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Margus Laidre: The utopia of peace and the flowers of evil

Margus Laidre.
Margus Laidre. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

Do you believe that if you close your eyes, evil ceases to exist? Although terrorism and war scar our world, many believe that we are nevertheless living in the most peaceful time we’ve known. Historian and diplomat Margus Laidre demonstrates in his essay that this may prove to be a dangerous illusion.

Time and again, people have been gripped by the ideal of peace on Earth, where the lion lies down with the lamb and the entire universe co-exists in supreme happiness and accord.

One of the works in this category that has received much attention is The Better Angels of Our Nature, a 2011 book by Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker. His main thesis: although terrorism and war scar the surface of our world, we are nevertheless living in the most peaceful time we’ve known, seen against the backdrop of past history. Although every day brings bad news and makes us wonder what the world is coming to, the question we should really be asking, according to Pinker, is “How bad was the world in the past”? Pinker supplies the answer: “Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse”.

According to Pinker, violence has been on a continuous downward trend for thousands of years. He says that humanity has been “blessed with six major declines of violence”. Pinker also succumbs to the tendency – regrettably common nowadays – of belittling the Middle Ages. He describes it as an extremely brutal era, a time when “so many people had their noses cut off that medieval medical textbooks of the era speculated about techniques for growing them back”. Yet such a notion of the “dark” medieval era merely signals a lack of enlightenment in the writer’s own understanding. The result would be the same if, 400 years into the future, people discussed today’s medical experiments to grow human ears on laboratory mice, studies on the possibilities of biological regeneration, as examples of the immense cruelty where living people had their ears cut off.

The third decline, which Pinker terms the Humanitarian Revolution, started with the Age of Enlightenment, while the fourth is the post-war period in which the world has avoided new world wars – the so-called Long Peace. The fifth trend is the New Peace, which notes that since the 1950s, wars have decreased worldwide, and since the end of the Cold War, the number of dead in conflicts has declined continuously. The sixth trend is the cascade of “rights’ revolutions” following World War II, which reflects growing revulsion (Pinker’s own word) with aggression occurring on smaller scales as well.

The greatest impetus behind the pacifying process, according to Pinker, has been the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A second factor he names is the technology-fuelled cross-border exchange of goods and services, where everyone stands to gain and people are worth more to each other alive than dead. A third force for peace is cosmopolitanism, which has broadened people’s formerly narrow, provincial worldview. Pinker nevertheless does allow that violence has not been eliminated and the current trends may not be sustainable. By admitting that things could still go very sour, he actually contradicts his core thesis.

Pinker’s book drew widespread praise and heated criticism. Bill Gates calls it one of the most important books he has ever read. As recently as July 2016, Lüneburg University professor Christian Welzel enticed an audience at Tartu University with similar ideas, talking about the rediscovery of Kantian peace and the rise of international pacifism, and laying out extensive evidence purporting to show a massive decline in people’s readiness to sacrifice their lives in war. He credited moral evolution as responsible for the decline in violence, i.e. greater liberties and rights have made us better people. The chorus of critics on the other hand is led by philosopher and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who called Pinker’s Long Peace a statistical illusion.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité and… la guillotine

Who could have anything against world peace? Still, instead of being taken in by utopian euphoria, we should keep a clear head and preserve common sense. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think that people have suddenly become more peacefully inclined. Putting 18th century humanism and rationalism on the pedestal, Pinker is silent about the fact that many leading figures in the enlightenment supported extensive political violence as a way of implementing social change in society.

After all, the watchwords of the French Revolution – liberté, egalité, fraternité – should really be updated with a fourth one – the guillotine. In 1793, Georges Danton, one of the leaders of the Jacobins, gave the people carte blanche for revenge and a massive wave of arrests was unleashed. Prisons were filled with people accused of nothing other than being “suspicious”. Saint-Just, known as the angel of death, went even further. He demanded punishment not just for enemies but also for the ambivalent and passive.

To make the administration of justice swifter, witness testimony was scrapped; no other evidence had to be submitted or defenders appointed. Justice had to be administered “according to conscience.” The dictatorship of the Jacobins had begun. The guillotine worked so swiftly that the family of the man who had first proposed it be used, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, sought permission from the government to change their name.

