By Michael Krieger, via Liberty Blitzkrieg,
When people talk of the freedom of writing, speaking or thinking I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.
– John Adams letter to Thomas Jefferson, July 15, 1817
Brave New World Revisited is one of the few books I’ve read in my life that I continue to think about on a regular basis. In terms of understanding where humanity stands at present and what we need to do to get out of the mess we’ve created, it’s one of the more important pieces of non-fiction you can find.
I recently felt the need to reread the book for some unknown reason, and I’m glad I did. The choices we make as a species about how we reorganize human affairs in the decades to come will determine the future of human freedom on this planet. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited offers an abundance of wisdom for us to consider as we move forward.
Huxley was deeply concerned with the importance of individual human freedom and the forces relentlessly trying to stifle it. Here’s a brief description of how Huxley viewed our species:
In the course of evolution nature has gone to endless trouble to see that every individual is unlike every other individual. We reproduce our kind by bringing the father’s genes into contact with the mother’s. These hereditary factors may be combined in an almost infinite number of ways. Physically and mentally, each one of us is unique. Any culture which, in the interests of efficiency or in the name of some political or religious dogma, seeks to standardize the human individual, commits an outrage against man’s biological nature…
Biologically speaking, man is a moderately gregarious, not a completely social animal — a creature more like a wolf, let us say, or an elephant, than like a bee or an ant. In their original form human societies bore no resemblance to the hive or the ant heap; they were merely packs. Civilization is, among other things, the process by which primitive packs are transformed into an analogue, crude and mechanical, of the social insects’ organic communities. At the present time the pressures of over-population and technological change are accelerating this process. The termitary has come to seem a realizable and even, in some eyes, a desirable ideal. Needless to say, the ideal will never in fact be realized. A great gulf separates the social insect from the not too gregarious, big-brained mammal; and even though the mammal should do his best to imitate the insect, the gulf would remain. However hard they try, men cannot create a social organism, they can only create an organization. In the process of trying to create an organism they will merely create a totalitarian despotism.
It’s that very last line which is key, and forms the basis of most of Huxley’s most dystopian concerns. If you agree with his assessment (as I do), that human beings are “moderately gregarious” at a species level, and biologically unique at the individual level, any ethical conclusion about how human civilizations should be structured must promote and protect the value of human freedom at its core.
While this may be obvious to many of you, Huxley accurately warns readers of the nontrivial numbers of dedicated ideologues and authoritarian types who disagree and actively work to turn the human being into a mere cog in a large machine of their particular fantasy. The best terms to describe such types and their worldview are: collectivists and collectivism. These sorts insist that the rights of the individual are subservient to the whole, with the whole typically being some artificial construct that happens to be most opportunistic or appealing at any given moment. Collectivism can emerge on the right or the left of the political spectrum — it knows no political party. The key calling card of the collectivist is that he or she wishes to force individuals into a structure of conformity that fits their particular worldview.
As Mr. William Whyte has shown in his remarkable book, The Organization Man, a new Social Ethic is replacing our traditional ethical system — the system in which the individual is primary. The key words in this Social Ethic are “adjustment,” “adaptation,” “socially orientated behavior,” “belongingness,” “acquisition of social skills,” “team work,” “group living,” “group loyalty,” “group dynamics,” “group thinking,” “group creativity.” Its basic assumption is that the social whole has greater worth and significance than its individual parts, that inborn biological differences should be sacrificed to cultural uniformity, that the rights of the collectivity take precedence over what the eighteenth century called the Rights of Man…This ideal man is the man who displays “dynamic conformity” (delicious phrase!) and an intense loyalty to the group, an unflagging desire to subordinate himself, to belong. And the ideal man must have an ideal wife, highly gregarious, infinitely adaptable and not merely resigned to the fact that her husband’s first loyalty is to the Corporation, but actively loyal on her own account.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t view ourselves as interconnected consciousness on a planetary level — I think we should. The key is this must emerge from an individual understanding of consciousness and not some topdown mandate from some collectivist control-freak dictator enforced via violence and coercion.
But here’s where it starts to get really interesting. Since humans aren’t naturally collectivist animals like ants or bees, those who desire to turn us into such creatures must construct an artificial paradigm and then resort to intense and systematic propaganda to keep it going. This is precisely why Huxley devotes so much of his book to the mind-control techniques of his time and the ones he imagines will exist in the not too distant future.
