I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.
Brave New World Revisited - Aldous Huxley
The novel Brave New World (1931) envisioned a world under a soft dictatorship. That is, the world was ruled by coldblooded leaders who instead of brute force and state violence used genetic manipulation, sleep teaching, recreational drugs, endless entertainment, and casual sex to tightly control the world’s population.
In this reconsideration from 1958, Huxley writes his science fictional dystopia is just around the corner. He identifies the forces that are frog-marching us all into a world of less and less freedom. He argues that progress in the medical sciences has controlled death efficiently by controlling or even eradicating diseases. But we have not controlled population growth. Social unrest in developing countries due to lack of jobs and poverty force central governments to take more and more of a role in maintaining order, which tends to push governments into a more authoritarian direction.
Also diminishing our freedom are not just ensuring order and domestic tranquillity but efficient forms of public and private propaganda. Huxley’s quick review of Hitler’s use of mass media is a masterful examination of how Hitler imposed his will on the German people.
Hitler made his strongest appeal to those members of the lower middle classes who had been ruined by the inflation of 1923, and then ruined all over again by the depression of 1929 and the following years. "The masses" of whom he speaks were these bewildered, frustrated and chronically anxious millions. To make them more masslike, more homogeneously subhuman, he assembled them, by the thousands and the tens of thousands, in vast halls and arenas, where individuals could lose their personal identity, even their elementary humanity, and be merged with the crowd. A man or woman makes direct contact with society in two ways: as a member of some familial, professional or religious group, or as a member of a crowd. Groups are capable of being as moral and intelligent as the individuals who form them; a crowd is chaotic, has no purpose of its own and is capable of anything except intelligent action and realistic thinking. Assembled in a crowd, people lose their powers of reasoning and their capacity for moral choice. Their suggestibility is increased to the point where they cease to have any judgment or will of their own. They become very excitable, they lose all sense of individual or collective responsibility, they are subject to sudden accesses of rage, enthusiasm and panic. In a word, a man in a crowd behaves as though he had swallowed a large dose of some powerful intoxicant. He is a victim of what I have called "herd-poisoning." Like alcohol, herd-poison is an active, extraverted drug. The crowd-intoxicated individual escapes from responsibility, intelligence and morality into a kind of frantic, animal mindlessness.
Demagogues use mass media to repeat the same simple ideas all the time in the simplest language to appeal to passion and prejudice. Huxley argues that the use of soft drugs, having tranquilizing benefits with few side effects, coupled with propaganda techniques, will bypass what few abilities we have to think rationally and thus appeal to our herd-minds, ever subject to dark passions and ugly prejudices. We will think we are free. But we will live in thrall, just doing it, opening happiness, thinking different, running on dunkin, and winning again.
Huxley wrote this short retrospective in order to warn readers against propaganda laid out by advertising companies and politicians. He urges people to apply critical thinking in order to analyze what they hear and read because when we start reacting to news with passion and prejudice we have joined the herd-mind whereas when we analyze on our own we can do so dispassionately and rationally. In fact, he says the whole idea of freedom – in other words, not prey to passion and prejudice – is based on all human beings becoming educated enough to understand their own judgements and base them on nature, i.e. reality.
Democracy depends on the individual voter making an intelligent and rational choice for what he regards as his enlightened self-interest in any given circumstance. The democratic process is short-circuited when the techniques of advertising are used to bypass the rational side of voters to appeal to hatreds and irrational ideas.
Though no prophet scores 100% on predictions coming out, this book is as relevant now as it was when it was published sixty years ago.