Monday, April 14, 2014

Does Pinker Show the Bias of a Pro-Western Imperialist, Capitalist, Elitist, and Anti-Communist Ideology?

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson have written one of the most elaborate critiques of Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature.  It's available online as an ebook--Reality Denial: Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence (2012, 144 pages).  A short excerpt from their book has been published as a book review in the International Socialist Review (November-December, 2012).

As Rousseauean leftists, Herman and Peterson believe that our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors in the state of nature lived happily as peaceful egalitarians, but that this happy life was lost with the establishment of a sedentary life based on farming that eventually allowed for the sociopolitical complexity of bureaucratic states that brought all of the evils of modern life: "class structures, divisions of labor and social status, concentrations of wealth and poverty, and hierarchies of power and subordination, including religious and military power structures--all of the sins still very much with us in the modern world" (72).  They must consequently scorn Pinker as a classical liberal ideologue who wants to see a progressive history of declining violence and increasing liberty that began with the transition out of a Hobbesian state of nature among hunter-gatherers and that has culminated in the modern liberal peace.

As one manifestation of Pinker's ideological bias, Herman and Peterson point out that Pinker refuses to recognize that Western capitalist states wage imperial wars of conquest.  They quote Pinker as saying that not only do "democracies avoid disputes with each other," but that they "tend to stay out of disputes across the board," which is called the "Democratic Peace" (Pinker, 283).  They remark: "This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of U.S. assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings and invasions since 1945.  For Pinker, no attack on a lesser power by one or more of the great democracies counts as a real war or confutes the 'Democratic Peace,' no matter how many people die" (Herman and Peterson, 9).

They also quote Pinker as saying: "Among respectable countries, conquest is no longer a thinkable option.  A politician in a democracy today who suggested conquering another country would be met not with counterarguments but with puzzlement, embarrassment, or laughter" (Pinker, 260).  They respond: "This is an extremely silly assertion.  Presumably, when George Bush and Tony Blair sent U.S. and British forces to attack Iraq in 2003, ousted its government, and replaced it with one operating under laws drafted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, this did not count as 'conquest,' as these leaders never stated that they launched the war to 'conquer' Iraq" (Herman and Peterson, 9).

Herman and Peterson don't indicate to their readers that Pinker's comments about the "Democratic Peace" are part of a summary of the research of Bruce Russett and John Oneal (Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations [Norton, 2001]), who used the statistical technique of multiple logistic regression to analyze more than 2,300 militarized interstate disputes between 1816 and 2001, and who concluded "not that democracies never go to war . . ., but that they go to war less often than nondemocracies, all else being equal" (Pinker, 281).  Herman and Peterson don't point out any mistakes in the research of Russett and Oneal.   Indicating that democracies sometimes do fight wars does not refute the claim that they tend to go to war less often.

Pinker's comment that "conquest is no longer a thinkable option" comes in the context of his summary of Mark Zacher's research ("The Territorial Integrity Norm: International Boundaries and the Use of Force," International Organization 55 [2001]: 215-50).  Zacher has shown that since World War Two, there has been an international norm favoring the freezing of national borders.  As compared with previous centuries, the percentage of territorial wars that resulted in a redistribution of territory has dropped dramatically.  The recent international protest against Russia's acquisition of the Crimea is an illustration of this new international norm.  Herman and Peterson don't point out any mistakes in Zacher's research.  Instead, they cite the example of the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British forces in 2003 as a conquest of that country.  But since there has been no change in the national borders of Iraq, it's not clear how this refutes Zacher's work.

Pinker argues that since 1945 there has been a "Long Peace"--the longest period in modern history in which the Great Powers have not fought a war with one another.  Herman and Peterson seem to agree with this, at least partially: "the First and especially the Second World War had taught them that with their advancing and life-threatening means of self-destruction, they could not go on playing their favorite game of mutual slaughter any longer.  But this didn't prevent them from carrying out numerous and deadly wars against the Third World, which filled-in the great-power war-gap nicely."  And, furthermore, the Long Peace is "increasingly threatened by a Western elite-instigated global class war and a permanent-war system" (92).  Herman and Peterson claim that Pinker ignores the "increasing structural violence of a global class war," in which capitalist nations have created a global economic system that allows them to exploit the poor nations (11, 62, 75).

