Without doubt the top-two classic dystopian novels of all time are Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley and 1984 (1949) by George Orwell. Though there are many contenders for third place, I will restrict myself to those two novels in this articles.
That Brave New World and 1984 are often mentioned in one breath, is not surprising, since both novels have many similarities. The first similarity between these two works of fiction, is that both described societies have a strict social stratification. The population of the World State of Brave New World has been divided into five castes (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon), where 1984’s Oceania distinguish three social classes (Inner party members, Outer party members and the Proles).
Both societies are centred around the veneration of two almost godlike entities, Henry Ford in Brave New World and Big Brother in 1984. But here we encounter the first major difference between the two novels. Whereas in Brave New World it’s acknowledge that Henry Ford has been dead for centuries, and all power is exercised by the ten world controllers, in 1984 the state pretends that Big Brother is still alive and actually in charge of the government. Throughout the book, the very existence of Big Brother is taken into question by the main characters Winston Smith and his girlfriend Julia. And unlike Brave New World, Big Brother has an anti-christ like arch-nemesis in the person of Emanuel Goldstein. Goldstein’s existence is also dubious.
Another important difference between Brave New World and 1984, is war. In the former novel war is something from the past, and the nine-year-war is portrayed as the war that has ended all wars. And since the World State also effectively rules the entire planet, the very idea of war is hence ridiculous. In 1984, however, war is the government’s favourite tool to control its subjects. Was is used by the authorities of Oceania to usurp the industrial surplus, in order to keep the population just above starvation. This is only possible since the present state of war triggers people’s sense of nationalism, and therefore their willingness to make sacrifices. Also the war gives the government the opportunity to accuse their opponents of helping the enemy, and hence of betraying their country.
It is explained in the book, that the government of Oceania can only survive if the war against either Eurasia or Eastasia, is permanent. This because if the war would be ended, then the government has to find other means to deprive the masses from the benefits of industrial surplus. And keeping the population in poverty, is what enables Oceania’s rulers to keep people in line. After all, the overall majority is too busy to survive, that they cannot simply afford to start an insurrection against their government.
The exact the opposite is the case in the society of Brave New World. Even the lowest Epsilon Moron knows that his desires can and will satisfied. Above all, the World State is a consumerist society, its subjects are consumers rather than citizens. The whole economic system is devoted to satisfying the people’s sensual desires. And as long as the people are able satisfy these needs, they will also have no motive to rebel against the world state.
This brings us to issue of the underlying justifications of both governments. In the 1984 the authorities, as explained by O’Brien, subscribe to a bold might-makes-right argument. The party seeks power for its own sake, the end of power is power itself. The only purpose humans have in Oceanian society, is the be the subject on which power is exerted upon. And if people collapse as a result, they are simply replaced by others. The state of Oceania has no whatsoever concern for the well-being of its subjects, they are simply toys to play with.
The World State in Brave New World, on the other hand is concerned with nothing else than the happiness of its subjects. All decisions made by the world state are based on whether these are beneficial for society, according to the view of the government. The World State is essentially a technocracy which makes its decision according to a benthamite utilitarianism. Increasing or at least maintaining the happiness of the general population is the World State’s foremost concern, and manipulating people’s desires is justified if that makes them happier, at least in the eyes of the authorities.
But if the World State in Brave New World, is really concerned with the well-being of its subjects, why are we upset with this vision? I think the answer can be found in the distinction made by John Stuart Mill between higher and lower pleasures. Though the distinction between these two kinds of pleasure is complicated, Mill believed that satisfying the higher ones is much more valuable than the lower ones. Or in Mill’s own words:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. (John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism, chapter II.)
For Mill the higher pleasures include for instance the enjoyment of art or poetry. It is quite obvious that the World State only aims at the satisfaction of the lower pleasures of its subjects. All effort is taken to eliminate the desires for the higher pleasures. Mill also argued that if pigs and fools disagreed with him, that is only because they are unfamiliar with the higher pleasures. And this is what the World State does, it goes to great lengths to deprive its subjects from experiencing any higher pleasure, by putting them in safes.
In Brave New World most people are what Mill would call “pigs satisfied”, only Bernhard Marx and John the Savage do resemble dissatisfied humans in any sense. This is exemplified in the relation between John and Lenina: despite their mutual attraction, Lenina is unable to understand any of John’s feelings. Being born in the World State, she has no experience with anything but the lower pleasures, whilst John has established some taste of the higher pleasures by reading the works of Shakespeare.
