Well regarded by the ‘Sixties’ generation for his writings on alternative states of consciousness, Huxley earlier astounded many by his dystopian futuristic novel ‘Brave New World’ (1932). In this imagined world he works out many then modern ideas. Re-reading it and following it up with his follow-up, ‘Brave New World Revisited’ (1958), it is astounding how relevant his perceptions are to the sway and thrall which ex-president Donald Trump holds over many millions in the USA today. With the benefit of hindsight after World War II he points out Hitler’s demagogic capacity for ‘reproducing other people’s half-baked notions’ and quotes his biographer Alan Bullock ‘Hitler was the greatest demagogue in history’ adding ‘Those who add “only a demagogue” fail to appreciate the nature of political power in an age of mass politics’. Huxley saw ninety, then again seventy years ago, the coming power of mass media and social media, of one man talking easily to very many.
He describes how:
“The orator speaks to masses of individuals, already well primed with herd-poison (sic). They are at his mercy and if he knows his business he can do what he likes with them. As an orator, Hitler knew his business extremely well. He was able, in his own words, “to follow the lead of the great mass in such a way that from the living emotion of his hearers the apt word that he needed would be suggested to him and in its turn this would go straight to the heart of his hearers”. Today this might be part of generating that crude and simple response by what is called ‘dog whistling’, specific cues activating a conditioned response.
This works particularly well with rally type crowds of which Huxley says:
“Assembled in a crowd, people lose their powers of reasoning and their capacity for moral choice. Their suggestibility is increased to the point where they cease to have any judgement or will of their own. They become very excitable, they lose all sense of individual or collective responsibility, they are subject to sudden accesses of rage, enthusiasm and panic. In a word, a man in a crowd behaves as though he had swallowed a large dose of some powerful intoxicant. He is a victim of what I have called “herd-poisoning”. Like alcohol, herd-poison is an active extraverted drug. The crowd-intoxicated individual escapes from morality into a kind of frantic, animal mindlessness.”
Unlike intellectually capable individuals who demand evidence and reject oversimplification, logical inconsistencies and fallacies; lies and slogans with sweeping generalisations ‘are the propagandist’s stock in trade’. Hitler wrote
“All effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare necessities and then must be expressed in a few stereotyped formulas” constantly repeated. Here we have the “Big Lie” about who won the election and how writ large. “These stereotyped formulas must be constantly repeated for only constant repetition will finally succeed in in imprinting an idea upon the memory of a crowd”. Yes, the Nazi dictator knew his stuff alright.
Hilary Clinton, perhaps politically unwisely, but nevertheless accurately to many, referred to such folk en masse as ‘deplorables’, while Huxley sees them as exemplified in their rallies as individuals assembled in an excitable crowd and thus losing the capacity for intelligent action and realistic thinking. Philosophy teaches us Huxley says to feel uncertain about the things that seem to us self-evident. Propaganda teaches us to accept as self-evident matters about which it would be reasonable to suspend our judgement or to feel doubt, as Huxley describes the difference.
Further, in what continues presciently to describe our present day would-be totalitarian dictator he goes on
“The demagogic propagandist must be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no greys in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white”. In Hitler’s words quotes Huxley “the propagandist should adopt ‘a systematically one-sided attitude towards every problem that has to be dealt with’. He must never admit that he might be wrong or that people with a different view might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down, or, if they become too much of a nuisance, liquidated”.
Well whereas the earlier statements are eerily similar to present events things today of course have not yet got that far we might think, but how easily it can be imagined, as after the insurrection at the Capitol, we know, people who disagreed with the fulminating protestors did indeed die. Hitler said, according to Huxley, the masses are always convinced that “right is on the side of the active aggressor”.
Are such parallels and insights as we can find in Huxley’s reflections on his own work in Brave New World applicable to a freedom loving and mature constitutional democracy as pertains in the USA? He seems still relevant:
“People may start out with an initial prejudice against tyrants; but when tyrants or would-be tyrants treat them to adrenalin-releasing propaganda about the wickedness of their enemies – particularly of enemies weak enough to be persecuted [minorities, immigrants, Mexicans? I suggest] – they are ready to follow him with enthusiasm. In his speeches Hitler kept repeating such words as ‘hatred’, ‘force’, ‘crush’, ‘smash’ and he would accompany these violent words with even more violent gestures. He would yell, he would scream, his veins would swell, his face would turn purple. Strong emotion (as every actor and dramatist knows) is in the highest degree contagious. Infected by the malignant frenzy of the orator, the audience would groan and sob and scream in an orgy of uninhibited passion. And these orgies were so enjoyable that most of those who had experienced them eagerly came back for more”.
Old black and white historical film excerpts of the Fuhrer ranting, often on TV, do indeed show this to be true.
Are we here warned by Huxley? Are we being exposed to a dreadful alternative ‘Brave New World II’?