'Utopia' and 'Brave New World' Offer Choices for a Future Society

from the New Unionist, September 1992, page 3

Books

Classic Works 'Utopia' and 'Brave New World' Offer Choices for a Future Society -- and Reveal Truths About the Present

by Kevin Ristau

The great Russian Experiment has failed. The implications of this failure for the American social order are enormous -- not just because of a potential "peace dividend," but because of the possibility that political proposals that contradict the prevailing conventional wisdom may finally receive a fair hearing.

As long as the Cold War consensus held, there could be no real debate over the country's political direction. Anyone who had the temerity to suggest that the good of society as a whole (rather than the good of a few wealthy individuals) be considered when formulating social policy could be dismissed: such a person was consorting with the enemy.

The disappearance of the enemy may open things up; there could be a real debate in which fundamental questions are posed about the nature of the Good Society. If this happens, participants in such a debate could do worse than reflect upon Thomas More's "Utopia" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," two books about societies that are characterized by rationality and stability.

Both books represent the visions of men who were moved to great indignation by the societies in which they lived. When Huxley wrote his book, more than four centuries had passed since the writing of More's "Utopia," yet nothing had been done to mitigate the greed and violence that More had found so appalling. And 60 years after "Brave New World," we find that the gulf between rich and poor grows greater, while large sections of our inner cities have been written off as war zones.

As anarchy increases, so does the likelihood that an effort will be made to bring it under control: If we fail to bring about stability through greater democracy, an authoritarian order will be imposed. The utopias of More and Huxley will then become even more important, for we will need to address the questions they raise about the balance between the individual and the collective. From this standpoint, More's utopia is clearly preferable -- but it is Huxley's vision that more closely resembles our own society.

Book I of More's "Utopia" provides shocks of recognition to a modern reader, with its description of the untrammeled greed and foolishness of the British ruling class. "Wise fools have a maxim that it is necessary for the public safety always to have in readiness a strong army," writes More, reminding the reader of the "wise fools" in our own country who promoted the huge military buildup in the decades following World War II. More believes that both the British and the French in the 16th century are being ruined by their large standing armies, just as ancient civilizations -- "the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Syrians" -- had been ruined.

Not to be outdone, the owners and rulers of the United States decided upon a similar course of action. Although they correctly projected that an arms race would bankrupt the Soviets, they failed to realize that it would bankrupt us as well.

More's account of the greed of the sheep-owners provides a parallel to the U.S. farm crisis of the 1980s. In both cases, people were displaced from the land because of the actions of an owning class that was "no longer satisfied to live in idleness and luxury without benefiting society. They must needs injure the commonwealth."

More's purpose in describing the rapaciousness of the British nobility is to show how things have gotten out of hand -- some kind of radical alternative is necessary. He believes "that unless private property is entirely done away with, there can be no fair distribution of goods, nor can the world be happily governed."

War and economic collapse not only provide justifications for Huxley's view of the future, but the rationalizations given for Brave New World contain important differences as well.

More wrote his book before the Scientific Revolution, before industrialization. Huxley's comes after. In the 16th century, England was still a predominantly agricultural nation, which is reflected in More's ideal society, where all people work on the land for at least part of their lives. By the 1930s, when "Brave New World" was written, work had become increasingly routine and dehumanizing; people had become slaves to machines. The resulting unhappiness led Huxley to conclude that the rulers of the future would try to find a solution to what they would be sure to regard as the most important problem of their time -- "the problem of making people love their servitude."

In Huxley's utopia, the "solution" to this problem is provided by scientific breakthroughs. Advances in eugenics allow the Controllers to reproduce almost any type of human being they need -- and what they need most are people who are stupid enough not to mind the meaningless drudgery of the work that is required of them. As the Controller Mustapha Mond elegantly puts it, "The optimum population is modeled on the iceberg -- eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above."

Mustapha Mond is at least a good deal more honest than our current ruling elite, which complains about the terrible "failures" of our educational system when the truth is that this system has "succeeded" all too well. The last thing our owning class would want is a population educated enough to understand what is going on in this country. If our rulers are upset because the work force has become too stupid to even run the computers, this means only that they are currently getting workers with an eighth-grade education when what they need are workers with a ninth-grade education.

In order to further insure stability, the Controllers of Brave New World have also provided the workers with endless distractions, some of which are similar to those that are popular today.

Foremost among these is soma, "the perfect drug." It is "euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant" and has "all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects." All workers are required to take the drug (everyone receives a daily ration), making it an indispensable component of social control.

Huxley's utopians go to the "feelies," movies that the viewer not only sees and hears, but also touches and smells. The content of these movies is pretty mindless, but probably not much more so than the latest fare starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar.

Huxley's novel also contains a scene in which the "Sexaphones," a nightclub act, provide the mind-blowing effects of a contemporary rock concert. Lovers of spectator sports can attend the final rounds of the "Women's Heavyweight Wrestling Championship." We have, of course, surpassed Huxley here, since we have the option of staying home to watch "Championship Gladiators" on television. The average American watches six hours of TV a day, producing an effect not unlike the "hypnopaedia" described in Huxley's novel, in which the words "everybody's happy now" are "repeated a hundred and fifty times a night for twelve years."

In More's "Utopia," on the other hand, the good of the whole is not achieved through the obliteration of the individual. Instead of being conditioned to surrender their individuality, human beings are encouraged to become both more individual and more responsible for their own lives. The people of Utopia are not provided with distractions; they spend much of their time reading, a solitary activity which helps create individuals.

More was a devout Roman Catholic, whose religious outlook certainly colored his view of Utopia, where, for example, sex outside marriage is forbidden and repeat adulterers are punished by death. This of course would strike people today as oppressive and an unwarranted invasion into private life. But Huxley's Brave New World, where "everyone belongs to everyone else" and promiscuity is required, reminds us that the opposite extreme can be an illusory freedom used to distract and pacify, and thereby control.

More concludes his book by contrasting Utopia with other nations, all of which are ruled by a "conspiracy of the rich," a parasitical class who "devise ways and means to keep safely what they have unjustly acquired, and to buy up the toil and labor of the poor as cheaply as possible and oppress them."

By abolishing money and private property, More would rid society of this entire class and also eliminate greed and social ambition. Most of all, he wants to curtail pride, the evil he believes is at the root of all evils -- "the infernal serpent that steals into the hearts of men, thwarting and holding them back from choosing the better way of life."

"Utopia" is not the product of a facile optimism about human nature. A strong believer in the doctrine of Original Sin, More would have agreed with today's political conservatives, who insist that human beings are innately selfish, that greed is endemic to human nature. Where he would have differed from the conservatives is in his belief that selfishness and greed should not be encouraged, but discouraged; that a rational society is one that tries to hold in check man's destructive compulsions.

This belief -- that there is no alternative to a planned society -- has never found much favor in this country. We have always preferred laissez-faire, which is another term for perpetual drift. If we continued to drift, however, the smash-up will come. And that is when the Brave New World becomes possible; a strong movement within the most powerful sectors of society could arise that would insist upon stability at any cost.

"Brave New World" stands as a warning: if we do not move in the direction of More's vision, it is Huxley's that will prevail.