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22 August 2018updated 25 Jul 2021 7:43am

Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a banal and risible self-help book

Like an undergraduate struggling to reach the word count, Harari writes in pointless asides and cringeworthy platitudes of fortune-cookie quality.

By Gavin Jacobson

In his best-selling book Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari writes that it was during the Agricultural Revolution, around 10,000 years ago, when worries about the future “became central to the human mind”. Since then, fascination with the end of times has been a constituent feature of humanity’s cultural and intellectual history. In the European tradition, tributes to progress are regularly offset by nightmares of decline and fall, especially during times of socio-economic turbulence or technological breakthrough, when, like Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, societies “sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts”. 

Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century were haunted by visions of the apocalypse. Many doubted modern states could survive the volatile mixture of public debt, social inequality, and the international struggle for resources that threatened to plunge them into eternal war and revolution. Jean-Jacques Rousseau offered alarming descriptions of this future, writing in his book Émile (1762) that societies were “approaching a state of crisis and the century of revolutions”. Europe’s monarchies and republics, he later prophesied, had “grown decrepit and threaten soon to die”. Others forecast ecological ruin and the rise of populist demagogues, with the Scottish historian Adam Ferguson predicting that sooner or later the “boasted refinements of the polished age” would make way for “the government of force”. In 1779, the republican philosopher Gabriel Bonnot de Mably thought the time was “not far away when Europe will languish under the splendour and misery of despotism and slavery”.

Discourses of catastrophe endured and flourished throughout the 19th century, as traditional social structures and ways of thinking were upended by the Industrial Revolution. Urbanisation, mass politics and the idea that nothing lay beyond the transformative powers of the state – these developments rocked intelligentsias between giddy optimism and grave despair.

Richard Wagner, whose operas were often set against a backdrop of mythological hellscapes, claimed that “everything mankind did, ordered and established was conceived only in fear of the end”. His friend Friedrich Nietzsche also envisaged Europe’s tormented atrophy after the death of God: “For a long time now our whole civilisation has been driving, with a tortured intensity growing from decade to decade, as if towards a catastrophe… Where we live, soon nobody will be able to exist.”

Few authors captured the anxieties of the age with as much bracing clarity as Fyodor Dostoevsky, who in 1862 described London’s Crystal Palace, the great glass exhibition hall showcasing the latest technological wonders, as resembling “some prophecy out of the Apocalypse being fulfilled right before your very eyes”. His subsequent novels focused on the spiritual desolation initiated by man’s agnostic plans for self-redemption. In The Idiot (1869), the character Lebedev describes the mid-19th century as “the time of the third horse… and there will follow a pale horse and him whose name is Death, and after him Hell”.

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Twentieth-century obsessions with disaster emerged from the killing fields of the First and Second World Wars, and were conveyed with the greatest lyrical force by modernist poets such as WB Yeats in “The Second Coming” or TS Eliot in “The Hollow Men”, which described the world ending “not with a bang but a whimper”. Yet between 1945 and 1989, societies wondered if, in fact, the world might end with the bang of nuclear war. Even in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the entrenchment of neoliberalism as the organising principle of the world, prophecies about the End of Days lingered.

Francis Fukuyama’s apocalyptic expectation that history had come to a close is the best-known (if least understood) example, while in a 1997 essay, “Our Merry Apocalypse”, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski warned against the vertiginous speeds at which societies were evolving: “I do not say that we are rushing towards catastrophe,” he wrote, “only that, like Alice, we must make a huge effort to run very fast to stay in the same place.” The millennium was greeted with a surge of penitential exuberance and the dread of hi-tech meltdown.

Since 9/11, and certainly since the financial crash of 2008, there has been what the literary critic Frank Kermode once called a perennial “sense of an ending”. Climate change is making life a living hell, especially in Africa and Asia. More people have been driven from their homes by wars and ethnic or political persecution than at any time in history. Strongmen leaders have entrenched themselves across Europe and Asia. Western interventions in the Middle East helped create the barbarisms of Isis. Globalisation has decimated cultures, hollowed out working-class communities, widened the gulf between rich and poor, and privileged wealth over welfare. Rates of suicide and depression have soared in the world’s fastest-growing economies, George Orwell and Hannah Arendt are best-sellers again, and the super-rich are building doomsday bunkers. And as Harari says in his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “liberals fear that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump portend the end of human civilisation”.

If Sapiens examined humanity’s deep past, and his follow-up work, Homo Deus, considered its potential long-term future, 21 Lessons focuses on the troubles of the here and now. As Labour and the Conservatives are busy wrestling with their internal psychodramas of anti-Semitism, Brexit and Boris Johnson, it is refreshing to read someone seemingly more attuned to the potential doomsday scenarios we are facing.

How should democracies contend with the quantum leaps in biotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI), just as “liberalism is losing credibility”? How should we regulate the ownership of data, which “will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset”? How will societies respond to AI, and the conceivable uselessness of workers? What will a progressive politics look like since it’s “much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation”? Should we fear another world war? What can be done about climate change? And what are the best responses to terrorism and fake news?

