by Jack Layton
A guy writes a column and you’ll never guess where he takes the argument…
On this side of the Atlantic a cartoonish excuse for a mayor has declared that withdrawing from the political and economic cooperation of Europe is, probably, maybe, the best thing to do. Whilst on the far side of the Atlantic a cartoonish excuse for a man has declared that withdrawing from all social convention is the best strategy to become president. All the while bombs continue to fall on Syria, drones patrol Afghanistan, and a handful of technology companies silently gather up all of our data. The quality of political discourse jars against the harsh realities of life.
Surveying the political landscape today, I’m glad that we can look to literature for consolation and understanding. This year marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most important books of the 20th century, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The oddly prescient book depicted a dystopian future where society was sharply divided between ‘The Citizenry’ and ‘the non-beings’. ‘The Citizenry’ were the affluent – free to do and consume as they wished. Whilst the ‘the non-beings’ were excluded from every aspect of society: education, healthcare, political participation, even the right to private life and safety from violence.
This gross inequality was made stable by two processes. On the one hand ‘The Citizenry’ were bombarded into pacification by an avalanche of meaningless information. Devices strapped to their backs would tap them on the shoulder any time a news story broke; printing off a short strip of sugar paper, that once read could be eaten. This released a short dopamine hit every time some news was inhaled. Aldous Huxley had fun constructing a street-scape where all of ‘The Citizenry’ are silently walking along, all being tapped by invisible hands. Nibbling away at the news, eagerly anticipating the next headline.
Contra to the logic of this creating informed members of the public, it created a collection of dull-witted individuals unable to make sense of the relentless information being thumped into their shoulder. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.
The other process that stabilised society was more insidious. A network of secretive institutions ‘The Agencies’ policed society using advanced industrial military technologies. Aldous Huxley paints a phantasmagoria of devices used in the dystopia: mechanical insects that are trained to constantly watch ‘the non-beings’, walls that can be bought and assembled around homes monitoring all who enter and exit, and a mechanical army that can be airdropped in any country and controlled remotely from space. The sole purpose of these technologies is to police ‘the non-beings’ ensuring they don’t intrude on ‘The Citizenry’s’ urban palaces.
The book was written in 1946 and was designed as a forewarning of what could occur in the post-war period. George Huxley was anxious that whilst inequality and violence would increase, the quality of public debate and democratic process would break down. Not through the same violence unleashed against ‘the non-beings’ but through a process of pacification through excess.
The 70th anniversary events have already sparked controversy. The neo-cons have celebrated its’ publication, and the insightful guidelines it set out for the ruling elite: “much efficiency, such flexibility, wow” they cry! An entire political philosophy distilled into a highly readable novel, bliss. #neosociety has been trending on multiple social media platforms since New Year’s Day.
Whilst critics are slightly dumfounded that the clearly dystopian novel was taken so seriously by its’ followers. What use is critique and satire when it is taken as a realist instruction manual? A few of the examples George Huxley used as exaggerations are laughably close to fruition: building a giant wall between neighbouring countries (farcical surely?!); dropping vast amounts of nuclear weaponry so that ‘the non-beings’ countryside would glow in the dark…
Now, of course The Brave Neo-World of 1964 by Aldous Huxley wasn’t an actual novel written in 1946. But reading the news over the last few weeks I felt that a fictional dystopia, was about as close to reality as the current political landscape got. There are the pervasive surveillance practices of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; a similar sense that facts are malleable, with the accepted truth that all politics is spin. There is also an ever present background of perpetual war that justifies the curtailing of civil liberties.
Whilst living in the present doesn’t feel as bleak as the life lived by Winston Smith. Rather, life in contemporary society, at least for those I’d imagine are privileged enough to be reading this (myself included), life feels much closer to Huxley’s Brave New World, where the people are overwhelmed by arousing culture, in a perpetual state of distracted bliss, which makes it difficult to fully engage with the inequality present in society.
This isn’t some rallying call for society to be more serious – “come on guys, pay attention!”, I’m as prone to a Buzzfeed-binge as the next person. But it is worth reflecting on the dissatisfaction with the political system that lies at the heart of current politics. The same anti-establishment feeling links Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, and Nigel Farage. Articulated in different ways there is a perception that mainstream politics does not adequately correspond to the lived reality, of austerity, unemployment, disenfranchisement, or any number of other concerns. These candidates emerge from this dissatisfaction with the status-quo. But due to the form that news media and political commentary has taken: the pithiest quotes go viral; the best sound-bites get broadcast relentlessly in the echo-chambers of social media; and the most garish policies get clicks – it seems the quality of debate doesn’t do justice to the concerns animating them.
In the opening paragraph to From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, Bruno Latour states:
“Some conjunctions of planets are so ominous, astrologers used to say, that it seems safer to stay at home in bed and wait until Heaven sends a more auspicious message. It’s probably the same with political conjunctions. They are presently so hopeless that it seems prudent to stay as far away as possible from anything political and to wait for the passing away of all the present leaders, terrorists, commentators and buffoons who strut about the public stage.”
Latour goes on to make an argument for a re-conception of what counts as being a matter of politics, and public debate. A refocus on ‘things’, on stuff and the affect they have on everyday life and society. It seems that this would be a small step in the right direction. Not only to examine the content of politics, but the medium through which it is being expressed. To take seriously the material affect that Twitter, 24-hour news channels, and click-bait headlines is having on politics. In a political age, when being ‘on message’ is all important, it is well worth considering the medium too.
The internet is not all bad. There are some great sites (like this one) that facilitate discussion without being curtailed by being big media corporations. On YouTube there is Novara Media (check out their podcast too) and The Young Turks. Sites like Arts & Letters Daily, Open Democracy, and Public Books all curate some of the most thoughtful writing on the internet.