Our Wiser Angels are Ending Warfare

Mel Watkins looks at the work of two thinkers who argue that violence and war are in decline. How do we keep that trend rolling?

By Mel Watkins | 2012-10-01 12:00:00

Discussed in this essay:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. By Steven Pinker. Toronto: Penguin, 2011

Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide. By Joshua S. Goldstein. Toronto: Penguin, 2011

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” These are, famously, the opening words of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities —and specially worth noting in 2012, the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth.

Perhaps Dickens glimpsed a universal truth and what he claimed as true for his time could be said of all times. As for the age of capitalism, within which falls the age of Dickens, Schumpeter has described it as a time of “creative destruction,” another profoundly contradictory, yet highly informative, phrase.

As for today, the “best” and the “worst” seem glaringly evident. In the worst of times, this is an apparently unprecedented age of catastrophes, present and future—extreme climate change and global warming, species extinction, global plagues, nuclear war and nuclear meltdowns, the gross excesses of the neo-liberal variant of globalization—of doom and apocalypse, even of the end of times. To be on the left is to hear and heed much, maybe too much, about all these.

On the other hand, in today’s “best of times,” most people in the world have never had so many material goods, and it continues to get better. The economies of those two demographic giants, China and India, have finally taken off. Globally, there are both many more people and a rising standard of living; this is contrary to many expectations from Malthus forward. There has been progress as in life expectancy, infant mortality, and mothers surviving childbirth. There has been no “world” war between major powers since 1945. Technological change, much of it permissive of a better life, is rapid, even accelerating; problems are simply things awaiting solution.

If that elusive bottom-line thing called morality is measured by behavior—thereby transcending the dogma of particular religions and ideologies—less violence in general and war in particular would mean there has even been moral progress, something that critics of progress have steadfastly insisted was impossible.

That may sound like hubris on our part, but it is precisely what is happening before our very eyes, according to Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein in their most recent books (see box). The implications for how we understand and judge our world are revolutionary.

It’s relative to population

Psychologist Steven Pinker’s latest work is massive, encyclopedic, full of insight, with statistics galore yet highly readable—albeit sometimes repetitive. It sets out the history of violence in its many manifestations—war, homicide, cannibalism, slavery and the slave trade, state-inflicted famine, rape and other violence against women, torture, genocide, racism, infanticide, gay bashing, child beating, bullying, cruelty to animals—and insists on its ubiquitous decline, over the longest of runs and in the most recent times. This is surely news, and welcome news.

Political scientist Joshua Goldstein’s focus is narrower: on war, particularly in recent times. We in the peace movement are likely to feel we know these times well, so how many of us are ready to be told that 2010 had one of the lowest death rates from war, relative to population, of any year ever, and that there is reason to hope (Pinker even expects) this low level will persist?

The case being made is not that violence has declined absolutely, but that it has declined relative to population. If population triples, as it has in the past fifty years or so, then if violence has not tripled, which it hasn’t, then it has declined relatively. Most of the data under consideration is expressed as occurrences per 100,000 persons, which automatically eliminates absolute numbers. Some reviewers have complained about this but it would be hard to find any social scientist or anyone numerate who would not understand the correctness of the relative rather than the absolute in measuring change over time when population can rise or fall.

However, if your concern is with the sum of human suffering in absolute terms, then there is still lots of that. There is no shortage of work for those who want a world without violence.

Pinker garners his evidence mining the literature in a variety of fields. Hobbes is right: at the beginning of human history, all the way to Hobbes’s own time in the seventeenth century, life had been mostly “nasty, brutish, and short,” at least for ordinary folk. Pinker waggishly reminds us that in the Garden of Eden, when Abel slew Cain, he wiped out one-quarter of the population. On Pinker’s list of the worst catastrophes, the first two, in relative terms, are the An Lashan rebellion in eighth-century China which is estimated to have killed one-sixth of the world’s population, and the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century.

The Second World War does rank first in absolute numbers, but drops to ninth in Pinker’s survey in relative terms. Was the twentieth century the bloodiest century ever, as is often alleged, or was it the thirteenth century? It depends on the estimate made of deaths from the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century, which varies widely—a useful reminder that statistics, being manufactured, are in the hands of the maker.

Agriculture Reduced Violence in War

While the transition from hunting and foraging societies to settled agriculture and cities around 5,000 years ago reduced violence from wars, the first evidence of a sustained declining trend is from the late Middle Ages, ca.1500, that is, with what we have come to call modernity. Feudalism collapsed into kingdoms and centralized authority and embryonic nation states. In Europe, the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries constitutes a humanitarian revolution with a growing revulsion against violence.

Pinker and Goldstein document the beginning of a further decline in violence since the end of the Second World War, not just in wars but across the board. The main cause is a veritable human rights revolution pushed by civil society: freedom from racial discrimination, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, rights of children.

