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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018




According to current scholarship on human prehistory, it seems that the grand tragedy of humankind hinged on our invention of agriculture. Our ingenuity, which enabled us to thrive for tens of thousands of years in all kinds of ecological conditions, both surpassed itself and imperiled its authors at one stroke. Our greatest strength in its greatest moment exposed our greatest flaw—our greed, our fear, and our violence. The roughly 10,000 years that have followed, less than ten percent of our species’ time on Earth and less than half of one percent of our genus’ time on Earth, have witnessed an epic struggle between the forces of advancement and the forces of decay unleashed in that portentous moment.

This chapter offers an extended meditation on the complex and problematic role of technology in human history, particularly how technology has been so readily appropriated by the logic of violence over the past 10,000 years, and the exploitation and oppression that has followed in its wake. This is first considered in relation to the technological explosion known as the Agricultural Revolution and then in the context of modern life in the United States. The rise of the modern state and its development over the last 600 years—a period Steven Pinker associates with increasing peacefulness—is assessed critically in terms of both violence and social equity.

The Agricultural Revolution

Modern humans evolved in the Pleistocene era, a period of great instability of climate punctuated by great ice ages. The most recent of these occurred some 18,000 years ago. When this last freeze finally receded 15,000 years ago, a period of much more stable global climate ensued, known as the Holocene. Today, we still enjoy the relatively serene rate of global climate change of the Holocene, though our own activity has begun to disturb that serenity in potentially catastrophic ways.  Partly in conjunction with this climatic stability, sometime approaching 10,000 years ago, humans began to experiment with domesticating plants and animals, and thus invented agriculture. Nothing would ever again be the same.

Agriculture transformed our way of life as we had practiced it throughout our entire evolutionary history, especially in two key respects. First, the demands of agriculture required that we become less nomadic, so that we could better tend and protect our fields and animals. Within a few thousand years the leading agriculturalists were no longer nomadic at all but settled in permanent villages. Second, agriculture produced much more food, translating directly into higher populations. Villages became more and more populous, bringing fundamental changes to the texture of human life, such as government and religion, a more highly defined division of labor featuring specialized trades like soldiering and the arts, as well as more rigid, and less equal, gender roles.

The advantages of agriculture to humans are well known, but the tradeoffs are typically overlooked. Village life proved less egalitarian and more violent than yesteryear’s nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. The social structures of the previous 100,000 years, and possibly much longer, fell apart within a comparatively short span of time—just a few thousand years. The social mechanisms that had kept hunter-gather bands relatively egalitarian and peaceful, including adaptive shame, gossip, and the vigilance of the whole, were no longer effective with much larger populations. Factions began to form that split the whole; and there was more room for freeloaders to work covertly on the margins to build little advantages for themselves here and there. In short order, these villages were no longer effectively egalitarian but hierarchical, with some factions accruing more power than others, and some free-riders getting increasingly ahead of the rest of the herd.

As egalitarian structures broke down, violence rose. After all, that category we called hierarchy-oriented violence was once more open for full expression for the first time in perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. Alpha-wannabes now had a real chance to achieve the dominance for which they had always lusted, and were undoubtedly unrestrained in their pursuit of it. Others likely fought over the scraps of power thrown to them by the alphas, just as they do in other primate species and many of us do today. And counter-dominant individuals and groups must have bridled once again under the unfairness of it all, periodically mounting attacks on alphas or the hierarchical structure itself, just as our ancestors did four or five million years ago.

Moreover, in lockstep with the rising population of villages, the issue of stranger-danger became more acute. Accustomed to living closely with up to 40 fellow humans and knowing perhaps as many as 300 more distantly, humans seem to have a natural limit to how many people with whom we can feel comfortable, probably somewhere around 300. As villages approached and then greatly surpassed that number, we for the first time faced the problem of living in close and regular proximity with people we hardly knew and had no particular reason to trust. Also, given that cheaters and dominators were now running amuck amongst us, we had even less reason to trust a fellow villager than we ever had.

Finally, the structure of farms and villages exacerbates the vulnerability of humans to warfare. As populations explode, the need for fields and pastures increases, creating a natural tendency for expansion. At the same time, however, this expansion is rooted to a specific place—we could no longer very easily collect all our belongings and walk to a more remote valley. No, when confronted with the incursions of an expansive or otherwise intransigent neighbor, there was little possibility of the tried and true strategy of avoidance. The skirmishes and all-out savagery of warfare would have become far more common.

