Ross Douthat recently wrote that Aldous Huxley was the real prophet who foresaw what we’ve become: a society of tech-addled wankers. Douthat called Huxley’s novel Brave New World
the essential dystopia for our times, which captured the most important feature of late-modern social life — the way that libertinism, once a radically disruptive force, could be tamed, domesticated and used to stabilize society through the mediation of technology and drugs.
Responding to the column, Yuval Levin pretty much agrees with Douthat, but adds:
And yet, this reading also overlooks an essential element of Huxley’s prophecy: He thought this kind of decadence, this soul-crushing, domesticated libertinism, could only really happen as a means of escape from the horrors of a nearly apocalyptic war. The world Huxley describes lies not at the painfully ironic end of a path willingly chosen by a society that had “liberated” itself out of any genuine understanding of freedom. It is the work of an utterly totalitarian global regime offering relief from the horrors of a war that had killed untold masses and wreaked immense destruction everywhere.
Read in its own terms, the book does not suggest that we might just do all this to ourselves on purpose without the pressure to escape at all costs from an unbearable reality of self-destruction. … It’s a much more plausible story of how humanity could surrender to decadence. What we have in fact been witnessing and doing in the modern West is harder to explain. [Emphasis mine — RD]
A theory: we are surrendering to decadence to escape at all costs from and unbearable reality of self-creation. In fact, I think Levin is more or less saying that:
If his book was prophetic, it suggests that we have been acting out of a sense of trauma we have not been able or willing to quite articulate to ourselves—that we have described as a pursuit of liberty what has actually been a terrified escape from the burdens of responsibility for our civilization and from the implications of our power.
The trauma was captured in Sartre’s great and appalling line: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
Huxley wrote about a people seeking therapeutic deliverance from the horrors of a catastrophic war. We are a people whose catastrophe was the death of God, and therefore, as Charles Taylor put is, of a meaningful cosmos.
Bourgeois ethical traditions held things together for a while, but now those have lost their authority. The most bourgeois thing you can do now is to put your child on hormone blockers, or declare yourself a faithful “ally” of those who do. We have been reduced to the sensate level. The Russian-born sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968), founder of Harvard’s sociology department, saw it all coming. Please read this Gilbert T. Sewall essay about Sorokin, which appeared a short while ago in TAC. And, check out this blog post I had a while back, quoting the left-wing social critic Morris Berman on Sorokin. Here’s Berman, summarizing Sorokin’s forecasting:
1. The boundary between true and false, and beautiful and ugly, will erode. Conscience will disappear in favor of special interest groups. Force and fraud will become the norm; might will become right, and brutality rampant. It will be a bellum omnium contra omnes, and the family will disintegrate as well. “The home will become a mere overnight parking place.”
2. Sensate values “will be progressively destructive rather than constructive, representing in their totality a museum of sociocultural pathology….The Sensate mentality will increasingly interpret man and all values ‘physicochemically,’ ‘biologically,’ ‘reflexologically,’ ‘endocrinologically,’ ‘behavioristically,’ ‘economically’…[etc.].”
3. Real creativity will die out. Instead, we shall get a multitude of mediocre pseudo-thinkers and vulgar groups and organizations. Our belief systems will turn into a strange chaotic stew of science, philosophy, and magical beliefs. “Quantitative colossalism will substitute for qualitative refinement.” What is biggest will be regarded as best. Instead of classics, we shall have best-sellers. Instead of genius, technique. Instead of real thought, Information. Instead of inner value, glittering externality. Instead of sages, smart alecs. The great cultural values of the past will be degraded; “Michelangelos and Rembrandts will be decorating soap and razor blades, washing machines and whiskey bottles.”
4. Freedom will become a myth. “Inalienable rights will be alienated; Declarations of Rights either abolished or used only as beautiful screens for an unadulterated coercion. Governments will become more and more hoary, fraudulent, and tyrannical, giving bombs instead of bread; death instead of freedom; violence instead of law.” Security will fade; the population will become weary and scared. “Suicide, mental disease, and crime will grow.”
5. The dies irae of transition will not be fun to live through, but the only way out of this mess, he wrote, is precisely through it. Under the conditions outlined above, the “population will not be able to help opening its eyes [this will be a very delayed phase in the U.S., I’m guessing] to the hollowness of the declining Sensate culture…. As a result, it will increasingly forsake it and shift its allegiance to either Ideational or Idealistic values.” Finally, we shall see the release of new creative forces, which “will usher in a culture and a noble society built not upon the withered Sensate root but upon a healthier and more vigorous root of integralistic principle.” In other words, we can expect “the emergence and slow growth of the first components of a new sociocultural order.”
Today came news that US life expectancy is continuing to decline, owing to drug overdoses and suicides. The sensate order is coming apart under the condemnation of being forced to create the Self and ultimate meaning on our own. We are not made for this terrible responsibility. The death of God (which, again, is to say the death of the meaningful cosmos) was a neutron bomb that exploded in our civilization, and gave most of us a kind of cancer, a sickness unto death.
We will see the coming of what James Poulos calls the “Pink Police State.” People will be happy to give up their political liberties in exchange for guarantees of sexual freedom. China’s “social credit system” will become an effective model for the Controllers, and the surveillance state (the mechanisms of which already exist in the West) will be deployed against dissenters. As the older liberals die off, the rising Jacobin generation will fight for this, calling it social justice.
This is part of why I contend that faithful Christians have to take the Benedict Option: we have to hold on through the turmoil ahead — even persecution, if it comes to it (and I think it will).
I don’t believe that anyone alive today will be around to see the birth of the new, post-Sensate order. Sorokin was convinced that it would eventually arise — he called it Ideational, which is to say, a social order that places primacy on the spiritual and ideal. (Read more about Sorokin’s thought here and especially here.) The chief task of the spiritually and philosophically mature today is to preserve what we have through the long crisis ahead, so that it will be there as seeds of rebirth.
The main point of this post: We are turning our society into a Huxleyan dystopia (see Michel Houellebecq’s work) because we cannot bear the weight of a meaningless cosmos, and the responsibility that man must carry by himself in such a cosmos.
UPDATE: The reader who blogs as Secular Transhumanist writes:
I think you vastly under-estimate what is coming for you.
You are in a position analogous to the Pagans of the Roman Empire as Christianity began to dominate. You’re not just going to see turmoil or persecution. You are witnessing the extinction of your world-view by an overwhelmingly more persuasive ideology.
Social Justice (or, likely, some totalitarian permutation thereof) is going to overwhelm what little remains of Christianity and, for that matter, the western liberal democratic tradition (with small l’s and d’s quite intentional). Like a modern-day Constantine, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or someone of her ilk) is coming, and “in this sign [they] will conquer.”
Some sort of sub rosa maintenance of your Christian values and world view will simply not be possible in the long term, any more than the worshipers of Zeus could function as Rome became more and more overtly Christianized. When all the apparatus of the modern techno-information state is applied against you (and more importantly your children), nothing will be able to withstand such pressure. And it needn’t be camps and gulags. In fact, it almost certainly won’t be so over. It’ll be something far more insidious, subtle, and effective. A constant pressure, an inevitable squeezing, making life more and more difficult, more and more impossible, unless one stops offering pinches of incense to the old gods, and embraces the new.
Persecution? You will beg for something as sweet as persecution.