Today, there are a number of pundits who cannot understand why any reasonable person would be a Marxist, or why there is an effort to re-imagine answers to fundamental questions about how we should live. Why? Because things have never been better. Steven Pinker, the Professor who tucks you in at night, has recently published a new book – Enlightenment Now – which can be summarised in a sentence: we are only going up from here, despite unprecedented threats to organised human life with nuclear proliferation and climate change. Enlightenment Now is a follow-up book to Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which is packed with facts that show violence has been on the steady decline and the 21st Century is the least violent period in all human history. The critics of Enlightenment Now, however, generally leave Better Angels alone. In my view Pinker’s argument has something of a parallel with other self-proclaimed scientists who confidently explain that the reason for massive deforestation today is because poor people cook with wood. While Pinker’s work appears to be part of a noble effort to enlighten us from the evils of ignorance with science, his historical work re-tells a complex history in the form of a simplified myth used for purposes of deception. Deception is especially threatening when public intellectuals, like Pinker, leverage a position of authority not only to conceal the truth but cloak a lie in the language of social science and present it as truth. Not today.
There are a host of articles that criticise Pinker’s inversion of the history of US imperialism post-WWII, which should, at least, give us a healthy scepticism that Pinker does not cut through ideology with empiricism. Rather than wade through Pinker’s empirical evidence, since it depends on a prior question, I’ll get to the trunk of his argument: How does Pinker understand violence? After all, it is the concept out of which his empirical and theoretical evidence is marshalled to tell his story of why violence has declined.
I always found it peculiar that Pinker is a Professor in Linguistics but does not follow standard academic practice and clarify why he is happy to use the dictionary definition of violence: “behavior or treatment in which physical force is exerted for the purpose of causing damage or injury”. Seems straightforward, but pointing a gun in someone’s face and threatening to kill them is considered a violent crime in court. Yet, for Pinker’s definition of violence, there is no physical force that is being exerted and would not count as an example of violence. If you were to ask Pinker to extend the definition of violence to include the threat of violence as an essential component, as the literature on structural violence tries to do, you will likely be met with disdain. For evidence, here’s his answer to a question that asked why he did not include economic inequality as an example of violence (available here):
“The fact that Bill Gates has a bigger house than I do may be deplorable, but to lump it together with rape and genocide is to confuse moralization with understanding. Ditto for underpaying workers, undermining cultural traditions, polluting the ecosystem, and other practices that moralists want to stigmatize by metaphorically extending the term violence to them. It’s not that these aren’t bad things, but you can’t write a coherent book on the topic of “bad things””.
All the ‘bad things’ Pinker refers to, it seems to me, cannot be considered examples of violence because none refer to a visible wound or restraint from the exertion of force. If we were to say that this is not a necessary condition for violence, then the definition of violence, for Pinker, would be “to confuse moralization with understanding”. But how can we make sense of the following claim from Pinker?
“[V]iolence is inherent to the definition of slavery – if a person did all the work of a slave but had the option of quitting at any time without being physically restrained or punished, we would not call him a slave – and this violence was often a regular part of a slave’s life”
It is entirely reasonable to say that violence is inherent to the definition of slavery, so let’s go through it since it is quite a sophisticated point. A slave is not a slave merely when they are wounded or restrained because they protest the institution of slavery. That would have made a Quaker abolitionist in Britain a slave as well. Pinker is saying that a person becomes a slave not by the fact of interference after an action but because of the dependence on the arbitrary will of another. After all, there may not be any visible wounds on the body of the Slave, there may be order, but it is still violence because the situation is characterised by dependence. The kind of a dependence I am talking about is not the dependence of a child on their parents or a grant from the state. The dependence is present when a person’s ability to act depends on the silent permission or goodwill of another who could otherwise harm them with impunity but chooses not to. To re-iterate, it is the fact of this kind of dependence in an important domain of a person’s life that makes a person a slave.
This means that if violence is inherent to the definition of slavery, then Pinker is saying something radically different to his previous assertions about what violence is. If the threat of violence is an essential component of violence itself, not just the actual exercise of force, then this would change how he measures violence. Making the implications of this clear is best done by way of example.
