The concept of a dystopia had a quick appeal to me, ever since I picked up 1984 years ago. Perhaps, it is because of my general skepticism of almost everything. These days, progressives have referenced the similarities between the institutional strategies used to sustain the dystopias depicted in 1984 and Brave New World and the living reality of Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence in the United States. Will the Trump Administration’s use of “alternative facts” become the new normal, akin to “double-speak” in 1984? Alas, I decided to give Brave New World a read to see what I might glean from another dystopian classic.
My impression after the first few pages is of shock at how much foresight Huxley had of the direction that Western society was headed in terms of social norms in relationships coupled with technological development in reproduction and genetics. If it were not completely foresight, then disbelief at how much our society was already heading in this direction in the early twentieth century, how this path seems so incredibly predetermined, and how much our norms are driven, or enabled, by technological advance.
Although the ease at which Trump can generate ‘facts’ from baseless assertions is arguably in line with the managerial tools used to sustain the dystopias in both books, I find that the seeds of a Brave New World-style dystopian society have already been sown in the United States.
First, the norm of open relationships without long-drawn emotional attachment is a natural progression from the currently prevalent hook-up culture. In this current culture, having a one-night stand as a single adult is very normal, while declaring one’s love to a boy/girlfriend is a very big deal and declaring one’s love after meeting a person for one day is utterly abnormal. I believe that a lack of emotional depth in human-to-human relationships is one of the biggest afflictions in America. This lack of emotional depth is precisely one of the key tools used in BNW: keeping people robotically capable at their predestined jobs and satisfying their Freudian needs, but without emotional depth. At any hint of an emotion or frustration rising from within, one is encouraged to take a pill — with all of the opiating effects of drugs and alcohol without the negative after effects. This was the way to maintain a stable society, the fundamental objective, as without attachments to loved ones and religious convictions, etc., there would not be jealousy, violence, or war. This kind of engineered norm was made possible by superior technologies in this society, which gave rise to superior contraceptives and a complex and precise system of reproduction via test tubes, solely.
The second similarity is the reproductive technology. Today, test tube babies are already possible. With our increasing understanding of the human genome, we will be able to conduct gene selection in a precise manner one day and can already identify certain genetic diseases in fetuses. Though tinkering with the cells during fetal development like in BNW is not yet practiced (or not much), to my knowledge, selection of babies is already prevalent. In countries with a preference for males, female infanticide is not uncommon. With the technological advancement of sex determination of the fetus, abortion was often used for the same purpose. In Norway, all children receive injections so that they do not grow past a certain height, deemed too tall and thus subject to shorter life expectancy. When parents are made aware that their pre-born children carry certain genetic disorders, they may be given the option to abort. Technology often moves faster than ethical debates, because people are often reactionary to ethical dilemmas.
In my view, elements of BNW-style dystopia have long existed in Western society, before the rise of Trump and other far-right populists sweeping Europe. And I’m not sure that Trumpism substantially tips our current state of affairs towards a dystopian society. In general, my takeaway from these authors’ dystopian visions is that a healthy skepticism is a good thing and that there must be checks and balances not just within government, but over who has power in a society. Neither, the government, the private sector, or “the people” must be all-powerful. We cannot entrust rule to elites completely, even if they are technocrats–who are seemingly, a most deserving elite.