The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Is Declining Violence Only A Good Thing?

Stephen Pinker, in 2011, for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article on the decline of violence, arguing that it has been decreasing for thousands of years for a number of reasons, including the rise of states.  Pre-state periods had a lot of violence (15% according to Pinker.)  This sweeps a lot of pre-history into the basket (violence was not that high when humans were far below carrying capacity), but I’m willing to grant the point for the sake of argument.

What I want to say is something different: the decline of violence due to repression has a price.  To be sure, a subject of the Pharoahs was much less likely to be killed by their neighbour.  But they had a vastly increased incidence of disease, worked far longer hours, lost their teeth by the time they were 40, were forced to labor for their overlords and not allowed to keep much of the proceeds of their own labor, almost certainly died more frequently in childbirth, and didn’t live as long if they avoided a death by violence.

The power of the state is, as Pinker notes, used to reduce violence so that assets useful to the state (people) are not destroyed.  But the state’s primary means of reducing violence is that it is much better at violence than individuals or small groups.  People put up with living conditions and political conditions they would not put up with if they had recourse to violence.  (They also don’t get as involved in feuds and so on, which is a good thing.)

This is visible even in very recent history in the United States.  Everyone likes to go on about how violence was reduced in the United States from the 80s on, or so.

So was equality.  This is not unrelated.  The more powerful the means of repression, the less violence there will be

That doesn’t mean that reductions in violence always mean reductions in equality.  But all other things being equal, a reduction in the capacity for non state/government/chieftain violence will generally lead to a reduction of equality, and that loss of equality will lead to an increase in other types of suffering (inequality is correlated with everything bad from heart attacks to depression, even controlling for objective material possessions.)

I will also note two other things, though there is much more one could note about incidental deaths from things like famines and pogroms.

The old Chinese maxim of “too soon to tell” applies.  Our capacity for murder is so great now that all it would take is one world war to erase all the gains.

Second: we have displaced the death to the natural world.  We may not be killing each other, but we are creating a great die-off.  A lot of non-humans are dying for our peace.

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So, the Separatists are now on the offensive in the Ukraine


The Venezuela edition of “imports will kill’ya”


  1. sanctimonious purist


  2. Czan

    I wonder if physical violence is being traded off against less visible forms of violence. Rates of stress-related illness and mental illness seem to be skyrocketing even as measures of physical violence decline.

    The water in a pressure-cooker can become scalding hot long before it comes to a boil.

  3. Czan

    On reflection it might make more sense to talk about physical aggression (i.e. violence) vs. other forms of aggression.

    So the problem with Pinker’s thesis is that he’s focusing on the rate of violence, and tacitly making it a proxy for the rate of aggression. It’s similar to tacitly using inflation as a proxy for changes in purchasing power in the context of a deflationary economic environment where the two have come unlinked.

  4. Czan

    On even further reflection the word “aggression” has also become rather fraught lately…feh, a language so polluted with sophistries can make trying to express even even the simplest thought into a nightmare.

  5. Formerly T-Bear

    We are now looking to the WSJ for verities? DoG help the f**ls.

  6. The state also reduces violence by convincing the people that their living and political conditions are good–or could be in the future, when all things are possible.

    If you want to control a few people you raise a fist. If you want to control a country you raise an army. If you want people to control themselves you convince them that obedience is freedom and poverty is self-inflicted.

  7. anonymouscoward

    Or maybe, just maybe being strongly anti-crime should have been an original position of the LEFT, instead of allowing the right to capture an issue that actually mattered a great deal to the people’s perception of their quality of life? Hmmm…

    Nah, can’t alienate the rock slinging, car-jacker vote!

  8. Czan

    Indeed, Joseph Stalin was such a bleeding heart softie it just drove all the moderates away, anonymouse. Robspierre was a notoriously lenient fellow too.

  9. markfromireland

    I’d express it somewhat differently ” the decline of violence due to repression has consequences – everything has consequences and the decline of violence due to repression is no exception to this”,

    “I will also note two other things, though there is much more one could note about incidental deaths from things like famines and pogroms” and then there’s sanctions, how much Ian do you want to bet that within the USA the use of internal sanctions will increase side-by-side with the militarisation of their law enforcement?


  10. Dan Lynch

    re: “So was equality. This is not unrelated. The more powerful the means of repression, the less violence there will be.”

    Hmmm ….. I think I disagree.

    Violent crime *usually* correlates to inequality. Countries with low inequality (Japan, Scandinavia) have less violent crime than countries with high inequality (U.S., Mexico).

    However, the US has been an exception to that rule for the past 20 or 30 years. Why is that? Ian says it is due to increase authority & repression.

    But there is plenty of repression in Mexico and yet parts of Mexico are very violent. So I reject Ian’s hypothesis.

    I say the recent decline in violent crime is due to aging baby boomers. Old people do not commit as many violent crimes as young people.

    Another theory is that the decline is due to the removal of lead in gas and paint. I’m not sure that I believe that, but it’s worth considering.