Imagine there are two tribes, the Jorbetersons and Wakandans. The Jorbetersons are extremely aggressive and have an incident rate of violent deaths that is, say, 30%. One day, in 900 BS, the Jorbetersons decide that they needed more land and resources for their lobsters. They eventually come across peaceful farmers called the Wakandans, whose rate of violent death is 1%. The Jorbetersons seize all their fertile land that the Wakandans use, kill the Wakandans who resist, and shame Jorbetersons who protest killing Wakandans as weak and pathetic. Overtime, the Jorbetersons create a steep hierarchy and use a religious ideology that ingrains the idea that the cause of the hierarchy is not because of violent dispossession. Rather, it is because God Samarris’ curse on the Wakandans has made them less intelligent than the Jorbetersons. To maintain the hierarchy, the children of the Jorbetersons are privileged at every conceivable opportunity and inherit all their parent’s wealth. Over many, many, years, the reasons for the initial violence and dispossession are forgotten, and the Jorbetersons name the civilisation The Conpublic. The Conpublic kept records of violence (using the same definition of violence as our dictionary), and future archaeologists would come to find that Jorbetersons have a violent death rate of 5% and the Wakandans 15% (and for excellent analyses of why the Wakandans become more violent, look at footnote ). But the archaeologists will not know that everyone in The Conpublic knew that if the hierarchy was challenged then the full brunt of the Jorbetersons armed forces would be unleashed. The Conpublic, therefore, is violence in Pinker’s terms.
Based on the different meaning Pinker assigns to violence, we come away with two entirely different sets of possible statistics from the example. Pinker’s dictionary definition of violence means that the Conpublic is a comparatively less violent society than the one’s prior to it. The Jorbetersons and Wakandans in a tribal society had a rate of violent death that decreased from an average of 15.5% to 10% in The Conpublic. Yet, with Pinker’s slave definition of violence, The Conpublic is incomparably more violent. Since the mere existence of The Conpublic would be, if Pinker’s criticism of slavery is to hold, an example of violence itself then, in statistical terms, that would mean the incident rate of violence for both the Wakandans and the Jorbetersons is 100%. But this doesn’t sound quite right, how could it be 100%? Hopefully now it will start to click why it suits Pinker’s narrative to define violence in a very particular way, and how easy it is to manipulate numbers.
Perhaps that figure would be scoffed at because the Jorbetersons clearly benefit from The Conpublic. Sure, the Jorbetersons benefit materially, but that is to overlook that this fact cannot be separated from another, namely, the fact that their lives are soaked in violence too if they maintain the hierarchy that defines The Conpublic. Long have social formations like The Conpublic been plagued by paranoia, a glorification of violence that inevitably backfires, a guilt-ridden conscience, barriers to easy intimacy and relationships with the ‘other’, rapacious waste and a sense that life has no evident meaning. For as long as The Conpublic as an institution continues to exist, it is a hierarchy of violence, not competence, that far exceeds the violence that was possible before it.
Pinker cannot get out of the knot he has tangled himself in without coming off badly, especially as a champion of Reason. If he is consistent with his claim that violence is inherent to the definition of slavery, then he must rewrite his narrative of history and condemn institutions or hierarchies which rely on the threat of violence for their maintenance (and this can lead to a productive debate about the merits of the state). If he sticks to his dictionary definition, then he must say that there is nothing essentially violent about slavery as an institution. He does neither, and has instead defined violence in a way that begs the question.
Better Angels, we can now conclude, brands itself as a collection of facts told by a scientist when it is just a 21st Century version of an old myth that we are naturally prone to social barbarity and require the threat of violence to live together. When authorities who abuse their power in this way, our frames of reference become equivocal: we need violence to curb violence and war to maintain peace; down becomes mistaken for up and our own emotions become ambiguous even to ourselves.
But what if we permit ourselves to suspend Pinker’s idea that modern institutions serve us by deterring our violent tendencies, and entertain the idea that they can also hamper us from doing things we naturally find easier and better for us, like being kind and forming friendships? What would our modern institutions look like if they aimed to facilitate these kinds of capacities? How much easier would it be to find unity among variance and celebrate variance in unity? What would it be like if there was no international or local war, and we gave peace a chance? What would the possibilities be? Many socialists have been asking these for a long time already, and there is an essential truth to be drawn from them: it is much easier to live in a just world.
By Alex Pennington