadership at the College of William & Mary and lectured at Howard); and tell millions what to think as analysts on news channels (former CIA director John Brennan works for MSNBC and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper works for CNN).
America’s loneliness (and mental health) crisis is another good example. The latest research shows Americans are lonelier than ever and more depressed than ever. Increasingly fewer adults (particularly young adults) have meaningful relationships, or participate in some sort of community or organization outside of work. And the managers of the modern economy have no shortage of solutions to the problems they’ve helped create:
Social media is the obvious one. Even the “best” social media apps/sites (if there is such a thing) are no substitute for in-person interaction, but they’ve displaced it all the same. If Facebook’s plans for a ‘child-friendly’ of Instagram go well, kids will be able to experience the immense benefits of socializing online before they even hit puberty.
And if the company’s investments in virtual reality pay off, we’ll all have yet another digital substitute for the dirty world of in-person interactions. Have you ever felt lonely and drained from staring at a Zoom calls for hours on end? Well, with Facebook’s new conferencing tool, Horizon Workrooms, you can see cute digital avatars instead of your coworkers’ faces. VR is a bet that a lot of other big tech companies are making too. Maybe their effort won’t pay off, but one gets the sense that if tech companies want to force something on us, we’ll take it gladly.
And while your government ‘can’t afford’ to provide healthcare, at least you can download a mindfulness app if you feel burnt out. At the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., New York Gov. Cuomo insisted on cutting Medicaid — but he also struck a deal with a mindfulness app, which agreed to make its services free for the unemployed and for residents of the state.
Apps not helping? Well, weed has been legalized for medical purposes in over half the country already, and that could probably soothe your anxiety. Plus, remember that you can always practice self-care: buying lots of things and watching TV is, in fact, radical and empowering. (Don’t mind the fact that helping a friend, volunteering for a good cause, or just not being selfish are pretty reliable ways of living a happier life.)
That brings us to TV and movies. Thanks to streaming, there’s never been such an abundance of media content to keep us pacified. And when we feel angry at the world’s injustices, TV doubles as a battleground to continue the culture war (safely removed from society’s power centers). We measure our power by how successfully we make famous people apologize for things. It’s celebrity gossip, dressed up as activism. Swap out the emotion and the same dynamic applies: if you’re too depressed to be angry, that Netflix show about the horse-man really addresses the issue of mental health, and you can feel “seen” for a few hours.
Look, I don’t really have a huge problem with mindfulness apps, treating anxiety with weed, or increased awareness of mental health. Those things certainly can be helpful at alleviating pain, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone trying to get through the day (having been there myself). But that’s not really the point. The point is that all those things have exploded in use, will continue to do so, and will do jack shit at scale as the atomization of our society accelerates.
And while I do not wish to over-simplify 2020’s racial justice protests, and I do not assume the effects have fully played out, I must ask: why did the largest protest movement in American history not do more? In 2020, America’s richest people robbed the rest of the country blind. This could have been folded into a racial justice movement that had a clear understanding of class struggle, and would’ve followed 2019’s international trend of populist uprisings. Instead, nationwide protests about police brutality resulted in a famous cop becoming VP, woker TV shows, corporate diversity initiatives, more funding for non-threatening professional ‘activists’, and new heights of social media purity politics.
I acknowledge it’s a complicated issue, but it also appears to me that massive (and justified) outrage was diverted away from institutional power with ease. There are several likely reasons for this, namely the lack of a coherent national strategy, well-defined leadership, or class consciousness. But perhaps at least one reason lies in how inseparable this movement was from a never-ending feed of entertainment and distraction, whether that took the form of drama over clothing brands that committed the sin of cultural appropriation or vapid Instagram infographics.
As Huxley said in the essay:
[…] mass entertainment now plays a part comparable to that played in the Middle Ages by religion.
In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation. The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly “not of this world.” Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx’s phrase, “the opium of the people” and so a threat to freedom.
Asking whether or when Aldous Huxley’s nightmare will come true is pointless because we’ve already been living in it for some time now. Modern technology just happens to have accelerated some things.
The real question at this point is whether our future will finally prove him wrong, even as all evidence points to the contrary. The good news here is that no one can predict the future. While that may sound like a small consolation, it’s really not: even the smartest people, like Aldous Huxley, get things wrong as often as they get them right.
Lastly, as residents of Aldous Huxley’s brave new world, we should view free will as a muscle — one that we can choose to strengthen, or let atrophy. We can choose which debates are worth having, and which are distractions. It’s up to us to decide whether meaningful interactions with fellow humans are worth substituting for unbridled consumerism, or taps on a screen. Limited as the power of a single person may be, it’s worth heeding Aldous Huxley’s warning, if simply for our own sakes.