Printed: 2017-02-20

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/Messerly20161229

Major Ideas in Henry Giroux’s “Orwell, Huxley and America’s Plunge into Authoritar

John G. Messerly


Reason and Meaning


http://reasonandmeaning.com/2016/12/16/quotes-from-henry-girouxs-orwell-huxley-and-americas-plunge-into-authoritarianism/

December 29, 2016

Orwell, Huxley and America’s Plunge into Authoritarianism,” Counterpunch, June 19, 2015, by Henry Giroux, the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University.

This is a long, complex article—I’ve cut out more than 2/3 of it—yet these salient quotes hit on many of its major themes. The article concerns itself primarily about the means that technology provides authoritarian regimes in tracking and distracting their citizens into accepting a totalitarian state. I have a few disagreements with this piece, but it is a worthwhile read.

… 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 …

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.[3] 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.[4] …

… 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 … 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 …

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 … or better still never allowing them to come anywhere near in the first place.”[6]

… 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 … in creating a country that has come to resemble an open air prison for the dispossessed. This is the Big Brother … of the 1 percent with their control over the economy and use of paramilitarised police forces … and … their retreat into gated communities manned by SWAT-like security forces.

… 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 … “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.”[8]

… Orwell would be astonished by this contemporary, refashioned “Big Brother” given the threat the new surveillance state poses because of its reach and the alleged “advance” of technologies that far outstretch anything he could have imagined …

… “Orwell never could have imagined that the National Security Agency (NSA) would amass metadata on billions of our phone calls and 200 million of our text messages every day. Orwell could not have foreseen that our government would read the content of our emails, file transfers, and live chats from the social media we use.”[11]

… In Orwell’s world, individual freedom and privacy were under attack from outside forces. For Huxley, in contrast, freedom and privacy were willingly given up as part of the seductions of a soft authoritarianism, with its vast machinery of manufactured needs, desires, and identities. This new mode of persuasion seduced people into chasing commodities, and infantilized them through the mass production of easily digestible entertainment, disposable goods … The conditions for critical thought dissolved into the limited pleasures instant gratification wrought … that dampened, if not obliterated, the very possibility of thinking itself …

At the same time, Orwell’s warning about “Big Brother” applies not simply to an authoritarian-surveillance state but also to commanding financial institutions and corporations who have made diverse modes of surveillance a ubiquitous feature of daily life … the surveillance state is one that not only listens, watches, and gathers massive amounts of information through data mining …

The state and corporate cultural apparatuses now collude to socialize everyone—especially young people—into a regime of security and commodification in which their identities, values, and desires are inextricably tied to a culture of commodified addictions, self-help, therapy, and social indifference …

… the right to privacy and freedom have been usurped by the seductions of a narcissistic culture and casino capitalism’s unending desire to turn every relationship into an act of commerce … In a world devoid of care, compassion, and protection, personal privacy and freedom are no longer connected and resuscitated through its connection to public life, the common good, or a vulnerability born of the recognition of the frailty of human life …

Underlying these everyday conveniences of modern life … is the growing Orwellian partnership between the militarized state and private security companies in the United States. Each day, new evidence surfaces pointing to the emergence of a police state that has produced ever more sophisticated methods for surveillance in order to enforce a mass suppression of the most essential tools for democratic dissent: “the press, political activists, civil rights advocates and conscientious insiders who blow the whistle on corporate malfeasance and government abuse.”[21] …

… Aided by a public pedagogy, produced and circulated through a machinery of consumption and public relations tactics, a growing regime of repression works through the homogenizing forces of the market to support the widespread embrace of an authoritarian culture and police state.

Relentlessly entertained by spectacles, people become not only numb to violence and cruelty but begin to identify with an authoritarian worldview … the police “become … obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture… watching movies, or … TV shows that … look at the world from a police point of view.”[25]

… Americans vicariously participate in the toxic pleasures of the authoritarian state. Violence has become the organizing force of a society driven by a noxious notion of privatization … This violence … mimics not just the death of the radical imagination, but also a notion of banality made famous by Hannah Arendt who argued that at the root of totalitarianism was a kind of thoughtlessness, an inability to think, and a type of outrageous indifference in which “There’s simply the reluctance ever to imagine what the other person is experiencing.” [26]

… political rule has been replaced by corporate sovereignty, consumerism becomes the only obligation of citizenship, and the only value that matters is exchange value. Precarity has replaced social protections provided by the state, just as the state cares more about building prisons and infantilizing the American public than it does about providing all of its citizens with quality educational institutions and health care …

The authoritarian nature of the corporate-state surveillance apparatus and security system … can only be fully understood when its ubiquitous tentacles are connected to … security-patrolled corridors of public schools, the rise in super-max prisons, the hyper-militarization of local police forces, the justification of secret prisons and state-sanctioned torture abroad, and the increasing labeling of dissent as an act of terrorism in the United States. [29] … Alongside efforts to defund public and higher education and to attack the welfare state, a wide-ranging assault is being waged across the culture on all spheres that encourage the public to hold power accountable

