Populism, AI, and nationalism — progress and backlash

Fareed Zakaria on the age of revolution.

A man wearing a black suit jacket and bowtie, smiling slightly, speaks into a microphone while standing behind a podium. An American flag stands behind him.
Journalist Fareed Zakaria speaks during the Ellis Island Medals of Honor ceremony at the Ellis Island Honors Society meeting in New York on May 13, 2017.
Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

What does it mean to say that we’re living in a revolutionary era?

Even political scientists can’t agree on the meaning of a “revolution,” but at the very least, we can agree that living through a revolution means living through extraordinary change in a relatively brief period.

By that standard, we’re definitely living in a revolutionary moment. The pace of change — both technological and cultural — in the last couple of decades has been astonishing. But is it really all that unusual in historical terms? Things are always changing. What makes the digital revolution so different? Is it about the scale or the scope of change? Or is it both?

Fareed Zakaria hosts CNN’s GPS and is a columnist at the Washington Post. His new book, Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present, tries to make sense of the present by situating it in this historical pattern of revolution, starting with the Netherlands in the 16th century and ending with the digital era.

I recently invited Zakaria on The Gray Area to talk about those patterns and why he thinks this might be one of the most revolutionary ages in human history. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday.

Sean Illing

It might surprise people when they learn that you think of the Industrial Revolution as “the mother of all revolutions.” Why place so much importance on this period?

Fareed Zakaria

Because it really created the modern world. The Industrial Revolution takes human beings out of millennia of poverty, backwardness, disease, and turbocharges the growth standards of living. It also gives us the idea that this is now a self-sustaining process where we’ll always grow, or we now just expect that every year the economy will grow more than it has in the past. And that was a completely new phenomenon.

It happened because we are able to do something that was technologically thought impossible, which is to harness inanimate forms of energy. The Industrial Revolution is really an energy revolution and all of that completely remakes society because you go from a world of agriculture to a world of industry.

People forget, but places like Harvard, to the extent they had trade elements, they were agricultural schools. Why? Because 95 percent of the people in America during the colonial era were engaged in agriculture. That transformation of society from an agricultural society to a modern industrial society happens because of the Industrial Revolution, and it completely overturns the politics of the age and much else.

Sean Illing

The pace and scale of societal change seems to be crucial here, maybe the most important variable. You even open the book with that famous quote from Marx and Engels talking about how the soil is fertile for revolution because the world that people live in keeps getting upended and uprooted by capitalism. To the extent that they were right about that, and I think they were, that does not seem all that encouraging because the pace of change keeps accelerating.

Fareed Zakaria

Yeah, absolutely. And that is Marx and Engels, they were bad economists, but they were brilliant social scientists. In the 1840s, they observed that the nature of capitalism was this constant progress or change because it was constantly creating new things. And they’re saying that capitalism will inevitably create new wants and new needs.

So even when you think you’ve made everything that you possibly could, you discover that you need new things and that those new needs then drive the economy to new forms of dynamism and innovation. Which is why they write that “All that is solid melts into air.” What they’re talking about there is every belief system that you have is going to collapse because the underlying structure on which it was based has been changed by capitalism.

At the end of the book, I quote Walter Lippmann, the great political columnist, who wrote in 1929 that the central problem of the age is that basically the “acids of modernity” are dissolving every belief system or custom or tradition. And the nature of modernity is that those acids will never let another belief system come into being or stay in place for long enough because they will be dissolved. I mean, we just thought we were finished with the software revolution, which had completely upended the economy, and now we have the AI revolution, which is going to upend whatever we thought we knew.

Sean Illing

Do you think we might look back and say that the digital revolution was the most revolutionary period in human history, in terms of how dramatically it changed human life and, really, human beings?

Fareed Zakaria

I suspect so because I think what we are doing is even broader, even faster, and even more disruptive. It’s broader because the Industrial Revolution, as you know, basically takes place in a handful of countries clustered around the North Atlantic. This revolution, by its nature, is happening everywhere. You go to India and you notice a country transformed by the smartphone, poor farmers are now using it to transact business in a way that they never did, but also consuming information and entertainment in a way that they never were.

It’s also happening faster. I mean, we all know those statistics about how it took so many years for the first hundred million people to go online and then use Google, and then it took something like two months to get to a hundred million users of ChatGPT. So everything is accelerating.

