60 years ago this year, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World Revisited, which concluded that the real world was moving towards the future predicted in his classic dystopian novel much more quickly than he had first imagined.
Brave New World, published almost three decades earlier, foresaw a future in which social control had been perfected through a mixture of cultural dumbing down, genetic engineering and the prodigious use of recreational drugs and no-strings sex. Unlike that other classic of dystopian fiction (George Orwell’s 1984), Brave New World proved prophetic in its description of a world in which acquiescence to authority would be purchased through mindless consumerism, rather than imposed with bludgeon and baton. As he wrote in Revisited: “It has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behaviour is less effective, in the long run, that control through the reinforcement of desirable behaviour by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the nonviolent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of the individual men, women and children.” In the world of his fable, he noted, “punishment is infrequent and generally mild,” adding that “It now looks like the odds are more in favour of something like Brave New World than of something like 1984” emerging.
The first element of control in Brave New World was prenatal manipulation; that is to say, the “systematic practice of eugenics and dysgenics.” All babies were test tube babies, with “biologically superior” sperm and ova fused together to produce Betas, Alphas and Alpha Pluses. These would become the adults destined to inherit political and economic control: the future brains and leaders of the Brave New World. At one point, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe is asked the obvious question of why everyone is not made Alpha Plus. “Because we don’t wish to have our throats slit,” comes the reply. To this end, “biologically inferior” sperm and ova were treated to the Bokanovsky Process, where they would be deliberately treated with alcohol and other protein poisons to retard their development. These would grow into the “epsilon” workers used for menial and monotonous labour.
Huxley said, “The creatures finally decanted were almost subhuman; but they were capable of performing unskilled work and, when properly conditioned, detensioned by free and frequent access to the opposite sex, constantly distracted by gratuitous entertainment and reinforced in their good behaviour patterns by daily doses of soma, could be counted on to give no trouble to their superiors.” After all, the Controller adds, Alpha Pluses would go mad with epsilon work.
In his 1958 study, Huxley seemed to go back on his forecast of such genetic manipulation, writing that “Babies in bottles and the centralised control of reproduction are not perhaps impossible; but it is quite clear that for a long time to come we shall remain a viviparous species breeding at random. For practical purposes genetic standardisation may be ruled out.”
Just 20 years later, Louise Joy Brown, the world’s first ‘test tube baby’, was born. Of course, this was still a long way from the complete abolition of wombs and state-controlled selective breeding of his fable; but the steady increase in prenatal screenings underway today – pushing towards the potential elimination of conditions like Down Syndrome – are leading to a level of genetic selection which even Huxley had perhaps been too quick to rule out.
A second method of social control was through the ubiquitous use of drugs; namely Soma, a cure-all providing bliss, visions, or sleep depending on dosage; and all at “no physiological or mental cost.”
“The Brave New Worlders,” Huxley tells us, “could take holidays from their black moods, or from the familiar annoyances of everyday life, without sacrificing their health or permanently reducing their efficiency.” Furthermore, the use of Soma was “not a private vice, it was the very essence of the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.”
Updating Marx, Huxley noted that in the Brave New World, Opium – or at least Soma – was the religion of the people; for “like religion, the drug had power to console and compensate, it called up visions of another, better world, it offered hope, strengthened faith and promoted charity.”
Soma was an essential weapon in the armoury of the World Controllers, pacifying and distracting the citizenry from the meaninglessness inanity of their emotionally numbed existence. “Chemically induced euphoria,” Huxley wrote, functioned as “a substitute for the satisfaction of feeling oneself free and creative.”
In the real world, the prospect of drugging their subjects was also too tempting to be ruled out. After all, says Huxley, a ruler “could ensure himself against political unrest by changing the chemistry of his subjects’ brains and so making them content with their servile conditions. He could use tranquilizers to calm the excited, stimulants to arouse enthusiasm in the indifferent, halluciants to distract the attention of the wretched from their miseries.”
The only question was, how would a ruler get his subjects to ingest them? “In all probability,” he answered, “it will be enough merely to make the pills available.” Mass self-medication would surely follow.
Fast forward to today and it is clear how prescient Huxley’s words were. Legal drugs such as Ritalin are routinely prescribed to schoolchildren to maintain order in the classroom by suppressing the natural desire to run about; whilst Prozac provides on-tap inoculation against the emotional impact of a depressing and dispiriting societal malaise. Meanwhile, despite pervasive prohibition (or, rather, because of it), illegal drugs of all kinds are now more or less freely available. The alleged facilitation of the crack epidemic by the CIA – ostensibly as a means of funding the illegal Contra war against Nicaragua, but just as useful as a means of destroying social cohesion and political solidarity amongst the black working class – has been well documented. Meanwhile, the other by-products of prohibition – exponentially increased profits which underpin the global banking system, the feeding of human souls into the prison-industrial complex, and the empowerment of brutal gangs who can often be harnessed to imperial foreign policy – are just as beneficial to ruling class interests. Huxley had not necessarily foreseen how prohibition could create the availability he predicted alongside all these additional uses; but in terms of the ubiquity of self-medication, he was prophetic.
