21 June, 2018 • • 37.6EnvironmentEuropeHistoryPhilosophyPolitics & SocietyReligion

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Apocalypse Then

Marek Sullivan

Steven Pinker
Enlightenment Now

£17.50 (hbk)







“In the age of liberal expansion amusement was sustained by an unbroken belief in the future: things would stay the same yet get better. Today, that belief has itself been intellectualized, becoming so refined as to lose sight of all actual goals and to consist only in a golden shimmer projected beyond the real.” Horkheimer and Adorno’s diagnosis in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) has arguably reached peak provability with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, an updated jacket-cover for The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) that sandwiches virtually the same statistics within a more explicit defence of “Enlightenment values”. Exactly why this book has been deemed necessary, and why it has been deemed necessary now, says more about the current political landscape and Pinker’s ideological motivations than anything related to the Enlightenment.

Pinker loves neo-liberalism and industrialisation. Illustrating the virtues of the latter, he cites Adam Smith on the production of the pin. Smith showed that “an abundance of useful stuff cannot be conjured into existence by a farmer or craftsman working in isolation”, but rather

depends on a network of specialists, each of whom learns how to make something as efficiently as possible […] Smith calculated that a pin-maker working alone could make at most one pin a day, whereas in a workshop in which ‘one man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head,’ each could make almost five thousand.

Reading this, one wonders when Pinker last drew out wire, and whether he really would be happier doing this over the array of actions necessary to produce one pin in isolation. What about the deskilling and disempowerment of the individual resulting from the fragmentation of the production process? Or the evisceration of working class teleology under conditions of mass production? This is not a knock-down argument against progress, but Pinker does not even raise the question, leaving a gaping hole over the issue of meaning and flourishing in post-industrial society—a hole he proposes to fill with the watery meal of Enlightenment itself. According to him, “the ideals of the Enlightenment” provide “a reason to live.” How?

In the course of the book, Pinker casts his net over the entire spread of religious history, referencing Karl Jaspers’ largely abandoned theory of the Axial Age but cautioning the reader against a transcendent interpretation of this pivotal moment. According to Pinker, the major religious traditions (Christianity, Buddhism, Daoism, etc.) all developed not as a result of an “aura of spirituality” that descended on the Earth around 500BCE, but a burst of energy: “upwards of 20,000 calories per person per day in food, fodder, fuel, and raw materials”, which allowed civilisations to afford a priestly class. Although this is explained with the confidence of someone pointing to the sun, Pinker does not mention the equally plausible theory that Buddhism emerged as a reaction to precisely these changes—to the existential angst that came from rapid urbanisation, increased suffering (e.g. due to the spread of disease in warm and wet, densely populated areas), and an impending sense of anomie. Of course, it would be impossible to prove one theory or the other conclusively, since both rely on precisely the same data.

The same issue crops up in Pinker’s defence of nuclear power. In a recent online conversation with Jordan Peterson, he states confidently that nuclear power has “never killed anyone.” The comment is strange because, as he explains in Enlightenment Now, “sixty years with nuclear power have seen thirty-one deaths in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster […] together with a few thousand early deaths from cancer above the 100,000 natural cancer deaths in the exposed population.” Pinker is able to get away with this seeming contradiction because he does not attribute Chernobyl to nuclear power, but to “Soviet bungling” or “Communism”. Again, whether nuclear power or Communism are to blame for Chernobyl is impossible to establish because both causal chains rely on precisely the same data. Attribution of blame in such large-scale configurations is less a matter of data than perspective—a perspective determined by our experiential surroundings, and hence by power (a point Pinker might at least mention if he had read the critical theory he dismisses out of hand).

Enlightenment Now contains two particularly egregious apologies for the economic order. The first occurs on page 80, where we learn that

Among the brainchildren of the Enlightenment is the realization that wealth is created […] primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor. (italics author’s own)

This point is later driven home by the weird claim that “it’s a fallacy to think that people ‘need resources’”. According to Pinker, what people really need are “ideas: […] recipes, formulas, techniques, blueprints, and algorithms for manipulating the physical world.” This emphasis on information is blatantly at odds with Pinker’s materialist reduction of the Axial Age. It also erases any record of colonial acquisition—a strange omission given that colonialism (following Pinker’s materialist logic) arguably provided the bulk of the raw energy, if not the rationale, for Enlightenment ideas to take shape in the first place. Colonialism is mentioned only once in Enlightenment Now, in a rejection of the concept as a determining factor behind Muslim violence (since Muslim beliefs and doctrines are intrinsically violent and do not need colonialism to make them so).

