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History 2.0: Trying To Make Sense of It All in the Time of Coronavirus

There is a modern way of analyzing history that you might not be aware of

History, illustration by Antonella Martino

I have admired the books of Yuval Noah Harari for years. The pause imposed by the coronavirus was an opportunity to write an article about Les Annales, the historiographic school whose footsteps Harari walks in, and to talk about History with a capital H, History 2.0.

 

“In the year 800, on Christmas day, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans, founding what was called the Carolingian Empire.”

When I was in high school, my history class would serve me up tidbits like this one and, invariably, my brain would serve me a: yeah, like I give a damn!

Probably things have changed for today’s Italian high school students, but history as they taught it in those days did not intrigue me much. Looking back, a few decades later, I realized I had a point: memorizing events so detached from the reality of the contemporary world was hardly compelling for my young mind.

Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli historian, author of best sellers such as Sapiens and Homo Deus (source: Wikipedia)

As I would discover many years later, History is actually an exciting topic of paramount importance. This realization did not set in when I dusted off the old high-school history book (I never did). Rather, the turning point was the work of Yuval Noah Harari, a modern historian, and the lessons of my friend Stefano Villani, a History college professor here in the US. Last autumn, Stefano blessed DC-based Italian-speaking high school students with a series of history lectures in Italian and I shamelessly crashed the party. Those lessons made me understand what History (spelled with a capital H) really is, i.e. the most powerful tool we have to make sense of the world we live in. 

Economics, geography, sociology, statistics, philosophy, linguistics … The list of nouns that we use to designate the different dimensions of human knowledge is long. Each science has its own sector, with little overlap between them. History, even without claiming to be science, nevertheless manages to unite everything into a coherent design.

How did my transition from a judging History as substantially useless to having such a high regard of it come about? In addition to Prof. Harari, an Israeli, my turnabout has something to do with the French.

The French school of Les Annales: History 2.0 

As I have argued in past articles, pretty much everything human can be read (indeed, it must be read!) in light of the narrative, i.e. that psychological mechanism that leads people to frame everything they do and think as storytelling that makes them comfortable (and, believe me, there is no underlying moral judgment or condemnation in my words: it’s pure observation of the true mechanisms that differentiate humans from other animals).

In light of this, “classical” History (the type I encountered in high school) was simply History 1.0: a discipline of great importance delivered by great minds who were not, however, immune from cognitive biases; i.e. they were not inclined to approach the subject scientifically.

History 1.0 was subject to the “tyranny of the narrative,” that irrepressible human tendency to frame everything in terms of storytelling, thus weakening the possibility of managing the subject matter scientifically. History 1.0 is made up of the pumped-up stories of communities and peoples, i.e. history intended to serve the raison d’état of this or that nation. After all, it’s human nature: the stories of men and women enthrall us: kings and queens, crusades and wars, the deeds of great leaders. All historical figures lend themselves to being fictionalized and to igniting passions (and we conveniently ignore the fact that those individuals would today probably be deemed criminals and rot in jail: after all, you wouldn’t expect that anyone “normal” could achieve so much. Being unscrupulous was a requirement for anyone aspiring to the top).

Which begs the question: if that’s History 1.0, what is History 2.0 all about? As the scientific approach overhauled almost every human discipline, how was History impacted?

Fernand Braudel, one of the main representatives of the school of Les Annales. (Source Wikipedia)

Enter History 2.0

I’ll call it History 2.0, a useful handle to refer to the novel approach that the French group of the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale (or simply Les Annales) introduced at the beginning of the last century.  Lucien Febvre , Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel enacted an epochal revision of how historians look at the past. History as we knew it until then, History 1.0, was not repudiated. Rather, it was regarded as one of many possible histories, within a framework that enabled multiple views of the past. History 2.0 now focused on the contributions of several “forces”, not all of which were human in nature (in fact, most of them were not).

What was the main event in 1920s’ Italy?

