In ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’ the Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker explained why, in his opinion, even the worst state is better than no state at all, or anarchy. He explains why he believes that violence – both criminal and military – has steadily decreased over the millennia. According to him we’re living today in almost paradisical non-violent times.
Nevertheless there are dark sides to these paradisical times, such as “the world’s greatest cataclysm,” the Second World War, which, according to Pinker, “one man was mostly responsible for,” namely Adolf Hitler. “But Hitler was not the only tyrant whose obsessions killed tens of millions” is a reference to Stalin and Mao. The context of this assertion is Pinker’s thesis that the timing and magnitude of wars are largely random. So could the 20th-century blood bath “have been some kind of fluke?” It is easy to see why Pinker would like to attribute the cruelties, mass murders and wars associated with the names of Stalin, Hitler and Mao to the coincidence of isolated sick psyches: if one wants to maintain that Leviathan has a fundamentally pacifying effect, these events must not arise from the principle or structure of the state. Pinker assumes that statehood, when unreservedly recognized by all citizens as valid, will drive the development toward less violence. To analyse the causes of the orgies of violence of statehood in the 20th century would bring him face to face with the fact that there are mechanisms in Leviathan that lead to a relapse into barbarism.
Nevertheless, with the few words quoted above, Pinker shoots himself in the foot, even if you don’t doubt their message per se. For the question arises as to how it is possible for sick, bloodthirsty psyches, such as Stalin, Hitler and Mao, to assume leadership of a supposedly pacifying state and, against the will of the people, maintain their cruel rule, as well as dragging neighboring countries into disaster. There must be a danger in the framework of the state principle, a susceptibility to relapse into barbarism. If, in fact, “only one European really wanted war,” namely Hitler, the following question arises: Why did the people give in to their leader’s clearly sick will, which was unanimously rejected by them? Why did they give up their own will? Here we soon encounter obedience. This however is the key principle of all statehood. Disobedience, insubordination and counter-violence are unknown quantities to Pinker; he simply subsumes them all under violence.
Insofar as Hitler 1) was an individual perpetrator, and 2) evidently committed an injustice that killed or otherwise harmed millions of people in his own country, as well as in other countries, at what point in time would opposition to the state he was leading have been legitimate, and not an act of violence? If resistance against the state isn’t allowed, how on earth will the state become less violent?
While with Hobbes the initial agreement to create a state is a voluntary act of a sovereign people, living in a natural pre-state condition, to avert the violent death in a war of all against all, Pinker admits: “It’s not that any early state was (as Hobbes theorized) a commonwealth vested with power by a social contract that had been negotiated by its citizens. Early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other.” The ahistorical image of the mafia being the first sovereigns is revealing. Who would ever claim that the mafia is actually providing security for those from whom it is extorting protection money? Who would ever claim that those who were blackmailed into paying protection money by the mafia have no right to resist? That they, in addition, would fall back into the ‘barbarity’ and ‘anarchy’ of war of all against all, if they were able to shake off the yoke of their tormentors? In Pinker’s statistics, such a resistance would only indicate an increase in the level of violence.
Unlike Pinker, Hobbes definitely perceived this paradox. The presumed, notional voluntary agreement follows from that rational calculation that, in the natural state, we are threatened by violent death; the social contract would therefore be annulled precisely at the moment when the institutions founded by it threaten the life or freedom of a contracting party. To be slaughtered or otherwise damaged can happen just as easily to anyone in the feared, notional state of nature. As soon as the state itself acts violently against the individual, the rational argument for being loyal is forfeited. In this case, war – or violence – is not a consequence of the natural state, but a product of the state order. The community no longer protects the individual, so, with regard to the state, he or she returns to the natural state.
However, even Pinker can't do without the category of resistance. He keeps attributing the decrease in violence, both of murder in the private sphere and of the death penalty, war and genocide to the statist sphere, to statehood. But the factors which he then lists in detail are mostly movements that are directed against state authority. He even seems to endorse a revolution, the American one, which was a rebellion against the legal order and, above all, ended in a drastic reduction of state power.
