[Podcast] History Has Begun with Bruno Maçães — Venture Stories
[Podcast] History Has Begun with Bruno Maçães — Venture Stories

[Podcast] History Has Begun with Bruno Maçães — Venture Stories

My notes on a conversation between Bruno Maçães and Erik Torenberg.

Bruno's (@MacaesBruno) background: Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author. He studied at the University of Lisbon and Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Harvey Mansfield. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington. He is the author of The Dawn of Eurasia, Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, and History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America. He was a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.

Eriks's (@eriktorenberg) background: Erik is a co-founder and partner at Village Global, a network-driven VC firm. Erik is also the co-founder of Be On Deck.


I write a weekly newsletter, The Long Game, that covers health, wellness, better thinking, building a company and other interesting stuff I find online.

1:00 Bruno's background

Bruno is a polymath, and he has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, political thought, political theory.

It's his default mode in all of his books. Bruno relies on concepts he learned in grad school.

He was fascinated by the history of political thought, and by intellectual giants like Hobbes, Aristotle, Plato, Machiavelli.

Bruno doesn't read a lot these days.

He acquired a different perspective of the world because if you're dealing with the history of political thought, you really see it as a succession of revolutions.

I'm always very attracted by how things change, how novelty is introduced in the world, how the past suddenly becomes unintelligible, and you enter a completely different paradigm. — Bruno Maçães

2:54 The Dawn of Eurasia

Bruno believes that political thinkers should confront their political ideas on the ground, by going in and immerse themselves in the daily life of the countries you're studying.

For China: Bruno's assumptions were that probably there's a different political civilization, but he liked to disorient himself in the local culture and forget his assumptions.

Bruno went on a 6 months journey through central Asia, Russia China for his first book.

Those two elements are important: don't assume that this political world is the same as the West, and then try to experience it from the ground up, not from the offices of a Think Tank, not from the universities. — Bruno Maçães
I don't understand how someone who has spent his or her whole life in a Think Tank or a university can write a book about China or Africa. — Bruno Maçães

What was Bruno trying to achieve in The Dawn of Eurasia?

The distinction between Europe and Asia is much more important than people think it is.

I think it's probably the most critical political distinction of the last 500 years. — Bruno Maçães

Why? Because of an advanced developed society that is contrasted to a society that is static, underdeveloped is very critical to our way of thinking.

The distinction is between modern societies and traditional societies. This distinction is very important in the way we think.

What shape will Eurasia as a whole have?

We know that the US will be a powerful country. We know that China will be a powerful country. We know that the tensions between those two are going to continue.

The question now is where is Europe going to fit? Where is India going to fit? Where is Russia going to fit?

These are the questions Bruno that motivated Bruno to write The Dawn of Eurasia.

9:15 What people don’t appreciate or misunderstand about China.

Did Bruno change his mind on something since he wrote Belt and Road?

Not really, his thesis have been confirmed since the book was published.

The book basically argues that:

China with the Belt and Road Initiative is trying to provide a new political and economic order for the world as a whole.

The Belt and Road Initiative is not an infrastructure project, it's a project having to do with the global political and economic order. — Bruno Maçães

That's been more and more evident in the past two years.

The mainstream view now is that China is interesting in overturning the current political order and that China is interesting in infusing the new political order with its own values. In a way replicating was the US did 150 years ago. — Bruno Maçães

This view wasn't mainstream two years ago, but the book contributed to raising awareness about this.

What do you think the world doesn't understand about China?

Some people think that the world that we have today is the world we're always going to have.

Some people are skeptical about:

  • China's power
  • China's abilities
  • China's economic dynamism.

It's something that you can only understand by living in China for a few years.

If you study carefully China, you'll see that China is not imitating the West anymore; they're not copying intellectual property anymore (or not only doing that!)

The country has the fundamentals of political order, the country is organized in a certain way, there's a common purpose, there's a level of political legitimacy that the party provides.

If you live in China you really have to take what's happening there very seriously. Most Europeans and Americans will be troubles and anxious about the values China is projecting. But that's a different question from whether what's happening there is important, and whether China is in fact as powerful and dynamic as I argue in the book. — Bruno Maçães

There are two different questions here:

  • China's economy and power.
  • The values being pursued by the regime.

Bruno's a bit skeptical about Peter Zeihan's predictions of China's collapse.

He keeps predicting China's collapse for next year, and he does it for a period of 10 or 15 years. — Bruno Maçães

The Chinese economy works on a different base. The question is not about whether their GDP growth numbers are falsified (Bruno doesn't think they are) but the numbers mean something completely different in China.