If we asked this question to an Italian student in their last year of high school, they might answer “the rise of the Fascist party in Italy.” And they would have a valid point. That event was the beginning of a phase in Italian history that culminated in a tragic and disgraceful war whose consequences the Italians are still paying for today.

If we had the opportunity to ask the same question to a student from 2120, however, we would not be surprised if their answer was “the invention of plastic”. For them, Mussolini’s vicissitudes will appear as minor aspects of whatever happened two centuries before, which cannot be said of the invention that had seemed so freaking cool to us while our use of it contaminated our lands, our seas and even the food that we would eat for a hundred years to come. Knowledge of that discovery will be well etched in student minds.

And that’s the point: human events that “classical” history always regarded as primary now play an ancillary role as we look at history with a new, long-term perspective. In fact, this ‘Long Term’ concept (Longue durée in French) lies at the very foundation of History as the French school of Les Annales perceives it.

Braudel and his colleagues saw history as “movements” that unfold their effects in ways that are deeper, more powerful and inexorable than the events we can easily observe. In his lessons, Stefano drew an analogy to illustrate the longue durée: the rough sea.

The waves and foam of a stormy sea are clearly visible to everyone, yet the dynamics that lead to that vision run deeper: the surface is animated by underlying currents that we cannot see. And there is more. Further down, other abyssal currents, even more powerful than the previous ones, determine what happens above, according to rhythms and fluctuations that are at one time powerful and unstoppable.

We can see history as a three-level model:

  1. The short duration or history of events (histoire événementielle, evental history): at this level is the traditional history made up of events that people will easily understand and remember thanks to the power of narrative. It’s History 1.0. The Julius Caesars, the Popes, the Charlemagnes, the Napoleons, the Mussolinis and the Mao Tse Tungs operate at this level. The back-to-back events that occur throughout the existence of an individual belong to this short duration level, and so do the politics of these historical figures. This is the level of “history as storytelling,” the “history of events.”
  2. The “conjuncturalmedium-term level: this is the broader level of the economy, of social changes, of religions and ideologies. At this level, it is not Karl Marx who invents Communism, but rather the long wave of economic upheavals triggered by the industrial revolution leading to profound changes in Europe. There was an open position as prophet of the exploited workers and Karl Marx filled it. If he hadn’t done it, someone else would have. Likewise, it was not Hitler who unleashed the Second World War: given the economic dynamics in Germany at the time, a war was bound to start all the same for a Les Annales historian.
  3. The Long Term (Longue durée): this is the level of environmental and climatic changes. At this level, we must look at the geographical maps first and foremost to understand historical dynamics. This is the dimension of slow and profound fluctuations that historians know how to identify and track, with the support of other scientific disciplines when necessary. It’s where we look at glaciations that force migrations to occur. It’s about man’s transformation from nomadic hunter-gatherer to settled farmer during the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. At this level, there is no Christopher Columbus who discovers America; rather there is the Ottoman Empire that made trades between Europe and Asia expensive with its high taxes. This started a quest for alternative routes to reach the Indies. In this context, Columbus was simply a dumbass who, looking for an alternative route to China, got his numbers all wrong, the success of his mission due to sheer luck.
    Ça va sans dire that the Long Term is the level that best lends itself to scientific analysis.

The three levels should not be regarded as watertight compartments, of course. The three “temporalities” are connected. They interact and influence each other constantly.

This three-tiered model is an exceptionally useful tool for understanding mankind’s past and present (and perhaps even for venturing into predictions about the future). It certainly appears more useful than any type of interpretation inspired by religious, cultural or ideological perspectives. Of course, stripping ourselves of ingrained beliefs is easier said than done. Our beliefs are tightly connected to the values on which we have built our identity. Setting them aside may not be an easy exercise, but we now have a tool for the job, if we so desire.

The short duration is malleable. It can be shaped by narrative. Because of this, it is well-suited to building a nation’s identity for use and consumption by its citizens. The majority of a nation’s population asks for nothing more but a set of values ​​and narratives around which they can come together as a community.

