Are liberals on the wrong side of history?
Three new books interrogate the premises of the Enlightenment.
Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned.
You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place; a baby who is crying now will stop crying sooner or later. Exhaustion, or a change of mood, or a passing sound, or a bright light, something, always happens next. But for the parents the wait can feel the same as forever, and for many pundits, too, now is the only time worth knowing, for now is when the baby is crying and now is when they’re selling your books.
And so the death-of-liberalism tomes and eulogies are having their day, with the publishers who bet on apocalypse rubbing their hands with pleasure and the ones who gambled on more of the same weeping like, well, babies. Pankaj Mishra, in “Age of Anger” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), focusses on the failures of what is sometimes called “neoliberalism”—i.e., free-market fundamentalism—and, more broadly, on the failure of liberal élites around the world to address the perpetual problem of identity, the truth that men and women want to be members of a clan or country with values and continuities that stretch beyond merely material opportunity. Joel Mokyr’s “A Culture of Growth” (Princeton) is an attempt to answer the big question: Why did science and technology (and, with them, colonial power) spread west to east in the modern age, instead of another way around? His book, though drier than the more passionate polemics, nimbly suggests that the postmodern present is powered by the same engines as the early-modern past. In “Homo Deus” (HarperCollins), Yuval Noah Harari offers an elegy for the end of the liberal millennium, which he sees as giving way to post-humanism: the coming of artificial intelligence that may leave us contented and helpless, like the Eloi in H. G. Wells’s “Time Machine.” Certainly, the anti-liberals, or, in Harari’s case, post-humanists, have much the better of the rhetorical energy and polemical brio. They slash and score. The case against the anti-liberals can be put only slowly and with empirical caution. The tortoise is not merely a slow runner but an ugly one. Still, he did win the race.
Mishra, an Indian-born journalist now resident in London, is dashing. Dashing in the positive sense, as one possessed by real brio, and dashing in the less positive sense, as one racing through Western, and a great deal of Eastern, intellectual history of the past three centuries at a pace that leaves the reader panting—sometimes in admiration of his verve, sometimes in impatience at his impatience. Everything in modern history, his book suggests, has been inexorably leading up to the conditions of 2017. Since, if the book had been written a scant seven years ago—with Obama triumphant, Labour in power in Britain, and the euro having survived its shocks—the entire vector of the centuries would have seemed dramatically different, one wonders whether what Mishra traces through time might really be not a directional arrow but more like a surfboard, rising and falling on the quick-change waves of history.
Mishra’s thesis is that our contemporary misery and revanchist nationalism can be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romantic reaction to Voltaire’s Enlightenment—with the Enlightenment itself entirely to blame in letting high-minded disdain for actual human experience leave it open to a romantic reaction. In Mishra’s view, Voltaire—whose long life stretched from 1694 to 1778—was the hyper-rationalist philosophe who brought hostility to religion out into the open in eighteenth-century France, and practiced a callow élitist progressivism that produced Rousseau’s romantic search for old-fashioned community. Rousseau, who, though eighteen years younger, died in that same fateful year of 1778, was the father of the Romantic movement, of both the intimate nature-loving side and the more sinister political side, with its mystification of a “general will” that dictators could vibrate to, independent of mere elections. The back-and-forth of cold Utopianism and hot Volk-worship continues to this day. The Davos men are Voltaire’s children, a transnational and fatuously progressive élite; Trump and Brexit voters are Rousseau’s new peasant hordes, terrified of losing cultural continuity and clan comfort.
Piling blame on Voltaire as an apostle of top-down neoliberalism is familiar from John Ralston Saul’s 1992 “Voltaire’s Bastards,” and the idea of Rousseau, the Genevan autodidact, as the key figure in the romantic political reaction against modernity, even as the godfather of Nazism, was present in Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy,” back in the nineteen-forties. A fan of Voltaire will object that Mishra offers a comically partial picture of him, neglecting his brave championing of the fight against torture and religious persecution. Mishra’s Voltaire is a self-seeking capitalist entrepreneur, because, among other things, he established a watch factory at Ferney—as a refuge and asylum for persecuted Protestants. Casting Voltaire as the apostle of fatuous utopian progressivism, Mishra curiously fails to note that he also wrote what remains the most famous of all attacks on fatuous utopian progressivism, “Candide.”
