Further Commentary on Yuval Noah Harari’s book: Sapience: A Brief History of Mankind (2014)

The book surveys the journey of humankind from its animal existence to the point where humans have gained the knowledge to be like gods — by possibly engineering immortality or engineering beings which are superior to humans. This is his trajectory of history, i.e., if not eclipsed by an ecological collapse. This prediction or anticipation may be true, but as a human animal, it does not have the same interest for me as does my present animal nature. To survive as animals, humans need the necessities for a living organism to maintain its life: food, water, shelter, temperature, oxygen, tools. And as Peter Kropotkin put so well: mutual aid from others. As hunter-gatherers, humans from primeval times, as well as some current indigenous people, are supplied with these necessities through access to subsistence land. Such people lived in group of no more than about 150 families (Dunbar’s number).

Harari correctly recounts that humans underwent a Cognitive Revolution — his name for the evolutionary stage in which it became possible and actual for humans to acquire language, and this was followed by the subsequent stage of learning how to grow food and to herd animals — which can be called, as does Harari, the Agricultural Revolution.

Here Harari could have learned from Herman Nieboer’s Slavery: As an Industrial System (1900), that agricultural activity (and also “agricultural” fisheries) lend themselves to the rise of slavery through conquests. He could also have learned from Franz Oppenheimer’s The State, that these larger grouping of people, which we call States and Empires, are all the results of conquest. All subsequent history is, from this political perspective, a morphing of slavery, to serfdom, to wage-slavery. And, as Marx pointed out correctly, there is a correlation between these stages and the stages in the means of economic production.

So, my concern with history is the question: how did it transpire that I am a wage-slave? And how can I and others get out of this predicament?

This, however, is not Harari’s primary concern. His concern is a cognitive one: what made possible the Scientific Revolution and the prospects of Homo Deus?

Well, one ingredient is leisure. And this is achieved by others doing the work of supplying the necessities (and luxuries) of life. And leisure is achieved through conquest and slavery, serfdom, and capitalism. [Incidentally, I find his analysis of capitalism as requiring credit correct, but inadequate by omitting a discussion of the necessity of a proletarian class, and omitting a discussion of what makes such a class possible.]

Harari sees the movement of history as strivings for empire, and he recounts for us the various empires that have existed. And he notes which factors contribute to the unification of an empire: money, religion, and technology. [I would add a political order which maintains either slaves, serfs, or wage-slaves.] And he anticipates (and welcomes) the coming of a world empire. [Empires tend to assimilate various nationalities (languages) into one nationality (language). Harari welcomes this unification; I do not.]

We can appreciate and marvel at the achievements of great States and Empires: the architecture, the roads, the canals, the viaducts; and today, the various means of transportation, means of communication, means of harnessing energy, and the myriad uses and and fabrication of resources. This is all the result of the Scientific Revolution (preceded by a Renaissance and Protestant Reformation) which was aided by the existence of leisure — in other words, by the private and public support of scientists and creative people. But at what price? Slavery, serfdom, and wage-slavery.

I suppose the difference between me and Harari is over the ancient question of whether the end justifies the means. He seems to be end oriented. I am, on the other hand, means oriented. The means I seek are free agreements.

But as far as the trajectory of history is concerned he may be right that humankind will suffer either an ecological collapse or create a Homo Deus.

Yuval Noah Harari’s conflation (lumping together) of “common imaginations”

I have now read Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2014), and have watched him giving lectures and interviews. From an overarching perspective, he is a very clear writer and well informed, and reading him was a “smooth” process. However, in his reflections on human history there are intertwined different interests which left me somewhat confused as to his overarching concern, especially with the last chapters which were reflections on happiness and the prospects of various types of engineering of “sapience.”

So, as a first attempt at understanding his book, these various strands of interest should be distinguished. Here I will concern myself only with one major and fundamental confusion, which is embraced or covered over by the use of the word “fiction” and by the phrase “common imagination.”

To clear up this confusion, we must start — as does Harari — with the distinction between humans beings and animals.

Watch the following video in which Herari tries to explain this difference (as well as other topics).

Commentary: He says that the difference between humans and animals is the fact that humans can cooperate more widely than, lets say, chimpanzees. That is true. But this cooperation is possible because we humans have a “human” language which no other animal does or can have. This allows us to share information with others and to make agreements. But from this elementary truth, he quickly jumps to the idea that we tell each other stories which gain acceptance. And he calls these stories “fictions,” giving the institution of money as a prime example. But then, in the same vein of thinking, he talks about religions and their “fictions.”