The conjunctural level and the Long Term, however, couldn’t care less about human narratives: their accounts of the births and deaths of peoples, languages, cultures and the reshaping of national borders unfold with the empathy of a biologist who observes a colony of germs under a microscope. A depiction of history that anyone on a quest for unmediated truth will find ruthless yet exciting .

Yuval Noah Harari

The cover of the English edition of Sapiens. (source Wikipedia)

A few years ago, before meeting Stefano and being exposed to Les Annales , I discovered “Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind”. Yuval Noah Harari, its author, is a historian that I respect very much. When I first read it, I thought, “If this is history, what’s that stuff they taught me in high school?”

With the discovery of the longue duree, I finally had my answer: Harari’s history follows in the footsteps of the Les Annales school that brought us History 2.0, the only way to look at the past that resonates with scientific-minded people in the 21st century. As I said to Stefano once: it seems to me that Harari handles history in the only way possible after Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky informed the world about cognitive biases. I still don’t know whether he agrees with this statement or not.

I asked Stefano a question. If historians deal with the past, does it make sense for a historian to try and predict the future? Stefano said no. History is not a science. It gives us the tools to understand the past, maybe even just a second after the present has happened, but History deals with the past. It can help us analyze the present. But no, it can’t help us predict what hasn’t happened yet.

So why did Harari write “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow“? Nobody keeps him from doing it, said Stefano, but when Harari does it, he doesn’t do it in his capacity as a historian, he does it as a philosopher. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that he isn’t saying interesting things…

Exercise: analyze our historical period using History 2.0

Strengthened by this broad understanding of History 2.0, we can try to identify the short, medium and long-term phenomena regarding our own time period. 

Long-term Phenomena

Probably we have never considered the following aspects of our life in a historical perspective before; yet they absolutely are historical in a Long-Term perspective.

Climate Change

In spite of its being a relatively recent problem, climate change has rapidly assumed dramatic dimensions. In short: we are happily screwing up the only planet we have. And the biggest problem is that we still haven’t quite figured out how to change our ways. Societies globally have come to the conclusion that the best way to keep their citizens happy is to keep them occupied with unlimited economic growth. As I described in this article a few months ago, the planet’s resources represent a hard limit. Coronavirus stopping companies around the planet for a few weeks (or months) seriously threatens to wreck the world economy. Let’s imagine what could happen if we stopped all economic activities totally and indefinitely. Unthinkable right? Yet we should think about it. Let’s hope that we won’t show up unprepared as we are doing with CoVid-19 in that case.

Globalization

We can be mad at globalization for many reasons, but there’s plenty of reasons to praise it too. In our connected world every country can produce the things that they find easiest to produce, and export those products in a global market. Net result: thanks to globalization, billions of people all over the world have jobs and billions have access to goods (and thanks to the internet also to services) at low prices. Giving all these advantages up? Tricky.

Internet 

The advent of the internet is super recent, yet I can only frame it as a Long Term phenomenon that will change humanity for the centuries to come.

In his lessons, Stefano explained that one of the greatest aspirations of a medieval scholar was to be able to handcopy classical books, which they would sell to the wealthy at the price of a palace. Gutemberg’s invention of the printing press changed the rules of the game. Handcopying was no longer necessary, nor lucrative. This gave scholars a new impulse: devoting oneself to new ideas was preferable  to endlessly copying old ones. Printing was a long-lasting phenomenon that would change the world as we knew it for the centuries that followed.

As far as the internet goes, we are obviously dealing with a phenomenon of equal importance, or quite possibly even greater importance. To an increasing extent, college courses no longer offer knowledge that by itself grants a life-time job. Rather they offer a ‘meta-knowledge’ that prepares students to trace, study and apply a constantly evolving know-how in every field and industry. Today, assuming that a young person can get a good job is unreasonably optimistic if all they are armed with is what they learned in school. Speaking out of personal experience in my field, Information Technology, this phenomenon is borderline brutal: a few general principles apart, every few years pretty much everything changes. This acceleration in knowledge acquisition was introduced with the Internet. In a few seconds, from the comfort of your chair, in front of a computer, you can dig up information that would have required physical movements and weeks of research until a few years ago.

