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.
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.
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.