Steven Pinker is a Very Optimistic Man

Steven Pinker has a bridge to sell you. It is not a physical bridge, nor is it the real-estate underneath it. What Steven Pinker is selling you is capital-O Optimism.

In his 2011 bestseller, “The Better Angels of our Nature,” Pinker argues that violence as we know it has, for the most part, come to an end. War and barbarism are on the decline worldwide, and a new, more civilized, mankind has come to take its place. To Pinker, the empowerment of women, the adoption of systems of mass communication (such as the Internet), and the emergence of an economic order in which governments have acquired a meaningful monopoly of force are but a few of the historical forces that have driven this dramatic reduction in human suffering. Today’s negativity is simply a function of the 24-hour news cycle and the evolutionary tendency of our brains to have a “negativity bias.” This is Pinker’s thesis — that the world is just getting better, and anyone who argues otherwise is a Debbie Downer.

But Pinker’s optimism isn’t ideologically benign. In Enlightenment Now, every World Bank figure or Davos quote is accompanied by an ideologically-driven defense of unregulated free-market capitalism. One such defense is made clear when Pinker compares poverty relief programs throughout history:

“Those who condemn modern capitalist societies for callousness toward the poor are probably unaware of how little the pre-capitalist societies of the past spent on poor relief.”

As much as Pinker would like you to believe otherwise, the narrative painted here is not one that simply praises technological and humanitarian progress, but rather one that seeks to justify the status quo at any cost. Putting aside the fact that Enlightenment Now, written in 2018, seeks to compare modern poverty alleviation strategies to those of pre-capitalist societies, the last of which existed in the 19th century, Pinker’s optimism orthodoxy portrays any criticism of the liberal economic system as mere ignorance of the terrible circumstances of the past.

Take, for instance, Pinker’s claim that extreme poverty is on the sharp decline. It is based on the figure that the percentage of the world population making under $1.90 per day has declined since the neoliberal reform of the 1980s. Surely this is a great alleviation of suffering and those on the bottom rungs of society should be better off. Disregarding that almost all of these economic gains have been concentrated in China, whose economic order Pinker is quick to criticize, Pinker’s optimism about market reforms (as opposed to quite literally any other poverty-alleviation method) acts as a defense of the status quo. Pinker writes that if we had a sense of “cosmic gratitude”, we ought to be content settling for what we have instead of crying crisis, for instance, at the ever-rising prices of healthcare, or the increasing number of homeless in our cities. After all:

“Not every problem is a crisis, plague, or an epidemic… A modicum of anxiety may be the price we pay for the uncertainty of freedom. It is another word for the vigilance, deliberation, and heart-searching that freedom demands.” (The World is an Amazing Place. So Why aren’t we Happier?)

I am sure that Pinker has qualified his statements about the world getting better with a couple of asterisks. But Better Angels and Enlightenment Now swap between two extreme positions in order to mask the parts of the narrative that don’t make sense. On one hand, Better Angels is a glorification of modernity and its elimination of barbarism, while Enlightenment Now presents a world reeling from its loss of reason, science, and humanism. While these two narratives are not mutually exclusive for a myriad of reasons, it’s hard to ignore their particular contradictions when Pinker, for instance, dismisses the left for lacking the moral virtues he extols.

“As for sneering at the bourgeoisie, it is a sophomoric grab at status with no claim to moral or political virtue. The fact is that the values of the middle class—personal responsibility, devotion to family and neighborhood, avoidances of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy—are good things, not bad things.” (Enlightenment Now)

I am not disputing that when Pinker tells his students to avoid violence, be responsible, and vote in elections, he is giving them good advice. But it is foolish to imply that these values are somehow endemic to the middle class or that having these values could mean that, one day, you too could be part of the middle class. Critics of “bourgeois values” are not going around telling everyone that being personally responsible is problematic — what they are claiming is that “personal responsibility” rhetoric is being used to cheat people out of the economic gains that they deserve. This is putting aside the fact that personal responsibility and non-violence are not going to, for instance, stop the IMF from restructuring your country’s economy.

Ultimately, proving that Steven Pinker overlooks a couple of things in his book does not do much to challenge the capitalist framework that he seeks to justify. That project fundamentally concedes control of the moral framework to the Right. What is necessary is a morally situated criticism of the neoliberal optimism industry that Pinker operates within. That is a project for men more educated and well-read than I.

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