Aldous Huxley: When Orwell went East, he went West (©Ullstein Bild/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
A few months after he published Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell received a letter from his old French teacher at Eton. Orwell’s teacher found the book “profoundly important”, but he had one important reservation. He doubted whether “the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely”. Instead, he anticipated a softer kind of totalitarianism, “I believe that the world will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons . . . I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”
Who predicted the future more accurately, Orwell or his former teacher, Aldous Huxley? In 1949 this must have seemed obvious. Huxley was writing to Orwell at the height of the Cold War. Communist rule had just been imposed in Poland in 1947, in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and in Hungary in 1949. Stalin was still at the height of his power. In Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell conveyed to a British audience the horrors of this new Communist totalitarianism. It didn’t just commit violence against its citizens. It tried to control the way people thought. What was new about Stalinist propaganda was not just that it tried to control the present, but also the past. East of the new Iron Curtain, 2 + 2 = 5.
Almost 70 years on, this may seem fusty and antiquarian. What has made this debate suddenly topical is our fascination with Donald Trump. Everywhere, it seems, there is talk about “post-truth”, “alternative facts” and “alternative narratives”. We watch Trump’s press conferences with disbelief. This has made Orwell’s world of “Newspeak” seem relevant again. Social media is buzzing with references to Orwell. A recent cover of Time magazine showed the dark, looming presence of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, like an image of Winston Smith’s antagonist, O’Brien. The coverline is “The Great Manipulator”. Nineteen Eighty-Four is suddenly near the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. The publicity director of Penguin USA said demand for Orwell’s book had taken off after an interview with Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway on the NBC programme, Meet the Press. When asked why Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, had said something untrue, she replied that he “gave alternative facts”. Within days, sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four had risen by 9,500 per cent.
It’s easy to see the connection between Orwell’s dystopia and Trump’s way of being economical with the truth. But is this correct? Doesn’t this miss what Orwell got wrong about the future and why his old French teacher, Aldous Huxley, was the one who got the future right? It turns out that the Orwell/Huxley debate tells us more than we realise about the post-war world and the future.
Orwell was not a futurologist. He didn’t understand what was driving the future in the West, for three reasons: he wasn’t interested in America, he didn’t understand the importance of science and technology, and he was writing about the present, not the future.
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