Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons For The 21st Century” argues that the continued dominance of liberal democratic politics cannot be taken for granted.
Recent debates about liberalism do not sound very promising. Historically, there have been periods of liberal ideas being on retreat and enjoying less support, such as during the 1930s. However, the main difference between previous and current criticism of liberalism is that the current focus lies less on economic and financial issues. Instead, the primary focus is based on the topics of identification and social organisation. During the 1980’s in the USA and Europe the keywords of politics were ‘freedom’ and ‘markets’ while today it is more about ‘people’ and ‘control’.
One explanation behind the case of liberalism enjoying less credibility today is the case of declining meaningfulness and influence of the liberal storytelling. As historian Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book “21 Lessons For The 21st Century”, liberalism has been one of the most dominant ideas in the modern history of humanity. In competition with totalitarian ideas as fascism and communism liberal ideas ended up victorious, something that led to the public intellectuals as Francis Fukuyama proclaiming the “end of history”. As the Cold War ended, a story based on democratic politics, human rights and free-market capitalism seemed destined to conquer the entire world.
History did not end, however, and it also took an unexpected turn leading to liberal narratives being less and less inspirational. Could this present the end of liberal history? Because of higher resistance to immigration and higher supports for authoritarian policies? Because of political communication about “illiberal democracy” and reducing the freedom of the press and association? According to Harari, while in 1998 liberalism was the dominant story, in 2018 there is no single story dominating some other stories anymore. As he points out, for liberals it meant a sense of shock and disorientation, as many liberals feel that the cases of Brexit and Trump are not only about the end of the liberal narrative but also the end of human civilisation itself.
The liberal story has historically survived earlier challenges as the Franz Ferdinand moment, the Hitler moment and the Che Guevara moment because peace and supermarket proved to be better than war and gulag. While defeating the other ideologies and movements, liberalism came to dominate the global development and is getting challenged in nowadays by the Trump moment which is far more nihilistic than communism and fascism and without offering solutions for the global problems as in the areas of ecology and climate issues.
In his book, Harari also argues that the liberal political system based on democracy and human rights is still vital for humanity but also stresses that the impact of liberalism which shaped the industrial societies is harder to achieve in the post-industrial development with revolutionising process of information and biotechnology. This is, for example, the case of questions related to personal integrity when biotech and infotech are becoming more integrated, something that could mean a future where hackers would not only be hacking the computers but also human bodies or where dictatorships could outperform democracies by exercising more control over humans through digital tools.
As a reader, one can find Harari’s book as very critical towards liberalism, but the author also presents encouragement and optimism. Harari urges liberals to recall 1918, 1938, 1968 and 1998 before feeling that 2018 means a catastrophe for the world. The historical success of liberalism was also based on the support for basic social safety programs and the expansion of freedom and rights universally to all humans. Humanity will not abandon the liberal story, partly because support for liberalism is still high and partly because there is no considerable alternative.
The more extreme opponents of liberalism are offering nostalgic fantasies about a better past. Despite sentimental narratives arguing otherwise, most people have never enjoyed so much peace and prosperity as during the liberal order of the 21st century. What liberals need to do is to provide some better stories about how to solve global problems and challenges as regarding ecology, technology and mobility. Only by doing that can liberal actors continue to shape the future of human civilisation.