Cover of the English version of Homo Deus. (source Wikipedia)

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has brought us applications that we would have considered science fiction only 20 years ago. In Homo Deus, Harari even goes to the extreme of sketching a future in which an intelligence superior to ours (non-biological intelligence, but that’s just a detail) may end up subjugating mankind.

Of course, AI has many kinds of implications. Some are positive, others less so. Among the positive ones is medical research. Among the negative are applications in the military field. Between the two kinds, there’s a world of applications for which the jury is still out: hard to say whether their impact will be positive or negative. 

What about AI-enabled automation and robots replacing millions of human workers? People will no longer have a job. Even if they still have food to eat, their life narrative will be shattered. Their reason to live and, eventually, their bid to happiness might go with it.

Mass Surveillance 

At the intersection of the internet, telecommunications and AI you can find detailed monitoring of each of us, in real time. Whatever we do or say, our cell phones, our smart TVs and our watches will spy us, and a computer (a  government computer possibly, but not necessarily) will take heed. Maybe governments won’t do anything with that information. Or maybe they will do something in our interest. Or maybe they will do something in the interest of the larger community, which may or may not be the same as our interest. Or maybe they will do it for the interest of those in power regardless of the claim that they are doing it in our interest or the interest of the community. I’m sure you can see where I’m headed with this.

Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica. (source: Wikipedia)

State surveillance isn’t the only problem. At the intersection of AI, social networks and cognitive biases, there are the Cambridge Analytica kind of companies that, although private, can have a devastating impact on a nation’s democratic process.

The use of technology to monitor billions of people is alarming. Opposing the adoption of such technology may seem the only reasonable thing to do. Yet how to do it is not obvious at all. Moreover, in these days of CoVid 19, we are seriously considering mass surveillance to verify (and enforce?) citizens’ compliance with quarantines and other government demands. Should we go for it? Public health does provide strong motivation and makes opposing these measures hard. Yet, will governments give up on their new superpower once the storm is weathered? We’d better stay ‘woke’: today’s choices might initiate a long-term phenomenon that will shape the centuries to come.

Automation and the Disappearance of Mass Work

This phenomenon goes hand in hand with Artificial Intelligence. There will be less and less of a need for workers: factory workers, farmers, cab and truck drivers, waiters and so on. Millions of jobs will vanish due to robots and AI. And we are not only talking jobs that require limited skills: lawyers, doctors, teachers, translators and other jobs that are based on intelligence, or that require a remarkable empathetic and creative ability, are not safe from the advancements in automation. The economic dimension is only one side of the problem; the impact on people’s “life narrative” is the other. Assuming that people have access to what they need to meet their primary needs in the future (Universal Basic Income?), how many will be happy as part of a society in which they don’t have a role? A solution to this problem may require some kind of “rewiring” of the human mind, but we don’t know how to change our brain the way we reprogram computers … or maybe one day soon we will? Who knows.

Money

Money has existed for thousands of years and presenting it as a historical phenomenon may seem odd to you. Yet if we take a step back and think of money as an ‘intersubjective’ reality (copyright Yuval Noah Harari), things will be clearer. With the exception of air, water, food and few other things, much of what appears concrete and objective to us is actually imaginary, i.e. only supported by certain shared narratives of ours: things exist and appear concrete to us only as long as we all collectively accept to believe in them. This is what Harari refers to as intersubjective realities. 

Money is a great example of this. If I asked you to choose between receiving a million euros and receiving a dairy cow, you would most likely go for the first option. 

Imagine now that you are a castaway on an island somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In that case, your choice would likely be very different. A cow would be preferable in that case. Money would have no value in a place where there are no humans willing to give you goods and services in exchange for it. 