The World State has good reasons to deny its subjects the experience of the higher pleasures. If it’s true that is better to be a dissatisfied human than a satisfied pig, then the World State has to allow people to become dissatisfied. But dissatisfaction also undermines social stability, which the World State believes is essential. It might lead to violent uprisings, war and even the end of the human race, this is obviously not what makes people happy.
By denying the people the experience of higher pleasures, the subjects do not know what they are deprived off. They believe they’re happy, because they do not know better. That’s what upset most readers of Brave New World, at least the intellectual elites who actually cares to read the novel. The rejection of the world described in 1984 is more easy to understand. The society of 1984 is based on a denial of any humanity, the government of Oceania simply deprives it’s subjects of all pleasure, only to substitute it with permanent fear. People are tortured and killed in 1984, for no other reason than because the state wants to do so.
And here we arrive at what is perhaps the most striking similarity between Brave New World: the total dependency of the people to the state. In 1984 permanent surveillance and constant threat of prosecution, force people into near total submission to the authorities. In Brave New World however, people have no reason to oppose the state, because it satisfy all their needs, and it does not oppress them in a sense they can really be aware off.
An interesting question is which of these two novels give the most realistic, albeit pessimistic, views of the future. In his book Our Posthuman Future American philosopher Francis Fukuyama argued that with the arrival of the Internet 1984 is closer to us than ever before, because Internet is a two-way method. However, he believed that since it’s obvious that we aren’t living in a 1984-like world, George Orwell’s vision has been effectively falsified. In his Fukuyama argued that instead Brave New World is the real danger.
It’s important, in my opinion, to consider that Fukuyama published his book in 2002, and hence most of the book is therefore probably written before the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Governments all over the world have used “9-11” as an excuse to pass all kind of laws which heavily affects our privacy, officially for the sake of our security. And since the leaks made by Edward Snowden, we all know that NSA systematically is tapping our Internet data. (To be honest, most sensible people already expected such thing, but since Snowden it’s impossible to deny it. Even the US government has opted for defending rather than denying the program.)
And like in 1984, we cannot for certain whether we are watched by the intelligent services. Tough a lot of data is collected, only a relatively small part of it is actually investigated in large detail. But this proves that Fukuyama was wrong in claiming that Orwell had been wrong. As long as the Internet exists, there might be a time that 1984 will become reality.
Another issue discussed in 1984, by Winston and Julia, is the possibility that the entire war is actually fake and the government of Oceania is bombing its own cities, just to make the people believe there’s a global war going on. And some people believe that the US government is responsible for “9-11”, as a pretext of establishing a world à la 1984. Personally I do not believe that the US government made “9-11” happen, but there is no reason why future government shouldn’t commit terrorist actions in order to blame (fictional) terrorist organizations.
Basically it would take only a few years to establish a 1984-like regime. All the means are there. Whereas it would take decades, if not centuries to create the world of Brave New World. Even the “changing” the past is easier than ever before. Most people are reading nowadays news articles on-line, and the contents of a website can easily be changed. Changing all newspaper archives would require that no private person would ever safe any newspaper article.
Both Brave New World and 1984 are often referred to as examples of totalitarian states. It’s quite common to use the terms dictatorship and totalitarianism interchangeably. Political scientists however make a sharp distinction between these two concepts. A totalitarian state differs from other dictatorships, in that a totalitarian state tries to control every single aspect of life (hence the name totalitarianism). Most dictatorships allow for a certain degree of personal freedom, and only prosecute those who actively oppose the regime.
But totalitarian regimes deny the very existence of a private realm. At every single moment an individual is supposed to do whatever the state has decided he or she should do, otherwise he or she will be punished. This is illustrated by the scene where Winston Smith has to do morning gymnastics in front of his telescreen. He has to make the exact moves his instructor is telling him to do. However, the World State does not seem to care whether its subjects are doing such things at all.
In fact the World State allows a substantial amount of freedom, and certainly compared to Oceania. The residents of the World State have nearly complete freedom of movement, they can even obtain permission to visit a “savage reservation”. And as long as they consume, the World State doesn’t seem to care what they are consuming. Even for the most dissatisfied persons, the World State has an option: they can be relocated to certain areas, such as Iceland, which are reserved for such purpose. In a totalitarian state such deviant person would be killed or put to hard labour.
Oceania as described by Orwell is definitely a totalitarian state, but I do not consider the World State of Brave New World as such. The World State is without doubt a dictatorship, and I wouldn’t want to live there. But as I have stated above, unlike Oceania the World State allows a certain amount of personal freedom, which is more importantly also reasonably secure, in that the World State would restrict it suddenly without good cause.