Nothing will change unless people begin to take seriously the subjective underpinnings of oppression in the United States … The current regime of authoritarianism is reinforced through a new and pervasive sensibility in which people surrender themselves to the both the capitalist system and a general belief in its call for security …

I want to conclude by recommending five initiatives, though incomplete, that might help young people and others challenge the current oppressive historical conjuncture in which they along with other oppressed groups now find themselves. My focus is on higher education because that is the one institution that is under intense assault at the moment because it has not completely surrendered to the Orwellian state.[32]

First, there is a need for what can be called a revival of the radical imagination. This call would be part of a larger project “to reinvent democracy … if by ‘democracy’ we mean effective popular participation in the crucial decisions affecting the community.”[33] … a challenge to the power of those individuals, financial elite, ruling groups, and large-scale enterprises that have hijacked democracy …

One step in this direction would be to for young people, intellectuals, scholars and other to go on the offensive in defending higher education as a public good, resisting as much as possible the ongoing attempt by financial elites to view its mission in instrumental terms as a workstation for capital. This means fighting back against a conservative led campaign to end tenure, define students as consumers, defund higher education, and destroy any possibility of faculty governance by transforming most faculty into adjuncts or what be called Walmart workers. Higher education … should be a viewed as a right rather than as an entitlement …

… Second, young people and progressives need create the institutions and public spaces in which education becomes central as a counter-narrative that serves to both reveal, interrogate, and overcome the common sense assumptions that provide the ideological and affective webs that tie many people to forms of oppression …

Third, America has become a society in which the power at the state and national levels has become punitive for most Americans and beneficial for the financial and corporate elite. Punishment … now reaches into almost every commanding institution that holds sway over the American public and its effects are especially felt by the poor, blacks, young people, and the elderly … millions of young men are held in prisons and jails across the United States, and most of them for nonviolent crimes. Working people are punished for a lifetime of work by having their pensions either reduced or taken away. Poor people are denied Medicaid because right-wing politicians believe the poor should be financially responsible for their health care … The United States is one of the few countries that allow teenagers to be tried as adults …

… an increasing numbers of youth suffer mental anguish and overt distress even … among the college bound, debt-ridden, and unemployed … Many reports claim that “young Americans are suffering from rising levels of anxiety, stress, depression and even suicide … “One out of every five young people and one out of every four college students … suffers from some form of diagnosable mental illness.”[40] According to one survey, “44 percent of young aged 18 to 24 say they are excessively stressed.”[41] … The war on youth has to be seen as a central element of state terrorism and crucial to critically engaging the current regime of neoliberalism.

Fourth, as the claims and promises of a neoliberal utopia have been transformed into an Orwellian and Dickensian nightmare, the United States continues to succumb to the pathologies of political corruption, the redistribution of wealth upward into the hands of the 1 percent, the rise of the surveillance state, and the use of the criminal justice system as a way of dealing with social problems …

Under the star of Orwell, morality loses its emancipatory possibilities … misery is denounced as a moral failing … the ultimate form of entertainment becomes the pain and humiliation of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless, who are no longer an object of compassion, but of ridicule and amusement. This becomes clear in the endless stories … from U.S. politicians disdaining the poor as moochers who don’t need welfare but stronger morals … In this discourse soaring inequality in wealth and income … and low wages for millions of working Americans are ignored …

So it is…disheartening still to see commentators suggesting that the poor are causing their own poverty, and could easily escape if only they acted like members of the upper middle class….Shrugging your shoulders as you attribute it all to values is an act of malign neglect. The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources—which we can afford to provide—and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages.[46]

Lastly, any attempt to make clear the massive misery, exploitation, corruption, and suffering produced under casino capitalism must develop both a language of critique and possibility. It is not enough to simply register what is wrong with American society, it is also crucial to do so in a way that enables people to recognize themselves in such discourses in a way that both inspires them to be more critical and energizes them to do something about it …

This is a particularly important goal given that the fragmentation of the left has been partly responsible for its inability to develop a wide political and ideological umbrella to address a range of problems extending from extreme poverty, the assault on the environment, the emergence of the permanent warfare state, the roll back of voting rights, and the assault on public servants, women’s rights, and social provisions …

The darkest side of the authoritarian state feeds and legitimizes not only state violence, the violation of civil liberties, a punishing state, and a culture of cruelty, but also a culture for which violence becomes the only mediating force available to address major social problems. Under such circumstances, a culture of violence erupts and punishes the innocent, the marginalized, and those everyday people who become victims of both hate crimes and state terrorism …

What will American society look like in the future? For Huxley, it may well mimic a nightmarish image of a world in which ignorance is a political weapon and pleasure as a form of control … Orwell … might see a more open future and history disinclined to fulfill itself in the image of the dystopian society … He believed in the power of those living under such oppression to imagine otherwise, to think beyond the dictates of the authoritarian state and to offer up spirited forms of collective resistance … Only time will tell us whether either Orwell or Huxley was right. But … history is open and the space of the possible is always larger than the one currently on display.

This is truly a chilling view of our near future.


John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.

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