21 lessons in ugly elitism

Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book is misanthropy disguised as expertise.

Norman Lewis
Writer

Yuval Noah Harari, whose book Sapiens made him a global superstar four years ago, warns in his latest offering, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, that things are far worse than we imagined. Current political flashpoints, from the rise of populism to the challenge of immigration, are a distraction from the real crises facing us: climate change, nuclear proliferation, and technological disruption. These, he argues, threaten to reshape not only the planet, but also the nature of humanity itself. Harari’s message is simple: wake up and smell the coffee, or face extinction.

21 Lessons is a very frustrating book. Harari characterises it as ‘an exploration of what it means to be human in the age of bewilderment’. Which sounds very interesting and timely. But readers expecting incisive analyses or solutions are going to be sorely disappointed.

For a start, we already know that Harari has a very low opinion of what it means to be human. In Sapiens, he focused on ‘how an insignificant ape became the ruler of planet Earth’, founding a regime that ‘produced little that we can be proud of’. And in Homo Deus, he argued that humanity has unconsciously engineered a networked, artificial intelligence, with far greater capacity for reason than human intelligence, which will end up destroying humanity’s status as the planet’s pre-eminent lifeform.

In 21 Lessons, he reiterates his contempt for humanity’s arrogance by rubbishing ‘free will’ as nothing more than biochemical algorithms, or, as he puts it elsewhere, ‘outdated circuits adapted to the African savannah rather than to the urban jungle’.

Admittedly, Harari is a little more measured in 21 Lessons than in his earlier works: he concedes that algorithmic intelligence is not the same as human consciousness. And he also concedes that, in reality, we still know very little about the human mind and thus what makes us human.

But such admissions fail to dent his core misanthropic conviction – that humanity is nothing special. Indeed, as 21 Lessons progresses, it becomes clear that Harari sees humanity as the architect of our ‘bewildering times’ and a barrier to their overcoming.

For Harari, our bewilderment is owing to the fact that the problems we confront are truly globalised, while our means of managing them are parochial or outdated. The threats of nuclear war, global warming and technological disruption (particularly artificial intelligence and robotisation) cannot be handled by yesterday’s institutions, especially nation states, he says.

At a more local level, he contends, ordinary people don’t have the time, energy or means to even think about the implications of global hazards. Most importantly – and this is where he really begins to expose his prejudices – the masses, disoriented and unsettled by global change, are trying to hold on to the past, rather than heeding the advice of experts and technocrats who control our future.

This is best illustrated by his discussion of Brexit and Trump, the markers, as Harari sees them, of our bewildering times. Both show that many people have lost faith in the globalising parts of liberal democracy. He argues that while the majority of people still believe in democracy, free markets, human rights and social responsibility, they foolishly think these fine ideas can stop at the border. ‘They believe that in order to preserve liberty and prosperity in Yorkshire or Kentucky’, writes Harari, ‘it is best to build a wall on the border and adopt illiberal policies towards foreigners’. (Yes, I was surprised to learn about the Yorkshire Wall, too.)

Brexit voters are dismissed as idiots, who ‘dream of making Britain an independent power, as if they were living in the days of Queen Victoria and as if “splendid isolation” were a viable policy for an era of the internet and global warming’. This sounds less like a serious analysis than the smug wittering you might hear at an Islington dinner party.

The unenlightened masses who voted for Brexit and Trump, continues Harari, are stuck in the past. They hanker for the ‘old hierarchical world’, and just don’t want to give up their ‘racial, national or gendered privileges’.

In a particularly condescending part of the book, Harari tries to explain the rise of populism in terms of the masses’ fear of economic irrelevance. These are, according to Harari, ‘people who still enjoy political power, but who fear that they were losing their economic worth’. Myopic populism is arising, then, not as part of a struggle against an elite that exploits the masses, but against an economic elite that does not need the masses anymore. ‘This may well be a losing battle’, concludes Harari, adding: ‘It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.’

Harari turns the world on its head and either misses or deliberately obscures the main reason for the election of Trump and the Brexit vote — namely, that people were reacting against the arrogance of the contemporary elite, which has dismissed large swathes of the electorate as ‘deplorables’ and ‘low-information’.

Citizens on both sides of the Atlantic were not concerned about being rendered irrelevant in the future, but about being rendered marginal or irrelevant today, by technocratic elites that believe they know better than those in whose name they rule.

Harari cannot see this. Which is not surprising, given his low opinion of humanity. His misanthropy blinds him to the unthinkable idea that the impulses behind Brexit and Trump potentially hold the solution to our bewildering times. Why? Because they contain a popular aspiration, however confusedly expressed, to wrest control back from increasingly unaccountable and aloof elites who, despite benefitting from the status quo, are politically exhausted and have stopped believing in their own system.

As messy as this is, the impulse to take control, the aspiration to popular and national sovereignty, is the only way wider global problems will be solved. Independent, sovereign democratic states, freely and openly entering into agreements with each other, is the only way international problems will be tackled in the future. The alternative to this new politics is a return to benign dictatorships or elite technocracies along the lines of the European Union.

The most disingenuous aspect of 21 Lessons is Harari’s unwillingness to spell out the consequences of his observations. This results in a thoroughly inane final chapter, which urges readers to embrace meditation and be a bit kinder to others. ‘You can help somebody’, writes Harari, ‘and that somebody will subsequently help somebody else, and thereby contribute to the overall improvement of the world and constitute a small link in the great chain of kindness’. This is not insight; it is John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, without the tune.

But it is a ruse. Harari does not really believe this. Instead, having cautioned his readers not to panic and to ‘tone down the prophecies of doom’ (having made his global name prophesying precisely that), he really wants to scare his readers not into action, but into acquiescence. ‘Panic’, he cautions, ‘is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that I know exactly where the world is heading – down.’ (Which is an apt description of Harari’s own position.)

And what is it that Harari wants us to acquiesce to? That there is no alternative to the status quo. ‘At the end of the day’, he writes, ‘humankind won’t abandon the liberal story, because it doesn’t have any alternative’. So, if there is no political alternative, then, the masses will finally begin to accept that the problems are so big that we need new forms of technocratic rules and governance to ensure our survival. Instead of taking control, people should be humble, accept there is no alternative, and bow down to the experts. This is why he offers no solutions. Because they already exist, in the hands of technocrats.

In what he thinks is his infinite wisdom, Harari betrays his low expectations. All he can offer the poor reader is a plea to submit to forces, intellectual and global, beyond the reader’s ken. Don’t panic; just humbly submit.

It does seem that Harari really believes that the new humble class – the self-selected global elites and technocrats – shall (re-)inherit the earth. This is delusional. What we see happening with the rise of populism is that the messy and confusing process of clarification, of finding 21st-century solutions to our 21st-century predicament, is already underway. While the outcomes are far from certain or clear, there is nothing bewildering about humanity starting to make history once again.

Harari seems to think the future of liberal democracy is threatened by Brexit and Trump. The real threat, however, comes from the liberal elite itself, which has given up on the true content of democracy — the people. This is the one lesson we do need to take forward through the 21st century. The extent to which we learn it really will determine the future of humanity, and the planet.

Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation. Norman is speaking on the panel ‘Fintech: should we believe the hype’ at the Battle of Ideas in London on Saturday October 13. Book your tickets here.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, is published by Jonathan Cape. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Youtube.