Well-fed young television-watchers or freedom fighters? Of juvenile rebelliousness and social commitment

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Since my book on Italian society in the last ventennio is also a warning against the contemporary erosion of democracy in the Western World – as I have said time and again, the Italy of the so-called Berlusconi Age is a privileged observatory -, a chapter of my work deals with some dystopian writers of the XX century. In fact, these authors cautioned us against the advent of a new type of scientific dictatorship based on thought control which will maintain the shape of a democracy only formally. The chapter is titled Every line tells a story: dystopian novelists saw it coming and it begins, obviously, with a discussion on A. Huxley and G. Orwell’s foretelling works in the first part of the XX century. Trying to find hope where there’s (almost) none to be found, in the last chapter of my book, titled What can be done?, I discuss the attitude of the young, the citizens and voters of tomorrow, and their social commitment as freedom fighters – if any!

Dystopian novelists saw it coming: A. Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited

Brave New World Revisited

In the beginning of this last chapter I quote a passage from Huxley’s 1958 long essay Brave New World Revisited, a paper written in 1958 I often quote in my book (see also the post Democracy’s future: painless concentration camp for societies). Its predictions are so unbelievably precise that I have decided to add an appendix to the eBook version of my volume, a miscellanea of quotations from that text with notes, to make the reader understand the extent of Huxley’s foresight. The writer predicts that, in the future, power will be concentrated in fewer hands, joining together Big Business, media control and political power, and that most likely the future political leader will be the personification of this Power Elite. Huxley also foresees the development of the Thought Manufacturers, social engineers who will apply the same techniques used for publicity to politics, making thought control a perfect working machine thanks to the development of mass communication. Consequently, the would-be political leader will have the opportunity to become a would-be dictator thanks to a scientific apparatus for propaganda unknown to XX century dictators. Hence, only the formal aspects of democracy will remain, allowing the illiberal societies of the future to get rid of the violence needed in past totalitarian systems to obtain a social stability that will be permanent in the future tyrannies. Brave New World Revisited is a mirror reflecting our society’s distorted face, a looking-glass that we have turned on the opaque side because we can’t stand to look at ourselves: it is Dorian Gray’s portrait after it has been stabbed by its sitter.

Brave New World Revisited is divided into twelve chapters. In the first ones the authors discusses and compares the type of dystopian societies portrayed in his own 1932 Brave New World and in Orwell’s 1948 Nineteen Eighty-four, two novels considered the milestones of the genre today. Huxley then describes the future non-violent totalitarian regime that he thinks will inevitably take hold of Western democracies. Next the author notices that this new dictatorship is advancing at a speed he could not predict when he was writing his novel. The most surprising part of Huxley’s essay is the central one, from chapter III to Chapter VI, in which he expresses his visions of a future society that is extraordinarily similar to the one we already have today and whose full establishment is waiting just around the corner.

Improbable Freedom Fighters: What can be done?

This was the overwhelming question I asked myself at the end of Berlusconi’s New Ventennio, the same one Huxley asked himself back 1958. The answer, alas, seemed to be same. In the final part of his essay, the novelist wrote a paragraph that we could title Death of public political consciousness in today/tomorrow’s societies:

