Nationalism vs. Globalism: The New Political Divide with Yuval Noah Harari (Transcript)

Yuval Noah Harari


CHRIS ANDERSON: Hello. Welcome to this TED Dialogues. It’s the first of a series that’s going to be done in response to the current political upheaval. I don’t know about you. I’ve become quite concerned about the growing divisiveness in this country and in the world. No one’s listening to each other. Right? They aren’t. I mean, it feels like we need a different kind of conversation, one that’s based on — I don’t know, on reason, listening, on understanding, on a broader context. That’s at least what we’re going to try in these TED Dialogues, starting today.

And we couldn’t have anyone with us who I’d be more excited to kick this off. This is a mind right here that thinks pretty much like no one else on the planet, I would hasten to say I’m serious. I’m serious. He synthesizes history with underlying ideas in a way that kind of takes your breath away. So, some of you will know this book, “Sapiens.” Has anyone here read “Sapiens”? I mean, I could not put it down. The way that he tells the story of mankind through big ideas that really make you think differently — it’s kind of amazing. And here’s the follow-up, which I think is being published in the US next week.

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: Yeah, next week.

CHRIS ANDERSON: “Homo Deus”. Now, this is the history of the next hundred years. I’ve had a chance to read it. It’s extremely dramatic, and I daresay, for some people, quite alarming. It’s a must-read. And honestly, we couldn’t have someone better to help make sense of what on Earth is happening in the world right now. So a warm welcome, please, to Yuval Noah Harari. It’s great to be joined by our friends on Facebook and around the Web.

Hello, Facebook. And all of you, as I start asking questions of Yuval, come up with your own questions, and not necessarily about the political scandal du jour, but about the broader understanding of: Where are we heading? You ready? OK, we’re going to go.

So here we are, Yuval: New York City, 2017, there’s a new president in power, and shock waves rippling around the world. What on Earth is happening?

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YUVAL NOAH HARARI: I think the basic thing that happened is that we have lost our story. Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories. And for the last few decades, we had a very simple and very attractive story about what’s happening in the world. And the story said that, oh, what’s happening is that the economy is being globalized, politics is being liberalized, and the combination of the two will create paradise on Earth, and we just need to keep on globalizing the economy and liberalizing the political system, and everything will be wonderful.

And 2016 is the moment when a very large segment, even of the Western world, stopped believing in this story. For good or bad reasons — it doesn’t matter. People stopped believing in the story, and when you don’t have a story, you don’t understand what’s happening.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Part of you believes that that story was actually a very effective story. It worked.

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: To some extent, yes. According to some measurements, we are now in the best time ever for humankind. Today, for the first time in history, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little, which is an amazing achievement. Also for the first time in history, more people die from old age than from infectious diseases, and violence is also down.

For the first time in history, more people commit suicide than are killed by crime and terrorism and war put together. Statistically, you are your own worst enemy. At least, of all the people in the world, you are most likely to be killed by yourself — which is, again, very good news, compared — compared to the level of violence that we saw in previous eras.

CHRIS ANDERSON: But this process of connecting the world ended up with a large group of people kind of feeling left out, and they’ve reacted. And so we have this bombshell that’s sort of ripping through the whole system. I mean, what do you make of what’s happened? It feels like the old way that people thought of politics, the left-right divide, has been blown up and replaced. How should we think of this?

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YUVAL NOAH HARARI: Yeah, the old 20th-century political model of left versus right is now largely irrelevant, and the real divide today is between global and national, global or local. And you see it again all over the world that this is now the main struggle. We probably need completely new political models and completely new ways of thinking about politics. In essence, what you can say is that we now have global ecology, we have a global economy but we have national politics, and this doesn’t work together. This makes the political system ineffective, because it has no control over the forces that shape our life.

And you have basically two solutions to this imbalance: either de-globalize the economy and turn it back into a national economy, or globalize the political system.

CHRIS ANDERSON: So some, I guess many liberals out there view Trump and his government as kind of irredeemably bad, just awful in every way. Do you see any underlying narrative or political philosophy in there that is at least worth understanding? How would you articulate that philosophy? Is it just the philosophy of nationalism?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: I think the underlying feeling or idea is that the political system — something is broken there. It doesn’t empower the ordinary person anymore. It doesn’t care so much about the ordinary person anymore, and I think this diagnosis of the political disease is correct.

With regard to the answers, I am far less certain. I think what we are seeing is the immediate human reaction: if something doesn’t work, let’s go back. And you see it all over the world, that people, almost nobody in the political system today, has any future-oriented vision of where humankind is going. Almost everywhere, you see retrograde vision: “Let’s make America great again,” like it was great — I don’t know — in the ’50s, in the ’80s, sometime, let’s go back there.

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And you go to Russia a hundred years after Lenin, Putin’s vision for the future is basically, ah, let’s go back to the Tsarist empire. And in Israel, where I come from, the hottest political vision of the present is: “Let’s build the temple again.” So let’s go back 2,000 years backwards. So people are thinking sometime in the past we’ve lost it, and sometimes in the past, it’s like you’ve lost your way in the city, and you say OK, let’s go back to the point where I felt secure and start again. I don’t think this can work, but a lot of people, this is their gut instinct.

CHRIS ANDERSON: But why couldn’t it work? “America First” is a very appealing slogan in many ways. Patriotism is, in many ways, a very noble thing. It’s played a role in promoting cooperation among large numbers of people. Why couldn’t you have a world organized in countries, all of which put themselves first?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: For many centuries, even thousands of years, patriotism worked quite well. Of course, it led to wars and so forth, but we shouldn’t focus too much on the bad. There are also many, many positive things about patriotism, and the ability to have a large number of people care about each other, sympathize with one another, and come together for collective action.

If you go back to the first nations, so, thousands of years ago, the people who lived along the Yellow River in China — it was many, many different tribes and they all depended on the river for survival and for prosperity, but all of them also suffered from periodical floods and periodical droughts. And no tribe could really do anything about it, because each of them controlled just a tiny section of the river.

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