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The Reign of the Machine: Seeking the Hinterlands of the Mind
An Analysis of 1984, Brave New World, We, and The Power of the Powerless
This is an excerpt of writing from my publication “Death in The Garden.” You can sign up for updates below.
“A genuine, profound, and lasting change for the better… can no longer result from the victory (were such a victory possible) of any particular traditional political conception, which can ultimately be only external, that is, a structural or systemic conception. More than ever before, such a change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of the position of people in the world, their relationships to themselves and to each other, and to the universe.”- Václav Havel: The Power of the Powerless, 1978
The warnings of both 1984 and Brave New World are clear in our modern context as people seem to oscillate between being motivated by their fears and their vices. We can see clearly a Huxleyian over-saturation and therefore fleeting consumption of information, which may paradoxically parallel the 1984 protagonist’s career at the “Ministry of Truth” to delete information that is unsuitable to the narrative of “the Party.” Drowning any and all discomfort with sex and “soma,” Huxley’s Fordians had no need to even consider their enslavement.
What few people know is that both Orwell and Huxley were inspired by a novel that was published in 1924 by the Russian dissident, Yevgeny Zamyatin. His book, entitled We to represent the totality and lack of individualism of his “One State,” describes the endpoint of Thomas Hobbes societal theories, wherein each individual is merely one corporeal automaton in the greater Body Politic, one cog in the Machine, one part of the “million-footed Leviathan” – a nameless, personality-less cipher.
In the later published books, the myriad derivatives are clear. For example, in We there is no privacy, as all people live in glass apartments and can always watch one another. In 1984, Big Brother is always watching on the “telescreen,” and the surveillance driven by the Thought Police or the child-informants called the Spies imbibes an omnipresent threat of exposure. In We, it is at the museum-like “Ancient House” that D-503 (under the corruptive influence of the icy femme-fatale, I-330) is first able to experience freedom. Similarly, 1984’s protagonist, Winston, brings his dissident lover, Julia, to an old house full of pre-INGSOC relics in the lawless prole part of London. For the members of the One State, it is written into law that “each cipher has the right to any other cipher as a sexual product.” In Brave New World, there is no love, no companionship, only sex, to the degree that there are people specifically bred to be more promiscuous and satiating than others.
While these similarities warrant deeper analysis, there are three broader philosophical motifs shared by all of these great dystopian books of the mid-20th century that I think are useful to focus on: truth, control, and freedom.
To begin, let us assess the question of truth: where does it come from, who decides it, and how are we meant to deal with it? In Brave New World, the truth is of little interest to the drugged, sexed, and cognitively enslaved inhabitants of the splendid new utopian London. In 1984, the truth is deleted, omitted, rearranged, and reconfigured by the state media, and if one finds himself infected by awareness of the real truth, the Ministry of Love will torture such a perversion of official doctrine out of him. In We, the devotees of Fredrick Winslow Taylor known as “ciphers” find their truth through their utter faith in the Machine, the regimenting of their lives into an automatic, mechanized routine of service to the Great Benefactor. Truth is concretized as implicit doctrine.
How might “truth” be defined in reality? Contrary, yet parallel, to the world of Oceania in Orwell’s dystopia, the world we live in today seems to have millions of iterations of truth rather than a systematic erasure of the truth, despite the censorship we are seeing (tragically, being fully embraced) at the moment. In a less political take, one may see that for any given thought, there are a hundred ways your ideas are likely missing context, and therefore are never close to the whole truth. For any definition of any given word, there are 7.87 billion unique interpretations, some that might fully contradict the other. The truth feels elusive and slippery, like we can never quite grasp it, and our leaders lie or tell us half-truths in the theater production we call “politics”. Mendacity seems inherent to a structure with so much built-in complication, and is used deliberately to serve the obstruction of the truth, as in the case of lobbyists writing legislation so impossible to understand that only they can interpret it to the very lawmakers they are meant to convince. A world of “2+2=5” has been constructed around us with such a deep complication that we are functionally reliant on experts to interpret it for us, and so we let them to disastrous degrees.
