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Needed — a dystopian economics

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By Stuart Birks

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are noted examples of dystopian literature. In contrast to idyllic utopian literature, they describe what might be considered to be seriously flawed societies. The authors wished to warn of potential dangers that might arise in the future. Huxley later published a follow-up collection of essays, Brave New World Revisited (1958) (BNWR). In it he warned that, his prophecies in the earlier book were coming true much sooner than he had anticipated. He wrote this in the 1950s, but his points seem particularly pertinent today as I will illustrate below. However, first I will give some context.

While not an economist, in BNWR Huxley made some points of particular relevance to economics:

“Omission and simplification help us to understand – but help us, in many cases, to understand the wrong thing; for our comprehension may be only of the abbreviator’s neatly formulated notions, not of the vast, ramifying reality from which these notions have been so arbitrarily abstracted.” (P. xxi)


And (bearing in mind, rationality, atomism, the efficiency of markets):

“Under the influence of badly chosen words, applied, without any understanding of their merely symbolic character, to experiences that have been selected and abstracted in the light of a system of erroneous ideas, we are apt to behave with a fiendishness and an organized stupidity.” (p.136)


Of course, the 20th Century was not the first time that utopian views have been challenged. A disastrous earthquake struck Lisbon in 1755 accompanied by massive tsunamis and widespread fires. This greatly affected Voltaire, among others, and a few years later he published Candide (1759). This satirical fiction challenged the view of nature and society being orderly and resulting in “the best of all possible worlds”. See here also. Anyone supporting neoliberal views or basing their opinions on the desirability of perfect competition would do well to consider Voltaire’s characterisation of Dr Pangloss.

So what was worrying Huxley in 1958? He argued that:

“Impersonal forces over which we have almost no control seemed to be pushing us all in the direction of the Brave New Worldian nightmare; and this impersonal pushing is being consciously accelerated by representatives of commercial and political organizations who have developed a number of new techniques for manipulating, in the interests of some minority, the thoughts and feelings of the masses.” (p.7)


Note that Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016 is post-truth.

Also surprisingly prescient in 1958:

“Democracy can hardly be expected to flourish in societies where political and economic power is being progressively concentrated and centralised. But the progress of technology has led and is still leading to just such concentration and centralization of power. As the machinery of mass production is made more efficient it tends to become more complex and more expensive – and so less available to the enterpriser of limited means. Moreover, mass production cannot work without mass distribution; but mass distribution raises problems which only the largest producers can satisfactorily solve… As the Little Men disappear, more and more economic power comes to be wielded by fewer and fewer people.” (p.26)


Note the phenomena of the 1 Percent and the hollowing middle class.

And in relation to politics, predating emphasis on discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1995) and news in the form of sound-bites:

“In their propaganda, today’s dictators rely for the most part on repetition, suppression and rationalisation-the repetition of catchwords which they wish to be accepted as true, the suppression of facts which they wish to be ignored, the arousal and rationalisation of passions which may be used in the interests of the Party or the State. As at the art and science of manipulation come to be better understood, the dictators of the future will doubtless have learned to combine these techniques with the non-stop distractions which, in the West, are now threatening to drown in a sea of irrelevance the rational propaganda essential to the maintenance of individual liberty and the survival of democratic institutions.” (p.48)


Perceptive in many respects, Huxley warnings were tempered by a reassuring note of confidence when he wrote:

“A democratic constitution is a device for preventing the local rulers from yielding to those particularly dangerous temptations that arise when too much power is concentrated in too few hands. Such a constitution works pretty well where, as in Britain or the United States, there is a traditional respect for constitutional procedures.” (p.13)


Overall, this suggests that we need an economics which incorporates an understanding of the imperfections of societies and their institutions and the natural and man-made shocks and manipulations which may occur. Of course, it may be that imperfect institutional structures serve to prevent this more relevant economics from developing.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis: the critical study of language. London: Longman

From: p.10 of World Economics Association Newsletter 6(6), December 2016


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