photo of a beach
Photo: MIKE VAN DEN BOS/UNSPLASH

Is It Just Me – 2024!

Having just had a look back over the years, I can confirm that this is the 20th occasion of wishing you, our Resident readers, a Happy New Year on these pages – time literally does fly.

The truth behind another old adage I used to pay but lip service to – “without health you have nothing”, or something like that – is turning out to be more important by the day not only for myself but for an increasing number of friends and acquaintances. In this context, a healthy 2024 for one and all with a little wealth and happiness thrown in!

Quickly changing the subject before the to-date-excellent Portuguese SNS joins the crumbling British NHS leaving only the rich and privileged with access to health care, it has occurred to me that fully 40 years have passed since George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare novel 1984 described our ‘future’ as seen by the author back in 1949 when it was published.

A dystopia is often treated as an antonym of utopia, a term that was coined by Sir Thomas More and figures as the title of his best-known work, published in 1516, which created a blueprint for an ideal society with minimal crime, violence, and poverty.

The relationship between utopia and dystopia is, in fact, not one of simple opposites, as many utopian elements and components are found in both. Let us have a look at how many of these predictions, and those of another great visionary, Aldous Huxley, responsible for Brave New World back in 1932, have bearing on our lives today.

“It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you — something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses.”

Yes, ‘Big Brother’ is watching you – and I don’t mean the second worst television program of all time after ‘Love Island’. In 1984, the vast majority of the population – the ‘Proles’ (proletariat) – were almost unworthy of surveillance. So long as the ruling party gave them regular supplies of food, alcohol, the lottery and pornography, the ‘Proles’ were considered to be under control – sound familiar?

Maybe Orwell was harkening back to another satirist, Juvenal, who complained about the “bread and circuses” that Imperial Rome used to control the plebeians and distract them from thinking about their rights and responsibilities as Roman citizens. Salazar successfully used similar tactics in Portugal for almost 50 years.

Huxley had similar visions of keeping ordinary people in check. Brave New World is the description of a nightmare society where everybody is perfectly happy all the time. This is assured through keeping everybody entertained continuously with endless distractions, and, if all else fails, offering a plentiful supply of the wonder drug Soma.

Various complex games have been invented, and movies now engage all five senses – nobody has to worry about being bored for long. The idea of enjoying solitude is taboo, and most people go out and party every night.

The world state is a dictatorship which strives for order. It is managed by oligarchs who rely on extensive bureaucracy to keep the world running. The typical person is conditioned to love their subservience, and either be proud of the vital work they do or be relieved that they don’t have to worry about bigger problems.

Global stability is ensured through Fordist religion, which is based not only on the teachings of Henry Ford but also Sigmund Freud and involves the worship of both men. The tenets of this faith encourage mass consumerism, sexual promiscuity, and avoiding unhappiness at all costs.

Huxley’s dystopia is especially terrifying in that the enslaved population absolutely loves their slavery. Even those smart enough to know what is going on are content with what is happening. Perhaps more frightening than other dystopian novels, in Brave New World there is truly no hope for change.

The similarities between the world of today and the world of the book are many, even if our technology hasn’t quite caught up yet. While the human assembly line described in the first part of the story is still pure fantasy, the basic concepts that make it work are already here.

Today, people regularly make choices to influence the genetic makeup of their children. Pre-natal screening has created the ability for many parents to decide if they wish to carry a disabled foetus to term or not. In Iceland, this has resulted in the near eradication of new cases of Down Syndrome in the country. Almost 100% of detected cases lead to an abortion shortly after.

Similarly, testing for a child’s sex before birth is a well-known procedure that leads to a wide gender gap in many countries. The above examples suggest we’re already open to soft genetic engineering and Huxley’s visions of a perfect upper caste might be reality soon.

In our modern society, most people genuinely can’t go 30 minutes without wanting to check their phones. We have, just as Huxley predicted, made it possible to abolish boredom and time for spare thoughts no matter where you are. This is already having measurable effects on our mental health.

Huxley wasn’t warning us against watching television or going to the movies occasionally, but against the constant barrage of distraction becoming more important in our lives than facing the real problems affecting us.

In the book, stability is based on total employment. Automation has been purposely stalled to assure everybody can work since free time would create enough extra time to think about one’s condition.

Mass employment relies on mass consumption, however, and numerous systems are in place to assure everybody keeps using new products even when they don’t need them. Consumerism is a significant element in all major economies today.

While it makes sense that a company would have an incentive to keep us buying things to remain profitable, Huxley’s point is that consumerism can also be used to keep us pointlessly chasing after items that we think we need to be happy as a distraction from exploring other pursuits.

While Huxley thought a dictatorship would have to condition people to want to buy new things and throw out last year’s products to buy similar but newer ones, the lines and fights at Black Friday sales suggest otherwise.

Today, many people don’t bother voting. Huxley argues for the decentralization of power as a means of restoring the value of democratic government to the typical person who has realized that their vote is meaningless. He encouraged us to move to the countryside or to establish stronger neighbourhood ties to resist the pressure to only engage with others as an economic unit and not as a full human being. In short, that is why I am here, in the Algarve.

By Skip Bandele
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Skip Bandele escaped to the Algarve almost 25 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.