Living in the best of times? The violence externality

Contemporary fears of violence, of foreign dictators or local gunmen, are often inflated, misplaced and stoked up by powerful interest groups. Yet in rejecting the irrational moral panics which so often seem to pass as news these days, it is important that we do not fall back on nihilistic complacency or naïve civilisation. Chris Parton argues for a more nuanced, dialectic discussion of violence in the modern world.

Whether they are hell bent on crusades or rather hostages of common sense, for some thinkers barbarism and civilisation remain irreconcilable antagonists. They have little time for the idea that our most noble endeavours might actually harness the energies of something altogether more savage and undesirable. They are, it would seem, graced by a kind of pre-dialectical innocence, blissfully ignorant of Walter Benjamin's dictum that there is no document of civilisation which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. There is a blindness to the inconvenient detail that in order to wrest a living from this planet, human beings have long viciously exploited and continue to exploit its resources, as well as each other. Accepting this is not to surrender to a complacent, postmodern nihilism. After all, exploiting the fruits of one's allotment garden is quite different to exploiting someone for their organs. But this way of thinking does provide a more nuanced antidote to both the catastrophists and Dr Panglosses currently in our midst, both of whom continue with their rather peurile intellectual seesawing.  

One such Dr Pangloss is the American linguist Stephen Pinker, who several years ago proclaimed that we are probably enjoying the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on Earth, contrary to what a lot of gloomy leftists and intellectuals might believe. Pinker, though unsurprisingly aware of the importance of violence in early human societies, argues that we have for a long time been witnessing its decline as a result of powerful civilizing processes. According to this narrative, violence and civilisation are forbidden from doing anything as vulgar as co-operate, but are presented as being locked in a kind of cultural evolutionary game of Highlander. There can be only one. And according to Pinker and others like Richard Dawkins, it appears that civilisation is winning the day. Although we may gloomily believe that we have just passed through one of the most bloodiest and murderous centuries in human history, compared to the proportion of dead from earlier epochs, the twentieth and twenty-first century's outbreaks of violence are mild blips.  

Of course, such ardently measured statements could only be issued by those at a considerable remove from brutality. They are the pronouncements of academics and not intellectuals. And the perversity becomes most apparent when one imagines the likes of Pinker in conversation with a victim of the kinds of violence being discussed. What would a victim of Abu Ghraib, for instance, make of being told that compared to the tragedies of his hunter-gatherer forbears, his torture was a mild blip? Would Pinker expect this victim to see things in such fanatically objective terms? Or would he perceive that his own perspective – his balance – is particular to the wealth and comfort that surrounds him? In which case he would surely realise that it is a horizon barred to the victims and those in solidarity with them. After all, torture is not renowned for enabling the kind of level-headed sobriety which Pinker appears to be advocating. Quite the contrary, victims are often a mess.  

According to Stephen Pinker though, extreme violence on any considerable scale only continues to fester in so-called zones of anarchy. Presumably, it is only a matter of time before these zones are pulled peaceably along with the rest in the inevitable, and indeed noble, march of progress. This is a far cry from the more Janus-faced antidote of historical processes with which we began. In other words, Pinker fails to engage with a more complex position, one which depends not on the hysterical catastrophism he rightly enjoys to knock down, but rather a more nuanced account of the way his noble, peace-seeking civilisation actually actively sustains or engineers the anarchy and violence on its fringes. So for example, the Iraq war has meant luxurious wealth and security for some but brutality for the rest. Russia is another case in point. The collapse of the Soviet Union and billions of dollars generated in the 1990s resulted in a certain kind of progress and certainly extreme riches for a few whilst simultaneously generating increased homelessness, crime and disease for the rest.  

A retort to this observation might be that however much it is true, quantitatively it undoubtedly remains the case that the number of those dying from either interpersonal conflict or interstate warfare is the lowest it has ever been. But if this is indeed true, then what we have to also accept is that at the beginning of the 21st century there exist enormously powerful militaries with destructive capacities greater than anything realised on this planet before. Set this alongside the fact that according to UN-HABITAT slum populations have been shown to increase by 25 million per year, that a handful of firms now monopolise global markets and production and that there remain enormous world disparities in wages, then the triumphal heralding of a conflict free world appears a little premature. More alarming still is that the Chinese economic model, which many continue to be in slavish awe of and hope will pull us out of the current economic crisis, depends upon a flagrantly violent, undemocratic state.     

