How the Cult of Fun is a Trojan Horse for Totalitarianism
For many people today, labor and play have a symbiotic relationship. Consider how many people work merely to afford the equipment and accommodation necessary for computer games. And how many people seek refuge from the exhaustion of work through play, partying, and entertainment? That much is obvious. But what is less clear is how both the cult of obsessive work and the cult of obsessive amusement function as twin handmaidens of totalitarianism.
Communism was based on the theories of Karl Marx, who romanticized the work state and reduced men and women to producers. This was the ultimate labor-based totalitarianism. George Orwell’s dystopian warnings in books like Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) were inspired by his fear that Communism would spread to the West. Yet capitalism also has its versions of the cult of total work, as seen in the individual who has hardly any life outside his job, or the ultra-career-focused corporate executive.
Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, raised concerns that a cult of play might create the conditions whereby totalitarianism would engulf the West. His 1931 dystopian classic Brave New World depicts a futuristic society where citizens are lulled into passivity through amusements. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, sex is a refuge from Big Brother; in Brave New World, it is a tool of the power-hungry state.
Neil Postman famously contrasted Orwell and Huxley’s visions in his classic 1985 polemic against the television, Amusing Ourselves to Death:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
Although Postman had no way of knowing it at the time, his polemic against television was written on the eve of inventions with almost infinitely greater power than TV to undo our capacity to think and to reduce us to passivity, egoism, and perpetual immaturity. I refer, of course, to the technologies that make possible gaming, binge-watching, doomscrolling, YouTube rabbit-holing, along with emerging technologies like immersive VR experiences, augmented reality storytelling, virtual pornscapes, AI playmates, etc. Who needs the centrifugal bumblepuppy to lull people into compliance when you have a plethora of digital devices that reduce citizens to passive users and consumers?
While there is no shortage of cultural critics, psychologists, doctors, and neuroscientists raising alarm about digital devices and the addictions associated with them, you’ll be hard pressed to find any warning about their relation to totalitarianism. Yet for anyone concerned about totalitarian creep, these highly addictive amusements warrant some concern. They are our equivalents to the drug soma in Brave New World: a happiness-producing opiate that helped people to escape the unpleasantness happening around them.
A Totalitarianism of Comfort
A totalitarianism of comfort is not as easy to recognize as a totalitarianism of pain, because it does not fit the standard models that Americans have been alert to in the post-Cold War era. Yet even the Communists, who fixated on the cult of work and the threat of pain, understood the political importance of amusements, as well as activities that create indifference to the outside world.
When KGB defector Alexandrovich Bezmenov gave an interview to G. Edward Griffin, he explained that the main focus of the KGB was not actually direct espionage; rather, they sought ways to reduce populations to passivity. Bezmenov’s observations, which were part of a 1984 interview I discussed in 2022, included his candid admission that the KGB’s primary interest was to cultivate in Americans a sense of disinterestedness and passivity about the problems in the world. The Communists hoped to bring down the United States by furthering “the fashion not to be involved,” and by encouraging activities that made Americans less “alert to the reality.”
The Soviets did not succeed. Partly this is because the Marxist work state could only have emerged out of the factories of the late 19th and early 20th century, which became increasingly anachronistic toward the end of the 20th century. While Communism still lingers in five nations today and continues in successor ideologies like cultural Marxism and socialist economics, classic Communism is a relic of the past. Today’s totalitarians have a new playbook to draw from, and it looks more like Huxley’s dystopia than Orwell’s. As Postman put it, “no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history” when they “adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
This isn’t to say that we have escaped the specter of an Orwellian surveillance state. On the contrary. As Rod Dreher noted in Live Not By Lies, we are increasingly enslaved and monitored by the woke-industrial complex, and we willingly participate in our own enslavement through our love of consumer capitalism. It is not secret police and gulags we have to worry about, but Big Data working in tandem with woke capitalism and the media to effect the demise of the middle class and marginalize Christians. This is harder to recognize, because the companies that most threaten our freedom are the same ones that keep us amused by providing PlayStation 2, Oculus headsets, endless streaming services, etc.
To preserve our freedom, we need something more than the glorification of either work or play/comfort/relaxation. We need leisure, understood in the classical Christian sense.
What is Leisure?
I have been exploring the concept of leisure (see here and here), and have argued that humans reach their true telos not through doing, consuming, and producing, but through a contemplative attitude receptive to the permanent things. In his book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper explained that a leisured attitude expresses itself in activities like the liberal arts, but only when arts are pursued as things valuable for their own sake and not merely because of what they can do for us. Similarly, leisure might express itself in science, not so much because of what science can do for us, but because of our childlike curiosity in the wonder of the world, rooted ultimately in the love of truth. Above all, leisure involves the contemplative pursuit of those goods that are valuable in themselves, and not merely as instruments to other ends.
Exactly what counts as goods that are valuable as ends rather than means will depend largely on one’s worldview, and in a follow-up article I will explore the theological basis for a specifically Christian concept of leisure. But for now, let’s wrap up by considering why totalitarians hate leisure.
How To Make us Servile
It is the nature of power-hungry regimes to squelch this yearning for anything beyond the work or pleasures of this life, and to leave little space for us to pursue leisured activities that elicit what Josef Pieper called “a contemplative attention to things.” Totalitarianism—whether from a power-hungry state or the de facto rulership of corporate interests—must ensure we never get off the treadmill of obsessive work or obsessive play, lest their spell over us be broken. That is why the totalitarian spirit seeks to render all art and education servile rather than liberal (in the original sense of liberating); everything from higher education to art galleries to theater must become fodder for an activist agenda.
We know from history that leisure offers a chance to push back against this hyper-pragmatism. Consider that when Marx's ideas spread to Europe in the twentieth century, it was through the liberal arts that writers and artists escaped the oppression of this utilitarian anthropology. By pursuing liberal arts (painting, poetry, music, literature, even chess) as things that are valuable for their own sake, Eastern European intellectuals and artists posed a powerful challenge to the theory that all art should be useful, subservient to a political agenda. My favorite example of this is the German-language film The Lives of Others. Though fictional, the film draws inspiration from the work of real artists who lived under East German Communism.
The film centers on a small group of playwrights, artists, and intellectuals in East Berlin who find themselves stifled by the restrictions of the totalitarian society. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, an agent of the Stasi, suspects that the playwright Georg Dreyman could be subversive, so he orders Dreyman's apartment to be bugged. As Wiesler begins eavesdropping on Dreyman and his girlfriend, Christa-Maria, he is gradually transformed by what he hears.
Wiesler doesn't understand what is happening to him, but as he monitors the surveillance feed, he begins to experience longings that defy his intellect and go against all his training as a Communist functionary. He begins taking an interest in deeper things and reading the poetry of Bertold Brecht. His transformation culminates in his intervening to save Dreyman at the expense of his own career.
The Lives of Others is a moving film, full of artistry and understatement. It beautifully demonstrates why the Communists were correct to fear the subversive power of the arts. It shows how the leisured pursuit of beauty awakens a desire for something beyond the goods that can be provided by the functional machinery of a power-hungry state.
But what exactly is the relation between leisure and art, and why is the Christian worldview important for understanding these concepts? Space prohibits us from exploring that topic here, but it is something I have addressed on my personal blog in a recent article, “Classical Christian Leisure: Jerusalem Meets Athens.”
- Leisure and its Discontents: Josef Pieper and the Art of “Useless” Reading
- The Joys of “Useless” Books: In Defense of Leisure Reading
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/amusing-ourselves-into-slavery