In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that humans are forever trapped in imagined orders. Whether it is the American Dollar, human rights, or nations, we are trapped within agreed upon institutions for organizing our lives. The reason we are stuck with the imagined orders we have created is because they are what enable billions of humans to cooperate and interact without dissolving into lawless violence. What exists in a single person’s head is combined with what exists in the minds of others to form real institutions, practices, and patterns that shape our interactions and understandings of the world. Our imagined orders are social constructs, and they cannot be eliminated – they can only be replaced.
“In order to change an existing imagined order,” writes Harari, “we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.” Harari’s quote is not completely accurate. We can dismantle an imagined order without replacing it through lawless chaos, but it is unlikely that a state of lawless chaos will remain for long. In order to get many humans to cooperate together, especially to commit violence and destruction which is likely not in their own best interest, you often need some sort of imagined order to serve as the motivating impetus for the violence and destruction. You might get a sufficient number of people to riot and burn the system down without really knowing what will replace it, but eventually, a new imagined order will take over. More common, however, is the situation Harari explains, that one imagined order is slowly replaced by another.
“There is no way out of the imagined order,” writes Harari. Escaping one imagined order simply leads to a new imagined order. The divine right of kings was dismantled and replaced by ideas of human rights, which encouraged and supported the development of representative democracies. Imagined orders exist together and can build upon one another, but they cannot be escaped altogether. One way or another, for humans to live and cooperate together, we need large-scale imagined orders which prescribe and proscribe certain behaviors, responses, and relationships across the billions of people living on earth.