Michael Pettis made this point:

GDP numbers in China are not an output of the economic system, they are an input of the political system. — Bruno Maçães

The idea that those numbers represent the same as in the West reveals a striking example of how people aren't aware that the Chinese economy works in a completely different way than elsewhere.

15:20 His thoughts on Fukuyama.

Fukuyama wrote a very successful book but there isn't anything particularly new in the book.

As Fukuyama recognizes, his ideas were already defended in the same form by people before him, Alexandre Kojève for example.

In his book, Bruno tries to argue that the question of whether liberal ideas can be the solution for everyone has been reopened, and the answer is not very clear that the liberal solution is the final solution right now.

There's also the question of whether there can be a universal solution.

Fukuyama believes that becoming developed has to be through liberalism and that there's no other way.

The main point of Bruno is that liberal democracies may not be the only way to become a developed society.

Is a liberal society truly a final response to the political problem?

That's the question of whether the US is satisfied with this society of whether they are looking for a new solution.

There are two ways to look at the Fukuyama question:

  • Is China becoming like the West?
  • Is the West going to be the West forever?

Those questions correspond to Bruno's last two books.

Bruno's answer:

  • China is not going to become like the West. Fundamentally, the solutions of the West are circumscribed historically and culturally. They come from what was in Europe before. When you try to build a modern society in China, you build on top of what was there before. In the West it was Christianity, in China it's the Confucian tradition.
The idea that China would happy copying the West is a nonstarter for me and for the Chines authorities. — Bruno Maçães

All this is being in different periods, by different people. It defies the imagination that you could end up with the same result in the West and in China.

19:39 The West as a culture exporter

There's a belief that the West is a global culture exporter, particularly about Wokeness right now, why do you think that it's not the case?

The West is less of a culture exporter now than it was 50 or 100 years ago.

It's less likely that Wokeness is going to be a global trend than it would have been 50 or 100 years ago.

What was soft power was actually hard power. This started to change when China and the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons.

Now other parts of the world have become much more developed.

People in the valley talk a lot about Wokeness. But Bruno doesn't see that at all in his context.

In many places, Wokeness is just non-existant.

In Europe there's more contact with the US, but still, we can't see Wokeness in Central Europe.

Even if in the UK, their traditions are different so the Wokeness movement doesn't have the same impact.

Nothing is being exported to Europe.

Every now and then, there will be a case in Europe that makes you think of Wokeness in the US, but the question is it's not very central to the political experience in Europe, it's seen as something exotic, it's marginal and stays marginal. — Bruno Maçães.

What happened at the New York Times is unthinkable in Europe, particularly in continental Europe.

The concern some people have is that the left is capturing the institutions and that might be coming to some other institutions.

I think one should be concerned about what's happening in the US, but I think the ability of these American ideas to become relevant outside the US is now quite limited. — Bruno Maçães
What will happen is that outlets like the NYT will lose influence because this dogmatism and homogeneity end up sipping into the quality of the journalism that you're making. — Bruno Maçães
If you're concerned about ideology, then you're necessarily not doing your job right, because you don't have the bandwidth to do so. — Bruno Maçães

Some institutions will be replaced by others.

People who are unhappy about this should have the entrepreneurship to do something about it.

The universities in the US are in a deep existential crisis, they just don't work anymore, they don't do what they're supposed to do, 98% of the papers that are produced are not downloaded a single time. One has to wonder how so much money is being spent to produce so little knowledge. — Bruno Maçães

Some people think we should reform the system, and some think we should completely change it.

Maybe this is one of those moments in history where we will have a more radical transformation and perhaps the university made sense in the last 4 to 5 centuries and it doesn't make sense anymore and we have to make something different. — Bruno Maçães

Peter Thiel is going in this direction.

There's no reason that an 18 years old can't be involved with the business, with developing networks.

That's what we see in the tech world, and it's an indication that we need new frameworks. We have to be revolutionary about these things.

33:34 Why this moment is a fork in the road for America and how it might play out for the country.

Something transformative is happening.

Things that were considered impossible 5 years ago happen every day today.

Is it the process of collapse, or is it the process of rebirth?

In the book, Bruno agues that it's the process of rebirth.

What is happening is a response to a specific problem linked to the flaws of liberal traditions and liberal politics.

Liberal societies tend to neutralize the human experience. It's not possible to have extreme experiences, but those experiences are the ones who give meaning to human life.

