21 lessons for the 21st century – Yuval Noah Harari

1-3-19

Dear Partners in thought, 

I would like to speak to you about “21 lessons for the 21st century” by historian Yuval Noah Harari who has risen to fame over the last few years with his two widely-acclaimed books “Sapiens” that surveyed the human past and how an ape came to rule the world and “Homo Deus” that explored the long-term future of life. YNH has a PhD in history from Oxford and lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

“21 lessons for the 21st century” is probably the most ambitious book of the moment, focused on “today” and current affairs with a global focus, trying to explain where we are and may be going. It has five parts and 21 sections or indeed lessons, all inter-connected in an amazing tapestry for our times as follows. 

THE TECHNOLOGICAL CHALLENGE
1. Disillusionment 
(the end of history has been postponed)
2. Work 
(When you grow up, you might not have a job)
3. Liberty (Big data is watching you)
4. Equality (Those who own the data own the future)

THE POLITICAL CHALLENGE
5
Community (Humans have bodies)
6. Civilisation (There is just one civilisation in the world)
7. Nationalism (Global problems need global answers) 
8. Religion
 (God now serves the nation)
9. Immigration (Some cultures might be better than others)

DESPAIR AND HOPE 
10. Terrorism 
(Don’t panic) 
11. War
 (Never underestimate human stupidity)
12. Humility (You are not the centre of the world)
13. God (Don’t take the name of God in vain)
14. Secularism (Acknowledge your shadow) 


10. Terrorism 
(Don’t panic) 
11. War
 (Never underestimate human stupidity)
12. Humility (You are not the centre of the world)
13. God (Don’t take the name of God in vain)
14. Secularism (Acknowledge your shadow) 

TRUTH 
15. Ignorance (You know less than you think)
16. Justice
 (Our sense of justice might be out of date)
17. Post-Truth (some fake news last forever) 
18. Science Fiction (The future is not what you see in the movies)

RESILIENCE
19. Education (Change is the only constant)
20. Meaning 
(Life is not a story)
21. Meditation (Just observe)     

If you don’t know him, one of the key discoveries reading YNH is that he is not your typical historian. He is much “more” or as Nietzsche would have said, he is “the man of the future” or the one who can read into it as he is also the one with the longest memory, a feature that is not so common. 

I will only address one chapter or lesson – incidentally one reflecting why the blog exists – as the book is so rich that addressing the full YNH “course” would require a length that would far exceed the remit of one Book Note and might be unwittingly tedious. I also do not want to uncover all the pleasures of discovering his thinking process and why those lessons are what they are. One may not necessarily agree with his classification though it is hard to find his selection not relevant. One may not always agree with his conclusions but his approach is thought-provoking while, all the lessons being interconnected, his offering offers a truly encompassing perspective of the challenges facing mankind as we gradually advance to the mid-point of our transformational century. 

In Disillusionment (aptly ranked as lesson 1) YNH addresses the key point of friction of our days that relates to the rise of populism, anti-elite, anti-establishment, at times anti-capitalism and largely anti-“everything” about the Western liberal world we built since 1945. In many ways lesson 1 is an echo to Edward Luce’s “Retreat of Western Liberalism” discussed in mid-2018. YNH sees three “stories” that shaped the 20th century with Fascism, Communism and Western Liberalism, the latter having been the “last one standing” that celebrated the value and power of liberty and became the global mantra of the 1990s and 2000s. At the peak of Western liberalism, Bill Clinton told China that its refusal to liberalise Chinese politics would put it “on the wrong side of history”. The great disillusionment came with the global financial crisis of 2008, coinciding with a slowly vanishing unipolar world we had known since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Different walls, resistance to immigration and to trade agreements and rising illiberal democracy appeared while the Brexit process and the Trump ascendency marked a turn while exporting democracy at the barrel of a gun (Iraq, Libya) started “not working for Kentucky and Yorkshire”. In 1938, there were three competing stories. In 1968, there were two. In 1998, there was one. In 2018, there may be none, even if YNH believes that liberalism or the “Liberal Phoenix” is perfectible and indeed was able to mutate throughout its making, at times borrowing and actually implementing the best aspects from the two other stories like equality, welfare and social safety net from Communism even if they might have been mere political concepts and not realities. Liberalism is not at its first crisis of confidence as noted with WW1 that put an end to the first era of globalisation, fascism that seemed unstoppable in the 1930s until it was and Communism which was on global assent from the 1950s to the 1970s until the “supermarket proved far stronger than the gulag”. To be sure, YNH points out that the liberal offering was mostly for middle class Europeans (and we could add Americans and all whites globally) but was “blind to the plights of the working class, women, minorities and by and large non-Westerners”. On this latter aspect, YNH makes an interesting point, perhaps a bit unfair as to its target and circumstances, that the Dutch, pillars of Western liberal democracy as we know it, collapsed after four days of fighting in 1940 but still fought Indonesian independence after WW2 tooth and nail for more than four years, incidentally making a good business case for the Soviet message that could care less about freedom but seized the tactical advantage in the then colonial world.    

