Steven Pinker argues that we are becoming less violent. Nonsense, says John Grayby John Gray / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Storming of the Bastille by Francois Leonard. Many of the French revolutionaries favoured violence as an “engine of social transformation”
“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.