On the other hand, as in Huxley’s novel, there also seems to simultaneously be little interest in seeking the truth. Taking our modern equivalent of “soma” in the form of antidepressants, alcohol, or even certain strains of weed coupled with an endless media saturation and entire industries dedicated to creating the most addicting entertainment possible, it’s easy for us to avoid the discomfort and uncertainty that real truth-seeking brings and instead gravitate towards consumerism, entertainment, and blind-faith in authority and institutions. We are as tantalized by creature comforts and momentary pleasures as the characters in the book.
As previously mentioned, in We, truth is fundamentally structured around faith. From the vantage of faith, truth ceases to be subjective and alterable and enters into the realm of de facto objectivity. What is truth other than what is perceived and thus framed within the construction of our pre-oriented awareness? Herein lies the paradox: truth is objective only through subjective lenses, therefore it is inherently impossible to grasp in totality. Truth to each individual is obscured by their epistemic framework. Therefore, in the case of the One State, the “truth” is always underpinned by the assumption that the Machine World is the natural endpoint of human development. Anything that negates this obvious direction of human development is heresy, or, to steal from 1984, untruth.
As will be seen in the film, Death in The Garden, we are attempting to argue that our culture is functioning from the very same epistemological worldview. That reduction, rationality, uniformity, mechanization, and simplification are the foundational tenets of a mythology that we are largely hitherto unaware of, yet enacting constantly through our own unconscious automatism.
The dream of the totalitarians in the 20th century, and largely the dream of Bolshevism at large is the industrialization of man. These authors were all keenly aware of the communist implementation of machine-thinking and deification of mass-production via Henry Ford and Fredrick Winslow Taylor, thereby the utopians of Brave New World have replaced “Our Lord” with “Our Ford,” and ciphers in the One State worship Taylor similarly.
Orwell’s Oceanians are controlled by constant fear as they live in perpetual war and the surveillance state is always seeking out and silencing even the most minor dissent. Huxley’s hatched clones are controlled by temporary pleasure. But Zamyatin’s Taylorists are ruled by something deeper: the faith in the Machine-world— that these qualities of rationality, uniformity, mechanization, reduction, and logic leads to ultimate happiness. Surely, we can see these implementations in our reality. Violence has been used as a method of control in slavery in US history, genocidal dictatorships such as the Khmer Rouge, and enforcement in regimes such as in North Korea. The domestication of the Western mind through incessant comfort, entertainment, and relative ease has created a culture of people entirely dependent on the system to provide for them, as most people have very few practical skills of their own. The belief in the Machine World —the techno-utopia— offers an implicit relinquishing of control: we must rely on the fruits of industry to bring us into that future, therefore billionaires are permitted to travel to Davos every year and make determinations about how all people on Earth ought to live.
Before a civilization can seek to control the individual, that person must be made into a commodity. This is where communism and capitalism find their synergy. Whether you yourself are viewed as capital as in our current corporate oligarchy (which is really a social welfare state for the rich, and a “free-market” for everyone else), or you are merely viewed as one “millionth part of the ton” in a collectivist dictatorship, individuality must be denied. One might argue with me and say that in the West we are hyper-individualized, which seems to be true on the surface, but an ambient anxiety is omnipresent: we are all replaceable, none of us are “essential,” and we are infinitely exploitable. From this angle of control, domestication, and commodification, there is very little difference between these ideologies.
The attempt at controlling nature, in the case of Brave New World, denying the experience of birth in favor of “hatching” or “producing” human beings, or in We as represented by the “Green Wall” where “mankind ceased to be wild beast… mankind ceased to be savage… when we isolated our perfect, machined world by means of the Wall, from the irrational, chaotic world of the trees, birds, animals”— control over nature is paramount: an obvious extension of the Machine world, which denies the existence of all mystery, all beauty, all diversity. As we spend our lives increasingly in-doors in temperature-controlled spaces without a hint of wildness around us, it’s easy to be averse to any notion that we may have to give this level of comfort and “safety” up. The Magnificent Bribe of Doordash and Netflix has us in its clutches, and therefore we rail against anything that might indicate this way of being cannot be maintained.
