489. Possession in great measure (VII)
A common debate occurs over whether or not we live in Orwell’s world or Huxley’s world—do we live in 1984 or Brave New World? Put another way: do we live in a world characterised by thought control, censorship, and violence or do we live in a world characterised by recreational drugs, consumer inanity, and a general condition where there is no reason to redact books because the whole population is so drugged—by carbs or actual drugs—that they simply do not care? Are we miserably waiting for our rations of Victory Gin under a portrait of Big Brother, or are we frolicking with our Soma pills and feelies and contraceptive pills? Perhaps we live in a world that combines both control forms?
Orwell and Huxley actually knew each other, Huxley taught Orwell at Eton—and he later congratulated Orwell on 1984’s success in a letter; a letter in which he predicted that humans would soon be “conditioned” in utero so that there would be no need for coercion in the actual world. One point often missed in these comparisons between Huxley and Orwell is that Orwell’s dystopia is about war, whereas Huxley’s is about peace. Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932 and the world therein described is simply his world: in 1932 we already had prescription drugs for depression, cinemas (Netflix), consumerism, and sexual liberation. Huxley just projected that consumer plenty and scientific control would become more general—and, in a sense, his 1932 had more in common with 1962 than Orwell’s 1948; he described what would become the post-war boom world—Boomer World.
Orwell’s world, by contrast, is a war world. 1984 just describes life in Britain in 1948: rationing, mass propaganda, general squalor and shortage, the suggestion that war was about to commence with a former ally (the USSR—Eurasia; and, indeed, by 1950 “Oceania” was at war with the USSR in Korea). Technology exists in 1984, yet it is mostly used for war—“the telly” is there, just as in Orwell’s time “the telly” was about to fully intrude on family life (and, in fact, supplant it—along with the old gods of the hearth).
However, technology is generally faulty—the lifts are broken—and is principally reserved for war purposes, for rockets and propaganda and terror-techniques. In Huxley’s world, technology is more as it is in our world: the iPad and iPhone would not be out of place in Brave New World—means to pacify the population with bright colours and hypnotic patterns and reduce them to baby-like acquiescence; and all facilitated through the latest psychology.
So the two dystopias are largely the difference between dystopia at war and dystopia at peace; indeed, the two dystopias are basically Britain at peace (1932 and 1962), and Britain at war (1948). In this sense, Orwell was “wrong” because we did exit the world of “rations, propaganda, and constant war” and settle into the baby-like hedonism, as facilitated by science and technology, seen in Huxley’s world. It is pretty difficult to see, in a nuclear-armed world, how we could revert to Orwell’s “grind”; and yet I suspect if there were to be a Third World War that only saw limited use of nuclear weapons that our world would be more Orwellian than Huxleyian. Of course, since the American empire (Oceania) wages “perpetual war for perpetual peace” certain Orwellian “war” aspects have become constants—particularly the way history is rewritten in mass cult.
The final difference between the two men is that Huxley saw a spiritual dimension to life and Orwell did not—there is redemption in Huxley, there is none in Orwell. The ultimate question for Orwell remains political and material (“Can we escape the circulation of elites?”), whereas for Huxley the question is whether we will scrape the cataracts from our eyes and finally see again—and our ability to perceive is, in fact, as Solzhenitsyn demonstrated, much more imperilled by plenty than overt repression. Comfort is more insidious than war.