Yuval Noah Harari’s half-baked guide to the 21st century

This review was first published by Arc Digital on 25 October 2018.

There is something immensely comforting about Yuval Noah Harari. In an era when a writer’s success often depends on a willingness to provoke, Harari’s calling cards are politeness and equanimity. In the new class of so-called “rock star intellectuals,” he is analogous to Coldplay: accessible, inoffensive, and astoundingly popular. I find no other writer so frequently referenced by friends who don’t generally read. On YouTube he is a man for all seasons, discussing #MeToo with Natalie Portman, contemplating the nature of money with Christine Lagarde, and considering “Who Really Runs the World?” with Russell Brand.

Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is by no means undeserving of this success. His first book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, displayed a rare talent for condensing vast epochs of history into simple narratives. In his second, Homo Deus, he showed all the imagination of a science fiction writer in presenting the dystopian possibilities of artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

But now Harari has abandoned the speculative realms of past and future, turning his attention to the thorny problems of the present. And here we find that his formula has its limits. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a collection of essays taking on everything from culture and politics to technology and spirituality. Undoubtedly, it offers plenty of thought-provoking questions and insights. By and large though, the very thing that made his previous works so engaging — an insistence on painting in broad, simple brushstrokes — makes this latest effort somewhat superficial.

Many of Harari’s essays are just not very illuminating. They circle their subjects ponderously, never quite making contact. Take his chapter on the immigration debate in Europe. Harari begins by identifying three areas of disagreement: borders, integration, and citizenship. Then he walks us through some generic and largely hypothetical pro- and anti-immigration stances, guided mainly by a desire not to offend anyone. Finally, after explaining that “culturism” is not the same as racism, he simply concludes: “If the European project fails…it would indicate that belief in the liberal values of freedom and tolerance is not enough to resolve the cultural conflicts of the world.”

Here we glimpse one of the book’s main questions: whether liberalism can unite the world and overcome the existential challenges facing humanity. But what is liberalism? According to Harari, all social systems, whether religious or political, are “stories.” By this he means that they are psychological software packages, allowing large-scale cooperation while providing individuals with identity and purpose. Thus, liberalism is a “global story” which boils down to the belief that “all authority ultimately stems from the free will of individual humans.” Harari gives us three handy axioms: “the voter knows best,” “the customer is always right,” and “follow your heart.”

This certainly makes matters crystal clear. But political systems are not just ideological dogmas to which entire populations blindly subscribe. They are institutional arrangements shaped by the clashes and compromises of differing values and interests. Historically, liberalism’s commitment to individualism was less important than its preference for democratic means to resolve such conflicts. Harari’s individualist, universalist liberalism has certainly been espoused in recent decades; but as a more perceptive critic such as John Gray or Shadi Hamid would point out, it is only for sections of Western society that this has offered a meaningful worldview.

Overlooking this basic degree of complexity leads Harari to some bizarre judgments. He claims that “most people who voted for Trump and Brexit didn’t reject the liberal package in its entirety — they lost faith mainly in its globalizing part.” Does he really think these voters were once enthusiastic about globalism? Likewise, to illustrate the irrational character of liberal customs, Harari states: “If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights.” Did he not consider that a key purpose of the ballot is to secure the legitimacy of government?

Harari is frequently half-sighted, struggling to acknowledge that phenomena can have more than one explanation. I confess I chuckled at his reading of Ex Machina, the 2015 sci-fi about a cyborg femme fatale.“This is not a movie about the human fear of intelligent robots,” he writes. It is about “the male fear…that female liberation might lead to female domination.” To support his interpretation, Harari poses a question: “For why on earth would an AI have a sexual or a gender identity?” This in a book which argues extensively that artificial intelligence will be used to exploit human desires.

Nor are such hiccups merely incidental. Rather, they stem from Harari’s failure to connect his various arguments into a coherent world-view. This is perhaps the most serious shortcoming of 21 Lessons. Reading this book is like watching a one-man kabuki play, whereby Harari puts on different masks as the situation demands. But these characters are not called on to complement each other so much as to prevent the stage from collapsing.

We have already encountered Harari’s first mask: postmodern cynicism. He is at pains to deconstruct the grand narratives of the past, whether religious, political, or national. He argues that the human subject, too, is a social construct — an amalgam of fictions, bound by context and largely incapable of rational thought.

However this approach tends to invite relativism and apathy. And so, to provide some moral ballast, Harari picks up the mask of secularist polemic. Though never abandoning his light-hearted tone, he spends a great deal of time eye-poking and shin-kicking any tradition that indulges the human inclination for sanctity, ritual, and transcendence. But not to worry: you can keep your superstitions, “provided you adhere to the secular ethical code.” This consists of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsibility.

What, then, of our darker impulses? And what of our yearning to identify with something larger than ourselves? Enter Harari in his third mask: neo-Buddhist introspection. This is an especially useful guise, for whenever Harari encounters a difficult knot, he simply cuts it with a platitude. “If you really understand how an action causes unnecessary suffering to yourself and to others,” he writes, “you will naturally abstain from it.” Moreover: “If you really know the truth about yourself and the world, nothing can make you miserable.”

I am not saying these outlooks cannot be reconciled. My point is that Harari does not attempt to do so, leaving us instead with an array of loose ends. If the imperative is to deconstruct, why should secular shibboleths be left standing? Why should we worry about technology treating us as “little more than biochemical algorithms,” when Harari already thinks that “your core identity is a complex illusion created by neural networks”? And given that “both the ‘self’ and freedom are mythological chimeras,” what does Harari mean when he advises us to “work very hard…to know what you are, and what you want from life”?

You might object that I’m being ungenerous; that the most popular of popular intellectuals must necessarily deal in outlines, not details. But this is a slippery slope that leads to lazy assumptions about the incuriousness of a general audience. When it comes to current political and philosophical dilemmas, being a good popularizer does not consist in doling out reductive formulas. It consists in giving a flavor of the subtlety which makes these matters worth exploring. In that respect, 21 Lessons falls short of the mark.