To hear some people tell it, America entered a dystopia long before the coronavirus and measures undertaken to combat it altered everyday life almost to the point of unrecognizability. As for which dystopia, and when, well — that depends on whom one asks.
For many on the left, the annus horribilis was 2016, the instigator was Donald Trump and his election victory, and the dystopia was that imagined by George Orwell in his 1949 novel 1984. It wasn’t long before the comparisons took root. Just after Trump’s inauguration, when a now-quaint-seeming row over the crowd size of the event unfolded, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway claimed to proffer some “alternative facts” in response to what she deemed misleading statements from the media. This unfortunate phrase provided ample reason for those so inclined to imagine Big Brother on our shores. “George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Suddenly a Best Seller” reported the New York Times, noting a surge in the book’s sales. 1984 “was far better and smarter than good times past allowed us to think,” Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker. The comparison has cropped up sporadically in the years since, in The Nation, The Guardian, and other outlets.
In one sense, this is a bit surprising. Parts of the Left have always had a complicated relationship with Orwell’s novel. Orwell himself was something of a socialist apostate: a “Tory anarchist” who remained committed to democratic–socialist ideals while breaking with many of his contemporaries to condemn Hitler and Stalin equally. The nightmarish vision of 1984 draws from Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and other hellscapes, though it was primarily aimed at Stalin’s real-world dystopia, which at the time was still among the most powerful regimes on Earth — and one that too many of his fellow intellectuals were willing, to varying degrees, to tolerate or worse. Orwell’s was a thinly disguised world of material deprivation, omnipresent surveillance, unrelenting state oppression, children informing on their parents, and the complete obliteration of the individual.
Partly as a result, the intelligentsia’s preferred dystopia back then was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Published in 1932, Huxley’s novel imagines a world dominated not by pain but by pleasure, soaked in commercialism, soothed by drugs and sex and entertainment. Gopnik gets at this when he writes that he used to think 1984’s vision was “too brutal, too atavistic, too limited in its imagination of the relation between authoritarian state and helpless citizens” and recalls praising the “far more prescient” work of Huxley. In his 1985 anti-television jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death, media critic Neil Postman sums up the critical consensus Gopnik is hinting at:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. . . .
It would make a certain kind of sense for left-wingers to have preferred the dystopia of Brave New World, which dovetailed more readily with the Left’s increasing fear of corporate power late in and following the Cold War, to 1984. As Postman puts it in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “the Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which through television now controls the flow of public discourse in America.” It is true that today’s Left has hardly abandoned its self-proclaimed wariness of corporate power, even as corporate America now seems superficially comfortable with sharing many of its ends. Yet at the same time, the apparent culmination of the Left’s embrace of 1984 has been a growing acceptance of policies that would drastically increase the size and scope of government. So what gives?
A kind of dystopian confusion would seem to be at work, one that proceeds, at least in part, from an assumption close reading proves faulty: namely, that Orwell and Huxley envisioned fundamentally incompatible futures, that, in Postman’s words, they “did not prophesy the same thing.” It’s true that the world of Mustapha Mond differs from the world of Big Brother. But in certain broad respects — their fundamental reliance on a virtually omnipotent state, their treatment of the masses — they are more alike than you’ve been led to imagine. And these similarities are just as instructive as the differences we hear so much about, if not more so.
It is uncontroversial — or at least, it should be — to call Orwell’s dystopia a tyranny. But those who imagine that Brave New World is comparatively light on government coercion ought to reread it. Sure, it has its feelies (the highly immersive theatrical experiences to which many turn for entertainment), its unrestrained orgies, its worship of consumerism, and, most famously, its soma, the all-purpose happiness drug frequently self-administered by its citizens. But the pervasive pleasure-seeking of Huxley’s world depends on intense state oppression. In 1984, Winston Smith, the protagonist, is famously employed as a “memory-holer,” discarding inconvenient facts and people from the past and stitching together a new reality on the fly. Huxley’s World State, like many dystopias real and imagined before and since, also begins at Year Zero. The worldwide transition to it is said to have been “accompanied by a campaign against the Past; by the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments (luckily most of them had already been destroyed during the Nine Years’ War); by the suppression of all books” written before a certain year. Such activity would not have been foreign to Winston Smith.