A nice big heifer on the other hand…

Dairy cow. (source: Wikipedia)

Money counts only as long as a state vouches for its value within a society that trusts the state. I don’t know when money was invented for sure, but certainly not much more than 10,000 years ago, i.e. the age of the agricultural revolution, probably a lot more recently. Thanks to money, people were able to assign agreed values to goods and services, and the economy could scale in ways that no barter system would ever match.

Of course, states are responsible for printing their currencies, which has carried (and still carries!) the risk of abuse of the monetary leverage to address all kinds of problems. History (version 1.0 included) is full of examples in which “the toy broke down”: if people no longer believe in the value of money, very bad things happen, the total collapse of a country’s economy being the primary example.

The world economy has already accumulated debt for 230% of its GDP . The world economy is artificially inflated. Growth has been relying on virtual wealth, reminiscent of how video games work, with funny inventions such as cryptocurrencies that show how the intersubjective monetary magic can reach ridiculous extents.

A destabilizing event could make us lose our trust in money and the world economy as we know it might collapse. At that point, all the economic theories we have taken for granted in the last hundred years may no longer apply.

Money losing its value overnight would be catastrophic. How would we be able to incentivize people to do (or not to do) anything? How would we cope with the end of the long-term money phenomenon? Do we have an alternative model to Capitalism and free-markets to upgrade to without too much disruption?

Unless I’m missing something big, it doesn’t look like it. These days, CoVid19 is providing a good example of what dealing with an emergency that the system is not ready to handle can mean. If money lost its value overnight, the long-term reality that has supported all human societies for thousands of years would be gone. The consequences? Your guess is as good as mine.

Overpopulation and migrations

If living conditions in one place become difficult (and this could happen because that place hosts too many people, because of wars and epidemics, or because of climate change), people move. And they do it in a disorderly manner. These are Long Term dynamics related to geography. The mechanisms to contain migrations are national borders, which, however, are conjunctural (medium-term) phenomena. The pressure of a long-term phenomenon against medium-term realities causes upheavals and challenges. I am not going to discuss this aspect in great depth. This is a topic that can trigger strong emotions and I don’t want the article to get sidetracked, but the concept of “land ownership” is a long-term wave that started with the agricultural revolution and that provides the raison d’etre for national states (conjunctural phenomena). If one territory contains too many people, and the neighboring ones have too few to defend their borders, bad things happen.

The Medium-Term Duration: Conjunctural Phenomena

Once the long-term phenomena have been identified, let’s look at the medium-term economic ones. Let us resume the discourse from the concept of the national state, a conjunctural situation constantly under long-term pressure from human migrations.

States and Nations

Much like money, even states are intersubjective conventions that, while not existent in nature, people take for granted to so that they are real for most practical purposes. There is no natural reason why the border between two countries should run through some specific line, but, more often than not, there are centuries of culture and wars (medium-term duration) that have established that border.

For relatively little in return from citizens (taxes, mainly), the state offers enormous advantages, such as protection from violence, laws and the administrative machinery to enforce them, a currency to run a business and make other people work, education for children, health care, pensions for the elderly, access to jobs, infrastructure that allows economic development and more. Citizens receive a lot from their state and virtually no one has an interest in dismantling it (when all is said and done, not even populists).

Long-lasting phenomena, however, beat hard on borders. For example, globalization and population growth are putting national borders under pressure.

I am not saying that borders are right or wrong. I’m simply saying that medium and long-term forces are clashing and this will likely lead to upheaval and profound changes: human rights (another intersubjective reality) as we know them could still stand… or they may succumb. I say no more.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. (source: Wikipedia)

The Great Ideologies of the 1900s

Some might think that framing the great ideologies of the last century as medium-term conjunctures is tantamount to not giving them the weight they deserve. Yet they absolutely appear as medium-term phenomena to me. Ideologies are simply examples of a mankind that, over the centuries, has been researching the best way to organize itself by trial and error. 