The people quickly became used to the Reign of Terror. Guillotine executions drew spectators as a theatre performance might; occasionally people clapped and sang. Over the span of a year, the dictatorship arrested about 500,000 people in France, of whom 35,000-40,000 were executed; 60% of them were working class. The events that unfolded paved the way for Napoleon, who between 1803 and 1815 started a conflagration of war that consumed all of Europe, extending to America and the Indian Ocean, and which could arguably be called a world war predating the First World War. Pinker’s “humanitarian revolution” of liberty, equality and brotherhood thus had a darker, bloodier side, one that was directly emulated by Lenin’s Russia in 1917.

The “peaceful” 20th century and the brutal Mongols

As to the argument that the 20th century was history’s bloodiest, Pinker says it is a cliché that completely ignores the second half of the century. Even the first half of the 20th century could not be said to have been violent, he argues, considering the ratio of violent deaths to world population. The epithet of “history’s bloodiest century”, Pinker says, is just an illusion bred by historical myopia. Still, Pinker’s argument is a bit baffling against the backdrop of world wars in which 70 million people were killed in a total of a little less than 10 years.

Although he doesn’t deny that the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century led to a greater number of violent deaths than in previous centuries, Pinker advances the argument that there were more people living at that time. In 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion, which is two and a half times more than in 1800, four and a half times more than in 1600, seven times more than in 1300 and fifteen times more than in the first century AD. Pinker performs an arithmetic operation that results in World War II being ranked only ninth, although it usually comes first in the number of dead. World War I, otherwise in 13th place, ends up three places lower in Pinker’s ranking.

The first place in Pinker’s table is claimed by the An Lushan Rebellion in China in the mid-8th century, which claimed 36 million lives over eight years. Extrapolated to a 20th century scale, that would be an astronomical 429 million lives lost. In second place, Pinker has the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, which allegedly claimed 40 million lives – 278 million after adjustment into 20th century figures.

Every historian knows that the deeper we delve into the past, the less reliable the statistical material, hence the extant records must be taken exceedingly critically. In the best case, these are rough indicators, as the authors of chronicles often exaggerated figures greatly. The main point of embellishing one's victories and the enemy's losses was to stress the might of the ruler in order to fill the adversary with awe and respect.

The problem snaps into even greater focus when we consider that China was inhabited by some 50 million people prior to the An Lushan rebellion. If Pinker says 36 million people lost their lives in the revolt, that would mean a 72% decline in the population. In other words, the rulers would not have had any subjects to pay taxes and support their lord and his court. Purely physically, killing such a number of people would have been impossible, as weapons and technologies of mass destruction simply didn’t exist in the 8th century. As a consequence, we don’t have particularly trustworthy information about violent deaths in previous centuries, which renders Pinker’s conclusions the stuff of conjecture.

Even if we presume that the number of the Mongols’ victims was 40 million, Pinker neglects a key fact. The Mongol invasion spanned an entire century (1206-1337), while WWII lasted short of six years. So it might be time to ask once again – which of the two events was more brutal and claimed a higher human toll?

The case of the Mongol hordes brings up yet another thought-provoking nuance that ties in with the current state of the world. In the early 13th century, the Mongol population was a modest 200,000, yet they managed to establish the most far-reaching land empire in history. They did not only occupy large swathes of territory, but controlled them effectively – moreover, many or most of these areas were regions where civilization was more advanced than that of the Mongols.

The explanation lies in the readiness of one side to fight, juxtaposed with – as we say in modern parlance - their opponent’s lack of will to defend themselves, or a moral or intellectual flaccidity. The Mongols are telling proof of how a group of humans relatively small in number yet prepared for violence and its active use can become a force to be reckoned with and get the best of others who have only their welfare and satisfaction in mind.

Oswald Spengler expressed this phenomenon already in 1922, in The Decline of the West: “For world-peace – which has often existed in fact – involves the private renunciation of war on the part of the immense majority, but along with this it involves an unavowed readiness to submit to being the booty of others who do not renounce it”. The same position is shared by Israeli historian Martin van Creveld, who says Western Europeans have lived too well for too long and have forgotten the fact that if they are not interested in war, that does not mean war is not interested in them.

Long Peace, short memory

There’s actually nothing new in the absolute faith Pinker and his followers have in eternal peace, and that constant technological progress will prevent wars, minimize violence, and bring out the best in everyone. Humankind has gone through it in the recent past. The century after the devastating Napoleonic Wars was one of the most peaceful that history has known. The wars that took place during that time were waged in colonies outside Europe and were short in duration (e.g. the Austro-Prussian war lasted only seven weeks). People became used to peace. Most Europeans thought that a global war was impossible, an improbable and, moreover, ineffective way of resolving disputes.

