REVIEW: Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 LESSONS FOR THE 21st CENTURY

21_Lessons_for_the_21st_CenturyIt has been a long while since I’ve written about my reading. “The world is too much with us,” us poor working folks, or as Harari says in his latest, everyone is too busy to look around and analyze how our world is shifting, changing, transforming, and dangerously so. Hence, why Harari sees his role, the historian’s role, as one providing clarity. Reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, certainly “clarifies” what ills beset our world. Moreover, his book is fearless, brilliant, and terrifying.

“All is vanity, saith the preacher” … Harari takes our Western “vanities”, our most closely-held ideals, as illusions, as the fictions of childish adults, and bashes our shibboleths to smithereens. It is a powerful, relentless argument that strips away at every illusion of Western cultural, political, religious, and economic bulwarks. Not that the East escapes: he has less to say about it, but what he does say, stays pretty much in the same vein. No one is exempt and no one escapes from Harari’s frightening intellect. In the end, not even Harari himself.

I read Harari’s Sapiens when it came out in paperback a few years ago and was blown away by it. His analysis of how we make fictions to enslave ourselves within institutions bordered on the satiric. Indeed, while most readers would be terrified of Harari’s analyses, I thought he was writing tongue-in-cheek satire. I chuckled through reading most of it. I was wrong, of course, but this is what comes of reading too much fiction … in my own vanity, I’d hoped the joke was on Harari: I read his critique of fiction as a fiction …

21 Lessons, however, is a more urgent, more concerned book. Harari isn’t gazing with his gimlet eye at the past, nor is he coolly predicting the possible future. 21 Lessons is about the here and now and, as such, is a more caring book, placing human suffering as central to human experience and important to consider and contemplate. Harari’s voice rings truer and clearer, and doesn’t have the sharp, satiric flights of fancy that Sapiens did (though his sarcasm still comes through):

In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we pay attention to? What should we teach our kids?

My agenda here is global. I look at the major forces that shape societies all over the world and that are likely to influence the future of our planet as a whole … this book is intended not as a historical narrative but rather as a selection of lessons. These lessons do not conclude with simple answers. They aim to simulate further thinking and help readers participate in some of the major conversations of our time … the overarching question remains the same: what is happening in the world today, and what is the deep meaning of these events?

Harari identifies and analyzes three dangers to the world: “ecological collapse and technological disruption” and the demise of liberal democracy. As Harari brilliantly pens, his concern is “life in the age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed and no new story has emerged so far to replace them.”

Harari breaks it down for us: how liberal democracy cannot answer the threat of “ecological collapse and technological disruption.” It was born in the age of industrialization, triumphed over the stories of fascism and communism and now flounders to answer, ideologically, to our greatest quandaries. According to my understanding of Harari, liberal democracy is to the 21st century what the “sick old man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, was to the 20th. Harari sees the challenges posed by “infotech and biotech” as requiring “new social and political models,” models not yet born and an old one that cannot serve as the Bard wrote, as prologue. Our connection to the past as a cohesive, ongoing narrative is broken, Harari says, and we cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We resort to “bewilderment,” cynicism, despair, quixotic utopian vision or the deepest, darkest dystopian nightmare. In a way, Harari urges us to calm down, take a breath, not all is lost … yet. BUT, says Harari, as we cling to the old models, we are dooming ourselves. Nothing can stand in the way of the rhetorical genius that is Harari: not religious belief, not economic theory, not political ideology.

Once in a while, however, as Harari plows ahead, tossing ideals like baled haystacks (I think I just mixed my metaphor, but Harari will have you mixing cocktails, so why not a metaphor?), a bright light of compassion comes through, as in this gem when he predicts a future without viable work for humankind: ” … new social and economic models … should be guided by the principle of protecting humans rather than jobs.” Simple. True. So so difficult in this age of oligarchical expediency.

Most of the time, however, Harari speaks frightening truth in elegant raw language and I couldn’t help but sadly nod assent: “For thousands of years Homo sapiens behaved as an ecological serial killer; now it is morphing into an ecological mass murderer.” He continues, in ever more frightening analyses of our global civilization’s ills: ” .. nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption – is enough to threaten the future of human civilization. But taken together, they add up to an unprecedented existential crisis, especially because they are likely to reinforce and compound one another.” As Harari rightly, clearly, and succinctly predicts our sicknesses, he chops away at our final and most dearly-held fiction: the belief in our own freedom, in what a Christian would call “free will.” Between biology and algorithmic predictability, Harari sees no room for human freedom. And yet, here he is … urging us to see clearly, not through an illusive glass darkly, to divest ourselves even of the last vestiges of humanistic culture.

His problem, which becomes our problem, if we accept his analysis, is that we, and he, have worked ourselves into an existential corner. I saw Harari’s points, I live them every day, turn on the news, consider a scorching planet, political disarray, narrowing minds, and an ever growing chasm between want and excess. Where does Harari situate possibility, if not hope? He doesn’t offer answers, but proposes tools. He calls for considering human suffering, taking a stance of humility, and meditating and seeking truth. I leave with this from 21 Lessons:

Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to start spreading fictions. [Ahem, say I, lies.] If you want to know the truth about the world, free of all fictions, then at some point you will have to renounce power. You will have to admit things that will make it more difficult to gain allies and inspire followers. Even more crucially, you will have to acknowledge some uncomfortable facts about yourself, about the sources of your current power, and about the reasons you want more power. 

… If … you want to retain some control over your personal existence and the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. To run fast, don’t take much baggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy … people don’t need to create any meaning. They just need to realize that there is no meaning, and therefore be liberated from the suffering caused by our attachments and our identification with empty phenomena.

Advocating humility, Harari answers only for himself and what he has found in Buddhist meditation. He advises us to study suffering, to divest ourselves of myths and the weaving of identities. In some ways, I couldn’t help but feel an existential desert where Harari’s brilliantly identified quagmire was, our quagmire, “ignorant armies,” internal and external “clash[ing] by night”. No, “love, let us be true to one another” for Harari: but the slow, sure divesting of self, of the illusion of self, no more Holdens, no more Hamlets. And yet, Harari so very much admires Huxley’s Brave New World, a novel that lays claim to our right to suffer … in love and sickness, in passion and an entire mess of human fallibility. Harari is brilliant, compelling, sharply, cynically funny, and offers us a chance to be intellectually and emotionally challenged. Yeah, read his 21 Lessons.

Yuval Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is published by Signal. It was release on Sept. 4th. I received an e-ARC from Signal via Netgalley and Edelweiss+.