It would be easier to take Harari seriously if his “lessons” in any way measured up to these global conundrums. Unfortunately, for those who were expecting more from such a celebrated author, his injunctions simply die on contact with the reality of our present moment.

The first problem is one of conception. The book is composed from various op-ed columns, as well as responses to questions asked by readers, journalists and colleagues. These may have worked well as individual pieces. But taken together, the result is a study thick with promise and thin in import. The sort of messages Harari issues – “the only real solution is to globalise politics”; “humans of all creeds would do well to take humility more seriously”; “invest time and effort in uncovering our biases”; “Leave your illusions behind. They are very heavy”; “When you wake up in the morning, just focus on reality” – are either too vague or too hollow to provide any meaningful guidance.

Harari’s concluding style comes straight from the insipid “on the one hand, on the other” school of second-rate essay writing. In the meagre ten pages he devotes to “War” and the chances of a third global conflict, he ends by saying that, “On the one hand, war is definitely not inevitable… On the other hand, it would be naive to assume that war is impossible.” And, in the confused and disjointed chapter on “Humility”: “It goes without saying,” he writes, before going on to say it, “that the Jewish people are a unique people with an astonishing history (though this is true of most peoples).”

“It similarly goes without saying,” he continues, before, again, going on to say it, “that the Jewish tradition is full of deep insights and noble values (though it is also full of some questionable ideas and of racist, misogynist and homophobic attitudes).”

Like an undergraduate struggling to reach the word count, Harari ends up trafficking in pointless asides and excruciating banalities. The debate about immigration “is far from being a clear-cut battle between good and evil” and “should be decided through standard democratic procedure”. (He then lazily suggests that if Europe manages to solve the issue of immigration, then “perhaps its formula can be copied on a global level”.) “The world,” we are subsequently told, “is becoming ever more complex.” “Humans have bodies.” “We just cannot prepare for every eventuality.” Nuclear states and terrorism represent “different problems that demand different solutions”. “The world is far more complicated than a chessboard.” “Putin is neither Genghis Khan nor Stalin.” And there are “several key differences between 2018 and 1914”.

Then there are the risible moral dictums littered throughout the text, cringeworthy platitudes of fortune-cookie quality. So a “small coin in a big empty jar makes a lot of noise” and “hurting others always hurts me too”. “Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it” and “pain is pain, fear is fear, and love is love”. Not forgetting that “change itself is the only certainty”, “emotions such as greed, envy, anger and hatred are very unpleasant” and “everything you will ever experience in life is within your own body and your own mind”. Reading Harari reminded me of the line attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I have ever met.”

The point about lousy prose isn’t just one of style. As Tony Judt argued in the New York Review of Books in 2010, rhetorical fluency doesn’t always signify originality or depth of thought. But hesitant, digressive and mediocre writing does indicate an impoverished argument or analysis. As Judt put it, “When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express.” This is clear in Harari’s chapter on post-truth, for instance, in which he circles around the issue, meandering into subjects such as the history of Nazi and Soviet propaganda, without really landing on any kind of substantive point that helps us make sense of what’s going on now. His eventual lesson is typically flat: “instead of accepting fake news as the norm, we should recognise it is a far more difficult problem than we tend to assume, and we should strive even harder to distinguish reality from fiction. Don’t expect perfection. One of the greatest fictions of all is to deny the complexity of the world.”

Fine. But once we have accepted that the world is complex, what then? Harari is silent. He further warns us of politicians who “start talking in mystical terms”. We should be “particularly careful” about the words “sacrifice, eternity, purity, [and] redemption”. “If you hear any of these words,” he instructs, “sound the alarm.” By doing what, exactly? He doesn’t say. Judt argued that instead of “suffering from the onset of ‘newspeak,’ we risk the rise of ‘nospeak’”. Harari’s is the sort of shoddy rhetoric he was thinking of.

The larger issue with 21 Lessons, however, is its depressingly apolitical message. In both Sapiens and Homo Deus, Harari reminds us that it has been the ability to co-operate that has led to our species’ domination of the world. In 21 Lessons, there are occasional doses of political and economic consideration, such as a discussion of universal basic income. But by and large his lessons for living in the 21st century are distinctly Western, individualistic and self-regarding. This is expressed most succinctly towards the end of the book, when he says that, “If we want to make the world a better place, understanding ourselves, our minds and our desires will probably be far more helpful than trying to realise whatever fantasy pops up in our heads.” To understand ourselves, we “should observe the actual flow of body and mind”.

This is not to undermine the importance of self-reflection, nor to question the virtues of private meditation, which is the subject of Harari’s unbearably dull concluding chapter. It is rather to note that such political problems he identifies have invited such diminished political reflection or solution. 21 Lessons offers no thoughts on collective action, and no vision for the common good. The scale of the political crises, however, demand that we face them together and in the political domain. If we are approaching some kind of apocalypse, it is surely not enough to just “know thyself”. 

Gavin Jacobson is a writer based in Hong Kong, and is working on a book about the history of the 1990s

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This article appears in the 22 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?