[I apologize. This is going to be long. In fact, when I finally worked the thing out, it was far, far too long, and I realized that I had a compound thesis, so this will be part one, which will be about Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984 and how easily misread the latter is. The next will be about how "1984" came true in 2003 and came to fullness in 2011.]
Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death begins with a TV-style teaser. He was invited to speak at the 1984 Frankfurt Book Fair, whose theme was Orwell's “1984.” He argued that Orwell had gotten it all wrong by predicting a small group seizing power and imposing its will on the rest in a conspiratorial replica of fascist/Stalinist methods. Instead, he argued that the real prophet had been Aldous Huxley, whose Brave New World had people sedating themselves into oblivion. That, he felt, was how the future had unfolded in the thirty-five years since 1984, and the drug, the Soma that the free world embraced in lieu of thought, was television. Neil Postman's book has a great many interesting observations and provocative statements, but his headline was as commercial and undeveloped as anything he would discuss in media.
Let us start with 1984 and dismiss some canards. First, the book was not a prophecy any more than Animal Farm was a story about animals. Reverse the last two numbers, and “1984” becomes “1948,” the time of Austerity. The BBC had already been nicknamed “Big Brother” by Eric Blair/George Orwell when he was working for it during the war, primarily for its paternal, familial comfort. Its cooperation with wartime intelligence and the government in general made Blair see its omnipresence in a dualistic light, as both friend and overseer. In other words, big brother BBC had become a necessary and willing daily adjunct for the people because of its news and entertainment, and then, later, as its ability to condense and control information had become clear (when things were not true until on the BBC), it had been co-opted by government. What Blair saw was the way that an accidentally and exigently, even demotically, assembled network could become indispensable and, once trusted, once indispensable, become an entertaining Pravda.
Postman would argue that commercial television gets a pass into the home for entertainment and then, by its ability to trivialize, flatten, and control, and its desperation to entertain in order to keep its welcome, becomes a medium of denial and repression. In short, Postman's critique of television is the same as Orwell's “Big Brother,” except that Orwell seemingly never discussed the pleasures of Big Brother, and television in the United States was decentralized. These differences are somewhat illusory, however. The BBC war service had been put together from voices of opposition and ministry, with a tumult that ended up becoming Babel-like and then calmly paternal (or avuncular), while American broadcasting's putative competition maintained the tumult but competed away the innovations and experiments, resulting in a uniformly 'safe' product that Postman would regard as reductive.
What sets 1984 off from other dystopian works is its economic criticism and analysis. The characters in that world are always hungry, always looking for material goods. This is because their nation is always and eternally on a “war footing.” In the real world, Blair did not need to say that the government was always paying down debt before investing in growth. The difference between 1948 and 1984 was that one kept using the debt of the war to rationalize public harm, and the other merely literalized that into a perpetual war economy. This keeps Orwell's novel a generalized economic and political diagnosis rather than a satire.
In 1948, not only was there rubble in the streets, but the economy was shattered, and the nation was paying off all the generous lend-lease. Taxes were high, expenditures low, and the message on the BBC was that wartime food rationing would have to continue – that nylon, meat, steel, rubber, and all sorts of things would have to be carefully controlled for the common good. The wealthy, curiously, seemed to remain wealthy. (Orwell wrote in his war diary that rationing meant the selling of zoo animals, but, meanwhile, two thousand race horses were being kept just fine and eating as much per day as a division of men apiece.) Politicians, however, boasted of the progress they were making, whenever they sought re-election. Blair saw beneath this situation a possible reconfiguration of capitalism and state power. He saw how the authority of the state could use emergency to perpetuate control, how it could lavish money on militarism and starve the people, so long as there was always an existential threat. He saw a new fascism that had nothing to do with capitalism or socialism. Instead of “Hail, war!” his new group would say, “Hail war state, regardless.” He saw The Writings of Immanuel Goldstein.
Past the scribal cloud, I will discuss why Blair would disguise his subject and how likely and attractive it is to misread his book.
Most peculiar and particular to the real world of 1948/9 and the fictional world of 1984 is that economic dearth empowers everything else. Except for the accident of Winston's memory exceeding the ministry's mandated limits, the energy of the plot, the social organization, and the politics is shortage inside the novel. Outside of the novel, the reasoning for everything in Austerity was debt. The reason Europeans are referring to the current regime of sovereign debt crisis as “the New Austerity” is that it is, again, about debts. If “guns before butter” is one classic political game, then this is “banks before depositors.” Big Brother could keep the people over worked and underfed and grateful for everything because all profits were supposedly going elsewhere. Consequently, there was no Party Member to envy or hate. There were no profiteers to despise. There was only sacrifice for the troops, inside the novel, and to get the nation back on its (financial) feet outside of it. Naturally enough, inside and outside the novel there were people who were wealthy and growing wealthier from the public “good,” and these were the ones at war with (rather than in control of) the people.
