Overpopulation, manipulative politics, imbalances of societal power, addictive drugs, even more addictive technologies: these and other developments have pushed not just democracy but civilization itself to the brink. Or at least author Aldous Huxley saw it that way, and he told America so when he appeared on The Mike Wallace Interview in 1958. (You can also read a transcript here.) “There are a number of impersonal forces which are pushing in the direction of less and less freedom,” he told the newly famous news anchor, “and I also think that there are a number of technological devices which anybody who wishes to use can use to accelerate this process of going away from freedom, of imposing control.”
Huxley’s best-known novel Brave New World has remained relevant since its first publication in 1932. He appeared on Wallace’s show to promote Brave New World Revisited (first published as Enemies of Freedom), a collection of essays on how much more rapidly than expected the real world had come to resemble the dystopia he’d imagined a quarter-century earlier.
Some of the reasons behind his grim predictions now seem overstated — he points out that “in the underdeveloped countries actually the standard of living is at present falling,” though the reverse has now been true for quite some time — but others, from the vantage of the 21st century, sound almost too mild.
“We mustn’t be caught by surprise by our own advancing technology,” Huxley says in that time before smartphones, before the internet, before personal computers, before even cable television. We also mustn’t be caught by surprise by those who seek indefinite power over us: to do that requires “consent of the ruled,” something acquirable by addictive substances — both pharmacological and technological — as well as “new techniques of propaganda.” All of this has the effect of “bypassing the sort of rational side of man and appealing to his subconscious and his deeper emotions, and his physiology even, and so, making him actually love his slavery.”
Wallace’s questions bring Huxley to a question of his own: “What does a democracy depend on? A democracy depends on the individual voter making an intelligent and rational choice for what he regards as his enlightened self-interest, in any given circumstance.” But democracy-debilitating commercial and political propaganda appeals “directly to these unconscious forces below the surfaces so that you are, in a way, making nonsense of the whole democratic procedure, which is based on conscious choice on rational ground.” Hence the importance of teaching people “to be on their guard against the sort of verbal booby traps into which they are always being led.” The skill has arguably only grown in importance since, as has his final thought in the broadcast: “I still believe in democracy, if we can make the best of the creative activities of the people on top plus those of the people on the bottom, so much the better.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.