ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 13, Number 1 (January 2016)

A Review of Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (New York, Penguin, 2011).

Dr. Maximiliano E Korstanje
(University of Palermo, Argentina; CERS, University of Leeds UK)

The problem of social bondage and conflict was set in the agenda of sociology and anthropology from their onset. For the founding parents of these disciplines, capitalism (or industrialism) activates an alienatory mechanism which is conducive to the workforce control. In view of that, ideology and alienation would be serving as vehicles towards depersonalization. Sooner or later, industrial societies would face what Durkheim called “anomie”, which means the decline of social trust. Undoubtedly, from that moment onwards, social scientists credited that capitalism brought negative effects for lay people such as the rise of conflict, crime and other deviant behaviors. In parallel, the concentration of wealth, post-Marxists claimed, in few hands triggered the discussion on to what extent hobessian doctrine determined the war of all against all. Of course, there was not agreement respecting to the reasons of violence in our modern global village. This is exactly the point where Steven Pinker departs from. He argues convincingly that far from what a whole portion of academy guesses, violence has declined as a result of a combination of trade, conjoined to the adoption of humanist values, democracy and globalization. Based his development on a titanic investigation (which contains more than 700 pages), Pinker sets forward hard evidence to validate the hypothesis violence and conflict is being declined in the world. At some extent, he continues with the debate left by Norbert Elias and his notion of civilization. Like Elias, Pinker acknowledges that there are some flashpoints which may be corrected, but in comparison with other centuries (even Middle Age). This decade (in the inception of XIXth century) seems to be a most peaceful time in humanity’s existence.   Two major assumptions are of vital importance for us in this review. Firsts and foremost, civilizations expand their hegemony by the impositions of discourses. These narratives are aimed at silencing or embellishing bloody past-time events in forms of heroic epics. Our heroes not only were cruel persons who have killed thousands of other warriors, but also struggled in appalling battlefront to impose their interests. This is the first point of entry in this discussion because we tend to think current times are more violent than earlier ones, but exactly historical evidence suggests the opposite. Secondly, sometimes statistics are analyzed following a much deeper emotional logic that distorts the outcome. It is not far-fetched to confirm that XXth century was a bloody century since two world wars have taken place but Pinker adds, humankind has witnessed other genocides and slaughters in earlier centuries. This begs a more than pungent question, why is violence declining?.

For Pinker, Hobbes was in the right direction at time of exploring the roots of plunder. Peoples attack other by fear, pride or eagerness. The goals for fighters are related not only to predation, but honor. In middle age, plunder and conquests posed as the only manners of upward mobility in societies where classes do not exist. In perspective, in traditional societies where peasants and warlords are attached to their lands, conflict is the only valid mechanism to expropriate the others from their possessions. At the time, trade was introduced as a form of negotiation among peoples and officialdoms, violence plummeted. The use of money not only replaces the needs of war but globalizing the exchange of goods resulted in an efficient way of deterring predation. Over recent years, we have found some civil conflicts in the world that leads readers to question the idea of civil democratic peace. Is democracy effective to struggle against terrorism?.

Far from being a detractor of democracy, Pinker clarifies that “decent governments” (p 313) are reasonably democratic because there are prone to trade and market-oriented. Being open to globalized economy, foreign investment or liberal trade helps reducing the conflicts or their severities for peoples.  The main thesis of this titanic project is that the ideals of Enlightenment or the Kantian hopes in a universal peace are possible if nation-states adopt democracy as their primary form of government and endorse to the values of liberal market. Following this axiom, US-led invasions to Middle East’s nations as Iraq or Afghanistan would be considered legitimate preventive acts for a democratic power against undemocratic societies. This decline of violence is not eternal, and it has been experienced in earlier times. The ebbs and flows of civilization far from being unilineal reach different levels depending on the socio-cultural conditions of societal order. The ten chapters that form this fascinating book propose a liberal vision of the world which places the belief of a more hostile society under the lens of scrutiny.

Personally, I agree this is an impressive work that compiles methodologically vast ranges of studies and samples alternating quantitative with qualitative approaches. I even share with Pinker, violence is in decline. In order for monopolizing the means of production, financial elite needs from peace, moblity, tourism, democracy and commodity-exchanges. What violence decreased is not good news simply because capitalism proved to be a machine to create material asymmetries. As Bauman (2011) puts it, the problem of capitalism rests on the belief that few deserve much, while the rest are on the ruin. Almost 2% of global population concentrates 90% of produced wealth. In a recent book, Maximiliano Korstanje (2015) explained that this postmodern world can be compared to the film Hunger Games, or the reality show Big Brother. In both settings, participants are dominant of their conciseness because they remain unfamiliar with the real probabilities to fail. These competences, like liberal market, are based on the premise of social Darwinism that claims for “the survival of strongest”, which means that the glory of only one equals to the failure of the whole rest. Participants not only over-valorize their own skills, but are confident of their strongholds. The stimulation of competition in the labor market, emulated by entertainment industry, resulted in two interesting dynamics. On one hand, the industrial order faced what Robert Castel dubbed “the rise of uncertainty”. The vulnerability of rank-and-file workers associated to the decline of well-fare state facilitated the capital-owners to increase their profits and wealth, at the time, risk was adopted as a new value for modern workers. As Richard Sennett (2011) observed, the idea of risk implies that workers are co-managing their own fate, they not only are responsible by their decisions, but it avoids elite from their responsibility to create the conditions for a fairer wealth distribution. This gives capital further freedom to move worldwide. Paradoxically, on another hand, we, in terms of realism, are safer than other earlier cruel times, though audiences are bombarded by abstract risks. In this context, democracy is the legal and ideological platform that facilitates the expansion of late-capitalism. In ancient Greece, as Castoriadis (1996) widely demonstrated, democracy was a legal resource (which comes from demos) where lay-citizens can derogate a law if this was unjust or affected the interest of someone. Modern democracy, far from channeling rights in this direction, creates a gap between citizens and officials. This gap is fulfilled by trade and businesses corporations which support financially to potential candidates to presidency. Last but not least, Jean Baudrillard (2006) is not wrong about his thesis of simulacra. At the time, some policies are politically applied to solve some problems; their real reasons are covered to protect the interests of status quo. Risks are phantoms that keep workforce immobile. As example, Baudrillard (2006) brings into question the legitimacy of democracy by introducing the figure of precogs, (in the film Minority Report). These agents worked jointly to police to forecast the crime before it is committed. As a result of this, police arrested to suspected criminal, not for what it has been done, but for future crimes. This, to my end, is a brilliant and beauty metaphor how modern world works; a point that Pinker and followers would think twice. Violence has declined in view of what reality has set the pace to pseudo-reality.


Baudrillard, J. (2006). Virtuality and Events: the hell of power. Baudrillard Studies, 3(2).

Bauman, Z. (2011). Collateral damage: Social inequalities in a global age. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Castoriadis, C. (1996). La democracia como procedimiento y como régimen. Jueces para la democracia, (26), 50-59.

Durkheim, E. (2014). The division of labour in society. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Korstanje, M (2015) A difficult World. Examining the roots of Capitalism. New York, Nova Science Publishers.

Sennett, R. (2011). The corrosion of character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism. New York, WW Norton & Company.