The truth is that no thinker worth remembering has some monolithic “project” to undertake; all express a personality inevitably double, and full of the tensions and contradictions that touch any real life. Voltaire was greedy, entrepreneurial, self-advancing; he was also altruistic, courageous, and generous. He spread Enlightenment ideas to the farthest outposts of Europe—and he sold them out to the autocrats who lived there. A persistent oddity of intellectuals is that when they’re talking about someone they actually know they offer a mixed accounting of bad stuff and good stuff: he’ll drive you crazy with this, but he’s terrific in that. The moment someone becomes a feature of the past, however, he is reduced to a vector with a single transit and historical purpose. If we treated our friends the way we treat our subjects, we wouldn’t have any. (Mishra himself is a voice against the neoliberal consensus who also writes a column for Bloomberg View. This does not make him a hypocrite. It makes him, like Voltaire, one more writer who works for a living.)
Mishra’s Rousseau, infatuated with a dream of ancient Spartan order and inflamed with resentment at the condescension of the Enlightenment élite, is more recognizable. But one wonders if an irascible Swiss pastoralist is really responsible for the temper of nineteenth-century anti-rationalism, which Mishra ably presents as it develops over the next two centuries, with a love of apocalyptic violence for its own sake. (Mishra rightly finds the obsession summed up in Bakunin’s phrase about destruction as a creative passion.) There are lots of romantic anti-rationalisms to play with; Rousseau’s was largely soft and sentimental in tone, rather than apocalyptic and violent. As Mark Twain saw, the prewar American South grounded its “organic” medievalism in Walter Scott’s novels, without a trace of Rousseau infecting the brew.
Things get much more original and interesting when Mishra captures how the many currents of romantic nationalism are entangled in the contemporary world. This is the beating heart of the book, and it is both richly realized and wonderfully detailed. He demonstrates that “radical Islam” is an almost wholly modern “collage” of parts borrowed from Western romantic-reactionary thought; even Ayatollah Khomeini’s version was as much a product of Paris as of ancient Persia. (This may explain Michel Foucault’s enthusiasm for Khomeini and his revolution.)
The Indian material is particularly revealing. Mishra shows that, far from being some kind of restorative, backward-looking “tribalism,” the ideology that filled pre-independence India was a bizarre mixture of right-wing social Darwinism, muddled and mystical Theosophy, and left-wing Fabianism—not intrinsically “Eastern” but modern, eclectic, and fantastically mercurial in its turnings. Savarkar, the chief ideologue of the extreme Hindu nationalism now once more in power in India (and a mentor of Gandhi’s assassin), relied on Western ideas absorbed during his student days in England, wedged in alongside Germanic and Wagnerian notions of glorious racial battles. He hated Muslims for their intrusion into a Hindu homeland, and adored them for their history of religious machismo.
For Mishra, elements in modernity that seem violently opposed, Zionism and Islamism, Hindu nationalism and Theosophical soppiness—not to mention Nazi militarism—share a common wellspring. Their apostles all believe in some kind of blood consciousness, some kind of shared pre-rational identity, and appeal to a population enraged at being reduced to the hamster wheel of meaningless work and material reward. Mishra brings this Walpurgisnacht of romanticized violence to a nihilistic climax with the happy meeting in a Supermax prison of Timothy McVeigh, perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, and Ramzi Yousef, perpetrator of the World Trade Center bombing: the fanatic, child-murdering right-wing atheist finds “lots in common” with the equally murderous Islamic militant—one of those healing conversations we’re always being urged to pursue. (“I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his,” Yousef gushed of McVeigh.)
Mishra is too intelligent and humane to have any confusion about the end and outcome of these romantic reactions—one need be no fan of Shah or Tsar to see that the suffering of the people increased after the ruler’s overthrow by ideologues, religious or secular, enraptured by a dream of the renewed social whole. The twentieth century is a graveyard of such attempts, or, rather, is filled with graveyards of people crushed by such attempts. But Mishra does take most of his mordant pleasures in detailing the illusions on the liberal side. His insistence that the liberal state serves only a tiny élite seems belied by the general planetary truths of ever-increasing, if inequitably divided, prosperity. The same principle of pluralism that applies to minds must also be applied to models. The state can be both inarguably more prosperous and plural and still insufficiently equal. Perhaps Tocqueville’s most brilliant insight (and Mishra, to his credit, cites it) was that revolutions are produced by improved conditions and rising expectations, not by mass immiseration. As Louis C.K. says, right now everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Each citizen carries on her person a computer more powerful than any available to a billionaire two decades ago, and many are using their devices to express their unbridled rage at the society that put them in our pockets.
