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.

What was Romanticism? Putting the “counter-Enlightenment” in context

In his latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Steven Pinker heaps a fair amount of scorn on Romanticism, the movement in art and philosophy which spread across Europe during the late-18th and 19th centuries. In Pinker’s Manichean reading of history, Romanticism was the malign counterstroke to the Enlightenment: its goal was to quash those values listed in his subtitle. Thus, the movement’s immense diversity and ambiguity are reduced to a handful of ideas, which show that the Romantics favored “the heart over the head, the limbic system over the cortex.” This provides the basis for Pinker to label “Romantic” various irrational tendencies that are still with us, such as nationalism and reverence for nature.

In the debates following Enlightenment Now, many have continued to use Romanticism simply as a suitcase term for “counter-Enlightenment” modes of thought. Defending Pinker in Areo, Bo Winegard and Benjamin Winegard do produce a concise list of Romantic propositions. But again, their version of Romanticism is deliberately anachronistic, providing a historical lineage for the “modern romantics” who resist Enlightenment principles today.

As it happens, this dichotomy does not appeal only to defenders of the Enlightenment. In his book The Age of Anger, published last year, Pankaj Mishra explains various 21st century phenomena — including right-wing populism and Islamism — as reactions to an acquisitive, competitive capitalism that he traces directly back to the 18th century Enlightenment. This, says Mishra, is when “the unlimited growth of production . . . steadily replaced all other ideas of the human good.” And who provided the template for resisting this development? The German Romantics, who rejected the Enlightenment’s “materialist, individualistic and imperialistic civilization in the name of local religious and cultural truth and spiritual virtue.”

Since the Second World War, it has suited liberals, Marxists, and postmodernists alike to portray Romanticism as the mortal enemy of Western rationalism. This can convey the impression that history has long consisted of the same struggle we are engaged in today, with the same teams fighting over the same ideas. But even a brief glance at the Romantic era suggests that such narratives are too tidy. These were chaotic times. Populations were rising, people were moving into cities, the industrial revolution was occurring, and the first mass culture emerging. Europe was wracked by war and revolution, nations won and lost their independence, and modern politics was being born.

So I’m going to try to explain Romanticism and its relationship with the Enlightenment in a bit more depth. And let me say this up front: Romanticism was not a coherent doctrine, much less a concerted attack on or rejection of anything. Put simply, the Romantics were a disparate constellation of individuals and groups who arrived at similar motifs and tendencies, partly by inspiration from one another, partly due to underlying trends in European culture. In many instances, their ideas were incompatible with, or indeed hostile towards, the Enlightenment and its legacy. On the other hand, there was also a good deal of mutual inspiration between the two.


Sour grapes

The narrative of Romanticism as a “counter-Enlightenment” often begins in the mid-18th century, when several forerunners of the movement appeared. The first was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Social Contract famously asserts “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau portrayed civilization as decadent and morally compromised, proposing instead a society of minimal interdependence where humanity would recover its natural virtue. Elsewhere in his work he also idealized childhood, and celebrated the outpouring of subjective emotion.

In fact various Enlightenment thinkers, Immanuel Kant in particular, admired Rousseau’s ideas; he was arguing that left to their own devices, ordinary people would use reason to discover virtue. Nonetheless, he was clearly attacking the principle of progress, and his apparent motivations for doing so were portentous. Rousseau had been associated with the French philosophes — men such as Thiry d’Holbach, Denis Diderot, Claude Helvétius and Jean d’Alembert — who were developing the most radical strands of Enlightenment thought, including materialist philosophy and atheism. But crucially, they were doing so within a rather glamorous, cosmopolitan milieu. Though they were monitored and harassed by the French ancien régime, many of the philosophes were nonetheless wealthy and well-connected figures, their Parisian salons frequented by intellectuals, ambassadors and aristocrats from across Europe.

