Book Review from the November 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind', by Yuval Noah Harari. Vintage £8.99.
This is not a book to consult for a century-by-century chronicle of what happened in history. Rather, it provides an overview, focusing on some significant events and on what Harari sees as important trends and principles. It is a good place to look, for instance, for a summary of recent research on the origin of Homo sapiens and our relation to other kinds of Homo. And it is instructive to learn that since 1500 the global population has increased about fourteen times, but the value of goods and services produced well over two hundred times.
The Agricultural Revolution about twelve thousand years ago led to a dramatic increase in population but was responsible for worse diets and harder work for most people. Hunter-gatherers were in less danger of disease and starvation than farmers, but it is not clear that this warrants describing the Agricultural Revolution as ‘history’s biggest fraud’.
One point made several times is the crucial role played by co-operation. Humans are social animals and it takes a number of people to raise a child (single parents don’t do so in isolation). We can co-operate in lots of different ways with large numbers of people. Yet Harari also argues that it is money that promotes trust and co-operation, ignoring the fact that there are plenty of instances of co-operation not involving money (such as mountain rescue, Wikipedia and the Socialist Party). And capitalism, with its wages system, involves coercion rather than co-operation.
Though he is well aware of the extent of suffering in both past and present, he is uncritically accepting of the current social set-up: ‘The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension’. But this is only because the state and the market are part of the dominant economic system, capitalism, and almost all production currently has to rely on them. It is human labour that provides food, homes, clothing and so on, not the state and the market.
In some cases his explanation for historical events is purely idealist. In the sixteenth century the Spanish invaders conquered the Aztecs and then the Incas, supposedly because the Incas had a purely parochial outlook and were unaware of the fate of the Aztecs. Nothing to do, then, with the fact that the Spanish had guns and horses, which they did not (horses not being native to the Americas).
Unfortunately, when he discusses economics and anything related to Marxism, Harari goes well astray. For instance, he believes that any factory worker who buys some shares thereby becomes a capitalist. He gives an astonishingly simplistic presentation of the idea that banks can create credit. He sees the ‘Soviet Union’ as an attempt to implement the principle ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’. As this last example suggests, he unquestioningly accepts that Marxism means Bolshevism, and he sees Communism as a religion (defined as ‘a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order’). This ‘superhuman order’ is some unspecified ‘law of nature’ allegedly discovered by Marx, Engels and Lenin. Communism, he asserts, does not call itself a religion but an ideology: this is quite wrong, though, since for Marx an ideology is a theory that offers a distorted view of reality (such as the view that workers are paid in wages the full value of what they produce).
So this is an interesting and stimulating read, but it also contains much that is misleading or just plain wrong.