This is confusing. The word “fiction” is a pejorative term which suggests that what is talked about is not real in some sense of “real.” I was similarly confused by the title of the book, Bentham’s Theory of Fictions, until I realized that Bentham was referring to abstract (non sensorial) concepts as “fictions” and reserved the term “fables” for mythological stories. Harari, unfortunately, does not make this distinction, but conflates it.

With the use of language, humans can make agreements. However, we must distinguish those agreements which make a language possible in the first place, from the kinds of agreements which we can make by the use of language. An elementary feature of language is the existence of names. An animal is able to associate a sound with some object or activity, but only a human is able to understand that the sound “water” is, let us say, a common name in a language for water.

With the working of a language, which could be described, though not happily, with Harari’s phrase as existing in a “common imagination” and as a “fiction” (= creation of the mind), different activities are possible through Speech Acts. As an antidote to what Harari writes, I urge the reader to get acquainted with what John Searle had written and lectured on Speech Acts. See:

John Searle explains how social reality is created

Searle distinguished five types of speech acts: Assertives, Expressives, Directives, Commissives, Declarations.

Harari’s confusion is explicitly present in the following summary paragraph:

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” (Sapience, p. 28)

The claim that there are or that there are not gods is an Assertive which can be true or false — no matter how many people believe it. But to make such an assertion requires possession of a language, and a language exists — so to say — in a “common imagination.” But this is simply to note that an assertion can be made only is a language, and that a language exists only in humans. But the question of whether the assertion is true or not, is independent of what anyone asserts or believes. By “common imagination,” can only mean here that a community subscribes to some assertion or claim.

As concerns the term “nation,” it is a term of classification. In one sense, classes exist outside of human classification, but humans can choose which classes to use. As I use the term, a nation is composed of all the people who use a common language and give that language a preferential status. This could be my idiosyncratic understanding, but if others agree with me, then that is the meaning of the term for us. But here we are dealing with the elementary level of what does a word mean, and not with any assertion as is done, for example, with religious beliefs. I also know that the term “nation” or “nationality” is used by others in something like a disjunctive manner: A person is a member of the nation (or nationality) N if A or B or C or . . . And various things can be put for the variables. All this shows is that the terms “nation” and “nationality,” as commonly used, are ambiguous and vague.

As to rights and laws, these are the result of implicit or explicit Declarations. And declarations are either by common agreement, or by the declaration of some authority, such as a legislature or a judge. Justice, as I conceive it, is simply the abiding by agreements.

Harari has managed to conflate all these distinctions by saying that they all depend on a “common imagination.” And this conflation is not confined to some segment of his book but pervades it.

Again: What is Capitalism?

I keep reading and viewing items about capitalism. It is almost universally assumed that we know what capitalism is, and with this assumption the discussion goes on to praising, condemning, or improving capitalism. What is praised is the efficiency of production and technological innovations, making more goods available at cheaper prices. What is condemned in the resulting poverty and unemployment. What is advised — as by social democrats — is more government involvement is regulating industry, promotion of worker-owned factories, and extending welfare programs.

But the question of what is capitalism is not addressed. And when it is addressed, it is misrepresented. The first misrepresentation is to view that capitalism is only a form of economy — specifically a market-economy. But a market-economy is just barter or trade, which has existed from time immemorial. Neither can capitalism be identified with factory production — again something that has almost always existed as a specialized form of production.

Contrary to being an economic system, it is a political system. How so? It is a political system which bars people from taking up free subsistence land. This is a necessary condition for the existence for an industrial market-economy. What I am saying is that capitalism is a political system which forces people into a market-economy.

So, what would be the antithesis of capitalism? It would be a political system which grants everyone the right to a chunk of free subsistence land. Does such a system exist anywhere in the world? Yes, all indigenous people who have not been forced into the market-economy are free of capitalism. The next closest to this are, for example, the peasant villages which are to be found in Eastern Europe and Asia, which are more or less self-sufficient.

Because under capitalism one is, as Chomsky says, “driven into the industrial system, and into wage-slavery”, and “driven” is another word for “forced,” and the “force” comes from the laws of government, capitalism is a political system.

