Homo Deus, the latest book by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, is part of the tradition of liberal pessimism. The liberal qualifier may be surprising, applied to a thinker for whom globalized capitalism leads to disaster and who is alarmed by the fact that humanity “yields authority to the market and to the wisdom of the crowds”.
But if one deviates from a purely ‘economic’ conception of liberalism – or “neoliberal”, in the language of today’s left – Harari is indeed a liberal. At the center of his reflection is the idea that the modern world, having replaced the divine authority with that of men, has given birth to three forms of humanism. The Enlightenment first sanctified the autonomous individual..
From this liberal humanism derive two by-products, which also put men in charge of their destiny, but in a collective way: “socialist humanism”, for which the salvation or the perdition of societies depends on social structures (radical left); and “evolutionary humanism”, for whom everything is a matter of cultural superiority or inferiority, – see even biological (basically the extreme right).
Harari analyzes these humanisms with the detachment of the scrupulous seeker, but it is clear that in between the three, his heart does not weigh in. If he did not cherish the values inherited from the Enlightenment, he would not warn against their disappearance. The liberal civilization, having in the twentieth century miraculously triumphed over its enemies, is in his eyes now threatened from within: new technologies pose a danger all the more serious as individuals knowingly contribute to the crushing of their independence.
Pessimism is a venerable movement within liberalism. As Arthur Schlesinger pointed out, The Founding Fathers of the United States were haunted by the failure of the first American democratic experiment in the 1780s. Their manifesto, The Federalist, is deeply skeptical about human nature and power. It was in the twentieth century that liberal pessimism reached its peak. Elie Halévy, George Orwell, and HL Mencken, among others, saw in modernity a machine to grind the individual.
After the Second World War, the few liberals in the intelligentsia – Arthur Koestler, Karl Popper, and Raymond Aron – highlighted the power of forces that were aligned against a democratic society that had not triumphed over totalitarianism except by elevating another.
For many, the challenge to freedom far exceeded simple geostrategy. Friedrich Hayek believed that the “extended order” resulting from the interaction of free agents, a fruit of cultural evolution, was thwarted by collectivist instincts in human biology. The market is for Hayek literally unnatural. The Soviet dissident Igor Shafarevich, author of the much- overlooked socialist phenomenon, considered totalitarianism as an aspiration of humanity from the dawn of civilization.
THE DEMOCRATIC PARENTHESIS
In the early 1980s, freedom was only imperfectly ruling over a small third of humanity, and no one was betting on its victory, or even its long-term survival. Jean-François Revel, the most incandescent of contemporary European liberals, wrote at the time:
Democracy may have been an accident in history, a brief parenthesis, which, before our eyes, closes.
However, it is in the nineteenth century that Harari finds his most direct intellectual ancestor. The dark vision of the future advanced in Homo Deus presents notable similarities with that of Alexis de Tocqueville . The fourth part of Democracy in America describes a society of decerebrate humans gradually agreeing to their own enslavement. In Tocqueville’s case, this is a social process: the equality of conditions, which defines democracy for him, leads to the standardization of opinions by mass effect, and the development of an absolute state to which citizens, ever more equal among themselves and separated from each other, always ask for more.
THE EFFECT OF TECHNOLOGICAL EVOLUTION
For Harari, the self-destruction of free societies is the result of technological evolution. Already able to repair DNA, men will be masters of their own evolution tomorrow, and will strive to eliminate disease, and even death itself. Even if it fails, the attempt to give birth to a Homo deus is fatal. On the other hand, in the grip of a new religion of information flows, humans will rely more and more on artificial intelligence, whose constantly refined algorithms are in all respects superior to those that nature has painfully forced upon them. Whether destined to be ousted by robots or supermen, Homo Sapiens seems doomed.
The scientific dystopia of Harari prolongs the liberal nightmares, beautifully expressed by Tocqueville at the time, to adapt them to ours. It is important to emphasize a concern that is common to both: one and the other seek above all to prevent, not to prophesy. Tocqueville does not take for granted the advent of the dictatorship at once soft and implacable that he portrays; on the contrary, he invites the French to take inspiration from the United States, which has preserved old liberties within the new egalitarian society. It is in the same spirit that Harari writes:
All the predictions that dot this book are nothing more than an attempt to discuss today’s dilemmas, and an invitation to change the future.
Harari opposes the progressive movement of liberalism, for which the aspiration to freedom and the spirit of cooperation are fundamental human traits, and the history of deploying their logic on an ever-larger scale. This movement has had eloquent representatives since the end of the Cold War, including Francis Fukuyama, Matt Ridley, and Steven Pinker. Harari does not believe in it, any more than he accepts the intrinsically virtuous logic of the markets – a skepticism shared by Tocqueville, which stigmatizes the industrial aristocracy of the nineteenth century.