Given these new circumstances, it is small wonder that centralized, hierarchical social structures became increasingly prominent as population densities rose. Early on, there might have been a Big Man who had very limited powers. This form evolved into chiefs, then into lords and kings and, in modern times, what we now call heads of state. At its most benign, bureaucratic forms developed to deal with the growing complexities of life in a densely populated agrarian (and then urban) society. According to the conventional interpretation, the problem of violence was one of these complexities. Centralized authority, it is often said, reduces violence and is, therefore, a force for peace. The Hobbesian view most recently espoused by Steven Pinker argues, moreover, that a chief virtue of the state is its monopoly on violence. The state uses its monopoly to punish alpha-wannabes and freeloaders who use violence to advance their own interests; and it uses its monopoly to wage, or threaten to wage, war on neighboring states. All of this keeps us, the appropriately subordinated citizen, peaceful and happy.

As a historical matter, it is undoubtedly true that strong, centralized states had an effective monopoly on violence that suppressed other kinds of violence; and the data seem to suggest that this might have translated into lower overall rates of violence despite the fact that states were often quite violent all on their own. But lower compared to what? When we take the larger view of our 125,000 years on this Earth, strong centralized states emerge not as the solution to the problem of violence but as a significant expression of the problem of violence in the post-Pleistocene era. In short, states represent the calcification and perpetuation of hierarchy and violence in a densely populated world. This is what I call the New Problem of Violence.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that a return to the Stone Age would be either possible or desirable. Our evolutionary environment of adaptedness is irretrievably lost. Moreover, in all likelihood the Stone Age offered a far more difficult existence than many of us know today, not some kind of idyllic paradise. I am suggesting, rather, that egalitarianism and peacefulness come naturally to humans, even trumping our more aggressive impulses when the conditions are right. This opens up the possibility that we might fashion such conditions today to enjoy peace and equality in a context of much greater material security than we had ever known in the Pleistocene. Furthermore, we may have little choice. If we do not find a solution to the problems of violence, and soon, we risk our own extinction.


Pinker argues, first, that human conditions before agriculture were horrifically violent, as we saw in the last chapter; second, he argues that the past 600 years, especially, have delivered dramatic improvements in the politics of hierarchy, bringing us, among other benefits, more democratic forms of government and broadened individual rights. If Pinker was entirely wrong about the first claim, he is largely correct about the second—most of us, in the developed West at least, do enjoy a higher quality of life and lower rates of violence than our ancestors endured in the 1400s. Pinker’s analysis ultimately fails, however, for two reasons. First, it leaves completely out of account a great deal of the violence that persists in modern life, including systemic violence, economic deprivation, and environmental degradation (and for these reasons undercounts violence especially in the Global South); I argued this in Chapter 1.

And second, Pinker gives the credit to the containment of violence in general, and over the past 600 years in particular, to strong states—that is to say, Hobbes’ leviathan. He is arguing, essentially, that state power has increasingly limited the mundane brutality of daily life in the streets and, moreover, that states themselves have become less brutal. At first approximation, of course this is true. But this hardly cures what ails us today. Not only are Pinker’s reassurances overstated, they also distract us from the greatest menace of our time: the growing probability that state-sanctioned violence will cause our own extinction. Mainstream public discourse uncritically advances the tropes that the United States is a leader in democratic governance and human rights, and that capitalism is a powerful and benign engine of economic prosperity for all. But, in truth, our current politics is neither democratic nor is capitalism benign. And thus, for reasons already given, the modern world is far more violent than the mainstream discourse, including as presented by Pinker, ever acknowledges.

Let us begin with our “democracy.” Though the founders of the United States were somewhat radical for their time, they created a system that was only nominally democratic by modern theoretical standards—that is, where democracy is understood as a system in which the government is exquisitely (if not perfectly) responsive to the collective will of the people. For example: despite enshrining the principle of ‘one person, one vote,’ women were excluded entirely, as were slaves, or anyone who did not own property.

While these most egregious aspects of the original plan were eventually rescinded, we are far from enjoying anything much like democracy even now. According to a rigorously quantitative Princeton study, despite advances in representation over the past 230 years, the United States still fails to meet the basic requirements of a democracy.  Though the slaves were emancipated in 1861 and their franchise legally secured in 1965, and though women won the right to vote in 1920, Gilens and Page were forced to conclude in 2014 that, “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”  On this basis, the authors reasonably suggested that American is no democracy at all, but really an oligarchy.

I have posited that less egalitarian political forms would amplify hierarchy-oriented violence, both in the top-down sense of repression and the bottom-up sense of counter-dominant protest. We can see top-down repression in the astronomical rates of incarceration  and continued practice of capital punishment,  shockingly high rates of infant mortality,  poor health outcomes generally (despite an exhorbitantly expensive healthcare system),  and a huge military budget. From the bottom-up, we see high rates of homicide relative to more-democratic countries,  including off-the-charts numbers of firearm-related deaths.  In this category we must include all cases of domestic terrorism, such as the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City that claimed 168 lives, the shooting spree at Fort Hood in 2009 in which 13 were killed, and the far larger category of racially motivated lynchings and other hate crimes.  Tragically, we must also include in this category high rates of suicide,  and especially suicides among active duty and veteran military personnel.  (Remember what we learned about shamed identity: the hostility goes both outward against the world and inward against the self.)