The second egregious apology occurs in Pinker’s discussion of inequality. According to Pinker, “income equality is not a fundamental component of well-being.” He backs this claim up by reference to a research paper by sociologists Jonathan Kelley and Mariah Evans, which has apparently “snipped the causal link joining inequality to happiness” (!) by showing that, in developing countries, “inequality is not dispiriting but heartening: people in the more unequal societies are happier.” For according to Kelley and Evans, “whatever envy, status anxiety, or relative deprivation people may feel in poor, unequal countries is swamped by hope.” If you have not choked on your Sugar Puffs by this point, then let it be known that Pinker has here gone full-circle, first repudiating Marxism, then re-attaching a core Marxist object of critique—immaterial hope, the opiate of the masses—to our happiness index, thereby recreating a pragmatic space for religious aspirations which Enlightenment Now otherwise denies entirely. Only, in Pinker’s case, it is demonstrably true that the economic status of a vast majority of poor people will not change; heaven was closer when it was really heaven.

Pinker’s historical vision is predictably blind to anything that might be called religious. He breathlessly cites Jefferson to the effect that “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” But the idea of inexhaustible enlightenment is as old as the Buddha. From Section 10 of the Chinese Sutra of Forty-Two Sections (ca. first century CE): “Consider the flame of a single torch. Though hundreds and thousands of people come to light their own torches from it so that they can cook their food and ward off darkness, the first torch remains the same.” Pinker’s refusal to engage with anything outside of a scientistic, neo-liberal worldview demonstrates not only a deep ingratitude for the pre-modern past, but a persistent tendency to reap the rewards of others’ social and environmental justice work without recognition. Pinker hates Marx but states without batting an eyelid that “Thanks to the labor movement, legislation, and increased worker productivity, another once-crazy pipe dream has become a reality: paid vacations.” The same wilful blindness to non-capitalist goods saturates his discussion of the environment. Pinker has a particular distaste for extreme-case prophecies that read world history in terms of a general process of decline. “Declinism,” variously associated with left-wing intellectuals, the Romantics, the Counter-Enlightenment, or environmentalism, comes under heavy fire for (a) misjudging the general trend of global history, and (b) discouraging active responses to real (e.g. ecological) problems, by rejecting science and creating a general aura of pessimism. Against the declinists, Pinker points to genuine advances in the way humankind has interacted with the world, including a reduction in air pollution (e.g. through nuclear power) and the shift from paper to digital information.

Yet there is at least a case to be made that many of the positive advances in environmentalism tracked by Pinker have been driven by the extreme prophecies he abjures. That these predictions have not been realised does not mean they were wrong, but that the sought-for action may have had its consequences. As every defender of Euro-American counterterrorism knows, the fact that only a small proportion of recent terrorist attacks have been committed by Muslims does not let Islamist terrorism off the hook; it shows that Interpol is doing its work. In the same vein, the fact environmental degradation is not running wild (although some would say it is), and the fact poor people are not literally starving to death in Western countries (although many are) is arguably thanks to “apocalyptic” environmental campaigns and religious charitable organisations that have stepped in to fill the void left by corporate takeovers and social welfare cuts. More abstractly, the fact you can nowadays have morality without religion (in principle) does not mean that morality could have emerged without religion (in history). You can speculate about alternative worlds, but there is simply no historical precedent for a secular moral system that was not preceded by a religious one. The idea that our current situation could exist without the historical emergence of religions is—and cannot but be—an article of faith.

One of the most fascinating and problematic aspects of Enlightenment Now is its persistent attempt to untether nationalism from the Enlightenment and link it exclusively to the Counter-Enlightenment. Pinker suggests that “Romantics” like Rousseau, Johann Herder, and Friedrich Schelling “pushed back particularly hard against Enlightenment ideals” by denying that individuals could be considered apart from their culture, race, or nation. Putting his arguments in a contemporary context, Pinker claims that the Counter-Enlightenment prepared the ground for Trump’s election and the rise, since the 2010s, of anti-Enlightenment, populist movements that are “tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic.” As Pinker reminds us, right-wing defeats in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and France, were swiftly followed by Emmanuel Macron’s proclamation that Europe is “waiting for us to defend the spirit of Enlightenment, threatened in so many places.”

Judging by the footnotes, Pinker’s main reference for the Counter-Enlightenment is Isaiah Berlin’s essay of the same name, published in the now thoroughly discredited collection Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (1979). Almost every claim of this anthology is wrong, from the accusation that the Enlightenment was unambiguously universalist and cosmopolitan, to the converse claim that the Counter-Enlightenment rejected the soulless equations and symmetries of the Enlightenment. It was not Spinoza but Herder who devoted an entire chapter of Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (1784) to the idea that “The human Race is destined to proceed through various Degrees of Civilization, in various Mutations; but the Permanency of its Welfare is founded solely and essentially on Reason and Justice.” That this statement is a condensed summary of Enlightenment Now would be ironic, if irony were not so dismissably Nietzschean.

