I am just finishing up a brilliant book that is an epic overview of the human race, although from a secular perspective. The book is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, written by Yuval Noah Harari, a history professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published in February 2015. Back in March I mentioned him in a blog post, and I have finally got around to finishing the book.
I want to share something of his which I feel is a very important insight into the state of human society today, which is rather unappreciated by most people, even by those who are supposed to be seeing things from a grander perspective. I’m speaking as a Christian and I’m talking about the leadership of the Church today, which claims to hold both a mantle of authority and leadership, along with a prophetic vision to chart a course for the future according to God’s plan.
For goodness sake we are supposed to be able to see the world from a position above the cultural attitudes and prejudices that draw carnal people to and fro! We are supposed to know who we are, where we are, and where we are going in relation to the greater plan of God! This is why I really enjoy taking in a Big Picture perspective such as the one offered by Harari. Sad to say, he seems to possess deeper insight about “where we are” than does 90% of the popular prophetic voices celebrated in the Church.
But enough of my rant, here is a short passage near the end of his book, where he offers some commentary on the global shift that has just recently overtaken human society. In the past human social organization revolved around the family and the community, and it was through these close relationships that people became grounded in their identities, realized personal fulfillment, and met their basic needs. However, now we are dominated by the Market and the State. At one time we all tended to recognize that we lived within a close network of mutual obligations, but…
“All this changed dramatically over the last two centuries. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social workers. At first the market and the state discovered their path blocked by traditional families and communities who had little love for outside intervention. Parents and community elders were reluctant to let the younger generation be indoctrinated by nationalist education systems, conscripted into armies or turned into a rootless urban proletariat.
Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. The state sent its policemen to stop family vendettas and replace them with court decisions. The market sent its hawkers to wipe out longstanding local traditions and replace them with ever-changing commercial fashions. Yet this was not enough. In order to really break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.
The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance, and protection.’
Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. 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. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidized or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are debilitated for months, national social services steps in. If we need around-the-clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse — usually some stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children. If we have the means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home. The tax authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the neighbors taxes. The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish us for the crimes of our cousins…
But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives. States and markets composed of alienated individuals can intervene in the lives of their members much more easily than states and markets composed of strong families and communities. When neighbors in a high-rise apartment building cannot even agree on how much to pay the janitor, how can we expect them to resist the state?
The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all — however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements [which] designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.” (Harari, pp. 358-60)
Please think about this, and recognize that it is a combination of the Market and the State that has created the Beast that rules the world today. We can’t be blindly anti-State and look hopefully for some “free market utopia” to solve all our problems, and we can’t be purely anti-Market agitating for the downfall of Capitalism as the entry point into some future egalitarian hippie holiday. Its much more complicated than Left vs. Right, and neither the Tea Party nor Occupy has the answer, because the Market and the State have always worked together. There would have been no Big Government without the increased production of global commerce, and there would be no global Capitalism without the protection of Big Government. These two monsters always go hand-in-hand.
Our job, on the other hand, is to move forward into the future as a prophetic colony of the Kingdom of God, not merely reacting or protesting, but moving forward with the plan and the vision of God.
I leave you with an insightful quote from author and pastor Brian Zahnd, which comes by way of the Culture Shock podcast from May 15:
“The Beast knows you by number, but the Lamb knows you by name.”