The influential financier Jan Bloch in 1898 argued that war was obsolete due to economic reasons: growing spending on training and equipping soldiers as well as the losses that new technologies were capable of causing. Bloch believed the future would be without wars because people had realized that war meant collective suicide. Bankers warned that a major war would last only a few weeks as it would simply exhaust treasuries.

Globalization – usually associated with our current era – has a direct analogue in the world prior to 1914. Countries and nations had never before been tied to each other to such an extent as they were then. There reigned a conviction that the new, mutual dependence between countries would lead to new international institutions and establish universal standards of conduct for all peoples. International relations were no longer seen as a zero-sum game as they had been in the 18th century, with a winner entailing a loser. The new attitude was that it was a win-win situation, and that it would be possible to keep the peace as well.

The 19th century was an extraordinary era of progress in science, technology, industry and education. Europe in the belle époque had never been stronger, wealthier and more beautiful, which led to the idea that the future could only be brighter still. All these ideas were encapsulated in its own way by the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, which the organizers called a “work of harmony and peace” for mankind. The central installation in the pavilion called Château d’Eau was a group of allegorical figures, set in a pool, depicting Humanity led by Progress advancing towards the Future and leaving behind the grotesque Routine and Hatred. Particularly the last 30 years of the 19th century brought growing affluence and a visible rise in people’s standard of living. Food was better and cost less, sanitary conditions improved, and dramatic advances were made in medicine, all of which meant that Europeans lived longer and healthier lives than in the past.

In his book The World of Yesterday, written in exile in Brazil in 1942, Vienna-born writer Stefan Zweig describes the mindset of his youth to contemporary readers, hard for us to read without a terrible recognition dawning:

„In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the straight and unfailing path towards being the best of all worlds. Earlier eras, with their wars, famines, and revolts, were deprecated as times when mankind was still immature and unenlightened. But now it was merely a matter of decades until the last vestige of evil and violence would finally be conquered, and this faith in an uninterrupted and irresistible "progress" truly had the force of a religion for that generation. One began to believe more in this ‘progress’ than in the Bible, and its gospel appeared ultimate because of the daily new wonders of science and technology. In fact, at the end of this peaceful century, a general advance became more marked, more rapid, more varied.

“Thanks to the telephone one could talk at a distance from person to person. People moved about in horseless carriages with a new rapidity; they soared aloft, and the dream of Icarus was fulfilled […] and all of these miracles were accomplished by science, the archangel of progress. Progress was also made in social matters; year after year new rights were accorded to the individual, justice was administered more benignly and humanely, and even the problem of problems, the poverty of the great masses, no longer seemed insurmountable. […]

“There was as little belief in the possibility of such barbaric declines as wars between the peoples of Europe as there was in witches and ghosts. Our fathers were comfortably saturated with confidence in the unfailing and binding power of tolerance and conciliation. They honestly believed that the divergences and the boundaries between nations and sects would gradually melt away into a common humanity, and that peace and security, the highest of treasures, would be shared by all mankind.

“It is reasonable that we, who have long since struck the word ‘security’ from our vocabulary as a myth, should smile at the optimistic delusion of that idealistically blinded generation, that the technical progress of mankind must connote an unqualified and equally rapid moral ascent.

“[…] We must agree with Freud, to whom our culture and civilization were merely a thin layer liable at any moment to be pierced by the destructive forces of the ‘underworld’.”

It is surely not necessary to point out again how frighteningly similar Zweig’s “world of yesterday” is to the world of today.

Life and war are inseparable

In hindsight, we must admit that the naïve faith in the triumph of progress and intelligence was misplaced. In 1900, Europe was already on its way into crisis, but the long “eternal peace” had a soporific effect and kept the gathering storm clouds from being recognized, leading inexorably to the first world war and then, a couple of decades later, the second. Moreover, when peace was restored, the Great War of 1914-1918 was called the war to end all wars.

Both then as now, it is erroneous to assume that the technologies that increase our comfort and convenience will also, as a by-product, produce a better human being. It has not worked out that way, unfortunately. One of the greatest paradoxes lies in the fact that in spite of the dizzying pace of technological progress, the existential questions ahead of us have remained the same – from the earliest texts to the present-day.