Totalitarian governments of the twentieth century did not give individuals much credit that, on their own, they would be able to do much good for themselves, let alone for the broader society. Led by an “enlightened” dictator or a ruling group, the state would guarantee the best for everyone.

The sheer mention of concentration camps trumps any other consideration about Nazism (and its sacrosanct and shameful end) which will hopefully show us how much things can derail when deindividuation mechanisms are activated by the state. An interesting point was raised by Harari, all the more significant coming from an Israeli of Jewish origin: the defeat of Nazism led to an absolute opposite reaction in defense of human life, which might possibly have gone too far. The reference is, for example, to opposition to euthanasia and to the total closure to the idea that human life should end in those cases when it no longer makes sense to the individual. In an era when technology can keep people alive indefinitely (by some technical definition of the term ‘alive’), we should enter certain discussions without dogmatism.

As far as Marxism goes, violations of human rights by totalitarian states aside, it represented the most credible alternative model to Capitalism. For practically a century, Europe and the United States had feared that Communism would spread to Western countries, putting an end to the free market and individual freedoms alike.

Soviet propaganda of socialism (source: AIER https://www.Aier.Org / )

In my opinion, the socialist model lacked the main tool to incentivize people: a solid chance at getting richer than your fellow countrymen, along with an economic model that determined the value of goods and services autonomously, with little or no state intervention. No socialist state, regardless of how well organized, could decide five years in advance on which technologies and products to invest in to keep up with countries that had embraced Capitalism and the free market as a development model. On top of that, I need to add the always underestimated antithesis between experiencing self and remembering self: would you really live in a place where we are all equal and, if you are not equal enough, the State intervenes to “equalize” you?

Market economies, despite their inequalities, are much more fun. To me, all this is enough to explain why socialist systems ended the way they did. 

Statue of Adam Smith, who theorized of the free market. (source: Wikipedia)

Capitalism and Democracy

The model based on democracy, free market, free movement of people and goods, individual rights and human rights emerged victorious from the challenges of the twentieth century. Questioning it might seem absurd, or even unconceivable.

Ideologically, I have always been pro free enterprise and pro free market myself. Yet I feel that I would also be subject to the narratives that I occasionally mock if I did not recognize that Capitalism is a medium-term phenomenon just like other ideologies. And as such, long-term phenomena are putting it to the test.

In most western countries we have always assumed that the democratic process was the infallible proxy for a decision-making model that could only deliver the best for each nation and its citizens. Populism has shown that things aren’t working that way exactly. Personally, I think that all populist movements are bound to be short-lived phenomena when taken individually, as their motives and goals are inconsistent with one another. Yet their appearance on the political scene is driven by the new long-term dynamics that have originated in our time.

Ideological discussions aside, the worth of a social organization must be measured in terms of the well-being (in the broad sense of the term) it brings to all members of the community, or at least to the vast majority of them. If the differences in wealth are too large, envy leads to destabilization even when primary needs are met (this claim is corroborated by actual experiments on monkeys; no moral judgment on my part).

The internet economy (or new economy, as we once cheerfully called it) used to be very popular as it created millions of new jobs. Today big web companies are taking shares of the world economy (I’m thinking not only of FB, Google and Amazon, but also of AirBnB, Expedia and Uber). At the same time, the value of goods and services of traditional companies (and their margins) are pushed down. For this reason, numbers no longer add up.  We are witnessing a phenomenon of middle-class “drainage” all over the world. 

The gap between the wealthy on one side and the growing population of low-income workers on the other is increasingly evident. European Uber drivers (many of whom are or were licensed cab drivers in their areas) can provide details about how their business has evolved since Uber arrived on the scene, but the same applies to banking, travelling, hospitality and many other industries. All of this has a destabilizing effect which, of course, feeds all the various and variegated populisms around the world.

The Short Duration

Offering examples of short-term current phenomena is not difficult.

Populist Clowns

In light of the long and medium-term phenomena described earlier, I find it easy to frame the various populist clowns, such as Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, Grillo, Salvini and many others as examples of short term phenomena caused by the seething of those powerful medium and long-term currents.