Rousseau decided the Enlightenment belonged to a superficial, hedonistic elite, and essentially styled himself as a god-fearing voice of the people. This turned out to be an important precedent. In Prussia, where a prolific Romantic movement would emerge, such antipathy towards the effete culture of the French was widespread. For much to the frustration of Prussian intellectuals and artists — many of whom were Pietist Christians from lowly backgrounds — their ruler Frederick the Great was an “Enlightened despot” and dedicated Francophile. He subscribed to Melchior Grimm’s Correspondence Littéraire, which brought the latest ideas from the Paris; he hosted Voltaire at his court as an Enlightenment mascot; he conducted affairs in French, his first language.

This is the background against which we find Johann Gottfried Herder, whose ideas about language and culture were deeply influential to Romanticism. He argued that one can only understand the world via the linguistic concepts that one inherits, and that these reflect the contingent evolution of one’s culture. Hence in moral terms, different cultures occupy significantly different worlds, so their values should not be compared to one another. Nor should they be replaced with rational schemes dreamed up elsewhere, even if this means that societies are bound to come into conflict.

Rousseau and Herder anticipated an important cluster of Romantic themes. Among them are the sanctity of the inner-life, of folkways and corporate social structures, of belonging, of independence, and of things that cannot be quantified. And given the apparent bitterness of Herder and some of his contemporaries, one can see why Isaiah Berlin declared that all this amounted to “a very grand form of sour grapes.” Berlin takes this line too far, but there is an important insight here. During the 19th century, with the rise of the bourgeoisie and of government by utilitarian principles, many Romantics will show a similar resentment towards “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” as Edmund Burke famously called them. Thus Romanticism must be seen in part as coming from people denied status in a changing society.

Then again, Romantic critiques of excessive uniformity and rationality were often made in the context of developments that were quite dramatic. During the 1790s, it was the French Revolution’s degeneration into tyranny that led first-generation Romantics in Germany and England to fear the so-called “machine state,” or government by rational blueprint. Similarly, the appalling conditions that marked the first phase of the industrial revolution lay behind some later Romantics’ revulsion at industrialism itself. John Ruskin celebrated medieval production methods because “men were not made to work with the accuracy of tools,” with “all the energy of their spirits . . . given to make cogs and compasses of themselves.”

And ultimately, it must be asked if opposition to such social and political changes was opposition to the Enlightenment itself. The answer, of course, depends on how you define the Enlightenment, but with regards to Romanticism we can only make the following generalization. Romantics believed that ideals such as reason, science, and progress had been elevated at the expense of values like beauty, expression, or belonging. In other words, they thought the Enlightenment paradigm established in the 18th century was limited. This is well captured by Percy Shelley’s comment in 1821 that although humanity owed enormous gratitude to philosophers such as John Locke and Voltaire, only Rousseau had been more than a “mere reasoner.”

And yet, in perhaps the majority of cases, this did not make Romantics hostile to science, reason, or progress as such. For it did not seem to them, as it can seem to us in hindsight, that these ideals must inevitably produce arrangements such as industrial capitalism or technocratic government. And for all their sour grapes, they often had reason to suspect those whose ascent to wealth and power rested on this particular vision of human improvement.


“The world must be romanticized”

One reason Romanticism is often characterized as against something — against the Enlightenment, against capitalism, against modernity as such — is that it seems like the only way to tie the movement together. In the florescence of 19th century art and thought, Romantic motifs were arrived at from a bewildering array of perspectives. In England during the 1810s, for instance, radical, progressive liberals such as Shelley and Lord Byron celebrated the crumbling of empires and of religion, and glamorized outcasts and oppressed peoples in their poetry. They were followed by arch-Tories like Thomas Carlyle and Ruskin, whose outlook is fundamentally paternalistic. Other Romantics migrated across the political spectrum during their lifetimes, bringing their themes with them.