    If my theory about the baby boomer effect is correct, then violence should soon bottom out and pick back up as boomers fade from the scene and the friction of inequality takes its toll on society.

    Unless drugs are decriminalized, in which case expect the homicide rate to plummet.

  11. Czan

    It should also be pointed out that the connection between a repressive justice system and low crime is far from straightforward, and the idea that the former is a necessary condition for the latter is a fallacy.

    A truly breathtaking example of the doublethink some right-wingers are capable of on this subject can be found in Jack Seward’s The Japanese. He makes an extensive comparison of U.S. and Japanese police practices, contrasting the scrupulous respect for proper procedure and civil liberties in Japan with the near-lawless attitude of police in America, and he observes that crime rates in Japan is are miniscule fraction of those in America.

    And what does Seward conclude from this? That the blame for America’s high crime rates can be laid at the feet of civil libertarians, whose idealistic niggling about civil rights has tied the hands of American police.

  12. cripes

    An interesting find when I was searching for “mortality by income level.”

    Shockingly, but not surprisingly, recent decades have shown a growing differential in life expectancy for male adults:

    “For example, at age 60 and birth year 1912 only 1.2 more years of expected life separated the bottom half of the earnings distribution from the top half; by birth year 1941, that difference had increased to 5.8 years. Additionally, by reading across the rows for those projected to survive to age 60, one can see that over the 29 birth cohorts examined, the bottom half of the distribution is projected to gain 1.9 years of life (19.6 years minus 17.7 years), while the top half of the distribution is projected to gain 6.5 years of life.”

    Also, the authors draw the conclusion that the action required in this circumstance is to raise the retirement rate, or increase the penalty for early retirement.

    I wonder what the differential is for men in the 18-30 bracket? Or those without substantial SS earnings history? Between the first and tenth decile?
    In any case, it’s bad, and growing worse. Income disparity.
    In related news, white women are dying earlier than their mothers, especially those with high school level education or less.
    Job creators, indeed. For the funeral directors.

  13. scruff

    Beyond even aggression, perhaps it would be better to view the issue in terms of completed acts of violence vs incomplete acts of violence, aka threats. I have this thought every time I see pictures of some “peacekeeping” force carrying automatic weapons and decked out in full body armor. What they enforce *is not peace*, but submission. Same with the Hong Kong protests that were ended recently, Everyone was all gaga over how the end was peaceful, but it wasn’t peaceful at all, it was merely submissive.

    From Derrick Jensen’s Endgame:

    Premise Four: Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.

  14. V. Arnold

    Depends on how one defines violence; I posit we live in one of the most violent countries/societies in the world.
    Police violence, political violence, economic violence, racial violence, class violence, military violence, educational violence, violence against women, violence of religion, diplomatic/foreign policy violence and the violence of poverty.
    We’re violent by our very nature…

  15. Ian Welsh

    The Mexican government is BAD at repression. If they were good, they would not have lost control of huge parts of the country. Not a counter-example.

    The Scandinavian countries have huge labor unions. The implicit capacity for violence if their interests are violated is immense.

    Capacity for violence is what matters, not violence itself.

    (There are actually counter-examples. Capacity for violence is only one variable, but it is more important that most left-wingers want to believe.)

  16. markfromireland

    @ Ian

    Capacity for violence is only one variable, but it is more important that most left-wingers want to believe.

    Oh man, ain’t that the truth. It’s the nature of the beast (which from my POV as an opponent to left-wingers is a good thing).


  17. Ian Welsh

    It hasn’t always been the case. The commune, say, was more than willing. Early unions, even into the 50s, were very good at violence. I’m forgetting the exact incident, but in the 30s during FDR’s presidency in one major met center the main union and the cops went to it, with mobile command centers and so on. FDR kept the Feds out of it. The union won.

    I’m no military man, but the weaknesses of the police in the N. America these days are glaring. I know exactly how I’d suck them in and pull their teeth, they are tediously predictable, frightened for their own safety, and have the tactical and strategic flexibility of slugs.

  18. V. Arnold

    To answer your original question; declining violence can be a bad thing.
    The violence you describe is the result of repression and the violence needed is to fight that very repression.
    Violence is, in and of itself, abhorrent; but violence as a means to an end is justified if that end is freedom from tyranny.
    I hate these philosophical arguments and prefer a more immediate and pragmatic approach; do what must be done to get the fairest result for the majority.

  19. I suspect the left knows that power does not exist without the threat of force to back it up. They use verbal force to keep the “leftists” in line. They say that physical violence against the economic elite will result in fascism which reveals that they know they have only as much freedom as their leaders let them have.

    The people who are profiting or hope to profit from the current system do not want to overthrow it. People who depend on their political party for a sense of purpose, belonging and ego-gratification will never give it up. People who are afraid that their family will suffer from violence and social upheaval will never act against the people in power.

