Our very British brand of totalitarianism
While sales of “1984” went through the roof this past year, Aldous Huxley’s dystopian vision is much more likely to come true than George Orwell’s
Having the jackboot of George Orwell’s 1984 stamping on one’s face would be preferable in a way. At least it would involve a sort of honesty from the oppressor about the oppression. Unlike the current pervasive underhand attrition that is sapping our democratic life blood, taking with it individual liberty, energy, creativity and love, steering us closer toward Aldous Huxley’s very un-brave “Brave New World”.
Orwell’s brutal dystopian depiction published in 1949 can be seen as a reply and an update, as Orwell saw it, to the warnings of Huxley’s earlier dystopian vision published in 1932. Huxley depicted a scientific dictatorship in which a passive population was subdued through scientific and psychological engineering while kept consistently useful to the ruling class.
Orwell saw the risk of dictatorial rule with a much more violent face, and who could blame him in the wake of the slaughter of World War II and the rise of brutal ideologies and practices of fascism and communism.
But when Huxley came to write Brave New World Revisited in 1957, in which he compares the modernising world of the time with his prophetic fantasy—and also with that offered by Orwell, of whom Huxley was an ardent admirer—he made the point, with sound reason based on the evidence, that it was his supine model of totalitarianism that the world appeared to be more in danger from and moving toward.
“In the context of 1948, 1984 seemed dreadfully convincing”, Huxley wrote.
But tyrants, after all, are mortal and circumstances change … 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 favour of something like Brave New World than of something like 1984.
British totalitarianism has a particularly polite and inconspicuous feel to it
Given recent events on Clapham Common, some might argue we are not free of the threat suggested by Orwell yet. But as Emma Webb argues in “Stop exploiting the debate on women’s rights“, the scenes of women being wrestled to the ground and flowers brought in remembrance of murdered Sarah Everard being trampled underfoot were less to do with malign Orwellian oppression and more the result of another spectacular police mishandling influenced by “shoddy leadership”. Admittedly, that such a response could transpire at the a vigil for a woman allegedly murdered by a policeman suggests a vortex of leadership and scale of short sightedness within the police hierarchy that in its own way takes us into a terrifying realm on par with Orwell.
In arguing for the greater likelihood of non-violent manipulation, Huxley makes a great point regarding how authoritarianism and dictatorial rule can be applied in quite divergent ways: “ruthlessly” and overtly in totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and communist Russia; “politely and inconspicuously” in democracies.
The past year and actions of the British government has been a case study in how British totalitarianism, if it comes to that, will have a particularly polite and inconspicuous feel to it: those initially reasonable-sounding entreaties to stay at home to protect a hallowed institution of the state—the NHS—to then wear masks for what seems like either a placebo effect to assuage the anxiety of some citizens or a more malign effort to erode our dignity, self-esteem and individualism.
That’s exactly what totalitarian regimes want, not surprisingly. But it’s actually what most democracies want, even need, to a degree, and in a way it’s entirely understandable. Keeping tens of millions of autonomous individuals, each with different idiosyncrasies and motivations is hard work to manage. It’s only achieved by an incredibly delicate balancing act between conformity and individual freedoms overseen by a government that answers to those it oversees.
“Democratic institutions are devices for reconciling social order with individual freedom and initiative, and for making the immediate power of a country’s rulers subject to the ultimate power of the ruled,” Huxley said. “A democratic society is a society dedicated to the preposition that power is often abused and should therefore be entrusted to officials only in limited amounts and for limited periods of time.”
Before Covid-19, Western societies had been surprisingly successful in managing this balancing act and proving wrong the pessimistic predictions of old about democracies.
“Democracies were regarded in ancient times, Aristotle is the classic source on this, as inherently self-destructive ways of government, because, said Aristotle, democracies naturally turn themselves into tyranny, because the populace will always be a sucker [for] a demagogue who will turn himself into an absolute ruler”, retired Supreme Court justice Jonathan Sumption said in a recent interview.
“It is quite remarkable that Aristotle’s gloomy predictions about the fate of democracies have been falsified by the experience of the West ever since the beginning of democracy.”
As to why and how this has been managed, Lord Sumption puts it down to a “shared political culture of restraint”, for which we can all arguably give ourselves and our predecessors a pat on the back. The problem now, Lord Sumption explains, is that culture of restraint depends on the “collective mentality of society”, thereby making it “extremely fragile, quite easy to destroy and extremely difficult to re-create”.
The arrival of Covid-19 has seen the state respond by ‘organising’ society to a level not seen since the Second World War
Jaron Lanier made a very similar point in his 2018 book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now about how the engagement-driven and deleterious behavioural-modifying business model that has consumed social media platforms is contributing to the loss of a “shared political culture of restraint” within society. Among the myriad negative impacts, including increasing political polarisation, as well as, put in a somewhat different tone to that by Sumption, “attention acquisition leading to asshole supremacy”, Lanier notes how the behavioural-modifying model is being leveraged by bad actors who “wish to discredit democracy”.
In short, both Sumption and Lanier are concerned about how the model of Western democratic liberalism is under enormous strain, with the social re-engineering of society by Covid-19 coming hot on the heels of increasingly advanced technology and mass communications reshaping how people interact.
Perhaps one of the most disheartening Huxley-esque signs of the UK shifting in a totalitarian direction is how the polite crushing of individual freedoms that has resulted from Covid-19 has been entirely palatable to many Brits.
Commentators have noted that while other European countries have had serious anti-lockdown disturbances, the British public have accepted it all without much complaint.
