The main struggle in the 21st century will be about irrelevance: Harari

The main struggle in the 21st century will be about irrelevance: Harari

Çınar Oskay - TEL AVIV
The main struggle in the 21st century will be about irrelevance: Harari

When I said that I am going to Israel for an interview, a close Palestinian friend Yazan asked: “Haven’t you heard of the BDS?”

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a campaign that proposes treating the Israeli state like the apartheid regime in South Africa and boycotting it in all fields including sports, culture, science.  

But what is Israel? Is every society not divided in half in this era of polarization?

What about the Israelis protesting Netanyahu government on the streets side by side Palestinians? 

Orel, an Israeli of Turkish origin I met in Tel Aviv, says: “The wall in Gaza makes me feel very guilty. But since the wall the attacks and the death toll decreased sharply. I feel much safer now. I am sorry for them but what can I do?”

The world is full of questions with no obvious answers.

And the person I would like to ask them the most, lives right here. 

Yuval Noah Harari is the most talked about historian of the 21st Century. His first book ‘Sapiens’ sold 500,000 copies in Turkey and 8 million in the world. It was recommended by Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. ‘Sapiens’ looked at our past, while his second book “Homo Deus” reflected on our future.  

His third book was just published this week: “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” his most political book yet.

We met under the burning Tel Aviv sun and discussed the fate of humanity and our planet.

Are we going through a catastrophic time? 

As we speak today, in August 2018, we are still in the best times human kind has ever had.  The direction we are going, the tendencies we are seeing now are very negative, that is for sure.  But still, the condition of humanity is better, incidents of famine, plague, violence are lower than any previous time in history.  Not only in developed countries, but also in the world as a whole. There is a lot to be grateful for.  

Humanity seems to be extremely anxious however… 

Most people have a very distorted view of history and the present. Instead of being grateful for the enormous achievements of humanity and the international order over the last few decades, they take it for granted and complain. This doesn’t mean that this is paradise. We have lots of problems. But still, it is better than ever before and we are currently destroying the foundations of the order that is responsible for these achievements. 

Which order?

The level of violence is the lowest in history, not because of some divine miracle, but wise human decisions, international organizations and cooperation.  With isolationism, nationalism and a new arm race we can fall very low, very quickly. People don’t realize it.  

There are rifts in societies. In Israel, Turkey, United States...


This rift typically divides societies in half.  Why is this happening everywhere at the same time?  

What is common is one significant rift. This is between those who move forward and those left behind.  The world is undergoing a tremendous wave, a revolution.  This revolution benefits some segments of the population enormously. But large segments feel they are becoming less powerful, less relevant.  Their lives do not necessarily become harder but they see others advance far more. 

Is this a new phenomenon?

In the 20th Century, a relatively small elite exploited masses of people. The masses felt exploited but they were still very important. You could not run an economy without them. The main thing for workers was to translate economic power into political power.  They unionized, went on strike, staged socialist revolutions.  In the 21st century, the main struggle will be about irrelevance. 


Many people are pushed aside.  The elite don’t exploit them.  The elite don’t need them.  Look at the Israeli economy; what is pushing it forward is 10 percent of the work force.  Most of the people are not being exploited; they are just irrelevant. It is much more difficult to fight against irrelevance than to fight against exploitation.  The main problem is more psychological: “I am not important.  I am humiliated…”  

And you call this phase “the Trump moment.”

Yes, then you have somebody like (Donald) Trump, or (Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan go to these people and tell them: “You are the most important people in the world.  You are not irrelevant.  The future will not pass you by”.  Much of the appeal of nationalist populism is this… This may not have economic logic behind it, but is psychologically extremely appealing.  When crisis occur, these visions of nationalism collide with economic realities of the world.  

What happens then?

Then the temptation is to say: “It is because of foreigners, immigrants, this or that group,” and so on, instead of recognizing the realities of the economy and having a realistic program... Starting a trade war with China, with Turkey is not really going to help any Trump voter in Pennsylvania or Ohio.  

You joined a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and you mentioned noticing his entourage constantly pampering him but not offering any real advice. 