Besides, one only has to read declassified CIA manuals from the past 60 years to realise that the United States at least has been practising precision, ‘scientific’ shocks as opposed to mass extermination in order to achieve its ends. Guantanamo Bay can be seen as just such a burst of terror, subsequently broadcast (like the shock and awe invasion of Iraq itself) into the homes of billions and conveniently providing a stark warning to any who dare defy US foreign policy. Indeed, with such symbolic weaponry in its arsenal (regardless of any pragmatic post-factum handwringing) the most powerful state in the world can probably afford to halt proceedings at the ‘showing of instruments’.  

As Naomi Klein has pointed out in The Shock Doctrine, these short bursts of terror, whether operations in Latin America or in Iraq, have proved particularly efficient when coupled with trade rules in aggregating wealth and power and sustaining the neoliberal economic agenda. This is a point that the Panglosses will not deal with. If violence was originally an early tool for piracy, has the former's decline resulted in a correlative decrease in the theft of resources and property (however much the latter might acquire respectibility beneath a veil of contractualism)? This is not something I imagine easily quantifiable but it forces us to check our jubilant euphoria at the decrease in violence, if the wrongs it once helped facilitate remain.  

A similarly inconvenient stain upon the civilising new “zeitgeist”, as Richard Dawkins terms it, is the nature of the modern state. In recent years, many have become rightly concerned by statist attacks on democratic and civil liberties sanctioned by the War on Terror. Exploitation of the post 9/11 threat has seen the emergence of a multi-billion dollar market in security, peddling mercenaries, surveillance and eschatology in exchange for public money. There is now a powerful financial incentive in fear and violence and the strong arm of the state has therefore been bolstered and in places privatised in order to protect us from the many threats which, we are warned, are looming on the horizon. But this confronts us with another sobering question: in what sense is more peace and security meaningful when all we essentially inhabit is a vast panoptican hooked on coma-inducing doses of anxiety? Incidently, it appears that the latter day catastrophists are better sought not – as asserted by Pinker – amid the ranks of activists and those on the left, but in the boardrooms of those selling security.  

And yet still we are called back to the numbers, the apparently stubborn statistical proof of a decline in violence. The problem with this evidence of course is that it is not nearly as compelling as our Panglosses would make out, not only for the reasons highlighted above but also because the figures don't necessarily do the dance demanded of them. So, for instance, if we take interpersonal violence – the most extreme example of which being homicide – then it is certainly true that you would be hard pressed to find a criminologist who didn't agree that murder rates have steadily declined from the middle ages onwards. And if you ended your study of the figures at, say, 1960 (as Stephen Pinker does) then you might be forgiven for thinking that you really were living in the best of all possible worlds. But as most criminologists will also point out, global homicides have actually continued to increase since the 1970s onwards. In Europe, this has meant something like a 100 year regression (Eisner:2001, Eisner:2003, Monkkonen:2006 in Spierrenburg 2008). 

It is in relation to current levels of systemic ecological devastation, however, that the Panglosses find their severest rebuke. This is not a case of simply opening up the category of violence to fit a purpose. After all, it is Stephen Pinker who argues that the decline of cat burning is an example of civilisation’s triumph. But to hold the latter up as evidence of progress and ignore, say, man-made climate change or human-induced extinctions is irresponsible. According to many biologists, we are currently living through a human-induced Holocene extinction event. Climate change of course feeds into this but it is similarly the result of all manner of other destructive human activities. EO Wilson claims that extinction, as a result of human pressure, is now somewhere between one thousand and ten thousand times greater than it would be otherwise. This means not simply a case of losing individual species but rather entire eco-systems. To herald progress whilst ignoring such decimation – forces which threaten to make life as we know it upon this planet unhabitable – is, of course, truly barbaric. 

 1. Benjamin, W., Illuminations (Schocken, 1969) 

 2. Dawkins, R., The God Delusion (Mariner Books, 2008) 

 3. Klein, N., The Shock Doctrine (Penguin, 2007) 

 4. Spierenburg, P., A History of Murder (Polity, 2008) 

 5. Wilson, E.O., The Future of Life (Vintage, 2003) 

About the author

Chris Parton is a socialist activist, writer and teacher of language and literature.