  20. Proletarian

    I read Pinker’s full book that article summarizes (“The Better Angels of Our Nature”) and found it disappointing and unconvincing. It was strangely naive and parochial about the “civilizing” virtues of capitalism and modern European culture. For contrast, I read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” immediately afterward, and I think he is much closer to the mark. Mass surveillance and mass incarceration have strengthened the panopticon state to a terrifying degree, and mass media reinforces their control even more broadly, because it leaves most people isolated, passive, and afraid.

    I’m glad you mentioned in the comments about the role of unions in this topic. To the degree that people in the U.S. know anything about unions and labor history, it is a very sanitized version that mainly focuses on signing union cards, conducting NLRB elections, and occasionally holding signs in an nonthreatening manner. That’s not how anything was accomplished in the late 19th century or the first half of the 20th century, when all the most important gains were made. It’s the same thing with the civil rights movement, where we only give attention to MLK and his commitment to nonviolence, as if the more militant leaders and groups or the eruption of riots had no role in effecting change.

  21. Lisa FOS

    Pinter’s ‘argument’: “….decline of violence, arguing that it has been decreasing for thousands of years for a number of reasons,…”????

    Strikes me as ‘selective statistics’ which I personally struggle to accept. At its core this is a neo-con argument, the State is prepared to use overwhelming violence, hence (somehow) overall violence is now lower.

    Take the US prison rate, anyone deny that there is serious violence within the US prison system (inmate to inmate, guard to inmate)? Pinter’s ‘argument’ is that this is a success, but all you have done is, at best, move violence…more likely you have actually increased it.

    The best argument I have seen about, overall, declining inter-societal violence in western countries (ie murder and serious violence rates) declining is ending lead in petrol…though given increasing poverty in all western countries I expect this to start rising again.

    The only explanation that makes any sense about large scale state to state violence (on a WW1 or WW2 scale) ending is nuclear weapons. But multiple, smaller, state to state violence has increased markedly over the last 20 years or so (including state sponsered ‘terrorism’).

    Then there is indirect violence, the classic being the sanctions on Iraq (pre invasion), which is also increasing. Are there any countries not under some sort of US sanctions? Australia is for example, the crushing limitations now on our scientific research because of US forced (and sadly Aus Govt agreed) ‘defence’ secrecy agreements is criminal.

    What has happened to Greece can be seen as another form of ‘sanctions’, economic warfare where a lot of people die. Increasingly western elites are at war with their own populations, heck of a lot of deaths there (through lost years of life), which will increase.

    As an instructive example, Australian Aborigines have been under intensive social, political, economic and state violence attacks forever. You add up the people directly killed and those lost years of life they have suffered because of that and that’s a fair scale war going on all the time.

    Even the nuclear weapon thing as a deterrent has a mixed record. We have come to so close to gigadeath at least twice (62 and 83) and almost certainly another few times, that the record is still out on that especially given the US’s curent (and stated) desire to destroy another nuclear armed state (Russia). If the nukes start flying and billions die, then Pinker’s argument is shot to blazes, all that has happened is deferred violence for a short time.

    Here is the sad and terrible thing, a heck of a lot of humans (especially young males and increasingly these days the older ‘elites’) like to apply violence* and will use it if they can get away with it. Only deterence and intensive social programming reduces that. If that fails then it takes on a life of its own and people start enjoying it (well unless they are losing that is). Within nearly all of us is a murdering bully, barbarism is just one small step away.

    * To take an extreme but simple example, CIA torture. Now if just 10%, heck even 5%, of CIA employees protested, whistleblowed (etc) then it would never have happened, or at least been stopped real fast. How many actually did? Yep, see my point.

  22. EGrise

    Not sure if Ian is thinking of the Minneapolis strike of 1934, but take a look at this photo of Teamsters armed with pipes going toe-to-toe with the cops.

    Interesting passage from the article:

    Fighting intensified the following Monday, May 21, when the police, augmented by several hundred newly deputized members of the Citizens Alliance, an employer organization, attempted to open up the market for trucking. Fighting began when a loaded truck began leaving a loading dock. The battle became a general melee when hundreds of pickets armed with clubs of all sorts rushed to the area to support the picketers; when the police drew their guns as if to shoot, the union sent a truck loaded with picketers into the mass of police and deputies in order to make it impossible for them to fire without shooting each other.

    I can only imagine what the difference would be if that strike happened today.

  23. markfromireland

    @ Ian: Oh yes, it would be very easy indeed to draw their teeth, at which point in the USA at any rate governors would first call out the national guard, and then ask for armed Federal assistance. So long as the violence is confined to the poorer parts of town with perhaps the occasional eructation in the city centres I don’t see it being particularly effective do you?

    A well-informed and well-armed political resistance that knows where, for example, a bank’s director of legal affairs lives, or that isn’t shy about scaring the living daylights out of every single lecturer on the local university’s MBA programme to give another example might have a chance.

    I don’t see that happening do you?


  24. markfromireland

    PS: To answer your question: “Is Declining Violence Only A Good Thing?”



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