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A few original insights but superficial and quite irrelevant overall
le 15 décembre 2011
This is not a full review but only an account of the weaknesses and errors a reader slightly educated in history or anthropology is likely to find.
Having read all previous Pinker's books, I think this is the worst. Digressing from what is his main area of expertise, he comes to make a cornucopia of mistakes and inaccuracies that should be duly pointed out. Unfortunately, these are quite a lot so that a review of this kind does not suffice. Anyway, here is a brief summary (I'll go through chapters).
The first and second chapters are about the ancient times, the dangerous past. There is a big lacuna in statistics here. Neither does Pinker uses comprehensive sources regarding hunter-gatherers societies (the figures he shows concerns only few societies), nor can we ever know about the past. As we find a great variability in terms of violence and social change in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, we cannot think that 'primitive' societies remained the same for millennia; so we cannot take the Yanomamo as our living ancestors. Indeed the warlike Yanomamo the only non-state society Pinker writes about. This was a famous case reported by Chagnon that has been heavily criticised by many academics (in a 500 page book on the subject Brian Ferguson argues that they became increasingly aggressive because of continuous Western intrusions). Actually, Pinker also mentions the !Kung San, writing about how violent they were with the European colonists (but who would be peaceful towards a sanguinary invader?). As anthropologists normally know, the ways and frequency in which violence is carried out in non-state societies varies dramatically cross-culturally. Pinker does not show statistics about markedly peaceful and egalitarian societies like the Piaroa , Birhor, Doukhobors, Lepchas, Fipa, Semai, Fore, Yanadi ,Kadar, Mbuti or Paliyans to name but a few, or other perhaps less egalitarians but equally peaceful groups like the Hutterites, Brethrens, Quakers, Mennonites or Moravians. All these do not fall within the author's view of human nature.
Also, it is argued that the state was developed because people decided that law was better than war. Actually the state in all cases did not originate through such acute reflections but with the sheer use of violence. In 'Society against the state' and 'the archaeology of violence', Pierre Clastres showed that non-state societies were organized in ways to prevent abuses of power. Violence was mainly levelled against people who wanted to impose one's force over others or against those who refrained from sharing resources. As primatologist de Waal pointed out, the same thing happens with chimpanzees. I think that this offers interesting ethical insights. I guess that everybody would rather condemn to death 10 rapists or impostors than 5 innocents. Well, one could make the case that in recent times the situation has overturned. It is normally people deemed to be innocent by the majority who get killed (Giorgio Agamben also makes this point). Such reflections of course do not figure in Pinker's statistics. Liquidating the issue of non-state societies in a few pages with scanty data, he then goes on writing about the civilizing process. The shrewd reader, though, would recognize the fact that we are no longer talking about 'human nature' on the whole.
Chapter 3. This is about the civilizing process. Pinker uses Elias' well-known book to illustrate the causes of the decline of violence in relative numbers in last centuries, highlighting how a change in more decorous manners by the upper class has helped such transformation. I don't know how he has interpreted the book but surely Elias talks a lot more about how our everyday life has become emotionally constrained by such new mannerisms than he does about violence. David Graeber, in his book 'Possibilities' uses Elias in the exact opposite way Pinker does. Also, it is evident from the reading of it that such manners and behaviours were created by the upper class in order to take the distance from the lower class, rather than being sagaciously formulated as to diminish violence.
Other inaccuracies: 'African American have often been more violent because factually stateless'. There's a serious neglect of history. Read, for example, Bourgois' 'in search of respect: selling crack in El Barrio'; he gives an idea about how this kind of violence actually harks back to colonial history.
Chapter 4. The chapter dedicated to the humanitarian revolution. Starts off with a few sensationalistic accounts on how terrible torture used to be. While highlighting very well this change (abolition of torture, etc'), I think he fails to take into account how things like 'sacrifice' and 'sorcery' were experienced and conceptualized by the people practicing them. His view is markedly positivist (of the like of James Frazier), an analytical framework that has been disproved by every academic working on the subject since at least the 1920s. Also, many have pointed out that with the abolition of torture, violence hasn't vanished into thin air, but has taken other forms. Foucault notably argued that public display of violence has transformed in private forms of oppression (from his 'discipline and punishment'). Accordingly, Pinker praises Bentham for his commitment against torture but forgets that the same man designed the 'panopticon'.
Anyway, I think that the greatest blunder of this chapter is his idea of 'gentle commerce' (?). I am quite well-read about history of economics but I'm sure I've never encountered such a term. With 'gentle commerce', I'd imagine two merchants on a camel or a horse meeting at a crossroad, exchanging a couple of bows, a smile, and a kilo of dates for some bananas, before trotting back home. Of course, such thing has never existed. Human history has witnessed so many types of exchange and economic systems (from gift to planned to market economy; although barter economy is somewhat of a myth, as David Graeber has shown in his last book on debt), each of them implying a different sort of violence according to the specific historical circumstances. If for 'gentle commerce', Pinker means 'capitalism' in general (although there have been so many variants), well, some people (Karl Polanyi for example) have argued that it was such 'gentle commerce' the cause lying behind the rise of fascism, the various nationalisms and the first world war. Not to say anything about the deleterious effects on the rest of the world, but, of course, this is not violence, nor it can make statistics.