All this is easier to understand if we note that a new sensibility appeared in European culture during this period, remarkable for its idealism and commitment to principle. Disparaged in England as “enthusiasm,” and in Germany as Schwärmerei or fanaticism, we get a flavor of it by looking at some of the era’s celebrities. There was Beethoven, celebrated as a model of the passionate and impoverished genius; there was Byron, the rebellious outsider who received locks of hair from female fans; and there was Napoleon, seen as an embodiment of untrammeled willpower.

Curiously, though, while this Romantic sensibility was a far cry from the formality and refinement which had characterized the preceding age of Enlightenment, it was inspired by many of the same ideals. To illustrate this, and to expand on some key Romantic concepts, I’m going to focus briefly on a group that came together in Prussia at the turn of the 19th century, known as the Jena Romantics.

The Jena circle — centred around Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich and August Schlegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and the writer known as Novalis — have often been portrayed as scruffy bohemians, a conservative framing that seems to rest largely on their liberal attitudes to sex. But this does give us an indication of the group’s aims: they were interested in questioning convention, and pursuing social progress (their journal Das Athenäum was among the few to publish female writers). They were children of the Enlightenment in other respects, too. They accepted that rational skepticism had ruled out traditional religion and superstition, and that science was a tool for understanding reality. Their philosophy, however, shows an overriding desire to reconcile these capacities with an inspiring picture of culture, creativity, and individual fulfillment. And so they began by adapting the ideas of two major Enlightenment figures: Immanuel Kant and Benedict Spinoza.

Kant, who spent his entire life among the Romantics in Prussia, had impressed on them the importance of one dilemma in particular: how was human freedom possible given that nature was determined? But rather than follow Kant down the route of transcendental freedom, the Jena school tried to update the universe Spinoza had described a century earlier, which was a single deterministic entity governed by a mechanical sequence of cause and effect. Conveniently, this mechanistic model had been called into doubt by contemporary physics. So they kept the integrated, holistic quality of Spinoza’s nature, but now suggested that it was suffused with another Kantian idea — that of organic force or purpose.

Consequently, the Jena Romantics arrived at an organic conception of the universe, in which nature expressed the same omnipresent purpose in all its manifestations, up to and including human consciousness. Thus there was no discrepancy between mental activity and matter, and the Romantic notion of freedom as a channelling of some greater will was born. After all, nature must be free because, as Spinoza had argued, there is nothing outside nature. Therefore, in Friedrich Schlegel’s words, “Man is free because he is the highest expression of nature.”

Various concepts flowed from this, the most consequential being a revolutionary theory of art. Whereas the existing neo-classical paradigm had assumed that art should hold a mirror up to nature, reflecting its perfection, the Romantics now stated that the artist should express nature, since he is part of its creative flow. What this entails, moreover, is something like a primitive notion of the unconscious. For this natural force comes to us through the profound depths of language and myth; it cannot be definitely articulated, only grasped at through symbolism and allegory.

Such longing for the inexpressible, the infinite, the unfathomable depth thought to lie beneath the surface of ordinary reality, is absolutely central to Romanticism. And via the Jena school, it produces an ideal which could almost serve as a Romantic program: being-through-art. The modern condition, August Schlegel says, is the sensation of being adrift between two idealized figments of our imagination: a lost past and an uncertain future. So ultimately, we must embrace our frustrated existence by making everything we do a kind of artistic expression, allowing us to move forward despite knowing that we will never reach what we are aiming for. This notion that you can turn just about anything into a mystery, and thus into a field for action, is what Novalis alludes to in his famous statement that “the world must be romanticized.”

It appears there’s been something of a detour here: we began with Spinoza and have ended with obscurantism and myth. But as Frederick Beiser has argued, this baroque enterprise was in many ways an attempt to radicalize the 18th century Enlightenment. Indeed, the central thesis that our grip on reality is not certain, but we must embrace things as they seem to us and continue towards our aims, was almost a parody of the skepticism advanced by David Hume and by Kant. Moreover, and more ominously, the Romantics amplified the Enlightenment principle of self-determination, producing the imperative that individuals and societies must pursue their own values.