No machine or -ism – be it socialism, Islamism, Communism, Fascism, feminism, conservatism, nationalism, liberalism or what have you – has managed to alter the temptation that lurks in the darker recesses of the human subconscious: to dominate others. And there is essentially no difference whether one wishes to demonstrate superiority in a shooting war or pillow fight, in sport or situations out of the pages of Lord of the Flies. Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote his wife on 28 July 1914, the first day of the Great War: “Everything tends toward catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared & happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?”

We extol the feats of science but do not wish to admit that it is technological progress that made possible the massive standing armies and the massacres of the two world wars. Only “thanks” to new and effective weapons, rockets and bombs and other means of destruction was it possible to kill so many people at one time so rapidly. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone (1 July 1916), 57,000 British soldiers fell. The coin always has a flip side.

Nor can we overlook the important fact that the numbers of civilian deaths in armed conflicts has been constantly and dramatically on the rise. Whereas civilians made up about ten percent of total fatalities in World War I, the figure had reached fifty percent in World War II, and the same trend has continued, reaching as much as ninety percent in the two wars in the Congo (1996-1997 and 1998-2003). Violence has not abated by one iota; it is just that (at least to this point) efforts to control it have been somewhat successful. Violence has also morphed into more subtle and concealed forms, so that it is harder to identify.

There is unfortunately no future without violence and wars. Wherever life can be found, war lurks, too. Spengler sums up the matter as follows: “If the nineteenth century has been relatively poor in great wars – and revolutions – and has overcome its worst crises diplomatically by means of congresses, this has been due precisely to the continuous and terrific war-preparedness which has made disputants, fearful at the eleventh hour of the consequences, postpone the definitive decision again and again, and led to the substitution of chess-moves for war. It is war without war, a war of overbidding in equipment and preparedness... The longer the discharge was delayed, the more huge became the means and the more intolerable the tension”. These words are food for thought for today’s decision-makers as well.

There is primarily one reason that new great wars have been forestalled – and that is peace through strength and mutually assured destruction (MAD), a principle built on fear. It may come as a surprise to a good many that nuclear weapons have proved to be the most ironclad insurance policy and deterrent against superpowers going to war with each other. Pinker attempts to reject the significance of nuclear weapons on the grounds that other weapons of mass destruction such as poison gas have not succeeded in preventing war. However, he forgets that nuclear weapons have the greatest destructive power of any weapon of mass destruction of any time. Thus far, the nuclear deterrent has worked, but it need not last forever if one side should try to tilt the current balance in its favour.

Saying that violence and war are no longer conceivable is not only fallacious but dangerous. For me, it conjured up a scene from the film Independence Day (1996), where some polyannaish types gather at the top of a skyscraper to welcome the mother ship, which casts a shadow over a metropolis. In response, the uninvited visitor’s airship hatches open, and a powerful laser beam vaporizes the lot of them.

A paradox is also the fact that the longer the encounter with violence is deferred, the easier it is to forget about it.

Forgetting does not render evil non-existent. Baudelaire’s 1857 collection Les Fleurs du mal contains a point that many will recognize from the film The Usual Suspects, which has not lost a bit of its relevance: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Does anyone really believe that if one closes one’s eyes, evil ceases to exist, or is it that we don’t wish to see it – that we’re afraid to see it? Pinker along with his adherents offers us the opportunity to stride into the future, eyes wide shut. Brian Eno’s latest, extremely soulful record, The Ship, closes with a cover of Lou Reed’s “I’m set free”, with the lines: “I’m set free, to find a new illusion.” Let’s not be naïve; let’s not be lulled by the sweet fragrance of the flowers of evil or be blinded by the captivating beauty of its poisonous petals. I hope that, by recognizing this tendency and by calling things by the right names, we can keep evil under control. It isn’t possible to unthink violence, though.

The author’s viewpoints are his own and do not necessarily represent any official institution.

Margus Laidre is a historian, diplomat and the author of several bestselling works of history. He was chosen as the winner of last year’s Enn Soosaar Ethical Essayists Award for a piece published last year in Postimees, entitled “Whose Words Rule the World?”

Laidre's essay “The Utopia of peace and the flowers of evil” was first published in Postimees in Estonian in August 2016.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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