That is a sultan.  Usually people are afraid to give advice to a sultan.  They want to tell him what he wants to hear and it can be dangerous to tell the truth.  

Aren’t these leaders well aware of this? Why do they prefer to be around this type of advisers instead of ones who could provide feedback? Is this power poisoning or a tactical, deliberate decision? How does this mechanism work?  

It is as old as history.  You know there is a slogan that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  It’s not that your personal morality is corrupted.  It is an extremely difficult position to be in to lead a country.  Especially if it is not New Zealand, but a country as complicated as Turkey, or Israel.  


So many problems, pressures, so much information… It is incredibly complicated to get all these conflicting messages. In a situation of such great chaos, you develop some theory about the world: This is how the world works and this is what we should do...  This happens to every person, it is human nature.  Scientists call it “confirmation bias”.  If we have a theory about the world and something confirms it, we immediately notice it. 

What if it doesn’t?

It’s “fake news,” “statistically insignificant” or whatever...  When you are in a position of power, in terms of your confirmation bias, you have many tools.  

What kind of tools? 

Let’s give an example from Israel. If somebody tells Netanyahu “Your policy is not good, it hurts Israel’s image.”  Part of your theory is: This is propaganda. If my advisor has fallen victim to this distorted view of the world, I will fire him. Then other advisors see what happens to someone who speaks like that. They think: I don’t want to be fired, I won’t say such things.  Then you get more and more confirmation for your theory and develop a stronger belief in it.  

A vicious circle… Isn’t this dangerous?

For an ordinary person, the confirmation bias is not so strong because your ability to control your immediate reality is limited.  You have no impact on newspapers for instance.  You will see main headlines in the newspaper that contradict you. But if you are a prime minister in Israel -and also in Turkey I think- you have a lot of influence on what the papers write.  Then you read the newspaper… A vicious circle.  

So they believe in perceptions that they themselves manufacture… 

There are leaders who are completely corrupt, who only want to make themselves rich.  But I think generally this is not the case. I think that Netanyahu is deeply convinced that he is doing the best for Israel, that he is the best servant of Israel. Even if they say he gave money to this person, took money from that person…

They can justify it.  

He can justify it, because “He is serving Israel”.  He wants to keep journalists by his side.  I think that Erdoğan thinks that what he is doing is really for the best interest of Turkey. I think that Putin completely identifies himself with Russia.  I don’t think he says: ‘Hey, I am just exploiting Russia to enrich myself’, he thinks… 
That he is Russia.

That his interest and Russia’s interest are the same and that any attack of him is really an attack of Russia.  It is not true.  But psychologically he has a very deep conviction.  It seems to me that deception used to be a more subtle, sophisticated endeavor.

Nowadays, it is not very difficult to bend the truth is it?

I do not agree that we are living in a unique age of post truth and fake news. In the past, things were much worse, people just forgot.  Stalin’s propaganda machine was far more extreme and ruthless than Putin’s.  The chief newspaper in the Soviet Union was called ‘Pravda’ which means “the truth.”  What was in the Pravda was anything but the truth.  Stalin was able to hide the murder of millions of people successfully.  When Stalin died in 1953, many people in Israel went into mourning.  The big newspaper of the Kibbutz movement, the socialists, published a story: “The Father of the Nations has died.” This person murdered tens of millions of people but his propaganda machine was so successful. Not only in the Soviet Union, but people all over the world thought that accusations were fake news against Stalin and that he was actually the savior of the working class in the world.  Also, the kind of things people believed in in the Middle Ages… 

Which ones? 

If somebody said: “I just saw this lady fly on a broomstick in the next village, she is a witch,” within two hours, you would have a mob burning that old lady.  So rumors, shaming, etc. are nothing new.    

Despite the Technological Revolution, Information Revolution, contradictions, religions proved to be extremely resistant. You have a whole chapter in the book on this issue. Is God back?  

