Steven Pinker on the alleged decline of violence

The Better Angels of Our Nature:

Why Violence has Declined

IT HAS been amusing to see how warmly the establishment media welcomed Steven Pinker’s 2011 tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, published by Penguin in paperback in 2012). A professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker argues that the “artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction,” with the result not only that “violence has been in decline for long stretches of time,” but also that “we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.”

This optimistic theme coincides with the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s ongoing wars on at least four continents (Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America) and the US military’s spread to more than eight hundred bases worldwide; the US-led NATO bloc’s rapid post-Soviet growth and proclamation of “out-of-area” responsibilities; and the United States’ declaration of a right to kill its “enemies” anywhere on the planet. The New York Times greeted the book with a flattering front-page article in the Sunday Book Review by the philosopher Peter Singer, who called Better Angels a “supremely important” and “masterly achievement.” Pinker, he added, “convincingly demonstrates that there has been a decline in violence, and he is persuasive about its causes. . . .” It is easy to understand why Pinker’s invocation of an “escalator of reason” that has lifted the more enlightened Western powers toward an atmosphere of sweetness and light appeals to the many intellectuals who identify with these powers, as does his naming of the deficiencies that he alleges have held other peoples back from rising with them. But such a propaganda windfall for the imperial bloc could only be purchased with a denial of reality. Indeed, it is in the ideological and error-ridden narrative with which Pinker sustains this denial for more than eight hundred pages that the book’s real appeal lies.

How does Pinker get around the seemingly large numbers of wars and militarization process that bother so many ordinary people and specialist observers such as Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, and Winslow Wheeler? One Pinker method is to confine his focus to post-1945 wars among the great democracies, which have not fought one another in this sixty-seven-year interim, and to ignore or downplay the numerous wars that the great democracies have fought in the Third World. He calls this the “Long Peace,” while the other wars have no name. Pinker contends not only that the “democracies avoid disputes with each other,” but that they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board,” an idea he refers to as the “Democratic Peace.” This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of US assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings, and invasions since 1945. For Pinker, no attack on a lesser power by one or more of the great democracies counts as a real war or confutes the “Democratic Peace,” no matter how many people die.

“Among respectable countries,” Pinker writes, “conquest is no longer a thinkable option. A politician in a democracy today who suggested conquering another country would be met not with counterarguments but with puzzlement, embarrassment, or laughter.” This is an extremely silly assertion. Presumably, when George W. Bush and Tony Blair sent US and British forces to attack Iraq in 2003, ousted its government, and replaced it with a regime operating under laws drafted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, this did not count as “conquest,” as these leaders never stated that they launched the war to “conquer” Iraq, but rather “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger,” in Bush’s words. What conqueror has ever pronounced a goal other than self-defense and the protection of life and limb? It is on the basis of devices such as this that Pinker’s “Long Peace,” “New Peace,” and “Democratic Peace” rest.

It also rests on a patriotic rewriting of history and use of sources that will support this rewriting. A dramatic example is his treatment of the US-backed war in Vietnam. Pinker makes that war a case in which enemy fanaticism and the “life-is-cheap” mentality of the Vietnamese were responsible for the heavy casualties. He tells us that “the three deadliest postwar conflicts were fueled by Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communist regimes that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents.” It was thus the Vietnamese resistance and willingness to absorb the large casualties inflicted on them by the US invaders that fueled the war. There is not a word of criticism of the invaders who sent large forces across the Pacific Ocean to ravage a distant land; certainly no suggestion of “fanaticism,” no mention of the UN Charter, no word like “aggression” is applied to this attack. And there is no mention anywhere in the book that the United States had supported the French effort at recolonization, then supported a dictatorship of its own choosing; and that US officials recognized that those fanatical resisters had majority support as they killed vast numbers of Vietnamese to keep in power the minority government the United States had imposed. Claiming eight hundred thousand or more “civilian battle deaths” in the war, Pinker never explains how vast numbers of civilians could be killed in “battle” or whether these deaths might possibly represent a gross violation of the laws of war. Or how this could happen in an era of rising morality and humanistic feelings, carried out so ruthlessly by the dominant “civilized” power.

Nowhere does Pinker mention the massive US use of chemical warfare in Vietnam (1961–70), and the estimated “three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, . . . suffering from the effects of toxic chemicals” used during this ugly and very un-angelic form of warfare.2 What makes this suppression especially interesting is that Pinker cites the outlawing and non-use of chemical and biological weapons as evidence of the new evolving higher morality and decline of violence, so his dodging of the facts on the massive use of such weapons in Operation Ranch Hand and other US programs in Vietnam is remarkably dishonest.