In fact, Pinker’s populists—the Dutch PVV, the French FN—have continually appealed to “Enlightenment values” to support almost every aspect of their politics, from legal issues pertaining to freedom of speech, to straight-up discourses of European supremacy. And they are in good company. By the mid-18th century, the Enlightenment was as anti-cosmopolitan and pro-nationalist as any movement in history. Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Helvétius consistently eulogised the French and attacked other nations for their backwardness. David Hume worried about the implications of scientific insights into “the infinite extent of nature” since such a universal viewpoint might “destroy patriotism as well as ambition.” He cautioned against international cosmopolitanism or the idea one could “change one’s country” as one changed address, since it would wreak havoc among public servants by destroying “all their attachment to their native country.” Similarly, Baron d’Holbach, the charismatic salon host sometimes described as the first true atheist, insisted that equal rights were a fatal delusion born of Christian universalism, and that “Nature” did not tell man to love “everyone”, as Christians believed; rather, it told man “to love the country which gave him birth.”

The question of nationalism predictably bleeds into issues of religious sectarianism and racism, taking Pinker into some of the most problematic areas of the book. Citing Voltaire’s claim in Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733) that the London Royal Exchange saw “the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together as tho’ they all profess’d the same religion”, Pinker claims that “Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophes valorized the spirit of commerce for its ability to dissolve sectarian hatreds.” No mention whatsoever is made of Voltaire’s own virulent antisemitism and antipathy towards Islam (indeed, unbelievably, Pinker later pins the blame for antisemitism on the Counter-Enlightenment). Religious and racist “sectarianism” were standard Enlightenment fare. For Montesquieu and the Encyclopédie, Arabs were “a people addicted to robbery” or, more simply, “thieves and thugs”. Voltaire himself wrote that Arabs were “a population of brigands” who “before Muhammed, thieved while worshipping stars”, and “under Muhammed, thieved in God’s name”. Claude Adrien Helvétius described Persians as “the vilest and most cowardly of all people”, and repeatedly contrasted the slavish submissiveness, vileness, and cowardliness of Orientals with the spirit of Europeanness. Midway through Enlightenment Now, Pinker gushes: “So much changes when you get an [Enlightened] education! You unlearn dangerous superstitions, such as that leaders rule by divine right, or that people who don’t look like you are less than human.” He concludes that “until the Enlightenment, almost everyone was abject.” But according to Voltaire,

Only a blind man can doubt that Whites, Negros, Albinos, Hottentots, Samis, Chinese, and Americans, are entirely different races. […] The round eyes of [Negros], their wide nose, their inevitably broad lips, their differently figured ears, the wool on their head, even the measure of their intelligence, put prodigious distances between them and the other species of man. […] The majority of Negros, all Kaffirs, are buried in the same stupidity, and will stagnate there for a long time.

Although Pinker wants us to endorse the Enlightenment, it is sometimes unclear how. Towards the beginning of the book he draws an ill-advised comparison with Islamic State, citing Shiraz Maher:

‘The West is shy of its values,’ he says. ‘We are unsure of them. They make us feel uneasy.’ Contrast that with the Islamic State, which ‘knows exactly what it stands for’.

What is Pinker’s point here? That we should stop arguing and set up Enlightenment State? He later reassures us that “For all the prescience of the founders, framers, and philosophes, this is not a book of Enlightenolatry.” But the precise role of the Enlightenment in Enlightenment Now is not obvious. It is sometimes conflated with the “Scientific Revolution” and sometimes treated separately. In no case is a strong link established between the Enlightenment and the many progresses he tracks, most of which (e.g. clean water, medicine, etc.) can and arguably should be attributed to science rather than culture or philosophy.

For miserablists Horkheimer and Adorno, the dialectic of Enlightenment is such that, within modernity,

To be entertained means to be in agreement. Entertainment makes itself possible only by insulating itself from the totality of the social process, making itself stupid and perversely renouncing from the first the inescapable claim of any work, even the most trivial […] Amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display.

Enlightenment Now is a product of the thing it purports to describe, a tour de force of self-destruction, an amusement, a distraction from the real work of facing up to and alleviating suffering, carried out by scientists, activists, and politicians throughout the world. Nothing more, and nothing less.


Marek Sullivan is studying for a DPhil in Theology at Balliol College, Oxford.