Examining Utopian Potential in Huxley's Brave New World / by Bryce Hidysmith

A specimin of  Fordite

A specimin of Fordite

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My travels in the winter of 2016-2017 somehow matched the plot of Brave New World far more than was reasonable, with first time visits to London, Iceland, and New Mexico, correspondent to the three primary types of polity described in BNW: the World State, the Island, and the Reservation. So, let’s take a look at the structure of the world state in Huxley’s Brave New World. Let’s not get stuck within the perspectives of the main cast John, Helmholtz, Lenina, and Bernard as they fail to properly analyze the threat and opportunity of the situation. When I think through the mechanisms of Huxley’s world I am struck by the fact that the World State is hardly a utopia, but it has been constructed in such a fashion as to not compromise its possibility to evolve into one. Far from ending history, its possible that the World State is in fact a proper conservative strategy to maintain social progress without sacrificing stability.

Before I go into the design described in the book, I need to remark that I don’t believe that Huxley had any idea of the implications of the structure that he was describing. After reading Brave New World Revisited, I have come to think that Huxley had a rather surface level understanding of the concepts that he was playing with, and seems to have assembled a number of designs which, if one were to appreciate only their component parts, would be unjustified, their aggregate structure is is in fact justified, with Huxley’s depiction one of cynical utopian potential, not utopian actuality.

There are three distinct types of jurisdiction mentioned in Brave New World. Firstly, there’s the directly administered areas of the World State—in the book mostly the metropolis of London is seen—organized according to a rigid caste system and prescriptive consumerist orientation, controlled through a variety of genetic, pharmacological, and psychological interventions. Secondly, there are the reservations for primitive culture that have, on the whole, evolved in absence of the World State’s intervention, including the New Mexican reservation of John’s birth derived from an indigenous population from there. Thirdly, there are the Islands—Iceland and the Falklands are both mentioned—which contain all of the most interesting people in the world who do not fit the mold of the World State.

Given that Mond offers Helmholtz and Bernard escape into the Islands, and assuming that we are taking Mond at his word that the Islands do in fact exist, and are in fact reasonably liberal places wherein the most interesting people in the world are able to pursue their interests provided that they do not interfere with the world state, it strikes me that the World State has properly balanced the enclaves of generativity by which the conditions of its areas of direct administration might be improved. The existence of areas that are not under the direct administration of the World State proves that the world state is not implementing a naive utilitarian policy and has the ability to understand that a single frame of analysis is able to make procedural improvement, but is blind to possible advancements outside of its set of current assumptions. The wildness of the Reservations produces lives that are worth living in a pre-modern coherence, and serve as a “Chesterton’s fence” to retain the ability to rediscover atavistic elements of humanity that might be suppressed unnecessarily by the World State’s policies. The intellectual culture of the Islands produces lives that may-or-may-not be worth living in a plausibly semi-coherent post-modern mode, but which are able to potentially innovate socially and physically in ways that would be suppressed by the rigidity of the world state. I must conjecture that this balance of different levels of risk in the production of lives worth living is correct, if one is attempting to naturally, artisanally, and industrially produce said lives, using all of the tools available from each of the three production paradigms.

Of course, again, we are taking Mond at his word and assuming that the Islands in fact exist. I must also remark that the Islands must not be equivalent to the island of Pala as described in Huxley’s final novel, also called Island, for the Palanese society is not one that I believe would actually be of interest to an exploratory, transhuman mind such as that of the protagonists and their hypothetical island-born peers. The culture of Pala, like so many utopias described but not built by Westerners in the twentieth century, is an oriental fantasy oriented around the common belief among men of science that stoic pacifism and a sense of unity is the only morally defensible political philosophy, and that such stoic pacifism will constitute the end of history and be inevitably defeated and colonized by less scrupulous forces. This comes to the implication that one must side with said stoic pacifism to remain morally defensible, and the Westerners have found themselves in a troublesome situation that they cannot think themselves out of. While there are some elements of Palanese society that would be at home in the Falklands or Iceland of Brave New World, I am inclined to think that the novel is more an expression of Huxley’s conflicted moral compass that demands purity over effect than an actual attempt at describing a set of circumstances that might make Bernard or Helmholz—much less John the Savage—comfortable.

Regardless of these bibliographic details, the implicit system of the World State is relatively straightforward. The overall areas of direct administration produce the best standard of modernism that is available, given both the signal inputs internal to the modernist state and external to the modernist state from both the Islands and the Reservations. The Islands and the Reservations themselves provide a lifestyle more suitable for the temperament of those who are too unpredictable for the World State. I am going to conjecture that, if the Islands exist, they are the stock that the World Controllers come from or they are the dominant global power unless kept in conditions of unnecessary deprivation as a security measure by the World State. If they are capable of their own industries, I believe that their research advantages would cause them to outpace the World State in a few years, leading to the World State’s economy of scale implementing technologies developed in the Islands once they have matured to safety.