The Romantic legacy

It is beyond doubt that some Romantic ideas had pernicious consequences, the most demonstrable being a contribution to German nationalism. By the end of the 19th century, when Prussia had become the dominant force in a unified Germany and Richard Wagner’s feverish operas were being performed, the Romantic fascination with national identity, myth, and the active will had evolved into something altogether menacing. Many have taken the additional step, which is not a very large one, of implicating Romanticism in the fascism of the 1930s.

A more tenuous claim is that Romanticism (and German Romanticism especially) contains the origins of the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment, and of Western civilization itself, which is so current among leftist intellectuals today. As we have seen, there was in Romanticism a strong strain of cultural relativism — which is to say, relativism about values. But postmodernism has at its core a relativism about facts, a denial of the possibility of reaching objective truth by reason or observation. This nihilistic stance is far from the skepticism of the Jena school, which was fundamentally a means for creative engagement with the world.

But whatever we make of these genealogies, remember that we are talking about developments, progressions over time. We are not saying that Romanticism was in any meaningful sense fascistic, postmodernist, or whichever other adjective appears downstream. I emphasize this because if we identify Romanticism with these contentious subjects, we will overlook its myriad more subtle contributions to the history of thought.

Many of these contributions come from what I described earlier as the Romantic sensibility: a variety of intuitions that seem to have taken root in Western culture during this era. For instance, that one should remain true to one’s own principles at any cost; that there is something tragic about the replacement of the old and unusual with the uniform and standardized; that different cultures should be appreciated on their own terms, not on a scale of development; that artistic production involves the expression of something within oneself. Whether these intuitions are desirable is open to debate, but the point is that the legacy of Romanticism cannot be compartmentalized, for it has colored many of our basic assumptions.

This is true even of ideas that we claim to have inherited from the Enlightenment. For some of these were these were modified, and arguably enriched, as they passed through the Romantic era. An explicit example comes from John Stuart Mill, the founding figure of classical Liberalism. Mill inherited from his father and from Jeremy Bentham a very austere version of utilitarian ethics. This posited as its goal the greatest good for the greatest number of people; but its notion of the good did not account for the value of culture, spirituality, and a great many other things we now see as intrinsic to human flourishing. As Mill recounts in his autobiography, he realized these shortcomings by reading England’s first-generation Romantics, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is why, in 1840, Mill bemoaned the fact that his fellow progressives thought they had nothing to learn from Coleridge’s philosophy, warning them that “the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole.” We are committing a similar error today when we treat Romanticism simply as a “counter-Enlightenment.” Ultimately this limits our understanding not just of Romanticism but of the Enlightenment as well.


This essay was first published in Areo Magazine on June 10 2018. See it here.

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.”

How The Past Became A Battlefield


In recent years, a great deal has been written on the subject of group identity in politics, much of it aiming to understand how people in Western countries have become more likely to adopt a “tribal” or “us-versus-them” perspective. Naturally, the most scrutiny has fallen on the furthest ends of the spectrum: populist nationalism on one side, and certain forms of radical progressivism on the other. We are by now familiar with various economic, technological, and psychological accounts of these group-based belief systems, which are to some extent analogous throughout Europe and in North America. Something that remains little discussed, though, is the role of ideas and attitudes regarding the past.

When I refer to the past here, I am not talking about the study of history – though as a source of information and opinion, it is not irrelevant either. Rather, I’m talking about the past as a dimension of social identity; a locus of narratives and values that individuals and groups refer to as a means of understanding who they are, and with whom they belong. This strikes me as a vexed issue in Western societies generally, and one which has had a considerable bearing on politics of late. I can only provide a generic overview here, but I think it’s notable that movements and tendencies which emphasise group identity do so partly through a particular, emotionally salient conception of the past.