According to Herman and Peterson, Pinker ignores the "structural violence" inherent in global capitalism because of his pro-capitalist and anti-communist bias.  An example of this is what he says about Mao Zedong's responsibility for the Great Famine during China's Great Leap Forward (1958-1961).  They quote Pinker as saying that "Mao masterminded . . . famine that killed between 20 million and 30 million people" (Pinker, 331).  For Pinker this shows the evil in communist ideology, because Mao's communism was responsible for the second worst atrocity in human history (second only to World War Two).  But Herman and Peterson insist that while Mao made a few mistakes, his communist policies were generally successful in improving the lives of the masses, and that life in China has become much worse under the influence of the capitalist reforms in China that began in 1979.

They write:
"China's death rate increased after 1979, with the surge of capitalist reforms and the associated sharp reduction in public medical services.  A recent review of China's past and current demographic trends showed that its rate of death was higher in 2010 than in 1982, and that the greatest declines in mortality occurred well prior to the reforms, with a national decline occurring even during the decade that included the famine (1953-1964)."
"So Pinker misrepresents the truths at a number of levels in dealing with the Chinese starvation episode.  He avoids the need to reconcile allegedly deliberate starvation deaths with a prior and continuous Chinese state policy of helping the masses by simply not discussing the subject.  He ignores the evidence that policy failure and ignorance rather than murderous intent was the source of those deaths.  He fails to mention the rise in mortality rates under the post-Mao new capitalist order." (60)

The reference here to a "recent review" of Chinese demographic trends is to an article by Xizhe Peng ("China's Demographic History and Future Challenges," Science 333 (29 July 2011): 581-87).  Herman and Peterson do not note Peng's warning that "there are widespread concerns in the scientific community regarding the quality of some of these population data" (581).  They are also silent about his statement that "the period 1959-1961 witnessed an exceptional demographic fluctuation mainly attributable to the great famine, with more than 20 million excess deaths" (581).

It is true, as they say, that Peng reports a slight increase in the death rate (per 1,000) from 6.6 in 1982 to 7.1 in 2010.  But what they don't say is that Peng reports that the death rate after 1979 was much less than in 1953 (14.0) or 1964 (11.6).  Furthermore, they are silent about Peng's reporting that life expectancy has been increasing and illiteracy has been declining since the capitalist reforms began in 1979.

Herman and Peterson quote from Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (Hunger and Public Action [Oxford, 1989]) in explaining the Great Famine.  But they are silent about the judgment of Dreze and Sen that after 1979 "there is little doubt that the Chinese economy has surged ahead in response to market incentives, and the agricultural sector has really had--at long last--a proper 'leap forward'" (215).

Herman and Peterson are also silent about the growing evidence in recent years as to the brutality of the Great Famine and Mao's responsibility for it.  Based upon archival material in China that has only recently been opened to study, Frank Dikotter (in Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrope, 1958-1962 [Walker Publishing, 2010] concludes that at least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962, and "the widespread view that these deaths were the unintended consequence of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs" is wrong.  He explains:
"As the fresh evidence presented in this book demonstrates, coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.  Thanks to the often meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that between 1958 and 1962 by a rough approximation 6 to 8 per cent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed--amounting to at least 2.5 million people.  Other victims were deliberately deprived of food and starved to death. . . . People were killed selectively because they were rich, because they dragged their feet, because they spoke out or simply because they were not liked" (xi).
Furthermore, Dikotter observes: "We know that Mao was the key architect of the Great Leap Forward, and thus bears the main responsibility for the catastrophe that followed.  he had to work hard to push through his vision, bargaining, cajoling, goading, occasionally tormenting or persecuting colleagues" (xiii).   He also concludes that "the catastrophe unleashed at the time stands as a reminder of how profoundly misplaced is the idea of state planning as an antidote to chaos" (xii).

This is a critical issue for Pinker's argument because his claim is that it's classical liberal thought that promotes declining violence, and that most of the atrocious violence of the 20th century was due to the illiberal regimes led by three individuals--Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.  Matthew White has calculated that the total death toll from communism in the 20th century is around 70 million, which would make the communist movement responsible for the greatest atrocity in human history (The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, Norton, 2012, pp. 453-57).

To make their case against Pinker, Herman and Peterson would have to demonstrate that this is not true.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Loons. They can go back to being hunter gatherers any time they want.