Towards a Global Biopolitics?: A review of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, Part 2
European Restlessness and Dynamism
Harari has much good to say about empire in general and about the European colonial empires in particular: “Modern science flourished in and thanks to European empires” (316). This is a point Harari repeatedly drives home: only Europe had the values and institutions necessary to kick-start the positive feedback loop of science, empire, and capital which could create the modern world as we know it.
Harari’s analysis of Western dynamism is entirely congruent with Prof. Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, particularly in his emphasis on the psychological factors behind European dynamism. Harari:
Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance — they both said, “I don’t know what’s out there.” They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world. (317)
Harari also reflects Duchesne’s perspective in his observation that non-Europeans, such as the Turks, Persians, Indians, and Chinese, showed little interest in exploration or in creatively exploiting technological breakthroughs. The Chinese for instance for centuries used gunpowder only for fire-crackers (293, 377). Harari says of the massive treasure ships of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, which explored the Indian Ocean during the fifteenth century:
The Zheng He expeditions proved that Europe did not enjoy an outstanding technological edge. What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. (324)
The expansionist aggression of the West is an inescapable expression of its roots in aristocratic men who are free and therefore headstrong and ambitious, sure of themselves, easily offended, and unwilling to accept quiet subservience. (The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, 481)
Harari notes, as does Duchesne, that non-Europeans were typically ignorant of their own history and culture, and that it was European imperialists who pioneered historical scholarship in India, Persia, and elsewhere. Harari recognizes the atrocities committed by European empires, while noting that such violence is the norm across the world and that there is no such thing as a sinless, non-violent human civilization (228). Harari repeatedly equates the imperial and scientific drives to conquer: “For the modern European conqueror, like the modern European scientist, plunging into the unknown was exhilarating” (328).
In Defense of Global Empire
Harari’s praise for European colonialism is part of a wider emphasis on the positive aspects of historic empires, such as the Roman and the Islamic, and of the emerging “global empire.” He sees a broad trend in human history towards ever-more globalization and “the unification of humankind,” as a necessary consequence of communications technologies.
Harari is aware of the deep-seated ethnocentric tendencies in human beings: commonly (as in the Old Testament; see note 20, p. 55), a tribe’s word for “human” only applies to fellow tribesmen (219)! Nonetheless, he sees the development of empires and religions of supposed universal altruism (such as Cyrus the Great’s Persia or the Buddhist religion) as positive developments. One cannot deny that world-empires have often enforced peace, enabled fruitful cultural exchange, and granted human societies scale, notably the connecting of intelligences, beyond individual tribes.
Harari describes an “imperial cycle” whereby the Roman, Islamic, and European colonial empires developed — but he is strangely silent on the fall of these empires (236–37)! There is not a word on how empires, so often, end with the dissolving of the founding nation. The Roman Empire, after all, collapsed in no small part because the deracinated and miscegenated “Roman citizens” of the late empire had lost their sense of identity and patriotism, and were no longer willing to fight and die for their people and state, as had those of the Republic. The achievements of the Islamic Golden Age, for their part, were largely the work of non-Arab Greek and Persian scholars, and the Islamic World soon became an obscurantist and inbred backwater (no doubt in part due to the abominable Middle-Eastern custom of marrying one’s niece; in contrast the Catholic Church systematically discouraged cousin marriage). And now, indeed, the collapse of the European colonial empires has been accompanied by the physical replacement of Europeans in Western nations across the world, regardless of whether the nation in question even had an empire.
Harari argues that the modern world is being economically, ideologically, and culturally united, under an emerging rootless cosmopolitan elite:
The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers, and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and to their people. More and more choose the empire. (232)
The last line bears repeating: national elites will more and more side with rootless oligarchic interests rather than those of their fellow citizens. The passage is of the utmost realism and marks Harari as a serious thinker. Harari’s global “empire” is much the same as that denounced by the French anti-Zionist civic nationalist Alain Soral in his 2011 work Comprendre l’Empire. Julian Assange, from his own perspective as a militant for government transparency, astutely described the rise of the new global oligarchy in 2012:
The negative trajectory [is] a transnational surveillance state, drone-riddled, the networked neo-feudalism of the transnational elite — not in a classical sense, but a complex multi-party interaction that has come about as a result of various elites in their own national countries lifting up together, off their respective population bases, and merging.
Soral and Assange are observing the same phenomenon as Harari, but Harari, as is common for Jews, welcomes the prospect of world-government. Incidentally, the Times of Israel reports that Jews make up a fifth of the world top 50 billionaires, only one indicator of the very substantial influence that ethnic group has in the new global elite. In contrast, no other ethnic group in the global elite has a comparable combination of representation and ethnic pride.