Here’s one passage that really stuck with me:
In their propaganda today’s dictators rely for the most part on repetition, suppression and rationalization — the repetition of catchwords which they wish to be accepted as true, the suppression of facts which they wish to be ignored, the arousal and rationalization of passions which may be used in the interests of the Party or the State. As the art and science of manipulation come to be better understood, the dictators of the future will doubtless learn to combine these techniques with the non-stop distractions which, in the West, are now threatening to drown in a sea of irrelevance the rational propaganda essential to the maintenance of individual liberty and the survival of democratic institutions.
Russia, Russia, Russia.
Stormy Daniels, Stormy Daniels, Stormy Daniels.
Huxley also spent a great deal of time discussing how completely filled with propaganda all of our human societies are, and that it’s not always totally insidious. After all, the use of persuasion and the innate susceptibility for humans beings to be persuaded is in fact part of our social makeup. He notes:
Suffice it to say that all the intellectual materials for a sound education in the proper use of language — an education on every level from the kindergarten to the postgraduate school — are now available. Such an education in the art of distinguishing between the proper and the improper use of symbols could be inaugurated immediately. Indeed it might have been inaugurated at any time during the last thirty or forty years. And yet children are nowhere taught, in any systematic way, to distinguish true from false, or meaningful from meaningless, statements. Why is this so? Because their elders, even in the democratic countries, do not want them to be given this kind of education. In this context the brief, sad history of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis is highly significant. The Institute was founded in 1937, when Nazi propaganda was at its noisiest and most effective, by Mr. Filene, the New England philanthropist. Under its auspices analyses of non-rational propaganda were made and several texts for the instruction of high school and university students were prepared. Then came the war — a total war on all the fronts, the mental no less than the physical. With all the Allied governments engaging in “psychological warfare,” an insistence upon the desirability of analyzing propaganda seemed a bit tactless. The Institute was closed in 1941. But even before the outbreak of hostilities, there were many persons to whom its activities seemed profoundly objectionable. Certain educators, for example, disapproved of the teaching of propaganda analysis on the grounds that it would make adolescents unduly cynical. Nor was it welcomed by the military authorities, who were afraid that recruits might start to analyze the utterances of drill sergeants. And then there were the clergymen and the advertisers. The clergymen were against propaganda analysis as tending to undermine belief and diminish churchgoing; the advertisers objected on the grounds that it might undermine brand loyalty and reduce sales.
That’s simply fascinating and shows there’s a institutional bias against providing people with the tools needed in order to identify mind-control and propaganda. Dominant institutions may not agree on much, but they agree that people shouldn’t be critical thinkers. This is precisely why my wife and I are determined to teach our children to question everything they’re told, including by us (I’m quite certain I’ll live to regret writing that some day).
Huxley’s observation reminds me of that classic George Carlin quote:
There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never ever ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better. Don’t look for it. Be happy with what you’ve got… because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now… the real owners. The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls. They got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying. Lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests.
Indeed it is.
Going back to Huxley, it’s amazing how prescient he was about the future of the U.S. and indeed much of the Western world. He observed:
At this point we find ourselves confronted by a very disquieting question: Do we really wish to act upon our knowledge? Does a majority of the population think it worth while to take a good deal of trouble, in order to halt and, if possible, reverse the current drift toward totalitarian control of everything? In the United States and America is the prophetic image of the rest of the urban-industrial world as it will be a few years from now — recent public opinion polls have revealed that an actual majority of young people in their teens, the voters of tomorrow, have no faith in democratic institutions, see no objection to the censorship of unpopular ideas, do not believe that government of the people by the people is possible and would be perfectly content, if they can continue to live in the style to which the boom has accustomed them, to be ruled, from above, by an oligarchy of assorted experts. That so many of the well-fed young television-watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing, but not too surprising. “Free as a bird,” we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unrestricted movement in all the three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone — or at least by bread and circuses alone.
It’s important to recall that this was written in 1958. Huxley astutely noted that the youth of post WW2 America, too young to recall the horrors of the war, but old enough to appreciate the material benefits which followed total victory, had no real interest in self-government or freedom of thought. Fat on bread and expecting good times to continue indefinitely, the American public had very quickly become a people perfectly primed for those obsessed with turning humans into malleable cogs in a gigantic machine. This machine would eventually evolve into the imperial oligarchy we have today.