“The prime minister has been miles behind British public opinion in every restriction he has reluctantly imposed, out of touch with a population who, as a whole, don’t seem to especially love freedom”, wrote Ed West in his article “The fantasy of English freedom“, which suggested that “the average Englishman would happily have a microchip in his arm if it meant he could go down the pub.”
One of the reasons why Brits have long been able to scoff at others who acquiesced to the loss of their liberties was because we never had our bluff called—until now.
“The French of course have no ‘Blitz spirit’ to invoke to get them through the crisis”, wrote Patrick Bishop in his Critic article “Hurrah for small decencies” not long after the first lockdown began. “It was inevitable that as soon as the drama began we would reach for the wartime comfort blanket.” But this self-regard, Bishop notes, can go too far, as can “the assumption that if the Germans had invaded we would have behaved better than the French”.
Huxley described in his “Over-Organisation” chapter how the “progress of technology has led and is still leading to just such a concentration and centralisation of power” under Big Business and Big Government. Indeed, the arrival of Covid-19 has seen the state respond by “organising” society to a level not seen since the Second World War, and a level of acquiescence by the public on a similar scale, with a number of big tech companies reaping glorious financial rewards as a result.
The organising principle clearly has a role when a new virus emerges, and it is even indispensable when it comes to freedom, Huxley explains, “for liberty arises and has meaning only within a self-regulating community of freely cooperating individuals”. Furthermore, the “wish to impose order upon confusion, to bring harmony out of dissonance and unity out of multiplicity”—what Huxley calls the “Will to Order”—is a natural “intellectual instinct” and “fundamental urge of the mind”, and one that has bequeathed to us benefits such as science, art and philosophy.
But it is in the “social sphere, in the realm of politics and economics, that the Will to Order becomes really dangerous”, Huxley says. “Too much organisation transforms men and women into automata, suffocates the creative spirit and abolishes the very possibility of freedom. The Will to Order can make tyrants out of those who merely aspire to clear up the mess. The beauty of tidiness is used as a justification for despotism.”
It is worth bringing Huxley’s dystopian-predicting partner George Orwell back in here, given the role language has played, and always will, in this sort of political predicament. In his essay “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell criticised the written and spoken English of his time and examined the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language.
Language is capable of sneakily smoothing out those rougher more unpleasant edges
In short, he explained that which word is used is important. This was brought home to me during my 2009 tour in Afghanistan, during which I noticed the shift in military language that had occurred. When I went to Iraq as a tank commander in 2004, the fire orders I gave the gunner for using the tank’s coaxially mounted machine gun acknowledged some legitimacy of personhood to the enemy target: “Coax man, 100 meters front.” Five years later in Afghanistan, the linguistic corruption that always attends war meant we’d refer to “hot spots”, “multiple pax on the ground” and “prosecuting a target”, or “maximising the kill chain” as real people were lit up on the computer screen being dismembered by 30mm A-10 canon fire.
Language is capable of sneakily smoothing out those rougher more unpleasant edges to the detriment of all users. The ubiquitous use of the word “lockdown” and its corollary verbal phrase of “locking down” has been telling. It implies a positive action which helps distract us from the negation it really is. In saying we are locking down—which also evokes a defiant, plucky posture of defensive solidarity—we are evading other words to describe our situation. It is rare to hear—and I realise I have almost never actually vocally articulated it myself—someone explicitly express the fallout of Covid-19 restrictions in as simple terms as “I am not free.”
This may well be a subconscious defence mechanism, because it quickly becomes painful once you start to deal with it in a less abstract way. We are no longer free. I am not, you are not, neither are your aged parents, nor your siblings, your children, all the people you love and care about are no longer free according to the defining principles of freedom we previously accepted. The only members of your circle of friends and family who maintain a similar level of freedom to that of before are your pets, who remain unmuzzled (though I have read reports about the negative psychological impacts of lockdowns on pets). It’s as simple as that. As is the disingenuous and sophistic narrative that most people have clutched to: how it’s all fine because it is “temporary” (one year and counting), for the “greater good” and because of an “unprecedented crisis”—ideas and phrases all taken out of the strong man’s play book.
The state is sacrificing more and more in the name of Covid-19
Huxley notes how totalitarianism typically emerges when the only other choice is anarchy, and in defence of Brits there probably isn’t any nationality that, given the stark choice between anarchy and totalitarian control, wouldn’t go for a totalitarianism that assured security and safety as long as you toed the line. But Covid-19 never presented anything close to anarchy. It presented the possibility of the country’s health system getting overrun, and that appeared enough, especially when the scientists rolled out the Covid-19 science—“science” being described by Huxley as “that wonderfully convenient personification of the opinions, at a given date, of Professors X, Y, and Z”—and their predictive charts, models and data.
But while the threat of anarchy was never there initially with Covid-19, perhaps it may be now. Especially because the government seems unwilling to recognise that it is creating a feedback loop which has the potential to create the sort of anarchic situations that then lead to further unrest.
“This House criminalised the freedom of protest—this House, us”, Charles Walker said in the House of Commons in the aftermath of the sorry events on Clapham Common. “Not Dame Cressida, not the Metropolitan Police, we did. We criminalised the freedom to protest collectively. We are up to our eyeballs in this.”
In other words, the state is sacrificing more and more in the name of Covid-19—maybe even eventually having to get rid of dissenting voices like Charles Walker—which has troubling form historically.
“In politics the equivalent of a fully developed scientific theory or philosophical system is a totalitarian dictatorship”, Huxley says.
Fortunately, as Huxley notes, “there is still some freedom left in the world.” It remains to be seen if Covid-19 is to become a fully developed scientific theory and philosophical system. The next few months of the Great Unlocking will be telling.
“To parody the words of Winston Churchill, never have so many been manipulated so much by so few”, Huxley says.
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