21 Lessons for the 21st Cen­tury by Yu­val Noah Harari An­ton Kurz


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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?’

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