THURSDAY, APRIL 27, 2017
The future is scary these days! That may explain the smaller than usual turn-out at this meeting devoted to contemplating it.
There were only seven of us sitting around the room. It was cozy, though, and we had a good talk.
1. Jaimey’s Critique of Yuval Noah Harari’s Shallow Thinking
Jaimey got us going by launching right away into a withering critique of Harari’s Homo Deus.
He maintained that, throughout the book, Harari relies on a kind of verbal slight-of-hand to put across a rather limited and superficial thesis.
Above all, Harari wants to assert that our familiar ways of thinking about ourselves are obsolete and failing us. To aid this thesis, Harari must insist that the mainstays of our usual understandings of our relationship to the world, little things like “consciousness,” “free will,” and even the unified “self,” have been revealed to be fictions — lies!
It follows from this that humanism (and its expression in the political sphere, liberalism) are no longer helpful organizing systems for our time. According to Harari then, we are on the verge of a brave new world which will require new fictions, new mythologies (he suggests “techno-humanism,” “dataism,” and the like).
To Jaimey, however, Harari’s bold contention is mostly bluster. The unified “self,” Jaimey assured us, has not been eradicated… because it was never assumed to be unified in the first place!
Harari insists that from the time of the Enlightenment on, many philosophers in the West have fixated only on the self as a utility-maximizing, rational agent, and have therefore ignored the emotional and expressive and changeable nature of our experiences. But that is laughably ignorant as a potted intellectual history of the West, according to Jaimey. “If Harari had even a passing acquaintance with German intellectual history,” Jaimey explained (and here, imagine his voice lowering into a soothing, Chomskyesque tone of disdain and dismissal), “then he would recognize that the dialectic between the Enlightenment and its critics has always been far more complicated than that.
“Even Kant would never have insisted that the self was merely a rational agent!” Jaimey stated, his eyebrows rising cheerfully.
It is this straw man (of the blinkered Enlightenment thinker), Jaimey continued, that leads Harari to make so many egregious errors throughout his narrative. For example, he groups 20th century fascism under the label of “evolutionary humanism.” Jaimey considered this an obvious error. For Nazism and fascism unmistakably represented post-humanism, in that they ignored the irreducible self of the person in favor of the single characteristic of “race.” They are, we might say, textbook examples of post-humanism. After all, Jaimey observed, even a “genius Jew,” to a Nazi was still sub-human and considered unfit for civilized society.
But Harari’s telos requires him to see humanism as engaged in its “religious wars” in the 20th century; in other words, as just another “fiction” that emerged as a means of social control. So it would be deeply inconvenient for Harari to acknowledge that, in fact, a fierce commitment of many millions of people across the Allied world to process and fairness and individual rights stood firmly against this threat at mid-century. Certainly it would complicate Harari’s catchy narrative about the fragility of this “fiction” of humanism.
Jaimey also pointed out that for all of the trending news items and memorable sociological studies he plucks out of the internet, Harari ends up contradicting himself at times. At one point, for example, Harari concedes that nobody really understands “consciousness” yet. So how can he then proceed to draw conclusions about how our belief in it has been, or has not been, shattered?
In summary, Jaimey felt that most of Homo Deus is not much more than a kind of extended, improvised vamp, leading up to the admittedly difficult questions he poses in the last chapters. Those questions, Jaimey noted, are indeed disturbing and real:
What should the role of technology be in the future, considering that it is rapidly displacing human beings from their sense of being useful?
How far can we go with neuro-chemical enhancement and digital interfaces before we find ourselves unrecognizable?
2. A Skeptical Lens on the Enlightenment
Responding to Jaimey’s critique, I brought up another book that I read in anticipation of this meeting, The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra. There are certain parallels in this book to the story Harari tells in Homo Deus about the development of humanism and the legacy of the Enlightenment.
Both see the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individuality and reason and the rule of law as having fostered an unprecedented material boon for humanity. Both also see this new, ostensibly egalitarian/materialistic/hedonistic life as having creating enormous dislocation and anomie.
Yet whereas Harari sees the “fiction” of humanism as only recently becoming outdated by advances in neuroscience and data science, Mishra sees it as having been oppressive and unstable all along.
The Age of Anger focuses on the way that the Enlightenment creates resentments among the majority who adopt its aspirations… but have no means of satisfying them. This deep tension in liberal democracy, Mishra argues, arose from the very beginning of the 1700s.
Mishra traces a counter-Enlightenment story (from Rousseau to Herder to Fichte to Dostoevsky to Nietzsche to Marx to Weber to Freud to the Futurist poets to Nazism to ISIS… and even to Trump voters). And he argues that this counter-Enlightenment wave is actually cresting in the present.