When YNH writes that the end of history has been postponed, he makes a reference to the likes of Stanford neoconservative Francis Fukuyama (without naming him (1)) and its “End of History” projecting the genuine beliefs that having defeated Communism (in its Russian Soviet version) all political and economic problems were settled once and for all, with Liberalism standing unrivalled, which it was, spreading its universal message globally as if it were a new, dominant religion. Liberalism is questioned now more than ever but does not face a rival story yet. Liberalism is now faced with a nihilistic Trump movement at the heart of its erstwhile leadership country which offers no plan and only exists in violent opposition to its core features, notably globalisation. Liberalism is faced with many attacks from a great diversity of people the Western world over (often nicknamed the left-outs by their geographic locations or inability to adjust to economic and societal changes), some who may actually still believe in elements of liberalism but reject its globalisation part and wanting to experience it behind walls, adopting illiberal policies against foreigners. Interestingly the Chinese have adopted a mirror image reaction by being champions of globalisation, as it also serves their interests, while clamping down on many individual liberties at home. As for Russia, which pretends to be a democracy, it really offers an oligarchic, media-controlled, model that endures and projects Russian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity that seem to be priority features, ahead of economic well-being, to most Russians, especially outside the main urban centres. Russia does not offer a coherent ideology that can compete with Liberalism globally. YHN stresses that with 87% of the Russian wealth concentrated in the top ten per cent of its people, it is doubtful that The National Rally’s Marine Le Pen voters would like this model if they ever realised the fact, even if they enjoy seeing Marine meeting one-on-one, as if conferring her an aura of leadership and respectability, with Vladimir in the Kremlin. In a funny jibe, YNH tells us that “people vote with their feet” and that to date he has yet to meet one person who wanted to emigrate to Russia (well, he forgets Edward Snowden of course).                

It is clear that YNH likes Liberalism and what he stands for even if his piece is not a staunch defence of its story as Edward Luce’s was, this on purpose as he explains in his chosen approach of the book. However, at the end of the day, YNH feels that we have it much better than in 1918, 1938 or 1968 and while the liberal story will always be “kicked angrily” along the way, it will not be abandoned, even if all the major world players are experiencing a drive to return to the past, which at times was not that great but looks attractive today even if not reachable (he goes through all the major countries and how they strongly aim at adjusting to changes via their own formula such as Brexit , Make America Great Again, the newly re-found Confucian imperial roots or the Czarist glories of yesteryear. YNH points to Obama rightly stressing that in spite of its many shortcomings, the “liberal package” has the best record of all stories by far, echoing one of the tenets of this modest blog that we as people easily forget the “good things” that we take for granted, like peace in Europe that the “dreadful” (for some) EU helped foster.         

One key amplifier of disillusionment for YNH that created a feeling of doom and disorientation is the accelerating pace of technological disruption as people never “voted” for nor understood the societal mutation that was driven by engineers more than political parties. The future also looks more challenging due to the limits of growth (and perhaps hyper-consumerism and its “never enough” frustrations as Rutger Bregman told us about) combined with tech disruption – notably in the fields of biotech and information technology – and man-made ecological meltdown, the latter that the current world leader does not want to acknowledge, on the contrary. These disruptions will require fresh visions, leading Liberalism, yet again, to reinvent itself (which we should believe it could as it is an improvable story). At present and while we still live in the phase of disillusionment and anger (well not for all of us I would like to add), YNH suggests we should shift from panic mode, which is a kind of hubris, to bewilderment, which is more humble as to what we are going through with our wonderful but challenging world.

I could cover a few more lessons but it would not do justice to the excellence of YNH’s craft so I will let you discover for yourselves the words of wisdom he has put forward in his book. I also think it is important not to say everything that might lead you not to read his 21 lessons that are worth reflecting upon. And again we would need a very long Book Note to cover the whole book…

Not everybody liked this book even if reviews were overwhelmingly positive, like for his two previous books. Some of you, like the FT’s John Thornhill, will be dazzled by “the flashes of intellectual adventure and literary verve (I sure was) though will find that he might have “recycled” many of his observations from “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus” (I did not read his first two books so was taken, lock stock and barrel). Some, like Gavin Jacobson of the New Statesman, felt that his new book  was “a study thick with promise and thin in import” with little advice actually given. For my part I found it a book whose weaving was astounding, full of key interconnected matters to reflect upon, making us better equipped to look at our challenging future and as YNH stresses in his common thread – our globalised civilisation – with hope. Definitely a must read. 

Warmest regards,

Serge    

(1) Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, as if to redeem himself thirty years down the road, is focused on identity (aptly named “Identity”), dealing with the rise of populism and going back to the work of past philosophers in what is indeed another chapter of our… history.     

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