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Orwell, Huxley and America’s Plunge Into Authoritarianism

Posted on Jun 21, 2015

By Henry A. Giroux, CounterPunch

    First editions of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” (Cory Doctorow / CC BY-SA 2.0)

This piece first appeared at CounterPunch.

In spite of their differing perceptions of the architecture of the totalitarian superstate and how it exercised power and control over its residents, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley shared a fundamental conviction.  They both argued that the established democracies of the West were moving quickly toward an historical moment when they would willingly relinquish the noble promises and ideals of liberal democracy and enter that menacing space where totalitarianism perverts the modern ideals of justice, freedom, and political emancipation. Both believed that Western democracies were devolving into pathological states in which politics was recognized in the interest of death over life and justice. Both were unequivocal in the shared understanding that the future of civilization was on the verge of total domination or what Hannah Arendt called “dark times.”

While Neil Postman and other critical descendants have pitted Orwell and Huxley against each other because of their distinctively separate notions of a future dystopian society, I believe that the dark shadow of authoritarianism that shrouds American society like a thick veil can be lifted by re-examining Orwell’s prescient dystopian fable 1984 as well as Huxley’s Brave New World in light of contemporary neoliberal ascendancy. Rather than pit their dystopian visions against each other, it might be more productive to see them as complementing each other, especially at a time when to quote Antonio Gramsci “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”

Both authors provide insights into the merging of the totalitarian elements that constitute a new and more hybridized form of authoritarian control, appearing less as fiction than a threatening portend of the unfolding 21st century. Consumer fantasies and authoritarian control, “Big Brother” intelligence agencies and the voracious seductions of privatized pleasures, along with the rise of the punishing state—which criminalizes an increasing number of behaviors and invests in institutions that incarcerate and are organized principally for the production of violence–and the collapse of democratic public spheres into narrow market-driven orbits of privatization–these now constitute the new order of authoritarianism.

Orwell’s “Big Brother” found more recently a new incarnation in the revelations of government lawlessness and corporate spying by whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, and Edward Snowden. All of these individuals revealed a government that lied about its intelligence operations, illegally spied on millions of people who were not considered terrorists or had committed no crime, and collected data from every conceivable electronic source to be stored and potentially used to squelch dissent, blackmail people, or just intimidate those who fight to make corporate and state power accountable. Orwell offered his readers an image of the modern state in which privacy was no longer valued as a civil virtue and a basic human right, nor perceived as a measure of the robust strength of a healthy and thriving democracy. In Orwell’s dystopia the right to privacy had come under egregious assault, but the ruthless transgressions of privacy pointed to something more sinister than the violation of individual rights. The claim to privacy, for Orwell, represented a moral and political principle by which to assess the nature, power, and severity of an emerging totalitarian state. Orwell’s warning was intended to shed light on the horrors of totalitarianism, the corruption of language, the production of a pervasive stupidity, and the endless regimes of state spying imposed on citizens in the mid-20th-century.

Orwell opened a door for all to see a “nightmarish future” in which everyday life becomes harsh, an object of state surveillance, and control—a society in which the slogan “ignorance becomes strength” morphs into a guiding principle of mainstream media, education, and the culture of politics. Huxley shared Orwell’s concern about ignorance as a political tool of the elite, enforced through surveillance and the banning of books, dissent, and critical thought itself. But Huxley, believed that social control and the propagation of ignorance would be introduced by those in power through the political tools of pleasure and distraction. Huxley thought this might take place through drugs and genetic engineering, but the real drugs and social planning of late modernity lies in the presence of an entertainment and public pedagogy industry that trades in pleasure and idiocy, most evident in the merging of neoliberalism, celebrity culture, and the control of commanding cultural apparatuses extending from Hollywood movies and video games to mainstream television, news, and the social media.

Orwell’s Big Brother of 1984 has been upgraded in the 2015 edition. As Zygmunt Bauman points out, if the older Big Brother presided over traditional enclosures such as military barracks, prisons, schools, and “countless other big and small panopticons, the updated Big Brother is not only concerned with inclusion and the death of privacy, but also the suppression of dissent and the widening of the politics of exclusion. Keeping people out is the extended face of Big Brother who now patrols borders, hospitals, and other public spaces in order to “spot “the people who do not fit in the places they are in, banishing them from the place and departing them ‘where they belong,’ or better still never allowing them to come anywhere near in the first place.”

This is the Big Brother that pushes youthful protests out of the public spaces they attempt to occupy. This is the hyper-nationalistic Big Brother clinging to notions of racial purity and American exceptionalism as a driving force in creating a country that has come to resemble an open air prison for the dispossessed. This is the Big Brother whose split personality portends the dark authoritarian universe of the 1 percent with their control over the economy and use of paramilitarised police forces, on the one hand, and, on the other, their retreat into gated communities manned by SWAT-like security forces.

The increasing militarization of local police forces who are now armed with weapons from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan has transformed how the police respond to dealing with the public. Cops have been transformed into soldiers just as dialogue and community policing have been replaced by military-style practices that are way out of proportion to the crimes the police are trained to address. For instance, The Economist reported that “”SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980 but are now used around 50,000 times a year. Some cities use them for routine patrols in high-crime areas. Baltimore and Dallas have used them to break up poker games. In 2010 New Haven, Connecticut sent a SWAT team to a bar suspected of serving under-age drinkers. That same year heavily-armed police raided barber shops around Orlando, Florida; they said they were hunting for guns and drugs but ended up arresting 34 people for “barbering without a license”. Maricopa County, Arizona sent a SWAT team into the living room of Jesus Llovera, who was suspected of organizing cockfights.”

In the advent of the recent display of police force in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland it is unfair to view the impact of the rapid militarization of local police on poor black communities as nothing short of terrifying and symptomatic of the violence that takes place in authoritarian societies. For instance, according to a recent report produced by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement entitled Operation Ghetto Storm, ‘police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes extra judicially killed at least 313 African-Americans in 2012…This means a black person was killed by a security officer every 28 hours’. Michelle Alexander adds to the racist nature of the punishing state by pointing out that “There are more African American adults under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Meanwhile the real violence used by the state against poor minorities of color, women, immigrants, and low income adults barely gets mentioned, except when it is so spectacularly visible that it cannot be ignored as in the cases of Eric Garner who was choked to death by a New York City policeman after he was confronted for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes. Or the case of Freddie Gray who had his spine severed and voice box crushed for making eye contact with a cop. These cases are not exceptional. For too many blacks, the police have turned their neighborhoods into war zones where cops parading as soldiers act with impunity.

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