15 August 2014

The winding road to utopia

Beware – rhetorical questions, ahoy!

Let’s talk about violence. A friend was lamenting recently that we seem to live in the worst of times, and one can see where he was coming from: Gaza is a broken record (just to recap, Israel shelled a UN school that was sheltering IDPs, Netanyahu uttered the following regarding Hamas: “they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.” Not that it’s untrue, but damn, is that ever tone deaf. As is the fact that Israelis were watching the bombing of the strip while eating popcorn and cheering. As yet another, though related, aside, while I’m wildly in favour of a Madame President, I’m not so sure I’m sold on the idea of this Madame President), Syria is just getting worse, tragedies are piling up in Nigeria and now Cameroon, ISIS is staging mountaintop genocides, the US has its own horrific war zone curtesy of our latent racism becoming appallingly manifest (Jesus, America), the deteriorating Ukrainian situation in particular freaked him out, and of course we’re living in almost the textbook definition of a perpetual crisis. And that’s just what comes immediately to mind. There is also the Ebola crisis, of course, but as that strikes me more as a structural violence issue than a direct conflict thing, we’ll defer any discussion to a later date. Our modern multipolar system is practically Mearsheimerian in its dysfunction.

Or, rather, so it seems. But I have never really been much for realism, and I see no reason to fall off the wagon now. Thus, I am here and happy to report that it’s possible we aren’t all headed for hell in a hand basket (at least, not as the human race, and not just yet. I can’t speak for you, personally). Statistically, we’re actually living in one of the most peaceful periods of history. This does not, of course, undermine the depths of human suffering that are ongoing. I just sometimes feel that it’s important to dispel this end times perception.

Why am I so confident that humanity is not caught in an entropic skid? As it turns out, this is actually a fairly strong stance to take, with a wealth of histori-stastical support behind it. It even has its own ism – declinism. Fancy, no? One of the most vocal proponents of the declinist theory is the Human Security Report Project, which explored it extensively in their most recent Human Security Report. The report takes as it’s jumping-off point a recap of 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (which I have not read, so know that everything that follows is in essence two degrees removed from the source document). The book contends (“over some 700 densely argued pages of text, supported by 70 pages of footnotes” the report is quick to inform us) that “there has been an extraordinary but little-recognized, long-term worldwide reduction in all forms of violence – one that stretches back to at least 10,000 BCE.”

12K years?! Sweet fancy pants that is some claim. The HSR devotes not inconsiderable print space to unpacking it, especially as: (a) data going back that far is dubious at best; and (b) WWII is, by most every measure, the deadliest war in history. I’m not going to get too much into the ancient history – it’s fascinating, yes, but I’m much more concerned with more recent trends.

Supporting Pinker’s argument, at least as it pertains to WWII, is that, though it accounted for the most absolute deaths of any conflict ever, it was not the most deadly in context of war deaths relative to the size of the population (here I should note that this isn’t the standard metric for measuring conflict intensity - that would be direct war deaths per 100,000 per year, and WWII still wins). But, apparently – like I said, I haven’t read it – in pre-historic societies, war deaths accounted for about 15 per cent of all fatalities. This is BANANAS. In the 20th century – the one with all three world wars (I, II, and the African), remember? – it was still just three per cent. Similarly, “in the 17th century, Europe’s wars of religion had killed some two per cent of the populations of the warring states” while the same statistic for the 1900s was only 0.7 per cent. Beyond any sort of semantic ‘how do we measure how terrible a conflict is debate’ (which is important, don’t get me wrong – these sorts of evaluations have tremendous real-world impacts), Pinker argues that WWII, and the Rwandan genocide, for that matter, for all its misery, was essentially an anomaly on what has been an admittedly rocky path to a more peaceful world.

Even if you have some reservations about the heroic longitudinality of Pinker’s work (and you would not be alone in this), the good people behind the HSR would like to assure you that “the most encouraging data from the modern ear come from the post-World War II years”. This period includes a dramatic decline in the number and deadliness of international wars since the end of WWII (the ‘Long Peace’ for Pinker) and, more recently, the reversal of the decades-long increase in civil conflicts that followed the end of the Cold War (the ‘New Peace’). These rather optimistically-monikered eras likewise seen a decline in violent acts short of war and genocide, including homicide, terrorist attack, lynching, hate crime, rape, and assault.

This Pinker character lays out “five political, social, and cultural changes that he sees as key drivers of the decline in violence: (1) a consolidation of a monopoly of the legitimate use of force controlled by the state and the judiciary; (2) the growing importance of commerce, leading to more interdependence between people and states and hence greater incentives to cooperate rather than use violence (which, until very recently, was somewhat backfiring in Ukraine, but what the hell); (3) feminization, i.e., the process in which societies increasingly respect the interests and values of women; (4) cosmopolitanism, i.e., advances towards universal literacy, mobility, and information sharing that can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them; (5) the escalator of reason, by which is meant ‘an intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs.’ This change was associated, among other things, with a reduction in the superstitions that both drove and legitimized cruel and violent practices common throughout most of human history – from human sacrifice, witch hunts, and slavery, to torturing animals for pleasure.”

