The Better Angels of Our Nature. Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, 802 pages. Penguin Group. $40.
BY NAOMI CRAINE
The capitalist system—with its state “monopoly on the use of force,” “gentle commerce” and “cosmopolitanism”—has ushered in the least violent epoch in human history. So says Harvard professor Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Why Violence Has Declined.
Pinker’s 800-page tome professes to trace through human history a general trend of declining violence—which for him includes everything from wars to eating meat—in order to present the current system of capitalist rule as the highest possible social system giving rise to an increasingly peaceful and progressive world. Among the fundamental problems with the author’s historical analysis is that he conspicuously disregards the struggle between exploited and exploiting classes, which Karl Marx explained is the motor force of history.
Pinker’s opening chapters describe past stages of human society that have been overcome, including cannibalism, human sacrifice, chattel slavery, medieval torture devices, and so on. He continues in this vain as he describes inroads in recent decades against racism, discrimination against women, and other forms of oppression.
These undeniable advances are above all victories of toiling humanity: our social labor, which has made possible the increase in productivity and development of culture, as well as the struggles of the laboring classes against oppression over millennia of class society.
Pinker manages to write a dozen pages under the heading “Civil Rights and the Decline of Lynching and Racial Pogroms” with only a passing mention of the massive, proletarian-led movement that defeated Jim Crow segregation, let alone the battles that preceded and followed it. It’s no wonder: the struggle for Black rights was a fight against the state power of the capitalist class, their laws, cops, courts and politicians. A necessary component of it was armed self-defense against state-organized and state-sanctioned violence. And that struggle permanently strengthened the working class and its capacity to effectively fight the bosses and their government.
Pinker credits the rise of the state, particularly modern democratic capitalist states in Western Europe and North America, and the ideas of the Enlightenment—the scientific and philosophical ideas that developed as part of the rise of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries—for social progress. He praises the “institutions of the Civilizing Process, namely a competent government and police force and a dependable infrastructure for trade and commerce.”
The general trend has been a remarkable reduction in violence, he says, spreading “not only downward along the socioeconomic scale but outward across the geographic scale, from a Western European epicenter”—a phrase that captures his anti-working-class and pro-imperialist outlook.
The early development of the “institutions of the civilizing process” is explained well in Capital, where Marx describes how capitalism came into being “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Men, women and children were driven off the land. The “civilizing” anti-vagrancy laws helped drive the dispossessed rural toilers into factories and mines under hours and conditions of labor that exceeded the bounds of human endurance—enforced by the police, judges, jails and workhouses of the state apparatus.
Credit belongs to working classThe massive expansion of the hereditary working class on a world scale over the last century, drawing in men and women on every continent, has increased the proletarian habits of mutual trust, tolerance, and class solidarity that working people learn in the course of common struggles. As a result of the accelerated development and struggles by the workers, there is less acceptance today of torture, for instance, and of racist and anti-woman violence. The credit for this however belongs to the revolutionary class in society, the proletariat, not to the capitalist rulers, the source of violence and oppression whose system creates contradictions that invariably explode into war.
Pinker goes through some intellectual gymnastics to explain the horrors of the two mass imperialist slaughters of the 20th Century, which would seem to contradict his thesis. He argues that 15 million deaths in World War I and an unprecedented 55 million in World War II are actually not so much—if considered as a percentage of the world’s population in contrast to the Mongol Conquests over seven decades in the 13th Century and the fall of the Roman Empire in the 3rd to 5th centuries. He presents numerous charts and graphs to support this quantitative comparison to large-scale massacre and genocide, which many working people will instinctively find morally repugnant.
Pinker conveniently dismisses these world conflagrations as flukes of history, rejecting the likelihood of another war among imperialist powers. He views the increased membership in “intergovernmental organizations” such as the United Nations and European Union, and the increase in so-called peacekeeping missions around the world to be factors limiting the risk of war.
‘Peacekeepers’ tool of imperialismThese are in fact some of the main tools used by Washington and other imperialist powers today to maintain their domination of the rest of the world, its resources and labor. It certainly hasn’t been a “long peace” for working people in Korea, Vietnam, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Haiti and innumerable other countries subjected to imperialist military intervention—often in the name of “peacekeeping” or under the U.N. flag. And as the current world capitalist crisis unfolds, the pressures toward greater conflict—both trade wars and shooting wars—will mount.
As Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin explained in 1916, “Peaceful alliances [between imperialist powers] prepare the ground for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars.” The “peaceful … alliance of all the powers for the ‘pacification’ of China” one day shifts to “the non-peaceful conflict of tomorrow, which will prepare the ground for another ‘peaceful’ general alliance for the partition, say, of Turkey, on the day after tomorrow, etc. etc.” The imperialist “civilized hyenas,” as Lenin once called them, haven’t changed their spots over the last century.
Pinker’s bourgeois class bias and contempt for working people is equally on display when he turns his attention to the United States. Under the heading “Recivilization in the 1990s,” he discusses a drop in homicide statistics over the last two decades. Among the factors he credits are that “the Leviathan [the state] got bigger, smarter, and more effective.” Specifically, the incarceration rate multiplied fivefold and the number of cops mushroomed.
How “smart” this seems depends on your class perspective. It’s working-class neighborhoods, especially Black and Latino communities, that the police target for stop-and-frisk harassment, frame-ups, arbitrary arrests and draconian prison sentences.
This is a form of violence that Pinker and his colleagues support, but are embarrassed to acknowledge and never experience for themselves. The Harvard professor is part of a middle class layer that has grown to be millions over the last 20 years—well-placed university professors and administrators, heads of charities and foundations, lawyers and lobbyists—who are largely unconnected to the production, reproduction or circulation of social wealth.
This layer, sometimes described as a “meritocracy,” serves as well-paid cheerleaders for the capitalist rulers. They view themselves as smarter and more enlightened, and they fear the working people throughout the world as a “dangerous class.” So they accept, often with mild criticism or feinted regret, that the U.S. must have by far the highest incarceration rate in the world—more than 1 percent of the adult population—as the price of “civilization.”
Pinker professes that greater capacity for abstract reasoning, as measured by IQ scores, leads to less violence. Smarter people are more liberal, he argues, more educated, more moral. This smartness has been trickling down to the rest of us unwashed masses—although not as much to the less enlightened “red states” of the South. It’s the epitome of a self-serving justification, packaged as scholarly work.
The development of capitalism has created the productive capacity for the first time ever to meet the material needs of all humanity. The contradiction is that these means are monopolized by a small minority, whose domination is maintained through violence and whose competition and drive for profits lead to the most violent explosions. This contradiction can only be resolved by the working class wresting political power.
To get a glimpse of the social forces that actually can put an end to the violent contradictions of capitalism, I recommend reading the newly published book Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution. It describes how working people, men and women, built a revolutionary army whose aim was not to kill the enemy, but rather to take power with as little bloodshed as possible. It describes how in the course of the revolutionary war and after its victory the peasants and workers of Cuba increasingly transformed themselves and their society, without preconceived schemes, showing a way forward for humanity.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home