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.

The Price of Success: Britain’s Tumultuous 19th Century

In 1858, an exclusive Soho dining society known simply as “the Club” – attended by former and future Prime Ministers, prominent clergymen, poets and men of letters – debated the question of “the highest period of civilization” ever reached. It was, they decided, “in London at the present moment.” The following year, several books were published which might, at first glance, appear to support this grandiose conclusion. They included On Liberty by John Stewart Mill, now a cornerstone of political philosophy; Adam Bede, the first novel by the great George Eliot; and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which presented the most comprehensive argument yet for the theory of evolution.

Certainly, all of these works were products of quintessentially Victorian seams of thought. Yet they also revealed the fragility of what most members of “the Club” considered the very pillars of their “highest period of civilization.” Mill’s liberalism was hostile to the widespread complacency which held the British constitution to be perfect. George Eliot, aka Marian Evans, was a formidably educated woman living out of wedlock with the writer George Henry Lewes; as such, she was an affront to various tenets of contemporary morality. And Darwin’s work, of course, would fatally undermine the Victorian assumption that theirs was a divinely ordained greatness.

These are just some of the insecurities, tensions, and contradictions which lie at the heart of Britain’s history in the 19th century, and which provide the central theme of David Cannadine’s sweeping (and somewhat ironically titled) new volume, Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906. This was a period when Britain’s global hegemony in economic, financial, and imperial terms was rendered almost illusory by an atmosphere of entropy and flux at home. It was a period when the state became more proactive and informed than ever before, yet could never fully comprehend the challenges of its rapidly industrialising economy. And it was a period when Britain’s Empire continued incessantly to expand, despite no one in Westminster finding a coherent plan of how, or for what purpose, to govern it.

Cannadine’s interest in discomfort and dilemma also explains the dates which bookend his narrative. In 1800 William Pitt’s administration enacted the Union with Ireland, bringing into existence the “United Kingdom” of the book’s title. Throughout the ensuing century, the “Irish question” would periodically overwhelm British politics through religious tension, famine, and popular unrest (indeed, I refer mainly to Britain in this review because Ireland was never assimilated into its cultural or political life). The general election of 1906, meanwhile, was the last hurrah of the Liberal Party, a coalition of progressive aristocrats, free traders and radical reformers whose internal conflicts in many ways mirrored those of Victorian Britain at large.

Cannadine’s approach is not an analytical one, and so there is little discussion of the great, complex question which looms over Britain’s 19th century: namely, why that seismic shift in world history, the industrial revolution, happened here. He does make clear, however, the importance of victory in the Napoleonic Wars which engulfed Europe until 1815. Without this hard-won success, Britain could not have exploited its geographical and cultural position in between its two largest export markets, Europe and the United States. Moreover, entrepreneurial industrial activity was directly stimulated by the state’s demand for materiel, and the wheels of international finance greased by government borrowing for the war effort.

From the outset, the volatility of this new model of capitalism was painfully clear. Until mid-century, Britain’s population, industrial output, investment and trade expanded at a dizzying rate, only to stumble repeatedly into prolonged and wrenching economic crises. The accompanying urban deprivation was brutal – life expectancy for a working-class man in 1840s Liverpool was 22 – though arguably no worse than the rural deprivation which had preceded it. Nonetheless, these realities, together with the regular outbreaks of revolution on the continent, meant that from the 1830s onwards the British state assumed a radically new role of “legislative engagement with contemporary issues”: regulating industry, enhancing local government and public services, and gauging public opinion to judge whether political concessions, particularly electoral reform, were necessary.

The second half of the century, by contrast, hatched anxieties which were less dramatic but more insidious. Rising giants such as the United States and Germany, with their superior resources and higher standards of science, technology, and education, foretold the end of British preeminence long before it came to pass. Certainly, the price of global competition was paid largely by landlords, farmers, and manufacturers; working-class living standards steadily improved. But declinism permeated the culture as a whole, manifesting itself in a range of doubts which may sound familiar to us today: immigration and loss of national identity, intractable inequality, military unpreparedness, the spiritual and physical decrepitude of the masses, and the depravity of conspicuous consumption among the upper classes.

Cannadine recounts all of this with lucidity, verve, and a dazzling turn of phrase. He is, however, committed to a top-down view of history which places Westminster politics at the centre of events. This has its benefits: we gain an understanding not just of such fascinating figures as Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, but also a detailed grasp of the evolution of modern government. This perspective does, however, run counter to the real story of the 19th century, which is precisely the redistribution of historical agency through expanding wealth, literacy, technology and political participation. Cannadine might have reassessed his priorities in light of his own book’s epigraph, from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not do so freely, not under conditions of their own choosing.”