In 1958, Aldous Huxley published a collection of essays on the same social, political, and economic themes he had explored earlier in his novel Brave New World. Although the form differs — the work is nonfiction instead of fiction — Huxley's characteristic intelligence and wit enlivens the essays of Brave New World Revisited just as it did in his novel.
Brave New World has been called a "novel of ideas," because Huxley takes as his primary focus for the fiction the contrast and clash of different assumptions and theories rather than merely the conflict of personalities. In Brave New World Revisited, Huxley dispenses with the fictional construct altogether and lets the ideas themselves form and inform his work. In a sense, then, Huxley opened his debate about the future in fiction — for artistic purposes — and then continued it in philosophy with persuasion in mind.
Part of Huxley's reason for "revisiting" the themes of Brave New World stems from his horrified recognition that the world he created in fiction was in fact becoming a reality. In the depths of the Cold War, a totalitarian world state — a Communist dictatorship, perhaps — seemed a distinct possibility; and so, with the world on the verge of destruction or tyranny, Huxley felt compelled to search for and find the hope for freedom missing in his novel.
In describing the modern, postwar world, Huxley acknowledges the prophetic power of George Orwell's 1984. In communist nations, Huxley points out, leaders used to control individuals with punishment, just as the representatives of Big Brother frighten and at times torture citizens into submission in Orwell's novel. But in the Soviet Union at least, the death of Stalin brought an end to the "old-fashioned" form of universal tyranny. By the late 1950s, in the Soviet bloc, governments attempted to control high-ranking individuals with rewards — just as in Brave New World. Meanwhile, the government continued to enforce conformity on the masses by fear of punishment. Communist totalitarianism, therefore, combined the Brave New World and 1984 styles of oppression. Both novels proved sadly prophetic.
Still, Huxley argues, the future will look more like Brave New World than 1984. In the West, pleasure and distraction, used by those in power, control people's spending, political loyalties, and even their thoughts. Control through reward poses a greater threat to human freedom because, unlike punishment, it can be introduced unconsciously and continued indefinitely, with the approval and support of the people being controlled.
In place of the Nine Years' War — the calamity that brought the society of Brave New World into being — Huxley points to the danger of overpopulation as the trigger for tyranny. Just as the fictional war brought the call for a totalitarian World State, the chaos caused by overpopulation may be demanding control through over organization. Instead of many little businesses producing necessities, an over-organized society allows big business to mass-produce anything and everything saleable, while controlling consumer spending through commercials and social pressure. The resulting programmed consumption — "Ending is better than mending" — of Brave New World had already begun to take over the post-war world, at least in the West.
The literal consumption of soma-like drugs also captures Huxley's attention. By the 1950s, readily available tranquilizers adjusted people to a maladjusted culture, smoothing out any inconvenient instincts of resistance, just as a soma-holiday eliminated the recognition of unhappiness.
Huxley takes particular pride, mixed with dismay, at the prophetic quality of his own future vision. In the 1950s, commercial jingles — what Huxley calls "singing commercials" — seem to invade and take over the conscious mind and culture, in the same way that the brave new world runs smoothly on the slogans of hypnopaedia. Hypnopaedia itself, of course, was a well-respected reality by the time of Brave New World Revisited. And the use of subliminal persuasion, a method for introducing subconscious suggestions, had already caused a scandal in American movies. Although subliminal persuasion does not appear in Brave New World, Huxley wishes aloud that he had included it, since the unconscious power of the suggestions seems perfect for the cheery authoritarianism of the dystopia.
In general, Huxley warns his readers that they may be talking themselves into accepting a world that they would reject, if only they were fully conscious of its nature. But, distracted by consumerism and pleasure, people seldom truly engage the reality they are living, just as the citizens of the brave new world seldom recognize the restraints of their society. Unconscious manipulation through language — propaganda — keeps individual minds open to any suggestions, even the most inhuman.
Huxley cites, from recent history, Hitler's power of manipulation through language as a frightening example. Quoting from the dictator's autobiography, Huxley emphasizes the importance of Hitler's skillful use of propaganda in motivating citizens to support his leadership. Hitler, for instance, deliberately scheduled his public addresses at night, a time when fatigue makes people vulnerable to suggestion, excitable, and most likely to succumb to the mass hysteria Hitler produced at his rallies. Huxley's fictional Controllers of the brave new world follow the same pattern with the Solidarity Services, a ritual of programmed mass hysteria to produce social loyalty. A different form of the same suggestibility occurs in light sleep, the period when the hypnopaedic voices whisper society's wisdom into the ears of children and young adults. In both cases, the rational self has its guards down, and any message — however irrational — may make its way into the mind and influence behavior.
According to Huxley, even in the 1950s, propaganda emanates from those who want to control behavior on a large scale, just as the World Controllers of Brave New World want to maintain stability. Dictators like Hitler use propaganda to whip up support and to direct violence against anyone identified as the enemy. In the 1950s, Huxley argues, propaganda represents the principal tool of the "Power Elite," C. Wright Mills' term for the government and business leaders controlling communication and the economy. Through commercials, subliminal messages, and careful suppression of challenging truths, Huxley declares, propaganda is infiltrating the language of society, becoming perhaps the only way to speak at all. If the trend continues, Westerners may be in danger of becoming as unconsciously manipulated and enslaved as the citizens of the brave new world.
Identifying the enemy of freedom as propaganda, Huxley finds the solution that eluded him in Brave New World. Education in the recognition and resistance of propaganda must be the responsibility of every individual. Referring to the brief history of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Huxley emphasizes that government and other authorities may oppose the unmasking of anti-rational, manipulative language for their own reasons. Still, Huxley insists, the only hope lies in the active mind, able and willing to make its own judgments. Individual freedom, compassion, and intelligence — the very qualities missing in the dystopia of Brave New World — can guide the fully conscious, fully human mind into a truly free, truly human future.