* * *

There are only a few writers that have viewed the essence of capitalism as I view it. See my previous postings:

  • What is capitalism?
  • Is Capitalism a Political rather than an Economic system?
  • Criticism of Capitalism by G. A. Cohen, reflecting on Al Capp’s creature, the Shmoo
  • Capitalism = Proletarianism
  • Origins of the State, Land and Population
  • Primitive Accumulation of Capital (Dispossession of peasant land)

  • Why is the government of Switzerland invisible?

    Most of the governments of the world have a person with whom we identify a country. The most visible and troublesome ones are Donald Trump, the President of the United States, and Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation. Then there is the motley crew of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany; Emmanuel Macron, the President of France; and Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Then there is Kim Jong-un, the Dictator of North Korea; Nicolas Maduro, the President of Venezuela; Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. Also there are a host of — at least to me — peripheral leaders: Xi Jinping, President of China; Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary; Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada; Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine. Other leaders are, for me, at the margins — and I have to look them up or be reminded of who they are.

    As to Switzerland, the government of Switzerland is basically invisible to me — even if I look up who’s who. Why? Primarily because they do not have a single leader, but a Federal Council consisting of seven individuals, who — unlike the nine-member Supreme Court in the United States who are often quite visible because of their individual identifiable controversial decisions — cannot be individually identified with any decisions because their individual votes are unrecorded and unknown.

    Besides, whatever the Federal Council’s decisions are, they are neither controversial nor of international significance. The significant decisions of Switzerland are made through national referendums and national initiatives by the people; not by any leader. The result of this type of government is a prosperous, peaceful, and neutral country in times of war.

    Viva la Switzerland!

    Der Gesamtbundesrat 2020 (von links nach rechts): Bundeskanzler Walter Thurnherr, Bundesrätin Viola Amherd, Bundesrat Guy Parmelin (Vizepräsident), Bundesrat Alain Berset, Bundespräsidentin Simonetta Sommaruga, Bundesrat Ignazio Cassis, Bundesrat Ueli Maurer, Bundesrätin Karin Keller-Sutter. Foto: Annette Boutellier/Yoshiko Kusano

    Noam Chomsky: “driven into the industrial system” — “driven into wage-slavery”

    In the following interview of Noam Chomsky by Chris Hedges, Chomsky starts with the historical reality of people in the United States “driven into the industrial system.” And he goes on to describe the workers’ resistance to this state of affairs, and he also describes the government’s successful efforts to foster compliance through the “manufacture of consent,” including through general education.

    Chomsky’s economic solution is to have a system of worker-owned enterprises. A solution, incidentally, which is also supported by Richard Wolff.

    My quick response it that a worker-owned enterprise is compatible with capitalism. It does not address itself to the problem of unemployment.

    The problem with this interview is that it does not address itself to the question: “How is the population driven into the industrial system?”

    The answer is tied to the necessary condition for capitalism, which is the political deprivation of people to a free access to subsistence land. And the other matter which has to be addressed is: How does such a political system work (and is possible) which drives people into wage-slavery ?

    What is required is a critique of the U.S. Constitution — a critique which neither Chomsky nor Hedges is prepared to give!

    Inverted Totalitarianism

    Below is an eight-part conversation between Chris Hedges and Sheldon Wolin (1922-2015) about, what Wolin called, “Inverted Totalitarianism.” Briefly: Classic Totalitarianism = Politics trumps economics; Inverted Totalitarianism = Economics trumps politics. This is a conversation about political philosophy and a history of, primarily, American “democratic” politics and its precarious social institutions.


    Wolin’s major books are:
  • Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Part I – 1960; Part II – 2004)
  • Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life, 2001.
  • Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, 2008.

  • The problem is overpopulation; not the nature of the energy!

    Below is the new film “Planet of the Humans.” The director is Jeff Gibbs and the executive producer is Michael Moore. The thesis of the film is that using alternative sources of energy is not the solution to our ecological problem because, for one, it takes traditional sources of energy [such as oil, coal, gas, and biomass (eulogism for lumber)] to produce and back-up the machinery for harnessing solar or wind energy. The real problem is that we have too many people on the planet, using too many resources, eviscerating other life forms, and polluting the globe with almost everlasting garbage.

    Michael Moore film Planet of the Humans removed from YouTube

    See also The Silent Lie [about Overpopulation]