View from
The Right

Is Steven Pinker Wrong About Violence Declining?

(Rose Lincoln / Harvard University)

“In many parts of the world, the anarchy came, and those like Pinker who insist otherwise should reflect on whether their claims really reflect reality, or whether they are simply bromides used by those thought-leaders who see the horror and turn away, looking to statistics as consolation against the tragedy.

Steven Pinker’s books are read by some of the world’s most important political and cultural thought leaders. His work on the heritability of human nature laid out in The Blank Slate is a masterful rebuttal to those who think people can be molded every which way from birth, putty in some social planner’s hands. Pinker, however, becomes less convincing when he starts talking about war and violence. His latest book, Enlightenment Now, is a case in point.

What the Enlightenment actually is isn’t really explained beyond an inaccurate potted history that serves his narrative of inexorable human progress based on humanistic reason and growing tolerance winning over the dark forces of tradition, religion and superstition. Everything good we have today came from the Enlightenment, and everything bad came from reactionaries who refused to see the light. Never mind that as John Gray notes, many Enlightenment thinkers were decidedly illiberal in their thought, and that some of the most illiberal episodes of the 20th century were directly descended from Enlightenment ideas. This selective reading of the Enlightenment is rammed down the reader’s ungrateful throat with a deluge of graphs to shame him or her into accepting his message: things have never been better, things are getting better all the time, and any objections are just counter-Enlightenment fabrications that lead to incipient fascism, so get over yourselves.

Basically, Enlightenment = liberal = good, anything not Enlightenment = illiberal = bad. This simplification of the Enlightenment’s history and meaning is easily countered: the splitting of the Enlightenment into British, American and French strands by Gertrude Himmelfarb is useful for considering the differences in the evolving thought traditions. Pinker ignores this, so his definition of the Enlightenment basically comes down to “everything I like is liberal and therefore comes from the Enlightenment.” The aggregate data used presents a reassuring picture of a world improving in every way; reassuring to those in power on both sides of the political aisle that they can just maintain the status quo and ignore anyone who says otherwise. As Pinker says, “Everything is amazing.” Except it isn’t, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend otherwise.

One of Pinker’s big claims is that violence and warfare are constantly and consistently going down. This argument seems nice, and it would be good news if it were true, as many of us would hopefully like to see war and its related violence reduced. However, Pinker is selective with his choice of data, using that which suits his line of ever greater improvement. In some sense, this approach is confusing. Surely if we want to continually improve everything, we need to be honest about the faults and flaws in our world and look at ways of improving them, even if that means that what we had assumed had mended those faults wasn’t working in the way we hoped. This reflection doesn’t seem to have happened.

As Nicolas Guilhot says, Pinker’s main claim to the reduction of violence over the centuries rests on three graphs. One chart deals with the percentage of years of great power wars for every year from 1500-2015, one concerns deaths from genocide, while another looks at deaths from conflict since 1945. All three have big problems with them; these charts conform to Pinker’s rather nerdy tendencies; everything in his world is materialistic, using the language of the information age to describe everything. The problem is, if you input or select data to fit your predetermined argument, what you get out doesn’t give the full picture, leading to what we have here.

Pinker’s data is from Our World In Data. The thing is that the chart proclaiming the fall in civilian and military deaths from interstate warfare since 1500 doesn’t tell the whole story. As Guilhot argues, “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this statistical trend—except that it captures a phenomenon that has been less and less representative of warfare.” This chart doesn’t take into account the rise in violence that doesn’t fit our strict definition of what war is, from conflict related to “conquest, colonization and extermination”, to civil wars whose number “has increased in inverse proportion to the number of inter-state wars and exploded in the twentieth century.”

Warfare is less and less about interstate warfare, moving away from this conventional war of national armed forces engaging each other, and has been since the first half of the 20th century when “Total War” was in full swing. Now, we see more unconventional warfare. Without getting too academic, warfare today increasingly involves different armed groups engaging in military and non-military activities, using guerrilla warfare, insurgency, terrorism, cyber-warfare and even crime. All measures short of what we still call war. The growing opinion is that war isn’t becoming one thing or the other: entirely conventional or unconventional. It’s becoming a mix of the two, what’s known as hybrid warfare. This can be seen in Russia’s campaign in the Ukraine and Syria, as well as China’s moves in the South China sea, as well as the West’s various military efforts around the world. We are seeing increased conflict between states by-proxy, with most conflict in fracturing or failed states. None of this is rocket science, and the debate on this subject has gone on for decades. The fact Pinker is ignorant of these arguments made by Martin Van Creveld, Mary Kaldor, Robert Kaplan, David Kilcullen and others is slightly concerning.

The second chart tracing battle deaths since 1945 seems slightly disingenuous again, given that it’s very convenient to miss out two of the most destructive wars in history, WWI and WWII. Including these two wars would skew the story Pinker wants the data to tell, and calling this statistical fact a blip seems rather callous. Instead, Pinker resorts to his usual method of calling both the Nazis and Communists “Counter-Enlightenment utopians.” These two charts are meant to demonstrate that war is reducing and we’re progressing past violence. Except we’re not, because Pinker didn’t include the chart from Our World in Data, where he culled his other data, called “Global deaths in conflict since 1400” that shows that the combined military and civilian deaths from conflict in 2000 were exactly the same as in 1400. As John Arquilla has shown, non-combatant deaths have also risen hugely since WWI, and continue to rise: 50% of WWII’s casualties were civilians, while in the Congo it has been 90%.

Arquilla also notes the 2012 Human Security Report, which shows that between 1946 and 2008, there was a steady rise in the number of wars—to around 50 in the 1990’s. This dropped until 9/11, when it started to rise again. Wars are down by a third since the early 90’s, but they are still “more than double the totals seen in the years from the end of World War II until the mid-1950’s, and are equal to the numbers of wars ongoing during the Vietnam era.” That doesn’t look like a world where war is going away to me. Added to this are the number of what Arquilla calls “big-kill” wars where a million soldiers and civilians die. These wars spiked in the 19th century and then exploded in the 20th, with the rise in the fast half doubling again in the second, mostly in Africa and Asia. He again notes the changing nature of war to smaller conflicts that don’t fit the inter-state playbook, which still kill hundreds of thousands of people. Finally, Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb argue that, from their data analysis, there is no clear trend either way for war and violence. Sorry Steven Pinker, none of this represents a reduction over time. From this, it looks like we are as belligerent as we’ve ever been.

We are more connected than ever, and as deaths on the battlefield have fallen, they have spread outwards into the general population. To paraphrase David Betz, because of our increased connectivity, humans are now more able to share in the carnage of our time. While there may be a decrease in battle-deaths, conflict has expanded, swallowing up larger sections of the general population in a shrinking world. Hang on, Pinker, for many people, rather than a Kantian perpetual peace, they instead stand witness to a Hobbesian anarchy of perpetual war of all against all. In many parts of the world, the anarchy came, and those like Pinker who insist otherwise should reflect on whether their claims really reflect reality, or whether they are simply bromides used by those thought-leaders who see the horror and turn away, looking to statistics as consolation against the tragedy.

Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.

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Ryan
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Ryan

“Except we’re not, because Pinker didn’t include the chart from Our World in Data, where he culled his other data, called “Global deaths in conflict since 1400” that shows that the combined military and civilian deaths from conflict in 2000 were exactly the same as in 1400.” Now I don’t consider myself an enlightment person at all, but your counterargument (ie this quote for example) is very misleading because you should be looking at deaths per capita, which according to your own data would have to be VASTLY less in 2000 (the ratio of earths population in 1400 to that… Read more »