What Orwell and Huxley Got Wrong and Kafka Got Right

By Charles Hugh Smith

What Kafka got right is how societies can become busily dysfunctional.

For self-evident reasons, the fictional visions of Orwell and Huxley resonate as maps to the present distemper. Orwell’s account of full-spectrum technological totalitarianism maps Big Tech’s mastery of Surveillance Capitalism and governments’ full-spectrum surveillance powering the fine-grained coercion of social credit scores and related tools.

Huxley’s vision of a doped-up, med-dependent populace that loves its servitude also maps the present. Indeed, not only do we love our servitude, which manifests in our endless addictions and dependencies on everything from debt to junk food to painkillers, our servitude has been so normalized that we don’t even recognize the servitude that underpins “normal life.”

What Orwell and Huxley got wrong is the limits of these nightmarishly effective systems of control. Full-spectrum technological totalitarianism can certainly enforce compliance with the desired behaviors and expressions of consent, but it can’t force individuals to have ambition or creativity, to marry for love and children, or possess values or beliefs beyond the superficial lip-syncing of compliance.

The coercive structures of the Surveillance State and Surveillance Capitalism are intrinsically inauthentic, ersatz, hollow, demanding an entirely artificial and easily faked appearance of consent that mimics devotion to the principles and narratives being shoved down the throats of the populace.

These structures enforce what isn’t allowed and superficial compliance, but they can’t force what actually makes a society functional: the convictions, hopes and values that inspire individuals to marry, raise a family and pursue self-expression via achievement. What actually happens in societies controlled by the Surveillance State and Surveillance Capitalism is decay and decline, as young people abandon ambition, marriage and raising children by lying flat and letting it rot, expressions of young people in China that speak to youth everywhere where compliance is more important than individual liberty.

If you doubt these dynamics, please observe the dismay of authorities as their national marriage and birth rates collapse. All sorts of explanations for this collapse are offered, except the ones that count: societies that require an appearance of consent are inauthentic, hollow shells.

The same can be said of doped-up, med-dependent, entertainment-addicted societies that love their servitude. Individuals give up ambition, marriage and raising children due to soaring costs, out-of-reach financial security, and the debilitating consequences of all the Soma, meds, addictions, distractions and derangements that are accepted as “normal.”

What Kafka got right is everyone’s super-busy but nothing gets done. In Kafka’s novel The Castle, the bureaucracy toiling unseen in the Castle is bustling 24/7, but nothing actually gets done in the impoverished village below. Attempts to reach the bureaucracy by phone are futile, as calls are only picked up randomly or as pranks.

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(“You’ve reached the DMV, the IRS, Xfinity, Engulf and Devour Healthcare, etc. Your call is very important to us…”)

In Kafka’s fictional world, the authority to actually get anything done is always out of reach. In The Castle, the leader who supposedly has the power to approve projects sits isolated in his office, unreachable and unapproachable, though he can be seen reading a newspaper through a peephole. Whether he actually possesses the power to approve anything is an open question with no answer.

Kafka’s world is one of cowed peasants bickering among themselves, nurturing grudges and speculating fruitlessly about the cloaked conspiracies of the authorities in the Castle. The sexual predations of the authorities and the dismal fates of they used and abandoned are described in whispers, and what work that is available is menial and poorly paid.

What Kafka got right is how societies can become busily dysfunctional, cluttered with unseen lines of authority that may not actually have the authority their official titles suggest, an inscrutably unreachable, unseen bureaucracy and an impoverished populace muddling along on gossip and rumors.

Stripped of gaslighting, fake optimism and empty exhortations to YOLO borrow and spend, that’s a fair description of our current situation. Yes, yes, everything’s wunnerful, it’s The Roaring 20s all over again (never mind how the 1920s ended), AI is gonna make corporations trillions in profits by further immiserating the populace, oops I mean “improving productivity,” and our tireless authorities are hard at work solving all our problems–don’t you hear the whirring of the “money” printing presses running 24/7?

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