How does Australian society reflect the dystopian worlds portrayed in the books, 1984 and Brave New World? Some reflections upon corporatized democracy, its aim of enslaving and disempowering citizens and the importance of connectedness to empower us to counter these forces.
There is the ugly side of humanity that seeks exploitive and violent engagements to further its own narrow, greedy interests, one that has little regard for the consequences. It increasingly dismays me, weakens my beaten-up aspirations of what humanity could become. This distant observation of ugliness reinforces my disenchantment, disgust and sadness about the dominant forces pushing civilisation and ecological systems to the edge of collapse. Constant examples on the news feed leads to a sense of overwhelm and withdrawal. The powerful and wealthy hold the reigns and wield their power to maintain their privilege. The middle class remain stuck in their comfort zone of income, mortgage and lifestyle pleasures and pressures. The poor remain marginalised, struggling and oppressed by the entrenched inequity and bias of an economic system tailored for middle class gratification and wealthy elites.
This observation arose when I listened to an ABC Radio National Program, Future Tense. It discussed the seminal 20th century books about social control and manipulation – ‘1984’ by George Orwell and ‘Brave New World’ (BNW) by Aldous Huxley. The books painted a poignant picture about the dangers of state sanctioned/enforced social control. Achieving a compliant, easily manipulated population via suppression of dissent and alternative worldviews, re-educating the populace with the propaganda of economic and social ‘truths’ and the curtailing of civil rights and freedoms is, to varying degrees, an unspoken aim of governments here and around the world. The program triggered personal insights about my struggles for social agency (powerlessness and agency), my passion for experiencing connectedness and the collective issue of the rise of powerful, elitist, corporatised politics, such as representative democracy we now have it in Australia and elsewhere.
In the book ‘1984’, written by George Orwell and published in 1949, the fundamental insight is our relationship with truth and how easy it is for truth to be abused and how easy it is to make people believe things that aren’t true. Sounds very relevant in our ‘post-truth’ media era of “false news”. Big Brother in the book was a response by Orwell to totalitarianism. These days Trump, to a lesser extent Morrison, and like-minded media commentators too often disregard or twist ‘facts’ to justify an action or policy. Right-wing commentators often shout their factless opinions on right wing platforms to justify destructive actions or policies that are aimed at their followers and the politicians they seek to influence. It is the communication of values, fears and aspirations aimed at the insecurities, fears and naivety of grass roots supporters while promising nothing of vision or substance that would threaten their vested backers. 1984 described how an all-powerful regime could control the populace and how collective complacency and reduced sense of political agency led to an anesthetised population. With the rise and rise of the political and social influence of social media, this theme can be seen in parts of our society.
In Brave New World written by Aldous Huxley and published in 1932, one of the primary insights is about the dehumanisation of a dystopian world, an elite manufactured so called utopia in which the populace has been mesmerised and subordinated to their own inventions, comforts and technology. Huxley’s world is about subtle enforcement and enslavement by endless consumerism and distraction, with the help of a drug called Soma that elicits mild euphoria. This consumerising and superficialising of human consciousness is as relevant to the world we live in today as it was in the book’s fictious society. Today thanks to technological based lifestyles and other technological influences we are in a state of attention deficit from over stimulation and hyper-busyness. Too many of the population buy into the illusions of happiness and meaning of various forms of consumerism and technology and media trivialisation. We are not just dumbed down but remain in a survival, basic level of consciousness, easily manipulable but more easily delusioned, confused and angered. It is no wonder that mental illness such as depression and anxiety has skyrocketed and suicide is the primary cause of death for young adults.
There are also aspects of 1984 and BNW in the unfolding of the climate disaster we are living through. From Orwell’s external oppressor, Big Brother, to Huxley’s observations relating to the human perchant for escapism, materialism and authoritarianism, I see all of these in our collective approach to living in a world of rapid change and decline, as well as not taking action to reduce the Climate Emergency. There is the Big Brother of populist, corporate influenced governments, dictatorial media and financial moguls and corporate hegemony maintaining their control over the populace. There is our succumbing to the vagaries of hedonistic and aspirational economics, to the often manufactured and illusory fears and threats of change and loss of status and opportunities. These processes are undermining democratic and institutional health but also the resilience and wellbeing of the human and natural worlds.
As ethicist and religious philosopher Scott Stephens observes, Huxley saw that democracy needed its own capitalist propaganda – bury the truth in trivia so that people no longer go looking for what is true amongst the flotsam of the trivial and the manufactured news. It is safer to get distracted in trivia, hedonistic lifestyles and social trends than confront an inconvenient and unpleasant truth that we are destroying life and civilisation to varying degrees, we are soiling our one and only nest. It is not ostriches but a substantial proportion of middle to higher income social groups that bury their heads in the hole of denial and fatal complacency to maintain the fictions of their lives (and unsustainable lifestyles).
When I look around at the mass media, the power of social media platforms and the trivial and oppressive politics of this fucked up, stupid country, I feel pessimistic that enough of us will awaken from our slumber before it’s too late to make any meaningful changes. We are like children yet to be weaned from their infantile comforts of status, security blankies and toys. We are exhorted to buy this and buy that, to fly here and there as the ticket to happiness, to having the good life. This infantilization encourages desires and aspirations on the narcissistic end of the spectrum of our needs and wants. Our consumptive, materialistic needs are front and centre and the rights and needs of others, including non-human nature, being a too distant second and/or unrecognised. Many people however have moved beyond to varying degrees and are looking for more meaningful experiences in life, including spiritual awareness.
To varying extents our society is heading towards a world predicted by the authors of 1984 and BNW where independent, critical thinking, political involvement and responsibility and accountability is deliberately minimised. Too many people have become enslaved to their lifestyles, technologies and materialistic status and meaning. Too many of us do not want to speak up for the rights of others, for a civil society and gladly leave it to authority figures to speak on their behalf, to speak assuaging paternalistic plainspeak. Like the Soma drug in BNM we take our pills of addiction in their numerous forms and disconnect from human and non-human others, and eventually any sense of self beyond the ego and bodily urges.
Yet more than ever we need to awaken and deeply connect to that part of ourselves beyond our ego, beyond the social construct of our identity and ego consciousness. By deeply connecting with nature we can renew our perspective of living and self and find the agency to struggle against the constant pressures to conform, to strengthen our knowing that we have the freedom of choice to resist the intrusion of Big Brother into our lives. Our disconnected society is exactly what the Big Brother powers now encourage, a form of divide and conquer (along with distract, scare, placate and suppress). This collective disconnection and the NIMBY mentality associated with inaction is creating an Orwellian dystopia we are now living into.
While nothing is inevitable, except death and taxes, time is running out to effectively turn this over-sized ship around. Regular experiences of loving, compassionate connection – to nature, to marginalised others, to the sacred, to a healthy, free future, to our soul – is an important pathway to do this. Why? Firstly we must be the change we desire to see in others and the world, and that change must begin with our state of mind and level of consciousness. Secondly, the consciousness of connection within each individual can affect the collective global consciousness of humanity and help alter the trajectory of our collective journey. We all have our part to play no matter how small and limited it is. My take home message of hope – experiencing deep connectedness in our daily lives is important to psychologically deal with the current oppressive climate of hegemony and social control, Connectedness also helps to heal us at all levels of our Being and empowers us to withstand the impact of negative states, to adapt and be resilient. The world more than ever needs more healthy, resilient activists.