Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Asperity, Austerity, and Control: Huxley, Orwell, and 1984

Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death begins with a TV-style teaser. He was invited to speak at the 1984 Frankfurt Book Fair, whose theme was Orwell's “1984.” He argued that Orwell had gotten it all wrong by predicting a small group seizing power and imposing its will on the rest in a conspiratorial replica of fascist/Stalinist methods. Instead, he argued that the real prophet had been Aldous Huxley, whose Brave New World had people sedating themselves into oblivion. That, he felt, was how the future had unfolded in the thirty-five years since 1984, and the drug, the Soma that the free world embraced in lieu of thought, was television. Neil Postman's book has a great many interesting observations and provocative statements, but his headline was as commercial and undeveloped as anything he would discuss in media.

Let us start with 1984 and dismiss some canards. First, the book was not a prophecy any more than Animal Farm was a story about animals. Reverse the last two numbers, and “1984” becomes “1948,” the time of Austerity. The BBC had already been nicknamed “Big Brother” by Eric Blair/George Orwell when he was working for it during the war, primarily for its paternal, familial comfort. Its cooperation with wartime intelligence and the government in general made Blair see its omnipresence in a dualistic light, as both friend and overseer. In other words, big brother BBC had become a necessary and willing daily adjunct for the people because of its news and entertainment, and then, later, as its ability to condense and control information had become clear (when things were not true until on the BBC), it had been co-opted by government. What Blair saw was the way that an accidentally and exigently, even demotically, assembled network could become indispensable and, once trusted, once indispensable, become an entertaining Pravda.

Postman would argue that commercial television gets a pass into the home for entertainment and then, by its ability to trivialize, flatten, and control, and its desperation to entertain in order to keep its welcome, becomes a medium of denial and repression. In short, Postman's critique of television is the same as Orwell's “Big Brother,” except that Orwell seemingly never discussed the pleasures of Big Brother, and television in the United States was decentralized. These differences are somewhat illusory, however. The BBC war service had been put together from voices of opposition and ministry, with a tumult that ended up becoming Babel-like and then calmly paternal (or avuncular), while American broadcasting's putative competition maintained the tumult but competed away the innovations and experiments, resulting in a uniformly 'safe' product that Postman would regard as reductive.

What sets 1984 off from other dystopian works is its economic criticism and analysis. The characters in that world are always hungry, always looking for material goods. This is because their nation is always and eternally on a “war footing.” In the real world, Blair did not need to say that the government was always paying down debt before investing in growth. The difference between 1948 and 1984 was that one kept using the debt of the war to rationalize public harm, and the other merely literalized that into a perpetual war economy. This keeps Orwell's novel a generalized economic and political diagnosis rather than a satire.

In 1948, not only was there rubble in the streets, but the economy was shattered, and the nation was paying off all the generous lend-lease. Taxes were high, expenditures low, and the message on the BBC was that wartime food rationing would have to continue – that nylon, meat, steel, rubber, and all sorts of things would have to be carefully controlled for the common good. The wealthy, curiously, seemed to remain wealthy. (Orwell wrote in his war diary that rationing meant the selling of zoo animals, but, meanwhile, two thousand race horses were being kept just fine and eating as much per day as a division of men apiece.) Politicians, however, boasted of the progress they were making, whenever they sought re-election. Blair saw beneath this situation a possible reconfiguration of capitalism and state power. He saw how the authority of the state could use emergency to perpetuate control, how it could lavish money on militarism and starve the people, so long as there was always an existential threat. He saw a new fascism that had nothing to do with capitalism or socialism. Instead of “Hail, war!” his new group would say, “Hail war state, regardless.” He saw The Writings of Immanuel Goldstein.