In liberal societies It's not possible to be very religious, to have unbridled ambition, it's not possible to change the world through technology.

There's a reason why they're impossible: they're very dangerous stuff. If you give free rein to individual ambition, you might end up with a dictator, if you give free rein to technological ambition, you might end up with nuclear armageddon.

There a reason why these extreme experiences have been neutralized in liberal societies, but the cost is also very high in terms of the ability of societies to project themselves in the future and the ability of the human being to find fulfillment. — Bruno Maçães

What America has done is a very ingenious solution, because these extreme experiences are allowed, but they're allowed in Virtual Reality.

It's possible to be a dictator, but in virtual reality. Trump is a good example of this.

America has been trying to find a solution to a problem caused by the liberal ideas.

Why I'm trying to do in the book is to present America as breaking with liberalism but actually taking history further and move it forward in the sense of creating something that is better than liberalism. — Bruno Maçães

How would be this new society that's better than liberalism?

A society where there is more room to experiment with possibilities, where there's less homogeneity, where you can have some people that believe in the devil and angels, and in other parts of America you can have people who are trying to get to Mars. — Bruno Maçães

The tech sector is in love with the idea of simulation. Facebook and Twitter are alternate reality games, in the case of Twitter, almost as a replication of the French Revolution.

31:19 Twitter as a virtual reality platform.

Twitter is essentially a VR platform where these culture wars can be fought, and you do feel like you're in the middle of the French Revolution virtually.

The debate and the conflict now is between a form of virtual nationalism represented by Trump and a form of Maoist revolution represented by the Woke left.

They both seem to profit from the other's existence which gives meaning and passion to the conflict.

What's important with virtual platforms is that you have to forget that it's virtual.

It's quite possible of course in America today to forget that everything is unreal. — Bruno Maçães

Trump was taken too literally by the lest, and now the woke left is taken too literally by the right.

At what point would you take it literally? — Erik Torenberg

You have to have a way to disconnect from the game.

How do we prevent this thing from becoming real?

The institutions that we have are going to be very helpful to help prevent it from sliding into reality.

We have to develop new values.

When the NYT op-ed editors decide to publish Send in the Troops by Tom Cotton there was a lot of chock on the right.

If the NYT wants to live under a certain ideological orientation, it should be accepted, provided that they don't present themselves as neutral.

There is something liberating about the idea of post-truth or about the idea of not relying on facts to guide our politics. It might be a better world if we rely on fantasies and not on facts to guide our politics because the great thing about fantasies, as opposed to facts, is that everyone can have their own and facts are the same for everyone, so there's something authoritarian about facts and something rather liberating about fantasies. — Bruno Maçães

There's something liberating about the post-truth era is that in the era of fantasies, everyone can have their own.

There's obviously a conflict about religion and liberalism.

If you want to create a liberal society where individual freedom is the most important value, you're necessarily suspicious of religion because religion is about divine revelation, about god's commandments and it's about a certain idea of truth. — Bruno Maçães

52:40 How tech will transform society.

Technology also ends being in conflict with liberalism, and we didn't know that until recently. It's becoming clear in Europe.

What is the conflict? Liberalism is going to be concerned that technology is going to limit individual freedom.

  • Image recognition
  • AI

The technology could create new forms of power that are incompatible with liberalism and individual freedom.

Or perhaps technology is going to create more inequalities, by creating billionaires that have new kinds of control over our lives.

Perhaps technology will transform our lives in such a radical manner, making impossible for privacy to exist, for certain levels of equality to exist, for political accountability to exist, for facts and truth to exist.

It's now almost accepted by the mainstream opinion that Facebook is destroying democracies by spreading all these conspiracies and making it impossible to have a public sphere in the old style where people discuss politics and facts.

If liberalism is not compatible with technology, then we have to pick one, and other non-liberal societies will have the upper hand.

We already see a lot of signs of this.

Then you have to start wondering if it's a coincidence if progress has been stagnating since liberalism became the main ideology in our society.

If we want to create space for technology, we will have to develop a different kind of society. — Bruno Maçães

In Europe, we're almost at the point of accepting and proclaiming that technological revolutions are incompatible with liberalism.

58:00 Whether a decentralized future will lead to more freedom.

For Peter Thiel, the centralizing view of technology is AI and the decentralizing view is cryptocurrency.

Crypto is developing an alternative form of state.

It's was not clear with bitcoin, but it's clear with ethereum.

