To Understand Trump, Read Huxley — Not Orwell

The 45th President is no Big Brother. Brave New World predicted the world today more accurately than Nineteen Eighty-Four

David Herman

Aldous Huxley: When Orwell went East, he went West (©Ullstein Bild/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

A few months after he published Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell received a letter from his old French teacher at Eton. Orwell’s teacher found the book “profoundly important”, but he had one important reservation. He doubted whether “the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely”. Instead, he anticipated a softer kind of totalitarianism, “I believe that the world will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons . . . I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”   

Who predicted the future more accurately, Orwell or his former teacher, Aldous Huxley? In 1949 this must have seemed obvious. Huxley was writing to Orwell at the height of the Cold War. Communist rule had just been imposed in Poland in 1947, in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and in Hungary in 1949. Stalin was still at the height of his power. In Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell conveyed to a British audience the horrors of this new Communist totalitarianism. It didn’t just commit violence against its citizens. It tried to control the way people thought. What was new about Stalinist propaganda was not just that it tried to control the present, but also the past. East of the new Iron Curtain, 2 + 2 = 5.
Almost 70 years on, this may seem fusty and antiquarian. What has made this debate suddenly topical is our fascination with Donald Trump. Everywhere, it seems, there is talk about “post-truth”, “alternative facts” and “alternative narratives”. We watch Trump’s press conferences with disbelief. This has made Orwell’s world of “Newspeak” seem relevant again. Social media is buzzing with references to Orwell. A recent cover of Time magazine showed the dark, looming presence of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, like an image of Winston Smith’s antagonist, O’Brien. The coverline is “The Great Manipulator”. Nineteen Eighty-Four is suddenly near the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. The publicity director of Penguin USA said demand for Orwell’s book had taken off after an interview with Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway on the NBC programme, Meet the Press. When asked why Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, had said something untrue, she replied that he “gave alternative facts”. Within days, sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four had risen by 9,500 per cent.

It’s easy to see the connection between Orwell’s dystopia and Trump’s way of being economical with the truth. But is this correct? Doesn’t this miss what Orwell got wrong about the future and why his old French teacher, Aldous Huxley, was the one who got the future right? It turns out that the Orwell/Huxley debate tells us more than we realise about the post-war world and the future.

Orwell was not a futurologist. He didn’t understand what was driving the future in the West, for three reasons: he wasn’t interested in America, he didn’t understand the importance of science and technology, and he was writing about the present, not the future. 

Orwell was, for his time, a well-travelled man. Born in British India, he worked in Burma, famously wrote about being a plongeur in Paris and then, in Homage to Catalonia, about the Spanish Civil War. And although he never visited Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, his experience of the ruthlessness of the Communists in Spain alerted him to what was happening under Stalin. He had an extraordinary sense of political morality, in a way that a Marxist historian like Eric Hobsbawm never did. Orwell’s basis sense of decency alerted him to when something was rotten. He knew instinctively that Soviet Communism stank from the head down.

But Orwell didn’t know America. Huxley did; and this is what gives Brave New World its prophetic genius. While Orwell looked East, Huxley looked West. He first visited America in 1926 and it made a huge impression on the young writer, barely into his thirties. The literary critic, David Bradshaw, wrote, “The final section of [Huxley’s travel book] Jesting Pilate, published later that year, contains a gleeful execration of the gimcrack movies, bank-faced “pneumatic” flappers, “barbarous” jazz and unrelenting pop which Huxley had encountered in Los Angeles (“the City of Dreadful Joy”) . . .” This is why Huxley’s book seemed to anticipate the Sixties in a way that Orwell didn’t. He was fascinated by (and experimented with) drugs (“Soma”), sexuality and consumerism, just as Orwell was fascinated by poverty and sadism.

But there was something else about Brave New World that speaks to us almost a century after it was first published. Unlike Orwell, Huxley was hugely interested in science and technology. He came from one of the great English scientific families: his grandfather was “Darwin’s Bulldog”, T.H. Huxley; his brother was the evolutionary biologist, Sir Julian Huxley; and his half-brother, Sir Andrew Huxley, was a Nobel Prize-winning physiologist and biophysicist. In the 1946 foreword to Brave New World, Huxley wrote that the book’s theme “is not the advancement of science as such; it is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals”. What fascinated him was “the application to human beings of the results of future research in biology, physiology and psychology”.

