The New Dystopia: Orwell, Huxley and the Emerging Totalitarianism

Image above: Detail of Signet Books 1955 edition of George Orwell's "1984". From (

The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, two of England’s foremost literary figures of the last century, each wrote a compelling description of a future dystopia, both of them nightmare visions of society totally under the control of a ruling clique whose only purpose is the enjoyment of power. In Orwell’s 1984 the ruling tyrant is named Big Brother and is clearly modelled on Stalin, whilst in Huxley’s Brave New World the ruler is known as the Director, a character somewhat less sinister and brutal than Orwell’s Big Brother. The two books are of course very different. Brave New World is a black comedy, which does actually make us laugh, whereas there is absolutely nothing funny about 1984. Nonetheless, there are similarities between the two, and both men can be said to have accurately predicted certain specific features of the world we now inhabit.

The most striking parallel of course is that both men foresaw the future as totalitarian rather than democratic and free. Neither presumably believed their vision of the future to be inevitable, though it is equally clear that each saw aspects of mid-twentieth century life which clearly pointed in the totalitarian direction. Thus 1984 and Brave New World may be seen as warnings against what might be if the trends identified by the two authors persisted. What these trends were and why the authors saw them leading towards totalitarianism is an important question and one that will be addressed presently.

The totalitarian states described by Orwell and Huxley differed in most details, though there were also many correspondences. Both Big Brother’s world and the Brave New World are ruled by authoritarian elites of a basically socialist/communist nature, whose only real purpose is the maintenance of their own power and privileges. Both worlds are materialist to the core and religion has been effectively excised from the consciousness of the populace. Furthermore, in both dystopias the family has virtually ceased to exist. A remnant of it survives in Orwell’s world, though even here the true loyalty of children (and spouses) is to the state. In Huxley’s Brave New World however the family does not exist at all, and children are conceived in hatcheries and raised in factory-farm conditions. Indeed, in Huxley’s dystopia science has been utilized by the elite to facilitate its control, and special types of humans, ranging from intelligent alphas to epsilon “semi-morons” are bred in test-tubes to perform specific functions. Marriage does not exist and promiscuous and even perverted sexual activity is encouraged by the state.

Both the differences and the parallels between the two visions are of great interest. Orwell’s nightmare future is based squarely on the reality of Stalin’s brutal regime in the Soviet Union, and tends thus to look backward rather than forward. He does not, for example, on the whole, foresee the importance of technology in the repertoire of the future dictatorship, though his “telescreens,” by which Big Brother keeps an eye on everyone, is rightly viewed as stunningly prophetic of our age of massive electronic surveillance.

Huxley, by contrast, has science and technology right at the heart of his dystopia. The Directors use technology to control everything – including the genetic makeup of each citizen’s body. And for this reason the heroes of technology and industry – such as Henry Ford – are as much honoured in the Brave New World as Marx and Lenin, the heroes of socialism. This is a crucial clue to Huxley’s world-view and central to his idea that the future could well be totalitarian. For Huxley, the materialism of the socialists is in essence no different from the materialism of the technocrats and capitalists; they are simply two different sides of the same materialist coin.

Several aspects of modern life seem to have been very accurately predicted by both Orwell and Huxley. Orwell’s idea of “New Speak,” for example, the deliberate remoulding and distortion of the English language by Big Brother, has been rightly compared to the politically correct manipulation of language that has become all too familiar in western societies over the past twenty to thirty years. The political purpose of “New Speak” is to control the thinking of the populace – not too different in aim from the new terms and words coined by political correctness. Huxley does not go into the language issue in the same way as Orwell, though we note too that in the Brave New World certain “offensive” words – such as “cross” – have been eliminated from public use. Thus for example Charing Cross Station in London has been renamed “Charing T Station” – after Henry Ford’s Model T automobile.

Related to the question of language, both writers foresaw the rewriting of history, or rather the complete elimination of history in any meaningful sense of the word, in the totalitarian future. Thus in Big Brother’s world there exists a whole government department, the Ministry of Truth, whose purpose is the falsification of history. The Ministry’s task is to destroy real historical documents and forge others more pleasing to Big Brother. The destruction of historical consciousness is so complete that even traditional songs and nursery rhymes are all but forgotten by the populace. A similar situation prevails in the Brave New World. Here too there is no historical consciousness amongst the people and in fact all “education” is simply conditioning by the state.

How frighteningly reminiscent of modern norms, where the “history” curricula in western schools is increasingly little more than politically correct conditioning!

Another area of agreement between the two writers centres round the attitude of the elites to what might be termed the “lower classes.” In Big Brother’s world the lower classes are described as the “proles,” a vast section of society deliberately kept in ignorance by the state. In the “prole” areas the state permits a kind of chaos to reign. Drunkenness and crime are tolerated and even encouraged. Similarly, in Huxley’s Brave New World the lower classes, from the gammas down to the epsilons, are actually genetically engineered to be stupid, and they are furthermore provided with a mind-altering drug, named “soma,” to keep them thoroughly stupefied and malleable.

Again, we note the striking correspondence with the norms in many western societies – especially in the English-speaking world – where a de-educated and essentially feral “underclass” has been permitted to develop over the past thirty to forty years. Not only is this underclass utterly ignorant, it is malnourished on a diet of “pop” culture, drugs and alcohol, and is utterly incapable of breaking free of the welfare addiction which saps the very life out of it.    

Who then was most right: Orwell or Huxley, and more importantly, why did these two see the future as totalitarian?

Of the two dystopian visions, it has to be admitted that, so far, Huxley seems more correct. This statement is made on the qualification that we understand his Brave New World to be a comedy and therefore an exaggeration and parody of reality. Taking this into account, we can see that the emerging totalitarianism appears in many areas to be very much in conformity with Huxley’s vision. The hedonism and ignorance encouraged by the modern elites is truly mirrored in the Brave New World, and the soma consumed by the brain-dead masses is quite literally paralleled in the mind-altering drugs which plague the working-class areas of the modern cities. And, so far, the “soft power” exercised by the Director is more in conformity with the type of totalitarian control exerted by the western elites than the brutal control exercised by Big Brother. As yet, there are no concentration camps or Room 101s. Having said that, it needs to be emphasized that the situation is fluid, and the possibility of a much more oppressive form of totalitarianism, in the image of Big Brother’s 1984, is one that cannot be discounted. Over the past twenty years we have witnessed, in most western societies, a progressive closing down of freedom of speech and disenfranchisement of the populace. It would take very little, I suggest, to transform the “soft power” of Huxley’s Director into the “hard power” of Orwell’s Big Brother.

How then did these authors, in the 1940s and ‘50s, realize the totalitarian direction of western societies?

The answer, I think, is fairly straightforward: They saw in their own time the drift to the left of the intellectual elites of the West and they simply imagined the consequences if this drift continued. The deceptive and apparent “humanitarianism” of socialism made the continuation of this trend highly likely, particularly in the aftermath of World War II, when the world woke to the horrors of fascism. (That fascism was itself originally an outgrowth of socialism was of course all too easily forgotten). The very utopianism of socialism, particularly in its Marxist guise, is bound to lead to totalitarianism, as any system which believes itself involved in a project to “perfect” the world will tend to brook no disagreement.

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