59:00 Whether the state can be replaced by smart contracts.

At some point the state as it exists today will fight back and it still had the monopoly of violence.

In the end, if you have all your financial assets in crypto, but if people capture you and torture you, you will reveal your keys. People can still be put in jail.

It's not obvious to me that the story of crypto is going to be a peaceful one. — Bruno Maçães
There are some possibilities for human freedom that are incorporated in the ideas of crypto, we're reaching a point where things are going to become more serious and we'll have a clash for where the power really lies. Until now, the traditional state still had the upper hand. — Bruno Maçães

We'll see if this change.

Do you suggest that we should lean in postmodernism?

Postmodernism was not explored in all its possibilities.

The idea of simulation is a different one. It's not that you deny reality in your mind. You build an alternative form of reality that's superior to the real one and incorporates the real one.

People have in mind the post-truth where you ignore reality but reality continues outside of your mind.

That's not what Bruno is suggesting.

What I am suggesting here is more similar to the creation of an imaginary world (like Westworld) that is more complete, more complex than the real world, and eventually ends up replacing it. That form of postmodernity is defensible, not to say inevitable. It's the way we're going whether people like it or not. — Bruno Maçães

Liberal societies end up being quite restrictive in what they allow. Liberal societies have not delivered in the sense of free-thinking, but have delivered in the sense of safety.

1:15:00 Europe

Political instability is coming to the borders of Europe:

  • Belarus
  • Greece — Turkey

Europe doesn't have a unified army, doesn't have the ability to be respected by other actors.

There's a geopolitical weakness in Europe.

Europe is increasingly turned towards the past. — Bruno Maçães

Europe is almost like a retrospective of the past.

It's very pleasant and interesting to live there, but in a world where every other society turns aggressively toward the future, exploring other possibilities and exploring other worlds and exploring the technologies through which these new worlds can be created, I think it's an untenable position for Europe to remain like this because the societies that are turned toward the past end up losing ground and being overcome sooner or later. — Bruno Maçães

Europe now looks like Austria in the first half of the 19th century, very nice place to live in, everyone would have loved to live in Vienna at that time, but everyone already sensed that the Empire was condemned to disappear because it was unable to create new possibilities and other states in Europe were turned to the future.

Our quality of life can't be preserved in the long term if we don't introduce a new spirit of innovation and experimentation.

The UK is in the same position, Brexit isn't going to change that.

Immigration would be an opportunity.

The biggest threats are coming from outside of its borders: China, Russia, Turkey.

1:20:00 Us Elections

COVID is what could make Biden win the election, but the current law and order problems could swing the election in favor of Trump.

1:23:02 Some things Bruno Maçães is interested in. Some of the thinkers that he admires and where he agrees or disagrees with them.

China—US relationswill become more tensed in the years to come.

If the US makes it impossible for Chinese companies to become global companies, the Chinese response may be in a different area.

I don't think we are in a new cold war if by cold war we mean an existential conflict where only one side can survive. I think we're still not there, but we could enter a cold war, we could enter a conflict where both sides understand that they are committed to the destruction of the other in order to survive. — Bruno Maçães

1:26:30 What the legacy of COVID in society might be.

It's possible that the legacy might not be visible, because the causal link can be hard to see.

If I had to pick one consequence of COVID it would have to be a renewed sense of politics and collective power. — Bruno Maçães

A virus was able to reorganize society around the same purpose, it means that it's possible to organize society around the same purpose.

1:21:31 Some of the thinkers that he admires and where he agrees or disagrees with them.

  • Peter Thiel: For Bruno, he's a great thinker, he's in love with ideas and thinking. He has a sense of the real world. Thiel was skeptical about the possibilities and the power of China, and Bruno disagrees with that.
  • Marc Andreessen: Bruno likes Marc's essays, but thinks it can't only be about building new things, it has to be a much more radical project of social and political transformation. Society has to change as a whole.
  • Antonio García Martínez: Bruno knows him less well, he loved his book and his skepticism about some aspects of technology. He's able to step outside the Silicon Valley bubble.
  • Sam Harris & Steven Pinker: Bruno is less enthusiastic about these two. They seem still to subscribe to the idea of a predictable path of progress.
  • Tyler Cowen: He's the ultimate polymath.

Other people Bruno thinks will be very important in our time:

There are some very interesting people in China, in India, in the US, a bit less in Europe for Bruno.

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I write a weekly newsletter, The Long Game, that covers health, wellness, better thinking, building a company and other interesting stuff I find online.