This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not –and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.
In The Better Angels of our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker contends that, over the past several hundred years, capitalism and strong government have worked in tandem to reduce societal violence in the West. Capitalism encourages cooperation across traditional community boundaries, while government establishes a monopoly over the use of force, especially in matters of interpersonal honor. These pacifying benefits are imposed from the upper class downward:
The European decline of violence was spearheaded by a decline in elite violence. Today statistics from every Western country show the overwhelming majority of homicides and other violent crimes are committed by people in the lowest socioeconomic classes. One obvious reason for the shift is that in medieval times, one achieved high status through the use of force. The journalist Steven Sailer recounts an exchange from early-20th-century England: “A hereditary member of the British House of Lords complained that Prime Minister Lloyd George had created new Lords solely because they were self-made millionaires who had only recently acquired large acreages. When asked, ‘How did your ancestor become a Lord?’ he replied sternly, ‘With the battle-ax, sir, with the battle-ax!”
As the upper classes were putting down their battle-axes, disarming their retinues, and no longer punching out bargees and cabmen, the middle classes followed suit. They were domesticated not by royal court, of course, but by other civilizing forces. Employment in factories and businesses forced employees to acquire habits of decorum. And then came an institution that was introduced in London in 1828 by Sir Robert Peel and soon named after him, the municipal police, or bobbies.
The main reason that violence correlates with low socioeconomic status today is that the elites and the middle class pursue justice with the legal system while the lower classes resort to what scholars of violence call “self-help.” This has nothing to do with Women Who Love Too Much or Chicken Soup for the Soul; it is another name for vigilantism, frontier justice, taking the law into your own hands, and other forms of violent retaliation by which people secured justice in the absence of intervention by the state.
On the face of it, Pinker’s argument sounds like an apologetics supporting the status quo. Presumably the solution to reducing violence still further is to civilize the lower classes and non-Westerners. One means of civilizing them is to impose on them the discipline and decorum of wage labor; the other is to replace their DIY vigilante justice with state-administered justice, enforced more thoroughly by the police and the courts and the army.
Is Pinker right? There’s a whole academic discipline of criminology that purports to study issues like the one Pinker addresses in his book. I know little about the field, its findings, its theories. Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, a field that’s certainly relevant to criminology. But I don’t get a sense reading the first three chapters that Pinker lets the complexity of the issue speak for itself, nor that he takes seriously the work of any but a few criminology people. He’ll say something about how the social scientists find the issues complicated and multifaceted, but then, based mostly on his own opinion, he asserts that the explanation can be captured in the few factors that he advocates again and again. In the process he seems to marshal the empirical evidence to support his theories rather than letting the evidence shape the theories — the mark of a rhetorician rather than a scientist.
Pinker acknowledges that the upper class attained that status largely through the exercise of violence. Eventually the elite cooperate with each other, both politically and economically. Does Pinker acknowledge that the elite cooperate in order to consolidate their power and wealth against those who would take it from them, by force if necessary, the way they seized it in the first place? Does he acknowledge that corporate capitalism and strong government are means of securing the elite’s permanent higher status by pulling up the ladders behind them? Not that I’ve seen so far.
The American South
Pinker presents evidence documenting historically high homicide rates in the South and West of America. He contends that Southern culture was heavily influenced by a particularly pugnacious wave of immigrants who couldn’t abandon their longstanding traditions of honor and violence.
Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In much of American history, legitimate force was also wielded by posses, vigilantes, lynch mobs, company police, detective agencies, and Pinkertons, and even more often kept as a prerogative of the individual. This power sharing, historians have noted, has always been sacred in the South…
The northern states were settled by Puritan, Quaker, Dutch, and German farmers, but the interior South was largely settled by Scots-Irish, many of them sheepherders, who hailed from the mountainous periphery of the British Isles beyond the reach of the central government… Herders all over the world cultivate a hair trigger for violent retaliation.
Why in explaining Southern violence does Pinker invoke some long-standing cultural differences brought over from the Old Country? What happened to his acknowledgment that those who exercise monopolistic control over the economic and governmental means of “legitimate” violence achieved that status through illegitimate violence? Didn’t the earliest American emigrants from England, the ones who became the American elite, use violence to wrest control of America away from the Indians and to preserve it from the incursions of subsequent waves of immigrants? Pinker contends that the long arm of Eastern law and order hadn’t yet reached the Western frontier, so the pioneers regressed to an earlier stage of violent “anarchy” notoriously characteristic of the Wild West. Plenty of Western pioneers were Scots-Irish, but there were plenty of Germans too.
