Aldous Huxley Tells Mike Wallace What Will Destroy Democracy: Overpopulation, Drugs & Insidious Technology (1958)

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aldous Hux­ley Reads Dra­ma­tized Ver­sion of Brave New World

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

An Ani­mat­ed Aldous Hux­ley Iden­ti­fies the Dystopi­an Threats to Our Free­dom (1958)

Aldous Hux­ley Pre­dicts in 1950 What the World Will Look Like in the Year 2000

Aldous Hux­ley, Psy­che­delics Enthu­si­ast, Lec­tures About “the Vision­ary Expe­ri­ence” at MIT (1962)

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.

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