As the disorientation and furious change caused by liberal, democratic, individualist, consumerist society sweeps the entire globe, people everywhere, on every continent, are beginning to be consumed with the same violence and chaos that overcame Europe in the 20th century. People are angry because they feel shut out from the traditions and values of the past… while also feeling shut out from the future! There is only the volatile present.
The elite, Mishra points out, from Voltaire and Catherine the Great to Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, still triumph, even in a supposedly egalitarian, liberal model of society. Their vaunted philosophy may sound good rhetorically, but most people get left out all the same. So the disenfranchised turn to group identities, authenticity, order — all the ingredients of fascism and authoritarianism. Mishra notes in this context that Rousseau’s ideal society was the city-state of Sparta.
I explained to the group that this thesis, too, struck me as relying on a slight-of-hand, a reductionist approach not unlike Harari’s. For just because a moneyed and privileged elite emerges out of liberalism and capitalism, doesn’t mean that the whole Enlightenment project was and is a charade, does it? The principles of individual rights, equality under the law, free inquiry, and so on, enshrined in slogans like “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” are (pace Marx) not mere bourgeois propaganda. Neither were they meant to occupy the entire ground of meaning in people’s lives.
They are procedural guides.
They were — and are — as far as I understand them, simply intended to point the way towards a process by which people can create meaning for themselves in the most unobstructed way possible, without interfering with other people’s efforts to do the same. Liberal democracy can definitely be charged with hypocrisy and multiple and ongoing failures to create well-being, but that is not the same as suggesting that it is a scam. It may be deeply flawed and the best thing we have going.
Jaimey agreed that Mishra is following a telos in his book as well, and this requires him to see the Western Enlightenment project in a very skeptical light (after all, Jaimey pointed out, Mishra is writing form a post-colonial vantage point — and it is no doubt a necessary corrective to the blithering paeans to democracy and liberalism offered up by neoconservatives and the American media).
In order to point to the future, both books take a narrow and teleological view of the past. Perhaps this is unavoidable when trying to see ahead? You have to use one kind of lens or another?
3. More on the Question of Elitism
Our discussion of The Age of Anger led us into an extended discussion of elitism.
I argued that there are multiple definitions of “elite,” and the use of the same term for all of them leads, unhappily, to confusion. There is of course the moneyed, privileged elite — think Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, the guest list at Mar-a-Lago, etc. But then there is what I think of as the “intellectual elite” — academics, policy experts, writers and scientists and artists.
To my mind, people on the Left often conflate the two, and as a result they sometimes… pour out the baby with the bath water, as the saying goes.
Hillary Clinton, for example, certainly has ties to both kinds of elites. But I would argue that her policy prescriptions, and likely her deepest commitments, are closer to the intellectual elite, whom most of us admire because they espouse roughly the values of liberal democracy. Despite her failings, Hillary probably does mean what she says when she talks about wanting equality and rights for all. She actually does want individuals of all stations and creeds and cultural traditions to be granted dignity, and given equal access to economic opportunity. Perhaps she doesn’t go far enough (free college tuition for all?), but when she doesn’t, to my mind, these are largely matters of degree and policy debate. Thus her ties to the economic elite (her own wealth, her speeches at Goldman Sachs, her resistance to seeking criminal prosecution of Wall Street after the crash of 2008), though real, do not represent, as far as I can tell, a nefarious attempt to bilk everyday men and women. In other words, it isn’t a scam.
Yet people let their frustrations about the rise of an “elite” make them cynical and even hostile towards liberal democracy as a whole, and often repulsed by the very people like Clinton who are its champions. My take is that, yes, there is a huge illiberal surge, just as Mishra suggests, and it is accurately represented by Trump supporters. But there is also a huge surge of people holding firm to liberal democratic values — expressed, for example, in the rapturous reception given by urban, privileged people (broadly speaking, what we might call the intellectual elite), to the musical “Hamliton.” Think of it as “Hamilton America.” It is strong too, perhaps even stronger than the atavistic forces of the Bannonites. Both of these forces are surging and powerful, at our present moment. That’s why I think that, despite its many failures and frustrations, we need to stand squarely with this liberal democratic culture, even at the risk of being associated with an “elite.”
Setenay suggested that before we try to impose our “Hamliton America” ( multi-cultural, pluralistic, liberal, democratic) values on the other half, we need to deliver for them in practical and economic ways. They need money, and access to jobs, and dignity. To this I answered: We can do both, can’t we?