The Southern colonies were co-founded by the English crown and trading companies owned by English aristocrats. In exchange for their work, the earliest English colonists were granted tracts of land in the colony by the trading company. Subsequent waves of colonists, also mostly English, came as indentured servants. They worked for the landowners and, typically after 7 years, were granted their freedom. Those who paid the transatlantic passage of the indentured laborers were granted tracts of American land by the trading company. In other words, the labor importers received not only free labor but extra land as well. This arrangement continued with the subsequent wave of Scotch-Irish indentured servants. Most of them emigrated from “The Plantation of Ulster,” where they had worked as tenant farmers for English landowners on a vast tract of land confiscated from the Irish by the British in the early 17th century. The African slaves too fell under this agreement: American landowners who paid for the slaves’ transport would own the slaves and would be ceded a tract of land, typically 50 acres per slave. Of course the Africans didn’t get the benefit of a time limit on their servitude.
It’s easy to see how the earliest English settlers in the South also rapidly became the wealthiest, with free land worked by free labor resulting in profits for importing more workers and acquiring more land, etc. — a geometric rate of accumulation. It’s also easy to see how, after putting in their time as free labor, the indentured servants of England and Ulster would have had a hard time securing good land. When after 7 years they got their freedom they were still under the thumb of the landed gentry, with no possibility of rising in status or wealth or power. Three choices presented themselves: either continue working for the landowners; or settle in the hill country which, not being much use for farming or herding cattle, could be had for little or no money.
Or they could head for the Western frontier, where the Indians were and the plantation owners weren’t. So too with Northern frontiersmen. Pioneers would band together in small groups to clear the forests, build houses, plant crops, and kill Indians. They would also fend off European newcomers, pushing them farther into the frontier. Whoever won those violent skirmishes wound up dominating the economy and government on the frontier — they became the new elite, just as the old European elite emerged from similar violent confrontations. Eventually the new Southern and Western elites would form alliances with the Eastern elite, extending the power of capital- and government-empowered control over “legitimate” violence across the continent.
Pinker observes that there was a statistical rise in US violence beginning in the 60s. He contends that this regression to uncivilized behavior resulted from the “if it feels good do it” anti-establishment attitude of the times. He cites as supporting evidence the upsurge of violence in movies and aggressive lyrics in popular song, but what about empirical evidence?
In looking at Pinker’s graph of historical trends the reader observes the homicide rate starting to go up in the mid-60s, peaking from the mid-70s to around 1990, then dropping. That takes America past the hippies, past disco, past punk. As Pinker notes, most murders are committed by young men. Who were the young men during this high-murder era? Not those “decivilized” Baby Boomers of the sixties, but Generation X.
Per Pinker’s graph, the rapid rise in murder rate corresponds almost exactly with the years of the Vietnam war. The big anti-establishment protests weren’t about “if it feels good, do it;” they were about staying alive, and about anger at a government that would expose its young men to death for no good reason, and about questioning the legitimacy of the state’s monopolistic exercise of military violence. The Vietnam War led to the violent deaths of 47,000 young American men. Assuming an average of 150K US soldiers in Vietnam over a period of 8 years, that’s a rate of about 4,000 violent deaths/100K/year. Compare that to the recent peak years of 1978 and 1990 when the rate was 10 homicides/100K/year, and you can see why protesters were particularly exercised about ending the war as well as the draft that sent Americans into peril against their will.
Pinker points out that blacks experience a disproportionately high murder rate. While on the American side the Vietnam War was fought mostly by lower-SES kids, they were mostly white, as were the “feel good” antiwar protesters. Did black pride and resentment against the white-dominated power elite constitute a “decivilizing” impulse comparable to the anti-establishment hippies and rock-and-rollers? The spike in the US homicide rate lags significantly behind the most active phase of civil rights activism. If an upsurge in black violence expressed resentment against the oppressive white culture, then why did black-on-black crime among people who already knew each other account for most of the spike in homicides? Here Pinker reverts to his lawlessness theory: blacks constituted a separate subculture operating outside of the control of legitimate government-sponsored violence, so street gangs fill the power void — sort of like the Old West, or like the wave of Irish, Polish, Italian and other “pugnacious,” less civilized, non-Western European immigrants whose arrival in the US corresponded with an earlier spike in city crime rates. Pinker attributes the decline in homicides in the 90s to more police presence in black neighborhoods and tougher sentencing in criminal cases involving black perpetrators. Again, it’s the top-down imposition of civilizing forces via the exercise of “legitimate” violence that restrains illegitimate and uncivilized violence.
Crime is predominantly a young man’s game. I don’t doubt that black violence is triggered at least in part by frustration and resentment at lack of opportunity and active oppression by a white-dominated governmental and economic system. But in the black ghettos don’t the larger established authority structures exercise control from a distance, containing the violence within well-established buffer zones, arresting all of the main (young male) combatants who have achieved some local power, repeatedly creating power vacuums to be filled by groups of new kids? Certainly frustration and anger don’t always strike out at the sources of that anger. Powerful emotion isn’t that easily channeled, plus the real targets have badges and bigger weapons and more backup than you do.
Of course it’s not that simple. But it’s not as simple as Pinker makes it either.