Religion addresses ethical, policy and identity problems.  For much of history religion was the authority in all three.  When sick, you would go to the priest, the shaman or the guru.  In a drought you would go to the church, the mosque or the temple. In ancient or medieval times religion was so important due to this technical authority. If you look at the life of Jesus, half of the time, he was a doctor.  


Bringing sight to the blind, making lame people walk...  Today even when religious people get sick they go to the doctor. In a drought, if the Saudis want water, they don’t pray to Allah, they build salinization plants on the sea and call engineers.  Religion completely lost its technical power.    

But it still determines politics.

In the past, much of the authority about policy was in the hands of religious authorities. Now, when you compare economic policies of say Jewish Israel, Sunni Turkey, Shiite Iran and the United States… They all follow the same economic models developed by the same economists.  Both Trump and Erdoğan have issues with their central banks about interest rates.  But these discussions are done according to the science of economics.  You don’t go to the chief mullah and ask what to do with the interest rates.  So policy is also out of the hands of religion.  

The main struggle in the 21st century will be about irrelevance: Harari

So what is left in the hands of religion?

Identity… “Who are we and who are they?” In this, religion is still extremely important and will continue to be in the foreseeable future.  

Is this good or bad for humanity?

It is unfortunate.  What the world needs above anything else today is better global cooperation.  Even though religion -in principle- could be a force for uniting people -especially universal religions like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism-, in practice, it has now degenerated into being a tool of the nation state. 

So, it is merging into nationalism… 

Yes. In Israel you can maybe justify it since Judaism was always a tribal religion. But in Poland and Hungary they use Catholicism; In Russia they use orthodox Christianity, in India they use Hinduism as a tool of nationalism.  This is very unfortunate.

In the book you discuss a state you call: “vague- belief”.  You say humans can have their doubts and see contradictions yet will continue believing. 

Human mind is an extremely complicated system.  It can believe and not believe at the same time.  You can believe in many contradictory things simultaneously. This is what makes humans and religions so adaptable.  If it was between a 100 percent or a zero percent belief, it could quickly collide with reality and crumble. But it is much more complicated than that.  


People have always seen religion as an eternal truth that doesn’t change.  The world is in turmoil, everything is changing and this is stressful and frightening.  They want a stable story that explains everything. The unique character of religion is that it changes all the time, but every time it changes, it claims to be eternal truth.  They say “We are not inventing anything new, but are going back to the origin.” ISIS is a typical example.  Their brand of Islam is completely new but they claim going back to original purity. Every religious revolution is the same.  They never admit that they are doing something new.  In Israel, religious people suddenly started having a huge problem with women.  


Yes. They claim that recent generations have become corrupt, allowing women to be in all places, mixing with men etc. Today in a synagogue, there is a very strict division between men and women. In ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, you can’t even post a picture of a woman. There was a famous incident in a neighborhood nearby. They were advertising new flats with happy families on billboards. But these families consisted only of men and boys to preserve the purity of Judaism! Then you excavate the first synagogues built almost 2000 years ago and discover no indication of separation of men and women. They also discovered that synagogues were in part decorated with mosaics of women.  This often happens in religions: They become more and more extreme but they say: “We are just going back to original purity.”  

You do not mention the issue of women in the book so much. Do you consider today’s women’s movement of historical significance?

The #metoo movement is part of a much larger movement.  The larger feminist revolution of the last century all over the world has been one of the most important and successful social revolutions in human history.  Since -at least the agricultural revolution- there was a hierarchy in which women’s political, economic and legal status was far lower than men’s.  Feminist revolution changed this in an unprecedented way.  Things that were thought to be eternal and natural have changed in a profound way.  And it happened with extremely little violence.  In Russian, French, Chinese, Iranian revolutions, there was a lot of violence involved.  Feminists didn’t have to kill or sacrifice almost anybody.  It’s a wonderful example that you don’t necessarily need violence for positive change.  

You call the period between 1950-70: “The Che Guevara moment.”  You see ideologies like communism, capitalism as human made religions.  When you look at these narratives, do you find any of them appealing?  