Behind this rage is the history of European domination, which has produced an inequality favoring the North against the South, and the West against the East. In Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth-century parable “Rasselas,” a Persian prince asks a philosopher, Imlac, an essential question:
“By what means,” said the prince, “are the Europeans thus powerful? or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade or conquest, cannot the Asiaticks and Africans invade their coasts, plant colonies in their ports, and give laws to their natural princes? The same wind that carries them back would bring us thither.”
“They are more powerful, Sir, than we,” answered Imlac, “because they are wiser; knowledge will always predominate over ignorance, as man governs the other animals. But why their knowledge is more than ours, I know not what reason can be given.”
That question underlies the other questions: we can’t understand either the history of liberalism that produced modern life or the history of colonialism that produced Mishra’s postmodern collage without first understanding why the wind blew only one way. Liberalism, on this view, is simply the hot air that blew the imperialists toward their loot.
Joel Mokyr is an economic historian at Northwestern, and “A Culture of Growth,” though rather plainly written, is a fascinating attempt to answer that essential question. He reminds us that the skirmishing of philosophers and their ideas, the preoccupation of popular historians, is in many ways a sideshow—that the revolution that gave Europe dominance was, above all, scientific, and that the scientific revolution was, above all, an artisanal revolution. Though the élite that gets sneered at, by Trumpites and neo-Marxists alike, is composed of philosophers and professors and journalists, the actual élite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans—masters of reality, not big thinkers.
Mokyr sees this as the purloined letter of history, the obvious point that people keep missing because it’s obvious. More genuinely revolutionary than either Voltaire or Rousseau, he suggests, are such overlooked Renaissance texts as Tommaso Campanella’s “The City of the Sun,” a sort of proto-Masonic hymn to people who know how to do things. It posits a Utopia whose inhabitants “considered the noblest man to be the one that has mastered the most skills . . . like those of the blacksmith and mason.” The real upheavals in minds, he argues, were always made in the margins. He notes that a disproportionate number of the men who made the scientific and industrial revolution in Britain didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but got artisanal training out on the sides. (He could have included on this list Michael Faraday, the man who grasped the nature of electromagnetic induction, and who worked some of his early life as a valet.) What answers the prince’s question was over in Dr. Johnson’s own apartment, since Johnson was himself an eccentric given to chemistry experiments—“stinks,” as snobbish Englishmen call them.
As in painting and drawing, manual dexterity counted for as much as deep thoughts—more, in truth, for everyone had the deep thoughts, and it took dexterity to make telescopes that really worked. Mokyr knows Asian history, and shows, in a truly humbling display of erudition, that in China the minds evolved but not the makers. The Chinese enlightenment happened, but it was strictly a thinker’s enlightenment, where Mandarins never talked much to the manufacturers. In this account, Voltaire and Rousseau are mere vapor, rising from a steam engine as it races forward. It was the perpetual conversation between technicians and thinkers that made the Enlightenment advance. ted talks are a licensed subject for satire, but in Mokyr’s view ted talks are, in effect, what separate modernity from antiquity and the West from the East. Guys who think big thoughts talking to guys who make cool machines—that’s where the leap happens.
The history that Mokyr details can be seen as a story of gradually decreased metaphysical illusion, with ineffable spirit being driven, by turns, out of the cosmos, the biological tree, and the human mind. In the final reduction, the idea of the “human” itself may vanish into algorithms and programs. The coolest machine of all thinks its big thoughts for itself.
This is the view of Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, and the author of “Sapiens,” a bracingly unsentimental history of humankind, which was praised by everyone from Jared Diamond to President Obama. “Homo Deus” extends Harari’s argument about man’s fate far into the future. The first fifty or so pages go by smoothly, with a confident, convincing account of the transformations that have made the world less treacherous than ever before. He reprises, in rosy if not Pinkerian hues, the long peace and our advance toward an era of declining violence; we moved from an age where divine authority sponsored our institutions and values to a human-centered age of liberal individualism, where values were self-generated. Then he announces his bald thesis: that “once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end, and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend.”
Now, any big book on big ideas will inevitably turn out to have lots of little flaws in argument and detail along the way. No one can master every finicky footnote. As readers, we blow past the details of subjects in which we are inexpert, and don’t care if hominins get confused with hominids or the Jurassic with the Mesozoic. (The in-group readers do, and grouse all the way to the author’s next big advance.) Yet, with Harari’s move from mostly prehistoric cultural history to modern cultural history, even the most complacent reader becomes uneasy encountering historical and empirical claims so coarse, bizarre, or tendentious.
