Simplifying good government

When I was a medical student, I got to meet the wife of one of my then-favourite Sci-Fi writers, James Blish, after she’d had a minor accident on a London bus. This was around the time of the author’s declining health, so it must have been a particularly stressful time for Mrs Blish.

Blish was an excellent author, most noted at the time for his Cities in Flight series, in which US cities such as Scranton, equipped with anti-gravity and life support, actually became interplanetary spaceships. The stories spanned several centuries, and this was the one point that rankled with me as a kid. For the mayor and city fathers (our wise heroes), were alone among the citizens granted virtual immortality by virtue of high technology, to go along with the virtual immortality of their rule of the city. Stepping back from the fantasy, who really wants an unelected government that can’t be voted out? Do our leaders really always know best?

This rather tricky problem of ordinary people’s unsuitability to govern themselves seems to be a hidden feature of all utopias: certainly it has proved the hallmark of Communist regimes from Russia and China to North Korea.

Back in 2012 I noted a similar phenomenon in the 1930s film of H G Wells’s Things to Come, in which the technocracy (pictured as the good guys!) spending huge sums on a space gun to reach the moon, acquiesce in the immolation of a Luddite crowd of ‘oi polloi seeking to destroy it. Given the choice between progress or chaos, the wise oligarchs could decide unilaterally what was good for the people, even if it meant killing them.

Since I mentioned it recently, Bacon’s New Atlantis is similarly oligarchic, though Bacon seems as unaware of the problem as Blish or Wells were. The self-perpetuating scientific élite of Salomon’s House, who benevolently pass their discovereies on to the grateful masses – or withhold them as they see fit – are simply assumed to be both endlessly virtuous and intellectually infallible. The ordinary people, and even the king, are in Bacon’s thought merely consumers of the society created by the all-wise few.

I’m just re-reading Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World, which was almost certainly partly inspired by the US Technocracy Movement (forgotten now, but look it up), and which was definitely a riposte to Wells. The book (and Huxley’s preface to the 1946 edition) has surprising resonances with today’s situation, first in the reasons totalitarian government was imposed on the masses to begin with (perceived ecological and political chaos, and its perceived causes such as individual liberty, family and religion, specifically Christianity).

But the remedies imposed in Huxley’s brave new world in order to make the people complicit, and happy to be so, were prescient too: the proliferation of mindless entertainment and, especially, sexual disinhibition; the separation of procreation from family, leading to the abolition of the latter; recreational drug use as a social norm; consumerism as a virtue; and test-tube to grave social conditioning by propaganda, in the name of education, to ensure that all the valueless values of this new society were thoroughly internalised by all. Along with this went the deliberate eclipsing of all former culture (Shakepeare being the private pornography of the controllers – funny how this week some academic was calling for Shakespeare to be replaced in schools by “better writers”), and terms like “parent” or “marriage” being considered smutty. And, of course, there were well-hidden but draconian sanctions for aberrant thinkers.

It is less known that Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958, in which he concluded that western society was well along the way towards his original vision, dated though it was in detail.

Once again, in Huxley’s utopia (which is actually a dreadful dystopia) the few who “know” have imposed their own vision for the world on the many, who are regarded as sheep, if not vermin. Their aim is social stability, but that can only arise, in their view, by control. And the people must not realise they are controlled until they have been conditioned to love the fact.

Huxley’s insight into effective propaganda is very relevant to today: he says it is at its most effective when it doesn’t do something. That is, as he says in the 1946 preface:

Great is the truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects, by lowering what Mr Churchill calls an “iron curtain” between the masses and such facts or arguments as the local political bosses regard as undesirable, totalitarian propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have done by the most eloquent denunciations, the most compelling of logical rebuttals.

So, for example, to deal with popular dissent with the political status quo across the western world, the best strategy is simply not to report election results, whilst murmuring darkly about the dangers to us all of “far right groups.”

Likewise, it seems to me there is a reason why climate change is sold by glossy films and orchestrated mass-demonstrations, in which teenagers urge “Listen to the scientists!!” without, somehow, encouraging people to follow links to the actual datasets and the primary scientific literature. A pull quote from a political policy report (and the exile to Iceland of dissenting researchers) keeps our minds focused on what the conjuror intends us to see.

