Sunday, October 9, 2016

Does Trump's Rise Mean Liberalism's End? - Yuval Noah Harari

But history has not come to an end, and following the Franz Ferdinand moment, the Hitler moment, and the Che Guevara moment we now find ourselves in the Trump moment. This time, however, the Liberal Story is not faced by a coherent ideological opponent like imperialism, fascism, or Communism. The Trump moment is a nihilistic burlesque. Donald Trump has no ideology to speak of, just as the British Brexiteers have no real plan for the future of the Disunited Kingdom.

On the one hand, this may imply that the present crisis of faith is less severe than its predecessors. At the end of the day, people won’t abandon the Liberal Story, because they don’t have any alternative. They may give the system an angry kick but, having nowhere else to go, they will eventually come back.

Alternatively, people may look further back and seek shelter with other stories, traditional nationalist and religious tales that have been pushed to the side in the twentieth century but never completely abandoned. This is arguably what has happened in places like the Middle East, where nationalist extremism and religious fundamentalism is on the rise. However, for all their sound and fury, movements such as the Islamic State don’t offer any serious alternative to the Liberal Story, because they don’t have any answers to the big questions of our era.

What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms humans in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of an enormous new class of economically useless people? What will happen to relationships, families, and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn eighty into the new fifty? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies, and to open even larger gaps between the rich and poor? You are unlikely to find the answers to any of these questions in the Bible or the Koran. Radical Islam, Orthodox Judaism, or fundamentalist Christianity may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms, but in order to navigate the coming twenty-first-century tsunami, you will need a good map and a strong rudder, as well.

The same is true for slogans such as “Make America Great Again” or “Give Us Back Our Country.” You can build a wall against Mexican immigrants but not against global warming; you can cut Westminster from Brussels but you cannot cut the City of London from global financial currents. If people cling in desperation to outdated national and religious identities, the global system may simply collapse in the face of climate change, economic crisis, and technological disruption that nineteenth-century nationalist myths and medieval piety can neither fathom nor solve.

Mainstream √©lites therefore look in horror at events such as Brexit and the rise of Trump, and hope that the masses will come to their senses and return to the fold of the Liberal Story in time to avert disaster. But it might be much harder for the Liberal Story to survive the current crisis of confidence, because the traditional alliance between liberal ethics and capitalist economics that has long underpinned the Liberal Story may be unravelling. During the twentieth century, the Liberal Story was immensely attractive because it told people and governments that they don’t have to choose between doing the right thing and doing the smart thing; protecting human liberties was both a moral imperative and the key to economic growth. Britain, France, and the United States allegedly prospered because they liberalized their economies and societies, and if Turkey, Brazil, or China wanted to become equally prosperous they had to do the same. In most cases, it was the economic rather than the moral argument that convinced tyrants and juntas to liberalize.

In the twenty-first century, however, the Liberal Story has no good answers to the biggest challenges we face: global warming and technological disruption. As the masses lose their economic importance to algorithms and robots, protecting human liberties may remain morally justified—but will the moral arguments alone be enough? Will √©lites and governments go on valuing the liberties and wishes of every human being even when it pays no economic dividends to do so? The masses are right to fear for their future. Even if Donald Trump loses the coming election, millions of Americans have a gut feeling that the system no longer works for them, and they are probably correct.


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