The world of “1984” destroys Winston Smith by torturing him until he is capable of loving nothing but the state. In “Brave New World,” the hero—a man raised outside of the World State’s “civilization”—resists the pleasures of the new order, until he eventually submits and ends up filled-with self-loathing. He then saves the authorities the trouble of dealing with him by hanging himself.
The nightmare of a society debased by its own affluence and hedonism, increasingly turning both to drugs and suicide, is far closer to America under Trump. There is no need for Big Brother when people willingly withdraw from public life. Winston Smith took every spare moment to read, to write, and to meet his secret lover. But in a country where Americans fill their spare time with substance abuse, pornography, and moronic television shows, there are few Winston Smiths to be found—and no need for them in a state that doesn’t much care what anyone does, so long as everyone stays away from politics.
We are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left.
Of course, neither of these dystopian nightmares are upon us yet, nor are they inevitable. One of the most endearing (and infuriating qualities) of Americans is that they don’t like to be told what to do. We retain a fierce streak of independence, even when it leads us astray. But make no mistake: we are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left—yes, across the American political spectrum—and thus are far more at risk of sliding into the affluent but illiberal “Brave New World” than the regimented and disciplined world of Oceania.
And if we’re lazy enough to become the decadent but efficient society Huxley foresaw in “Brave New World,” we could eventually fall to the conquest of more disciplined and martial nations. If that happens, then we do indeed risk emerging from the wreckage as the impoverished maximum security prison of “1984.”
In the meantime, we had best think about how to recover our sense of dignity, stoicism, and self-respect before we court both of these terrifying outcomes.