An era of economic crisis, recession and downturn tends to be accompanied by promises of a way out that will rescue insecure humanity from its troubles. sometimes through an entire imagined new order. The years following 2007 are another such moment, which makes timely a fresh look at Aldous Huxley's extraordinarily rich dystopian novel Brave New World (1931).
Huxley (1895-1963) was one of the leading public intellectuals of the 20th century, a member of the Bloomsbury Group and a participant in some of the important intellectual debates of the 1920s and 1930s (his death on 22 November 1963 was overshadowed by the assassination that day of John F Kennedy). Unlike many of his circle, however, he witnessed hardship at first-hand: in the depression-era plight of those enduring poverty and prostitution in east London, of coal-miners in England's north-east, and of people in the industrial "black country" of the west midlands. In a similar way to JB Priestley's English Journey (1932) and George Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), Huxley's travels around the country provided him with impressions and insights that fed his writing.
But Huxley did share with many others of his generation a contempt for the defunct political elite and the class-divided nature of British society, and was aware of the tumultuous events on the horizon in Europe with the rise of fascism. He had also been horrified at the decadence of the late 1920s, captured in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, and - more than most of his peers - was profoundly influenced by the new model of industrial organisation known as "Fordism", which he encountered on visits to the United States.
It is crucial to understand the importance of Fordism in Brave New World's combination of biting satire and acute social critique. On the one hand, there is the strongly satirical depiction of a society that believes in unlimited progress guided by science and planning that also appears in Chaplin's Modern Times (as in the "Fellows Feeding Machine").
On the other hand, Huxley thinks through the wider disastrous cultural implications of Fordism. The problem, according to Huxley in an article entitled Art and the Obvious, was that this commercial mass culture was made "for the people but not - and this is the modern tragedy - by the people". So in Brave New World he gave Fordism a status beyond the "philosophy of industrialism": that of a new religion in its ability to answer all social questions.
This is made clear by the importance of science, including a far-sighted prediction of the application of reproductive technology - the novel's first chapter describes the role of "the fertilising room" and the arrival of "decanted babies" - in transforming society and driving production, prosperity and pleasure. The abolition of the family is made possible by science and widespread recreational sex, but the main goal of these changes is to increase consumption.
Brave New World's obsession with relentless materialism is reflected in the novel's central slogan "ending is better than mending", and in its depiction of "under-consumption" as a crime against society. Outlawing those things which do not aid consumption (and therefore pleasure) carries a different implication from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four vision of a party-led oligarchy; yet both continue to carry strong messages for the future.
Huxley's vision was not constrained by the immediacies of his time and his global consumerist vision resonates with our own era, notably what some see as the complacent shift towards a standardised lifestyle culture with its own significant consequences for intellectual freedom, civil rights and diversity.
Moreover the threats, as he accurately predicted in 1932, come not only from the totalitarianism of regimes opposed to the main principles of liberal democracy (and, we might now add, forms of religious fundamentalism), but have their roots in current conditions, even in "progressive" attempts to make our lives better, faster, more pleasurable, more efficient and more equitable.
As with Huxley's observations of the 1930s, the growing disparity of wealth, now increasingly evident in the ongoing financial crisis, coexists with promises of abundance, expressed both through economic and technological opportunities and the assimilation of the cultures of work and leisure.
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How, then, might Huxley's Brave New World be reimagined today? For Huxley, the main drivers of the new society were a mixture of left-wing utopians and self-interested hedonists, reflected in his own mix of historical characters derived from the combined names of some of the leading thinkers of the day (among them Bernard Marx, Polly Trotsky and Benito Hoover).
Today, he might envisage the Labour Party being replaced by The Anti-Elitism Movement, as a champion of utopian values at a time when the hegemony of a supermarket-driven world of consumerism carries all before it.
Today's equivalent of Brave New World's location in the "Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre" - the "squat grey building of only three stories" with which the novel opens - might be a management-training course in a new town, conveying the same delicate mixture of puritanism and planning. His satirical take on grandiose schemes, futurist architecture and a consumerist paradise might well lead him to place the story somewhere like the planned town of Milton Keynes, with its street-grids, concrete cows and shopping-malls.
Each morning at Milton Keynes Central (MKC), a new batch of "colleagues" would arrive from one of the Tesco Towns (named after the nation's most profitable supermarket and based in one of twenty regions). On arrival at MKC, the colleagues would be taken to their first Workload Planning Improvements Committee meeting, whose mission is summed up by the phrase "You know you've got the time", and where each new colleague is introduced to two line-managers (one for mornings and one for afternoons).
After collecting their complimentary flasks of "Skinny Latte extra hot" (universally known as a "lar-tay" in the inclusive popular vernacular of MKC), the next stage of the new colleagues' induction is to attend a keynote PowerPoint lecture. This is given by the Professor of Ordinary Culture (the alternative to Huxley's Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning) and entitled "The Most Important Event of the 20th Century", namely the funeral in September 1997 of Diana, Princess of Wales, widely recognised as the moment when the leaders of the emerging world told us that culture belonged to everyone, and Shakespeare was of no greater literary merit than Agatha Christie. The lecture traditionally ends with colleagues breaking up into small groups, and chanting: "The People's Princess! 'The People's Princess!"
At lunchtime, the senior line-managers, dressed in their now traditional gear of baggy cardigans or lycra bicycle-shorts (grey suits having long been consigned to history) eat their wraps in the Managers Mall. The new colleagues are offered a selection of YouTube-led Bitesize Briefings, which are particularly helpful for those seeking a line-management career; typically, they might include "Blue Skies Thinking for Middle Managers", or "A Heads-Up for Decision-Makers".
The final session of the day is "Thank You For Sharing This With Me". It has its origins in "Golden Time", the last session of the old primary schools of the previous epoch, when new colleagues can introduce ideas or objects (such as time-saving inventions) - as long, of course that such ideas "Take Things Forward", to use the motto of the new era. In the evening, for those living too far from Tesco Towns, the usual forms of entertainment are available; they include the multiplex Cinemas of Virtue, where colleagues can see consecutive episodes of The Apprentice, or a visit to see a performance of The Dons, the only surviving football team since association football was abolished for being overly competitive.
The influence of Brave New World has long survived the death of its author. In it Aldous Huxley reminds us of the dangers of complacency and the fragility of intellectual and cultural freedom. His satire resonates as a warning that a darker future may well be on the horizon, even one derived from the best intentions.
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