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Keywords:

  • violence;
  • progress;
  • ideology;
  • capitalism;
  • the Enlightenment;
  • Marxism;
  • Communism;
  • Nicolas de Condorcet;
  • Norbert Elias;
  • Michel Foucault;
  • Francis Fukuyama;
  • Christopher Lasch;
  • Robert Muchembled;
  • Georges Sorel

ABSTRACT

Condorcet's classical Enlightenment statement of human progress became an essential element of nineteenth- and twentieth-century consciousness, but by the millennium grand narratives had fallen victim to a disillusioned cultural climate. Now Steven Pinker, like Condorcet drawing on a wide range of contemporary “knowledges,” has reasserted a sweeping narrative of human progress in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Mapping a spectacular long-term decline in person-on-person violence and reduction in deaths due to war, Pinker celebrates the spread of a cultural pattern of self-restraint, sensitivity to human suffering, and recent regard for human rights, due to the modern state and gentle commerce capitalism.

For Pinker the human condition has gotten steadily better, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible. Why then are so many so negative about modernity? Citing the psychology of temporal proximity to horrific events and the bad-news predilection of the media, Pinker ignores the specifically modern and less directly brutal institutionalized forms of violence as well as the profound ambivalence of progress. He decisively demonstrates the drop in certain kinds of violence, but his account becomes strangely ideological, recapitulating key Cold-War themes—the individual against totalitarianism, the Enlightenment against the counter-Enlightenment, rationalism and freedom against murderous utopianism—distorting his study in the name of gentle commerce, Marxism, and anti-Communism.