BRAVE NEW WORLD REVISITED
Of the two great fictional casts into the future, George Orwell’s has been overtaken by technology. Nineteen Eighty-Four with its ever-darkening vision of a surveillance state with its Thought Police has come to pass through means beyond politics. A single anecdote will make the point. When the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited, the Stasi made some its records public. A German journalist in the old East Germany thought he would check up on himself. There he found a report of a restaurant lunch he had had with a female friend. (‘That’s right! I remember Brigitte ordered risotto. She always did.’) They went different ways after lunch. Consider now the solemn idiocy of a system which paid a man to observe this banal encounter. Surveillance, including bio-surveillance has come a long way since then. No doubt today’s system saves on meals. But Orwell has been absorbed into a world that takes for granted Big Brother and does not even bother to dignify him with that title.
An altogether different, and to my mind much more interesting moon-shot at the future is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell had WW2 to go on, and much of his fiction is an extension of reportage. Huxley’s book, written in 1931 and publishedin 1932, is simply the product of a superior intellect whose vision of the future is uncannily accurate. His ironic title comes from The Tempest, and Miranda’s ‘O brave new world/That has such creatures in’t!’ Prospero’s response ‘’Tis new to thee’ falls with the weight of a great proposition in logic. And Huxley’s exploration of the future contains an astonishing number of hits.
There has been a great war, and the world is at peace. England is governed by the Resident Controller of Western Europe. History has been abolished following Ford’s great doctrine, ‘History is bunk’, and the only language is English. The Bible is unobtainable save in the Controller’s private pornographic collection (which is not so far from today’s virtual proscription of the Authorized Version by the Church of England). People are made content by social arrangements based on the drug ‘soma’, universally recommended as the answer to all physical and social problems. Marriage does not exist and the birthrate is maintained by test tube methods. Families, in our sense, do not exist, neither do patronymics.
A good deal of this is close enough to the sexual and drug-taking mores of today. Huxley saw the decline of support for marriage (it’s been said that young women today do not want marriage, they want the wedding). It’s not the more obvious parallels but the social discriminations of Huxley’s prophecies that are most critical now. ‘We decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or future…Directors of Hatcheries’ says the Director. When very young, the children are instructed through sleep teaching, or ‘hypnopedia’. One lecture, received by the Beta children is Elementary Class Consciousness. ‘I don’t want to play with Delta children. And the Epsilons are still worse…Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard.’ The class stratifications are delineated as forcefully as in a Victorian minor public school, and the clear lesson emerges: Know your place.
But then the language of class has already been infiltrated by caste. As early as page 28, Huxley refers to the khaki-clad—‘their caste was Delta’. This usage becomes steadily more prominent. Height matters: the lower orders ‘had been to some extent conditioned to associate corporeal mass with social superiority’. (The records of the British Army in the two world wars fully bear out this perception. The average height difference between officers and men was four inches.) Information comes to the masses from the three great London newspapers: The Hourly Radio, an upper caste sheet; the pale-green Gamma Gazette; and, on khaki paper and in words exclusively of one syllable, The Delta Mirror. Caste is colour-coded, and not just in clothing.
The social engineering of this world connects caste with ethnicity. On the Reservation, where the old ways still hold, the Warden’s staff has ‘an Epsilon-plus negro porter’. The helicopter pilot is a Gamma, ‘a green-uniformed octoroon’. The menial staff for the Park Lane Hospital for the Dying are Deltas. The smaller houses by the Golf Club buildings are reserved for Alpha and Beta members, and are separated by a dividing wall from the huge lower-caste barracks. The workforce is severely graded by caste and ethnicity.
The Controller’s overview of the system takes the form of a debate between him and the Savage, the young man who has been brought into civilization from the Reservation. He had been born through the old-fashioned method, later stigmatized as ‘viviparous’. While living there, the Savage has found an old copy of Shakespeare, which he quotes throughout his stay and which is the leitmotif of traditional values. The Controller also knows his Shakespeare, to the Savage’s surprise. ‘I’m one of the very few. It’s prohibited, you see. But as I make the laws here, I can also break them. With impunity.’ Today’s readers will have no difficulty in recognizing the mindset. Othello is the test case, on which the Controller comments, ‘You can’t make tragedies without social instability.’ That stability is the highest achievement of the system. ‘People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get.’ They are entertained with virtual-reality style ‘Feelies’ (one includes a love scene on a bearskin rug, every hair of the bear reproduced). ‘Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun’ is the chorus in their post-Woodstock revels. And it is all based on social segregation. ‘The optimum population is based on the iceberg—eight-ninth below the water line, one ninth above.’ Only Alphas can do Alpha work, and only Epsilons could be content with the work they do.
What are we to make of Huxley’s vision of the future? Clearly, he scored several direct hits and some near misses. Class continues to make some headway against caste: a beautiful woman can always leap across the boundaries. ‘Cophetua sware a royal oath, this beggar maid shall be my queen.’ Nutrition has evened up the height of the population, if at the cost of obesity. Successful entertainers and sportsmen have entrée to the higher orders. And yet the suspicion grows that caste has not disappeared, but merely mutated into new inequalities. Stage and television have growing numbers of names that recall illustrious ancestors—their parents gave them the start. Oscar-winning leading actors come out of Eton, to the dismay of fellow actors who recall the 1950s and the first wave of proletarian success on the stage. In Huxley, Eton itself ‘is reserved exclusively for upper-caste boys and girls’, says the Provost. These days they will take an Oxbridge P.P.E., the finishing school for the ruling caste. After a couple of sessions in Harvard they will go on to head a quango, and an independent fiefdom. ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’, once heralded as the key to the future, now looks like a reset of the status quo. ‘Merit’ is a medal that oligarchs pin on their chest—or on the chest of others.
There is in this nothing new. For centuries the aristocracy has solicited employment for its family, and those well placed socially and professionally do
the same. And yet, it looks as though the victories of Brexit and President Trump were born out of a widespread conviction that the hereditary ruling caste, without changing the rules, was doing rather too well out of them. The supranational elite is now having its assumptions challenged, with the masses in both countries, and Europe, having shown that they are deeply unhappy with the decisions of the Alpha-pluses. Today’s Establishment has evidently adopted the Controller’s view of society, that the top ninth do the thinking, the decision-making, the self-rewarding. That goes for the rule of law, which ‘is dictated, in the last resort, by the people who organize society.’ I should be surprised to learn that today’s Alpha-plus caste does not accept the main lines of the Controller’s overview.
And yet Huxley may have some surprises for them. He plants a resonant name in his prophetic vision. The Resident Controller of Western Europe is called Mustapha Mond.