21 Lessons for the 21st Century
The End of History Has Been Postponed
Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths. But during the twentieth century the global elites in New York, London, Berlin, and Moscow formulated three grand stories that claimed to explain the whole past and to predict the future of the entire world: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story. The Second World War knocked out the fascist story, and from the late 1940s to the late 1980s the world became a battleground between just two stories: communism and liberalism. Then the communist story collapsed, and the liberal story remained the dominant guide to the human past and the indispensable manual for the future of the world—or so it seemed to the global elite.
The liberal story celebrates the value and power of liberty. It says that for thousands of years humankind lived under oppressive regimes that allowed people few political rights, economic opportunities, or personal liberties, and which heavily restricted the movements of individuals, ideas, and goods. But people fought for their freedom, and step by step, liberty gained ground. Democratic regimes took the place of brutal dictatorships. Free enterprise overcame economic restrictions. People learned to think for themselves and follow their hearts instead of blindly obeying bigoted priests and hidebound traditions. Open roads, wide bridges, and bustling airports replaced walls, moats, and barbed-wire fences.
The liberal story acknowledges that not all is well in the world and that there are still many hurdles to overcome. Much of our planet is dominated by tyrants, and even in the most liberal countries many citizens suffer from poverty, violence, and oppression. But at least we know what we need to do in order to overcome these problems: give people more liberty. We need to protect human rights, grant everybody the vote, establish free markets, and let individuals, ideas, and goods move throughout the world as easily as possible. According to this liberal panacea—accepted, in slight variations, by George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike—if we just continue to liberalize and globalize our political and economic systems, we will produce peace and prosperity for all.1
Countries that join this unstoppable march of progress will be rewarded with peace and prosperity sooner. Countries that try to resist the inevitable will suffer the consequences until they too see the light, open their borders, and liberalize their societies, their politics, and their markets. It may take time, but eventually even North Korea, Iraq, and El Salvador will look like Denmark or Iowa.
In the 1990s and 2000s this story became a global mantra. Many governments from Brazil to India adopted liberal recipes in an attempt to join the inexorable march of history. Those failing to do so seemed like fossils from a bygone era. In 1997 U.S. president Bill Clinton confidently rebuked the Chinese government, stating that its refusal to liberalize Chinese politics put it “on the wrong side of history.”2
However, since the global financial crisis of 2008 people all over the world have become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story. Walls and firewalls are back in vogue. Resistance to immigration and to trade agreements is mounting. Ostensibly democratic governments undermine the independence of the judiciary system, restrict the freedom of the press, and portray any opposition as treason. Strongmen in countries such as Turkey and Russia experiment with new types of illiberal democracies and outright dictatorships. Today, few would confidently declare that the Chinese Communist Party is on the wrong side of history.
The year 2016—marked by the Brexit vote in Britain and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States—signified the moment when this tidal wave of disillusionment reached the core liberal states of Western Europe and North America. Whereas a few years ago Americans and Europeans were still trying to liberalize Iraq and Libya at gunpoint, many people in Kentucky and Yorkshire now have come to see the liberal vision as either undesirable or unattainable. Some discovered a liking for the old hierarchical world, and they just don’t want to give up their racial, national, or gendered privileges. Others have concluded (rightly or wrongly) that liberalization and globalization are a huge racket empowering a tiny elite at the expense of the masses.
In 1938 humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1968 just two, and in 1998 a single story seemed to prevail. In 2018 we are down to zero. No wonder that the liberal elites, who dominated much of the world in recent decades, are in a state of shock and disorientation. To have one story is the most reassuring situation of all. Everything is perfectly clear. To be suddenly left without any story is terrifying. Nothing makes any sense. A bit like the Soviet elite in the 1980s, liberals don’t understand how history deviated from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality. Disorientation causes them to think in apocalyptic terms, as if the failure of history to come to its envisioned happy ending can only mean that it is hurtling toward Armageddon. Unable to conduct a reality check, the mind latches onto catastrophic scenarios. Like a person imagining that a bad headache signifies a terminal brain tumor, many liberals fear that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump portend the end of human civilization.
From Killing Mosquitoes to Killing Thoughts
Our sense of disorientation and impending doom is exacerbated by the accelerating pace of technological disruption. The liberal political system was shaped during the industrial era to manage a world of steam engines, oil refineries, and television sets. It has difficulty dealing with the ongoing revolutions in information technology and biotechnology.