Pinker’s Vietnam analysis relies heavily on Rudolf Rummel as a source for what Rummel calls “democide,” or the “intentional government killing of an unarmed person or people.” Rummel, a far-right analyst who believes that Barack Obama is an antiwar activist attempting a coup d’état in the United States, estimates that while the “communist” North deliberately killed 1.6 million of their fellow Vietnamese civilians, the United States deliberately killed only 5,500 Vietnamese civilians—or one-three-hundredth as many as were allegedly murdered by the “communists.” Rummel matches this kind of extreme apologetics for US violence in other areas as well, but for Pinker he is a preferred source.

In dealing with the US treatment of Iraq (1990–2010), Pinker’s bias is equally impressive. He ignores the “sanctions of mass destruction” imposed between 1990 and 2003, which according to John and Karl Mueller resulted in more deaths than “all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” Although Pinker cites John Mueller often in Better Angels, he never cites his (and Karl’s) 1999 article on this subject in Foreign Affairs or mentions this “violence” landmark. Pinker minimizes the US role in the Iraq invasion and occupation that began in March 2003 by distinguishing the invasion violence from the follow-up violence, allegedly strictly internal. He says that the initial stage of the war was “quick” and “low in battle deaths,” and the major deaths occurred during the “intercommunal violence in the anarchy that followed.” This ignores how all the violence flowed from the invasion/occupation, and the US involvement in that “intercommunal” violence never stopped.

Pinker’s analysis and use of sources on war-based deaths in Iraq is also compromised. The study of Iraqi casualties by the Johns Hopkins researchers published in the British medical journal the Lancet reported that 655,000 Iraqis had died during the roughly forty-month period from the March 20, 2003, invasion through July 2006, with some 601,000 of these deaths due to violence. This is unacceptable to Pinker, who prefers the much lower estimate of Iraq Body Count, which relies largely on news media reports of deaths, while the Johns Hopkins team used a standard retrospective survey method. Pinker objects to the “Main Street bias” of the Johns Hopkins sample, but he raises no questions about Rummel’s bizarre conclusions or the systematic low-ball estimates of “battle deaths” by an array of government- and foundation-supported organizations devoted to showing that modern wars have become more and more civilian-friendly since 1945. Elsewhere in Better Angels, Pinker reverses course and reports that there were “373,000 deaths from 2003 to 2008” in the Darfur states of the western Sudan, accepting a body count produced via the same retrospective survey method used by the Johns Hopkins teams for Iraq. This is the preferential method of research in action. 

Perhaps the most revealing piece of war and violence apologetics can be found in Pinker’s discussion of the new morality of the US military in Iraq—less name-calling in contrast with Vietnam, and a “new code of honor, the Ethical Marine Warrior,” whose “catechism” is that the warrior is a “protector of life,” including not just that of his fellow marines but “all others.” Pinker says that “the code of the Ethnical Warrior, even as an aspiration, shows that the American armed forces have come a long way from a time when its soldiers referred to Vietnamese peasants as gooks, slopes, and slants and when the military was slow to investigate atrocities against civilians such as the massacre at My Lai.” Pinker provides no evidence that US soldiers don’t refer to Iraqis with derogatory terms, or that civilian atrocities are investigated more aggressively (he never mentions Fallujah or Haditha), or that this “new code of honor” is “indoctrinated,” let alone taken seriously.  

Pinker is a transparent, but apparently unconscious, ideologue. This shows up everywhere, but nowhere more clearly than in his belief that communism is an “ideology,” whereas what he calls “classical liberalism” not only isn’t an ideology—it is the set of true beliefs toward which “intelligence” causes humans to gravitate. Pinker writes that a “romantic, militarized communism inspired the expansionist programs of the Soviet Union and China, who wanted to give a helping hand to the dialectical process by which the proletariat or peasantry would vanquish the bourgeoisie and establish a dictatorship in country after country. The Cold War was the product of the determination of the United States to contain this movement at something close to its boundaries at the end of World War II.” So, just as no US politician would suggest “conquering” another country, the US foreign policy regime has been strictly defensive, containing expansionist enemies.

Pinker’s remarkable inversion of reality in portraying the post–World War II period as a “Long Peace,” with residual violence stemming from communist ideology and actions, points up the relevance of Chalmers Johnson’s comment that “when imperialist activities produce unmentionable outcomes, . . . then ideological thinking kicks in.” It kicks in for Pinker with communist expansionism and US “containment.” It also kicks in with his notion that communism, but not capitalism, is both “utopian” and “essentialist,” “submerg[ing] individuals into moralized categories,” and causing some of the worst atrocities of the modern period. But weren’t the racism and anticommunism of the Western powers and in particular the United States “essentialist,” in the Pinkerian sense, and wedded to the “full destructive might” of these powers? And didn’t these ideologies justify exterminations and massive ethnic cleansings of inferior and threatening peoples, replacing them with advanced peoples who put resources to a higher use? Weren’t Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and many other members of the Chicago School of Economics “free-market” ideologues?