At this point we find ourselves confronted by a very disquieting question: Do we really wish to act upon our knowledge? Does a majority of the population think it worth while to take a good deal of trouble, in order to halt and, if possible, reverse the current drift toward totalitarian control of everything? In the United States and America is the prophetic image of the rest of the urban-industrial world as it will be a few years from now — recent public opinion polls have revealed that an actual majority of young people in their teens, the voters of tomorrow, have no faith in democratic institutions, see no objection to the censor­ship of unpopular ideas, do not believe that govern­ment of the people by the people is possible and would be perfectly content, if they can continue to live in the style to which the boom has accustomed them, to be ruled, from above, by an oligarchy of assorted experts. That so many of the well-fed young television-watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing, but not too surprising. “Free as a bird,” we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unrestricted movement in all the three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone — or at least by bread and circuses alone. “In the end,” says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s parable, “in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘make us your slaves, but feed us.’ ” And when Alyosha Karamazov asks his brother, the teller of the story, if the Grand Inquisitor is speaking ironically, Ivan answers, “Not a bit of it! He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that they have vanquished freedom and done so to make men happy.” Yes, to make men happy; “for nothing,” the Inquisitor insists, “has ever been more insupportable for a man or a human society than freedom.” Nothing, except the absence of free­dom; for when things go badly, and the rations are reduced, the grounded dodos will clamor again for their wings — only to renounce them, yet once more, when times grow better and the dodo-farmers become more lenient and generous. The young people who now think so poorly of democracy may grow up to become fighters for freedom. The cry of “Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the re­sponsibilities of liberty,” may give place, under altered circumstances, to the cry of “Give me liberty or give me death.” If such a revolution takes place, it will be due in part to the operation of forces over which even the most powerful rulers have very little control, in part to the incompetence of those rulers, their inability to make effective use of the mind-manipulating instru­ments with which science and technology have sup­plied, and will go on supplying, the would-be tyrant. Considering how little they knew and how poorly they were equipped, the Grand Inquisitors of earlier times did remarkably well. But their successors, the well-in­formed, thoroughly scientific dictators of the future will undoubtedly be able to do a great deal better. The Grand Inquisitor reproaches Christ with having called upon men to be free and tells Him that “we have cor­rected Thy work and founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority.” But miracle, mystery and authority are not enough to guarantee the indefinite survival of a dictatorship. In my fable of Brave New World, the dictators had added science to the list and thus were able to enforce their authority by manipulating the bodies of embryos, the reflexes of infants and the minds of children and adults. And, instead of merely talking about miracles and hinting symbolically at mysteries, they were able, by means of drugs, to give their subjects the direct experience of mysteries and miracles — to transform mere faith into ecstatic knowl­edge. The older dictators fell because they could never supply their subjects with enough bread, enough cir­cuses, enough miracles and mysteriesNor did they possess a really effective system of mind-manipulation. In the past, free-thinkers and revolutionaries were often the products of the most piously orthodox educa­tion. This is not surprising. The methods employed by orthodox educators were and still are extremely inefficient. Under a scientific dictator education will really work — with the result that most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution. There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific dictatorship should ever be overthrown.

 Meanwhile there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom. But some of us still believe that, with­out freedom, human beings cannot become fully hu­man and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them.

The phrase under a scientific dictator education will really work has always scared me, especially after reading the explanation the author gives: …. thanks to radio and television, he [tomorrow’s dictator] is in the happy position of being able to communicate even with unschooled adults and not yet literate children…  to condition a million or ten million children, who will grow up into adults trained to buy your product … hundreds of millions of children are in process of growing up to buy the local despot’s ideological product (full quote in Democracy’s future: painless concentration camp for societies)

Yesterday’s Freedom Fighters

anti-war-demonstrations

Just to lighten up my mood, and the readers’, the paragraphs that follow, taken from my book, are a quick excursus on juvenile rebelliousness against given circumstances in the decades that followed Brave New World Revisited.

Back then, for the young generation, burgers and television were already a State drug like ‘soma’ [the drug used in Huxley’s novel Brave New World to make people feel happy], but in the following decades there was some light of hope. Soon the 60s came and brought along Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, a juvenile rebelliousness inherited by the Beat Generation that gave birth to the Folk Revival, the Hippies and the Woodstock generation: the young people who thought so poorly of democracy grew up to become freedom fighters. In Europe the 1968 ‘French May’ sparkled the fire of the ‘68’ rebellion that swept throughout Italy in the following years. I remember watching it from my junior secondary school classroom window looking down in the street below where the demonstrations used to go on. Then in the 70s came the ‘lead years’ of terrorism followed by the yuppie 80s of hyper-conservative ‘Iron Lady’ M. Thatcher and of R. Regan, a Hollywood-B-movie-star president that established Huxley’s model of a media-friendly candidate in the hands of Big Business. The fighters for freedom seemed to have vanished for good but at the turn of the millennium they reappeared in the shape of the Anti-Global Movement, spreading from Seattle to the whole world, the first disobedience movement to go global thanks to the new communication technologies. The movement spread to the end of the first decade, the period of the Al Qaeda terror and of G.W. Bush’s pre-emptive wars which brought erosion of liberties inside the Western democracies, moving them in the direction of illiberal societies. The most dramatic event of the period took place in Genova in July 2001 during the anti-global demonstrations at the G8 summit. In those few days the Berlusconi government literally suspended our Stato di Diritto – Constitutional State – and all of a sudden we found ourselves deep into Fascism and Stato di Polizia – Police State. Peaceful protesters from all over the world were wildly beaten and wounded for no reason by the police under the direction of the Home Secretary G. Fini, leader of the extreme right party Alleanza Nazionale [see post Genoa G8 summit in 2001: the days Berlusconi’s Italy went back to fascism]. The first decade was also the period of the huge anti-war movements that flooded the street of American and European capitals and, recently, a new light of hope has been represented by the various ‘occupy’ and ‘indignados’ movements. Nevertheless today we are again in the situation described by Huxley, as I have pointed out throughout my essay: “young people in their teens, the voters of tomorrow … would be perfectly content, if they can continue to live in the style to which the boom has accustomed them, to be ruled, from above, by an oligarchy of assorted experts”. TV and food are still part of the ‘soma’ process: Mediaset television is much more efficient in brainwashing than Huxley could have imagined; people are not well-fed, they are overfed by the junk-food (real and metaphorical) that we, the cradle of the Mediterranean healthy cuisine, paradoxically import from the US. Besides, today’s teenagers have a more dangerous enemy to deal with: the internet, smart phones, virtual reality machines in general. Notwithstanding the potential instances of democracy the internet might bring, like and more than TV, the constant misuse of social networks and of the connecting tools at large, has created a generation of addicts who spend all their time adoring their mobiles and living in a never ending virtual reality that distances them from the real world and its social issues while injecting massive doses of consumerism’s blank ethics. (…)

