by Ben Schreiner
by Ben Schreiner
“‘The optimum population,’ said Mustapha Mood, ‘is modeled on the iceberg—eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.’”
In his 1932 classic, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley warned of a dystopian future. The future world Huxley foresaw was one in which an enslaved society remained shackled and pacified not by brute force, but by abundant and pervasive spectacle.
Today, we live in a world not all that unlike the one Huxley both foretold and feared. As our economy implodes—amassing a vast reserve army of labor in its wake—we remain chained and transfixed by frivolous pomp. Thus, rather than confronting, and seeking to change, our bleak reality, all too many hastily retreat into the comforts of escapism. What else explains the inane and ubiquitous fixation on the gossip of recent celebrity “transgressions”? (See: Anthony Weiner, John Ensign, Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, and on and on.) These diversions, offered by permeating tabloid fodder masquerading as news, merely function to blind us from our rather rapid deterioration into an entrenched serf-like society.
Welcome to our brave new world!
In the World State government of Huxley’s dystopia, society is strictly divided into five immoveable social castes (from top to bottom: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon). One’s placement within a particular caste is determined before birth, or rather engineered before birth via a sophisticated state controlled incubation process. Once born, all are then “conditioned” to both fulfill and accept their proper caste specific economic and social roles. As the social controller of Western Europe, Mustapha Mood, explains in the novel, the aim is “making people like their unescapable social destiny.” And for eight-ninths of the population, this destiny entails unquestionably serving the needs of the one-ninth residing above.
Such a dismal existence, though, requires abundant distractions and readily available escapes from the tyrannical reality. It is through institutionalizing such diversions, we learn, that social cohesion and stability are to be maintained.
For the inhabitants of Huxley’s dystopia, escapism comes via a combination of sanctioned drug use and ubiquitous sex. All World State members daily clamor to consume state distributed soma pills, which allow for users to go on hallucinating “holidays” and avoid the pitfalls of emotional distress. In terms of sex: all inhabitants engage in recreational sex with new and random partners each night, chew sexually stimulating gum, and regularly attend public “feelies” (pornographic films).
In all, the copious and stimulating escapes provided by the despotic World State society provides its inhabitants with the illusion of happiness. And if given a choice, Huxley warned, all too many of us would also seek the relief of illusory pleasures, rather than confront our barren reality. And why not in a world in which escape becomes so readily available?
Our Foray Into Dystopia
The contemporary US is rapidly solidifying a rigid caste system of its own. The Economic Policy Institute reports that since 1979, the wealthiest 10% of Americans have collected 2/3 of all income gains, with the wealthiest 1% siphoning off a remarkable 38.7%. During this same time period, real family income has declined 7.4% for the lowest fifth, while increasing 49% for the wealthiest fifth.
Accompanying this rise in inequality has been a decline in social mobility, to the point where the US now lags well behind all other western industrialized nations. The story, of course, is not particularly unknown: the rich are getting richer and the poor (i.e., all those not residing in the upper echelons of the elite) are getting poorer.
This mounting inequality, though, is not simply a continuation of long-term trends; it remains a rather recent phenomenon. As the late Tony Judt remarked in his last book (Ill Fares The Land), which details numerous inequities: “Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s”—i.e., dates from the rise of elite enriching neoliberal based economic policies.
Our brave new world, we see, is also deliberately structured to enrich our Alphas and perhaps a few Betas as well, while all us Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons are left behind with no available path toward economic advancement. The majority, we can say, are left to freeze in the glacial water, their plight obscured by the long shadow cast by the one-ninth basking in the light from above.
With this rather hopeless outlook, how do we cope? For the vast majority, escapism prevails. And much the same as those of Huxley’s World State, we prefer our diversions to come via drugs, sex, and the accompanying spectacle. Although we have no all-encompassing soma pill (yet), we have a bevy of pills and substances from which to momentarily flee reality. American illicit drug use is well known (nearly 22 million Americans report using illegal drugs at least once per month), but our drug use goes beyond the illicit. Nearly 27 million Americans take one or another soma-like antidepressant, while an estimated 10 million or more men take one of the any number of erection inducing pills—which bear remarkable resemblance to the sexually stimulating gum Huxley foretold. And it is here where the escape offered by drugs collides with that offered by sex.
While we do not practice institutionalized promiscuous sex, or flock to public “feelies,” we remain captivated and pacified by the ever-presence of pornography. Nearly 90% of all porn originates from the US, finding a lucrative market in the mass of stupefied American consumers. However, our fixation with porn is not limited to the dim glow of a computer screen, or the discreet pay-per-view transaction; it bursts forth into the public in odd (albeit regularly occurring) displays of self-gratifying faux shame and morality. With great joy, and much fanfare, we condemn the latest celebrity or public official exposed as having succumbed to the allure of sexual escapism.
These national spectacles, seen most recently in the case of Anthony Weiner, serve to offer intense personal pleasure to all those witnessing (the fundamental tenet of pornography), while providing a captivating diversion that, as Huxley understood, functions to enhance social stability in a society awash in stark economic inequality. Stability, after all, is comfort.
This, then, is a snapshot of our modern world. Although Weiner (or the next inevitable legislator or celebrity to be the impetus of a public orgy of bogus morality) will surely fade away, another is eternally lurking, ready to rise to the fore and quickly throw the shroud back over our eyes and mask the grim reality of our solidifying serf-like caste system. So best, it appears, to just swallow that soma and hope you are privileged to reside atop the iceberg—then marvel at the splendors of our brave new world.
(Read at Political Affairs)
(Read at Political Affairs)