In my last essay I used some ideas drawn from a book, now ten years old, by Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind. I thoroughly recommend it. It is quite long, but well written. I’ve finished it now, and need to return it to my daughter, who hasn’t finished it. In this essay, I’ll explore another idea of his, the press for globalisation. I’ll start with a longish extract, which follows his claim of of ‘an inexorable trend towards unity’.
When we adopt the proverbial bird’s-eye view of history, which examines developments in terms of decades or centuries, it’s hard to say whether history moves in the direction of unity or of diversity. However, to understand long-term processes in the bird’s-eye view is too myopic. We would do better to adopt instead the viewpoint of a cosmic spy satellite, which scans millennia rather than centuries. From such a vantage point it becomes crystal clear that history is moving relentlessly towards unity. The sectioning of Christianity and collapse of the Mongol Empire are just speed bumps on history’s highway.
I find this arresting, in part because I am currently writing a novel about a world in which there really is only one society, which has become stultified, risk-averse and corrupt. But to Harari. How is this happening? He says it began in the first Millennium, when three factors coalesced to start the process. One was money, a universal means of communicating between people who might live a long way away from each other. I talked about that in the last essay. The movers and shakers here were merchants, whose whole business involved bringing distant people together as makers and buyers.
The second factor was the growth of empires, which had begun earlier, but became larger and more powerful, the Roman Empire being the classic example. Empires allowed locals a lot of freedom, but united them under a single banner. In time the imperial language became the language of all, and prevailed over time. So Latin is everywhere around Europe, and in English, all around the world. Common currencies and common languages are great unifiers. So are international entities like the UN and the EU.
The third factor was the appearance of unifying religions, who were for everyone, not just “us” — or “us” became everyone. Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are the three great exemplars. Yes, they fought one another, and they split. But put them together with common currencies and common imperial banners, and you can see what Harari is driving at. It is a powerful argument. He concludes by saying that today’s citizens have to choose between being members of nation-states or members of the larger demand for global unity. More and more, he says, are choosing the latter.
I think he is right. Many of the younger members of my extended family live and work overseas or are accustomed to travel there. I an oldie, but I was doing the same half a century ago. Yet I am not at all someone who wants to speedup the globalisation process. We don’t have the political infrastructure in place. So I remain an Australian and a nation-statist. I wrote about that several years ago, and it has been an underlying part of my world-view. Why so?
Well, let me start by agreeing with Harari. The trend is there. In the long run there will be some kind of global unity. But I wager it will be a federation of nation states, not a single unified state. This is where the EU has got it badly wrong, in my view, why Brexit is occurring, and why some member states are simply refusing to comply with Brussels rules. We are not ready for world government, not nearly ready. Yes, people need to have a banner to wave, but they wave it far more happily now for ‘Australia” than they do for “the world”, or “humanity” or the “environment”. Indeed, the UN would get few happy banner waves, in my opinion, and not just in our country.
What is more, the nation state can provide a better outcome in life for more people than the UN can, by a long way, and having a better banner is a big part of it. The banner tells us who is “us”, and we will do a lot for the rest of “us” far more readily than we will for the world’s poor and downtrodden, in part because we are “us” and they are “them”. I am using Harari’s terms here, for I agree with him. Now there are lots of people who feel that we ought to do more, so they are supporters of the UN and its agencies. The UN has done some good work, but it is also an interfering busybody, telling us all how to behave, and passing resolutions that enjoin us to do so.
A lot of our federal departments and agencies take serious notice of these resolutions, and press our politicians to adopt them, partly because to do so helps them in other international activities, and partly because the international world is their job, their play station. So we find ourselves agreeing to rules that are not really sensible for us as citizens, but are wheeled out by the do-gooders, especially the international NGOs like WWF and Greenpeace, to chastise us when we are reluctant to do what they want.
So we are in a bind. It is true, as Harari says, that no nation- state can act unilaterally any more. All nation-states are bound up in a complex net of rules and regulations, some financial, some commercial, some economic, some political, some just useful (like meetings of customs people, police, motor vehicle regulators, and the like). At the same time, Australians expect their governments to do the right thing for them, the Australians of the nation-state of Australia. We elected our representatives with that basic assumption.
But I see no looming future for global government, and if it were to be under the guidance of the United Nations and its agencies I would frankly be terrified. In my view our best course as a nation-state is to help other nations develop along similar lines to ourselves, aspiring democracies with decent freedoms, political liberties, property rights and independent legal and judicial systems. Bilateral relationships with such countries are a good way forward. After all, the number of countries that have moved in that direction in the last half-century is quite large. Many of them have problems in getting rid of old rules and benefits, but the trend is there.
It’s not the trend that Harari talks about, though to be fair he does not come down on either side. Mine is quite clear: a federation of nation-states is much to be preferred to a unified global government, whenever the right time has come. That time seems to me quite far away.