I recommend that you read Huxley, if you’ve never done so. Let me end with another quote from the preface he wrote before the experience of the Cold War and the “interesting” society we inhabit now, poised on the brink of an alleged catastrophe whose existence we can only take on trust, but which requires a whole new world economic and social order, according to influential bodies like the UN or

Indeed, unless we choose to decentralize and to use applied science, not as the end to which human beings are to be made the means, but as the means to producing a race of free individuals, we have only two alternatives to choose from: either a number of national, militarized totalitarianisms, having their root in the terror of the atomic bomb and as their consequence the destruction of civilization…; or else one supra-national totalitarianism, called into existence by the social chaos resulting from rapid technological progress… and developing, under the need for efficiency and stability, into the welfare-tyranny of Utopia. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Simplifying good government

  1. Ben says:

    What struck me was that the system described in Brave New World was the logical conclusion of happiness as a goal. And once the system was in place, even the World Controller, with all his apparent power, is hemmed in by that requirement.

    In this context, absence of suffering is more important than absence of meaning. It actually poses the question if meaning is even possible in the absence of suffering, or at least in the absence of effort, frustration, waiting or desire.

    So, best to avoid ever creating this kind of monolithic structure, because once it’s in place, even if you have your finger on the ‘off’ button, it’s an enormous responsibility!

    I wondered why Orwell bothered writing 1984, and must confess I unthinkingly googled it before even trying to work it out myself. One (interesting) answer is that 1984 is to left-wing-totalitarianism as BNW is for right-wing-technocracy.

    I think Jordan Peterson is on the right track, insisting that the individual – or rather individuals who are prepared to stand up and be counted, or knuckle down and make things better – are all that can save us from these two horribly similar extremes.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      So, best to avoid ever creating this kind of monolithic structure, because once it’s in place, even if you have your finger on the ‘off’ button, it’s an enormous responsibility!

      Too late, I think. Today’s news (enirely coincidentally just a couple of weeks after the oh-so-spontaneous Extinction Rebellion and the government here declaring a state of “climate emergency”), announces a new major research facility in Cambridge, the Centre for Climate Repair, to consider radical new technological proposals like re-freezing the ice caps (though the southern ice is actually growing and the northern ice was less in 1769).

      That’s megabucks, I thought, so the timing is surprisingly precise: it can’t have been planned overnight. It turns out to be the work of Prof David King, government scientific advisor on climate change, IPCC champion etc, etc. But most Cambridge professors don’t have megabucks to set up new institutes. However, from his Wikipedia page:

      In that time, he raised the profile of the need for governments to act on climate change and was instrumental in creating the new £1 billion Energy Technologies Institute. In 2008 he co-authored “The Hot Topic” (Bloomsbury 2008) on this subject.

      So maybe the funds come from there. And where did the ETI get its funds?

      In addition to initial funding for the ETI, the Department for Business will provide £50 million a year over a period of 10 years starting in 2008-09. When establishing the ETI, the government expected the separate Energy Research Partnership [5] to raise matching funding from commercial organisations.
      As of September 2006 EDF Energy, Shell, BP and E.ON UK had committed to providing funds. By 2014, this had grown to include Caterpillar and Rolls-Royce.

      The same big oil, and oil-dependent, sources, in fact, that got the Green Movement, and most of the UN climate institutions, started in the first place (Google “Maurice Strong” and remember that he was a protegé and associate of David Rockefeller – if you want more worrying evidence check out James Corbett’s film, and remember that it includes the period when Huxley was smelling out the territory for Brave New World).

      Isn’t it ironic that in the 1950s-60s, Soviet scientists were working seriously on plans to melt the polar ice-cap to increase prosperity, and Soviet Academician Petr Mikhailovich Borisov actually published a book on it in 1972, at the height of the global cooling crisis in the Green Movement here in the west. However,

      Mikhail I. Budyko, the most prominent Russian climate expert, pointed out that the effects of such interventions would be unpredictable, and he advised against them.

      In today’s overheated climate, anyone who warned of the unpredictability of freezing the ice would be rapidly silenced as an oil-funded climate denier.

      Given where we are in the solar cycle, it would be fun if big-oil induced panic over a thoroughly suspect problem actually triggered a new ice age. But fortunately the more likely outcome from the present propaganda and political campaign, excluding the actions of your “individuals who are prepared to stand up and be counted” (aka the dreaded “populism”), is less drastic than that. We need expect only economic collapse, mass starvation from energy poverty, and maybe a major war or two against the fatherly totalitarian regime… Whilst God’s good earth does what it always has.

      Which is an absurd prediction, of course, until you remember that Rockefeller money kick-started Germany’s eugenics program in the 1930s, and that I G Farben, the second biggest sharefolder in Standard Oil since their “marriage” in 1929, built Auschwitz and supplied, amongst many other things, Zyklon gas.

      Over at Peaceful Science, I was told that someone like Susan Crockford, blowing the gaff on the untruths about walruses in the Attenborough documentary, was “probably funded by oil companies.” There are some astonishingly well-conditioned alphas out there.

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