Steven Pinker’s tilted measure of violence

Steven Pinker claims we are living in the most peaceable era of human existence. In a review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Timothy Snyder challenges Pinker’s thesis.

The central psychological virtue of modern civilization, Pinker claims, is “self-control.” Over the centuries, after people are pacified by the state, they learn to think ahead, to see the perspectives of others, and to pursue their ends without immediate violent action. Violence becomes not only impractical but also taboo. Nazi Germany, as Pinker seems to sense, represents a tremendous problem for this argument. Germany in the 1930s was probably the most functional state of its time, with low homicide rates and a highly literate population. Mastery of self was not the Nazis’ problem; self-control was in fact a major element of the SS ethos, as preached by Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler. Even Adolf Hitler practiced his emotive speeches. Lack of self-control was also not the problem for Joseph Stalin’s executioners, or for Stalin and Stalinists generally. Individual Soviet NKVD men killed hundreds of people, one by one, in a single day; this can hardly be done without self-control of a very high order.

To rescue his argument from the problem posed by the mass killings of the mid-twentieth century, Pinker resorts to claiming that a single individual, in the German case Hitler, was “mostly responsible.” Here, he misrepresents the historians he cites. It is true that most historians would subscribe to some version of “no Hitler, no Holocaust.” But what they mean is that Hitler was a necessary condition for such a calamity, not that he was a sufficient one. There were many other necessary conditions for Nazi racial imperialism. Take, for example, worries about the food supply. In the 1930s, food was highly valued in both Berlin and Moscow. This fact did not dictate which ideologies would define the two states. But in practice, both Hitler and Stalin were obsessed with mastering and exploiting fertile soil, the former to transform Germany into a self-sufficient, racially pure empire, the latter to finance the industrialization of the Soviet Union.

Without recognizing the importance of scarce resources, it is impossible to understand the very different plans for agrarian colonization that the Nazi and Soviet ideologies sanctioned. But Pinker dismisses any claim that resources (rather than bad ideas) were related to the bloodiest conflicts in modern history as a “nutball conspiracy theory.” This is an odd position for him to take, since his own history begins in a premodern world of conflict over resources. By insisting that ideas alone were to blame, he oversimplifies the issue. A more rigorous explanation would explain how political ideas interacted with scarcity, rather than insist that either one or the other must have been the problem.

Modern ideologies were not, as in Pinker’s metaphors, “toxic” forces that “drove” people to do this or that. They provided narratives to explain why some groups and individuals had better access to resources, and appealing visions of the future after an aggressive reordering. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were ideological states, but they cannot be dismissed from history simply because they were organized around the wrong ideas. Each of them had plans for economic development that were meant to privilege one group at the expense of others — plans that were inextricably entangled with justifications for why some people deserved more, others less, and others nothing but death (the extreme and unprecedented case being the Holocaust). These ideologies were effective in part because they motivated, and they motivated in part because they delivered, if not plenty, then at least visions of plenty.

We are different from the Nazis and the Soviets not because we have more self-control — we don’t. We are different largely because postwar improvements in agricultural technology have provided the West with reliable supplies of food, our massive consumption of which says much about our limited self-control. But what if food were to become scarcer and more expensive, as seems now to be the trend? What if unfavorable climate change were to outrun our technical capacities? Or what if melting glaciers leave societies such as China without fresh water? Pinker claims, unpersuasively, that global warming poses little threat to modern ways of life. But it hardly matters whether he is right: states are already taking action to minimize its consequences. China, for example, is buying up land in Africa and Ukraine in order to compensate for its own shortage of arable soil. The fresh water of Siberia must beckon. If scientists continue to issue credible warnings about the consequences of climate change, it would be surprising if leaders did not conjure up new reasons for preemptive violent action, positioning their states for a new age of want.

Treating Nazi Germany as a historical aberration also allows Pinker to sidestep the question of how Germans and central and western Europeans became such peaceful people after the demise of Nazism. This is a strange oversight, since European pacifism and low European homicide rates are where he begins the book. Today’s Europe is Pinker’s gold standard, but he does not ask why its levels of violence are the lowest in all of his charts. If, as he contends, the “pleasures of bourgeois life” prevent people from fighting, Pinker should also consider the place where these are most fully developed, and how they became so. Pinker persuasively relates how postwar economic cooperation among European states led to a pacifying interdependence, but he fails to stress that the postwar rebirth of European economies was a state-led enterprise funded by a massive U.S. subsidy known as the Marshall Plan. And he says very little about the concurrent development of redistributive social policy within those states. State power goes missing in the very places where states became preoccupied with welfare rather than warfare.

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2 thoughts on “Steven Pinker’s tilted measure of violence

  1. delia ruhe

    Pinker is just one more example of an empire in decline. He operates — successfully — on the assumption that people will pay good money for books that tell them what they want to hear. Stephen Jay Gould blew Pinker out of the water as a scientist several years ago, yet the guy just keeps on writing these crapbooks and getting them positively reviewed by the best reviewers in the mainstream press. Go figger.

  2. bobs

    Creationists give anti-science a bad name because the badness is there for all to see: when your idea of a science museum is to get Adam and Eve to ride on the back of a T-rex you’re little threat to the enterprise of science.

    Pinker gives anti-science a good name. The man started out as a pseudo-scientist (a charitable term for a practitioner of Evo Psych) and has now morphed into a pseudo-guru.

    Pinker takes the practice of science back to what it was in the middle ages: smart men endowed with formidable knowledge and a way with words writing whatever semi-plausible bullshit pops out of their brain. It’s great fun — bullshit often is — but it’s still bullshit.

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