I offer a European-centric view of populism here, albeit some of this also applies to the US.

Millions of people in every country fear the influx of immigrants (and to be clear, I am not stating that they are necessarily wrong). As a result, obtaining significant electoral consensus is child’s play for populist leaders. They simply need to leverage more or less irrational fears of invasion and invoke the closure of borders.

High taxes will also spur votes: funny narratives, propagated through social media, will pay dividends at the next elections regardless of how impractical the ideas to get the money another way turn out to be.

People want more welfare? Populists have an “easy” answer: let’s leave the European Union, so we can print our own currency, just as much as we need, or even a little bit more than that.

Each One of Us

We all are short-term phenomena from a historical perspective. Today more than ever, our attempts to give meaning to our existence risk being frustrated. Up until a few years ago, picking one of the ‘mainstream narratives’ (and using it to interpret the world as it suited us best) was relatively easy. Catholics, Muslims, Communists, Fascists, liberals… your choice: that was the key to represent the world the way it made the most sense to each of us and to find our role in the big picture. Those “frameworks” were based on conjunctural phenomena that either have run out of juice or are about to do it: they just don’t cut it anymore.

Consider a leftist who has always seen “the rich” as exploiting workers, and who has waited patiently for oppressed workers to win back the surplus value that their hard work created. In all likelihood, our hero has now realized that the owner of the business for which they work does not really make all that money and does not stash away all the surplus value that Marx told everyone about. Even the narrative of an international brotherhood of workers is no longer particularly compelling. The availability of cheap labor offered by immigrants does not cheer our worker up at all, and the fact that in Poland, Brazil or China they produce the same goods at lower prices does not trigger feelings of solidarity with the proletarians exploited in those countries. The narratives created in defense of “the last” do not fare so well when the last ones are someone else, not us.

Our leftist hero can find hospitality in sovereignty-touting right-wing parties and movements (Italian blue collars have voted for right-wing Lega, for example. Similarly, Pennsylvania workers voted for Trump in 2016), but that refuge might not be very safe either: automation risks eliminating everyone’s job. In our era, workers are starting to realize that people’s labor will be essentially useless in the not distant future. There is something worse than exploitation and that’s irrelevance.

This situation translates into votes that go to populist politicians, including clownish personalities, in fact clowns most especially. But those votes are driven by fear and despair, not by hope.

Consider a good Roman Apostolic Catholic from forty years back: current sexual morality is totally at odds with the traditional teaching of the Church. The long wave of sexual liberation also manifested itself in the Vatican and led to the election of a new Pope before the previous one took his leave for natural causes (the practice followed for centuries). The new pontiff features interesting characteristics, and this is no coincidence. It’s almost as Bergoglio had a longue durée tailwind: Pope Francis comes from South America (one of the few places where religious faith is still strong) and, as far as sexual morality goes, he is very permissive as he utters statements like “Who am I to judge a homosexual?” To add to that, not only is he in the odor of sanctity, but he is also in the odor of being a bit socialist.

While accepting the new sexual morality may not be excessively demanding, representing all of us as brothers and children of the same creator can make even a well-intended Catholic falter: millions of people who want to move to western countries pose a significant challenge to the brotherhood narrative: foreign cultures could overwhelm a country with limited young energies. At that point, our good Catholic could be tempted by storytelling that teaches that we are not really brothers after all. It is no coincidence that populists (both in Italy and the US) merge racist views with their claim of supporting Christian values, a reckless stunt that God-fearing voters often choose to reward.

The political leader of right-wing Italian political party Lega, Matteo Salvini, kisses the crucifix to testify his deep faith in Christian values ​​(source: YouTube).

In the European sense of the word, a Liberal is not a leftist, but rather someone who has always thought that individual freedom and the free market can only smile at the industrious person and make them achieve their personal success in harmonious lockstep with the progress of society as a whole. 

