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Review :: Education
Refuting Steven Pinker’s “A History of Violence”
by Jonathan Shockley
04 Apr 2007
"Though the sophistication of traditional theology is lacking, the similarity of themes and style is striking. It reveals the extent to which worship of the state has become a secular religion for which the intellectuals serve as priesthood. The more primitive sectors of Western culture go further, fostering forms of idolatry in which such sacred symbols as the flag become an object of forced veneration, and the state is called upon to punish any insult to them and to compel children to pledge their devotion daily, while God and State are almost indissolubly linked in public ceremony and discourse, as in James Reston's musings on our devotion to the will of the Creator. It is perhaps not surprising that such crude fanaticism rises to such an extreme in the United States, as an antidote for the unique freedom from state coercion that has been achieved by popular struggle."
-- Noam Chomsky
In his article "A History of Violence"
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html scientist Steven Pinker praises western civilization and suggests that the advances we’ve seen in our level of civilization are thanks to “a state with a monopoly of violence” that prevent us from descending into "anarchy" and killing each other.
In contrast, Pinker’s mentor, the anarchist Noam Chomsky thinks that states are undesirable structures of violence. He attributes advances in civilization to popular activism, which he says, has often succeeded in democratizing the state and raising our level of consciousness, to the point that we now oppose state violence much more vigorously:
“You have to remember that when John F. Kennedy launched the attack against South Vietnam, sent the U.S. Air Force to bomb South Vietnam, authorized crop destruction, chemical warfare, massive, what we now call ethnic cleansing, driving millions of people into concentration camps, there were years before there was any protest. Reagan tried to do the same thing in Central America…But they had to back off and they had to had to back off because of a completely unanticipated popular reaction all over the country, in the Midwest, in churches, in all kind of places where they never expected to see any reaction as well…What happened in Central America was bad enough, but 52s and large scale chemical warfare and saturation bombing would have been a lot worse…. State managers cannot fail to pay attention to such matters. Routinely, a newly elected President requests an intelligence evaluation of the world situation. In 1989, when Bush I took office, a part was leaked. It warned that when attacking “much weaker enemies” – the only sensible target – the US must win “decisively and rapidly.” Delay might “undercut political support,” recognized to be thin, a great change since the Kennedy-Johnson years when the attack on Indochina, while never popular, aroused little reaction for many years.”
The reason why Pinker attributes improvements in our civilization to the power structure, not to its victims constraining it and fighting against it for liberation, is because for him absence of a state cannot mean a highly organized decentralization of power into the hands of the participants, in the form of self-managed non-hierarchical worker/consumer councils, regional federations, feminist and civil rights movements etc as in the large-scale Spanish anarchist revolution of the 1930’s.
No. “The inescapable logic of anarchy” is what we see in “frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband,” i.e. corrupt hierarchical organizations fighting for centralized power.
In the past, similar slander was used against the words “democracy” and “republics”. In Monarchies, the idea of elected governments was often equated with complete chaos and violence.
Likewise Pinker tells us "If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million... These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation."
Pinker selectively relies on Lawrence Keeley's book "The Myth of the Noble Savage" whose mainly anecdotal evidence was counterbalanced by William Eckhardt's statistical and mathematical evidence, which, as anthropologist Jason Godesky points out, together produced the conclusion that primitive warfare was constant but of a very low intensity, and mainly psychological. “As Eckardt points out, wars of civilizations produce far more destruction than all of the primitive wars, both absolutely and proportionally,” says Godesky
Apart from all the 20th century wars and murderous heads of state (such as Hitler, leader of the peak state of western civilization at the time, described by American political scientists as the model of democracy), nuclear war is a real possibility (we’ve come very close), and American depleted uranium is going to keep killing for a long time. Furthermore, looking at the close relationship and protection the modern state offers to the structures of global capitalism, we should not ignore its complicity in economic violence: the deaths due to things like tobacco, corporate medications, obesity, car accidents, work related death and starvation/disease, global warming and so on.
Despite our advanced western technology, these "glitches" in the system kill roughly 100,000 people every day or 36,500,000/year, as many as those who die from natural causes.
Even assuming that this number will not increase in the next 100 years, we are talking about 3.65 billion dying this century (in the absence of a nuclear Holocaust, of course)
But let's ignore economics and stick to Pinker's definition of violence:
Pinker uses the Human Security Brief 2006 to tell us that
“the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.”
Pinker also says that “according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent… After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts”.
In the book How to Stage a Military Coup, 24 coup de etas are listed in the first half of the 20th century,194 coups in the second half! So Pinker has got it completely wrong there. During the Cuban missile crisis, the world was saved from nuclear Holocaust by miracle, and the Iraq war, just like the Vietnam war, is killing thousands of people every month, so the “2000 per year” number is also wrong.
The consequences of state colonialism in places like Africa and the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century are evident to anyone who cares to look.
