In 2018, the London-based media company Intelligence Squared hosted a debate entitled “Brave New World vs Nineteen Eighty-Four,” introducing these novels as books that, “speak to us in our own time with great urgency and topicality.” So urgently do they speak to us, that the organisers decided to be topical and settle a burning century-old question once and for all: “Which one does that more than the other one?” Who would be adequate to such a profound task? Thankfully, the Trump-obsessed Adam Gopnik and the insufferable Will Self were on hand. Gopnik argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four, while Self asserted that Brave New World, speaks to us in our own time with greater urgency and topicality.
Self answered Gopnik’s obsession with Trump with an obsession of his own: his audience’s attachment to their cell phones. And thus were two of the most prescient authors of the twentieth century, Orwell and Huxley, reduced to chasing Trump, cell phones, and amphetamines amid a slew of gratuitous audience insults and apocalyptic prognostications concerning Trump. Doubtless, there will have been audience members hoping for some insight from these two novels considered together, some kind of synthesis. Instead, we were treated to a slanging match of each debater trying to show how many predictions the other’s novel got wrong. At least as an allegory, the event reflected the fragmented identity politics freak show our society had been reduced to. No-one cared to mention Islam, the obvious candidate for Nineteen Eighty-Four. It took an audience question on China, right near the end, to quite literally shock Self out of his indulgence. China, yes! But it was too late to turn the juggernaut; in any case, Self had clearly never even thought about it.
China is the obvious candidate for Brave New World, with monosodium glutamate in the role of the ubiquitous Soma, the numbing drug of the brave new Third World. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) was first isolated as a taste substance in Japan early in the 20th century. When the ‘People’s Republic’ and its famines came along, MSG turned out to be the magic ingredient to transform the disaffected into the apathetic, through giving the only food available to the people, vile and void of nutrition, the illusion of taste and goodness that would make them proud. It worked.
Ajinomoto swept through Japan's island colony of Taiwan, but initially failed to make the jump to the Chinese market, which had very similar cuisine to Taiwan. The reason? Ajinomoto was a symbol of Japanese imperialism, profoundly offensive to the Chinese. Yet it was an excellent fit with Chinese cooking, especially as a savory vegetarian alternative to meat. So the Chinese knocked it off, selling their own copies with Chinese names and Chinese packaging; and very soon, these copies were outselling the original. —Brian Dunning, MSG: How a Friendly Flavor Became Your Enemy.
To be clear, monosodium glutamate is freely available as a flavouring and food additive in many countries. What MSG does to the body has been the focus of many studies, the most obvious and immediate side-effects being intense thirst and heart palpitations. In most cases of its use, it is added to food to enhance an already palatable, if not wildly exciting flavour, or to out-taste a rival product on the market. In China, though, in the 1950s, when there was no flavour to enhance, and instead only a revolting taste to conceal, it was pressed into service to create flavour. What you taste is only MSG, nothing else. The trick is to add "just the right amount" of MSG to avoid the nasty side effects. I offer my personal experience with MSG.
I lived in the wealthiest part of China, the east coast, for seven years. This I know: supermarkets sell monosodium glutamate by the sackful; after a tasty meal in a restaurant, you would know that you’ve just had an overdose of MSG when you are suddenly very thirsty and you have heart palpitations, which happened particularly strongly after eating in Uyghur restaurants; many people found it inconceivable to cook without MSG, not doing so being a sign of poverty. Adding MSG to the food of your guests elevates your social status. MSG is in their blood, in every sense.
Except in rare instances, universities have canteens that serve both staff and students. The food is barely edible, so much so that the academic staff at New York University Shanghai, mostly foreigners, had to boycott the canteen, twice, before the leadership, who kowtow to the Chinese Communist Party, moved to improve the fare. I was sitting outside the building one day during one of these boycotts, having my lunch from a lunchbox, when the Chancellor, the Communist Party overseer installed at the top of the university’s management structure, came up to me and wanted to know what I thought of the food in the canteen. I told him exactly what I thought. He was hurt, but hid it well.
