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Aldous Huxley and Brave New World: The Dark Side of Pleasure

The following is a transcript of this video.

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” (Goethe)

These words were written by Goethe nearly 200 years ago, but are perhaps more relevant in our time than they were in his.  For many people assume we live in a free society simply because the West has not morphed into a dystopian hell like the one depicted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Tyranny, most people believe, would be overt in nature, it would be obvious, and all would recognize it. But is this really the case? Or could we be living in a society analogous to the one depicted by Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel Brave New World. Could it be that technology, drugs, pornography, and other pleasurable diversions have created a citizenry too distracted to notice the chains which bind them?

When Brave New World was first published in 1931 Huxley did not consider the dystopian world he depicted to be an imminent threat. Thirty years later however, following the Second World War, the spread of totalitarianism, and the great strides made in science and technology, Huxley changed his opinion and in a speech given in 1961, he put forth the following warning:

“There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.” (Aldous Huxley, Tavistock Group, California Medical School, 1961)

In the future, according to Huxley, ruling classes would learn that control of a populace could be achieved not only with the explicit use of force, but also with the more covert method of drowning the masses in an endless supply of pleasurable diversions.

“In 1984”, Huxley explains, “the lust for power is satisfied by inflicting pain; in Brave New World, by inflicting a hardly less humiliating pleasure.” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited)

How, one may ask, can pleasure be used to deprive people of their freedom? To answer this question, we must discuss operant conditioning, which is a method of modifying an organism’s behavior.

In the 20th century, the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner performed a famous set of experiments in which he tested different methods of introducing new behaviours in rats. These experiments brought to light how “the powers that be” can condition humans to love their servitude. In one set of experiments, Skinner attempted to cultivate new behaviours via positive reinforcement; he provided the rat with food anytime it performed the desirable behavior. In another set of experiments, he attempted to weaken or eliminate certain behaviours via punishment; he triggered a painful stimulus when the rat performed the behavior Skinner wished to eliminate.

Skinner discovered that punishment temporarily put an end to undesirable behaviours, but it did not remove the animal’s motivation to engage in such behaviors in the future. “Punished behavior”, writes Skinner, “is likely to reappear after the punitive consequences are withdrawn.” (B.F. Skinner, About Behaviorism) Behaviors that were conditioned via positive reinforcement, on the other hand, were more enduring and led to long-term changes in the animal’s behavioural patterns.

Huxley was familiar with Skinner’s experiments and understood their socio-political ramifications. In Brave New World and his subsequent works, Huxley predicted the emergence of a “controlling oligarchy” (Huxley) who would conduct similar experiments on human beings to condition docility and minimize the potential for civil unrest. Skinner, like Huxley, also understood the social implications of his experiments, but he believed, contrary to Huxley, that operant conditioning could be used by social engineers for the greater good, leading to the development of a scientifically managed utopia. The following passage from Skinner’s book Walden Two, however, reveals that such mass-conditioning would in reality make possible a pernicious form of tyranny – one in which the masses would be enslaved, yet feel themselves to be free.

“Now that we know how positive reinforcement works, and why negative doesn’t, we can be more deliberate and hence more successful, in our cultural design. We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled…nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That’s the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there’s no restraint and no revolt. By a careful design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, the desires, the wishes. The curious thing is that in that case the question of freedom never arises.” (B.F. Skinner, Walden Two)

In Brave New World, the main “reward” used to condition subservience via positive reinforcement was a super-drug called Soma. “The World Controllers”, writes Huxley, “encouraged the systematic drugging of their own citizens for the benefit of the state.” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited) Soma was ingested daily by the citizens of Brave New World as it offered what Huxley called a “holiday from reality” (Aldous Huxley). Depending on the dosage, it stimulated feelings of euphoria, pleasant hallucinations, or acted as a powerful sleep-aid. It also served to heighten suggestibility, thus increasing the effectiveness of the propaganda which the citizens were continuously subjected to.

“In Brave New World the soma habit was not a private vice; it was a political institution…” writes Huxley. “The daily Soma ration was an insurance against personal maladjustment, social unrest and the spread of subversive ideas. Religion, Karl Marx declared, is the opium of the people. In the Brave New World this situation was reversed. Opium, or rather Soma, was the people’s religion.”(Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited)

But the World Controllers of Brave New World did not rely on Soma alone. Sexual promiscuity was promoted by the State as another tactic to ensure everyone enjoyed their servitude. The slogan “Everyone belongs to everyone else” was drilled into the minds of the citizens from a young age, and with the institutions of monogamy and the family abolished, everyone was able to indulge their sexual impulses without hindrance. The constant access to sexual gratification served to help ensure the citizens were too distracted to pay attention to the reality of their situation.

State-sanctioned entertainment also played an important role in creating the “painless concentration camp” of Brave New World. What Huxley called “non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature” were used by the state as instruments of policy to drown the minds of its citizens in a “sea of irrelevance”.

The parallels which exist between Brave New World and societies of the modern day are undeniable. In Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, Huxley asked himself how future social engineers could convince their subjects to take drugs “that will make them think, feel, and behave in the ways [they] find desirable.”(Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited) He concluded: “In all probability it will be enough merely to make the pills available.”(Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited) Today, an estimated one in six Americans are on some form of psychotropic drug. An opioid crisis has spread across the West. The ability to gratify sexual impulses online has led many into the clutches of pornography addiction; and smart phones and other technologies provide mindless and pleasurable distractions which consume the attention of most people, most of the day.  To what extent these diversions are intentionally pushed upon us and to what extent they are spontaneous responses to consumer demand, is unclear. But whatever the answer, the reality is that a distracted and dumbed down population simply lacks the mental resources to resist their enslavement.

Until the modern cry of “Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited) is replaced by the cry “Give me liberty, or give me death” (Patrick Henry), freedom will not prevail. Rather, so long as people trade their liberty for pleasures and comfort, the type of social conditioning Huxley warned of will only become more refined and effective as technologies advance and more insight is gained regarding how to predict and control human behaviour. Whether the majority of us will be able to resist this type of manipulation, or whether we will even want to, remains to be seen.

If the current trends continue, humanity may soon be divided into two groups. There will be those who welcome their pleasurable servitude, and those who choose to resist it for the sake of retaining not just their liberty, but their humanity. For as the former slave Frederick Douglass noted in the mid-19th century, long before Huxley wrote Brave New World, when a slave becomes a happy slave, he has effectively relinquished all that which makes him human.

“I have found that, to make a contented slave,” writes Douglass “it is necessary to make a thoughtless one…He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.” (Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)

Further Readings