Snippits From Huxley

Readers will agree that I have drawn on Aldous Huxley a great deal over the years. I am reposting one of my previous blogs with a brief addendum at the end which demonstrates how prescient the man was.

I have referred a number of times to Huxley’s 1931 “fable” Brave New World which predicted the future with astonishing accuracy. It is still, in my  mind, one of the most remarkable works ever written: prescient if not great literature. But few have read the sequel, Brave New World Revisited, that Huxley wrote in 1958 in which he admitted that he was even less optimistic than he had been when he wrote his classic fable. The newer work is not a novel, but a series of essays about the topics he touched on in his novel and which still bothered him twenty-seven years later. He starts off with the major problem as he saw it then, overpopulation, about which he has this to say:

” On the first Christmas Day the population on the planet was about two hundred and fifty million — less than half the population of modern China. Sixteen centuries later, when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, human numbers had climbed to a little more than five hundred million. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence world population had passed the seven hundred million mark. In 1931, when I was writing Brave New World, it stood at just under two billion. Today, only twenty-seven years later, there are two billion eight hundred million of us.”

As I write this in 2015 the population on earth numbers 7.3 billion. In a word it has more than doubled since 1958. It boggles the mind. As Huxley goes on to say,

“Unsolved, the problem will render insoluble all other problems. Worse still it will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable. . . .There are many roads to The Brave New World; but perhaps the straightest and broadest of them is the road we are traveling today, the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases [in the human population].”

It’s bad enough we refuse to deal with the issue of climate change, but it is tragic that we even refuse to discuss the problem of overpopulation.  However, this is only one issue Huxley dealt with in this book. As anyone knows who read Brave New World, Huxley was very concerned about the loss of individual freedom in a society that absorbs the individual  in an increasingly crowded world that is headed inevitably toward dictatorship. In that world a few will be forced by circumstances to take complete control of the reins of government while the rest spend their time seeking pleasures. As he noted in this regard:

“Only the most vigilant can maintain their liberties and only those who are consistently and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who manipulate and control it.”

None knew better than Huxley how insidious are the factors that control the minds of those otherwise preoccupied with trivia such as social media and games. He understood better than most that true freedom is not a function of how many loaves of bread there are in the grocery store, but in the knowledge which loaf is best for one’s health. He knew how important educations is to the maintenance of human freedom and the democracy that is trending, even in 1958, toward dictatorship  — not a dictatorship held together by violence, but a dictatorship held together by subtle psychological manipulation. The kinds of manipulation that gets us to buy things we don’t need.

He understood how good salesmanship, whether one is selling soap or a political candidate, is simply another word for propaganda and he understood how clever propaganda works on the human mind and how easy it is for demagogues (such as Rush Limbaugh, for example) to capture the undeveloped minds of apathetic people.

“The demagogic propagandist must be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no grays in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white. In Hitler’s words, the propagandist should adopt ‘a systematically one-sided attitude toward every problem that has to be dealt with.’ He must never admit that he might be wrong or that people of different opinions might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down . . ..'”

Sound familiar? Huxley examines the workings of propaganda in great detail over two chapters in his book. He thinks we should have learned from Germany’s example; but, of course, we did not. Propaganda still works and it works well, whether the product is toothpaste or  presidents.

“Democratic institutions can be made to work only if all concerned do their best to impart knowledge and to encourage rationality. But today, in the world’s most powerful democracy, the politicians and their propagandists prefer to make nonsense of democratic procedures by appealing almost exclusively to the ignorance and irrationality of the electors.. . .[Their techniques will include] scientific selection of appeals and planned repetition . . . Radio [and TV] spot announcements and ads will repeat phrases with a planned intensity. Billboards will push slogans of proven effectiveness. . . .Candidates need, in addition, rich voices and good diction, to be able to look sincerely at the TV camera.”

Huxley seemed to have sensed exactly where we were headed in the 50s. Today we seem to have arrived where he pointed to back then, though there are a great many people who would deny it. In the end, he has the final word:

“By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, 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 totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show aa they see fit.”



15 thoughts on “Snippits From Huxley

  1. Hugh, this is “frighteningly” good, emphasis intended. The scariest part to me are the words of Adolph Hitler and how accurate they are in describing politicking in America or the climate change deniers. In the movie “Merchants of Doubt,” it is revealed that psychological warfare tactics have been deployed by the PR industry working with the fossil fuel industry.

    The other scary part is the concern over population growth. We have troubled areas in the world right now over water supply. This will only get worse with climate change and population growth. The apocalyptic movies where we have a resource poor planet will not be due to nuclear holocaust, it will be due to limited water and food. Good post, BTG

    • Thanks, BTG. The truly scary thing is that we simply ignore the key issue here: overpopulation. The Pope’s recent Encyclical may prove to be very helpful in the fight to convince people that there is a serious problem with climate control, but I can’t see him telling his flock to reduce the number of babies they are producing!

      • Hugh, the GOP leaders are doing their best to belittle the Pope’s encyclical. Yet, I love the fact that he has a Masters in Chemistry and is paying attention to what other scientists are saying. What is nice is the Catholic Church is orchestrating an educational effort within the church on climate change and poverty. We need people banging the drum. BTG

      • No question. His paper was a breath of fresh air in the polluted atmosphere of Washington and one could have predicted the Republican response. “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the truth.”

  2. If Huxley were alive today, he’d probably want all the Soma he could get his hands on. His description of propagandists isn’t just what’s happened, but it’s not solely the propagandists doing it. What he wrote here, “[propagandists] must never admit that he might be wrong or that people of different opinions might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down . . ..'” sounds like it’s straight from the mission statement and operating manual of Fox TV networks.

    Then, the other side has to respond in kind, and there’s escalation, not dialogue. Alas, indeed, for so many vital issues.

    • Unfortunately it’s not just Fox News, though they get the prize. It has become a contagion. Dialogue has been replaced by harangue. As Mill said, we don’t know what we claim to know unless we also know the opposite point of view.

  3. This “predict the future” theory is at least a bit overstated. It’s not that periods of culture over time should be surprised by prescient observations of those trends essentially embedded in the collective psyche of a people and their social organizations. But that so few found voice to express what should be the obvious and decisive criticism of a decadent or depraved intellectual tradition. The world has as yet been, in fact, too Large, and is shrunk by the Population of men in order to make it Smaller. In the end, it would be no great thing to perceive in the eyes of one’s neighbor the pending Fate of all men, should they become so much alike.

  4. Some might even well argue that any Rational Being’s Quality of Intelligence would be a Measure of their Opposition to their own World (the one eyed man among the blind), were that world populated by the densely ignorant and Denizen of the Cave; whereas, such a Rational Being, in another World full lit by the Good (Platonic Intelligent Forms (Ideas))?, would merely be one potential Agent among many equals and superior. Quandary.

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