Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: A Cautionary Tale of Totalitarian Ideology by Shahin Hossain

In Texts and Pretexts, first published in 1932, while discussing his concern regarding the present and future, Aldous Huxley asserted, “Personally, I must confess, I am more interested in what the world is now than in what it will be, or what it might be if improbable conditions were fulfilled” (6). In the same year, Huxley published his futurist novel Brave New World that portrays a dehumanized community in a totalitarian state named the World State that John the Savage, the central character of the novel, calls brave new world. A body of controllers consisting of Alpha double pluses governs the World State based on the ideology of its founder, Henry Ford. After its publication, however, some critics interpreted the novel as a cautionary tale about unchecked scientific development in the area of genetic engineering. On the other hand, some others have interpreted it as a cautionary tale about abuse by powerful elites who control the science and dehumanize the masses, exploiting its tremendous power. In addition, some historical critics have interpreted the novel as a Utopian vision of Huxley. According to them, Huxley himself is a eugenicist and a strong advocate of human genetic manipulation. In support of their argument, they present Huxley’s other contemporary writings as evidence.

Therefore, because of Huxley’s ambiguous position, scholars’ opposing stances, and the novel’s rich and ambivalent narration, some problems might arise for readers (in this venue, English teachers) that need to be addressed to understand the text comprehensively and facilitate a critical discussion of the novel in classrooms. During classroom inquiry into of Huxley’s Brave New World, readers might come to wonder whether the novel is a cautionary tale about the unchecked expansion of science and technology, or one about abuse by powerful elites who exploit others for their interests. Alternatively, one might wonder whether the novel celebrates the communal lifestyle in the World State or warns the readers of the nightmare of the triumphant totalitarian ideology that rules the World State. This paper will read Brave New World as a cautionary tale about the triumphant totalitarian ideology that envisions controlling individuals’ body and mind through Pavlovian conditioning, promiscuous sexualities, and institutionalized propaganda. In short, this paper is essentially arguing that Brave New World is a cautionary tale about a totalitarian ideology that undermines the core values of humanity: truth, justice, equality, liberty, and human dignity.

The reader might wonder what this paper refers to by the term “totalitarian ideology.” With that term, this paper does not necessarily intend to make reference to historical Stalinism, Hitlerism, and Italian Fascism; instead, it defines totalitarian ideology as “nationalistic and revolutionary, anti-liberal, anti-Marxist” (Gentile 35), pro-capitalistic, fascist, and authoritarian political religion that aspires to establish its absolute control over individuals and society, destroying previous economic, social, political, and cultural institutions, structures, and values. This ideology goes beyond time and space and continuously evolves, integrating social, political, cultural, scientific, and technological factors. This paper, however, does not differentiate between the terms “totalitarianism” and “fascism” and often uses the phrases “totalitarian ideology” or “totalitarian fascist ideology” interchangeably to refer to totalitarianism that is going to be defined here in detail. As drawing from Paul M. Hayes’ Fascism, Emilio Gentile defines totalitarianism:

an experiment in political domination undertaken by a revolutionary movement, with an integralist conception of politics, that aspires toward a monopoly of power and that, after having secured power, whether by legal or illegal means, destroys or transforms the previous regime and constructs a new State based on a single-party regime, with the chief objective of conquering society; that is, it seeks the subordination, integration and homogenisation of the governed on the basis of the integral politicisation of existence, whether collective or individual, interpreted according to the categories, myths and values of a palingenetic ideology, institutionalized in the form of a political religion, that aims to shape the individual and the masses through an anthropological revolution in order to regenerate the human being and create the new man, who is dedicated in body and soul to the realization of the revolutionary and imperialistic policies of the totalitarian party, whose ultimate goal is to create a new civilization beyond the Nation State. (Gentile 33-34)

Although this definition is a lengthy one, this paper incorporates it as it arises from a deliberate choice of how to present the phenomenon. Besides, the complexity of the novel necessitates this definition, as it is a “remarkably rich text, open to many legitimate and edifying interpretations” (Woiak 111). Therefore, this paper promises to apply this definition to a comprehensive reading of the novel that can, in turn, help teachers foster critical discussion in the classroom.