A range of examples, from Elvis to Duchamp, summoned to illustrate Harari’s points feel wrong in their details or wrong in their gist. Harari weirdly sees Duchamp, that cool arch-ironist, as an “Anything goes!” romantic, pouring his heart out in defiance of convention, rather than as the precise deadpan satirist he so obviously was. (Harari tends to a one-size-fits-all account of modernism, blowing past the truth that “styles” in the arts and humanities mark very specific political-poetic positions that real humanists spend lifetimes untangling and comparing.) When Harari deals with bigger events in modern cultural history, the micro-claims get even wackier and the macro-claims more frantic and arrogant. The light obtained by setting straw men on fire is not what we mean by illumination.
“Humanism,” for instance, ordinarily signifies, first, the revival of classical learning in the Italian Renaissance—the earliest self-described humanists were simply fourteenth-century experts in Latin grammar—which came to place a new value on corporeal beauty, antique wisdom, and secular learning. These practices further evolved in the Enlightenment to include an attempt to apply the methods of the experimental sciences to human problems, fighting superstition and cruelty by making life’s choices more rational. Skepticism about religious dogma, confidence in scientific reasoning: this, in many different strains, is the humanism of Montaigne and Voltaire and Hume, the kind that John Stuart Mill defined for modernity.
By “humanism” Harari means, instead, the doctrine that only our feelings can tell us what to do—that “we ought to give as much freedom as possible to every individual to experience the world, follow his or her inner voice and express his or her inner truth.” This sentiment is surely typical only of the Romantic rebellion against Enlightenment humanism, the reaction—which Mishra details at such length—of the figures, including Rousseau, who have been most sympathetic to religion and mysticism and the irrational. (Rousseau is almost the only eighteenth-century thinker who is quoted in Harari’s book.) Enlightenment humanists tended to believe in absolute truths, of the kind produced by experimental science; they gave a fixed speed to light and asserted laws of gravity that were constant throughout the cosmos. If they doubted anything, it was the natural urgings of the heart, which they saw most often as cruel or destructive.
Harari’s larger contention is that our homocentric creed, devoted to human liberty and happiness, will be destroyed by the approaching post-humanist horizon. Free will and individualism are, he says, illusions. We must reconceive ourselves as mere meat machines running algorithms, soon to be overtaken by metal machines running better ones. By then, we will no longer be able to sustain our comforting creed of “autonomy,” the belief, which he finds in Rousseau, that “I will find deep within myself a clear and single inner voice, which is my authentic self,” and that “my authentic self is completely free.” In reality, Harari maintains, we have merely a self-deluding, “narrating self,” one that recites obviously tendentious stories, shaped by our evolutionary history to help us cope with life. We are—this is his most emphatic point—already machines of a kind, robots unaware of our own programming. Humanism will be replaced by Dataism; and if the humanist revolution made us masters the Dataist revolution will make us pets.
Yet the choice between “programmed” responses and “free” ones is surely false. We are made up of stories—and we make them up. Harari invokes women’s memory of their experience of labor, whose pain they seem, in retrospect, to underplay, as an instance of our being fiendishly programmed by our evolutionary history, unaware. If women remembered the pain of childbirth, they would not have babies, or not twice. Well, in this man’s experience, at least, women don’t forget the pain of labor—they mention it, often—but they calculate the pain of giving birth against the joy of having a baby and, usually, decide it’s a good bargain. And so they make a story composed of both truths. The narrating self doesn’t replace sense with story; it makes a story that makes its own sense.
The algorithms of human existence are not like the predictable, repeatable algorithms of a computer, or people would not have a history, and Donald Trump would not be President. In order to erase humanity as a special category—different from animals, on the one hand, and robots, on the other—Harari points to the power of artificial intelligence, and the prospect that it will learn to do everything we can do, but better. Now, that might happen, but it has been predicted for a long time and the arrival date keeps getting postponed. The A.I. that Harari fears and admires doesn’t, on inspection, seem quite so smart. He mentions computer-generated haiku, as though they were on a par with those generated by Japanese poets. Even if such poems exist, they can seem plausible only because the computer is programmed to imitate stylistic tics that we have already been instructed to appreciate, something akin to the way the ocean can “create” a Brancusi—making smooth, oblong stones that our previous experience of art has helped us to see as beautiful—rather than to how artists make new styles, which involves breaking the algorithm, not following it.
