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

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.

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?

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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.

And then in a long and complicated process, the tribes coalesced together to form the Chinese nation, which controlled the entire Yellow River and had the ability to bring hundreds of thousands of people together to build dams and canals and regulate the river and prevent the worst floods and droughts and raise the level of prosperity for everybody. And this worked in many places around the world.

But in the 21st century, technology is changing all that in a fundamental way. We are now living — all people in the world — are living alongside the same cyber river, and no single nation can regulate this river by itself. We are all living together on a single planet, which is threatened by our own actions. And if you don’t have some kind of global cooperation, nationalism is just not on the right level to tackle the problems, whether it’s climate change or whether it’s technological disruption.

CHRIS ANDERSON: So it was a beautiful idea in a world where most of the action, most of the issues, took place on national scale, but your argument is that the issues that matter most today no longer take place on a national scale but on a global scale.

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YUVAL NOAH HARARI: Exactly. All the major problems of the world today are global in essence, and they cannot be solved unless through some kind of global cooperation. It’s not just climate change, which is, like, the most obvious example people give I think more in terms of technological disruption. If you think about, for example, artificial intelligence, over the next 20, 30 years pushing hundreds of millions of people out of the job market — this is a problem on a global level. It will disrupt the economy of all the countries.

And similarly, if you think about, say, bioengineering and people being afraid of conducting, I don’t know, genetic engineering research in humans, it won’t help if it’s just a single country, let’s say the US, outlaws all genetic experiments in humans, but China or North Korea continues to do it. So the US cannot solve it by itself, and very quickly, the pressure on the US to do the same will be immense because we are talking about high-risk, high-gain technologies. If somebody else is doing it, I can’t allow myself to remain behind. The only way to have regulations, effective regulations, on things like genetic engineering, is to have global regulations. If you just have national regulations, nobody would like to stay behind.

CHRIS ANDERSON: So this is really interesting. It seems to me that this may be one key to provoking at least a constructive conversation between the different sides here, because I think everyone can agree that the start point of a lot of the anger that’s propelled us to where we are is because of the legitimate concerns about job loss. Work is gone, a traditional way of life has gone, and it’s no wonder that people are furious about that. And in general, they have blamed globalism, global elites, for doing this to them without asking their permission, and that seems like a legitimate complaint.

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