Brave New World is a benevolent dictatorship: a static, efficient, totalitarian welfare-state. There is no war, poverty or crime. Society is stratified by genetically-predestined caste. Intellectually superior Alphas are the top-dogs. Servile, purposely brain-damaged Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons toil away at the bottom. The lower orders are necessary in BNW because Alphas – even soma-fuelled Alphas – could allegedly never be happy doing menial jobs. It is not explained why doing menial work is inconsistent – if you’re an Alpha – with a life pharmacological hedonism – nor, for that matter, with genetically-precoded wetware of invincible bliss. In any case, our descendants are likely to automate menial drudgery out of existence; that’s what robots are for.
Notionally, BNW is set in the year 632 AF (After Ford). Its biotechnology is highly advanced. Yet the society itself has no historical dynamic: “History is bunk”. It is curious to find a utopia where knowledge of the past is banned by the Controllers to prevent invidious comparisons. One might imagine history lessons would be encouraged instead. They would uncover a blood-stained horror-story.
Perhaps the Controllers fear historical awareness would stir dissatisfaction with the “utopian” present. Yet this is itself revealing. For Brave New World is not an exciting place to live in. It is a sterile, productivist utopia geared to the consumption of mass-produced goods: “Ending is better than mending”. Society is shaped by a single all-embracing political ideology. The motto of the world state is “Community, Identity, Stability.”
In Brave New World, there is no depth of feeling, no ferment of ideas, and no artistic creativity. Individuality is suppressed. Intellectual excitement and discovery have been abolished. Its inhabitants are laboratory-grown clones, bottled and standardised from the hatchery. They are conditioned and indoctrinated, and even brainwashed in their sleep. The utopians are never educated to prize thinking for themselves. In Brave New World, the twin goals of happiness and stability – both social and personal – are not just prized but effectively equated.
This surprisingly common notion is ill-conceived. The impregnable well-being of our transhuman descendants is more likely to promote greater diversity, both personal and societal, not stagnation. This is because greater happiness, and in particular enhanced dopamine function, doesn’t merely extend the depth of one’s motivation to act: the hyper-dopaminergic sense of things to be done. It also broadens the range of stimuli an organism finds rewarding. By expanding the range of potential activities we enjoy, enhanced dopamine function will ensure we will be less likely to get stuck in a depressive rut. This rut leads to the kind of learned helplessness that says nothing will do any good, Nature will take its revenge, and utopias will always go wrong.
In Brave New World, things do occasionally go wrong. But more to the point, we are led to feel the whole social enterprise that BNW represents is horribly misconceived from the outset. In BNW, nothing much really changes. It is an alien world, but scarcely a rich or inexhaustibly diverse one. Tellingly, the monotony of its pleasures mirrors the poverty of our own imaginations in conceiving of radically different ways to be happy. Today, we’ve barely even begun to conceptualise the range of things it’s possible to be happy about. For our brains aren’t blessed with the neurochemical substrates to do so. Time spent counting one’s blessings is rarely good for one’s genes.
BNW is often taken as a pessimistic warning of the dangers of runaway science and technology. Scientific progress, however, was apparently frozen with the advent of a world state. Thus ironically it’s not perverse to interpret BNW as a warning of what happens when scientific inquiry is suppressed. One of the reasons why many relatively robust optimists – including some dopamine-driven transhumanists – dislike Brave New World, and accordingly distrust the prospect of universal happiness it symbolises, is that their primary source of everyday aversive experience is boredom. BNW comes across as a stagnant civilisation. It’s got immovably stuck in a severely sub-optimal state. Its inhabitants are too contented living in their rut to extricate themselves and progress to higher things. Superficially, yes, Brave New World is a technocratic society. Yet the free flow of ideas and criticism central to science is absent. Moreover the humanities have withered too. Subversive works of literature are banned. Subtly but inexorably, BNW enforces conformity in innumerable different ways. Its conformism feeds the popular misconception that a life-time of happiness will [somehow] be boring – even when the biochemical substrates of boredom have vanished.
Controller Mustapha Mond himself obliquely acknowledges the dystopian sterility of BNW when he reflects on Bernard’s tearful plea not to be exiled to Iceland: “One would think he was going to have his throat cut. Whereas, if he had the smallest sense, he’d understand that his punishment is really a reward. He’s being sent to an island. That’s to say, he’s being sent to a place where he’ll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community life. All the people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own. Everyone, in a word, who’s anyone…”
Admittedly, Huxley’s BNW enforces a much more benign conformism than Orwell‘s terrifying 1984. There’s no Room 101, no torture, and no war. Early child-rearing practices aside, it’s not a study of physically violent totalitarianism. Its riot-police use soma-vaporisers, not tear-gas and truncheons. Yet its society is as dominated by caste as any historical Eastern despotism. BNW recapitulates all Heaven’s hierarchies (recall all those angels, archangels, seraphim, etc.) and few of its promised pleasures. Its satirical grotesqueries and fundamental joylessness are far more memorably captured than its delights – with one pregnant exception, soma.
Unlike the residents of Heaven, BNW’s inhabitants don’t worship God. Instead, they are brainwashed into revering a scarcely less abstract and remote community. Formally, the community is presided over by the spirit of the apostle of mass-production, Henry Ford. He is worshipped as a god: Alphas and Betas attend soma-consecrated “solidarity services” which culminate in an orgy. But history has been abolished, salvation has already occurred, and the utopians aren’t going anywhere.
By contrast, one factor of life spent with even mildly euphoric hypomanic people is pretty constant. The tempo of life, the flow of ideas, and the drama of events speeds up. In a Post-Darwinian Era of universal life-long bliss, the possibility of stasis is remote; in fact one can’t rule out an ethos of permanent revolution. But however great the intellectual ferment of ecstatic existence, the nastiness of Darwinian life will have passed into oblivion with the molecular machinery that sustained it.
“The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. “Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does.” They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted.”
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