Harari’s conclusions in his earlier book, “Sapiens,” are properly ambivalent, not to say ambiguous, and more fully aware of the traps of large-scale history. “It is sobering to realise how often our view of the past is distorted by events of the last few years,” he writes. “Since it was written in 2014,” he says, the book “takes a relatively buoyant approach to modern history.” The intellectual modesty and appropriate uncertainty of this sentence seem an essential prerequisite to getting the big things right. Some might even call it humanism.
reader can’t help noting that anti-liberal polemics, today as in the lurid polemical pasts that Mishra revisits, always have more force and gusto than liberalism’s defenses have ever had. Best-sellers tend to have big pictures, secret histories, charismatic characters, guilty parties, plots discovered, occult secrets unlocked. Voltaire’s done it! The Singularity is upon us! The World is flat! Since scientific liberalism of the kind Mokyr details believes that history doesn’t have a preordained plot, and that the individual case, not the enveloping essence, is the only quantum that history provides, it is hard for it to dramatize itself in quite this way. The middle way is not the way of melodrama. (That’s why long novels are the classic liberal medium, and why the best one is called “Middlemarch.”)
Beneath all the anti-liberal rhetoric is an unquestioned insistence: that the way in which our societies seem to have gone wrong is evidence of a fatal flaw somewhere in the systems we’ve inherited. This is so quickly agreed on and so widely accepted that it seems perverse to dispute it. But do causes and effects work quite so neatly, or do we search for a cause because the effect is upon us? We can make a false idol of causality. Looking at the rise of Trump, the fall of Europe, one sees a handful of contingencies that, arriving in a slightly different way, would have broken a very different pane.
Is this the age of anger? Mishra’s title, and coinage, echoes W. H. Auden’s “Age of Anxiety,” the name for the post-A-bomb forties and fifties—which reappear comically in the new accounts as a heyday of middle-class buoyancy and social mobility. All times, save the most catastrophic, like all people, save the most depraved, are mixed. Ours seem more mixed than most. Any account of the new American atavism has to take into account that the same system that produced Trump had immediately before given us the eight forward-looking years of Obama, who remains a far more popular figure than his successor.
The alternative to Mishra’s view might be that the dynamic of cosmopolitanism and nostalgic reaction is permanent and recursive. The divide that he sees seems far older than his two French anti-heroes. Karl Popper, in his book “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” traced exactly the same cycle back to Plato’s preference for regimented Sparta over freewheeling Athens (which is where Rousseau got the idea) and to a permanent cycle of history in which open societies, in their pluralism, create an anxiety that brings about a reaction toward a fixed organic state, which, then as now, serves both the interests of an oligarchy and those of a frightened, insecure population looking to arrest change.
We live, certainly, in societies that are in many ways inequitable, unfair, capriciously oppressive, occasionally murderous, frequently imperial—but, by historical standards, much less so than any other societies known in the history of mankind. We may angrily debate the threat to transgender bathroom access, but no other society in our long, sad history has ever attempted to enshrine the civil rights of the gender nonconforming. The anger that Mishra details seems based not on any acute experience of inequality or injustice but on deep racial and ethnic and cultural panics that repeatedly rise and fall in human affairs, largely indifferent to the circumstances of the time in which they summit. We use the metaphor of waves that rise and fall in societies, perhaps forgetting that the actual waves of the ocean are purely opportunistic, small irregularities in water that, snagging a fortunate gust, rise and break like monsters, for no greater cause than their own accidental invention.
“Illiberalism” is the permanent fact of life. Moments of social peace and coexistence, however troubled and imperfect, are the brief miracle that needs explaining, and protecting. In this way, Mokyr’s vision of a revolution made by hand retrieves the best side of the Enlightenment, and Voltaire as he really was. An easily overlooked aspect of Voltaire’s thought was the priority it gave, especially in his later life, to practice. Watchmaking, vegetable growing, star charting: the great Enlightenment thinker turned decisively away from abstraction as he aged. The argument of “Candide” is neither that the world gets better nor that it’s all for naught; it’s that happiness is where you find it, and you find it first by making it yourself. The famous injunction to “cultivate our garden” means just that: make something happen, often with your hands. It remains, as it was meant to, a reproach to all ham-fisted intellects and deskbound brooders. Getting out to make good things happen beats sitting down and thinking big things up. The wind blows every which way in the world, and Voltaire’s last word to the windblown remains the right one. There are a lot of babies yet to comfort, and gardens still to grow.