In this age of pensiero unico – single, one-direction thought–, of one unique social model, hope is almost gone. The 2010 ‘Arab Spring’ was the last example of social consciousness and upheaval, the realization of Huxley’s predictions which was made possible by the internet (this is an example of its dual possibilities): bread was no more supplied regularly and copiously three times a day so the grounded dodos clamored again for their wings and became freedom fighters. The cry of “Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty,” gave place to the cry of “Give me liberty or give me death.” The older [Arab] dictators fell because they could never supply their subjects with enough bread, enough circuses, enough miracles and mysteries. Unluckily, the Arab Spring has almost come to a failure: the last example is the 2013 Egyptian military golpe that looks like restoration very much. In the rich West nothing of the kind is taking place, the well-fed young internet-addict television-watchers are sleeping the big sleep and the angry crowd throwing coins at Bettino Craxi in the times of Mani Pulite is history. (…)

The following quotation is from Edward Snowden’s Guardian interview on June 9, 2013 in Hong Kong (see post Edward Snowden, Roberto Saviano and George Orwell: dangerous truths). Edward Snowden is the young National Security Agency’s technician that in 2013 revealed the greatest American plot to deprive citizens of some of their liberties and showed that Big Brother exists all around the Western World today. Snowden’s Datagate revelations tell us that the USA were spying on every single piece of communication and information we share worldwide regardless of our constitutional liberties, since the NSA had access to the data of some of the USA’s biggest technology companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, AOL, PalTalk and Yahoo. The UK’s spy agency GCHQ had access to the same data too. Snowden seems to have learnt his lesson well from his work experience and Huxley’s predictions, that Snowden probably does not know, are his prophecies. Even more disturbing after the rise of the Islamic State terror and the Paris slaughters of November 2015:

The greatest fear that I have, regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures, is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They’ll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests. And the months ahead, the years ahead it’s only going to get worse … a new leader will be elected, they’ll find the switch, say that ‘because of the crisis, because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power.’ And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. And it will be turnkey tyranny.

Conclusion: Huxley’s  final words

The final words belong to Huxley by right:

The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him, the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free. That he is not free is apparent only to other people. His servitude is strictly objective. … a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel and act … Paradoxically, the right to vote … is a great privilege. In practice, as recent history has repeatedly shown, the right to vote, by itself, is no guarantee of liberty … there should be legislation to prevent political candidates not merely from spending more than a certain amount of money on their election campaigns, but also to prevent them from resorting to the kind of anti-rational propaganda that makes nonsense of the whole democratic process.

In the end, the overwhelming questions ‘what can be done?’ is really difficult to answer. Let’s just say that education, culture and literacy are, and have always been, the best way to educate the next freedom fighters. Alas, the trend most Western States have taken goes in the opposite direction, both because turning schools into companies is a dead-end street and because well-educated citizens are always dangerous, if we believe Noam Chomsky’s statement that government will use whatever technology is available to combat their primary enemy – which is their own population.

 

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