In 2015 I posted some snippets from a book by Aldous Huxley which seem to me to be more pertinent than ever — especially since there are so many in this country, in particular, who seem to prefer a dictator to what is left of our democratic system. I repost here.
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. And it sold many copies. 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, which is, in my view, the problem at the root of all others. 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 an all-poowerful central government. 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 education 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 to capture the untrained 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 as they see fit.”