It is worth noting, however, that Huxley was no simplistic moralizer when it came to drugs. He was in fact quite an advocate of the spiritual uses of psychedelics, his second most famous work – the Doors of Perception, a vivid portrait of a mescaline trip – becoming practically the bible of the hippy movement. Huxley was no more opposed to psychedelic drugs on principle than he was to sex – rather, he foresaw how both could be desacralised and used to paper over the cracks in an emotionally dysfunctional society.
Which brings us to sex. The Brave New World is one in which thought and reading are frowned upon, the quest for meaning replaced by a never-ending parade of no-strings sex. Monogamy is seen as the “enemy of civilisation” whilst “promiscuity is the rule,” its citizens remind each other, and “romance is degenerate.” Emotion, intelligence, family – all are viewed as afflictions, brakes on individuality; even the very word ‘mother’ is considered obscene. ‘Own-time’, as it’s called, is frowned upon; the most damning indictment of the leading protagonist Bernard – the clearest evidence of his weirdness – is that he “actually chooses to spend time on his own.” Sex is completely detached from emotion, and instead functions as both pleasurable distraction and indicator of status and success.
Ultimately it is this – not a beating from the police – that leads to Bernard’s co-option. Bernard is an Alpha Plus civil servant who finds fame and fortune following his discovery of ‘John the Savage’, a rugged and unconditioned literate who personifies the old world of Christian morality and knowledge-seeking, and gets promptly paraded around like a circus animal. Bernard’s newfound adulation following this ‘discovery’ provides him with a pass to ‘sessions’ with high-status women. In contrast to 1984’s lead character Winston – who is ultimately co-opted through fear and torture – Bernard’s co-option thus takes place as the growing wealth, recognition and sex he receives following his ‘discovery’ naturally tend to blunt his critical outlook on society – raising the question of whether his initial rebelliousness was anything more than jealousy in the first place. In sum, control in the Brave New World is achieved almost entirely by consent; its citizens cowed by what Huxley calls “the infliction of pleasure.”
But, often forgotten in the popular memory of the book, the Brave New World does not span the globe. Parallel to the zone of consent, there is a zone of coercion. Outside the lands of relentlessly vacuous hedonism lie the deprived ‘reservations’ in which the poor and indigenous are hemmed in by electric fences. No serious conditioning takes place there, marriage and family occurs, “monstrous superstitions” such as Christianity and ancestor worship are practiced; it is a place, the tour guide explains, where “infectious diseases, priests and venomous lizards” are rampant. Yet the savages are perfectly tame, a result of their having been subjected to plenty of torture and starvation. And there is no escape from the reservations: those born there are condemned also to die there, adding, perhaps, to the piles of corpses at the boundary left by the desperate souls who have attempted to scale the fence.
Our hedonist wonderlands too are ringed by corpses: the corpses of those who would dare to flee the rampaging militias, broken societies and mass dispossession bequeathed the third world by NATO and the IMF. In the 10 years preceding the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, 23,000 had already perished making the desperate crossing across the Mediterranean, whilst hundreds die each year on the US border with Mexico. And, as climate terror, economic crisis, and war make ever larger swathes of the world uninhabitable, these numbers are set to grow exponentially. Far-right parties across the Western world are already coming to power promising to make the fences impenetrable; to ensure, that is, that the pile of corpses continues to grow. Following suit this month was Jean-Claude Juncker, announcing a new army of 10,000 border guards to this end.
There was one major aspect of the modern world, however, that Huxley missed. In the neofeudal Brave New World, you are born into your allotted role, and conditioned to accept it. “The secret of happiness,” its proponents explain, “is liking what you have to do.” In our world, however, it is not the fatalistic comforts of feudalism that prevail, but the lies of neoliberalism. People, by and large, inherit their future position – class, status, income – from their parents. But everywhere – by the most well-meaning of teachers as much as by the most cynical of advertising executives – they are conditioned to believe that they are responsible for their own condition. The corollary of ‘you can be whatever you want’ is that ‘whatever you are is your own fault’. This basic myth of the modern world has succeeded, not in making everyone happy with their lot in life, but in ensuring they blame themselves for their predicament; if you find yourself in a dangerous, dead-end, or underpaid job, it must be because you are too stupid, lacking in talent or indolent to secure, or indeed deserve, anything else. This systemic production and reproduction of self-loathing – such an integral feature of contemporary life – was not a component of the Brave New World. And for this reason, the refugee plays a different role. In Huxley’s dystopia, the wretched inhabitants of the reservations – personified by ‘John the Savage’ – were objects of amusement, absurd relics of a long-supplanted life. For the overstimulated and under-fulfilled citizens of the West, however, the refugee is a canvas on which to project the unwanted and uncomfortable parts of our own psyche – a vessel to carry that part of ourselves we are taught to loathe, the part that seeks emotional security, decent housing, sustainable well-paid employment, but yet secretly believes we are really not entitled to it. Splitting off this conflicted craving from ourselves, we need to throw it at someone else, someone who can plausibly take on the role of the undeserving seeker of security. Enter the refugee.
Unlike 1984, Brave New World understood the splitting of the world into a zone of consent and a zone of coercion, in which consent could be obtained in the one precisely because coercion had been exported to the other. Yet the split in fact goes much deeper than this – into the very center of our souls.