Here’s the rub: no MSG was used in the NYU Shanghai kitchens — food tasted the way it tasted. Chinese schoolchildren learning English are taught exact sentences that they can use in particular situations, e.g., one of the questions you can ask a foreigner is, “Do you like Chinese food?” It will be clear from the young person’s body language that a glowing endorsement is expected. They believe it is the most delicious food in the world, as is evident from how often food is chosen when they are free to choose their own presentation topics. I got so tired of being asked this question that one day I gave an honest answer. The poor kids were gutted.
On Chinese airlines, the food served to passengers was revolting. I usually made sure that I was well-stuffed before boarding a Chinese plane. On one occasion, it was not possible to eat or prepare any travel meal beforehand, and I was hungry enough during the flight to not pretend that I was asleep when the meals were served. On the menu was: “Beef and rice”; “Chicken and noodles”; “Pork and noodles”. I realised I wasn’t that hungry after all and politely declined. The stewardess was clearly offended. A few minutes later, two things happened: firstly, the Captain made an announcement only in English that went something like this, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Captain speaking. We apologise that your meal may not be delicious”; the second thing that happened was that while my entertainment screen still worked, I, and only I, could no longer get any flight information, whether the map tracking the flight path, or expected arrival time, speed, altitude etc. It occurred to me that I could write an entire novel about China, opening with a few grains of monosodium glutamate sprinkling their way towards a steaming, awful dish.
China is a poor version of Brave New World and MSG has been its Soma. It was cheap and nasty and simple and it worked, so much so that national pride rode on it. No one owns land in China, but the state, i.e., the government, i.e., the Party, had set itself up as a gigantic landlord and rents out parcels of the people’s republic to the highest foreign bidder, evicting the people from their meagre patch of People's Republic on a whim. Its officials and their families became extremely wealthy as a result. The Party can now develop the society and lift the people out of poverty, proclaim the “My China Dream” posters everywhere.
The Chinese Communist Party did not simply replace MSG with a more expensive drug, it broadened the front across which it numbs the people. MSG targets one particular basic need, eating, which the entire nation did meticulously at set times of the day (there were no taxis available at six o’clock in the evening when demand was highest, because all the drivers had gone to have their dinner). This single control point fixed on a particular need was extended to a much more diffuse control of a general need, consumption.
The Chinese population was flooded with commodities, especially apartments, Japanese toilets, cars, phones, clothes and dogs as pets rather than food, a serious flaunting of affluence. Apple stores are vast and always crowded. The biggest Starbucks in Shanghai has bouncers on the door holding back queues going around the block. The act of paying for these luxuries offered a new control front. In the China Dream you don’t just get your food taken away when you’re hungry, you are now hungry for everything and can have everything taken away. Whether in China or in the free West, consumerism is the continuation of necessary time by other means. The idea underlies the free market’s penchant for built-in obsolescence. Consumerism is the latent totalitarianism of the free market.
The Chinese social credit system keeps track not only of all your transaction, all your movements, all your communications, all your likes and all your dislikes. It keeps track of all of these also of all your friends, and if any one of them should say or do anything the Communist Party disapproves of — and you can never know what the CCP is going to disapprove of next — your social credit score drops. Next time you try to buy a train ticket, you might find that your transaction has been blocked; your social credit score has dropped below the threshold permitting travel. This switch applies to anything and everything. Buy nappies (daipers) and your social credit score rises.
As a quick aside, a severe population crisis looms in China, the outcome of centuries of preference for boys over girls combined with decades of the One-Child policy. There are whole villages of bachelors. Kidnapping of women and girls is rife. Pakistan cashes in on this demand by selling poor Hindu and Christian girls to Chinese men as brides. Add to this the lack of any social support system and the one son you do have becomes your only hope of survival in old age, each son having four grandparents to support. The pressure drives some young men to take their own lives. The bulk of the People's Liberation Army now consists of these highly-pampered, extremely valuable One-Child policy sons. China cannot go to war, but must posture as if it can do so any day, because it also cannot defend itself. No one wants their only son to die.