First consider populism, in particular the nationalist, culturally conservative kind associated with the Trump presidency and various anti-establishment movements in Europe. Common to this form of politics is a notion that Paul Taggart has termed “heartland” – an ill-defined earlier time in which “a virtuous and unified population resides.” It is through this temporal construct that individuals can identify with said virtuous population and, crucially, seek culprits for its loss: corrupt elites and, often, minorities. We see populist leaders invoking “heartland” by brandishing passports, or promising to make America great again; France’s Marine Le Pen has even sought comparison to Joan of Arc.

Meanwhile, parts of the left have embraced an outlook well expressed by Faulkner’s adage that the past is never dead – it isn’t even past. Historic episodes of oppression and liberating struggle are treated as continuous with, and sometimes identical to, the present. While there is often an element of truth in this view, its practical efficacy has been to spur on a new protest movement. A rhetorical fixation with slavery, colonialism, and patriarchy not only implies urgency, but adds moral force to certain forms of identification such as race, gender, or general antinomianism.

Nor are these tendencies entirely confined to the fringes. Being opposed to identity politics has itself become a basis for identification, albeit less distinct, and so we see purposeful conceptions of the past emerging among professed rationalists, humanists, centrists, classical liberals and so on. In their own ways, figures as disparate as Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker define the terra firma of reasonable discourse by a cultural narrative of Western values or Enlightened liberal ideals, while everything outside these bounds invites comparison to one or another dark episode from history.

I am not implying any moral or intellectual equivalence between these different outlooks and belief systems, and nor am I saying their views are just figments of ideology. I am suggesting, though, that in all these instances, what could plausibly be seen as looking to history for understanding or guidance tends to shade into something more essential: the sense that a given conception of the past can underpin a collective identity, and serve as a basis for the demarcation of the political landscape into friends and foes.


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These observations appear to be supported by recent findings in social psychology, where “collective nostalgia” is now being viewed as a catalyst for inter-group conflict. In various contexts, including populism and liberal activism, studies suggest that self-identifying groups can respond to perceived deprivation or threat by evoking a specific, value-leaden conception of the past. This appears to bolster solidarity within the group and, ultimately, to motivate action against out-groups. We might think of the past here as becoming a kind of sacred territory to be defended; consequently, it serves as yet another mechanism whereby polarisation drives further polarisation.

This should not, I think, come as a surprise. After all, nation states, religious movements and even international socialism have always found narratives of provenance and tradition essential to extracting sacrifices from their members (sometimes against the grain of their professed beliefs). Likewise, as David Potter noted, separatist movements often succeed or fail on the basis of whether they can establish a more compelling claim to historical identity than that of larger entity from which they are trying to secede.

In our present context, though, politicised conceptions of the past have emerged from cultures where this source of meaning or identity has largely disappeared from the public sphere. Generally speaking, modern Western societies allow much less of the institutional transmission of stories which has, throughout history, brought an element of continuity to religious, civic, and family life. People associate with one another on the basis of individual preference, and institutions which emerge in this way usually have no traditions to refer to. In popular culture, the lingering sense that the past withholds some profound quality is largely confined to historical epics on the screen, and to consumer fads recycling vintage or antiquated aesthetics. And most people, it should be said, seem perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

Nonetheless, if we want to understand how the past is involved with the politics of identity today, it is precisely this detachment that we should scrutinise more closely. For ironically enough, we tend to forget that our sense of temporality – or indeed lack thereof – is itself historically contingent. As Francis O’Gorman details in his recent book Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia, Western modernity is the product of centuries worth of philosophical, economic, and cultural paradigms that have fixated on the future, driving us towards “unknown material and ideological prosperities to come.” Indeed, from capitalism to Marxism, from the Christian doctrine of salvation to the liberal doctrine of progress, it is remarkable how many of the Western world’s apparently diverse strands of thought regard the future as the site of universal redemption.

But more to the point, and as the intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin never tired of pointing out, this impulse towards transcending the particulars of time and space has frequently provoked, or at times merged with, its opposite: ethnic, cultural, and national particularism. Berlin made several important observations by way of explaining this. One is that universal and future-oriented ideals tend to be imposed by political and cultural elites, and are thus resented as an attack on common customs. Another is that many people find something superficial and alienating about being cut off from the past; consequently, notions like heritage or historical destiny become especially potent, since they offer both belonging and a form of spiritual superiority.