The US push for markets and investor rights and political control, sometimes called imperialism, is for Pinker just natural and doing good, taking advantage of “positive-sum” games with “gentle commerce,” as well as containing those with ideology who kill people freely. Pinker doesn’t mention any such thing as “aggressive commerce” or discuss the reality of the cross-border seizure of property by the more powerful states. There are seventeen citations to “gentle commerce” in the index to Better Angels, but none to the word “imperialism.”

In addition to his neglect of “aggressive commerce,” Pinker ignores the post–World War II growth of US militarism, with its vested interests in weapons and warfare, and the expanding and self-reinforcing power of the “iron triangle” of the military-industrial-complex to shape national policy. This may be why he never mentions, let alone discusses, the classics on this topic by Seymour Melman, Gordon Adams, Richard Kaufman, and Tom Gervasi;3 or the extensive writings of Noam Chomsky, Gabriel Kolko, and David Harvey;4 or the more recent work of Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, Henry Giroux, Nick Turse, and Winslow Wheeler.5 These and other analysts have also featured the encroachment of the permanent-war system on civil liberties and democracy, suggesting that any neo-Fukuyamanian perspective on “end-of-history” liberalism and Pinker’s streaky but steady decline in violence is Panglossian nonsense grounded in ideological thinking.

Instead, Pinker prefers the work of James Sheehan, whose theme in his 2008 book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe, is that Europeans have changed their very conception of the state, and made the state “no longer the proprietor of military force” but rather “a provisioner of social security and material well-being,” in Pinker’s summary of the book. But the soldiers are still there, NATO is still expanding, modern Europe is contributing troops and bombs to the Afghan war and was heavily involved in the 2011 war in Libya, and along with the United States, currently threatens Syria and Iran. Europe’s social security systems have been under attack for years, and the well-being of ordinary citizens seems to be a declining objective of Europe’s leaders, as well as those in the United States. Following the US lead, Europe is moving from “cradle-to-grave nurturance” back to “military prowess”—exactly the opposite direction from the one Pinker believes they have taken. 

As Islam is now a Western target, we may be sure that Pinker gets aboard this bandwagon. Invoking a “civilizational clash with Islam” that he alleges poses the greatest threat to international peace and security, Pinker writes that “more than half of the armed conflicts in 2008 embroiled Muslim countries of insurgencies.” He adds that “thirty of 44 foreign terrorist organizations in the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism in 2008” were “Muslim terrorist organizations,” underscoring his Islam-equals-violence theme. “[O]nly about a quarter of Islamic countries elect their governments,” his anti-Muslim rant continues; the “laws and practices of many Muslim countries seem to have missed the Humanitarian Revolution,” and the “Muslim world . . . is sitting out the decline of violence.”  Nowhere does Pinker mention a Western role in any of the “embroiled Muslim countries”; that no Muslim regime has attacked or occupied a Western country; that the roots of so-called “Muslim terrorist organizations” are to be found in peoples’ resistance to Western military and political interference inside Muslim countries; that the Western colonial powers have supported unelected dictatorships in one Muslim country after another; and that the “Muslim world” lacks the luxury of sitting out any alleged “decline in violence,” because it has been systematically subjected to the violence of the Western powers for many decades. 

Pinker likes to attribute the sense of increased violence to multiple “illusions,” one of which is caused by the development of communications media that make it possible to record bloody events and transmit them to the world. As he explained in a guest appearance on CBS TV’s The Early Show in mid-December 2011: “Not only can we send a helicopter with a film crew to any troubled spot in the world but now anyone with a cell phone is an instant reporter. They can broadcast color footage of bloodshed wherever it occurs and so we’re very aware of it.” Apparently, he believes that news media cover the world on a nondiscriminatory basis, reporting on Guatemalan peasants slaughtered by their army, civilian victims of US drone warfare in Afghanistan, and Honduran protesters shot dead by their own military, as aggressively as they report on civilian protesters shot dead on the streets of Tehran or the victims of the Syrian government or of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The naiveté here is staggering. 

Another “illusion” in Pinker’s vision is the belief that war-related deaths and other deaths by violence have increased over the years. Thus in his section on “The Pacification Process,” he describes the violent potential for which he believes psychologically modern humans had been naturally selected prior to transitioning from their “hunter and gatherer” phase to a sedentary lifestyle over the past twelve years. “If Hobbes’s theory [of the evolution from barbarism to civilization and Leviathan] is right”—and Pinker believes that it is—“this transition should also have ushered in the first major historical decline in violence.”

