Friday, January 28, 2011

Problems with Orwell and Huxley - where's the intent?

Here's the scenario, in simple overview:
  1. Some claim that Orwell's forecast of state control through intrusive monitoring, propaganda, &c. is coming to reality.
  2. Others claim that Huxley was right to stress that people are kept in submission through hedonism, amongst other factors.
  3. Still others claim it's not one or the other, but a combination of the two: different countries, at different points in history, can be seen as dominated by one approach or the other. (Contrast the Stalinist/Orwellian state with its more recent history where, for many, the pursuit of materialism and pleasure pacifies...)
  4. Alternatively, perhaps the most nuanced thesis claims that there's a combination of the two simultaneously. It's suggested that for many societies there are some aspects that are Orwellian and others that follow Huxley. (Modern Russia under Medvedev-Putin has a strong state police control to accompany the BMWs.)
Here's my problem with the arguments: all four caricatures contain the implied assumption that what we observe and debate in our own society, or that of another country, is somehow planned and intended. It takes a strong conspiracy mindset to establish that for most societies, at most points in history!

Historians and social commentators can certainly paint a picture of Orwellian state control in some states (simplistically, USSR under Stalinism; Myanmar or North Korea today). But surely these are precisely the exceptions that cause Western (and other) liberals to raise human rights questions on the international stage.

It's much harder to bring a convincing argument that there's a secret plan to subdue all societies globally in some permutation of Orwell, Huxley or Orwell-Huxley. It's hard, whatever we think we know about space aliens, the United Nations, Freemasons, or some other topical conspiracy theory!

Personally, I'm not prepared to go down that conspiracy theory route for modern, pluralist, states. However, last year I referenced the general human obsessions with Money, Sex and Power. And I'm quite taken by Evgeny Morozov's application of Maslow to the Internet.

Perhaps what we see is simply the outworking of something like Adam Smith's 'Invisible hand' in the absence of morality?
  • It's the combination of self-interest, competition and the principles of supply and demand.
  • In pursuit of money, sex and/or power.
  • Resulting in Huxleyian amusement at the price of an Orwellian loss of privacy so that the whole exercise can be funded through ever more targeted advertising.
Not consciously planned in some Bilderberg conspiracy; but the unintended and unforeseen consequences of classical economic theory!