These are stories invented by humans. Stories are tools.  You can’t build human order without shared stories, shared fictions.  It doesn’t mean all the stories are the same.  The yardstick to evaluate a story is the amount of suffering that it prevents or causes.  The World Cup for instance… In order to watch football, first you need to convince people about the laws of the football game, a human invention.  There is nothing wrong with this. But if a hooligan beats up or kills a fan of the rival team, then you have lost it.  Now, it is a bad story.  You should remember it is an invented story and not kill anybody for it.  Same goes for the big stories like liberalism, fascism, communism... 

So which human invented story is most appealing to you?

When you look at the historical record, I would say without any doubt that the liberal story has been the best.  It has its problems, it has its flaws, it is not without atrocities and terrible things were done in its name such as the invasion of Iraq to establish democracy, which was such a stupid thing to do. But when you look at the big picture, liberalism has been the best story for humanity in the last two or three centuries.  

Does liberalism include capitalism?

It has an alliance with capitalism, an alliance of convenience... They meet in the free market.  The word “liberalism” comes from liberty, freedom.  It believes in the highest value of freedom, allows people to think for themselves, to make their own decisions, to follow their heart and so forth.  Liberalism needs capitalism in the free market.  The idea is that the highest authority in the economy is the desire of the customer. The customer is always right and we should allow free movement of goods and money services; people should make their own decisions, so we also need free movement of information etc.  All this made liberalism and capitalism natural allies.  They are still very different one from another.  

How are they different?

Liberalism values many things that capitalism doesn’t.  Capitalism has a much more narrow perspective.  One of the biggest dangers now is that they will part company; this brings me back to where we started.  If you look at the spread of liberal values in the last few decades in countries like China and Turkey, governments allowed more freedom to citizens not because of their liberal values, but they believed in the capitalist ideal.  They thought: Unless you give people more freedom to make choices about what they buy, what they wear, what they invent, the economy is going to stagnate.  The real reason many governments liberalize their countries is capitalism, not liberalism.  These two worked together in the 20th century but now they diverge. As more and more people are irrelevant to the economy with the emergence of the useless class, the alliance between liberalism and capitalism might collapse.  You could have very successful economies without much freedom.  

When you look at socialism and communism, do you think that these narratives were never a realistic alternative for humanity?  Do you think a more egalitarian, humane system is impossible?

The impact of communism and socialism on the world has been immense.  In the late 19th century, countries like Britain and the United States had almost no social welfare services.  No pensions, no social security, very little investment in education or help for the masses.  The robber-baron era of capitalism...  Capitalism constantly pressured people to forget about regulation and ethical standards. 

How did this change?

It was largely the influence of communism and socialism. One influence was intellectual. The ideas of socialism did not make people establish a communist dictatorship but did convince them to build a more equal and just society for everybody.  The other important influence was fear.  After the Russian Revolution in 1917, there was a constant fear that communists would take over Italy, Germany, France…  To prevent this, they needed to bring the working class over their side with welfare, education and social services.  It is not that socialism completely failed; the extreme socialist experiments in the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, they failed. But many of the socialist ideals and practices were incorporated in liberal democratic capitalist societies.  Even the United States -the most extreme capitalist society- is a completely different place now than what it was in the late 19th century.  

In the book, you define Homo sapiens as a xenophobic creature. The other day, there were Israelis on the streets of Tel Aviv protesting the Netanyahu government side by side with Palestinians… We have just seen a Swedish young woman fighting on a plane to save an Afghan refugee from being expelled… How are we all the same species? Is there a divergence in Homo sapiens’ xenophobic nature? 

No, Homo sapiens are xenophobic but also very susceptible to education. We can get educated to a far greater extent than any other animal.  With the right education you can instill all kinds of values and behaviors, even values and behaviors that don’t come naturally to humans.  Nationalism is a good example.  

How so? 

Humans are socially tribal animals; you often hear that nationalism appeals to the innate tribal instincts of human beings. This is nonsense!  The tribal instincts are in a context of intimate communities when we lived like chimpanzees in a small band of a couple a dozen other humans.  Depending on them for your survival, becoming loyal to them is very natural.  This is still true today of families or small group army units. But, nations are not intimate communities.  Turkey has 80 million people right? 