Thomas Hobbes’ ideal image, according to which people establish a peaceful ‘community’ to overcome the catastrophic anarchic ‘natural state,’ can’t be empirically proven and Pinker doesn’t even attempt to do so. With how much brutality the state authorities proceeded (and continue to do so in large parts of the world, even in Pinker’s idealizing description) fills many pages of Pinker’s book. And now the question is, what mechanism causes the unlimited, omnipotent state, Leviathan, to reduce its power?
Pinker’s response regarding the mechanism of violence reduction is along the lines of the theory of a progressive civilizing process. If we don’t assume that the development towards less violence, based on statehood as such, is automatic and works apart from the consciousness of those involved, this development must be forced upon the state from outside, and wrested from it through resistance. In Pinker’s discussion of the current, trend-bucking, rising ‘murder rates,’ he remarks that countries like “Russia and South Africa may have undergone decivilizing processes in the wake of the collapse of their former governments”. This statement is consistent with Pinker’s Leviathan theory, but the question arises as to whether the Russians and the other peoples constituting the USSR should have clung on to the USSR in order to avoid the process of decivilisation.
Later, Pinker reasons: “Just as the uptick in civil warfare arose from the decivilizing anarchy of decolonization, the recent decline [of violence] may reflect a recivilizing process in which competent governments have begun to protect and serve their citizens rather than preying on them. Many African nations have traded in their Bokassa-style psychopaths for responsible democrats and, in the case of Nelson Mandela, one of history’s greatest statesmen.”
It is worth reading carefully here, because the argumentation, which at first glance appears to be consistent with Leviathan's theory, is now moving rapidly towards its sudden collapse:
Pinker assumes the colonial period to be a ‘civilizing process’ (otherwise it could not be followed by decivilization), including all the atrocities and genocides committed by the colonial powers.
The post-colonial period, during which the states led by Africans – some of which lived at the mercy of former colonial powers, while others emerged from revolutionary violence – ruled within the borders created by the colonial powers, he characterizes as ‘anarchist.’
It seems to be quite possible that psychopaths will come to power in the states. How can this be prevented? How can they be ‘replaced’ without initiating ‘decivilization?’ Because according to Pinker’s Leviathan theory, every delegitimization of the state inevitably increases violence. Pinker perceives the connection to be so close that not only the major state upheavals (such as the disintegration of the USSR) lead to an increase in violence, but also the ‘delegitimization’ of state power and of cleanliness by the US American hippies in the 1960s.
Nelson Mandela did not ‘replace’ Bokassa, but removed the South African apartheid system, upon whose collapse there followed a multiplication of the homicide rate; even today the rate is higher than during apartheid.
As a central example of his Leviathan theory, Pinker cites the !Kung. The !Kung are part of the San tribe, formerly known as the Kalahari bushmen. They are considered to be particularly peaceful; it is said that they do not wage war. Pinker states that before the !Kung were put under state control, there was a high internal ‘murder rate,’ which had dropped after the ‘pacification’ by the Leviathan, but which was still comparatively high.
Let's take a closer look at the issue with the !Kung. The !Kung are so important for Pinker because they were praised as a ‘harmless’ people. It seems as though the thesis of a peaceful primordial anarchy would be over, if the ‘myth’ of ‘harmlessness’ among the !Kung could be exposed. However, Richard Lee, on whose field research the calculation of the homicide rate is based, expressly states that among the !Kung, which he too describes as altogether friendly and cooperative, the homicide rate is extraordinarily high. So why not use the lower rates of other anarchic ethnic groups for a comparison with Leviathan? Incidentally, for a long time it was legal to hunt the San bushmen. The last hunting permit was issued by the pacifying and violence-reducing Leviathan in 1936. This means that until then the killing of a San by a white man was not considered an offense (and was therefore not included in the murder statistics).
Pinker classifies the ‘murders’ committed between 1920 and 1955 among the !Kung – which were mostly not murders, but killings to enforce the law – as ‘before state control.’ But the fact that an ethnic group is not yet subject to colonial administration does not mean that it was not exposed to any influence deriving from colonisation. Limited living space, displacement into ecologically worse areas, as well as hunts with partly genocidal character by the colonial rulers, and – possibly – armed resistance of the threatened ethnicity, often also foster a problematic change within society. Since conflicts between the ethnic groups of the nomads are normally settled by the departure of the inferior side, colonial repression and the restriction of living space even leads to an increase in the risk of inter-ethnic violent clashes when there is no more room for evasion.