1989 was the year the US started the propaganda campaign that would lead to the first Iraq slaughter, which took the lives of a few hundred thousand Iraqis. That was followed by crippling US-led sanctions on Iraq, which killed over a million Iraqis in the 90s. After bombing Iraq all throughout the 90’s, the US invaded in 2003, which has so far resulted in the deaths of close to a million Iraqis. Also, the military aid the US gave to Turkey in the 90’s was used to slaughter tens of thousands of Kurds.
Just looking at some US actions, one can clearly see that “state based” violence is alive and well, and if there have been any constraints or improvements, it’s not because of states’ civilizing effect, but because of popular activism.
How can Pinker, then, defend the state? There’s something called the "bad apple theory” that is at the core of his argument. Yale anthropologist David Graeber explains it:
“All you need is one group in a fairly large region that decides to be predatory raiders and beat up on their neighbors and everyone has to either militarize their own society, or endure
being periodically victimized. But consider this: if we have a biological inclination to
be warlike and aggressive, then why is it so few take the former option? Studies show that most tribes don't immediately imitate the aggressive group and start organizing for war in self-defense, but endure the raids (which happen on average every five or ten years) just so they don't have to. If we have a natural tendency, it's not to organize ourselves for war, because even people with a very concrete material interest in doing so often don't do it.”
A cursory look at history shows that soldiers do not go to war out of an intrinsic desire to kill. They have to be trained, deceived and desensitized. This is primarily the job of the state, and the intellectuals who subordinate themselves to power (a large majority)
As historian and WW2 bombardier Howard Zinn, says:
“Wars don’t take place out of the rush of a population demanding war: it’s the leaders who demand war and who prepare the population for war. You didn’t have the American public clamoring to go to WW1… people did not want to go to war…. That’s why Wilson [to get elected] said “no we are not going to war”. Then he is elected, and almost immediately calls upon the nation to go to war [and] a massive propaganda campaign was mounted. On the one hand you had the propaganda, and on the other you had the [state] coercion, the draft and the punishment… in other words, it takes powerful inducements and threats to mobilize the young population of a nation for war and if you had a spontaneous urge for war you wouldn’t have to do that. The consequence of believing that war happens as a result of human nature is to place the blame on the citizenry, and to take it away from the leaders of the nation who are driving the country to war… it’s like telling the poor that your poor because of your own faults,”
Also, as Graeber points out, Pinker's example of torturing cats in 16th century Europe actually works against his theory:
“Obviously, 16th century Europe was violent and nasty. It was probably the most violent and
nasty society on that scale we even know about. 30-40% of the population of
some areas were wiped out in the Wars of Religion. But that was the period of
the rise of the absolutist state, not a period of "anarchy". Why was it Europe that conquered the rest of the world, because they weren't extremely violent? Even if we compare the world of Islam at that time, or East Asia, you find nothing even resembling mass witch-hunts
or the mass extermination of heretics. This is what makes claims that "the
West" has some special tradition for pluralism and tolerance so bizarre - historically
the exact opposite is the case.”
How does Pinker explain the fact that institutions do not reflect normal human behavior? Most people don't go around punching and killing people, and the average Joe wouldn't steal food from a child just because there are no police around and he happened to be hungry. If he did we'd find such behavior pathological, not normal (as you'd expect if we were really so greedy).
Yet states have killed millions through war, and corporations will literally take away water from children for profit (e.g. Bechtel in Cochabamba, Bolivia) and kill millions of workers through horrible working conditions and negligence. They are magnified projections of our worst tendencies, and negate the fact that cooperation is more important for survival than competition, (as Russian scientist Kropotkin demonstrated in his book Mutual Aid).
If you count the number of people killed (and the number of dollars stolen) by capitalist and state institutions and compare it to the smaller criminals (bank robbers, Ted Bundys, gangs etc), it is not even close. Furthermore institutions of power promote the alienation and socio-economic disparity that creates these smaller criminals.
Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted a famous experiment where good kids became cruel prison guards, was interviewed a few days ago on Democracynow and said that:
"Most of the evil of the world comes about not out of evil motives, but somebody saying get with the program, be a team player...When a person feels, I am not personally responsible, I am not accountable, it's the role I’m playing or these are the orders I’ve gotten, then you allow yourself to do things you would never do under ordinary circumstances. [My book] The Lucifer Effect is really a celebration of the human mind's infinite capacity to be kind, or cruel, caring or selfish, creative or destructive. To make some of us be villains and some of us heroes. And it all depends on the situation. When we have total freedom, we choose situations that we know we can control. But when we're in situations where other people are in charge, in the military, in prisons, in some schools, in some families, we are – we can be transformed."
