21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari Anton Kurz
21 Lessons for the 21st Century By Yuval Noah Harari Jonathan Cape £18.99 Oldie price £16.21 inc p&p
Liberalism is in crisis, and politics now divides into three camps: a right that sees an opening for national capitalism; a left that wonders if the world is ripe for revolution; and a liberal centre, dazed in the headlights of history, but insisting that there is no alternative.
Harari is quite clearly with the no-alternative option: ‘Humankind won’t abandon the liberal story, because it doesn’t have any alternative.’ As so often in this book of 21 sermons, you can usefully substitute ‘Humanity’ for ‘Harari’ and vice versa – call the two ‘H-ity’ for short.
There is today – as there has been since at least the invention of printing – a huge market for intellectual accounts of the dominant world order. Our discomfort at any disjuncture between the world we inhabit and our beliefs about it gives gurus their function. A previous, more confident generation of liberals provided Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker, who saw globalisation as the desirable outcome of our immutable natures.
Harari offers a much-needed update with his postmodernist emphasis on stories as a tool to analyse society. This invitation to engage with the cultural origin of our beliefs presents a real challenge to liberalism.
Harari’s core argument is that the world is on the brink of potential catastrophe: the end of nature, in the form of diluvian ecological breakdown; the end of humanity, in the form of our imminent metamorphosis into technologically manipulated cyborgian chimeras; and the end of life, in the form of weapons of mass destruction, new and old.
Many will no longer be needed for work. ‘It is dangerous to be redundant’ – previously there was at least a prospect that workers of the world might unite. But the superfluous?
Meanwhile, those who are meant to understand the world and can try to change it (should we think of them as ‘us’?) are too bewildered to rise to the task of averting catastrophe.
In rides brother Noah on his postmodernist, liberal white charger. What H-ity needs is relatively simply stated: ‘Like movie stars, humans like only those scripts that reserve an important role for them. Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. The story provides me with an identity and gives meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself.’ That will do for our subjective need for meaningful lives.
But on top of that, Harari is a responsible soul: the story needs to address the objective catastrophes. So, since our problems know no borders, ‘Humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.’ The enemy is defined, the goal is set, and so some false friends can be disposed of. Trump, Brexit and the excesses of the Israeli right are the cautionary wreckage of liberal nations that were tempted by the sirens. Harari distinguishes between (good) patriotism – identification with a group having distinctive qualities – and (bad) nationalism, the belief that my country is God’s own and can do no wrong.
If the right stories will save us, what is the policy prescription? The oddest is Harari’s call for socially responsible science fiction: he notes with sadness that ‘in thinking about the future of artificial intelligence, Karl Marx is still a better guide than Steven Spielberg’.
Stories need to take centre stage because they are the main agents of mind control. The foundation for a good world order is no longer human nature; instead, Harari calls for the right voices in our heads.
He preaches on terrorism and consumerism, nationalism and fake news, religious fundamentalism and education. He suggests that every problem can be solved with the right mental script. He understands that human power is expressed in coordinated collective action, and that society is built through the imagination.
Harari’s facility sometimes leads to glibness. I was reminded of Tim Robbins in The Player, summarising a complicated script: ‘ Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.’ Harari writes, ‘History has not ended, and following the Franz Ferdinand moment, the Hitler moment, and the Che Guevara moment, we now find ourselves in the Trump moment.’ Hmm.
More fundamentally, where does a proper critique of this no-alternative model start? Harari maintains a pessimism of the will and an optimism of the intellect. In the end, the functional need for new narratives – quite possibly delivered in attractive tomes like this one – will save us. So the will may stay weak, bewildered and even superfluous; but you can courageously do your yoga, and H-ity will muddle through.
For those of us who like our stories the other way around – with more pessimism in the intellect and optimism in the will – there’s plenty of room for fruitful critique.
‘What’s happened to our kitchen island?’