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Dystopia... or Reality?

Huxley's Brave New World

If you are a reasonably well-read person, the chance is quite high you will be familiar with the iconic dystopian novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. You will also be familiar with the parallels drawn between this novel and Western society, such as Ford’s invention of mass production, the culture of consumerism, sexual promiscuity, “superficial” happiness and ignorance of stronger feelings, as well as lack of individuality. These parallels are likely to be found in many school essays, so I will not be talking about something that has already been made so obvious. What is less obvious (at least to some) is the question of whether the items Huxley satirizes will in roughly six hundred years (starting from 1931, when the work was written) unquestionably bring the world to the state he describes. Even though the attempt to answering this question will be a rational speculation, it is still worth looking into the matter, as it raises a more philosophical question, namely: is Huxley’s world really all that worse than ours?

Anthropologists believe that humanity has evolved as a structure of social groups consisting of genetically related individuals. Assuming this evolutionary history, humans beings are likely to be genetically predisposed to certain social structures, such as family, clans, tribes, etcetera. Therefore, it may be difficult to organise a society in which all such bonds are dissolved, even if you have a dazzling six hundred years to achieve it, as it is “just a blink of the eye” compared to millions of years of primate evolution... ask any biologist!

However, it is not impossible to overcome traits you are genetically predisposed for. In Huxley’s dystopia this is largely accomplished through a technique called “hypnopaedic conditioning’’. This technique involves the use of recordings that repeat phrases over and over in one’s sleep, and which are then used to brainwash every member of society into being happy and content with their station in life, and, above all, obedient to those who govern them. Such a powerful plot device essentially gives Huxley a “get-out-of-jail-free card” which can be used to explain any kind of societal behaviour observed in the novel... no matter how absurd or unintuitive. Do you doubt the plausibility of Huxley’s caste system? Chances are you have been subjected to hypnopaedic conditioning. Do you think people would never be able to avoid falling in love, to strive for artistic greatness, or to somehow assert their individuality? Hypnopaedic conditioning. Seemingly able to explain everything, hypnopaedic conditioning is the glue that holds the Brave New World together, and if it actually worked, it would indeed bring us a step closer to Huxley’s dystopia. Unfortunately, so far no evidence has been provided for the effectiveness of such practice. This is a major obstacle for scaling the society portrayed in the book up to the level of reality. So... no caste-based system where everybody is happy with what they do for us, Mr. Huxley.

We find another obstacle in terms of planned economy, as practiced in Brave New World, where all economic processes are controlled by the State, and where a high level of consumerism creates and maintains job opportunities. While, according to Huxley’s timeline, we still have several hundred years to experiment with this matter, such centrally planned economies have never been successful in our reality so far, as all attempts either left citizens too poor to afford anything they needed, or left limited supply on the market, or both. In short, it´s not clear whether the kind of economy described in the novel would be able to succeed on a large scale.

However, plausibility aside, this exercise of considering a hypothetical “real life” Brave New World raises some interesting questions with respect to both our personal philosophies and worldviews, and our ideas about what kind of society we want to live in. Remember, even if we recoil in disgust at the (by our standards) superficial and pathetic lives described in the novel, the majority of this population is happy. Are we prepared to say that if such a society can make its citizens happier than our present societies, that it is really inferior? Is happiness the only end worth pursuing (perhaps even by definition)? Are concepts like artistic beauty, truth, or some other ideal more important than people’s happiness? Or do these things derive their value exactly from the fact that they tend to make people happy?

If you belong to the first group (beauty, truth, etc. have intrinsic value over and above the happiness derived from them), then so be it. That’s a topic for another article. But if you favour the second group (claiming that human happiness is the only metric worth using), then consider the following: even if the grim suggestions of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World happen to come true one day, the only ones to suffer would be people either not responding well to the hypnopaedic conditioning, or ones who have been exposed to a completely different kind of society before, like John the “savage”. Just think of it: what is wrong with being “designed” for a certain kind of job, even if it is sweeping streets, if you are also conditioned to love this job? And what is wrong with being promiscuous and lacking commitments, if it is the norm in the society? So, again, the big question raised here is: what do we value most in society? Huxley seems to suggest that there is more to life than happiness, but the question, however interesting, remains unanswered.

by Anastasia Bernikova