In 1949, George Orwell received a letter from his former Eton French teacher, Aldous Huxley. Orwell had just published his groundbreaking book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which had received glowing reviews from just about every corner of the English-speaking world. Aldous Huxley, after teaching at Eton for a spell, wrote the other great 20th century dystopian novel, Brave New World, in 1931. Huxley had read a first edition copy of Orwell’s 1984. He was both impressed and critical of what his former student had produced. Here’s the letter:
Dear Mr Orwell, It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the middle of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor eyesight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on ‘Nineteen eight-four’. ￼Agreeing with all that the critics that have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once once, how fine and how profoundly important the book is.
May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals – the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution – the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at the total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology – are to be found the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen eight-four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.
Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in ‘Brave New World’. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognisance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile and the rest. Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotise successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnosis. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years.
But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects. Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that 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. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in ‘Brave New World’. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large-scale biological and atomic war – in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book. Yours Sincerely, Aldous Huxley.
￼Huxley made a shrewd point. The brutish violence of a totalitarian dictatorship is, in truth, a crude system for controlling people. Machiavelli, the Godfather of social control, famously pointed out that fear is a very reliable way to control people, far more reliable than love, but Machiavelli also missed the point that fear and beatings make a population unproductive. North Korea is a classic example of this dark mistake. Its population live in fear, as described eloquently in Guy Delisle’s excellent graphic novel Pyongyang. This suppresses innovation, creativity and motivation. As a result, the economy stagnates and becomes an economic backwater. Fear and tyranny therefore do work at creating a dark, oppressive, controlling regime, but they are crude tools that are self-defeating for their economic masters.
Huxley realised that if the power-elite of a country mesmerised their population into believing that they are in the best possible place and that they were free, even though they weren’t, then that population would remain motivated, positive and enthusiastic. It would also be important, for such a power-elite, to make their population believe that what they were supplying, and making money from, was the most wonderful thing to have. They would continually send this message to their population, ideally 24-7, so that the population would never get a chance to wake from their trance. Like any cult leaders, the power-elite would also make sure the masses under their control would regard any alternative scheme/ideology/life-plan to be rubbish, pathetic or plain mad. We could call this the Fairground model of social control. Instead of us all following the rulers’ plan because we’re scared of their jackbooted soldiers, we’re obeying the rulers’ plan because it’s so wonderful and mesmerising and makes us feel excited and pleasurable, just like being in a fairground. We might know, deep-down, that what we’re doing is unhealthy for our minds, bodies and wallets, and that it’s a vacant, hollow pretence, but we do it anyway because it’s so enticing, with its flashing lights, bright colours, ringing bells, shiny rewards, alluring prizes and heady pleasures.
The question then becomes; are we in this situation?
Signs of Fairground control
The first twist in a Fairground version of 1984 would be how television worked. In ‘1984’, the televisions are designed to be always on; the hapless ordinary people cannot turn them off. This lack of an off-switch symbolised the total control of the state, but it is also a crude system. A far more potent form of control would be that the citizens never want to turn of their televisions. I have personally noticed that this is the case in many households in the West. I have had multiple experiences where I have entered a friend or associate’s household and found their television on by default. What’s more, while I sat and chatted to the person concerned, their television remained on even though none of us were interested in its content. I’ve even asked the couple concerned to turn it off, which seemed to make them confused and unsettled or alternatively, that it came as surprise that the television was on.
A second, and more deeply ingrained part of a mesmerised society would be people’s false valuation of whatever their power-elite was dangling before them, like prizes at a fairground. Here’s a test of whether we’re in such a situation. Look at the following picture and read its caption:
How did you get on? Were you able to connect the caption with the image? It’s difficult, isn’t it? Many of us, when we look at the car above, think of power and speed and wealth and success and sophistication and charisma and sex appeal but in truth, it’s just a metal box with an engine inside. This is the power of the fairground, because it makes many of us dedicate our working lives, at least beyond survival, into grasping these shiny, alluring objects. The irony is that these objects are not the product of years of dedicated work by a master craftsmen, like samurai swords of old, or Saxon jewellery. Instead, many of them now are churned out by robots like plastic toys. Just as in a fairground, those shiny prizes, in the cold light of day, can suddenly look like cheap ephemera.
If the above image wasn’t a challenge, here’s another one:
Once again, the text accompanying this image might sound silly, but it’s entirely correct. A diamond ring is not even a truly valuable object. Diamonds are one of the most common gemstones in existence on our planet and their high cost of purchase has nothing to do with their inherent worth. Instead, they are priced highly because the diamond-mining companies and dealers have done an impressive job of making everyone believe that diamonds are valuable. The delusion is therefore multi-layered; not only are we made to believe that owning a hard crystalline rock is a wonderful thing, we’re also made to believe that owning one of the most common hard crystalline rocks on our planet is even more of a wonderful thing.
The third fairground element of our modern social control is probably the item that everyone would think of first of all; the smartphone. The smartphone has become the ideal fairground-control device. Rather than entice everyone to the fairground, it’s so much easier if the fairground can be shoved in their faces all the time. It’s no coincidence that many of the most popular applications on smartphones, such as social-networking apps, have drawn upon slot-machine strategies to maximise people’s time spent staring at their pages. Using techniques such as the ‘ludic loop’ – a way of creating random rewards to keep the user pressing the button – app-designers can now make people stare at their screens literally all the time. According to a report mentioned in this BBC article:
A survey of 2,750 11- to 18-year-olds found one in 10 admitted checking their mobile phones for notifications at least 10 times a night.
There are many tragic aspects to this situation. The Fairground form of social control makes people miserable, ill and poor. It also makes no attempt to protect the environment. Historically, some fairgrounds were notorious for turning up, sucking up money from the locals, carrying out a lot of theft, then heading on, leaving their trash behind. This is not a sustainable plan and it only works for amoral people focussing on short-term gains. Operating a Fairground form of social control, globally, all the time can only lead to social and environmental disaster.
We need to wake up very soon.