Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Future Seen from the Past: Visions of Orwell, Huxley & Zamyatin

Writers are throwing the name Orwell around more than usual just now. There's an example at HuffPo this week: Orwell 2013 by Jeff Danziger. I've mentioned and featured George Orwell in posts a few times over the years myself - best example, with some astrology and several interesting comments is from April 2011, titled simply George Orwell.

(Illustration, titled Visions Of The Future Seen From The Past was

Posted by Wastedpapiers at scrapiteria.)

I don't feel like re-reading 1984, only to depress myself further, but did pick up my copy the other day and re-read Erich Fromm's "Afterword", written in 1961. There's a full transcript of it online HERE.

Mr. Fromm remarked on the marked difference in tone between post-medieval writings, when optimism reigned: "With the breakup of the medieval world, man's sense of strength, and his hope, not only for individual but for social perfection", and writings after World War I when what's now categorised as "speculative fiction" took a turn into the decidedly negative, now known as dystopian. Fromm mentions, as examples of post-medieval writings Thomas Moore's Utopia, Campanella's City of the Sun, the German humanist Andreae's Christianopolis, and the latest of these Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, published in 1888. There are differences in approach but all have positive, utopian, flavours (a utopia: is a community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities).

The visions of dytopia, arising post 1918 are best seen in three books mentioned by Fromm: Orwell's 1984, the Russian author Zamyatin's We, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

This new trilogy of what may be called the "negative utopias" of the middle of the twentieth century is the counterpoint to the trilogy of the positive utopias mentioned before, written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The negative utopias express the mood of powerlessness and hopelessness of modern man just as the early utopias expressed the mood of self-confidence and hope of post-medieval man. There could be nothing more paradoxical in historical terms than this change: man, at the beginning of the industrial age, when in reality he did not possess the means for a world in which the table was set for all who wanted to eat, when he lived in a world in which there were economic reasons for slavery, war, and exploitation, in which man only sensed the possibilities of his new science and of its application to technique and to production -- nevertheless man at the beginning of modern development was full of hope. Four hundred years later, when all these hopes are realizable, when man can produce enough for everybody, when war has become unnecessary because technical progress can give any country more wealth than can territorial conquest, when this globe is in the process of becoming as unified as a continent was four hundred years ago, at the very moment when man is on the verge of realizing his hope, he begins to lose it. It is the essential point of all the three negative utopias not only to describe the future toward which we are moving, but also to explain the historical paradox.

The three negative utopias differ from each other in detail and emphasis. Zamyatin's We, written in the twenties, has more features in common with 1984 than with Huxley's Brave New World. We and 1984 both depict the completely bureaucratized society, in which man is a number and loses all sense of individuality. This is brought about by a mixture of unlimited terror (in Zamyatin's book a brain operation is added eventually which changes man even physically) combined with ideological and psychological manipulation. In Huxley's work the main tool for turning man into an automaton is the application of hypnoid mass suggestion, which allows dispensing with terror. One can say that Zamyatin's and Orwell's examples resemble more the Stalinist and Nazi dictatorships, while Huxley's Brave New World is a picture of the development of the Western industrial world, provided it continues to follow the present trend without fundamental change..........................................

In spite of this difference there is one basic question common to the three negative utopias, The question is a philosophical, anthropological and psychological one, and perhaps also a religious one. It is: can human nature be changed in such a way that man will forget his longing for freedom, for dignity, for integrity, for love -- that is to say, can man forget that he is human? Or does human nature have a dynamism which will react to the violation of these basic human needs by attempting to change an inhuman society into a human one? It must be noted that the three authors do not take the simple position of psychological relativism which is common to so many social scientists today; they do not start out with the assumption that there is no such thing as human nature; that there is no such thing as qualities essential to man; and that man is born as nothing but a blank sheet of paper on which any given society writes its text. They do assume that man has an intense striving for love, for justice, for truth, for solidarity, and in this respect they are quite different from the relativists. In fact, they affirm the strength and intensity of these human strivings by the description of the very means they present as being necessary to destroy them. In Zamyatin's We a brain operation similar to lobotomy is necessary to get rid of the human demands of human nature. In Huxley's Brave New World artificial biological selection and drugs are necessary, and in Orwell's 1984 it is the completely unlimited use of torture and brainwashing. None of the three authors can be accused of the thought that the destruction of the humanity within man is easy. Yet all three arrive at the same conclusion: that it is possible, with means and techniques which are common knowledge today.

Whereas it's easy to see how, from where we are now in 2013, a dystopia similar to those envisioned by the authors above could quite easily emerge, in light of the last paragraph quoted, there may be hope still that the better parts of our human nature might prevail. These could be obliterated only by deliberate and concerted effort. Equally, though, it'd be only through determined and concerted effort, and constant watchfulness on a level we have not yet attained, that certainty of retaining the better parts of our humanity would prevail.


mike said...