Huxley, of course, did not seem to believe my headcanon. Potentially, the Islands are concentration camps or Azkaban-esque prisons with their populations kept drugged or otherwise occupied, but if the Islands exist the state is incentivized to actually use the populations that are housed on them, rather than making them lotus eaters like the rest of the directly administered population or robbing them of their humanity by some other means. Though completely unjustified, selfless evil of this kind is unfortunately common in the real world, the design does not directly confirm that it is existent in BNW. Following that I am going to continue to analyze the book assuming that the islands and reservations serve a sane purpose, and I will further assume that the sane purpose is based on their comparative advantage to the World State of freedom of thought.

I would also conjecture that some portion of effective World Controllers could also come from Reservation populations, but I am altogether uncertain as to the distribution between Reservation-raised and Island-raised/immigrant. The local administration of the Islands and the global administration would need to be separate organizations in order to maintain the generativity of the Islands and the security of the World State. However, if I am permitted to describe a piece of emotional pornography, I must imagine David Foster Wallace as an α, working as a civil servant in World-State Boston-DC Metro Area, writing something akin to his essay E Unibus Pluram as an internal memo. The essay is of course censored by the New England administration, but proliferated throughout the Island network, leading to Wallace immigrating to an Island—let’s say Cuba or Svalbard, those seem like they fit his tastes—and developing a coherent theory of post-behaviorist utilitarian public policy.

Though I have certainly been apologetic for the World State until this point in this essay, there are some further matters of moral ambiguity that must be addressed. The central concrete one is the fact that I am willing to consider the hedonic prospects of a fully domesticated general population of humanity. It is a cultural norm in the contemporary West to see the genpop of Brave New World and recoil in horror, treating it as qualitatively unclean and thus unwilling to quantize the potential hedonic profit from those lives lived. I must admit that I recoil in horror in much the same fashion at the vast majority of extant lives lived in the contemporary real world, and I know that even the mention of genetic modification negatively triggers a substantial segment of the population without fail. I am inclined to take the position that if it is possible to have agency over some physical system of the world, one must use it in as ethical fashion as possible. The following is an exploration of those ethics. While it is of course correct to defame Henry Ford himself as a cruel and somewhat treasonous antisemite of little moral value, the Fordist technique of mass production must be treated as morally ambiguous. The application of techniques of mass production to human lives insofar as it does not interfere with the structure of those lives in a way that deprives them of their internal subjective experiential value must be equivalent as the gains from other types of mass production: of housing, tools, food, and otherwise. Indeed, we have already begun mass producing humanity, the school that you, dear reader, attended was likely intended to mass produce you. While the factory farming of minds is inhumane, form a utilitarian ethical perspective it produces non-zero positive value. Thus, it must be compared to alternatives. A further critique of the limitations of a utilitarian evaluation is a decent subject for another essay—some of my remarks are already here. I am limiting myself intentionally to utilitarian analysis for this post as the central point of interest in the design of the World State, that of the Islands and Reservations, implies that the World State is capable of recognizing the incompleteness of a single utilitarian reference frame, and thus capable of modifying its concept of value so that it is capable of representing more of the world, and thus not falling into the standard traps of utilitarian reasoning.

The primary unethical aspect of the World State’s genetic engineering is the creation of lower-function castes, rather than the production of a population who are all as high functioning as possible. The production of humans conditioned through the Bokanovsky Process as a labor force is of likely indefensible ethical value. However, such a laborer’s life is certainly of greater ethical value than the creation of the Pug dog, whose congenital health problems only exist because of the perverse aesthetics of humans who buy them. The ε-class human is only a Skinnerian behaviorist machine, conscious but lacking a deliberative internal life. I would be horrified to be such a creature, and I assume that my readership would be as well. If such persons were necessary for the functioning of the society, it might be defensible, but at the technological level of the present or described in the book, there is sufficient sophistication in mechanical engineering and design to eliminate the need to produce a crude and servile population by both creating robotic labor and designing infrastructure that minimizes the amount of labor required for its maintenance. Thus, the existence of intentionally disabled classes of human must be considered sadistic and thus unjustifiable.