Surely, you are thinking, these things came out of the 1960s. Yet, ironically, that period saw a spike upwards in violence, more or less across the board in both North America and Europe. I often find myself saying that the sixties was the last great decade—and if you missed it, too bad—so to learn this is troubling. Pinker tells us it confounded the experts at the time but, in retrospect, it was a time of a quite extraordinary change in consciousness, a kind of feeling of liberation that led to a few doing the bad while most was for the good. Maybe it just happened too fast, and its legacy is real.

There is yet a further downward trend in war since the end of the Cold War in 1989, notwithstanding all the hype about terrorism.

Admittedly, the last half-millennium has seen some spectacular exceptions to the overall downward trend: the extermination of indigenous peoples in the New World, the Atlantic slave trade, King Leopold’s subjugation of the Congo, the First World War, the Armenian genocide, the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s purges and ethnic cleansing, the Second World War, Hitler’s holocaust, the aerial assault on cities, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Rwandan genocide, et cetera. Despite this litany of horrors, the numbers nevertheless are trending downward.

As for the post-Second World War period, the acceleration of the downward trend may in part be because there are also good news surprises that few predicted: the nonviolent end of apartheid in South Africa, the nonviolent end of the Cold War, no nuclear war in spite of both the Cold War and the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons,

Violence Defined

Pinker’s definition of violence is so broad that it may seem like quibbling to say he has left some things out. A specific example: He omits suicide (except suicide bombings). In that land of the gun, the United States, more than one-half of deaths from gunfire are suicides. More members of the American armed forces now die from suicide than from war.

A serious omission is the violence done to people by today’s style of globalization, by neo-liberal policies that, by their nature, specially hurt the weak and by the increasing inequality. Such injustice is itself violence.

Pinker has shown a remarkable ability to widen the definition of violence as the perception of it varies. Who would have counted bullying and cruelty to animals as real violence say fifty years ago? Or slavery three centuries ago? We need to apply that same wider vision to the collateral damage done by today’s version of capitalism.

Pinker seems to me to have a remarkably conventional mind when it come to globalization. He sees the benefits but not the costs. Pinker likes the concept of “gentle commerce” but makes no reference to “rough trade.”

As for the vice of inequality, while incomes are converging globally between countries—a major event of the period since the Second World War and a new event in the history of the global economy—they have become more unequal nationally within countries, reversing the trend within developed countries. This is the cause of a good deal of suffering in today’s world.

Pinker also ignores the violence done to our minds and souls, to our sense of ourselves and of humanity, by co-existing with weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons.

The existence of nuclear weapons raises, as well, the horrifying prospect that the decline in violence masks the lurking possibility of a nuclear holocaust of the utmost violence that would instantly and utterly reverse the downward trend. However improbable, it nevertheless remains possible. It is tempting to ignore and forget these so-called statistical “Black Swans” but, as the cliché goes, we do so at our peril. Pinker and Goldstein know this and Pinker is clearly conscious of the role of the unexpected and the improbable, of the worst of luck, in history. Still, he seems unwilling to recognize that, while we survived the Cuban Missile Crisis and frightened ourselves enough to accept arms control—though not abolition—we came very close to a catastrophe that would have put a sudden and awful end to his downward trends.

The Spread of Reason

What explains this remarkable decline in violence, underlying the Enlightenment, the humanitarian and human rights revolutions? For Pinker, as for others like philosopher Peter Singer—who coined the phrase “the escalator of reason”—it is the on-going scientific revolution and the widening spread of reason as the core of scientific discourse. There is certainly much to be said for this argument: the bottom line on modernity, which drives all else and is the hallmark of our world, is science.

But what of the great exceptions to reason, such as fascism and communism and their catastrophic consequences as recently as the last century? For Pinker these are indeed terrible exceptions to the rule of reason, but what he is unwilling to abide is that pushing reason to its extreme can be as devastating as irrationality, becoming itself a kind of irrationality. But what is communism—a.k.a. scientific socialism, or applied utopianism—but the pursuit of rationality beyond reason? Fascism stinks of the irrational but communism of the excesses of the rational. Though features of both may sometimes blend, this does seem to be a real difference.

Pinker seems simply unwilling to contemplate the possibility that the sane and sensible mind of, say, the intellectual, could, with expertise in hand, slip into the irrational. He is clearly upset by the charge that the war in Vietnam was aided and abetted by the “best and the brightest.” After they left the Johnson administration, he insists, the war continued and was escalated under Nixon so the intellectuals were not the problem.

Intellectuals egged it on

But this is simply to miss the point, made so tellingly by Noam Chomsky at the time, that these new mandarins shed all sense of their responsibility as intellectuals, not only serving power but egging it on to do the worst, to push to the logical end. When the relationship between intellect and power is allowed so to degenerate, reason is out the window. Well before Nixon the irrational was in command. That betrayal by distinguished intellectuals is what so disgusted many of us in the universities in the sixties.

