In spite of their differing perceptions of the architecture of the totalitarian superstate and how it exercised power and control over its residents, George Orwell and Aldus Huxley shared a fundamental conviction. They both argued that the established democracies of the West were moving quickly toward an historical moment when they would willingly relinquish the noble promises and ideals of liberal democracy and enter that menacing space where totalitarianism perverts the modern ideals of justice, freedom, and political emancipation. Both believed that Western democracies were devolving into pathological states in which politics was recognized in the interest of death over life and justice. Both were unequivocal in the shared understanding that the future of civilization was on the verge of total domination or what Hannah Arendt called “dark times.”
While Neil Postman and other critical descendants have pitted Orwell and Huxley against each other because of their distinctively separate notions of a future dystopian society, I believe that the dark shadow of authoritarianism that shrouds American society like a thick veil can be lifted by re-examining Orwell’s prescient dystopian fable 1984 as well as Huxley’s Brave New World in light of contemporary neoliberal ascendancy. Rather than pit their dystopian visions against each other, it might be more productive to see them as complementing each other, especially at a time when to quote Antonio Gramsci “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”
Both authors provide insights into the merging of the totalitarian elements that constitute a new and more hybridized form of authoritarian control, appearing less as fiction than a threatening portend of the unfolding 21st century. Consumer fantasies and authoritarian control, “Big Brother” intelligence agencies and the voracious seductions of privatized pleasures, along with the rise of the punishing state—which criminalizes an increasing number of behaviors and invests in institutions that incarcerate and are organized principally for the production of violence–and the collapse of democratic public spheres into narrow market-driven orbits of privatization–these now constitute the new order of authoritarianism.
Orwell’s “Big Brother” found more recently a new incarnation in the revelations of government lawlessness and corporate spying by whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, and Edward Snowden. All of these individuals revealed a government that lied about its intelligence operations, illegally spied on millions of people who were not considered terrorists or had committed no crime, and collected data from every conceivable electronic source to be stored and potentially used to squelch dissent, blackmail people, or just intimidate those who fight to make corporate and state power accountable. Orwell offered his readers an image of the modern state in which privacy was no longer valued as a civil virtue and a basic human right, nor perceived as a measure of the robust strength of a healthy and thriving democracy. In Orwell’s dystopia the right to privacy had come under egregious assault, but the ruthless transgressions of privacy pointed to something more sinister than the violation of individual rights. The claim to privacy, for Orwell, represented a moral and political principle by which to assess the nature, power, and severity of an emerging totalitarian state. Orwell’s warning was intended to shed light on the horrors of totalitarianism, the corruption of language, the production of a pervasive stupidity, and the endless regimes of state spying imposed on citizens in the mid-20th-century.