Brave New World, in portraying a totalitarian nightmare, is a cautionary tale. The novel portrays the World State as an absolute nightmare that dehumanizes individuals, controlling every aspect of their lives in the name of stability, happiness, and security. The World State controls not only the size of the of population and their ranks but also their functions—all in the name of stability and happiness. The controllers of the World State believe that if there is no control of population growth and their functions, there will be instability and anarchy in the State. In reply to John’s query as to why he is not making everyone Alpha Double Plus, Mustapha Mond, the World Controller of Western Europe, asserts, “Because we have no wish to have our throats cut. We believe in happiness and stability” (189). In making this comment, Mustapha Mond argues that it is their policy to control the population and their ranks because their central goal is to keep the State stable and happy. To ensure stability, they cannot give everyone free choice because they cannot take any risk of making the state unstable. Besides, the World State keeps the artifacts of high culture locked up and engages its citizens in various unintellectual entertainment activities for ensuring its uninterrupted security.

The text depicts that the individuals in the World State are under the absolute control and surveillance of their central government. This absolute control of an individual can only happen in a totalitarian political condition. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt states, “A single individual can be absolutely and reliably dominated only under global totalitarian conditions” (392). From Arendt’s assertion, it becomes evident that the World State is a classical condition of a totalitarian state. In addition, in interpreting Huxley’s Brave New World, Laura Frost asserts, “As much as it is a nightmare of a totalitarian, genetically engineered future, though, Brave New World is also a cautionary tale about a world in which artifacts of high culture are held under lock and key while the populace is supplied with ‘imbecile’ entertainment” (447). Basically, Frost is arguing that the novel portrays a totalitarian nightmare depicting the traits of a totalitarian ideology to warn its readers. According to Bob Barr, Huxley’s Brave New World offers a “cautionary tale” portraying a society that, in the name of ensuring security, stability, and happiness, controls both body and mind of the individuals, revoking their freedom (Barr 853- 854). Barr rightly observes that in the World State, the government not only restricts civil liberties but also controls all aspects of the economy from production to distribution. Therefore, from the arguments of Arendt, Frost, and Barr, it becomes evident that Brave New World depicts a nightmarish portrait of a totalitarian state to warn the readers about the danger of a totalitarian ideology that ultimately revokes civil liberties through state-sponsored mechanisms.

The totalitarian fascist ideology of the World State is the critical factor behind limiting academic and artistic freedom. The World State not only restricts scientific research but also regulates art and literature. It neither allows its citizens to conduct individualized research projects nor permits them to read Shakespeare. It restricts academic and artistic freedom for ensuring happiness because it believes that absolute freedom and absolute happiness cannot coexist. Therefore, the state has chosen happiness over freedom and wants to maintain this status quo at any cost. The novel depicts the ideology of the World State through Mustapha Mond, portraying him as the top political personality who holds the executive, legislative, judicial, and moral authority. Mond defends the policy of the state and tries to convince John the Savage why the state has restricted academic and artistic freedom. He philosophically analyzes the necessity for limiting science; as he asserts, “I’m interested in truth, I like science. But truth’s a menace, science is a public danger. As dangerous as it’s been beneficent. It has given us the stablest equilibrium in history. […] But we can’t allow science to undo its own good work. That’s why we so carefully limit the scope of its researches” (193-194). Furthermore, Mond defends the policy of the World State for not giving any space for art and literature. According to Mond, the state has blocked the access and practice of art and literature, being neither ignorant about its aesthetic beauty nor malicious towards it, but being motivated from the idea of ensuring stability of the state. In response to John’s claim about the better life in Othello’s world, Mond argues: “Of course it is. But that’s the price we must pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We have sacrificed high art” (188). Referring to the disasters of the ‘Nine Years War,’ Mond analyzes the reasons for restricting science and banishing the concept of truth and beauty from the World State:

“It’s curious,” he went on after a little pause, “to read what people in the time of Our Ford used to write about scientific progress. They seemed to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of everything else. Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate. Right, ideas were beginning to change even then. 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 cannot. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered. Still, despite everything, free scientific research was still permitted. People still went on talking about truth and beauty as though they were the sovereign goods.” (194)

Certainly, Mustapha Mond’s speeches are open to many interpretations. Sensible and artistic-minded readers might find them alarming, and they (readers) might be shocked to see that in the World State, there is no place of art, knowledge, beauty, truth, and creativity. They might consider the World State an uninhabitable place to live because they view the essence of humanity in liberation, not in restriction. On the other hand, many readers might find this controlled world fascinating because there is no war, no instability, no challenge, and no need to worry about life, security, and happiness. They might find the World State as a fantastic place to live. Because of this textual ambivalence, two questions might appear before our readers.

First, is Brave New World Huxley’s nightmarish vision of human beings’ inevitable reality because of their lunatic actions? Is the novel a portrayal of an ideal world where genetically engineered superior races would determine the future of the world, upholding the motto “Community, Identity, Stability”? According to Renata Reich, Huxley’s primary purpose of writing Brave New World was to alert “mankind to the dangers of an overly technologized society, in the midst of which mankind loses its most valuable possession: its very humanity” (Reich 34). In support of her claim, she points out the dehumanizing process in the novel that “occurs as a consequence of the fact that the ruling class does not permit the members of the other classes to choose their destiny according to their free will. Slavery, even if it is in the form of a frantic search for pleasure imposed upon the other classes by the ruling class, is, in essence, dehumanizing” (45). Reich reads Brave New World as a cautionary tale that warns people of a dangerous consequence rushing toward them because of unchecked scientific and technological development. In contrast, Joanne Woiak claims that Huxley’s main concern was to use scientific knowledge and technologies to improve human life efficiently, and in particular to “create well-ordered states out of the perceived social and economic chaos of postwar Europe” (110). The bottom line of Woiak’s argument is that Huxley’s Brave New World is not a cautionary tale; instead, it is the vision of an author who believed in the power of science and technology not only in improving peoples’ living standards but also in creating a well-planned world state(s) that will not seek chaos and war, but stability and happiness. For Woiak, therefore, the portrayal of the World State in Huxley’s novel is not a cautionary tale of the totalitarian nightmare; it is his ideal world vision, a utopia.

Although both Reich and Woiak seem convincing, and many readers might have read the novel according to their interpretations, their arguments fall short of recognizing a critical aspect of the text, which is its critique of the totalitarian ideology that in the name of stability and national security exploits the power of science and technology to establish its hegemony over its citizens. Huxley might be interested in creating a well-ordered state using science and technology that would not only ensure security, stability, and happiness for its citizens but also significantly improve their living standards. But he is not unaware of the nature of human beings—that all humans are not equally rational and act rationally. He knows it very well that many people are violent and believe in destructive ideologies. Consequently, if this advanced knowledge of science and technology falls into the hands of violent people who believe in destructive ideologies, they will abuse them and bring disasters to others. Therefore, I do not agree with Reich that Huxley wants to warn his readers about the dangers of an overly technologized society, because the novel explicitly shows that it is not science and technology that manipulates the citizens but the ideology of the World State that endeavors to establish Fordism, a totalitarian ideology, in all aspects of its citizens’ lives. Moreover, the World State has systematically stripped civil liberties, banned art and literature, and imposed restrictions on individualized scientific research—none of which have anything to do with the advancement of science and technology. So, I do not think that any freedom-loving individual, including Huxley, would be interested in living in the World State that the novel portrays.

On the other hand, although Woiak’s argument seems interesting, I have to disagree with her as well, because her argument also falls short of perceiving the larger picture of the novel. The novel does not celebrate the well-ordered camp life in the World State; instead, it satirizes it, showing the absurdity and meaninglessness of their lives. Here, I am not saying that Huxley may not have any dream of creating a well-ordered state that would possibly stop the war and ensure stability. What I am saying is he may not dream of creating a totalitarian state like the World State that would limit civil liberties and control every aspect of peoples’ lives in the name of security, stability, and happiness. In my view, Huxley is more interested in a well-designed progressive secular liberal democratic state that would uphold truth, liberty, equality, and justice for all. And we do not see any clear reflection of these values in the World State that might lead us to think that it could be Huxley’s ideal state.