Since Cape Town was founded in 1652, the San, to which the !Kung belong, have repeatedly been harassed and persecuted by the Dutch governors. Pinker builds on reports by “German-speaking anthropologists,” who describe the !Kung, contrary to their peaceful reputation as “very warlike, with frequent raids and battles.” The reports date back to 1916, thus after more than 250 years of colonial hardship, during which the San were almost exterminated. But that’s not all, from 1912 to 1915 there was also a large-scale massacre among the San, caused by the German colonial administration. Whether the ethnologists drew the picture of the warlike San because they wanted to lend ideological support to the colonial administration, or whether they were not able to recognize the effects of an extermination campaign on internal social structures, is undecided.
And although the San did not put up much resistance against their colonization, but rather tried to evade it wherever possible, Pinker holds their resistance against them as proof of their natural inclination to violence: “The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert, who in the 1960s were extolled as a paradigm of hunter-gatherer harmony, in earlier centuries had engaged in frequent warfare with colonists, their Bantu neighbors, and one another.” On the other hand, a study from 2016 concludes that intentional killings in the area of today's Kalahari were “rare” in pre-colonial times. There is good reason for not quantifying it precisely.
South Africa, writes Steven Pinker, is the prime example of reconciliation after a civil war. “The prototype of reconciliation after a civil conflict is South Africa. Invoking the Xhosa concept of ubuntu or brotherhood, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu instituted a system of restorative rather than retributive justice to heal the country after decades of violent repression and rebellion under the apartheid regime.” This is a remarkable and unexpected statement from Pinker in three respects.
To begin with, Nelson Mandela was one of the rebels, and then for decades was imprisoned for his conviction by a Leviathan, the legitimacy of which he dismantled massively. He certainly isn’t any good as a key witness to Hobbes’ theory, that only an unquestioned legitimacy accorded to the state can guarantee security and order. If one considers him to be “one of history’s greatest statesmen,” as Pinker does, there must be legitimacy for a state outside its constitution. It cannot legitimise itself, not even by saying that it is reducing the level of social violence.
After the collapse of the apartheid regime, the level of violence in South Africa increased rather than declined. This is precisely what the Leviathan theory predicts, and Pinker has cited South Africa as an empirical example of its evidence. Thus, according to Pinker, there seem to be other criteria for the legitimacy of a state and the healing of a society than just a low level of violence. What are these criteria? And how important are they, in relation to one another?
The Xhosa, who were the originators of the reconciliation principle presented here as exemplary, were a non-state society. The Leviathan theory, which Pinker otherwise follows, describes such societies as inherently violent and incapable of reconciliation. But can we still learn something from them in terms of peace?
At no point in Pinker’s book do we find a description of what distinguishes a ‘non-state’ or ‘anarchist’ society in contrast to a state-constituted one.
Characteristic of the pre-state period is family solidarity. It has been researched predominantly by Anglo-Saxon social anthropologists. Their program consisted of describing foreign cultures not by superimposing their own terminology of social and political processes, but of understanding these from their own structures. Since anthropologists assumed that the social cohesion of a society was necessarily guaranteed by domination, the researchers asked societies without a state about their alternative structures and mechanisms. They came to the conclusion that these societies are not ordered by the relationship to a central authority (‘chief,’ king, council, state, etc.), but are divided into ‘segments’ by their kinship systems. Everyone is somehow related to everyone in the tribe. In disputes – be it a matter of whether someone has stolen a cow from someone else, or whether someone feels unjustifiably dominated by another – equally strong ‘segments’ always face each other (‘segmental opposition’). In other words, if a group is in danger of losing, more relatives rush to their aid in such a number until they are equal to their opponents. Since everyone is related to everyone else, this means in extreme cases that if a group is threatened with defeat, such relatives from the superior group who have sufficient kinship with the inferior group ‘swap sides.’ The segmental opposition thus functions because in every conflict segments of equal strength enter into ‘opposition’ to one another. Therefore, it is impossible for one segment to conquer and permanently subjugate another, because the victim side receives help from other relatives as long as it can credibly present itself as a victim. This basic principle also leads to the conclusion that the segmental opposition is limited to defence.