Inevitable Authoritarianism and Challenging Orthodoxy
Harari is strong on the inevitable authoritarianism of all human societies in their enforcement of fundamental values. He provides a useful definition of (civil) religion as “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order” (234). This definition includes the ancestral and exclusive folk religions, the Abrahamic monotheisms, and modern ideologies. The point is that any society has a set of fundamental norms, individuals are policed to follow those norms, and violators are punished. This holds true even in so-called “ideologically pluralistic” democracies with supposed protection of freedom of speech: in practice, as Carl Schmitt argued, every society has an implicit quasi-religious ideology, which is enforced in a more or less authoritarian manner. Thus, Harari (in my view rightly) classifies liberalism, communism, and National Socialism as modern religions (to which I would add holocaust remembrance):
If we take into consideration natural-law religions, then modernity turns out to be an age of intense religious fervor, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history. The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religion , such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. (254)
Harari notes that atheists are often unaware of this reality (256) and he frequently stresses the dogmatic and Christian-derived nature of liberalism (e.g. human rights as “commandments,” 257).
Harari insists that a society without an imagined order and myths is impossible (133). He astutely observes that the bulk of academic work is thoroughly incapable of thinking outside the framework of the established ideology: “The humanities and social sciences devote most of their energies to explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the the tapestry of life” (127). As a result, I would add, much of mainstream scholarship has a kind of theological quality, endlessly commenting on, struggling with, and making excuses for the reigning ideology’s internal contradictions and discrepancies with observed reality.
The inevitable and authoritarian nature of ideology leads to certain paradoxes in modern scientific and (pseudo-)democratic societies. A stable society, in fact, is not possible unless its members have some agreement in world-view. Yet, democracy is supposed to be ideologically pluralistic and science cannot advance without the admission of ignorance and of the imperfection of current theories. Thus, Harari says:
All modern attempts to stabilize the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:
Take a scientific theory, and in opposition to common scientific practices, declare that it is a final and absolute truth [as in National Socialism and Communism]. . . .
Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scientific absolute truth. This has been the strategy of liberal humanism, which is built on a dogmatic belief in the unique worth and rights of human beings — a doctrine which has embarrassingly little in common with the scientific study of Homo sapiens. (282)
Harari does not lament the authoritarianism of ideology. On the contrary: “scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research” (305). This was visible notably during the Cold War, during which superpower competition fostered aerospace research and exploration in the United States and the Soviet Union, or indeed in the Third Reich, where National Socialism’s obsession with health led to substantial medical breakthroughs.
While Harari understates the objective genetic, cultural, and linguistic reality of nations, he is emphatic that shared belief, including in the nation, is a source of collective power:
Like money, limited liability companies, and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are inter-subjective realities. They exist only in our collective imagination, yet their power is immense. As long as millions of Germans believe in the existence of a German nation, get excited at the sight of German national symbols, retell German national myths, and are willing to sacrifice money, time, and limbs for the German nation, Germany will remain one of the strongest powers in the world. (406)
The inevitable authoritarianism of all societies, including liberal ones, has important implications for heretics seeking to change a society’s norms. Harari observes: “an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends on myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative” (124–25). Hence the increasingly-panicked efforts of mainstream media organizations and governments to suppress dissident speech across the Western world.
Harari astutely observes that human beings do not like to have their world-view discredited and left with nothing to believe in. Rather a positive vision must also be provided: “in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order” (133).
Modern Liberalism: A Deadly Cultural Virus?
Harari is also strong on many of the downsides of global modernity. We have witnessed the end patriarchy and the replacement of traditional culture by mass and youth culture. Family and local community have collapsed, their roles being replaced by the state and the market. Individuals appear more free, but with weaker social networks, their capacity to resist tyranny is in fact weaker (403). Harari emphasizes that material prosperity cannot make up for social connection:
People with strong families who live in tight-knight and supportive communities are significantly happier than people who families are dysfunctional and who have never found (or never sought) a community to be part of. (427)
He says elsewhere: “As money brings down the dams of community, religion, and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace” (208). Furthermore, he observes that individuals are adrift in this global world, dedicating themselves to pointless status symbols, such as large cars or having “experiences” in frequent flights to exotic destinations.
Harari observes that culture can be maladapative:
There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread . . . Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host. . . . They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts or sometimes even killing them. A cultural idea — such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or Communist paradise here on earth — can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death. The human dies, but the idea spreads. (269–70)
Modern liberalism, by its excessive individualism and egalitarianism, to the detriment of community, can be considered a highly-contagious cultural virus.
Conclusions: The Way Forward
Harari’s Sapiens is, with the exception of Chapter 8, a surprisingly good book and, on the whole, a solid starting point for thinking about the overall trajectory of the human species on a realistic basis informed by biological reality. The falsehoods of Chapter 8 mean I cannot endorse the book as a whole. How can one seriously contemplate humanity’s biological future if one cannot frankly recognize our biological present, in all its ethno-genetic diversity? If one sees a friend reading Sapiens, one should gently advise them to also read some works seriously examining recent regionalized human evolution and indeed gene-culture evolution.