Huxley is concerned about the failure of liberal democracy and the possible rise of totalitarian dictatorships in Europe. His writings published during the 1930s reflect this concern. In “What Is Happening to Our Population?” Huxley expresses his concern about the future of lasting democracy because of the lower IQ levels among his fellow British citizens. As he asserts, “How do they expect democratic institutions to survive in a country where an increasing percentage of the population is mentally defective? Half-wits fairly ask for dictators. Improve the average intelligence of the population and self-governance will become, not only inevitable, but efficient” (154). This statement might (mis)lead many readers to believe that Huxley is interested in the genetic manipulation of human beings (like the Nazis, as historically eugenics is associated with Nazism). Here, we need to consider the fact that the novel was published in 1931, and the Nazis took over Germany in 1933. Huxley is concerned about the shallowness of his fellow British citizens because he somehow perceives that the totalitarian ideologies might replace the democratic institutions taking advantage of intellectual vacancies. He believes that only meritorious, intellectually sharpened citizens can uphold the values of liberal democracy, and his eugenics is for democracy that will challenge totalitarian ideologies. Huxley is concerned about the failure of democratic institutions and the rise of the totalitarian dictatorship in the distant future because of the lack of intelligence of the people. In Brave New World Revisited, he points out:

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, and 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. (2)

Basically, Huxley is saying that the world is moving fast toward a nightmarish reality in which individuals would have no liberty but to lead a controlled life in an insane world. Although some critics might argue that the World State is Huxley’s ideal state because it has achieved significant progress in different fields—ensured stability, stopped war, brought happiness, and conquered aging—many critics, however, may not consider these achievements as real progress. According to Firchow, “This kind of progress is really no progress at all. Real progress, in Huxley’s term, can be defined as ‘personal progress’ or ‘internal progress'” (452). I agree with Firchow that to Huxley, real progress means an individual’s internal progress, more particularly her intellectual progress where she has the freedom to think, freedom to choose, and freedom to lead a life the way she wants to live. And the novel reveals this urge for autonomy through John’s call for freedom: ‘”Don’t you want to be free and men? Don’t you even understand what manhood and freedom are? Don’t you? Very well then, I’ll teach you; I’ll make you be free whether you want to or not'” (182). It becomes clear that Huxley’s Brave New World tends to warn its readers about a possible catastrophe which is peeping in the horizon and appearing slowly but surely. Therefore, I argue that the novel is not a cautionary tale about the advancement of science and technology; instead, it is a critical portrayal of a totalitarian ideology that envisions to subjugate individuals’ liberty in the name of security, stability, and happiness. Thus, it becomes a cautionary tale for the readers of the upcoming totalitarian fascist ideology that will not just subjugate the universal values of truth, liberty, equality, justice, and human dignity, but will dehumanize human rights, weaponizing the power of science and technology.