Basically, reading this report you get the sense that we’re normatively evolving into a conflict-free world. How lovely and utopian! But, seriously, there are positive trends, including increasing national incomes (the linked article also gets into the depressing subject of increasing global income equality, but does make the point that overall poverty is on the wane), and the system of global security governance.

The former trend is important in that there exists really comprehensive econometric research establishing a casual connection between national incomes and the risk of conflict. I had a professor once who referred to this as the Soros effect: if you throw a sufficient amount of money at a country, they will somewhat manage to govern/find a measure of stability in spite of themselves. The latter trend is, I think, the more likely to encounter resistance, especially within the humanitarian sector. So just what, precisely, is this system of global security governance? It includes the UN, yes, but also other international institutions, “donor and other governments, informal clusters of like-minded states, think-tanks, and large number of national and international NGOs.” The HSR is hilariously backhanded in endorsing it: “this system is inefficient, poorly coordinated, disputatious, underfunded, and prone to tragic error, but it has nevertheless played a critically important role in the reduction of conflicts, particularly civil wars, since the end of the Cold War. There is no indication that the international community’s commitment to peacemaking and peacebuilding is likely to wane. Indeed, it is continuing to increase both in terms of resources committed and new initiatives launched. But much of this increase has passed unnoticed. It is a safe bet, for example, that very few people today realise that more than 50 new peace operations have been launched in Africa since 2000, 10 of them since 2011.” I might well add paternalistic, subject to corruption, bureaucratically hamstrung, and overly risk-adverse to that complementary list of adjectives, as well as acknowledge that the central norm of the system – thou shalt not attack another state except in self-defence – is working SO WELL in Ukraine right now. Moreover, R2P has of late been exposed to be little more than a dark punchline. Even so, I agree with the finding that the system is remarkably effective, notwithstanding its damndest efforts to get in its own way, and that is why I continue to be a closet believer in the UN system, with this blog basically functioning as my Lone Gunman.

I do have still have my doubts about Mr. Pinker, book un-read. But his overall argument is good enough for the fine people of HSRP, and who am I to quibble? Indeed, increasingly, scholars seem to agree that armed violence has been on a dramatic – if wildly uneven – decline since 1946. The ‘declinist’ theory is becoming mainstream. So why does it feel that the world is growing ever darker, if the opposite is true? Is 2014 a blip – one of those tragic anomalies? Or something worse; the beginning of an upswing in violence?

Per our man Pinker, we perceive the present as quite so nasty and brutish because of what he rather charmingly calls ‘historical myopia’ – basically, we more readily recall the horror of recent wars than the much more intense violence of older ones. As with most any kind of pain, the further away we get from an incident, the less the clarity with which we recall it. Meanwhile, we have also managed to instil a greater awareness of or sympathy for human suffering. In effect, having more respect for human rights makes you feel it more acutely when they are violated in much the same way as, after concerned harassment trainings, often there will be an increase in reports of assault and rape. It doesn’t mean (necessarily) that there are more rapes; rather that people (women) feel more empowered to report them. Awareness and sensitivity don’t necessarily mean that things are worse – just that we actually bother to pay attention to bad things when they occur and can demand that action be taken. It’s also worth bringing up (for roughly the 100th time) the CNN effect, which might well be re-named the blogosphere effect. For what it’s worth, Pinker refers to this as ‘availability bias’ – we don’t think historical wars were so bad, simply because we lack information about them.

Researchers at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) recently found that, if current conflict drivers remain constant, “the structural determinants of peace are likely to lead to further reductions in armed conflict around the world.” Their model projects that, from 2009 to 2050, we’re likely to witness a 15 per cent decline in violent conflict. Such a finding, of course, begs the question of what happens if conflict drivers do change. Even those staunch declinists at the HSRP are a bit concerned, observing that there exist several potential game-changers on the horizon, including “outbreaks of nuclear terrorism, a huge cross-national upsurge of Islamist violence, or wars triggered by the massive disruptions caused by climate change,” and this was all before one of the major nuclear powers began giving in to their imperialist itch. Essentially, though humanity appears to have been collectively heeding the angel on its shoulder, don’t count the little devil out just yet.

And that was a hugely long introduction to what I actually wanted to talk about, which was trends in violence (remember Alice? The song’s about Alice). So in the next few posts, I’ll be looking, in totally arbitrary fashion, at some potential stumbling blocks on our long walk back to Eden and making generally unfounded prognostications for the future. Join me –good times should be had by all!