But not only is there no credible evidence that war characterized human life prior to “civilization,” there is massive evidence that war is among the artifacts forged by civilization. The anthropologist Douglas P. Fry even calls the belief that humans faced a far higher probability of violent deaths in “nonstate” than “state” societies, “Pinker’s Big Lie,” and adds that “in all cases, [war] was recent, not ancient activity—occurring after complex forms of social organization supplanted nomadic hunting and gathering.” In a forthcoming collection edited by Fry, the anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson assails what he calls “Pinker’s List” of twenty-one “prehistoric” graves, and concludes that the list “consists of cherry-picked cases with high casualties,” and misrepresents “war’s antiquity and lethality.”

Pinker employs the same kind of truth-bending method in his survey of wars and atrocities over the past 2,500 years. He asks: “Was the 20th Century Really the Worst?” He insists that the only way to compare the scale of violence across vast stretches of time is to treat death tolls as percentages of the world’s population, but adjusted to a “mid-20th century equivalent,” when the world’s population stood at 2.5 billion. This adjustment process enables Pinker to allege that the 55 million deaths he attributes to World War II were modest when compared to the adjusted total of 429 million deaths stemming from the An Lushan Revolt in China around 750 AD. Hence, the technologically more advanced weapons of the twentieth century did not produce the bloodiest era after all. To think otherwise is an “illusion.” 

But this is a sleight-of-hand method and manufactures its own counter-illusion. Figure 5-6, [1]“Richardson’s data,”6 is based on Lewis Fry Richardson’s mid-twentieth-century book, Statistics of Deadly Quarrels. It depicts 315 armed conflicts between 1800 and 1950. But as Pinker derives this figure from an outside source, it does not inflate earlier death tolls the way Pinker does when comparing the An Lushan Revolt with World War II. The consequence is that in Figure 5-6, two armed conflicts stand out for their deadliness: the First and Second World Wars. But as this confutes the declining-violence half of Pinker’s narrative, he urges readers to “Cover up the two outliers with your thumb” in order to produce the impression he wants to sustain: That the alleged “randomness” of these wars renders their timing and deadliness irrelevant to understanding them. Voilà! The two world wars were “statistical illusions.” That they occurred in the twentieth century teaches us nothing about modern times. “The most destructive event in history had to take place in some century,” he adds, taking flight from the real world, “and it could be embedded in any of a large number of very different long-term trends.” Where there is a will, there is a method.  

Pinker completely ignores the phenomenon of structural violence, or the kind of violence that is “built into the structure” of social relations, and “shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances,” in Johan Galtung’s famous rendering. On a planet with more than 7 billion people facing mounting ecological pressures, the increasingly savage global class war of the 1% against the other 99, and the “endemic undernutrition and deprivation” that afflicts billions of people even in “normal” times—to extend Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze’s writings on India to the world as a whole—takes a toll every day that overshadows the violence of war.  

Steven Pinker’s Better Angels is terrible as a work of scholarship and as a guide to the real world. But it is an outstanding snow job, with over a hundred figures, a great many footnotes, and a flood of assured words and arguments that require a certain amount of work to understand. That its positive message, so well geared to the demands and drift of Western imperialism, would be well received in establishment circles is perfectly understandable. Less so is its uncritical treatment by so many people who should know better.

  1. A longer version of this review, including a comprehensive list of sources, can be found in PDF format at ColdType:
  2. Fred A. Wilcox, Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011), 35. Also see the Web page maintained by the Canadian environmental research firm Hatfield Consultants, which is devoted to the firm’s Agent Orange Reports and Presentations from 1997 through the present:
  3. See Seymour Melman, The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline, rev. ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1985); Gordon Adams, The Politics of Defense Contracting: The Iron Triangle (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1981); Richard F. Kaufman, The War Profiteers (New York: Doubleday, 1972); and Tom Gervasi, The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy (New York: HarperCollins, 1987).
  4. See Noam Chomsky, Towards A New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There (Pantheon Books, 1982); Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992); and Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003); Gabriel Kolko, Confronting the Third World (Pantheon, 1988); and David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press, 2005). 
  5. See Chalmers A. Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2nd ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007); Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004); and Chalmers A. Johnson, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008 ); Andrew J. Bacevich,  The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Henry A. Giroux, The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Paradigm Publishers, 2007); Nick Turse, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009); and Winslow T. Wheeler, The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2004).
  6. Figure 5-6 appears on p. 205 of Pinker’s book. Pinker takes Figure 5-6 from Brian Hayes, “Computing Science: Statistics of Deadly Quarrels,” American Scientist 90, no. 1, January/February, 2002.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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