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Pinker on peace in world history

March 15th, 2015 · No Comments

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/13/john-gray-steven-pinker-wrong-violence-war-declining?CMP=share_btn_tw
This question of Pinker’s thesis on violence in world history (we have discussed it here before) is hard to answer because it makes a strong claim against the future while the historical evidence is not clear. Pinker’s views on evolution are, from the view of this blog, consistently wrong with an ill-founded darwinism and its evolutionary psychology. Does that matter: Yes, and Pinker should have read my World History and the Eonic Effect before jumping to conclusions here: but please note that his thesis is very much about the Enlightenment’s influence. This is the bull’s eye point of the modern ‘transition’ in its send-off into a new era. The negative aspects Gray points to are par for the course, but Pinker fails to see the crucial placement of the Enlightenment in a larger system.
Progress there is no longer absolute progress in a single-level history from minus infinity to plus, but a series of discrete intervals or epochs with initial transitions, and possibly regressieve middles. Pinker’s claim is thus based in part on a conclusive phase of the modern transition. We can see from the ‘macro model’ that that is misleading: the world system is a mere two centuries from the early modern transition and the potential to fall away from the high points of the Enlightenment is very considerable.
More generally the Roman Empire established a reign of peace and then that relative degree of order fell to pieces. So in the measure of world history we need to study the ‘discrete transition’ sequence and our relative placement in a larger system of macro progression: the Enlightenment sets the tone for a new era which may achieve its projected goals, or not. And it may fall away from those in the timing of what we suspect is the larger system. On the basis of antiquity then, the interval (in this model) is 2400 years from 1800: the analogous onset of final fall from decline would be a thousand years plus after 1800: 2800 AD. But such analyses are a bit dubious and the model here makes no use of such derivations because it doesn’t predict the future. The model is a linear matrix for a complex nonlinear developmental system and that system can at any time break out of an effect like that of Roman decline. The circumstances are different in both cases. But it is a reminder that a thesis such as Pinker’s is saying something about the far future. He may have guessed right, but he doesn’t seem to have any dynamic to generate the answer.

Note again the way Pinker moves toward one of the key macro points or intervals in the larger historical model of the macro effect: the Enlightenment coming just before the ‘divide’ point, i.e. the end of the modern transition. The point is that what happens in the ‘transitions’ is not necessarily a sound way to predict the future: the transition is part of a larger directionality while its succession may or may not make projections of that transition permanent, and may fall away altogether from its earlier state. This point is starkly obvious in the earlier era of proximate antiquity (the succession to the classical world, or the ‘Axial age or interval’: between Periclean Greece and the the Dark Ages (in the Occident)! We would never claim on the basis of the early modern that its celestial phase of great music (‘classical’) constitutes a trend for the future.

But this doesn’t refute Pinker’s thesis. The macro effect is very much concerned with such long range changes to human civilization. But we can’t predict the proximate (inner epoch) future or the long range future as yet in any exact way. We can see that a linear cyclical model such as the macro model could be overlaid on an exponential process or processes that could exit from its cycles altogeter: the distinction of cyclical recurrence and progressive cyclicity. As man matures to be able to create whole civilizations he begins to exit the macro effect. That may be happening about ‘now’ in world history. Creating a whole civilizations is not what we think: consider the macro model. Its pictures of civilization developing is very complex indeed.
We can say that if the Enlightenment interval in the modern transition overamps in its typical fashion some kind of ‘evolutionary emergent’, here some aspect of peace, then we will see its effects resurfacing in the proximate future to that transition: the attempt to realize progressive values, here of peace. But as the record makes clear the succession to the modern transition has already seen two very drastic world wars in the consequences of the working out of nationalism, which was one of the early modern’s other ‘innovations’. But the onset of a major innovation such as the United Nations may well show some part of the Pinker thesis’ wished for historical dynamic. We have discussed ‘Kant’s Challenge’ in WHEE and the emergence of trial runs for the ‘perfect civil state’ are part of the macro effect and the period of Kant and Pinker’s Enlightenment.
This self-referential system is very odd indeed.
But we are assuming that contrary to the record of Axial era proximate antiquity we will suffer no long range decline and fall syndrome.
In a word we can’t predict whether the future will bear out Pinker’s thesis.
But there are many grounds for judgment here. There is a definite set of effects of globalization: is the onset of war effected by the massive closure of once distant systems suddenly cohering via new economic and cultural influences by diffusion? There are many variables here.
But it is unclear to me how Pinker deals with the evidence of ‘permanent war’ in disguise as a function of the American economy in the wake of world war 2: the authorities we suspect made a considered judgment that since the second world war finally got the US out of the great Depression then a system of concealed permanent war would keep the system of american capitalism functioning ad infinitum. Hardly an optimistic assessment of the prospects of peace. We don’t know for a fact whether this is so calculated, but the net effect here has been the case: the economy fueled by military appropriations and technology.
The article of Gray brings in the issue of Fukuyama and the end of history: but the end of history may well generate the fight for a postcapitalist future, and that could be very violent. How do we assess the issue of war if we selectively espouse the ‘value of war’, here the liberation from capitalist society. Points of controversy to be resolved by other means, no doubt! We can’t easily judge the condition of a peaceful society if its inhabitants are dominated by forms of capitalist exploitation with no military solution to their economic desperation. Here the values of war and peace juggle between themselves in the abstract space of ‘values at measured judgments’. Is peace enforced by imperialist-style economic/military domination fully the virtue we want?

In any case, the issue of war and peace is more than sociological: its causal analysis can’t easily exclude a ‘design’ argument, the will to war or peace, which can destabilize a running trend. The model of WHEE distinguishes ‘free action’ and ‘system action’. We can’t easily predict according to sociological analysis what we may determine or alter as free agents in a larger system.
It is possible to exert ‘free agency’ against this system since, in fact, it is created by our agency, under the influence of factors behind the transitions, which we don’t control. This suggests that elusive cultural complexes in the realm of art, religion, philosophy, and, indeed, the emergence of science, are not controlled by free agency, as yet. It is ironic to see that ‘science’ emerges twice in the transitional phase, and in the first dies out, restored promptly in the next transition. So, as yet, science can’t control or understand its own emergence.

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