The word, dystopia, is a qualitative person's dystopia could be another's utopia. We have had many civilizations or societies that were (or currently are) dystopian, but viewed from the here-and-now of my perspective.

It seems to me that Fromm's analysis of dystopia omits two important traits that are typically found throughout nature: an individual's need to be part of a group and the inherent need for a social structuring of that group into a larger collective or society. The three authors he cites write about a dystopian future where the social structure is being determined and governed by an elite group imposing their governance.

Most views of utopia have a flat social structure where all members have a unique, but equal share. Dystopian views are typically of authoritarianism where members are dominated by a central malefic.

There are leaders and there are followers. It seems that all species on Earth have a mechanism for selecting social hierarchy, which is always subject for review, with ongoing battles continually maintaining or re-establishing the social balance of that particular colony. Each colony is subject to selection of the fittest by challenges from adjacent colonies. Humans are no different in how an individual fits into their family, work, civic, and social groupings in general.

My view, as a citizen of the USA, is that we have elected and maintained individuals in powerful positions having enough influence over the American culture and society, that America has become dystopian. America has had an influence on other industrialized nations such that they, too, are taking-on a dystopian flavor. I believe that everything has cycles and changes back-and-forth, so I have faith that our current cycle will eventually revert, but after how much damage, I do not know.

Dystopia vs utopia is the basis of the great Roman and Greek myths. It's part of our heritage...built into our genes, perhaps.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Thanks for your careful thoughts.

There are several ways to look at this. One that struck me:

I haven't read, or researched, the three "utopian" books mentioned by Fromm. It occurs me, though, that back in 16th/17th centuries books would have been written only by members of the elite classes. Ordinary people, known then as peasants, wouldn't have the eduction or skills to do so. Therefore the image we get from those authors' visions come from their advantaged perspective, possibly flavoured with Christian principles which, in theory sound very utopian, in practice can turn out quite differently.

By the time what Fromm calls "negative utopian" novels were being written, though the welfare state hadn't fully caught on, education was more widespread, World War I and/or 2 had provided an horrific example of what man is capable of. All were aware of the horrors via newspapers, which wouldn't have been available during 16/17th centuries, leaving peasants quite in the dark.

So those later writers, from a variety of backgrounds, were able to write and publish stories tainted by World War I and World War 2, and were bound to envision a future scarred by what they had seen, if the pattern unfolding were to continue.

There's also, I'm sure, the cycle-effect you mention, that has to be considered. Cycles occur in nature everywhere, human nature not excluded.

I think we've reached the top point of a cycle at present - at a point where seeming miracles would be possible but we've arrived there before our emotional evolution has caught up with our technology and physical abilities.

Yes, I think the cycles are in our genes (and therefore in our astrological makeup as a race) - the widest, outermost cycle, of many lesser ones, is that involved here I guess....perhaps represented by a planet or body not yet identified????

R J Adams said...

Cycles, I agree with. But I see the cyclical struggle as between the 'elite' (as they see themselves) and the rest of us - the 'working classes'.
For centuries the poor had no choice but to survive as best they could. They were little threat to the elite. Since the industrial revolution, workers have become more valuable to the elite, to work in their factories and make profits, but that value meant the workers could demand a higher standard of living in return for their labor (utopia). With the advent of modern day technology, the elite have been able to dispense with employing high-cost workers by utilizing more mechanization and shipping their manufacturing bases abroad to nations with lower wage demands, leaving many western workers without jobs (dystopia).
Normally, one would expect the cycle to eventually swing back towards its utopian aspect, but with the incredible tsunami of technological advancement over the last decade, coupled with climate change and an unprecedented surge in corporate/political power, I fear a disruption of the cycle which could well prove catastrophic.

Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~~ Thanks for your views, RJ. :-)

Yes, I see the cycle you're pointing out, and we can see it playing out in histories of countries around the world - at varying speeds. If we don't meet catastrophe from climate change first, a Great 'Elite versus The Rest' world war could be the trigger to send the cycle turning again in favour of The rest of us.

We're in a situation now that hasn't ever happened before in recorded history, so all bets have to be off. Utopia and dystopia will be distant memories, either might seem like a better deal that what could lie in the future if somebody doesn't get their flippin' act together fast.

Chomp said...

Really inteersting and fascinatimg, especially if compared to what the world really became in he meantime, and to where the world went to, I mean: In and on what direction world had and has walked...

Twilight said...

Chomp ~~~ Yes, indeed - the world has walked, and continues to do so, like a drunken man, on the edge of a precipice.