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Review of Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (2018)

by Gerry Fitzpatrick

21 August 2018


In this and his previous books Steven Pinker introduced his audience to a type of academic fusion or syncretism that he has made all his own. The aim of which is to try to combine contemporary data streams to flow in one direction—that of historical progress. Over twenty three chapters and some four hundred and fifty pages Pinker journeys through his data archive as we follow his commentary as to what his facts should add up to. This he does in each chapter by setting up an objection he has encountered and then proceeds to try to overwhelm it with jokes, parables, bafflement, thought experiments and statistical data. Since it is the collection of data on “human flourishing” that are presented from readily available online sources, that forms the core of the book, it is then the perception of and our willingness to accept, the import and value of the data that he wishes to address and maybe even change some negative outlooks.

While admitting towards the end of the book that there is a perceptual difference that is actually working against him—between facts and human values, he tries none the less to produce a cumulative index of information and comment that attempts to restate the case for science, reason, progress and humanism, in short the Enlightenment. However, other things happen instead.

Direction and Audience

While Pinker may agree that today’s generation are open to new ideas, there is a mismatch between his data and the job that Pinker thinks it can do. This occurs on a number of levels. For a start the language of the book is generally pitched below undergraduate level and even below the level and standard of debate that exists now in American High Schools. But this is because, as Pinker acknowledges, the recent change in politics and consciousness produced by the current generation, and the rebirth of mass movements. All of which took place while Pinker was writing the book. What would it mean then for this generation to agree with how he sees the world?

Pinker has regularly stated that in fact his target audience are “policy makers”, the book is then a strange and unwieldy admixture to achieve that goal. It is not like the work that previous policy makers would have expected to receive from advisors. Certainly not the cautious optimism of Keynes, Schlesinger, or a Galbraith. On these pages you find none of their tempered sophistication rather there is the marked tone of desperation—as if all that Pinker values has suddenly been thrown overboard. We get a sense of this in a preface. After quoting some banal words from a Trump speech about America most likely written by Steve Bannon, Pinker responds:

In the pages that follow, I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world (sic) is wrong. And not just a little wrong—wrong wrong, flat earth wrong, couldn’t—be—more wrong wrong.(p.xv)

But how far can this desperate insistence travel or convince? If all we need do is look at Pinker's graphs on the historical improving trends in poverty, health, literacy and to perceive a “lack of war” to be convinced of the wrongness of the alt—right and Trump's ideologically driven denial and distortions, then the book could have been more direct and shorter. Moreover, if the problems of existence can be changed for the better by simply addressing matters of mind to world cognition, then the effect of the book should produce better more positive thinking citizens. The difficulty is that other than saying, “carry on as before as that is what works” Pinker does not show how given present conditions this could be achieved. Policy makers the world over are faced with an important as yet unsolved problem—how can capitalism be saved from itself? This is simply not an issue for Pinker and there is nothing in the book that goes anywhere near providing a solution and this goes some way to explaining why Pinker's commentary nervously tries to keep us entertained rather than impart new and useful knowledge.

On Inequality Becoming A Signature Issue

Take the example of how policy makers should look at inequality and Pinker's view of the thirty year on year increase in inequality after 1980. Not surprisingly, Pinker sees Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty First Century (2014) as something he must reject, because, “wealth today is vastly greater than it was in 1910.” The upshot of which Pinker tells us is that today the very poor are no longer starving to death or dying “like flies”.

The cheerful commentary has then no recourse to other less vulgar arguments such as the “trickledown effect”, rather it is just that we should accept that we are all a lot richer—some maybe fantastically richer than many of the rest of us, but it’s better than living in 1910. In case we miss that point Pinker uses many charts to make it even more obvious—That Capitalism is vastly better than Feudalism. Something that everyone seems to agree on from Marx at its beginning to the Chinese Communist Party now during its coda. The problem is that neither the Chinese Communist Party nor any policy maker knows how to save capitalism from itself.

Pinker is more preoccupied with what should not be done, so despite the enormous piling up of (personal) debt, he questions whether attempts by the majority to protect and improve their economic conditions will reduce inequality, rather he agrees with Walter Scheidel who writes that reductions in inequality should be viewed in the context of “leveling disasters”. Pinker then quotes from Scheidel's 'Four Horse Men of Leveling' (2017) which are:

Mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse, and lethal pandemics. In addition to obliterating wealth (and in communist revolutions, the people who owned it), the four horse men reduce inequality by killing large numbers of workers, driving up of wages of those who survive.

He then quotes this warning from Scheidel :

All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions it has only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for. ( p.106—p.107).

Stern advice indeed for the millions across the United States who have won pay increases of up to $15 per hour and those hoping to join them. Depending on your ideology of course these wage increases, rare though they are, indicate two things. One is that capitalist profits and share dividends go down due to an increase in payouts to workers. The other is to see such wage increases in terms of the consumption it produces. Pinker prefers to see workers as consumers who are no longer the very poor. Scheidel is here along with Pinker part of the not-so-liberal bourgeoisie who think it their mission in life to resist the widespread influence of Piketty's Political Economy. The reason why Scheidel thinks there is more inequality is that it is an issue of perception. Pinker agrees, but fails to address Piketty's political and economic case that governments 1980- in moving the tax burden from capital to wages caused a steep rise in inequality. This argument by Piketty forms the core of his book, which he supports with evidence not considered by Pinker.

The Hogwarts Solution

Pinker by contrast, prefers whimsy, such as the fable of The Dean With Three Wishes who learns that “taking the money” is the best form of wisdom (p.96), or the story about Igor the envious angry peasant, who wishes that his neighbour Boris's goat should die, because he hasn’t got one (p.98). These little fables about envy and perception continue to the point where they reach an unintentional level of comic absurdity. Immediately following Pinker's attempt to correct Piketty, is this statement:

A more damaging consequence [in perceptions of inequality] is the belief that if some people get richer, they must have stolen more than their fair share from everyone else. (p.99)

Can a “fair share” be had by stealing it? Well yes, of course it can. Thieves and white collar criminals can agree how the loot is to be shared after they have stolen it. To imply this did not happen or does not continue to happen is a serious denial of reality.

But enough of this ugly return to the recent history of capitalism, Pinker simply wants to tell us that people can become very rich through legitimate invention and ingenuity. And there are some excellent examples you might expect him to give; like the woman who invented “liquid paper” or the woman who patented a computer sub-routine that is used by every major computer company since the 1960s. Both became millionaires and even philanthropists. But today while there maybe one obnoxious billionaire we know and despise, there is also the woman who became a billionaire for inventing....Harry Potter. Did we know, that this woman who goes by the name of J. K. Rolling, has increased inequality in the world?

Why this happens Pinker tells us on p.99 is because people agreed to hand over their hard earned cash to consume products based on a fable about a mythical college where they teach magical thinking. Strange then that Pinker should admire Rolling. But even if he does show an interest in the promotions of the belief in magical thinking, we should simply agree with him and the Hogwarts solution to personal growth—and not see today’s wealth creators as necessarily exploitative. Wealth Pinker tells us, by definition, “creates inequality”. Well that's one way of rationalizing how one former revolutionary class invented a new more efficient economic system that benefits themselves out of proportion to the rest of us. But you only have to read or listen to the recent work of Shashi Tharoor on the development of western capitalism for an alternative view:

Pinker's complaint that those who do not accept their status or the status quo will make things worse by wanting to “burn the Empire down”, doesn’t make much sense when that is precisely how our current ruling class took power. And just in case people want to follow those who want to make a new revolution against our current widely corrupt ruling class Pinker has this to say:

[T]he presidential candidacy of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders in 2016, who proclaimed that “a nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little.” But in that year the revolution devoured its children and propelled the candidacy of Donald Trump, who claimed that the United States had become “a third world country” and blamed the declining fortunes of the working class not on Wall Street and the one percent but on immigration and foreign trade.

And he continues:

The left and the right of the political spectrum, incensed by economic inequality for different reasons, curled around to meet each other, and their shared cynicism about the modern economy helped elect the most radical American President in recent times. (p.97)

This is as far as Pinker goes when attempting to construct a political position: the vital center and moderation have gone, leaving only “shared cynicism” of Trumpists and the Sanderites. But to explain contemporary politics by making a false equivalence between opposed political tendencies—is to understand nothing. Pinker's fellow academics attribute this recurring lack of meaningful and substantive argument to his Darwinian Psychological disposition: the reality of our existence Pinker says is that we have slowly but determinedly put science and “regulated markets” into the service of humanity where they have produced human flourishing and Progress, those who have significant doubts according to Pinker, are rejecting reality and should only be derided:

Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress. (p.39)

But beyond trying to improve his talent to amuse Pinker, won’t and can’t say how and why this may have happened (see pt2). He simply characterizes the opposition as indulging in “progressophobia”. This is fine for fans and may even pass muster with a few unconventional policy makers. But understandably not with the majority of his colleagues and certainly not those who have had anything to do with writing or teaching history. Living and working as he does within the modern academy he sees it as a hostile place, where too much time is given to the doom laden prophesies of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Marcuse, Sartre, Fanon, Foucault, Edward Said, Cornel West and “a chorus of eco-pessimists” who together have become “the all stars of the liberal arts curriculum” (p.39).

This approach is unproductive whatever way you look at it. For a start to lump together these thinkers and writers under one heading “progressophobia” — would only ensure that you had succeeded in promoting the very thing that Pinker says he is against: ignorance. For not only did these thinkers develop ideas that were diametrically opposed, some had good reason not to be sanguine about the future. Fanon and Said were surely correct to see the limits of Arab nationalism and fundamentalist faith based politics. And that had more to do with their experience of Socialism than ideas concerning Western decline or being stars on the liberal arts curriculum.

It also does not extend public knowledge to suggest that you want your audience to accept boosterism rather than critical thinking. And one would have thought that in a work of over five hundred pages a writer on social perception would be able to develop a more convincing argument on the difference between critical thinking and Critical Theory. But that would mean that Pinker would have to be self-critical too. Admitting the extent of the limitations of his own approach which is a basic requirement to gain access to the truth—which is always stranger and indeed much more interesting.

Another Way of Seeing

One of the book's aims is to correct the perceptions of the world as in trouble—the way many, with good reason, perceive it to be. But because Pinker simply believes that history is where the facts and the good news comes from—then it can only have that function and perform for him to that schema. And as T. J. Clark has pointed out, concerning radical bourgeois representations of the poor and the marginalized:

There are always other meanings in any given social space—counter-meanings, alternative orders of meaning, produced by the culture itself, in the clash of classes, ideologies and forms of control. (T. J. Clark on the art of Manet).

It is these counter meanings that Tharoor and other authors (see pt2 for further reading), have been asserting against recent revisionist histories that claim that the age of Empire was a “jolly good thing”. While Pinker gives a nod in acknowledgement of the colonial suppression of India’s economic development he also claims that, “by the early twentieth century colonial policies had become more responsive to food crises” (p.78) and that early twentieth century improvements in agriculture would take “a bite out of hunger.” To accept that remark as humour would be a sign of intellectual enfeeblement, simply because it masks a much more disturbing history and important historical lesson.

As Tharoor points out, when Churchill received the reports from India of mass starvation he wrote in one of the margins — “why hasn’t Ghandi died yet?” Churchill later went much further and ensured that many more died in their millions in India during WWII of starvation as a consequence after he diverted relief grain to army stores in Europe. When asked why he had done this he replied that “Indians breed like rabbits anyway.” It was this approach of colonial capitalism that guaranteed that in the middle of the twentieth century the very poor as matter of policy would indeed “die like flies”. The only real solution for Indians then, was to ensure that the Empire was brought to an end.

I doubt also if the Pinker—Scheidelian historio—perceptive view would receive many ringing endorsements here in Ireland if we were asked to accept that the equality that the Land League and the Fenian movement fought for and eventually won—was predicated on the failure of their forbearers not being careful about the food and livelihoods “they wished for”.

The historical lesson here is that effective radical political organisation is key in the production of social change which does not have a meaningful existence in Pinker's Progress. The process of lifting people out of poverty Pinker attributes to the overall historical growth of the capitalist system or “regulated markets” (as he archaically and inaccurately describes them) — and certainly not due to the politics or pedagogy of the oppressed. The previous revolutionary class—the bourgeoisie, having produced in turn the modern working class—spend most of its political energies in the 19th Century trying to halt the progress and influence of Labour Movements and their political organizations or as they were known in Europe—The Social Democracy. Campaigning for the extension of the franchise to women, a shorter working day, paid holidays and most importantly against war—The Social Democracy was indeed the embodiment of a progressive and enlightened movement:

Who are the people? In Germany as well as in Great Britain the people are not the Upper-Ten, are not the princes, generals and other gold-braided officers, the mighty landlords, the powerful directors and share-holders of military and naval arsenals, the “kings” of gun, armour-plate, smokeless powder and aeroplane production. The people are not the small number of privileged ones, who pocket enormous profits, thanks to the fantastic expenditure on military and naval armaments, who fish guineas out of the blood-streams on the battlefields...Klara Zetkin 1913.

The great and the true grand order of Pinker's Progress is predicated on the defeat and exclusion of other orders of meaning like Zetkin's and their value. History today is in contention more than ever because social reality itself is in contention. That is why Pinker thought his book was necessary. His view of reality is certainly under pressure, but if he believes that the economy and politics can be returned to their pre-crisis levels he is greatly mistaken. Which is not to say there is not something new and useful to be learned today from history and the first Enlightenment.

The Economics of The Enlightenment—A Tale of Two Progresses

At the time of Voltaire and his contemporaries they were able to envisage a society in which the privileges of the Church (the First Estate) and the nobility (the Second Estate) would be reduced and the rights of the commoners (the Third Estate) could be significantly enhanced. It was—as a number of articles of the Encyclopédie had envisioned—a concept of a (English) Constitutional Monarchy as working in France as it had done after the Revolution and Restoration in England.

And indeed that is precisely what the French revolution of 1789 began as and continued as until 1792 when it progressed to the Jacobin revolutionary Republic. This in turn progressed to a civil war against the nobility and their national and international supporters.

While we may have yet to find out what the true historical effect of the French Revolution will be; one thing is certain the new economic system pioneered by the industrial revolution in England would mature and become dominant—as would its flaws. And as most histories written by the winners should be expected to say that Adam Smith was right—for most of the time. That much we might also expect from Pinker. Absent is the consideration of how can we understand the present international fiscal crisis through the history of the Enlightenment. Here Voltaire can be of help.

Voltaire a radical of means, widely disliked by the majority of the French nobility—who imprisoned him twice—none the less, as member of a new rising class, was able to gain access to a way of money making that was formally restricted to members of the ancien regime.

When the Duke of Orleans announced that he was about to issue shares from his Estate Voltaire quickly left Paris and journeyed to the Dukedom to make a significant purchase. Having inherited wealth from his father and seen the operation of the London Stock Exchange he had become convinced that alongside this new form of ascendant economic value, something better than Feudalism was in the making. But his venture to the Dukedom was different. Previously only those who lived in the Dukedom could buy his shares before they were sold on the open market, when they would double and even treble in value. After his arrival Voltaire was able to persuade officials that parts of his family had resided in the Dukedom and he himself had lived there. He then purchased a significant amount of the Duke's shares which tripled in value, making Voltaire exceptionally rich indeed.

This restricted practice had originated in class privilege which enabled the nobility to occasionally “financialise” their assets. The practice today is known as the creation and trade in “commercial paper”. What is not different about today’s trade in commercial paper from Voltaire's time, is that a tiny minority still retains the right to determine the financialized assets value. What is different is that financialized assets now dominate the world economy. If something goes wrong and their value falls significantly or is destroyed, then the central banks are now on hand to bail out those who lose their money. Moreover since 2009 this has been hard wired into the economic system by governments as a prop of permanent provision of funds to financial institutions to guarantee their solvency. This may not be a problem for Pinker, but it is a problem for everybody else or as the very best of policy makers and analysts keep saying, “this can't go on.”

Who and What Determines Value?

For revolutionaries in the Age of Revolutions the questions, “who and what should determine value?” — were inseparable from the political question “who should rule?”

If you held shares in tea before the Boston Tea Party then your understanding of the world and who was destroying that value was clear after the goods you based your wealth on—ended up in Boston harbour. To the American revolutionaries however this was the start of their own thinking that went beyond “No Taxation Without Representation”, to build an economy without Britain. Pinker would have us believe that the person responsible—Alexander Hamilton, was a passive philosophe who practiced “mild commerce” (p.13), which is not what the British thought as their world was turned upside down as they faced his artillery.

For the French revolutionaries it meant the abolition of the right of the nobility to solely determine economic value. And as the value of the French currency—the livre was determined ultimately on the international market and the revolutionary governments’ enemies—it meant that to defend the revolution entailed issuing a new currency—the assignat, which was based on the nationalized land that previously belonged to the king. One can perhaps see a little more clearly now how threadbare Pinker's approach actually is when it reduces historical dynamics and consciousness to a simple division between those who Pinker regards as opposed to Progress and those who get on with things—armed with his cognitive sense of proportion. In other words the book has become—whether he likes it or not—a Civics Class in the correct perspective:

The clear and forthright objection is that the understanding of history cannot benefit from Pinker's attempt to divorce the Enlightenment from The Age of Revolutions or the ethical from the political. It was both together that produced what we call the Modern Age and the nation state, the capitalist economy, and a new working class but also its attendant crises. And just as the Indians and the Irish don't accept British apologias for the age of Empire and Famine—today’s generation are able to perceive social and political value in terms of the challenges of today and what should be done about them.

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