I will hardly be the first to point out that the most recent apotheosis of progressive and universalist thought came in the era immediately following the Cold War (not for nothing has Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History become its most iconic text). In this moment, energetic voices in Western culture – including capitalists and Marxists, Christians and liberals – were preoccupied with cutting loose from existing norms. And so, from the post-national rhetoric of the EU to postmodern academia and the champions of the service economy and global trade, they all defined the past by outdated modes of thought, work, and indeed social identity.

I should say that I’m too young to remember this epoch before the war on terror and the financial crisis, but the more I’ve tried to learn about it, the more I am amazed by its teleological overreach. This modernising discourse, or so it appears to me, was not so much concerned with constructing a narrative of progress leading up to the present day as with portraying the past as inherently shameful and of no use whatsoever. To give just one example, consider that as late as 2005, Britain’s then Prime Minister Tony Blair did not even bother to clothe his vision of the future in the language of hope, simply stating: “Unless we ‘own’ the future, unless our values are matched by a completely honest understanding of the reality now upon us and the next about to hit us, we will fail.”

Did such ways of thinking lay in store the divisive attachments to the past we see in politics today? Arguably, yes. The populist impulse towards heartland has doubtless been galvanised by the perception that elites have abandoned provenance as a source of common values. Moreover, as the narrative of progress has become increasingly unconvincing in the twenty-first century, its latent view of history as a site of backwardness and trauma has been seized upon by a new cult of guilt. What were intended as reasons to dissociate from the past have become reasons to identify with it as victims or remorseful oppressors.


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Even if you accept all of this, there remains a daunting question: namely, what is the appropriate relationship between a society and its past? Is there something to be gained from cultivating some sense of a common background, or should we simply refrain from undermining that which already exists? It’s important to state, firstly, that there is no perfect myth which every group in a polity can identify with equally. History is full of conflict and tension, and well as genuine injustice, and to suppress this fact is inevitably to sow the seeds of resentment. Such was the case, for instance, with the Confederate monuments which were the focus of last year’s protests in the United States: many of these were erected as part of a campaign for national unity in the early 20th century, one that denied the legacy of African American slavery.

Moreover, a strong sense of tradition is easily co-opted by rulers to sacralise their own authority and stifle dissent. The commemoration of heroes and the vilification of old enemies are today common motifs of state propaganda in Russia, India, China, Turkey, Poland and elsewhere. Indeed, many of the things we value about modern liberal society – free thought, scientific progress, political equality – have been won largely by intransigence towards the claims of the past. None of them sit comfortably in societies who afford significant moral authority to tradition. And this is to say nothing of the inevitable sacrificing of historical truth when the past is used as an agent of social cohesion.

But notwithstanding the partial resurgence of nationalism, it is not clear there exists in the West today any vehicle for such comprehensive, overarching myths. As with “tribal” politics in general, the politicisation of the past has been divergent rather than unifying because social identity is no longer confined to traditional concepts and categories. A symptom of this, at least in Europe, is that people who bemoan the absence of shared historical identity – whether politicians such as Emmanuel Macron or critics like Douglas Murray – struggle to express what such a thing might actually consist in. Thus they resort to platitudes like “sovereignty, unity and democracy” (Macron), or a rarefied high culture of Cathedrals and composers (Murray).

The reality which needs to be acknowledged, in my view, is that the past will never be an inert space reserved for mere curiosity or the measurement of progress. The human desire for group membership is such that it will always be seized upon as a buttress for identity. The problem we have encountered today is that, when society at large loses its sense of the relevance and meaning of the past, the field is left open to the most divisive interpretations; there is, moreover, no common ground from which to moderate between such conflicting narratives. How to broaden out this conversation, and restore some equanimity to it, might in the present circumstances be an insoluble question. It certainly bears thinking about though.