Pinker also claims that African poverty is due to the failure of African governments. This is so superficial I don't even want to start talk about it. Reading Chomsky on the 'structural adjustments' policies of the IMF will do. I guess that the author has never heard of the 'world system theories' of people like Wallerstein or Gunder Frank who cogently argued that, due to its inner logic, capitalism always implies the development of only few areas to the detriment of the others. 'Gentle commerce', whatever that means, is hardly a cause for the decline of violence and, given the current situation, it's likely to increase it in the future.
Chapter 5 and 6. These are about the 'long peace' and the 'new peace' accounting for the period from WW2. Same unsuitable interpretations of economic history (page 287 is just scandalous). For the author, the uprisings in Iraq were due to anarchy and not to US legacy which is of course debatable. Also, there is a big misrepresentation of anarchism and Marxism. Unlike what he says, the first is nowadays very far from romantic utopianism but engaged in practical activism (see OWS, completely based on anarchist principles); the second does no longer believe in a teleological course of history (something that it has abandoned for about a century, Pinker has missed it).
There are frequent references about the eruption of violence in some collapsed states in Africa like Somalia, and it is claimed that this is due to anarchy. In fact, the reality is far more complicated (see authors like James Ferguson or Caroline Nordstrom for a close account of what's going on there). Violence attributed to anarchy is only brought up when we actually hear about such guerrilla warfare. There are so many places with no formal government where people do not start killing each other. Rural Madagascar is an example (Graeber in his book 'Possibilities').
End chapter 5: 'the motto of capitalism being 'make money, not war'' (?).
Chapter 7. In the overall better presented chapter on the rights revolution, Pinker, while praising such achievements, leaves out some important aspects. For example, 'human rights abuses' are only evoked when governments are seen as trespassing on some victim's person or possession (rape, killing), but they are never evoked when they eliminate price supports on basic foodstuff, even if it leads to malnutrition or famine. Both the man who gets shot and the man who starves die. Arguably, dying of starvation or of diseases related to malnutrition is even worse. For Pinker, only the first is violence. If we allow the second to be considered violence too, then the statistics would reverse.
Plus, he forgets to point out that all these were achieved through grass-root protest (not through the divine clemency of the state), the kind of protest that, according to him, leads to chaos and violence in other occasions.
Also, his claim that women in primitive societies are 'property' of men is false (read Strathern's 'gender of the gift' for a discussion on the topic).
The fact that punishment on children in hunter-gatherers societies does not exist is given only a line (how does that figure in the decline of violence?).
Says that the rate of impulsive violence of yesterday's adults was far higher than today's (where is the data?).
In regards to gay rights, Pinker does not mention that the categories of homo and heterosexual were not marked at all prior to the modern era. Sexuality wasn't a social identifier in ancient Rome or Greece. There, gay rights would have been nonsensical (see Greenberg 'the construction of homosexuality'). As for the animal rights, he does not give enough weight to factory farming.
On the whole, I don't understand the point of this chapter in the context of the big argument about the decline of violence in human history: all these rights movements relate to trends that occurred only from the second half of the XX century.
Chapters 8 and 9. These are the best chapters, where Pinker applies his expertise (in fact, he had none in the previous seven). Of course, his view of the mind is not uncontroversial (see Jerry Fodor for a strong critique of his position) and here too one can find a lot of errors or inaccuracies:
'Biological altruism is perfectly compatible with psychological altruism': this is just false. See Mauss' 'the gift' for a radically different account.
'Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy' (?)
The data in these chapters is only taken from his friends Buss, Daly and Wilson and Chagnon.
The view of 'empathy' that he puts forward and acclaims is a very Christian one, one that always implies an inferior human being to be empathic towards.
Finally, through the whole book he praises the great figure of the Enlightenment and their use of Reason which is thought to have brought the decline of violence. But I see a big difference between, say, Voltaire or Verri or Beccaria, and Pinker. The first were actually politically engaged: there was a lot of pugnacious activism and pragmatism in their thought. Pinker, on the other hand, seems too often very complacent and defends the same institutions against which millions of people the world over are protesting against right now.
To summarise, I think that the main claim he puts forward is an important one. We tend to think that our times are the most violent in history but this, Pinker has shown, is not true (in relative numbers, plus we are not sure about our far past). However, the explanation of this and the arguments he presents are often flawed, seasoned with unsuitable sensationalistic sketches and imbued with much superficiality that are not suitable when you want to make such a big claim. Words like 'democracy', 'government' or 'gentle commerce' are not seriously analyzed. Consequentially, his view of history is a very mechanical one: we were extremely violent in the past and thanks to the Leviathan and 'gentle commerce' we have become better persons. We either accept the political and economical assets of our era or we risk going back to violence and chaos. I don't think that a lot of people around the world would like to endorse this view given how the same organizations and institutions that the author praises are currently operating. Unlike what he thinks, people criticising modernity nowadays, with the exception of a few insane minds like John Zerzan, are not romantic or nostalgic about our past; they are not against cars or telephones, rather, they are against they ways the system works which, as history and anthropology tell us, can be organized in completely different ways, not implying an automatic increase of violence. Pinker identifies violence only with physical acts (rape, murder), and makes statistics in virtue of which he goes on ranking different societies and historical periods. But he forgets the structural and subjective side of it. In fact, a society with a 100 deaths out of 100000 per year could still be a decent place to live while a society with 1 death out of 100000 could be hell. The equation 'less deaths out of 100000=better world' cannot be made. At the end, using a quantitative analysis of violence and leaving aside qualitative aspects of it makes this book quite irrelevant; the arguments you find within do not live up to what its sensationalistic and cheap title would suggest at first.