Huxley on Brave New World 30 years later

In 1931, when Brave New World was being written, I was convinced that there was still plenty of time. The completely organized society, the scientific caste sys­tem, the abolition of free will by methodical condition­ing, the servitude made acceptable by regular doses of chemically induced happiness, the orthodoxies drummed in by 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). We who were living in the second quarter of the twentieth century A.D. were the inhabitants, admittedly, of a gruesome kind of uni­verse; but the nightmare of those depression years was radically different from the nightmare of the fu­ture, described in Brave New World. Ours was a night­mare of too little order; theirs, in the seventh century A.F., of too much. In the process of passing from one extreme to the other, there would be a long interval, so I imagined, during which the more fortunate third of the human race would make the best of both worlds — the disorderly world of liberalism and the much too orderly Brave New World where perfect efficiency left no room for freedom or personal initiative.
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 I did when I was writing Brave New World. The prophecies made in 1931 are coming true much sooner than I thought they would. The blessed interval between too little order and the nightmare of too much has not begun and shows no sign of beginning. In the West, it is true, individual men and women still enjoy a large measure of freedom. But even in those coun­tries that have a tradition of democratic government, this freedom and even the desire for this freedom seem to be on the wane. In the rest of the world freedom for individuals has already gone, or is manifestly about to go. The nightmare of total organization, which I had situated in the seventh century After Ford, has emerged from the safe, remote future and is now awaiting us, just around the next corner.

George Orwell’s 1984 was a magnified projection into the future of a present that contained Stalinism and an immediate past that had witnessed the flowering of Nazism. Brave New World was written before the rise of Hitler to supreme power in Germany and when the Russian tyrant had not yet got into his stride. In 1931 systematic terrorism was not the obsessive contem­porary fact which it had become in 1948, and the fu­ture dictatorship of my imaginary world was a good deal less brutal than the future dictatorship so brilliantly portrayed by Orwell. In the context of 1948, 1984 seemed dreadfully convincing. But tyrants, after all, are mortal and circumstances change. Recent developments in Russia and recent advances in science and technology have robbed Orwell’s book of some of its gruesome verisimilitude. A nuclear war will, of course, make nonsense of everybody’s predictions. But, assuming for the moment that the Great Powers can somehow refrain from destroying us, we can say that it now looks as though the odds were more in favor of something like Brave New World than of something like 1984.

In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effec­tive, in the long run, than control through the rein­forcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manip­ulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children. Pun­ishment temporarily puts a stop to undesirable behav­ior, but does not permanently reduce the victim’s tend­ency to indulge in it. Moreover, the psycho-physical by-products of punishment may be just as undesirable as the behavior for which an individual has been pun­ished. Psychotherapy is largely concerned with the de­bilitating or anti-social consequences of past punish­ments.

The society described in 1984 is a society controlled almost exclusively by punishment and the fear of pun­ishment. In the imaginary world of my own fable, pun­ishment is infrequent and generally mild. The nearly perfect control exercised by the government is achieved by systematic reinforcement of desirable be­havior, by many kinds of nearly non-violent manipula­tion, both physical and psychological, and by genetic standardization. Babies in bottles and the centralized control of reproduction are not perhaps impossible; but it is quite clear that for a long time to come we shall remain a viviparous species breeding at random. For practical purposes genetic standardization may be ruled out. Societies will continue to be controlled post-natally — by punishment, as in the past, and to an ever increasing extent by the more effective methods of reward and scientific manipulation.

In Russia the old-fashioned, 1984-style dictatorship of Stalin has begun to give way to a more up-to-date form of tyranny. In the upper levels of the Soviets’ hierarchical society the reinforcement of desirable be­havior has begun to replace the older methods of con­trol through the punishment of undesirable behavior. Engineers and scientists, teachers and administrators, are handsomely paid for good work and so moderately taxed that they are under a constant incentive to do better and so be more highly rewarded. In certain areas they are at liberty to think and do more or less what they like. Punishment awaits them only when they stray beyond their prescribed limits into the realms of ideology and politics. It is because they have been granted a measure of professional freedom that Russian teachers, scientists and technicians have achieved such remarkable successes. Those who live near the base of the Soviet pyramid enjoy none of the privileges accorded to the lucky or specially gifted mi­nority. Their wages are meager and they pay, in the form of high prices, a disproportionately large share of the taxes. The area in which they can do as they please is extremely restricted, and their rulers control them more by punishment and the threat of punish­ment than through non-violent manipulation or the reinforcement of desirable behavior by reward. The Soviet system combines elements of 1984 with ele­ments that are prophetic of what went on among the higher castes in Brave New World.

Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

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