Are we living in a Brave New World or in 1984? That seems to be the frequent subject of discussion these days. The answer is that we can see aspects of both novels playing out in our society today.
Nineteen-Eighty Four, written by George Orwell, is a dystopian novel about a totalitarian state that echos Stalinist Russia. Winston Smith is a worker in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. Winston secretly rebels against Big Brother and falls in love with a woman named Julia. Eventually, the pair are captured, and they are tortured until they betray one another and express allegiance to Big Brother.
So what parts of 1984 appear in our present society? The constant surveillance is an obvious example. In 1984, telescreens monitor Winston even in his apartment. In our society, we have smart phones, smart TV’s, ubiquitous security cameras, and of course Alexis. But the government hasn’t forced this on the people; people have willingly given up their privacy to these things. And it’s not always government doing the surveillance. It’s often huge corporations.
Orwell’s Newspeak bears remarkable similarities to today’s political correctness enforced at universities and in the media. In 1984, language was limited to prevent independent, undesired thoughts. Big Brother also used nonsense slogans such as War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength in order to brainwash the populace and make them more docile. It reminds one of the Left’s Orwellian language on abortion rights, which is couched in terms of personal liberty and autonomy, and transgenderism (a man can be a woman and vice versa). Though not always government enforced, incredible social and economic pressures are brought to bear upon those who dare to deviate from the liberal orthodoxy of the elites, especially when it concerns the LGBT or abortion rights agendas.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (BNW) is a dystopian novel about a society where people are genetically engineered in artificial wombs. The people are sedated with a drug called soma and by hedonistic pleasure. Bernard Marx, a psychologist, and Lenina Crowne, who works in the hatchery, take a trip to the Savage Reservation and meet John, who grew up reading only two books, one of which is Shakespeare. John is brought back to World State and finds it difficult to fit into the scientifically advanced, hedonistic society.
Whereas in 1984 the public is prevented from hearing the truth, in Huxley’s dystopia, the people are indifferent to it. They are too busy chasing after pleasure. The dependence upon the drug Soma is reminiscent of recent trends in our society–increasing use of recreational marijuana, addiction to online pornography, and an obsession with sports and celebrity culture. Many people in our day know more about the Kardashians than they do about the Founding Fathers.
The social elite in BNW are scientists and intellectuals. Likewise, we also have an elite intellectual class in academia and media, which dictate to the rest of society not only what to think, but also what is morally right and wrong.
The character of John, who does not fit into the World State because of his traditional values, represents a stark contrast to the elitist social hierarchy found at the beginning of the novel. In a way he resembles a Rousseau-like vision of the noble savage unspoiled by civilization. He is physically attracted to the woman Lenina but is turned off by her immoral lifestyle. He represents the old-fashion values of an earlier period, which is contrasted with the modernist, sophisticated, amoral notions of World State. One does not have to strain very hard to see the correlation to our own day.
It could be said that neither writer’s predictions were entirely correct, but when combined together these two books paint a fairly accurate portrait of the world we live in. One usually thinks of 1984 in the context of warnings against totalitarian governments–which seek to crush freedom and control people’s lives. And such warnings are relevant to us, especially when we hear about those kind of tactics being used in countries like China and North Korea. However, we must also be vigilant against the apathy and indulgence we see in Huxley’s vision of the future. In this regard, the enemy may not be Big Brother, but ourselves. We would do well to remember what Huxley said in a letter to Orwell in 1949:
“The lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”