Brave New World alerts the readers to anti-intellectual culture, dehumanization, and intoxication from prescribed promiscuous sexuality. The World State promotes effortless pleasures and prevents intellectual awareness keeping people engaged in different unintellectual activities. According to Frost, Huxley was concerned about the implications of the cinema in stimulating individuals’ body and mind. And he imagined “cinema’s potential to be either an instrument of social and political reform or a medium of cultural degeneracy” (Frost 445). For Huxley, since cinema has intoxicating influences on individuals’ bodies and minds and brings ready-made pleasures for them (as the primary task of the cinema viewers is to sit down and watch), these effortless physical and mental pleasures may not be ideal for them as a rational and intellectual being. Instead, this effortless mental pleasure may lower their intellectual abilities, which would be dangerous for entire human cults. Similarly, Jonathan Carey argues that Brave New World is “the classic denunciation of mass culture in the interwar years” (qtd. in Frost 448). Likewise, Josephine McQuail claims that the central message in Brave New World is that “only the alienated individual—or at least the person aware of being alienated—can achieve true human consciousness, if not happiness” (31). In my view, McQuail has rightly pointed out Huxley’s concern regarding the alienation of the individuals from an inner life in the World State that essentially keeps the citizens away from achieving any intellectual awareness. Besides, the World State is designed in a way which prevents its members from enjoying solitude, as Mond asserts: “But people are never alone now. We make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it’s almost impossible for them to have it” (200). Mond outlines the policy of the World State, which is not to keep the individuals alienated, but to engage them in different activities that will not only keep them intoxicated but also provide them with pleasures. In the same line, Theodor Adorno argues, and I agree, that Huxley in Brave New World is “inwardly an enemy of intoxication”:

[T]he regularly occurring communal orgies and the prescribed short-term change of partners are logical consequences of the jaded official sexual routine that turns pleasure to fun and denies it by granting it. But precisely in the impossibility of looking pleasure in the eye, of making use of reflection in abandoning one’s whole self to pleasure, the ancient prohibition for which Huxley prematurely mourns continues in force. (qtd. in Frost 448- 449)

For Huxley, these aspects of prescribed hypersexual life are dangerous for human beings because they prevent individuals from achieving self-awareness and keep them detached from their inner life. Hence, Brave New World portraits the World State as a totalitarian fascist and anti-intellectual state where individuals grow through the process of genetic and psychological conditioning and serve the state as nothing but efficient tools that the state requires to continue its functions. And here, Frost’s argument that the novel is both a nightmare of totalitarian, genetically engineered future and a cautionary tale of a possible totalitarian state on Earth is significant. I agree with Frost that Brave New World is both a portrayal of a nightmare of totalitarian ideology and a cautionary tale because the novel depicts that explicitly through the representation of John the Savage. For John, it becomes utterly impossible to live in the World State, his ‘brave new world’, because human beings are absolutely dehumanized, and their values are seriously undermined.

The World State promotes promiscuous sexuality, as individuals engage in sexual acts with other bodies although they have no real connection with their minds. This is the sort of mechanical sexual relations that we see in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, where after sex, the partners leave as if nothing happened between them, and they get engaged in other activities like machines. Although it seems the members of the community are happy, their happiness is not because they feel they are happy from their inner selves, but because they are being taught every day that they are happy. This Pavlovian conditioning in the World State is so acute that the individuals cannot think of their existence outside of the camp. The system does not give them any chance to think and reflect their awareness as an individual.

Furthermore, in the World State, women do not have absolute rights over their bodies. Although they can choose their sex partner from available men, they cannot enjoy their maternity because having a baby is considered a disgrace. Hence, women in the World State are nothing but commodities that are essential for the state’s stability. However, although the World State aims to remove the self from the individuals, and has taken specified initiatives introducing soma, promoting promiscuous sexuality, and arranging shows of feelies, the new world has not achieved much success in their goal because some individuals feel bored and lonely.

The World State has turned into a nightmare because of the rise of totalitarian ideology, Fordism, that controls every aspect of peoples’ lives from birth control to the banishment of the individuals making them slaves to the state. In the World State, everything of an individual, including her life, her activities, and even her death, is for the sake of the state whose motto is “community, identity, stability.” For controlling every aspect of individuals’ life, the World State has a policy which is to keep the individuals busy in effortless activities and to make specific arrangements for them to get involved in hedonist pleasures. For example, in reply to Savage’s assertion that life in the World State is “Awful,” Mustapha Mond asserts, “On the contrary, they like it. It’s light, it’s childishly simple. No strain on the mind or the muscles. Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies” (190-191). Here, it becomes clear that Huxley’s Brave New World both satirizes and critiques this anti-intellectual, effortless lifestyle of the World State that squeezes human beings into brainless consumers who consume anything and everything the state offers without thinking or questioning further. Therefore, the idea that the novel is a Utopia of Huxley, and he designs this as an alternative to the present world to solve the problem of humanity, does not hold water. The idea is simply contrary to the novel’s portrayal of the World State.