In Huxley’s vision, the family is virtually abolished, with the mores underpinning it — dual parentage, reproduction linked to intercourse — now regarded as disgusting. Children are “hatched” in state-run laboratories, engineered and conditioned from birth to accept their predefined social castes without question. These castes run the gamut from menial laborers to those meant to rule. But all of them obey unquestioningly the World State’s guiding principles, which have been drilled into them their entire lives. One of the most important of these principles is the idea that “everyone belongs to everyone else.” Despite the hedonistic pseudo-paradise over which it presides, the World State fears true individuality. “Unorthodoxy,” one character says, “threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself.” The ghastly world of 1984, emptied of anything like private life, leaving nothing between the individual and the state, could be described in similar terms.
A hair-splitter might retort that a great difference between Brave New World and 1984 obtains in spite of this: namely, that, as Postman puts it, “in 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain” while “in Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.” This is true enough, but the difference between the two can sometimes seem blurred. In one dramatic episode from Brave New World, John the Savage, a character born to human parents and raised among humans who live apart from the World State’s wiles, attempts to foment a rebellion among a compliant class of his fellow citizens by depriving them of their precious soma. When this doesn’t go quite as planned, the state does not hesitate to employ a particular kind of force:
The policemen pushed him out of the way and got on with their work. Three men with spraying machines buckled to their shoulders pumped thick clouds of soma vapor into the air. Two more were busy round the portable Synthetic Music Box. Carrying water pistols charged with a powerful anesthetic, four others had pushed their way into the crowd and were methodically laying out, squirt by squirt, the more ferocious of the fighters.
Thus in Brave New World we see a state that erases the past, that isolates the individual and places him in a repressive hierarchy, and that is willing to exert force to maintain social control. The state’s hedonistic bent is plainly meant to mask a tyranny.
1984’s tyranny is, by contrast, as direct and unsubtle as its critics have long held. Its state apparatus is truly totalitarian, frighteningly subjugating, ruthlessly effective. The drama of the novel is the drawing of Smith into an act of rebellion in which he is caught, and the series of physical and mental tortures he’s then subjected to before admitting his wrongdoing and wholly and unconditionally submitting to the rightness of the state.
It is true that there is nothing quite so viscerally unpleasant in Brave New World. But here one must note something curious about the world of Oceania: The punishment doled out to Winston Smith is hardly universal. Smith is tortured because he is a member of the Party from which the governing apparatus of the state exclusively draws, and the Party cannot tolerate even the mildest subversion. The “proles” who make up most of the rest of the novel’s society have little to do with internal Party politics. Though they must live with the same material deprivation and constant warfare as members of the Party, the state is designed to keep them placated. In Smith’s description, they spend most of their time busy with “heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling.” The Party and the state have little business with them, mostly permitting them to live distracted lives. Of them, it is said that “proles and animals are free.”
In fact, for the most part, in 1984 the government’s main relationship with the proles is not one of suppression but of provision: It runs the Lottery that is “their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant,” and disseminates smut to them via Pornosec, a special “sub-section of the Fiction Department” dedicated to the task. Throughout the novel, Smith places great hope in the possibility that the proles might rise up, but finds himself disappointed at every turn; they remain too base, too self-involved, and too distracted to rise out of their own circle of concern and consider the world around them. They would not be too out of place in Huxley’s World State, being fed on distraction and titillated by trivia. Their conditioned indifference permits the government of Oceania’s oppression to continue unabated.
In certain key ways, then, the critical consensus is backward: Brave New World’s dystopia depends on the pain of tyranny, and 1984’s dystopia depends on the pleasure of distraction. They are two sides of the same coin, and we’d do well to heed the lesson they have to teach us: that it is foolish to fear either corporate power or state power — either the future of Brave New World or the future of 1984 — when you can and should fear both.