Review of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

It sometimes feels as though humanity is on the edge of a cliff. Books and articles proliferate, promising to explain how we have arrived at this point. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is one such book. It has garnered widespread readership, with over 10 million copies sold, and has earned high praise from the likes of Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. With this level of recognition, the question arises: what explanations does Sapiens offer?

The philosophy of Sapiens

Sapiens arrives at the idea that what separates human beings from all other animals is the ability to construct “myths.” At first glance, this may seem reasonable. After all, no other animal has stories of gods, angels, dragons, and trolls under the bridge. However, Harari does not limit his conception of “myths” to such fantastical beings. In Sapiens, myths extend to the state, money, politics, and all other aspects of the superstructure that constitutes human society.

He terms this the “inter-subjective,” which is defined as shared myths or illusions within a communication network of multiple people that only exist in the human mind. He contrasts this to what he calls the objective and the subjective: that which exists independent of human consciousness or belief, i.e., natural phenomena, and myths or fantasies that only exist in an individual’s mind, such as a child’s imaginary friend.

The inter-subjective is thus the subjective expanded to collective humanity, making entities such as Walmart, the United States, and capitalism our shared imaginary friends. As Harari puts it, “Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”

This approach to understanding the nature of human society may seem “cutting edge”—but in reality, it is nothing new. It is merely a repackaged form of philosophical idealism, the assertion that ideas, myths, and non-real entities ultimately shape reality. This form of thinking has been around for millennia. In fact, most philosophy departments, bourgeois intellectuals, and the capitalists themselves adhere to idealism in one variant or another. It is the direct opposite of the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism. As Marxists, we do not view the development of history as being shaped by ideas, or “myths,” but rather, by real, tangible social relations, driven by the contradictions inherent in class society.

To illustrate his point, Harari uses the example of the French car company Peugeot. Peugeot, he explains, constitutes a massive network of human cooperation, and yet “Peugeot” as a concept is a figment of our collective imagination. It does not exist eternally or independently of human society. Thus, merely creating the “Legend of Peugeot” was the impetus for creating the company.

Peugeot car museum
“Thus, merely creating the “Legend of Peugeot” was the impetus for creating the company.” / Image: Jon Pinckney via pexels

But if that is the case, why did the “Legend of Peugeot” arise when it did? Why didn’t the ancient Greeks think up and found a similar company? Dialectical materialism explains that ideas ultimately have their roots in the material world. Since the ancient Greeks never developed the technology to build a car, coming up with the “idea” of a car company didn’t occur to them. Once that technology was developed, however, we saw the gradual emergence of car companies. This is not to say that the “Legend of Peugeot,” i.e., the branding and lore surrounding the car company, does not play a role in society, but it is absurd to assert that this was the initial impetus for its creation.

Unlike some other idealist thinkers, Harari acknowledges that these “myths” are precisely that—social constructs. He acknowledges that things like God, the state, and Peugeot are ephemeral human creations. This gives his ideas the cover of being a “scientific” appraisal of history. However, without a consistent materialist outlook, the origin of such “myths” must be attributed to something beyond the material world, which in the final analysis may as well be God—the same entity Harari argues does not exist.

What is religion?

With this line of reasoning, Harari asserts that modern political trends, including liberalism, nationalism, communism, and Nazism, are just “natural-law religions.” He states that “If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on the belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.” A “superhuman order” is defined as immutable laws that govern society, from which those “norms and values” are consequently derived. By contrast, for Harari, Einstein’s theory of relativity is not a religion, because people do not derive norms and values from it.

Marxists would agree that the theory of relativity is not a religion—but not because there are no “norms or values” derived from it. When Hariri says that “the theory of relativity” is not a religion, he really means to say that “it does not follow my logic of the objective, subjective, and inter-subjective.” This is one example of the inconsistent and eclectic nature of Sapiens. It is materialist in its understanding of natural occurrences outside the human sphere, but idealist when it looks at anything relating to humans.

Marx’s description of religion sheds light on what religion actually is:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

For Marxists, religion is not just any ideology under the sun, but specific ideologies used by a ruling class to facilitate their rule over the majority.