But Setenay wasn’t that sure that these universal values can even be addressed before more fundamental concerns. What strikes her as more important than talk of values is to assess honestly where the power lies (I think of Lenin’s succinct question: “Who, whom?”). Yann took this argument up, saying that the reason that Trump voters have the views they do is actually because of inequality. Systemic inequality has led to poor education, discouragement, a cultural coming apart for many. No assertive, well-nourished, self-satisfied elite, talking about liberal democratic values of inclusion and tolerance will make a dent on the Trump base, without first creating more equality on the ground. The problem is circular, and it feeds on itself.
All of us agreed that the solutions are not obvious. Some of the forces are so big — automation, globalization, the dispersion of “fake news,” drug epidemics — that it is difficult to know how to counter them. Even where we can, it is increasingly difficult to get the elite to care (here is where there is certainly some overlap between the moneyed elite and the intellectual elite).
Yann is optimistic that even the most craven Mar-a-Lago denizens still want to live in a healthy and sustainable economy, and hence worry about the “unwashed masses,” to some limited extent. But he frets, too, that it used to be that the upper echelons of society actually needed the buy-in of majority of the people, for the simple reason that they required a large military and a productive workforce. In our digital, high-tech world of drones and robots, with the army and the workforce receding as felt needs, what will be the pressure, other than vague anxiety for the future of the country, to force the elite to care?
4. Claudia’s Timely Arrival
We were graced with the arrival of Claudia, who spoke directly to her experience working with people who face the raw end of the economy. She mentioned how many of the people she works with in the Alameda unified school district definitely feel a hard ceiling on their ambitions to rise in life. As a result, they are, as we would expect, resentful and angry.
She knows one Latina woman, for example, who voted for Trump for the simple reason that he promised to “make America great again” (this woman, Claudia reported, already regrets her vote). This one individual case seemed to me to support both sides of the equation! The problem of elitism is real. But the problem of misguided and even ignorant values in the ranks of the non-elite is real too. These two problems are intertwined, if not intractable.
5. Predicting the Future is a Fool’s Game
We ended the evening speaking briefly about our own visions for the future. I tried to stay away from describing a personal utopia (we had already done that at our Utopia meeting). Instead, I tried to describe what I think will actually occur…
Surely this kind of prognostication is impossible to do with any confidence, but what trends do we see magnified in the future?
I told the others that I tend to throw my hopes in with the eventual triumph of liberal democracy and socialist-leaning capitalism, once again (as it did in Europe and Japan after the disruption of the two world wars). With this hope in mind, I spun out an admittedly rosy scenario, in which the current upsurge of ressentiment described by Mishra resolves by, say, 2037?
Those many millions of people whose traditional cultures have been jettisoned and even assaulted by liberal, democratic, individualistic, consumerist values, will, I think, discover, over time, that new values do take root. Just as in present-day Sweden, or Australia, or Argentina, so in 20 years or so, will the people of Indonesia, and Nigeria, and Bangladesh learn to absorb a new, pluralistic, dizzying, sometimes confusing, but ultimately open-textured and liberating outlook on their lives. They will form reading groups to forge new meanings in this unsettled and unsettling world. Likewise, those in the already developed world in the West, who have watched resentfully over the past 20 years as their unfair and disproportionate share of the resources has slipped away, will learn to dial down their consumerist expectations. They will learn to accommodate themselves to what Thomas Friedman famously called the Flat World.
Oh, and the whole science of climate change turns out to be wrong! So there’s no ecological catastrophe. Wouldn’t that be nice. (Okay, my prediction ended up being a utopian vision, despite my best efforts to keep it neutral.)
Claudia spoke movingly of a future where a new set of values emerge, values which celebrate the “emotional life” of each person, as opposed to a combative, “compare and despair,” zero-sum game we presently find ourselves playing.
Setenay rejected my regulated capitalist/liberal/accommodationist utopia. She predicted that with the introduction of a basic universal income, and the expansion of health care as a right for all, the world will shift to a more communal model. Some private property rights may remain (you own your own house, for example), but after the “Rise Up” Revolution of 2026-32 there will be far more active redistribution of wealth, leading to increased opportunities.
In the end, we decided that we really don’t know what the future will bring. As Setenay pointed out, there will likely be “non-linear” events, such as an astroid creating an electro-magnetic pulse knocking out all communication satellites, which will set the world in a direction nobody could anticipate!
6. The Future of the Old New Way
As for the future of this group, The Old New Way, my inclination is to wind it down for the present.
We have had three years and a total of sixteen meetings. Sweet sixteen. Each one to me has proved invaluable. I find that I am clearer, three years later, in my thinking on so many questions that I had at the outset of this group.
I can also say, with pleasure, that the group has introduced to me at least as many questions that had never occurred to me before.
Thank you all, my friends, for participating, for pondering, for laughing, for debating, for dreaming.
With love and hope for a beautiful future, for as many people as possible,