11 January 2016

The Politics of Control: Huxley, Orwell, or Burdekin?

Talk about writers of dystopian novels, and the two names that come up most will be those of Huxley and Orwell. And there’s the perennial debate about which out of ‘Brave New World’ (1932) and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) gives the more prescient warning.

Over decades much has been made of the contrast between the Huxleyan vision of control through artificially induced contentment, and the Orwellian nightmare of control through fear and surveillance.

In ‘Brave New World’, a stratified society ensures the lower classes are systematically disadvantaged and kept from rejecting their station in life by a false consciousness generated by a supply of cheap pleasures. It is so inescapable that the rebel in the story gives up all hope of defying it and commits suicide. In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, a rigid hierarchy diverts the masses with sensationalist media stories and jingoistic propaganda, while intrusive surveillance and psychological torture combine to crush the spirit of the would-be insurgent.

However, one key aspect of the politics of control that neither Huxley nor Orwell dealt with is that which was the subject of the novel, ‘Swastika Night’ (1937) by their contemporary, Katherine Burdekin (who wrote under the name of ‘Murray Constantine’). In her novel, Burdekin depicted a world in which the Nazi Party not only won the Second World War but went on to keep control of its oppressive empire for centuries by means of a dehumanising hierarchy. Under this system, gender and ethnic differences are turned into markers for separating the privileged upper class Germanic males from non-Aryan males, who were treated with disdain; and women, who were deprived of all respect and used to breed labourers for the working class, and heirs for the elite.

Instead of crowning Huxley’s or Orwell’s as the definitive vision of dystopian politics, we should consider them alongside Burdekin’s. The three together provide a more comprehensive and accurate picture of how the nightmare of oppressive control may come about. All three set out a callously demarcated system wherein the few at the top can do as they wish, and the lower down you go, the more you have to do as you are told – no question asked.

But each of the novels elaborates on a different approach the powerful uses to maintain their hegemony over others. Huxley highlights how superficial pleasures can divert rebellious impulses into mindless indulgence. Orwell draws out the systematic deployment of fear as a weapon to eradicate dissent. Burdekin shows us how a myth of superiority/inferiority can be inflated by stoking latent prejudices until it becomes a key lever to deepen submission.

Oppressive regimes that endanger society will not exclusively take just one of these dystopian forms. They will almost certainly combine elements from all three. Fundamentalism has nothing to do with whether someone is wearing a keffiyeh or a suit. Just look out for those espousing such views: preserve privileges for the lucky few and deny them to the majority; deregulate the market for cheap pleasures irrespective of the consequences; expand mass surveillance without any corresponding increase in public accountability; prolong detention without trial; bring in ever harsher punishment; demonise ethnic minorities; deprive women of equal respect and control. They are the ones we must guard against.

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