There are tribal societies that are in constant conflict on the basis of this principle of segmental opposition. Such disputes, however, do not lead to the development of stable political hierarchies and a state structure of dominance of one group. Many of these societies, however, develop an additional institution that then keeps the disputes within limits. Because no one within segmental opposition can ‘win’ in a conflict, this results in a strong motivation to have conflicts peacefully resolved by mediation specialists. These specialists are the original ‘judges.’ Their authority is based on experience, competence and age, not violence.
The ‘judges,’ or better: conciliators and mediators, remain part of the segmental organization of their society; they are an institution, but not a central institution. They have no power to impose their sentence. Their task is to convince the conflicting partners and to reach a result acceptable to all parties involved. If they decided unilaterally, the victim would receive help from his relatives, who would also have to stand up to the judge in case of need. Therefore, a ‘judge’ can never attain a dominant position. The legal historian Uwe Wesel puts it quite simply: “In pre-state societies, crimes lead to penance, which is agreed upon, or to self-help or revenge.”
The theory of ‘regulated anarchy’ by ethnologist Christian Sigrist, based on social anthropology, interprets segmental societies in terms of intention. According to Sigrist, the intention of the policy of segmental opposition is resistance. His theory: By means of political resistance segmental societies deliberately prevent the emergence of domination.
According to Sigrist, segmental societies are supported by the self-confidence of wanting a very specific form of socialization. In other words, in segmental societies it is not because these societies are not yet sufficiently differentiated and developed that domination is ‘missing’ as in deficit; rather, they choose powerlessness and consciously stick to it.
Segmental opposition is the basis of resistance to domination. The legal principles still in force today are solidarity and support for relatives and victims. Reparation (restitution and compensation) as a yardstick for settling conflicts with a preference for peaceful settlement. Individual attribution of actions combined with the problem of provability (usually through testimony). This makes clear which legal concept is also becoming the yardstick for the state. Even Hegel, who doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an anarchist, sees in his ‘Rechtsphilosophie’ the law of the family, property and treaties as a yardstick positioned upstream of the state.
In non-governmental societies, authority refers to all the ‘domestic entities,’ a term Sigrist uses, which is characterized by voluntary allegiance. Secession remains possible. According to Sigrist, domination, on the other hand, describes ‘public conditions of power.’ It commands an ‘enforcement staff,’ i.e. specialized (armed) forces that intervene when obedience is denied. That is why pre-state segmental societies are ethnologically called ‘acephalous’ – ‘without a center.’
On the one hand, the segmental, acephalous societies are stable over many millennia, and on the other hand, they’re vulnerable to ongoing armed conflicts with outsiders. Internal conflicts can usually be effectively limited; in sporadic conflicts they quickly return to normality. In the case of ongoing conflicts, there is a tendency to train specialized warriors with a permanent command structure.
To the emergence of the state, which according to Steven Pinker is responsible for the greatest reduction in violence among people, he dedicates not even an entire page of his book’s 1,000 pages. “Some five thousand years ago, when sedentary farmers first coalesced into cities and states and developed the first governments”. Cities – states – governments: Are they the same or at least similar structures or do these terms indicate something that needs to be distinguished in each case? The formulation, the peasants “coalesced,” sounds like the original Hobbes, sounds like consensus and unanimity. Later “the tribes sometimes merged into chiefdoms, which head a centralized leader and a permanent entourage supporting him.” That is, according to Pinker. The formulation that tribes merged presupposes an almost ‘organic’ process that takes place in a sea of confluence; it does not even require communication, let alone a treaty. The centralized leader's entourage is not an enforcement staff – it does not exert terror, does not spread fear and dread, but is “supporting” the leader.
However: “It’s not that any early state was (as Hobbes theorized) a commonwealth vested with power by a social contract that had been negotiated by its citizens. Early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other. Any ensuing reduction in violence benefited the overlords as much as the protectees. Just as a farmer tries to prevent his animals from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding that just shuffle resources or settle scores among them but from his point of view are a dead loss.”