Then there is the matter of his mechanical treatment of communism. He asserts that communism had “theologians adept at Marxists dialectics, and every unit in the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar, who monitored the piety of soldiers and officers.” This is a ridiculous caricature and exposes his utter lack of understanding of Marxism.

Dialectics is the logic of infinite motion, change, and development. It has nothing to do with dogmas, cults, or religion. Theologians are, in effect, the academics of the religious world. But theology is not a form of logic with which to analyze the world; it is a set of dogmas and assertions to “prove” the correctness of this or that particular religious cult. To be sure, the Stalinist version of “Marxism” was rigid and undialectical. And after Lenin’s death, Soviet commissars were more interested in policing the population than in defending and extending the revolution. But to equate commissars in general with “chaplains” explains nothing—it is merely lazy thinking to fit Harari’s preferred schema.

“Imperial Visions”

Marxists reject the idea that it is possible to view history from an “unbiased” viewpoint. As products of class society, all historians approach history from a given class viewpoint, whether they proclaim it or not. Unsurprisingly, Harari attempts to appear “unbiased” throughout the book, though this does not change the fact that he does have a particular class viewpoint. That is perhaps most apparent in his treatment of the concept of empire.

The Consummation of Empire by Thomas Cole
Harari uses the alleged role empires have played historically as a rationalization for the continuation of class domination. / Image: The Consummation of Empire by Thomas Cole

Responding to accusations that empires are morally questionable or unstable, he writes “The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of political organization for the last 2,500 years . . . Empire is also a very stable form of government.” He later adds, “To color all empires black and to disavow all imperial legacies is to reject most of human culture. Imperial elites used the profits of conquest to finance not only armies and forts but also philosophy, art, justice, and charity.”

Marxists soberly explain that class society did indeed lead to the development of art, philosophy, and other intellectual pursuits. The division of society into classes meant that a tiny percentage of the population had the necessary free-time for intellectual labor. Thus, the majority of intellectual progress was historically made by members of the ruling classes or those working for them. But the continuation of class society is no longer materially necessary, and in fact, is the fundamental barrier to further human progress. Based on a socialist planned economy, everyone could have free time to develop themselves, and society as a whole could make an enormous leap ahead.

However, Harari implicitly uses the alleged role empires have played historically as a rationalization for the continuation of class domination. He speaks of the “imperial vision” as “universal and inclusive,” pointing out with satisfaction that most people in history have lived under empires, and that there is nothing inherently evil about them. Indeed, if one does not believe in God or other sources of eternal morality, there is nothing inherently or eternally evil about anything. But there is a clear political agenda in arguing so passionately for the positive merits of “empire.” This is revealed most blatantly later in the book when Harari naively writes: “Ours is the first time in history that the world is dominated by a peace-loving elite—politicians, business people, intellectuals, and artists who genuinely see war as both evil and avoidable.”

Harari argues against the idea that a “pure” civilization untouched by the evils of “empire” could exist, emphasizing that much of the science and culture we enjoy today is, after all, “the product of empire.” This used to justify modern imperialism and even to belittle the concept of the right of self-determination of nations.

For Harari, there is an irresolvable conflict between the fact that empires served as historically progressive, and the fact that they have oppressed hundreds of millions of people. Only able to conceive of contemporary society through the lens of capitalism, he sees it as hypocritical to be anti-imperialist while living in a world built on the basis of imperialism.

Marxists acknowledge the advances humanity has made within the limits of class society. Socialism will indeed be built with the material provided to us by capitalism. But accepting that fact does not mean we must defend imperialism and argue for its continuation. This stems from the fundamental differences in our historical perspectives, namely, that Harari sees capitalism as the pinnacle of human development, while we see it as a brief and temporary historical phenomenon.

“The capitalist creed”

The emergence of capitalism was undoubtedly one of the fundamental turning points in human history, so Sapiens naturally touches on it. Harari provides an excellent example of the “origin story” of capitalism put forth by many bourgeois historians.