Huxley noted in his 1946 foreword to Brave New World that there need be no reason to assume that modern authoritarians will look anything like Stalin or Hitler or Mao, noting how our advanced technology does the enslaving far more efficiently than “firing squads, artificial famine, mass imprisonment and deportation,” and that “inefficiency is the sin against the Holy Ghost” in our modern era: a nod to the Machine. He writes, “A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” The bribe we have been given provides us with so much abundance and luxury that we’ll do anything we can to maintain it, even if it is destroying the Earth and our human society.
“Technology - that child of modern science, which in turn is a child of modern metaphysics - is out of humanity’s control, has ceased to serve us, has enslaved us and compelled us to participate in the preparation of our own destruction.” - Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless
Hence Davos Men’s insistence on (and our reluctant belief in) them being the “good guys” as they systematically deepen our dependence on them through an ever complexifying network of goods and services. They are attempting to resolve “the problem of happiness” as Huxley put it, which is really “the problem of making people love their servitude.” Their efforts, however, are clearly failing, perhaps because of one, fundamental human drive.
The drive of agency, of sovereignty, of freedom.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
All of these books face the conundrum of freedom. In step with control, freedom lies within the individual’s ability to be themselves: it lies within the soul’s desires. In We, a soul is a disease that which a person must have surgically removed. In 1984, freedom lies in the ability to perceive “the evidence of your eyes and your ears” which is, in essence, to be one’s own arbiter of the truth. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows,” writes Winston in his clandestine journal. In Brave New World, as we see above, freedom is the right to not be taken care of by a society he deems tyrannical. Or, more aptly put, it’s the freedom to be responsible for oneself.
Václav Havel, a Czech dissident during the Soviet Union’s reign, and later the President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, wrote his book The Power of the Powerless to illustrate the power of the people merely “living in the truth” and how threatening that is to the dominant and totalitarian power structures, rejecting the common notions of overthrow being an effective agent of change. He writes, “A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed,” thus placing the onus of responsibility upon the individual to seek hinterlands in which to create “parallel structures.”
As in these dystopian novels, in a world that has been wholly conquered, commodified, and colonized, the most important hinterlands to reclaim are within our minds. If freedom is the freedom to know that 2+2=4, that is the freedom we must exercise. Havel writes that “people are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies” and similar to Huxley’s foreword, notes that this manipulation comes from “the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertise, commerce, consumer culture” and a “flood” of information. This, of course, is all in the service of our enslavement to the Machine world – the world of industry, technological acceleration and expansion, and an increasing divorce from nature, which is actually just reality.
Therefore, he writes, “A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of ‘higher responsibility’, a new-found inner relationship to other people and to the human community – these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.”
Responsibility is the other side of the same coin which is freedom. Without responsibility, true freedom can never be attained. In the case of these novels from the early 20th-century, we see societies wherein it is nearly impossible for an individual to attain any semblance of real, meaningful responsibility for one’s own life. The dystopian stories all end tragically; D-503 elects to betray his love and have “the operation”; Winston’s resistance ends in torturous ruin, with him being fully reprogrammed to love the Party; and the Savage kills himself after his entire being is reduced to little more than a circus animal.
These are indeed perilous warnings from the past. But, thankfully, these are just stories. Warnings, yes. Fables, yes. But prophecies, no.
We are not yet so far gone that we can’t take responsibility for our lives, outsourcing control and truth to the powers that be. Though we may have a long way to go, we are indeed on the precipice of a deep, lasting change. We may never attain it if we don’t fundamentally assess how the forces of truth, control, and freedom interact in our lives. What is innate to our being that we are denying? In what ways am I constrained from being my true self? How might I be responsible for my own freedom?
A totalitarian, global, industrial system that denies life is not inevitable. A brighter future can be upon us if we so choose to start honestly seeking that which tells us that 2+2=4, if we work towards undomesticating ourselves from the system, and if we look at the problems of the world and do not seek to outsource responsibility to our Davos overlords.
“For the real question is whether the ‘brighter future’ is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?” - Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless