Many know Aldous Huxley for his dystopian vision in Brave New World. Others know him from his legendary passage through the lesser known parts of consciousness in Doors of Perception. Without a doubt, Huxley is one of the most influential British writers of the 20th century. His ideas often err on the side of freedom in every form. He stands strongly with free information, free consciousness, and free decision making. Yet, amidst all of his avid support of freedom, could we classify Huxley’s politics as libertarian?
What is a Libertarian?
To determine whether or not Huxley was a libertarian, we should first clarify what it means to be a libertarian. Libertarianism covers many philosophies, and it can be hard to exactly pinpoint what we meant when we say “libertarian.” David Boaz defines libertarianism as “the philosophy of freedom.” Yet this still leaves a clear definition of freedom unclear.
Freedom, in the tradition of John Locke, is the absence of physical force. For hundreds of years, libertarians have embraced the Lockean definition as central to their political philosophy. The classical liberal tradition that spurred forth from Locke and his cohorts even came to influence the founding documents of the United States. Locke clearly explains:
But Freedom is not, as we are told, A Liberty for every Man to do what he lists: (For who could be free, when every other Man’s Humour might domineer over him?) But a Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Persons, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own.
Furthermore, this definition of freedom as the absence of physical force has continued with contemporary libertarians. Murray Rothbard, who is often regarded as the father of the modern libertarian movement, explained that his entire philosophy was centered around rejection of slavery. As a result, libertarianism rejects most (if not all) forms of government action. Rothbard realized that taxation and regulation were simply new forms of slavery that the state imposes. To be truly against slavery, one must be against the involuntary seizure of one’s money. They must also be against all unnatural restrictions on human action.
The Politics of Huxley
The best way to dive into the politics of Aldous Huxley is to read his book Brave New World Revisited. Within this text, Huxley explores the catastrophe of his constructed dystopia and compares it to the times he is living in. This book provides the clearest and most concise exposition for Huxley’s political inclinations. Because of this, we will primarily be looking at passages from BNW Revisited.
The Free Mind
Huxley notes that historically, the western world has made property rights a priority. From the Magna Carta to the continuation of British Common Law, the issue of self-ownership has more or less been decided in the west. Yet this leaves another problem: the issue of mental freedom. As the noteworthy psychologist Viktor Frankl explained, “everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl understood that nobody can force this freedom from us. The state cannot use coercion to put us in a mental prison. Even in the midst of the concentration camp, Frankl realized that his attitude was always under his control. But one should not read Frankl and think that a mental prison cannot exist. The methods by which a government may bring about a mental prison are far more insidious and pervasive than any other tactic that they may use, and this is a primary concern of Huxley. He made clear that even as all of our democratic institutions remain the same, “the underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism.” He explains:
The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him, the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes the good laws will remain on the statute book: but these liberal forms will only serve as a mask for the profoundly illiberal substance.
The subtle methods that the government now has at its disposal pose a threat to individual liberty. If one does not know how to be free, how can they be free? If one cannot make level-headed decisions, how can they truly be free?
Big Government and Big Business
Aldous Huxley further makes clear that big business can also pose a major threat to liberty. As psychology and marketing merged, businesses began to focus on the possibility of creating demand by implanting ideas into the minds of the consumers. In Brave New World, governments would implant moral messages into the citizens as they slept. In the real world, advertising firms pair their brands with enticing symbols.
This takes many forms. Coca-cola is shown in the context of a fun family gathering. Surface cleaner commercials depict happy children eating on a clean surface. Clothing and cosmetic advertisements show us the most attractive people the modeling agencies would send them. This puts us as consumers in a difficult position, because now it is difficult to determine if a desire is ours or if it was implanted by an advertiser.
Governments and corporations work hand in hand in this respect. Corporations develop techniques for subliminal messaging that governments can adopt. This also works the other way.
The best way to avoid this trap is through education. If people know how to discern between advertised desires and true desires, they can then make informed choices.