But I think perhaps the most profound shift is yet to come, which is AI and gene engineering. Because so far, and I borrow this point from Yuval Noah Harari, for all of human history, the two things that never really changed were your fundamental mental capacities and your fundamental physical capacities. Human beings were as smart as they were. The brain didn’t change that much over the last 20,000 years, and the human body didn’t change that much. Now AI is going to multiply the power of the human brain exponentially.

And then you’re going to physically be able to create human beings who are much less prone to disease, who are much more capable of enhancing their physical capacities. You’re talking about almost the creation of a superman. There’s clearly something very, very disruptive about this idea that you can actually change the fundamental mental and physical capacities of human beings.

Sean Illing

How did the Industrial Revolution transform the politics of the time, and how do those changes compare to the political disruptions in the digital era?

Fareed Zakaria

In the beginning, the right was opposed to the Industrial Revolution, and the left was in favor of it, because classical conservatism was basically rooted in the hierarchies of land, of blood, of religion. It was defending the aristocracy, the landed elite, the church, the monarchy, and all those things seemed to be disrupted by the Industrial Revolution. The left, on the other hand, represented the merchants, the liberals, the people who were against monarchy, against established churches and their authority.

But by the end of the Industrial Revolution, you get a kind of new politics. And the new politics is that the roles have flipped. The right is now in favor of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism, because they realized it just created a new plutocratic elite and were perfectly comfortable defending that new industrial elite. And the left realized that while it had been in favor of free markets and free trade and all that, it also produced enormous inequality and immiseration for workers.

That shift basically created modern politics, and it endured for 150 years. The left was the side that wanted to regulate capitalism and the right wanted minimal state intervention. That powerful framework is being upended. But will it be as powerful a transformation? I don’t know. Certainly the forces, the acids of modernity right now, are as strong, but the reason I wonder is what we seem to be returning to is a kind of politics based on identity, culture, nationalism, national chauvinism, which means they tend to be kind of particular.

In India, you’re seeing the rise of Hindu nationalism. In Turkey, we’ve seen the rise of a certain kind of Turkish nationalism fused with Islam. In Russia, you’re seeing the rise of a kind of Orthodox Russian nationalism that sees Moscow as the third Rome. In China, you’re seeing Han nationalism. So there is a common theme, but they’re all going to manifest themselves quite differently. And I think you can’t imagine quite the same common conversation or common allegiance that everyone will have to this one idea.

Sean Illing

We don’t know what’s on the other side of all this change, but what do you think the stakes are right now?

Fareed Zakaria

I think the stakes are really liberal democracy, because what has happened is the people who are at this point displaced, anxious, angry, radicalized, the focus of their ire is basically to tear down the system, the world that produced all this change. You can’t un-invent AI. You can’t even really undo globalization because it’s so broad and it’s so interpenetrating. You can maybe decrease it a little, but how would you, for example, stop globalization of digital goods, which are increasingly the most important goods?

So it’s not a target-rich environment, but politics is, and so the tendency to just utterly disrupt and screw up liberal democracy and make it totally illiberal, which is happening in lots of places, not just the United States, is concerning because my worry is that one act of illiberalism begets another.

Sean Illing

If the liberal era does fade away, do you think it will be because liberalism devoured itself? Because it unleashed so much innovation and growth and change and cultural disorientation that it actually imploded under the instability it created?

Fareed Zakaria

That’s a very smart way of putting it. But yeah, that’s exactly right that it produced so much accelerating change, and then it turned out we did not, as human beings, have the capacity to navigate through that level of change wisely. We gave in to our fears and our emotions, and we didn’t find a way to create some anchors, some balance, that allowed us to move through these times. I am ultimately not that pessimistic because I think that we’ve been through backlashes before.

One of the biggest eras of change in the Industrial Revolution was really the second Industrial Revolution, from 1880 to 1920. Everything gets electrified — cars, telegrams, movies, all that. And look at the disorientation it produced and the backlash it produced. What did we get out of all that? We got communism, fascism, world wars, the collapse of three of the greatest empires in the world in World War I.

So we have been there before, and I think liberalism does find a way to revive itself, partly because at the end of the day human beings want to be free. They like progress. They want the fruits of liberalism. I continue to hope that what we’re talking about is a temporary setback, not a permanent reversal.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Source: vox.com

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