Both politicians and voters are barely able to comprehend the new technologies, let alone regulate their explosive potential. Since the 1990s the internet has changed the world probably more than any other factor, yet the internet revolution was directed by engineers more than by political parties. Did you ever vote about the internet? The democratic system is still struggling to understand what hit it, and it is unequipped to deal with the next shocks, such as the rise of AI and the blockchain revolution.
Already today, computers have made the financial system so complicated that few humans can understand it. As AI improves, we might soon reach a point when no human can make sense of finance anymore. What will that do to the political process? Can you imagine a government that waits humbly for an algorithm to approve its budget or its new tax reform? Meanwhile, peer-to-peer blockchain networks and cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin might completely revamp the monetary system, making radical tax reforms inevitable. For example, it might become impossible or irrelevant to calculate and tax incomes in dollars, because most transactions will not involve a clear-cut exchange of national currency, or any currency at all. Governments might therefore need to invent entirely new taxes—perhaps a tax on information (which will be both the most important asset in the economy and the only thing exchanged in numerous transactions). Will the political system manage to deal with the crisis before it runs out of money?
Even more important, the twin revolutions in infotech and biotech could restructure not just economies and societies but our very bodies and minds. In the past, we humans learned to control the world outside us, but we had very little control over the world inside us. We knew how to build a dam and stop a river from flowing, but we did not know how to stop the body from aging. We knew how to design an irrigation system, but we had no idea how to design a brain. If a mosquito buzzed in our ear and disturbed our sleep, we knew how to kill the mosquito, but if a thought buzzed in our mind and kept us awake at night, most of us did not know how to kill the thought.
The revolutions in biotech and infotech will give us control of the world inside us and will enable us to engineer and manufacture life. We will learn how to design brains, extend lives, and kill thoughts at our discretion. Nobody knows what the consequences will be. Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely. It is easier to manipulate a river by building a dam than it is to predict all the complex consequences this will have for the wider ecological system. Similarly, it will be easier to redirect the flow of our minds than to divine what that will do to our personal psychology or to our social systems.
In the past, we gained the power to manipulate the world around us and reshape the entire planet, but because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system, and now we face an ecological collapse. In the coming century biotech and infotech will give us the power to manipulate the world inside us and reshape ourselves, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might upset our mental system to such an extent that it too might break down.
The revolutions in biotech and infotech are currently being started by engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists who are hardly aware of the political implications of their decisions, and who certainly don’t represent anyone. Can parliaments and political parties take matters into their own hands? At present it does not seem so. Technological disruption is not even a leading item on the political agenda. During the 2016 U.S. presidential race, the main reference to disruptive technology concerned Hillary Clinton’s email debacle, and despite all the talk about job loss, neither candidate addressed the potential impact of automation.3 Donald Trump warned voters that the Mexicans and Chinese would take their jobs, and that they should therefore build a wall on the Mexican border.4 He never warned voters that algorithms would take their jobs, nor did he suggest building a firewall on the border with California.
This might be one of the reasons (though not the only one) voters even in the heartlands of the liberal West are losing faith in the liberal story and in the democratic process. Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology, but they can sense that the future is passing them by. In 1938 the condition of the common person in the USSR, Germany, or the United States may have been grim, but he was constantly told that he was the most important thing in the world, and that he was the future (provided, of course, that he was an “ordinary person” rather than a Jew or an African). He looked at the propaganda posters—which typically depicted coal miners, steelworkers, and housewives in heroic poses—and saw himself there: “I am in that poster! I am the hero of the future!”5
In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious words are bandied around excitedly in TED Talks, government think tanks, and high-tech conferences—globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning—and common people may well suspect that none of these words are about them. The liberal story was the story of ordinary people. How can it remain relevant to a world of cyborgs and networked algorithms?
In the twentieth century, the masses revolted against exploitation and sought to translate their vital role in the economy into political power. Now the masses fear irrelevance, and they are frantic to use their remaining political power before it is too late. Brexit and the rise of Trump might therefore demonstrate a trajectory opposite to that of traditional socialist revolutions. The Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions were made by people who were vital to the economy but who lacked political power; in 2016, Trump and Brexit were supported by many people who still enjoyed political power but who feared that they were losing their economic worth. Perhaps in the twenty-first century populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore.6 This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.