Brave New World Revisited
posted by Geoff Andrews at Saturday, January 28, 2012
One of the consequences of living through uncertain economic times is that on the back of ‘crises’, ‘recession’ and ‘downturns’, big projects, quick fixes and new world orders are not far behind. This is another moment which has produced more pessimistic prognoses for the future and it comes as a timely reminder that it is now 80 years since the publication of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, an extraordinarily rich work which combined satire with sharp social critique.
Huxley, one of the leading public intellectuals of the last century, was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and a participant in some of the important intellectual debates of the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike many of his circle, however, he was profoundly influenced by first-hand accounts of poverty and prostitution in the East End of London, the plight of Durham miners and life in the Black Country at the height of the depression. Like George Orwell in The Road To Wigan Pier and J.B.Priestley’s English Journey, these visits gave him an insight for his writing. He shared with many others of his generation contempt for the defunct political class and the class divided nature of British society, while aware of the tumultuous events on the horizon in Europe with the rise of fascism. At the same time, he had been horrified at the decadence of the late 1920s, captured in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, and – more than most of his contemporary novelists – was profoundly influenced by Fordism, following his visits to the USA.
It is crucial to understand the importance of Fordism in Brave New World. On the one hand, there is the strongly satirical depiction of a society that believes in unlimited progress guided by science and planning that also appears in Chaplin’s Modern Times (remember the Fellows Feeding Machine?). On the other hand, Huxley thinks through the wider disastrous cultural implications of Fordism. The problem, according to Huxley in an article entitled Art and the Obvious, was that this commercial mass culture was made ‘for the people but not – and this is the modern tragedy - by the people’. Therefore beyond what he called the ‘philosophy of industrialism’, in Brave New World Fordism was given the status of a new religion in its ability to answer all social questions.
This is made clear by the importance of science, including a far-sighted prediction of the application of reproductive technology, (the novel’s first chapter describes the role of The Fertilising Room and the arrival of ‘decanted babies’) in transforming society and driving production, prosperity and pleasure. The abolition of the family is made possible by science and widespread recreational sex, but the main goal of these changes is to increase consumption. In Brave New World ‘under-consumption’ is a crime against society, while the novel’s central slogan ‘ending is better than mending’ reflects the obsession with relentless materialism. Outlawing those things which do not aid consumption (and therefore pleasure) carries a different implication from Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four vision of a Party-led oligarchy; yet both continue to carry strong messages for the future.
Huxley’s vision was not constrained by the immediacies of his time and his global consumerist vision resonates with our own era, notably what some see as the complacent shift towards a standardised lifestyle culture with its own significant consequences for intellectual freedom, civil rights and diversity. Moreover the threats, as he accurately predicted in 1932, are not only from the totalitarianism of regimes opposed to the main principles of liberal democracy, (and we might now add forms of religious fundamentalism), but have their roots in the current conditions, even in ‘progressive’ attempts to make our lives better, faster, more pleasurable, more efficient and more equitable. As with Huxley’s observations of the 1930s, the growing disparity of wealth, now increasingly evident in the current economic crisis, co-exists with promises of abundance, expressed not only through economic opportunities, but through the assimilation of the cultures of work and leisure.
How might Huxley’s Brave New World be re-imagined today? For Huxley, the main drivers of the new society were a mixture of left wing utopians and self-interested hedonists, reflected in his own mix of historical characters derived from the combined names of some of the leading thinkers of the day – among them Bernard Marx, Polly Trotsky and Benito Hoover. Today, he might envisage the Labour Party being replaced by The Anti-Elitism Movement, as a champion of utopian values at a time when the hegemony of a supermarket- driven world of consumerism carries all before it.
Where might Huxley place today’s Brave New World? Perhaps a contemporary alternative to the ‘Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre’, that ‘squat grey building of only three stories’, with which we opens his novel, might be a management training course in a new town, one which brings to mind that delicate mixture of puritanism and planning. Adopting his satirical take on the grandiose schemes, futurist architecture and consumer paradise, he might well place it somewhere like Milton Keynes, with its street grids, concrete cows and shopping malls. Each morning at Milton Keynes Central (MKC), a new batch of ‘colleagues’ would arrive from one of the Tesco Towns, named after the nation’s most profitable supermarket and based in one of 20 regions. On arrival at MKC, they would be taken to their first Workload Planning Improvements Committee meeting, whose mission is summed up by the phrase: ‘You know you’ve got the time’, and where each new colleague is introduced to two line managers; one for mornings and one for afternoons.
After collecting their complimentary flasks of ‘Skinny Latte extra hot’ (universally known as a ‘lar-tay in the inclusive popular vernacular of MKC), the next stage of the new colleagues’ induction is to attend a keynote powerpoint lecture. This is given by the Professor of Ordinary Culture (the alternative to Huxley’s Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning) and entitled ‘The Most Important Event of the Twentieth Century’, namely the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, widely recognised as the moment when the leaders of the emerging world told us that culture belonged to everyone, and Shakespeare was of no greater literary merit than Agatha Christie. The lecture traditionally ends with colleagues breaking up into small groups, and chanting: ‘The People’s Princess! ‘The People’s Princess!’
At lunchtime, when the senior line-managers, dressed in their now traditional gear of baggy cardigans or lycra bicycle shorts, (grey suits having long been consigned to history) eat their Wraps in the Managers Mall, the new colleagues will be offered a selection of YouTube- led Bitesize Briefings. Typically, these might include ‘Blue Skies Thinking for Middle Managers’, or ‘A Heads-Up for Decision-Makers’, particularly helpful for those seeking a line-management career.
The final session of the day, ‘Thank You For Sharing This With Me’, has its origins in Golden Time, the last session of the old primary schools of the previous epoch, when new colleagues can introduce new ideas, or objects, such as new time-saving inventions. This is with the proviso of course that such ideas Take Things Forward, to use the motto of the new era. In the evening, for those whose Tesco Towns are far away, the usual forms of entertainment are available, including the multiplex Cinemas of Virtue, where colleagues can see consecutive episodes of The Apprentice, or a visit to see a performance of The Dons, the only surviving football team since association football was abolished for being overly competitive.
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley reminded us not only of the dangers and fears of the future but of the fragility of intellectual and cultural freedom. His satire was harsh but resonated as a warning that a darker future may well be on the horizon, even one derived from the best intentions. Its influence has long survived his own death, (on the same day as the assassination of visionary US President John F Kennedy), and continues to alert us to the complacency of our current predicament.