Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

73. Brave New World

Note: This post is the seventy-third in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

"The world is turning Disney and there's nothing you can do
You're trying to walk like giants, but you're wearing Pluto's shoes
And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun
Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb
The world won't end in darkness, it will end in family fun
With Coca-Cola clouds behind a Big Mac Sun"1

This week's post is about the book, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World is a dystopian novel about a future world where scientific advances have led to a society where people are programmed to seek out happiness and are thus controlled, in order to maintain a stable society.

I was reminded of this book when I came across this cartoon illustration of some of the differences between George Orwell's 1984 and Brave New World.

1984, to some extent, imagines a world with the Guardian syndrome run amok, taking a far larger role and intruding in areas it was never meant to.

My first thought was that Brave New World, on the other hand, was an attempt to portray a world in which the Commercial syndrome had run amok in similar fashion.

But as I read through it again, I realized that a more accurate description would be that it describes a world in which neither syndrome exists, the Guardian syndrome because it is unnecessary and the commercial syndrome because it is destabilizing.

A while back we saw that David Gauthier argued, in his book Morals by Agreement, that morality consisted of a constraint on behaviour and that the perfectly competitive market would remove the need for morality by perfectly aligning people's natural instincts with what was socially optimal.

Huxley takes this logic further, imagining a society in which everything runs on this principle. The best expression of this thought comes in a section of the end of the book when the protagonist(s) meet up with the Resident World Controller for Western Europe, Mustapha Mond2.

Mond explains that,
"Civilization has no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. ... Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for and defended - there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense."

The wording, that morality is a symptom of inefficiency, is almost a word for word match with Gauthier, but Mond's topic is politics whereas Gauthier was only talking about markets.

There are other elements of this scene that show the lack of a need for morality (in particular guardian morality). The meeting shows a complete lack of ostentation on the part of the Controller, who simply walks ('briskly') into the room and shakes their hands and has a face to face conversation with them in his study. There is no need for Mustapha to intimidate or overawe the people he is visiting, because they are firmly enough under control that they wouldn't do anything rash like use force on him.

The conversation starts with the Savage asking the Controller why something is banned and the controller replies, "Because it's old; that's the chief reason. We haven't any use for old things here." This cuts out the Guardian belief in respecting tradition.3

Mond claims that the ultimate guiding objective in the Brave New World is happiness - the same as the commercial syndrome. But in fact, the Brave New World subordinates happiness to stability. Ongoing scientific research could lead to much more comfort for man (heated leather seats in SUV's!) but the Brave New World has cut-off further scientific inquiry in many areas due to its potentially destabilizing nature.

"Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can't. ...

[but] People still went on talking about truth and beauty as though they were the sovereign goods. Right up to the time of the Nine Years' War. That made them change their tune all right. What's the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when anthrax bombs are popping all around you? ... People were ready to have their appetites controlled then, Anything for a quiet life. We've gone on controlling ever since. It hasn't been very good for truth, of course. But it's been very good for happiness."

I think that, in some ways, Huxley was overly optimistic about human nature. He seemed to believe that only through genetic breeding to make people dumber and forced drug consumption could people be induced to work at mindless drudgery without rebelling. He didn't seem to appreciate that people could be made cooperative in the all-consuming pursuit of happiness using far less coercive methods.

He believed that the pursuit of status would inevitably lead to civil war if left unchecked, but didn't consider that people would be happy to chase status in the form of simply greater comfort than others, achieved via promotion of comfort and convenience for others (think Steve Jobs).

He also fell into the trap of thinking that automation would remove the need for work. Ironically, even Huxley, who imagined an entire world build around the principle of the pursuit of happiness and comfort, didn't comprehend the truly insatiable nature of the human desire for greater comfort and convenience. He thought that if the government didn't maintain a large percentage of the population in agriculture, people would have no work to do, when instead the gains from no longer needing everyone to work the fields were easily absorbed by building ourselves 4,000 square foot houses and flying on planes all over the world and building cars with air conditioning, and airbags, and anti-lock brakes, and seatbelts, and warning lights, and so on.

What stands out most for me from Brave New World was the ambitious attempt to imagine a world where people's commercial syndrome desire for happiness has supplanted the need for any guardian style virtues. In the end the Savage (who has grown up outside of the Brave New World) cries out some inefficiency in the Brave New World that will allow him to demonstrate his prowess, to show his honour.

"But I don't want comfort. I want God. I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."

The weakness, for me, was that Huxley did not go far enough in imagining how far a commercial mindset could go on its own in reducing the need for guardian ethics, without needing to be supported by coercive methods, selective breeding or restraints on scientific inquiry and artistic endeavour.

At some point in the next few weeks, I'll explore the notion that the threat for the commercial syndrome is not just that it might succeed so well that it needs to be restrained, but rather that its continued prominence in our society depends on an ever-increasing, rather than stable level of comfort, and I'll look at the challenges we face generating an always-rising level of comfort and convenience for all.

1From the Beautiful South song 'One God'

2Even the choice of the name Mustapha for the leader of Europe demonstrates a rejection of the exclusivity that is part of the Guardian syndrome, showing that this society has no need for such tribalism.

3I put this in a footnote because it's not relevant to my post, but the next passage in the book is a complaint from the Savage about the 'modern' films that strikes so close to home, I wanted to mention it, "But the new ones are so stupid and horrible. Those plays, where there's nothing but helicopters flying and you feel the people kissing."

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home