Brave New World seems prophetic; it’s not

Huxley’s masterpiece is better at seeming prophetic than actually seeing the future

63e3aeaf06a5039c5bba75d3ce58050c“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.

The unfortunately realistic economics of the Hunger Games

hungergames

One of the criticisms of the Hunger Games is that it’s not plausible that in a futuristic sci-fi world with extremely advanced technology, much of the population would still be on the edge of starvation. Matthew Yglesias argues that the extreme inequality between the Capital and the Districts is not only plausible but has actually existed and that Collins has identified how it would come about. He illustrates this by reference to the work of two economic historians:

Acemoglu and Robinson’s general theory can be grasped through the lens of the “reversal of fortune” they observe in the Western Hemisphere and originally described in an academic paper co-authored with Simon Johnson. If you plot per capita income in the Americas today, you see a clear pattern with the United States and Canada ahead, the southern cone around Chile and Argentina in second place, and the middle portion much poorer. It turns out that if you turn the clock back about 500 years, the pattern was reversed. The places that are rich today were poor then, while those that are poor today were generally rich in the past. This, they argue, is no coincidence. When Spanish conquistadors showed up in the prosperous areas of Latin America, they stole all the gold they could get their hands on and then set about putting the native populations to work. They set up “extractive institutions” whose purpose was to wring as many natural resources (silver, gold, food) from the land as possible while keeping power in the hands of a narrow elite. These institutions discourage savings and investment, since everyone knows any wealth can and will be arbitrarily expropriated. And while the injustice of it all led to periodic revolutions, the typical pattern was for the new boss to simply seize control of the extractive institutions and run them for his own benefit.

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District 12 is a quintessential extractive economy. It’s oriented around a coal mine, the kind of facility where unskilled labor can be highly productive in light of the value of the underlying commodity. In a free society, market competition for labor and union organizing would drive wages up. But instead the Capitol imposes a single purchaser of mine labor and offers subsistence wages. Emigration to other districts in search of better opportunities is banned, as is exploitation of the apparently bountiful resources of the surrounding forest. With the mass of Seam workers unable to earn a decent wage, even relatively privileged townsfolk have modest living standards. If mineworkers earned more money, the Mellark family bakery would have more customers and more incentive to invest in expanded operations. A growing service economy would grow up around the mine. But the extractive institutions keep the entire District in a state of poverty, despite the availability of advanced technology in the Capitol.

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But Collins is right in line with the most depressing conclusion offered by Acemoglu and Robinson, namely that once extractive institutions are established they’re hard to get rid of. Africa’s modern states, they note, were created by European colonialists who set out to create extractive institutions to exploit the local population. The injustice of the situation led eventually to African mass resistance and the overthrow of colonial rule. But in almost every case, the new elite simply started running the same extractive institutions for their own benefit. The real battle turned out to have been over who ran the machinery of extraction, not its existence. And this, precisely, is the moral of Collins’ trilogy. [Spoiler alert: Ignore rest of this story if you haven’t finished the trilogy.] To defeat the Capitol’s authoritarian power requires the construction of a tightly regimented, extremely disciplined society in District 13. That District’s leaders are able to mobilize mass discontent with the Capitol into a rebellion, but this leads not to the destruction of the system but its decapitation. Despite the sincere best efforts of ordinary people to better their circumstances, the deep logic of extractive institutions is difficult to overcome, whether in contemporary Nigeria or in Panem.