Huxley’s Brave New World portrays the fundamentals of the ideology of Henry Ford, the founding father of the World State, and its applications through state mechanisms. A group of controllers consisting of Alpha double pluses, genetically engineered superior individuals, administer the World State based on the ideology of their founding father. Although it might seem that the novel does not explicitly condemn the lifestyle of the World State, a close reading of the novel would explore the inconsistencies and contradictions in the World State and the deep agonies among its citizens. For example, although Mustapha Mond claims that nobody in his world is unhappy, it’s not clear whether he is happy or not. He could not pursue his passion for continuing scientific studies and research because of the system, which did not allow him to seek knowledge that might go against the interests of the World State. Consequently, he had to choose whether he would live in an isolated island or stay in the center as an administrator leaving scientific projects. Since the text does not clarify his mental state, readers might not explicitly know whether he is happy or not, but from his speeches, readers can assume that he misses his past ventures. Although we cannot be sure whether he is happy or unhappy, we can understand that he has chosen power over passion, and a stable high life over truth and beauty.

Objections to this reading might include that I am ignoring both the concerns of the novel for rampant and unchecked scientific and technological development and the advocacy for a well-designed community that ensures stability and happiness for its members. Some critics might disagree with my argument that the text is a cautionary tale of the triumphant totalitarian ideology that envisions to dehumanize the people who live in the World State. They might argue that Huxley’s novel is a celebration of the well-designed state where sexuality is liberated, women are made free from the burden of pregnancy and childbirth, and stability is established. Taking these objections in mind, this paper, however, carefully examines the novel and Huxley’s other writings. Based on textual observation, this paper argues that Brave New World is a cautionary tale about the totalitarian ideology, not the advancement of science and technology. Also, to those who claim that the World State is a utopia and Huxley dreams to design such a world as a possible solution for the people of the world, this paper demonstrates that the novel and Huxley’s other writings do not explicitly support such type of claim. In contrast, the novel denounces it showing the contradictions and inconsistencies in the World State. Mustapha Mond wanted to practice science but could not proceed on because the authority of the World State did not allow him to go ahead with his projects. Moreover, he reads the Bible and Shakespeare, but he cannot allow these books to others because being an administrator his responsibility is to implement the ideology which prohibits the members of the community from reading these books. Although this double standard seems to be hypocritical and unjust, he can neither comprehend this nor possess any freedom to defy the ideological position of the World State. Because of these contradictions and inconsistencies, it becomes evident that the World State is no such ideal place to live in and, therefore, it is not a Utopia. Moreover, the state not just absolutely controls peoples’ body and mind through Pavlovian conditioning but also restricts their movements through state sponsored mechanisms.

Although the World State restricts civil liberties—indeed, controls individuals’ bodies and minds through Pavlovian conditioning, promiscuous sexualities, and institutionalized propaganda—it has not achieved absolute success in establishing its hegemony over the individuals. The novel shows that some of the individuals choose to defy the rules and decide to lead a life that they want. And here lies the hope of the continuation of humanity despite apparent triumph of the totalitarian ideology. Brave New World is “remarkable for its accurate predictions about science and technology, economics and politics, and arts and leisure” (Woiak 107); in its prescience, and in the potential it offers for resistance to oppression, this novel remains a rich text for English teachers. Acknowledging the significance of the novel, this paper then attempts to solve some of the problems that might arise for readers, presenting an alternative reading of the novel which has substantial contemporary relevance (as we see a sharp rise in authoritarian governments around the world) and has gone overlooked in popular interpretations. In presenting an alternative reading of the novel, I have also introduced readers to a range of possible readings, which can surely be helpful in teaching the novel.

Works Cited

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Woiak, Joanne. “Designing a Brave New World: Eugenics, Politics, and Fiction.” The Public Historian, vol. 29, no. 3, 2007, pp. 105–129. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2007.29.3.105.

 

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