Who knows 80 million people!  You don’t know 99.99 percent of other Turks and you will never meet them.  Turkey is a big country and most Turks will never see most cities in Turkey. It is extremely unnatural for people to feel loyal to complete strangers in places they have never visited.  

So how do people develop nationalist feelings?

Because they are educated from birth by a vast educational machine. That makes them identify with this abstract idea of nation.  I am not saying it is bad; there are many good things about it. Empathy increases and that is good.  But when people say that it is unnatural for humans to identify with the whole of human kind; that doesn’t make sense. It is not unnatural for Swedes to care about Afghans.  It is unnatural for Swedes to care about Swedes!  

Swedes are mentioned in the book at the chapter on immigration. How are countries like Sweden, Norway supposed to protect their democracies they have built with much effort and sacrifice? What is the right thing? 

Both sides of the immigration debate have valid points.  It is not a struggle of good against evil.  Not all the people who oppose immigration are racist and fascists; and not all for it are naïve. Any result is okay.  We now live in a global world and it is impossible to completely cut yourself away from your responsibilities for the rest of human kind. 

Some analysts argue that European Union’s (EU) cold approach towards Turkey caused this country to leave the democratization path. They claim that this was disadvantageous for the EU in the long term too. Do you think that this was a missed opportunity? Or it has never been a realistic goal from the beginning?

European Union now is unraveling. The EU accepted Hungary and Poland long before it even considered accepting Turkey.  Integration was quite successful.  Nevertheless now they are becoming authoritarian regimes threatening the very survival of the Union.  The recent argument - which has some evidence in its favor - is that the European Union made a mistake in expanding too far too quickly to embrace countries, which really are too divergent in their worldviews and values.  During economic growth, prosperity, peace and little immigration everybody was happy. With the economic hardship, immigration, rise of Russia things changed. They “suddenly” discovered that Eastern and Western European countries do not really get along very well and that maybe the EU will collapse.  

You said that human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history.  Can there be a nuclear war or a World War III during this populist era?

The cost of World War III would be so terrible; nobody would come out as victor.  During the Cold War, at least there were two colliding ideologies. So you could imagine people could be willing to commit mass suicide for their high ideals. But what characterizes the populist movements -despite all the sound and fury- is that people are not very keen to kill or to be killed.  

How did you reach this conclusion? 

Brexit for instance… In previous centuries, it would be decided by big war with hundreds of thousands of people killed or injured.  Now only one person was killed during the referendum by some lunatic fanatic.  You look at Scotland, Catalonia… There is a lot of emotion but not like a century ago.  A century ago, Europeans were killing each other by the million. Look at Israel, despite all the nationalist and religious fervor, Israelis are not very happy to die.  A century ago, in the height of nationalism there was this cult of death: “We want to die for the Nation!”  Now there is only ISIS and the suicide bombers. Most of the world is not very keen on dying, even for their ideals.  This is a good sign.  The risk of a big war is not zero. But it is more likely to come from a miscalculation rather than a big ideological clash.  

You conclude that we are the closing chapter of Homo sapiens.  How do you think we did in this world?  Are we a success story or a disappointment?  If you were humanity’s psychiatrist, what would your diagnosis be?

We did a good job for ourselves and a very bad job for the rest of the planet.  We are powerful, there are so many of us. But the ecological system is collapsing.  Other animals and plants are being extinct. As rulers of the world, we acted like some dictator who doesn’t care about anybody else.  In terms of understanding the deep roots of human existence and suffering, we are not much wiser than 50,000 years ago.  We are much more powerful than we were during the Stone Age but not significantly happier.  In this sense, humanity is in a midlife crisis.  A typical, successful man… He has money, power but what did he really accomplish? I think that humanity needs to relax in terms of pursuit of power. We have enough of that already; we don’t know what to do with it. We need to invest more time and effort in understanding the deep causes of our dissatisfaction.  Getting more power will only make us more irresponsible.