Monday, December 29, 2014

necropolitics: pinker ignores the megadeath we inflict on others unfortunate enough to live on resources we covet

prospect |  “Today we take it for granted that war happens in smaller, poorer and more backward countries,” Steven Pinker writes in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. The celebrated Harvard professor of psychology is discussing what he calls “the Long Peace”: the period since the end of the second world war in which “the great powers, and developed states in general, have stopped waging war on one another.” As a result of “this blessed state of affairs,” he notes, “two entire categories of war—the imperial war to acquire colonies, and the colonial war to keep them—no longer exist.” Now and then there have been minor conflicts. “To be sure, [the super-powers] occasionally fought each other’s smaller allies and stoked proxy wars among their client states.” But these episodes do not diminish Pinker’s enthusiasm about the Long Peace. Chronic warfare is only to be expected in backward parts of the world. “Tribal, civil, private, slave-raiding, imperial, and colonial wars have inflamed the territories of the developing world for millennia.” In more civilised zones, war has all but disappeared. There is nothing inevitable in the process; major wars could break out again, even among the great powers. But the change in human affairs that has occurred is fundamental. “An underlying shift that supports predictions about the future,” the Long Peace points to a world in which violence is in steady decline.

A sceptical reader might wonder whether the outbreak of peace in developed countries and endemic conflict in less fortunate lands might not be somehow connected. Was the immense violence that ravaged southeast Asia after 1945 a result of immemorial backwardness in the region? Or was a subtle and refined civilisation wrecked by world war and the aftermath of decades of neo-colonial conflict—as Norman Lewis intimated would happen in his prophetic account of his travels in the region, A Dragon Apparent (1951)? It is true that the second world war was followed by over 40 years of peace in North America and Europe—even if for the eastern half of the continent it was a peace that rested on Soviet conquest. But there was no peace between the powers that had emerged as rivals from the global conflict.

In much the same way that rich societies exported their pollution to developing countries, the societies of the highly-developed world exported their conflicts. They were at war with one another the entire time—not only in Indo-China but in other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. The Korean war, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, decades of civil war in the Congo and Guatemala, the Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet-Afghan war—these are only some of the armed conflicts through which the great powers pursued their rivalries while avoiding direct war with each other. When the end of the Cold War removed the Soviet Union from the scene, war did not end. It continued in the first Gulf war, the Balkan wars, Chechnya, the Iraq war and in Afghanistan and Kashmir, among other conflicts. Taken together these conflicts add up to a formidable sum of violence. For Pinker they are minor, peripheral and hardly worth mentioning. The real story, for him, is the outbreak of peace in advanced societies, a shift that augurs an unprecedented transformation in human affairs.
While Pinker makes a great show of relying on evidence—the 700-odd pages of this bulky treatise are stuffed with impressive-looking graphs and statistics—his argument that violence is on the way out does not, in the end, rest on scientific investigation.


Vic78 said...

I think having all those nukes has a little to do with the stronger countries not going to war with one another. Just let Pinker maintain that space between his ears. It's better that he believes we have so much peace right now. Don't tell him about the people getting their heads chopped off on recent YouTube uploads either. How did he get hired?

CNu said...

lol, Vic, I believe this db had quite a bit to do with Pinker's plainly overblown and undeserved celebrity. Waaaaay back in the day I had to spend a painful and very tedious semester listening to Pinker's twaddle.

John Kurman said...

There are many contributors on Edge that, the second they move a half-inch outside their specialty, are not only in over their heads, but are really dull and boring.