Huxley’s masterpiece is better at seeming prophetic than actually seeing the future
“In 1931, when Brave New World was being written, I was convinced that there was still plenty of time. The completely organised society, the scientific caste system, the abolition of free will by methodical conditioning, the servitude made acceptable by regular doses of a chemically induced happiness, the orthodoxies drummed in by the nightly courses of sleep-teaching – these things were coming all right, but not in my time, not even in the time of my grandchildren. I forget the exact date of the events recorded in Brave New World; but it was somewhere in the sixth or seventh century A.F. (after Ford)….Twenty-Seven years later, in this third quarter of the twentieth century A.D., and long before the end of the first century A.F., I feel a good deal less optimistic than when I was writing Brave New World. The prophecies made in 1931 and coming true much sooner than I thought they would.”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958)
While listening to the audiobook of Brave New World (BNW), I kept running into a problem. Listening to music on an MP3 player or spotify has accustomed me to having a virtually unlimited supply of it. Therefore, whenever I get somewhat indifferent to a piece of music I skip to the next one. This habit becomes rather an irritant when listening to an audiobook because I’m regularly skipping to the next chapter and then having to spool back to find my place. This technologically induced impatience is ironic given that one of Huxley’s themes is a society that has dispensed with delayed gratification.
BNW does this. It has an uncanny ability to speak to our contemporary fears. It can be related to any number of current debates: consumerism, feminism, genetic engineering, secularism, permissiveness, technology and the role of the arts and humanities. But that doesn’t make it an accurate prediction.
When Huxley came back to the ideas in BNW in non-fiction form with Brave New World Revisited, he identified two trends that he thought were pushing the world towards dystopia: overorganisation and overpopulation.
Huxley associates overorganisation with Fordism and the regimentation and standardisation it implies. He subscribes to the thesis of William Whyte’s “the Organization Man” about how workers sacrificed their individuality to the needs of their firms. BNW essentially imagines these principles extrapolated from the corporate world to society as a whole. Humans are literally manufactured in batches to fill a preordained role, and autonomy is systematically suppressed.
However, the reality turned out differently. Rather than becoming the organising principle of society, Fordism is in retreat. Mass production now co-exists with an increasing number of firms that focus on producing goods tailored for specific consumer tastes. Many companies especially in finance and technology actively seek out not ‘Organization Men’ but misfits who’ll bring unconventional thinking to problems. Ford’s city of Detroit is now a bankrupt mess.
Huxley seems to think that overpopulation is the route by which overorganisation would come about. That a highly powerful and controlling state would be needed to prevent unchecked population growth from leading to ecological disaster. He feels that no other kind of government can prevent people having large families. But again history has not turned out as Huxley expected.
Population increases seem to be leveling off of their own accord. Family sizes have been dropping for decades. While the number of humans on the planet is still rising, this is driven not by parents having more children but by there being more parents to have children. We are seeing the aftereffects of people in the past having large families as the offspring of those prodigious breeders now reach child bearing age themselves. We are regulating our own fertility without the need for a totalitarian state. In fact, many more recent dystopias like the Handmaid’s Tale or Children of Men feature the reverse kind of demographic challenge – a population in decline.
This is not to say to say that Huxley’s predictions will not come to pass. The future is unpredictable after all. However, I see no reason to predict that it will. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a messages worth listening to. Rather we should see it as what Huxley originally intended it to be: a satire on the utopian novels of men like H.G Wells, a warning that ‘progress’ can move us towards hell as well as heaven.