Consider a Liberal (applying the European meaning of the word). This person’s narrative also faces a few challenges today: firstly, we no longer have land to discover and develop (and colonizing other planets is not within our reach just yet) as we did when liberal ideas were established two hundred years or so ago. Secondly, now that AI is able to do our jobs better than us, only true geniuses will land jobs worthy of the name: everyone else risks being relegated to the role of consumer, controlled at each step (and soon even at each thought!) and deprived of every chance to provide meaningful contributions to society. Also in this case, the narrative falters even for those who, until recently, had an absolute faith in human, economic and scientific progress.

… and What about the Coronavirus?

Frankly, I can only frame this period that we are going through as a short-term event. Assuming that the world economy won’t collapse unrecoverably because of the virus (I don’t think it will), the upheavals of CoVid 19 will be only a memory in the minds of people in ten or twenty years.

Yet I have this feeling that the coronavirus has triggered some sort of general rehearsal of things to come: what shall we do when we really have to stop the whole economy to save the lives of billions of people?

Today we can compensate with the help of “helicopter money,” i.e. supporting our economies by giving money to anyone who raises their hand. However, if one day climate change disrupts our lives in such a way that we can’t return to the way we live now, then even giving money away could prove ineffective. To date, we do not have an alternative plan of any kind.

Let’s Sum It Up

History is made up of cycles and countercycles. He who does not know History is doomed to repeat it.

When I was a teenager, I used to hear the phrase above uttered by  middle-school teachers and tuttologi alike (a ‘tuttologo’ is an Italian know-it-all, i.e. a not-at-all mythical figure that dwells bars and other social gatherings. He knows everything about everything, or so he thinks). 

It didn’t add up then. Today I have positively concluded that this idea that history repeats itself is crap: way too many things are different, notably the medium and long-term phenomena that I have illustrated.

What I can say with certainty is that we are at an epochal junction point. Not only are we witnessing the end of medium-term movements that have defined the past centuries, but we are seeing the birth of technologies that are strong candidates to become long-term phenomena: there’s little doubt that this new situation will affect the future of mankind in dramatic ways.

Assuming that a nuclear war won’t wipe out 10,000 years of human progress, we will still need to address climate change, and, on top of that, we’ll need to do it quickly. Even though our planet has the potential to support billions of people, it cannot support the economic growth that we have witnessed over the past few years. In addition, humans will have to be reprogrammed so that their idea of ​​happiness no longer depends on excessive exploitation of natural resources. This may very well force us to revisit the Capitalist system or, at least, to hope that it will evolve to address critical issues that are now undeniable.

One of my biggest regrets is that, if all goes well enough, I will never know how this crazy history of humanity will end (if it does go wrong, I will see a nuclear warhead explode nearby and, a few seconds before becoming ashes, I will have my answer, and so will pretty much everyone else).

This regret is partially mitigated by the discovery of History 2.0, and by what Harari tells us as a leading representative of that historiographic school of thought. The Israeli historian offers a merciless account of mankind’s history and a sneak peek at the future that, with a certain degree of likelihood, awaits us.

In Homo Deus, Harari temporarily abandons his role as a pure historian and ventures to make predictions about the future. He sees a world in which our current humanist ethics will no longer suffice, and tells us about the threats that mankind could plausibly face in the long term: the day AI will be smarter than human intelligence (an evolution that we can take for granted) will it also have a conscience? And thanks to that artificial conscience, will it also act benevolently toward the human race?

Venturing in a field that borders science fiction takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a scholar of his caliber, and I prefer not to endorse Harari’s theories 100% in this case. Besides, I don’t want to reveal too much about Homo Deus and risk spoiling it for you. It’s a book that I absolutely recommend,… with a warning, though.

Do not tackle it armed with this or that “reference narrative” alone, be it religion, ideology, set of values or whatever you want to call it​​. You risk walking out of it with a few broken bones.

 

Author’s note: I would like to thank my friend Joe Ganci for reviewing the English version of my article.

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