And the Home of the Brave [New World]

After reading and digesting Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I have to say that I agree with something that came up in class on Wednesday – I believe that Huxley’s inclusion of the predestined, genetically-engineered social castes in this particular dystopian novel was meant to provide a commentary on the social strata that we have in America today, critiquing aspects of capitalism that we often choose to ignore.

I realize that this is a radical proposition – how could a country that believes in the ideals of meritocracy parallel the monstrosities of predestination in Huxley’s society? We don’t sort our children into Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, and Epilsons, favoring some and neglecting others; we don’t breed some people for success and others for mediocrity; we don’t culture children to be content with their lot in life, no matter what rung of the socioeconomic ladder they’re on. Rather, we prize the concept of meritocracy, dreaming an American dream of social mobility, and claiming that every child has an equal footing to get to the top.

Except for one small detail: this is a false claim.

In our capitalist society, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” creates winners and losers – and then passes that difference down through the generations. Today, different people have different resources, simply because of the vastly unequal dispersal of wealth. Some live in wealthy and active communities, enjoying vast property, strong school systems, and healthy and safe infrastructure; meanwhile, others struggle in high-crime areas, food deserts, poor school districts, environmentally toxic neighborhoods, and so on and so forth, because they’ve inherited a lack of resources or suffer from a lack of opportunity. All of this makes it close to impossible to trade their situation for a better one.

I say close to impossible because it’s the truth; it is possible to “beat the system” and make it to the top. It’s just that this almost never happens. Social mobility in the United States, particularly upward mobility, is at a near-standstill. This article from the Washington Post discusses it, with parallel articles visible in the Economist, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post, if you do a little digging; they all cite private and public studies discussing the “sticky” American social classes. This isn’t media panic, either; these studies are performed by institutions as respected as the OECD and the Institute of the Study of Labor. It turns out that the class that you are born into pretty much sets an identical course for your future, visible even in large brackets of socioeconomic fifths:

Fifths of U.S. vs. Danish socioeconomic
I don’t know about you, but I see predestined Epilsons, Gammas, Deltas, Betas, and Alphas in these societal fifths. And it’s eerie. (I borrowed this image from The Society Pages, so please credit them! — Edit: okay, so the image is cropped on this post, but if you click on the link it will take you to the full version. Please do. It’s a sobering image.)

Granted, maybe we don’t use hypnopaedia, or alcoholic arrests in the womb, to create these socioeconomic divisions, which are the bleak techniques for acceptance used in Huxley’s dystopian world. But that doesn’t mean we don’t culture our youth to naturally accept these differences, the same way that Alphas and Epilsons do. For example, in her text Unequal Childhoods, Annette Lareau makes the argument that children of society are naturally geared towards a certain life through patterns of parenthood, as well as through the advantages and disadvantages of their environments. Some political rhetoric repeatedly states that these divisions are “naturally sorted,” that people deserve what they get. In short, people accept this unequal playing ground as an aspect of living in a capitalist society.

It’s an aspect that Huxley and I could both do without.

-Julia Ray


~ by juliamray on January 28, 2012.

One Response to “And the Home of the Brave [New World]”

  1. Julia—I think you did a great job incorporating sociological perspectives into your analysis of “Brave New World.” You brought up many great points, and your use of the graph/chart was highly effective. Thanks for a fascinating and thought-provoking post.

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