Reading for All Mankind: Why a Decline in Violence Might Be a Bad Thing

Steven Pinker’s new book argues that our culture has become less violent. Andrew Ladd wonders what other evils that decline might hide.

Steven Pinker has written some pretty great books in his time. The Language Instinct made linguistics entertaining, How the Mind Works was fascinating—even The Blank Slate was pretty gripping if you could get past the blithe dismissal of just about every piece of social science ever written. And, gosh, his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, $40), certainly sounds engaging, too. But poor Mr. Pinker has seriously lost his way.

Partly, he has a bad case of “I’m-a-wildly-successful-author-and-I-don’t-need-no-stinking-editor”-itis. How else to explain this 700-page Frankenstein’s monster of an argument, complete with six trends, five “inner demons,” four “better angels,” and five historical forces? (Speaking of things an editor would have fixed: at one point Pinker apparently doesn’t feel like describing an Italian criminology museum himself and turns over proceedings to a lengthy excerpt from TripAdvisor.com. When did it become okay for serious intellectuals to use a clearinghouse for angry hotel customers as a source?)

Anyway. Although the book is overlong and incredibly self-indulgent, Pinker does, as always, have a provocative argument to make: despite what you may have heard on the news or learned in high school history, we are living through the most peaceful, non-violent era the human species has ever seen.

His point isn’t that violence is gone—or even going—for good. Indeed, as he frequently tries to make clear, anyone who interprets his book as a claim that war will never break out again has it all wrong. It’s just that violence has declined, and it behoves us to work out why. That way we’ll have a better idea how to fix things if World War III does break out tomorrow—which, he cheerfully tells us, is entirely possible.

That’s what makes his argument here so silly. If World War III really could break out tomorrow, how can you reasonably attribute any statistical decline in violence to meaningful cultural change? When an actor wins two Oscars 20 years apart, we rightly question whether his apparent slump in between was really a slump or just bad luck. Likewise, it’s hard to reconcile a world that regularly sustains massive, destructive wars with one that abhors violence.

But Pinker takes great pains to explain away occasional world wars as meaningless blips. That there were so many massive wars in such short succession at the beginning of the 20th century is conclusive proof, to him, that these wars were essentially random, because truly random distributions of events tend to come in bunches. Ipso facto, the clump of wars at the beginning of the 20th century is nothing but random noise. What Pinker doesn’t make as clear is why the clumps of peace both before and after are still evidence of a patterned decline.

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Supposing Pinker’s right, though, and our global culture (whatever that means) really has become less violent: so what? It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back and say “good for us.” But what if violence has declined simply because a powerful few have developed a monopoly on its use?

Pinker basically admits as much when he argues that violence has gone down because capitalism has gone up. He says it’s because free trade encourages peaceful cooperation, and investment leads to concern with long-term stability. I’m going to put it another way: capitalism causes “peace” because it makes violence a losing game for anyone not at the top of the system.

That is, what would be the point of Kenya, say, declaring war on America? The American capitalist war juggernaut would crush them in a second. And while Kenya could probably win a war against some of its neighboring countries, from a capitalist perspective there’s not much point. They’ll probably spend more capital waging war than they’ll gain from controlling Somalia.

Granted, if every country were a capitalist juggernaut, war in general would become too destructive to generate meaningful gain—violence begins to look like a sucker’s game after a certain point, especially next to the peaceful alternative of free trade. That’s why Pinker says capitalism is the key to peace.

But that ignores the inequality within capitalist countries. If you haven’t heard, 1% of the population controls most of a capitalist country’s wealth, and that difference is growing starker every year. And there, too, capitalism makes violence a pointless pursuit—not because we’re all so busy buying each other’s goods that we don’t want to get in fights, but because, if you’re poor, what’s violence going to get you? The 99% can Occupy Wall Street peacefully as much as they like, but if that doesn’t work violence will just get them thrown in jail. Or worse—witness Oakland. Capitalism, or “liberalism” as Pinker puts it, may have brought with it a decline in violence, but only because the concentration of so much power in so few hands has made it silly for the rest of us to bother.

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That capitalism is stacked overwhelmingly in favor of the already-rich isn’t a particularly original argument, but it’s always worth rehashing if done compellingly. Such is the case in Owen Wilson’s Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (Verso, $23.95).

Wilson’s argument is based entirely on British history and politics of the last century, and is a little hard to follow if you’re not well versed in those areas. (It’s a little hard to follow even if you are.) Essentially, he’s saying that in the last 30 years, the rich have systematically dismantled every opportunity for empowerment and happiness previously available to the working classes: jobs, housing, even working class aspiration itself.

But much of Wilson’s material also fits with the argument that if violence has declined it’s because those who might use it no longer see a reason to. We don’t have traditional class conflict anymore, Wilson points out, nor do we have general strikes or working class riots or socialist uprisings. What would that get the working class, these days? Certainly not sympathy from the rich, or even from the middle-class.

Indeed, it’s a shame Chavs was published before Occupy Wall Street or this summer’s massive London riots, because both prove Wilson’s point admirably. When the powerless try to resort to violence it no longer gets them very far: 2,000 people were arrested during the London riots; 250,000 (middle-class) taxpayers subsequently signed a petition demanding convicted rioters have their welfare payments cut. Even when an otherwise respected minority leader tried his hardest to present the violence as the product of serious social and economic inequality, the largely upper-middle-class media still wrote it off as senseless.

