Angels and Anarchists: A Conflict Scholar’s Response to Steven Pinker’s New Book

By Christian Davenport

In his popular new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined Steven Pinker claims that violence has decreased over time—and that the reason for it is that humans have become more civilized. The main story is ambitious as much as it is happy. According to Pinker (and this is a gross-bloglike simplification), we kill less now because we have done away with such things.

After looking at political violence data for about 20 years and witnessing Darfur, the DRC, and Rwanda over the last few decades, I have my doubts.

First, there are immense gaps in the data Pinker uses to support his main argument. There is no comparable violence data over the full time period in question. Rather, different data sources compile data from different raw materials over distinct geographic regions over different periods. Crucially, there is no data on violence by the leading killer of human beings—governments—for most of the period of interest. There is also no comprehensive data for the main independent variable of interest—civilization—such as public opinion or values data.

Second, Pinker overlooks various dimensions of violence, such as frequency, scope, type, degree/magnitude, targets, etc. Considering these criteria, it’s clear some aspects of violence have diminished over time—but only in certain parts of the planet and in certain ways. People are still being mugged, beaten, raped and even killed in mass numbers, but most large-scale violence has diminished. Pinker’s take on this “pacification process” is a bit more optimistic than my own. In my view, states engage in not less but different levels of severity—for example “torture-lite” (e.g., immobilizing individuals to make them more physically manipulable instead of old-school torture such as removing skin from individuals, stun grenades instead of real ones, improved surveillance that helps governments identify problems before they arise, and lifelong imprisonment of problematic youth to pre-empt future political challenges). OK, so maybe the magnitude of violence has been diminished (which Pinker says) but the form may have shifted (which he does not).

By my logic, we should not be surprised that fewer blacks are lynched over time in the United States when the majority of the relevant population is busily harassed by police at a corner near you, is sentenced to stiffer sentences, is incarcerated and is less likely to be paroled (throughout the country). I would not suggest that America has become more “civilized” with regard to its treatment of African Americans but, rather, they have generally finished with their domestication efforts. Not really an overall “civilizing” process by my book.

This brings us to my third point: why does violence decrease? This gets at the core of Pinker’s argument. Are we more civilized? What does this mean actually? Who is the “we”? If violence truly has declined, I think it’s because governments have generally won. What I mean is that in general, the global ideological spectrum has been purged of the most “dangerous”, disruptive ideas. Who is now trying to destroy capitalism, disrupt the military-industrial complex, trying to redistribute resources; and how are they suggesting we go about doing this? What happened to those who did: anarco-syndicalists, luddites, socialists, and communists? State violence has decreased because states don’t need to kill anymore. We still have “anarchists” but the current group has no Kropotkin, no sophisticated diagnosis of the problem or its resolution—the diverse components of a social movement. “Anarchists” now squat in the middle of protests and try to provoke governments to “reveal” their coercive nature—like in the recent anti-NATO protests in Chicago. Governments possess a strong numerical advantage, issue “dispersal orders”, intimidate bystanders to leave, charge those left with an illegal assembly, and get CNN to diligently report every illegal move and legalized countermove. In the current context, governments simply need to “manage” challengers and/or challenge.

Like Pinker, I suppose I do believe that evolution plays a role, but not in the way Pinker suggests. In some work with Rose McDermott, I argue that governments manage challengers by using violence against radical claims-makers (e.g., those seeking displacement of power-holders) and accommodating or co-opting those with reformist objectives. Over time, this would lead to citizens engaging in less challenging challenges and, as a result, less government violent activity. With state victory, it makes sense that most other forms of violence would be diminished. The hierarchy is clear—the alpha entity has emerged, and the domesticated population is left with iPods, iPhones, iTVs and iLives to keep themselves occupied. We are beaten, homogenized and apathetic, not civilized.

Fourth, the idea that there is one explanation for all forms of violence appears to violate everything that the micro-foundational and sub-national conflict movement has been arguing over the last decade. This is a movement that has produced the most sophisticated, detailed, and nuanced arguments as well as data in the history of conflict studies.

This said, Pinker caught onto something that most in the conflict community did not. He looked at plots of the data over time and reflected on what they might mean. But conflict scholars should not let this book go by as yet another “accidental tourist’s” brief visitation without critically engaging it. If he is right, then I will be among the first to say thanks for pointing out our angels. But, we need to know if he is or isn’t. To address the topic, we would need to explicitly measure and test alternative propositions. Pinker did not do this. I think that our field should step up to the challenge and, for starters, I suggest pointing out our lack of anarchists.

Got time for one of the most pressing questions in human history?

Update: The title of this post has been altered for clarity.

  1. Violence decreases when commanders have less to gain and when foot-soldiers have more to lose. The two processes are sometimes correlated, but largely independent. They also each have multiple ways in which they can manifest themselves.

    For instance, would-be warlords could see less to gain because institutions are in place to unite pretty much everyone else against them, or they could see less to gain because a well-entrenched super-warlord or foreign emperor holds everything in his iron fist. Likewise, pacifying someone with an iPod (and threatening to take it away for bad behaviour) could easily take the fire from out of his belly for fighting for social justice. It would just as easily disincline the person from going to beat up his similarly iPod-ed neighbour next door. Etc.

    A decline of violence does not necessarily mean an increase in freedom and justice. And we must be precise about our classification (so no “but injustice is kinda like violence!”) because while the phenomena do share some commonalities, they also have some important differences.

  2. I would initially think that weapons have become more ‘civilised’ more so than the people using them in many cases. We no longer need to bomb entire cities to take out a factory, we now have network disruption and can use a single cruise missile for the same effect.

    When he says fewer people are suffering at the hands of violence, I assume he is comparing the proportion of worlds population? The explosion in the worlds population since 1800 would have a diluting effect on any study of this type.

    While when I think of the EU and the USA, yes I could believe that acts of violence against people have decreased, but taking that and thinking of other regions I do pause. The role of governments, multi-national corporations and violent non-state actors and all their respective negative effects against people. That said, I may be at risk of overlapping traditional conflict theories and human security.

    Really enjoying this blog.

  3. It would seem that enforced poverty has increased dramatically. While global capitalism is now more equipped to bring aid to the victims of droughts, famines and other natural disasters, it has done so as token attempts meant to placate critics and perpetuate its own existence. The ongoing disaster directly resulting from the rapacious consumption of the world’s natural resources by those who have no stake in living at the site of their depletions strikes me as creating a wave of epigenetic violence now snowballing past the point of human control.

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