It has been my fate, and perhaps my curse, to be one of those ever trying to figure out the mystery of things, and not least to understand humans and our (I first wrote “their”!) ways. Of course this unscrewing of the inscrutable is always tenuous, always open to revision as more evidence comes in as life goes on.
In the last couple of years I have read a couple of authors that challenged me and made me rethink things yet again. The first of these is Steven Pinker, whose book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined is so counter-intuitive that I almost didn’t pick it up. And when I did I nearly threw it across the room only a chapter or so into it, as his animus toward religion, and especially Christianity was so odious (Dr Pinker is a secular Jew). Indeed, while he argues that modernization and the advent of the State have been a blessing for mankind in diminishing violence, he credits Christianity not at all for any this, aside from a couple of mentions later in the boook about Christ’s teaching on love of enemies and the pacifist witness of certain Christians. Aside from those, which he does not elaborate on, the influence of religion in history is completely odious.
But his writing is so good, and his theses so challenging that I decided to just factor this in and continue.
This main contention of the book, that violence is in decline, seems outrageous, until you read the well-documented arguments. While the 20th century was indeed the bloodiest in human history by sheer numbers, Dr Pinker shows that when you consider the growth in population that in fact the percent of men dying violently has declined dramatically, while other socially sanctioned violence- beating wives and children, public executions treated like entertainment, capital punishment for trivial crimes, etc- have also diminished.
Enter Jared Diamond, whose 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, which deals -among many other things- with the rise of tribal culture from bands, chiefdoms from tribes, and the state from chiefdoms.
Both books describe the state of so-called “primitive” humans, living in small bands, deciding things by consensus, sharing resources, with no gap of rich and poor. Sounds like the anarcho-socialist paradise, right? Wrong. The great drawback to these societies, for all their blessings, was that a huge number of (especially) men died violently; sometimes 50-60% or more of the male population. When food production through agriculture or herding (or in a few places, like the Pacific Northwest, superabundant natural resources) produces a rising population various degrees of centralization set in. The undeniable good thing about this is that violence decreases as more organized ways of settling disputes take form: no longer is the cycle of violence and vengeance left to the individual and his or her kin. What Dr Diamond more than Dr Pinker notes is the evil effects of this: the surplus of goods produced by the workers is no longer distributed evenly, but is confiscated by the now-powerful rulers (Marx’s insight) and often very unjustly hoarded, or used to build the State. Thus we see the sort of bottom-to-top redistribution of goods like that in the contemporary US, where worker productivity and corporate profits have risen over thirty years, even while the earnings of workers, and their general state, have declined.
Dr Diamond also notes that whether by nationalism or religion a new impetus is given to sacrifice one’s life in suicidal war, something unknown to tribal and pre-tribal peoples, who favor ambushes and other forms of attack that guarantee few casualties.
Thus, the human dilemma: how to regain the benefits of our decentralized ancestors while retaining the benefits of the State, how to use the State to justly redistribute goods produced by workers, how to live in peace with our neighbors, as well as with other States, how to curb nationalism and destructive religion while retaining localism and faith.
I don’t know the answer to any of this, but the questions are at least becoming clearer.