And that brings me back to Pinker. He doesn’t mention the London riots either, because his book was already in production when they happened. No doubt he would have written them off as another random blip in our increasingly gentle world, anyway.

But that’s precisely why his book in general misses the point. The London riots prove that what some would call “structural violence”—the denial of power and opportunity and happiness to whole classes of society—is still going strong. It seems like we need to work out why we’ve made so little progress on that front, regardless of any trends in physical violence, before we give our better angels too much credit.

—Photo ϟ†Σ/Flickr

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About Andrew Ladd

Andrew Ladd is the blog editor for Ploughshares. His work also has appeared in Apalachee Review, CICADA, Memoir Journal, Paper Darts, and The Rumpus, among others, and his first novel, What Ends (New Issues Press, January 2014), was the winner of the 2012 AWP Prize in the Novel. Follow Andrew on Twitter @agoodladd.

Comments

  1. That’s a fair point. It’s a hopelessly old-fashioned empire that needs to maintain its power through military force, when political and economic influence can do it so much more easily and efficiently.

    Just like it’s only the youngest and most naive nations that bother with bloody revolutions to put an elite tyranny in place; why bother when you can simply BUY the existing government and operate it from behind the scenes?

  2. pillowinhell says:

    The book also completely ignored most of what archeology tells us about human existence. Violence, specifically in the case of war, has only been around during the last ten thousand years or so. Right about the same time as agriculture and geographically stable communities started springing up, competition for land and resources resulted in armed skirmishes. I’m sure that there has always been some violent tendencies in humanity, but its a lot easier to resolve a knife fight between neighbors than to resolve bloodshed between two large groups of people.

  3. This is a nice fantasy to say that capitalism will stop wars, but we don’t fight because we want stuff. We fight because we want violence.
    Not even a fool does something for thousands of years unless they love it, and so it goes with violence.

  4. wet_suit_one says:

    Re: power being concentrated in the hands of the 1%. Even the strongest man can be killed by the weakest man who puts a knife in his back. If the imbalance is unsustainable, it will be rebalanced. It’s just a matter of time.

  5. Violence mostly affects the poor…even in wars, they affect mainly the poor – the rich come out unscathed (their millions will ensure their safety and their loved ones). If the earth ever become too violent and unlivable, the rich can probably built themselves a spaceship and launch themselves to another planet and start a new economy there.

    Violence and wars breed disparity between rich and poor.

    Wars = recession
    Wars+recession = rich get richer
    Wars+recession = poor get poorer

    • Capitalists probably don’t mind recession or wars, perhaps even embrace them because wars and recession got nothing on them…and they come out richer anyhow.

      • Who benefits from wars and recessions? (Not the poor).

        I once had a friend who worked for a bank, who’s quite knowledgeable about investments and world economies. He explained to me it’s the one percent who were bringing the financial collapses in the world wide economies; which brought on the recessions and that wars are for profit. That is how the rich stay rich – the one percent.

        • Recessions, loss of jobs etc… keep people poor.

          Poor people, poor men have no choice…but to enlist themselves up for the military where they fight and die. The poor die, the rich lives on. Personally I think recessions are a way for government to build up its military to fight wars.

  6. Ladd, your friend is correct that trading in a true capitalist system encourages fairness, cooperation, and therefore peace, and you’re correct that in a supposedly capitalist country like the USA that a powerful few monopolize violence to the extend of making violence ineffective for the masses. However, your conclusion of blaming capitalism for the monopoly is false (almost by definition). The monopoly & the unfair concentration of power are the result of an economic system that has been subverted & perverted by coersive politics. Political power enables crony capitalism. For example, “defense” contractors would be less inclined to bribe the government to participate in foreign adventurism if the government wasn’t empowered to steal from the people to give money to the “defense” contractors.

  7. van Rooinek says:

    Even when an otherwise respected minority leader tried his hardest to present the violence as the product of serious social and economic inequality, the largely upper-middle-class media still wrote it off as senseless.

    Because most of today’s middle class, had ancestors who were poor 2-3 generations ago, and their grandparents didn’t become psychotically violent in response to poverty, they just worked and went to school and avoided out of wedlock childbirth…. and viola, one day they looked up and they weren’t poor any more. Simply put, our own family histories tell us that it is “senseless”.

    • van Rooinek says:

      okay… voila…. as in french behold. not viola, larger cousin of the violin.

      but yuo all know waht I menat ot tpye. rghit?

  8. CarutherskingcaruthersKingcaruth says:

    When asked what weapon(s) will be used in WW3, Einstein said he wouldn’t hazard a guess.  But then he added that he knew what weapons would be used in WW4: clubs.  Pinker dismisses the clearest and most categorical statistic of all: that although many states have suffered large scale invasions and bombings, no nuclear power has ever been attacked in this way.  Pinker’s own cost-benefit argument explains why: even the most obtuse capitalists understand that there is no profit to be made from a nuclear war.  So while the US invades and bombs many, many countries, it has never done that to a nuclear power.  This is no coincidence.  

    It seems to me any reduction in violence is due to the fact that the rich and powerful  have found better ways of maintaining dominance, such as the manufacture of consent through the mass media and mass “education.”    They also keep the masses atomized, and have mastered the technique of dividing and conquering (by demonizing public workers, or immigrants, etc.)  They have a complete monopoly on force, and so people realize that armed insurrection would be suicidally futile.  And they throw the masses just enough bread and circuses so the masses are not quite desperate enough to commit suicide by insurrection.  

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