The greatness of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four was that they understood what was happening in the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe. But this wasn’t a prediction of the future, it was an account of the Communist world at the time Orwell was writing. Hence the title: 1948 reversed. Huxley, however, used his interest in science to think about what a future society, based on scientific principles, might be like. It is a mix of science, eugenics and the new hedonistic world that he had glimpsed in California. That’s why he wasn’t interested in propaganda and Newspeak. It seemed so crude and unscientific. For Huxley, control in the future would be about genetics and conditioning, not newspapers.

What has this to do with Trump? Surely, Orwell’s novel, with his insights into the manipulation of news and history, tells us something disturbing about Trump’s presidency? But this is where the Trump/Orwell analogy goes wrong. Trump isn’t Big Brother. He’s not a brutal totalitarian, “the policy of the boot-on-the-face”, with killing squads and torture rooms.  He will not shut down an independent judiciary or force the American news media into submission, certainly not in the way post-war Stalinist regimes did throughout Eastern Europe. There will continue to be anti-Trump rallies and demonstrations on both coasts and in college towns throughout America. The Democrats will oppose Trump, though they will be outnumbered in both houses of Congress at least until the next midterm elections. 

Orwell thought the new totalitarianism would last forever. Why wouldn’t it? Through propaganda and Newspeak they would control the past and the present and therefore the future. However, 40 years after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, Soviet Communism collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe. Two years later it fell in the Soviet Union and the Baltic republics too. What Orwell failed to understand about Soviet Communism was that it was riddled with contradictions: above all, in science and technology. Like Orwell’s imagination, it was stuck in the 1940s: big state, militarised, heavy industry. The new digital world left the Soviet Union behind. Television, the photocopier and the computer made it possible for people to see what kind of lives people in the West enjoyed and to disseminate images of that affluence.

These made life under Soviet Communism less and less bearable. Big dams and tractors are fine, but what happens when people also want jeans and pop music, fridges and cars? Whenever the Soviet cellist Mstislav Rostropovich came to London he would go to Harrods and buy fridges to sell back home. Science and technology, as Huxley knew, and Orwell didn’t, was the future.

Trump isn’t an Orwellian Big Brother. He’s a reality TV star, whose views speak to his passionate core constituency, largely uneducated citizens from the South and Midwest. One of the most interesting infographics I have seen about Trump’s America was a map of the United States showing the biggest employers in each region. In the Trump Belt the biggest employers are retail and the military. By retail, I mean Walmart, and other big cheap supermarket chains, and by the military I don’t mean the Pentagon, but poor whites and blacks, out of high school, with no college education. Look at the East and West coasts and the biggest employers are high-tech corporations, medical research and hospitals, and colleges. In Boston, one hospital alone, Massachusetts General, employs more than 30,000 people.

These are still early days, but it is striking that among Trump’s biggest critics are some of America’s biggest corporations. Recent Budweiser and Coca-Cola TV commercials have stood up for immigrants and America’s diversity as a nation. Companies such as Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and eBay filed legal documents in Washington against Trump’s immigration ban. There are no equivalents to Coca-Cola or Facebook in Orwell’s fictional world. How could there be? He never anticipated the kind of consumerism and new technology that are at the heart of Huxley’s vision.

There are two Americas today, not one. Two sets of values, two kinds of politics. Trump speaks for only one. That’s why he’s not an Orwellian figure who could control the way opponents think. Opponents know exactly who he is and what he stands for. They were fractionally outnumbered in a small handful of states in November. That could change dramatically in two or four years. If it doesn’t, it’s because Trump’s policies will continue to speak to voters, maybe even bringing them prosperity.

Trump won last year’s election for several reasons. One is that corporations were closing down whole towns in order to find cheaper labour abroad. Meanwhile, computer scientists are inventing new machines which will provide even cheaper labour. The dystopian future is not about Newspeak, it is about the robots that are being developed in Silicon Valley. They will have the biggest effect on the future of the West for generations to come. In recent years, millions of people have lost their jobs to cheap Mexican and Chinese labour. Soon many millions more will be losing their jobs forever to robots.

There will be populist protests against this, just as there have been against globalisation. But in southern California scientists are also inventing new forms of entertainment that will pacify and delight future generations of people in the West. This is closer to Huxley’s vison of a population distracted by drugs, sex and boundless consumption. That is Huxley’s brave new world, not Orwell’s 1984. We are not the children of George Orwell. We are the children of his old French teacher, Aldous Huxley.  

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