20th century literature produced two antithetical prophecies of the technological world we have today: George Orwell’s 1984 with its Big Brother and the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley. In one sense we could affirm that neither prophecy has really come true, but in another sense we could argue that both prophecies have been realised. How can that be?
Modernity is in fact a dialectical struggle between Big Brother’s omnipresent gaze and oppression of desire, on the one hand, and the seemingly liberating dictatorship of the Brave New World on the other.
Totalitarianism is a rejection of superfluous commodities while liberation is an embracing of the superfluous.
In another sense, totalitarianism is an embracing of responsibility and liberalism is a fleeing from responsibilities.
Dictatorship can only work in a perfectly enclosed reality. Enclosure can only work by closing frontiers (as in the iron curtain between communism and capitalism, or in the isolation policies of traditional Japan or modern day North Korea), or by making itself a total-reality in which there is no alternative to its dominion, as in the aspirations of our current economic globalisation programme.
Dictatorship only fails when the subjects within the total-reality becomes aware that their reality is not total but that in fact it is sadly lacking in many things. When this is realised, the regime itself becomes a hindrance towards achieving possibilities or fulfilment. Once the awareness of blocked possibilities seeps into the society, the dictatorship is doomed. Because of this, all regimes must struggle to maintain the illusion that their power does not actually retard possibilities, or that any oppression that takes place is necessary to combat undesirable elements threatening the comfort of the reality it has created.
In order to maintain power, all regimes must dedicate much of their energy convincing their subjects of the inexistence of any fundamental lack. If lack does exist, it is because what is absent is either frivolous or dangerous. Or, it simply just hasn’t been obtained yet by a system which potentially has the power to provide everything for everyone who subjects themselves to the rules and norms of the system.
Modernity is a dialectic between responsibility and desire: between the necessary and the frivolous; between duty and freedom; between obligation and emancipation; between the freedom achieved through responsible action and the oppression maintained through the addictions provoked by unfettered desires…
This dialectic is a complex one, at times favouring one side and, as Power itself, it takes a firm hold on the reins of the discourse in order to drive our cart in its direction. It is the dialectic between communism and capitalism; between Freud and Marx; between Al Qaeda and the oil companies; between religions and the women’s or gay-rights movements; between democracy and plutocracy; between humanity and the world.
What is our place in this constant dialectic? Our argument is not a condemnation of desire but a redirecting of it away from Big Brother or Brave New World manipulations. We obviously stand on the side of responsibility and necessity, but we are not waging war on desire itself. Desire needs to be harmonised with necessity in order to inflame desire with purposiveness and infuse humanity with a sense of itself based on its optimistic and noble visions. We define positive human desires as those impulses which point towards the fulfilment of human interests against the negative, because self-interested, desires of individuals or corporations.
The dialectic now changes and becomes immersed in a new antagonism between the personal desires and the solving of immediate problems against the future perspectives for humanity as a whole that are looking toward the fulfilment of our deeper, collective desires. This new dialectic is one between the desire for progress and the need for preservation; between the self-centred reality and the human; between the sharply focussed point-of-view and the global vision; between the family and the world; between the perception of things within us and the space around us and its atmosphere that allows us to exist at all.
But basically, it is a dialectic between the immediate present and the far-distant future that is threatened by our present. Whether we believe in the future or not, it must always compete with the conditions of the “now”. It is the dialectic compressed into the story of the Grasshopper and the Ant. In that fable labour – the ant’s labour – is a necessary condition that has to be done now in order for future survival, whilst the grasshopper’s summer appetite – our own locust appetite – will be its death sentence in the winter to come.