A remarkable statement from a Hobbesian. So now, no one has “coalesced,” the governments didn’t “develop,” the tribes didn’t “merge” into chiefdoms, the entourage doesn’t “support” the Mafiosi leader, but “extorts resources,” and has become an enforcement staff. Not only that, but the “Mafiosi” also seem to be a stranger to the “locals.” The chief or president did not develop from the local tribal leader.
Pinker’s hidden suggestion, that the head of the emerging state is a stranger, is the key to understanding the origin of the state. The resistance organized by ‘segmented opposition’ effectively prevents the emergence of a central authority with enforcement staff within an ethnic group. Conflicts between two ethnic groups are resolved by the departure of the inferior, unless other solutions are found. If such a departure is not, or is only insufficiently, feasible, this makes it possible for the superior ethnic group to impose on the inferior group a condition of permanent tribute payments. For this purpose, specialized persons are required to claim the tribute if it is denied. This is the origin of the enforcement staff (the police, so to speak).
The departure of an inferior party in the conflict can be limited, for example, by geographical circumstances. However, a state did not emerge in every case where conditions of confinement combined with population and food pressure existed. At least some surplus production and storage must have developed, so that tributes could be paid. This is why the establishment of permanent, organized domination is necessarily linked to agricultural production.
And the sedentariness that accompanies agriculture is probably the most effective limitation to moving away. There is indeed no known case of the appearance of a state before the Neolithic Revolution. Also, the Neolithic Revolution of about 12,000 years ago did not immediately lead to the emergence of a state. However, there are frequent archeological finds from that time that suggest violent conflicts. But it was only five to six thousand years ago that the first (primary) states emerged. For a long time, therefore, nomads and farmers were able for the most part to coexist peacefully. War is the imperative, but not in itself sufficient condition for the emergence of a state.
Sedentariness and production linked to it through agriculture and livestock farming, together with stockpiling, favor occasions in which nomadic bands attack farmers. The progression from sporadic attacks to the establishment of a permanent, as it were orderly exploitative relationship is the origin of the state; it is what Pinker casually calls the mafia structure of the first states. Franz Oppenheimer formulated this theory of the state as conquest or subjugation – depending on which way you look at the matter. However, it hasn’t been maintained in the manner formulated by Oppenheimer. Right from the start, it wasn't always the nomads who were always victorious. Farmers who lived in larger groups and understood how to produce tools (thus potential weapons) and had practiced close cooperation, were sometimes able to defend themselves.
But defending oneself has its price. To avoid abandoning the fields and herds for too long, it is advisable to equip specialized warriors with weapons and to feed them. Defensive battles favor the development of a military hierarchy. Sometimes a foreign leader is called to organize the resistance. In short, the segmental opposition is beginning to lose its balance and an early form of feudalism is emerging. I propose calling this form of state formation an ‘internal conquest’ in contrast to Oppenheimer's external conquest.
The theory of state formation I have presented doesn’t assume that the emergence of states is a coincidence or accident of history, nor that it happens automatically. But with increasing population size and sedentariness, segmental resistance becomes an increasingly blunt weapon against subjugation and oppression. Nevertheless, it continues to live on as the basis of social self-regulation, and of law and justice perceived as natural. It has taken about seven thousand bloody years from the first appearance of the state principle to its full implementation today. Above all, my anti-Pinker theory of state formation does not assume that the state was structurally or functionally necessary to advance people's economic and cultural development.
Primal anarchy failed because of its internal limitations. It didn’t fail because it can’t functionally organize social life at a higher level of integration and cooperation, but because its mechanism of preventing the emergence of domination through resistance is limited to a family network. Once a state had emerged, primal anarchy could no longer bundle enough force to successfully defend itself over the millennia. In order to regain a perspective for freedom and peace, a new anarchy is needed, expressed, as I see it, through the concept of anarcho-capitalism.
Editor's note: On 22nd September 2016, the author of this article was interviewed by Tom Woods about this subject (listen here: 'Has the State Reduced Violence?').