Keeping your own nose clean in China is not enough. The safest way of securing your consumption is to never befriend anybody. In this respect, at least, the natural god, the Communist Party, is less totalitarian than the supernatural gods. Whereas the latter will not inform you of how your good and bad deeds weigh up until after you’re dead and are no longer able to do anything about it, the CCP’s social credit system tells you exactly where you stand, except, that is, if you are Uyghur, in which case the control gets closer to that of Allah, with no information as to why you may or may not find yourself with or without privileges. The system resembles the control wielded by supernatural gods in another important respect: original sin. If parents have low social credit scores, their children start life at a disadvantage.
If you are Han, you know what you need to do to raise your score and keep it high, so you can consume. You also know exactly how far down the scale you will drop for particular future transgressions. The more conspicuously and lavishly you consume, the closer you are with the Party, and the less likely you are to be messed with.
“The people” having had nothing for so long, are now being able to differentiate themselves from those who still have nothing. Updating your life details in the vast social credit system every time you pay for something is seen as convenience, given how hard it has been to get hold of anything before, rather than as control. Control is all they have ever known, with nothing for it to be differentiated from, rendering the concept meaningless. Convenience is the new delicious. The people embraced the trick because, whereas MSG rendered the population numb, unbridled consumption renders the numbness comfortable.
Under fascism, “lifting people out of poverty” is not an end in itself. Like everything else, poverty eradication is a means to entrenching power. China, a totalitarian system that predates even Islam, and today the most high-tech fascism, is fine-tuned for nothing else but the perpetuation of the ruling elite’s power, and its social credit system is the vast, comprehensive, hi-tech equivalent of the crude Islamic doctrine of mutual enjoining good and forbidding bad:
The believers, men and women, are Auliya’ (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another [to the exclusion of non-Muslims, AP], they enjoin (on the people) Al-Ma’ruf (…all that Islam orders one to do), and forbid (people) from Al-Munkar (…all that Islam has forbidden). (Qur’an 9:71)
Despite its boast of being "a complete way of life," Islamic locating its perfection at its origin forecloses the evolution of its social control system towards the unified, comprehensive control that the Chinese Communist Party is capable of exercising. Some see only the digital surveillance and big data, and consider the social credit system as something new. This is not so. From ancient times China has nurtured an army of bureaucrats whose role it has been to maintain records on everyone and what they do. That this was not physically possible is beside the point. The point is that they have always strived for complete social control, and the existence of comprehensive digital data and the ability to integrate and interrogate these in real time today is simply the consummation of several millennia development with Chinese characteristics.
One observes Chinese tourists oversees, wealthy enough to treat themselves to expensive holidays, still scramble for and grab food the instant it appears, shamelessly piling up double and triple helpings at buffets. They do this not because they have known poverty for so long, as some would have it, but because all they know is that things can be taken away at any minute, whether through natural calamity, administrative fiat, bullying or unforeseen consequence of another action. Whatever comes within arm's reach, grab it. “The Party giveth, the Party taketh away.”
Since there is nothing that anyone can do about it, the reason for a sudden shortage becomes irrelevant. Cause and effect are decoupled, just as in Islam, where nothing happens or does not happen, but for the will of Allah, and it is not possible for a creation of Allah either to know or influence the will of Allah. And since cause and effect are severed, both Muslims and Chinese are given to staggering irrationality and superstition. In China, whereas the certainty of your future used to extend only as far as your next MSG-laced meal, and for the vast majority of the population it still does, that certainty today extends only as far as your next electronic payment. Grab-it-while-you-can pervades everything. The social credit system offers the Chinese citizen a modicum of certainty over their future in that they know how they can affect it. The Muslim can only keep faith that Allah will not deceive him.
The Intelligence Squared debate did not get anywhere near to any of this, and failed to live up to its own lavish introduction of the novels. It was a farce, redeemed only by the actors reading excerpts from the novels. Instead of Will Self and Adam Gopnik playing silly games about what Orwell or Huxley might or might not have seen coming, how about what they did see? Here is Christopher Hitchens on Orwell:
It's an interesting thing about Orwell. He went to fight against fascism in Spain, against the assault of Hitler and Mussolini on the democratically chosen Republican government of Spain, in 1936. He went to fight more early than most people did. He felt it evident to himself that he had to put his own body in the way, he had to become a soldier again and a policeman again, in the sense a fighter, a disciplinarian again, and try and organise a resistance. He saw this coming more quickly than many did.