However, even in light of the description of the ε-class, I am inclined to think that the majority of the presently existent human population desires something akin to a life as one of the lower classes in the World State over the Islands or the Reservations. It is highly plausible that most persons desire a rather simple and industrial life, and if one is to assume that the World State grew out of the world as it was much at the time Huxley wrote the book, those tastes would likely have already been active in the population. I am not sure if the Americans that I grew up proximate to would report the fact that they would prefer the directly administered areas, for even when one sees the most basic of individuals they will often report that they secretly desired to be painters or dancers or that they care about the liberty of their constitution but the revealed preferences of their actions as bare consumerist prove that they would rather live in modern Singapore than the imagined memetic “Bohemia” of nineteenth century pop-culture. Despite the fact that I would much rather live on one of the Islands and, to a lesser degree, one of the Reservations, I cannot blame them. Unless one is animated by something other than bare economic rationality there is no sense in living a life that one makes intentionally difficult for oneself. It may reap impressive rewards, but those rewards are largely subjective and disembodied, and one cannot hold someone in contempt if they lack the subjective experience to enjoy what you would consider a subjective reward if you experienced it in the first person. I am to try and characterize what I am after in this world, it is something like clean postmodern subject-object relations where hypothesis as to cause and effect can be revealed, and the process of revealing can be used to explore a greater variance of structures for their inherent aesthetic reward. This philosophical drive is equal or greater in priority to the basic biological drives that animate me, and the philosophical drive cannot honestly be described as something like “happiness,” rather instead something more like the characteristics of a flow state of Csíkszentmihályi. It is also critical that this basic drive be not prioritized in my body, for if the same behavioral pattern can be manifested in another body that body is of equal precedence to my own, and only our speed of access in exploring uncharted territory serves as a metric for prioritizing energy allotment.

Regardless of the merits of a utilitarian policy in a Platonic formal context, such a utilitarian model is sufficient to describe the behavior of the vast majority of the human population, provided that one believes it is correct to believe their own statements concerning their condition. Such individuals will talk about a desire for art and construct selfie palaces, and though one may have tastes of higher complexity, there is no reason to sneer at the selfie-palace goers unless their museums of ice cream existentially threaten your freedom to be something else. Irrespective of what lives are possible, the lives that industrial society have been able to create are those that involve an individual knowing their place and enjoying whatever entertainments may be allotted. The lives of pre-industrial society were perhaps more valuable, but they were shorter and certainly less scaleable. I am inclined to think that if there is a finite amount of time before the heat-death of the universe, it is better if we are fruitful, and multiply. The only required action is to remain open minded, to take inspiration for the promise of the future, so that one’s society does not become trapped in a finite set of possible expressions. The only required inaction is to not become too compelled by non-specific promises of the future, and pass up the hedons held within tried and true strategies. This points to the majority of the lives that are worth living being a sort of industrial traditionalism, a village life where the factory serves the house rather than the house serving the factory. Huxley, from what I can tell, does not have the will nor imagination to envision such a situation, and so his crude depiction of the World State will have to do for now.

Another matter that must be addressed regarding the morals of the World State is whatever path that created it. I am disregarding Mond’s narrative of the origin of the World State, as well as any of Huxley’s statements external to the narrative, such as those in Brave New World Revisited. If Ford is worshipped by the state, we must take it at its word that it follows Ford’s aphorism that history is bunk. The process of producing a society this controlled may have consisted of a number of severe crimes, or it may have been a slow process akin to the one in our world. It is certainly possible that the World State’s credit from producing lives that are worth living is completely annihilated by the debt taken in order for it to emerge. I am going to not speculate further on the history that Huxley had envisioned at the moment, but simply note that if such information were to arise, it would not invalidate the useful structural aspects of their jurisdictions, but rather limit the potential implementations of such structures to benevolent path dependencies.

Lastly, I must also address the fact that Mond refuses to allow John passage to one of the Islands, instead hoping to see how John will respond to life inside of the World State, in effect causing John’s suicide. While I am disinclined to blame the sadistic behavior of an individual on the society that he is a part of, the fact that the society is so highly controlled and individual and group identity are so highly coupled blurs the distinction between individual and group identity to a degree that responsibility cannot be allocated cleanly to Mond himself. If I am to look at the structural design of the World State, it’s difficult for me to see how Mond’s behavior would not be immediately punished, and the idea that the system is so badly organized as to allow a senior administrator to simply play with a man’s life as a toy. From what I can tell, this is a romantic tendency on the part of Huxley to intentionally set the trajectory of the story to make a poetic point, for if I was to simulate the policy that I would assume Mond would engage, John would be happily in Reykjavik, writing and building geothermal power systems. Of course, if you have a justification for Mond’s behavior other than arbitrary malice implanted by Huxley, please leave it in the comments.

Addendum, Jan 22. 2019: For some unclear reason I’ve ended up at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and took the following picture yesterday. I have absolutely no idea what was trying to be communicated with the BNW MagaHatz, other than some sense of foreboding and with-it-ness that feels a bit middle school by my standards.