Now, I would never suggest that one cannot read 1984 as a prophecy. One may, of course. After all, that is the fictional frame Orwell is using, and he took great care to broaden his critique so that it would not be about a single event. Prophecy is the device that allows him to lay bare the faults of the present. However, before we ask that his future be solely of a Party seizing power in a putsch or Revolution, let's recall that his book was about a present, where any party might have that power with no more than a radio and a sense of fear to aid it.
In contrast, Aldous Huxley was writing for and against the naïve faith in progress of his age. His was the era of a fundamental faith in science and human reason. Hegel's notion that historical direction would lead us ever forward toward civilization, on the one hand, American naïve empiricism and its faith that an individual with a technological innovation could generate both capital and improvement in labor, and, since individual genius cannot be constrained, this is unlimited and ever forward by chance, Darwin's mutations into social Darwinism, and even Marxism's faith that the material dialectic mandated a forward and progressive motion to history – all of these had intellectuals sure that the future must be better, at least in the long run. As has been argued in A Broken World: Europe 1919 – 1939 by Raymond Sontag and elsewhere (e.g. Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New), World War I was the great lie to each of these theories, and Huxley wrote his novel from abhorrence and during the war years.
World War I showed science, and particularly Huxley's own chemistry, in hideous form. It showed invention in killing. It showed the most educated people on earth in trench warfare. It also provoked a crisis in the value of social rank and obedience that had not been felt since the Jacobin period. After all, it appeared the obedience and nationalism were the culprits of the war's body count. From Classical literature (for evidence that Horace's ode really was used in recruiting, take a look at this photo from 1917 of the "Actors Fund" dance in New York City; the poster on the right depicts a cavalryman beneath "Pro Patria Mori") to laboratory science and experimentalism, the Great War threw the resources of all European and American faith into the war, only to have a third of the young men of the continent die and the survivors return with shattered bodies and new maladies, like heroin addictions.
Huxley takes active philosophical tendencies built on the faith of his day and projects them. One is the faith that medical and biological advances will make life not merely palatable, but better. Life must improve, philosophers argued. Huxley added the caveat that “improvement” is subject to those in power. He then projects social Darwinism out. The result is the drugged mass and the caste system. His was not political analysis as much as philosophical exploration. At the root of his work is a moral critique: “Can we be sure that the future is better? If our sciences make us better, who defines the 'better,' and who the 'us'?”
Like Thomas More or Jonathan Swift, Huxley gets to describe a system and world from above. Like Abbot's Flatland, he has the opportunity to postulate the impossible to see what it would look like. If Brave New World feels unengaging as a novel, there is a good reason for it: the author was not interested in the characters as psychologies, but as responses to systems. On the other hand, one reason that Neil Postman and generations of school children could make a fundamental mistake about 1984 is its very success as a novel. If you don't feel emotionally involved in 1984, the whole thing fails.
Every student who goes to SparkNotes knows that 1984 is a dystopian novel. Why? In other words, what's wrong with the world Orwell describes? When we answer that, when we describe what's wrong, specifically, we begin to see how the novel was constructed.
I would argue that the darkness we feel is due to its success as a novel and its achievements at representing human psychology and emotional responses. This is a dystopian novel because its hero is a dissident. Were O'Brien or the fictive Big Brother our hero, we would think 1984 was a strange but satisfying novel of a society dealing with trouble makers or a satire of how governments look at their people. When the public goes to Hate Hour, or when they all stop their activities to listen to the war news, we would easily recognize CNN's Gulf War coverage or Fox News's coverage of the Park 51 Community Center (aka “ground zero mosque”), and we would think that there is ironic media and cultural criticism at play.
However, we are invested in Winston from the start, taken along with a man who is realizing that his world is controlled, that his rights are illusory, that Austerity is a system of control, that all the heroes are fictions, and so are his enemies. He comes to realize that treason is not to the nation, but to the ongoing system. More to the point, we are tortured, with him, for understanding this, and we are asked to recant with him.
Postman's analysis of television in 1984 missed Orwell's description of 1948 and the underlying fait d'accompli of mass media as accomplice because Blair, the novelist, never took his narrative point of view away from the conscience of a political sinner -- an undesirable, wretch, and victim. Big Brother never seems to have much in the way of entertainment programming, or nothing that captures the narrative attention, but that, too, is due to a novelistic feature. If we know that the analog is the BBC, we know plainly enough that the soothing programming of music acting as a salve between the news announcements. Also, we know that Blair has pinned us to a man who cannot be soothed, who begins his journey in the MiniTru. As such, there is never a third person, omniscient description of a scientific system until we get to the harrowing of Room 101.