There seems to be a certain moral blindness on Pinker`s part, oddly so in a book arguing that there has been moral progress. Likewise, on the matter of torture, Pinker finds merit in Alan Dershowitz`s proposal that those who want to use ``enhanced interrogation`` in a ticking-bomb situation apply to a judge for a warrant to do so. He uses the hoary example of the case of the person who may know where the bomb is about to go off though he recognizes that this is hypothetical and may never have actually happened. He seems simply to assume that information obtained in this way is reliable, though it very well may not be. His argument is that torture happens, so better to legalize it in this one case and forbid it in others, the better to minimize torture. Why intellectuals like Pinker, or our own Michael Ignatieff, waste their fine minds on fine-tuning torture escapes me.

The broader issue, of the irrationality of the rational, raises the troubling possibility that today’s pro-market, pro-corporate, globalized, utopian neoliberalism pushes us, in the guise of reason, into the zone of the irrational. Science and hypercapitalism are a toxic mix. Together they have created a global economy driven by fossil fuels that spew out carbon emissions that then create the chaos and catastrophe of extreme climate change. Science then studies climate change, its causes and consequences but so far, in terms of effective policy, to limited avail. Scientists continue to work for the pollution-spewing corporations, which endlessly tell us that we need not worry because science will create the technological progress needed to save us all.

This may seem like a large digression on my part, but at the end of his book, Pinker peers into the future and sees more or less that happy outcome. What powers the escalator of reason, after all, is science and technology and innovation—and why should there be limits to that human creativity? For some readers this will seem to partake as much of faith or foolishness as of reason. It may also make one wonder about whether the escalator of reason may, like actual escalators, require eternal vigilance and constant care, for its ultimate breakdown cannot be ruled out.

For those of us in the tradition of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, Pinker makes an interesting point on the causes of the downward trend of violence. He says what everyone says: that the media create the false impression of violence and crime increasing when it is actually decreasing, but he also argues that the printed word has played an important role in that reduction of violence. The Gutenberg press created McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy: the mass production of books led to the spread of literacy as supply compelled demand. With literacy came reason. To this litany Pinker explicitly adds the novel and its popularity, which pulled the reader into understanding fictional characters and their feelings. This empathy then facilitated the humanitarianism of the Enlightenment and its aftermath.

Perhaps, but a runaway bestseller of the nineteenth century was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which vividly made the reader conscious of the horrors of slavery while rousing abolitionist sentiment, leading to the Civil War. (Ironically, Pinker repeats the story, probably apocryphal, of how, when Stowe visited the White House in 1862, Abraham Lincoln said: “So you’re the little woman who started this great war.” Pinker seems oblivious to how he has undermined his own argument.)

Mark Twain observed how the novels of Sir Walter Scott sold so well to the Southerners on the other side of the Civil War: “Sir Walter Scott had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” Reaction to the novel, it would seem, can contribute to war rather than peace and seems to have done just that in the case of the deadly American Civil War.

Why, specifically, is the incidence of war down since 1945? For Goldstein, “The UN lies at the heart of the ‘war on war.’” He insists on “the tremendous good that the UN has accomplished, despite its problems, in reducing war since 1945.” Central to that is its peacekeeping—though Goldstein does not deny the failures, like the terrible genocide in Rwanda. His book should be required reading for the Harper government.

We Can Take Credit Too

The time has come to reflect on the most important of matters, human agency, including ours in the peace movement.

Our authors make it clear that these humanitarian and human rights revolutions didn’t spring up spontaneously. They were not an automatic product of capitalist development led by the capitalists and their states that they so dominate. To say that these revolutions came out of civil society, as our authors do, is to say that, by and large, they came from below, in spite of the elites and their conventional wisdom and self-serving fatalism.

The peace movement presses for less war—ideally no war. When there is in fact less war, it is a distinct possibility that we—marginalized as we are thought to be—are in some part the reason. Goldstein is suggestive on this point: “Many people in this world are working hard for peace and, in fact, the world is becoming more peaceful.” Since we are successful, let’s not hesitate to say so, for we live in a world where nothing succeeds like success. That I take to be the main message for us of these two books.

Goldstein has one further, albeit controversial, message for the peace movement. We’ve already insisted that injustice is violence, and war is certainly violence. Nevertheless we should not jump to the conclusion that injustice is the cause of war. This, insists Goldstein, is simplistic, and mostly wrong. It risks causing the peace movement to spread itself thinly on justice matters and lose its focus on war, and on peace as the absence of war. Goldstein wants us to focus on support for the UN and peacekeeping.

Lest I be misunderstood: it will be evident that I like Goldsteins’s book while offering some criticisms of Pinker’s. But Pinker’s book is brilliant, truly thought-provoking, full of fascinating detail. I urge you to read both.

Mel Watkins is emeritus professor of political economy, University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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