At least the people who rushed to defend democracy in Spain could see. They were not blind. Today, blindness is sight. It is the default condition. Facts about Islam, jihad, Shari’a, etc., cannot penetrate the dogmas of multiculturalism and “diversity”. If this does not remind you of Winston at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, then the book might even be a great novel written by a brilliant writer that “speaks to us in our own time with great urgency and topicality,” while in you it will inspire only chattering class platitudes. Any facts about Islam are unlikely to mean anything to you either. Here is Hitchens again:
[George Orwell] hardly writes anything about fascism at all. He hardly writes a single essay saying why you should be against it. He takes it for granted that when you look down the gun barrel of Hitler and Mussolini and Franco and fascism and Nazism, that you don't need to be told what's wrong with it. Here's everything you hate; here's every bullying father; every crushed repressed mother; every sadistic prison warden; every exploiting capitalist; every racist and Jew-baiter; every thug and bully and sadist and exploiter that’s ever been all rolled into one and then refined and double distilled and redone again so you’ve got the absolutely pure essence of everything that's hateful. (Emph. AP).
Someone who has grown up in the free world, looks at Islam and fails to see this description of fascism, has either been living in some kind of bubble, or has been indoctrinated with multiculturalism. Their sense of ethics has been corrupted. British feminists came out in force when Frank Bruno and Paul Gascoigne, both national sporting heroes, were accused of having beaten their wives. Gascoigne is white; he was done for. Bruno’s being black did not save him either; feminists aren’t racist. The reader will be forgiven for wondering why feminists are so silent on what Muslim women suffer at the hands of Muslim men, or worse, Muslim women actually engage in apologetics for Islam in a long, sorry litany including names such as Amina Wadud, Irshad Manji, and rape-endorsing Al-Azhar female professor Suad Saleh. It is perfectly fine for Muslim men to beat their wives, rape non-Muslim women, pimp out divorced women before remarrying them to their former husbands, and stone women to death, but it is not the feminists’ place to lecture another culture, is it now? That would just be awful. Allah, liberty and love.
We tend to sneer at the use of the word ‘evil’ by politicians,” continues Hitchens, “but it's not possible, if you want to write morally, or you want to write critically, you want to write historically. It's not possible to do without this word. Certain words are necessary. We can't do without it. Indeed, even the most delicate liberal these days will talk about the lesser evil, which is at least a concession to the use of the word. We can't take it out of our vocabulary. Well, he [Orwell] was looking it straight in the eye, and he took a bullet through the throat in Spain from the fascist side, and he nearly got a bullet in the back from the communist side.
Of course Shari’a is evil, Islam is evil, the Qur’an is evil, Muhammad is evil, nothing less than pure, unadulterated evil: husbands may imprison, rape and beat their wives; fathers and mothers may freely kill their children; grown men may rape children; a dhimmi (“protected person”) may not defend himself against a Muslim; a divorced woman must first be pimped out before her marriage can be restored; Muslims may hold slaves, including sex slaves; those who leave Islam must be killed; those who say anything untoward about Islam must be killed; those who try to get a Muslim to leave Islam must be killed; all who are not Muslim must convert to Islam or be killed, one way or another.
But lest I be accused of “Islamophobia,” let me hasten to add that Islam is not all about killing. Those who “course mischief in the land” are not necessarily killed, they may, alternatively, be crucified, or have their hands and feet chopped off on opposite sides, or be banished from the land. See? In the West, we cannot deport the people who are bringing this evil to our lands, “because they are citizens,” despite their being open and upfront about their right to banish us from our own land, once they have imposed their Shari’a on us. But they haven’t done so yet, and one is innocent until proven guilty, “else we become like them.” They find every which way to deliver themselves into slavery, and feel themselves virtuous for doing so. This is Nineteen Eighty-Four.