Maybe Zimbardo is exaggerating when he talks about the mind's "infinite capacity to be kind" but it seems logical that by relinquishing their role as subservient, unthinking and insentient cogs in a machine, people would feel more independent, responsible and aware of their actions; they wouldn't be indoctrinated by centers of power, and would become appalled by behavior that now is condoned within the hierarchical institutional structures.
Countering the billions of dollars of educational, consumerist and news propaganda maintaining these structures of power in place would encourage the kind of checks and balances and self-examination that are now lacking--bringing the more positive values of human nature to the fore, and giving us a different perception of human nature.
As Ward Churchill said:
“Hanna Arendt had gone to the Eichmann trial to confront the epitome of evil in her mind and expected to encounter something monstrous, and what she encountered instead was this nondescript little man, a bureaucrat, a technocrat, a guy who arranged train schedules, who, as it turned out, ultimately didn't even agree with the policy that he was implementing, but performed the technical functions that made the Holocaust possible in the efficient manner that it occurred, in a totally amoral and soulless way, purely on the basis of excelling at the function and getting ahead within the system that he found himself….He was a good family man, in his way. He was loved by his children, participated in civic activities, was in essence the good German. And she, Arendt, said, therein lies the evil. Anyone in a mindless, faceless, bureaucratic environment could be "the Nazi"…Eichmann symbolized the people that worked under him; the train conductors, the technicians who were making the gas, all of these people who didn't directly kill anybody, but performed functions that made the Holocaust possible.”
A similar analysis applies to all of us who live in western societies and contribute directly or indirectly to exploitation and war.
Pinker doesn't mention how under authority people tend to become instruments of someone else, instead of free agents directing their own destiny, discovering and gaining a taste for more freedom. History shows that elites generally do not work to serve the people, but the opposite: people work to serve elites.
Even a saint who gains state power will become an important cog in a repressive power structure, just like CEOs and slave owners could be very nice people, yet in their institutional role they are oppressive.
"Good” men in power are responsible for much more death and suffering than “evil” men without power, that's why unlike capitalist and Marxists, anarchists have never imposed dictatorship and mass murder on anyone.
Pinker may argue that “good leaders” also do a lot of good, which is the argument given to defend people with extreme power. The power to do good, however, is more likely to come from decentralized structures. People have the potential to be free, not to be ruled by “benevolent” masters. They should determine the level of coercion in society, not elites. Anyone in charge, will set policy to satisfy his/her interests. Therefore, it is better to have THE people satisfying its interests than the elite. Looking at history one facts stands out: When one has power over others, one is bound to abuse it—It is almost inevitable.
This doesn’t mean that Pinker isn’t right when he says that good can come from state (i.e. illegitimate) power. This is nevertheless not a justification for it. As Chomsky says:
“Do we celebrate Pearl Harbor Day every year? It’s well understood that the Japanese attack on the colonial outposts of the United States, England, and Holland was in some respects highly beneficial to the people of Asia. It was a major factor in driving the British out of India, which saved maybe tens of millions of lives. It drove the Dutch out of Indonesia. That’s why there was applause for the Japanese invasion. In fact, major nationalists, like Sukarno in Indonesia, joined the Japanese and even fought with them because they wanted to get the hated white man out of Asia. If there had been no resistance to the Japanese attack, they might not have turned to the horrifying atrocities that did ultimately turn many Asians against them. So would we be celebrating Pearl Harbor? I don’t think so. I certainly wouldn’t.”
Finally, Pinker tells us that one of the reasons why “so many people [can] be so wrong about something so important” is because “we have an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society.”
Really Mr. Pinker? Then why hasn’t the system been overthrown? Did the media support the Iraq war in 2003? How many anarchists are there in academia? How many intellectuals on CNN and FOX call for the overthrow of capitalism and the state?
Yep, I thought so
As Chomsky and Herman demonstrate in Manufacturing Consent, intellectuals are generally extremely subservient to power.
This in fact, has been their historical role. It’s much easier to get ahead in the system that way. The educational institutions have to cater to the ideological needs of their biggest employers: government and capitalist institutions.
As James W. Loewen shows in Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Gallup, Harris and NORC polls show that educated people disproportionately supported the Vietnam War. Loewen writes that in 1971,“twice as high a proportion of college-educated adults, 40 percent, were hawks, compared to only 20 percent of adults with grade school education.”
According to Mr. Pinker, intellectual’s adversarial stance is also partly due to “the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better.”
So we are to believe that the one dollar-one vote capitalist market structure and the state system that defends it promote their own self-destruction i.e. the ideas of those who “loath to admit there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and western society”
Chomsky and Herman have been explaining for years what this self-flagellation is all about:
“Where the powerful are in disagreement, there will be a certain diversity of tactical judgments
on how to attain shared aims, reflected in media debate. But views that challenge fundamental premises or suggest that the observed modes of exercise of state power are based on systemic factors will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely.” (Herman and Chomsky, 1988: xiii)
This work is in the public domain