Libertarian are primarily concerned with freedom in the physical sense. They care about property and action, and less about the freedom of mind. But the belief that we should be able to think freely is by no means contradictory with the libertarian philosophy. Huxley’s politics perfectly coincide with libertarianism on this level.
Bread and Circuses
Aside from manipulation, governments and corporations keep populations in line by means of external sedation. Everyone in modern society has an infinite tap of expedient entertainment and access to doctors that will surely prescribe them far more codeine than they could ever need. The result is a content society that will put up with a lot more than it otherwise would.
The government surely grows beyond its traditional bounds. In the United States, the Federal Government has gone far beyond the minuscule state the founders envisioned. Rather, it has burgeoned into a massive machine of war, taxation, and exploitation. Huxley explains that the cry of “give me liberty or give me death!” has been replaced with, “give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with responsibilities of liberty.”
The opioid crisis is effectively keeping large portions of the population out of touch with reality. Social media and television are extremely effective at wasting hours of time. People no longer read and think. Rather, they dismally sink themselves away into the hyperreality of the internet. As a result, governments and corporations can get away with grossly irresponsible actions and answer to nobody.
Huxley and Overpopulation
Another one of Huxley’s primary concerns was the fact that the population is increasing faster than the rates that food is increasing. This is a traditional Malthusian concern, and there has been much debate over this phenomena for a long time. Libertarian politics do not necessarily affirm nor do they contradict this theory. The validity of the theory is also not a concern for this article. What matters is what Huxley thinks we should do about it.
Somewhat disappointingly, the British author raises more questions than he answers. He wonders how we will educate the masses about conservation. He also wonders who will provide the education and capital to farmers to keep up with an expanding population. Yet, at no point does he advocate for nationalization or subsidization of the food industries, keeping himself in line with libertarian thought.
In addition, Huxley never advocates for any sort of nihilistic population control technique as many neo-Malthusians have. He makes clear that it could be problematic and predicts the rise of birth control. Yet the primary concern Huxley has in terms of man and the planet is conservation. Will capitalism and the developing world exploit the Earth’s resources beyond repair? It’s hard to know. Huxley says:
Consider the backwards societies that are now trying to industrialize. If they succeed, who is to prevent them, in their desperate efforts to catch up and keep up, from squandering the planet’s irreplaceable resources.
Government and business have not been very helpful in this regard. The continued occupation of the middle east in the name of a war on terror has only lead to further pollution. The Earths resources are dwindling, and neither Huxley nor anyone else really knows what to do. What he does not advocate for, though, is further government regulations on pollution.
Huxley’s New Political Society
What is the solution to these matters and how do we reach it? Huxley has a thing or two to say about this matter. He affirms a new democratically decentralized political system. This system seems to fall right in line with Hayek’s decentralized train of thought. Yet first, we must dive into the specifics and determine if Huxley’s political program is truly libertarian. Huxley says:
It is a political axiom that power follows property. But it is now a historical fact that the means of production are fast becoming the monopolistic property of Big Business and Big Government. Therefore, if you believe in democracy, make arrangements to distribute property as widely as possible.
We must assume that Huxley advocates for government distribution of wealth. There isn’t really another effective mechanism for widespread distribution, so we must assume. Clearly, Aldous Huxley is part of the Yang Gang. But he doesn’t think that the massive hegemonic governments that are currently in power should be responsible for this affair:
The right to vote, by itself, is no guarantee of liberty. Therefore, if you wish to avoid dictatorship by referendum, break up modern society’s merely functional collectives into self-governing, voluntarily cooperating groups, capable of functioning outside the bureaucratic systems of Big Business and Big Government.
Huxley’s Libertarian Society
Huxley then cites various political theorists that advocate for a similar mode of organization, many of which are syndicalists. Syndicalism, though, is not libertarian in the line of Locke and Rothbard. Rather, it embraces a less mainstream form of left-libertarianism. As we can see, then, Huxley was not a diehard Rothbard libertarian, but he was surely a champion of freedom and provided a much-needed warning for the modern world. All should read Huxley’s works and analyze critically what we should do moving forward about the issues that he identifies.
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