Huxley also noted the following about the media environment:
Mass communication, in a word, is neither good nor bad; it is simply a force and, like any other force, it can be used either well or ill. Used in one way, the press, the radio and the cinema are indispensable to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator’s armory. In the field of mass communications as in almost every other field of enterprise, technological progress has hurt the Little Man and helped the Big Man. As lately as fifty years ago, every democratic country could boast of a great number of small journals and local newspapers. Thousands of country editors expressed thousands of independent opinions. Somewhere or other almost anybody could get almost anything printed. Today the press is still legally free; but most of the little papers have disappeared. The cost of wood-pulp, of modern printing machinery and of syndicated news is too high for the Little Man. In the totalitarian East there is political censorship, and the media of mass communication are controlled by the State. In the democratic West there is economic censorship and the media of mass communication are controlled by members of the Power Elite. Censorship by rising costs and the concentration of communication power in the hands of a few big concerns is less objectionable than State ownership and government propaganda; but certainly it is not something of which a Jeffersonian democrat could possibly approve.
The advent of the internet and social media leveled this playing field considerably, a development which freaked out the establishment and resulted in hysterical calls to censor the web in the name of fighting “fake news.”
Finally, while reading Brave New World Revisited can leave you with a sense of despair, I see many reasons for optimism. First, we should remember that the reason freedom and the individual human spirit is so difficult to eradicate in the long-term is precisely because the collectivist model goes against the actual nature of our species. This is why so much time and effort must be placed on propaganda and mind-control. Collectivists need to manipulate and brainwash us into accepting such unnatural and oppressive environments such as the type most of humanity live under to the present day.
This means we can certainly change things and shift toward a different paradigm for human affairs. As most of you know by know, I believe this model must be rooted in the concept of decentralization. Huxley seems to agree:
Take the right to vote. In principle, it is a great privilege. In practice, as recent history has repeatedly shown, the right to vote, by itself, is no guarantee of liberty. Therefore, if you wish to avoid dictatorship by referendum, break up modern society’s merely functional collectives into self-governing, voluntarily cooperating groups, capable of functioning outside the bureaucratic systems of Big Business and Big Government.
Over-population and over-organization have produced the modern metropolis, in which a fully human life of multiple personal relationships has become almost impossible. Therefore, if you wish to avoid the spiritual impoverishment of individuals and whole societies, leave the metropolis and revive the small country community, or alternately humanize the metropolis by creating within its network of mechanical organization the urban equivalents of small country communities, in which individuals can meet and cooperate as complete persons, not as the mere embodiments of specialized functions.
Humanity finds itself at a significant crossroads. The forces of over-organization and centralization remain dominant, but are increasingly on the run as the economic and political paradigm created in their image begins to fracture. As Huxley noted, over-organization is a disease, yet the varied proponents of the status quo will argue for more control and more centralization as a cure to a problem of their own making. In contrast, what we need to do is move in precisely the opposite direction.
It’s become clear to me that the gigantic, bureaucratic nation-state model of counties as varied as the U.S., China and Russia make little sense in their current forms if we care at all about human freedom. Huxley observed that freedom flourishes best at a far more local level of governance and I completely agree. When you attempt to make blanket, centralized political decisions for hundreds of millions, or even billions of people, everyone ends up unhappy and collectively powerless. Significant amounts of coercion and oppression are then needed to enforce such centralized decisions that typically end up benefiting only the handful of people who are able to game the system and get what they want.
Self-government is in inverse ratio to numbers. The larger the constituency, the less the value of any particular vote. When he is merely one of millions, the individual elector feels himself to be impotent, a negligible quantity. The candidates he has voted into office are far away, at the top of the pyramid of power. Theoretically they are the servants of the people; but in fact it is the servants who give orders and the people, far off at the base of the great pyramid, who must obey. Increasing population and advancing technology have resulted in an increase in the number and complexity of organizations, an increase in the amount of power concentrated in the hands of officials and a corresponding decrease in the amount of control exercised by electors, coupled with a decrease in the public’s regard for democratic procedures. Already weakened by the vast impersonal forces at work in the modern world, democratic institutions are now being undermined from within by the politicians and their propagandists.
For additional thoughts on this topic, see my 2017 four-part series: “Decentralize or Die.”
This is the second post I’ve written on Brave New World Revisited. See the first one here: Brave New World Revisited…Key Excerpts and My Summary (2014)
Read the entire book online here: Brave New World Revisited