Explaining why capitalism emerged, he writes:

Over the last 500 years the idea of progress convinced people to put more and more trust in the future. This trust created credit; credit brought real economic growth, and growth strengthened the trust in the future and opened the way for even more credit.

Strengthening this trend, we are told that, in 1776,

[Adam Smith] made the following novel argument: when a landlord, a weaver, or a shoemaker has greater profits than he needs to maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in order to further increase his profits. The more profits he has, the more assistants he can employ. It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.

Vue panoramique de l'exposition universelle de 1900 by Lucien Baylac
Harari writes: “Over the last 500 years the idea of progress convinced people to put more and more trust in the future.” / Image: Vue panoramique de l’exposition universelle de 1900 by Lucien Baylac

Harari posits that for most of human history, economies were stagnant. Eventually, the idea of “trust in the future”—i.e., credit—appeared, and was strengthened by the concrete results of this “great idea.” Then, Adam Smith came along with his revolutionary “suggestion” that profits be reinvested in production rather than hoarded. It would seem that this is not a result of the development of capitalist property relations but was instead “introduced” through the power of the mind. In his view, the “crucial part of the modern capitalist economy was the emergence of a new ethic, according to which profits ought to be reinvested in production.”

If reinvesting profits in production is a simple choice, one might ask why the contemporary capitalist class sits on trillions of dollars of uninvested wealth and vast unused capacity. With so many people lacking even basic necessities, surely that wealth “ought” to be invested back into production. The problem is that investment in production is only a means towards an end—a way of further increasing profits. If such investments are unprofitable, the capitalists will not invest. It’s as simple as that.

Marxists explain that capitalism was not just a “good idea” that humans conjured up and then implemented. Instead, it emerged on the basis of specific social and economic relations that converged at a particular time in a specific place, which, again due to contingent historical conditions, was able to flourish and eventually spread across the world.

Was civilization a mistake?

After his “brief history of humankind,” Harari is posed with the question of what is to become of humanity, and what we have gained from preceding history. Throughout the book, he asserts that civilization is merely an accident, and, given the high levels of misery people experience today, possibly a mistake. Another frequent theme is that “there is no justice in history,” that history is a more-or-less patternless series of attempts by humans to increase our power over nature, futilely grasping for happiness and destroying ourselves and our environment in the process.

He correctly acknowledges that improvements in empirical measurements of living standards do not automatically translate to increased happiness. But, unable to see this as a result of the alienation inherent in capitalism, he correlates unhappiness and alienation with progress and civilization itself. As he writes in the book’s bleak afterword:

Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens . . . We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles—but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power.

Harari cannot conceive of modernity without alienation, or rather, modernity without capitalism. To him, they are the same. From his viewpoint, there is essentially a binary choice between having a sense of meaning and agency and living in an industrialized society. This feeling is widespread under capitalism, because humans have built up immense technological power and capacity, but have very little say in how it is used. Under socialism, technological progress would be guided by democratic input by the majority, allowing for a life with real agency along with a rapidly rising standard of living.

As for his assertion that there “is no justice in history,” Marxists agree that there is not a predetermined course for history. However, we disagree sharply with the idea that there is no underlying thread to historical development. Marxists explain that history is ultimately pushed forward by the class struggle and changes in society’s underlying mode of production. Humanity’s enormous advances in productivity over the last few centuries have now laid the basis for a world of superabundance, and there is no material need for poverty and misery. As Friedrich Engels explained, “The first men who separated themselves from the animal kingdom were in all essentials as unfree as the animals themselves, but each step forward in civilization was a step towards freedom.”

Sapiens is a perfect example of the pessimistic and impotent outlook of those who cannot understand why, in a world of incredible potential, we live in constant misery. Harari sees only humans haphazardly organizing around “myths” and heading towards disaster and collective ennui. Marxists recognize that we live in a time when genuine human freedom is a possibility in our lifetime. We optimistically point the revolutionary way out of this conundrum and highlight the potential for a world of plenty for all—provided humanity breaks from the artificial constraints of capitalism.

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