All that said, I personally found Sapiens a stimulating read for realistic thinking and forward-looking action. The modern world is one of accelerating and perpetual transformation. Globalization has led to a positive feedback loop whereby intelligent people across the world are connecting and working together to produce technological innovations. At the same time, material prosperity and liberal media have led to the collapse of traditional culture, without its replacement by a rational and adaptive culture. The birth rates of intelligent people and of productive nations across the world have collapsed. There is a race between technological innovation spearheaded by a tiny global cognitive elite and civilizational dysgenics. Furthermore, the steady spread of modern industrial civilization across the world means the extension of Westerners’ consumerist lifestyle to billions, with potentially apocalyptic environmental implications. New technological breakthroughs may help humanity to overcome the very problems raised by technology, but there is no guarantee our species will survive. We can only begin to imagine our coming biotechnological future (which Harari apparently goes into in his sequel, Homo Deus).
Harari has made a partial, if in some respects highly compromised, contribution to re-grounding our thinking in biological reality. Harari’s advocacy of “evolutionary humanism” indeed strikes me as a very good thing. The idea that humanity must progress biologically and culturally upward is not a new one, but is traceable to Plato, Oswald Mosley, and William Pierce (under the term “cosmotheism”). Sapiens’ popularity in the highest circles of the global elite is indeed an interesting sign, but I am afraid the takeaway message will be mainly the blank-slatism of Chapter 8 and the advocacy of a global empire under a small, rootless international elite.
Harari himself is a practitioner of Vipassana Buddhist meditation. His philosophical preference seems quite clearly to be for “natural-law philosophies” like Buddhism or Stoicism, which seek to cultivate self-mastery and to harmonize the human spirit with the underlying reality of things, notably through spiritual exercises. Harari writes eloquently on the workings and benefits of Buddhist meditation (442) and argues that ancient religious and philosophical wisdom on happiness, such as contenting oneself with what one has, has often been vindicated by modern science (428).
This is not a bad program for the future of the human race: spiritual self-mastery, biological science, and technological and genetic progress. A fine triad.
There are also some poignant sections on the cruelty to animals and the enormous environmental damage caused by the industrial raising of livestock, which should encourage everyone to reduce meat consumption.
I came away from Harari’s book more forward-looking than ever. Are nationalists not too often vain nostalgics? Are we not like Canute commanding the tide? I thought to myself: rather than seeking to merely preserve our nations, to long for an impossible restoration, must we not learn to tap into these energies? The world will be increasingly dominated by a global elite. That seems perfectly likely: but might it not be an enlightened European elite? Could we inspire the best of our people to perpetuate their line, embrace genetic improvement, understand scientific reality, and learn the value of their heritage? Could we not convince the best of humanity of the imperative of preserving our species’ civilizational and genetic diversity, most obviously of that staggeringly fecund European fraction of mankind? Might we not then have a leading role in the world, and redirect the flow of history towards our self-preservation and flourishing?
We shall see. Harari notes that warriors and priests have often, throughout history, been able to tame the greed of the merchants in the name of higher values (209). I remark again that history is full of surprises and that those with the greatest will, with the greatest willingness to sacrifice, typically prevail over the weight of numbers. Harari observes:
The only modern ideology that still awards death a central role is nationalism. In its more poetic and desperate moments nationalism promises that whoever dies for the nation will forever live in its collective memory. (302)
Alain Soral, Comprendre l’Empire: Demain la gouvernance globale ou la révolte des nations ? (Paris: Blanche, 2011).
Julian Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (New York: OR Books, 2012), 160.
Gabe Friedman, “10 Jews in Forbes top 50 billionaires,” Times of Israel, March 3, 2015. https://www.timesofisrael.com/10-jews-in-forbes-top-50-billionaires/
This is particularly evident with notoriously atheistic communism, with its founding prophets (Marx and Engels), sacred texts (Das Kapital), national churches (parties), gurus (Leon Trotsky), and bitter schisms (the Democratic/Leninist split, the Stalinist/Trotskyist split, the Sino-Soviet split . . .).
Robert N. Proctor, The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton University Press, 2000).
Some “normie-friendly” starting-points include: Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (Basic Books, 2009) and Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance (Penguin Books, 2014).
Mosley wrote in 1956:
What are the means of observation available to those who are not blessed with the revelation of vision? Are they not the thoughts of great minds which have observed the working of the divine in nature and the researches of modern science which appear largely to confirm them?
Is it not possible by following such thinking and such observation of science to arrive at a new religious impulse? Can we not now see the wholeness, the harmony and the purpose of life by a process of normal thought, even more surely than the sensitive artist in the ecstasy of vision and at least as surely as the revealed faiths which have been accorded to some? Has modern man not reached the point where he requires neither prophets nor priests to show him truth ? Can he not now open his eyes and see sufficient truth to guide him, in the thought and discovery of the human intellect during nearly 3000 years of striving by the human will toward the light? Is it not at least clear that life began in a very low form and has reached a relative height by a process which it is easier to believe is inspired than the subject of an almost incredible series of chances? Is it not clear that a persistent and, in the end, consistent, movement from lower to higher forms is the process and purpose of life? It is at least what has so far happened, if we regard the process over an appreciable period of time. And if this be the purpose it solves the problem of the individual; he has no duty and should have no purpose but to place himself at the disposal and to the service of that higher purpose. (Source: https://www.counter-currents.com/2017/11/colin-wilsons-the-outsider/)
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