The counterargument might be: As bad as all this may seem, still, it is far better than the political realities of 600 years ago—thanks to strong states. To the contrary, one could read Pinker’s data and draw an entirely different conclusion: that the advances in human rights over the past 600 years have involved the progressive limitation of state power. Individual rights have arisen precisely as a brake on the state’s capacity to use violence against its own citizens, and international regimes such as the United Nations and NGOs such as Amnesty International have vouchsafed global peace and human rights to the extent that they, too, have constrained state power.  

As Gilens and Page showed, our politics are entirely beholden to well-established economic interests.  The gross inequality of wealth in the United States now registers at close to an historic high, with 20% of total income owned by 1% of the population.  In other words, we live in one of the least egalitarian conditions humans have ever known. We happen to occupy a particularly imbalanced moment in our history, but the logic of economic inequality is not new. It is the same logic that has prevailed, to one degree or another, for at least 8,000 years. It is the logic of violence animated by the problem of hierarchy.

Indeed, capitalism directly codifies the logic of violence. In its theoretical structure, as conceived by Adam Smith, it begins with owners and laborers. This structure incentivizes the owners to make as much profit as possible and to pay as little wage as possible. While Smith imagined an “invisible hand” that would keep these dynamics within a certain range, there was no question that laborers would struggle on the edge of subsistence and owners would enjoy plentitude. Nowhere in the original theory was it imagined that laborers would someday hoist themselves into the owner class. But this idea has been promoted relentlessly by the forces of capitalism, who have suggested that equality of opportunity within capitalism would allow laborers the possibility, through dedication and hard work, to accrue sufficient capital to become owners in their own right. Despite the rise of a large middle class, for most people in the United States this promise has not been delivered. Not only is the disparity of wealth now at an almost all-time high but, as Thomas Picketty concludes, “there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.”  We should expect nothing other than this result from an economy dominated by the logic of violence.

What bounty the middle class has reaped has been purchased at a steep price, an expensive line of credit that has come due, especially for ecological reasons. This wealth was generated by the exploitation of slave labor in early capitalism and other forms of cheap and inhumane labor up to the present day. With the advance of civil rights and better education throughout the world, fewer and fewer labor markets remain to be exploited in this ruthless, if highly profitable, fashion. This wealth was also generated by the exploitation of cheap energy, enabling us to mechanize systems of production that allowed manufacturers to produce goods more plentifully and more cheaply than could have been done with human brawn alone. But we thereby incurred a debt of global greenhouse gas emissions that has become so onerous it now threatens our very survival. And this wealth was generated by the exploitation of cheap raw materials, such as wood and metals. But these materials have become more scarce due to depletion and more expensive due to a variety of changes in the global economy, including economic development and environmental regulation. The bubble of material wealth-creation has burst.

Now faced with a contracting global economy even as the human population continues to grow, the potential for violence increases. As the middle class becomes relatively less affluent and the upper class becomes smaller and more concentrated the disparity of wealth between them intensifies. Naturally, this generates a sense of unfairness; our counter-dominant impulses rise up, and we become angry. In its empowered, non-shamed form, this anger can motivate progressive or radical social change. In its disempowered and shame-based form, it inspires tantruming rage and violence—which is, I believe, precisely what we see playing out on the alt-right today.

Finally, let us consider how technology plays into the dynamic of strong states and systemic violence. Looking over the vast trajectory of hominid evolution, climate and technology have played leading and interrelated roles. The rapid variation in global climate of the Pleistocene may have forced our ancestors to develop new technologies to survive, like fire, which enabled us to cook our meat, which enabled us to grow bigger brains, which enabled us to fashion stone tools, and so on.  Then, in the relative climatic calm of the Holocene, our now-massive brains were able to take advantage of stable weather to domesticate plants and animals. And thus was ushered in the age of hierarchy, warfare, and states—but also unprecedented food security and material abundance. A second Agricultural Revolution occurred around 500 years ago, in which European farmers discovered that they could greatly increase their yield using crop rotation and other methods. Before this, growing food required no less than 80% of the population’s labor. Within 350 years that number plummeted to 3%, opening the way for new economic activities and ushering in the Industrial Revolution.  Over the 150 years since, the pace of technological change has increased at an accelerating rate. For the first time in the history of life, each generation grows up with vastly different, and much more powerful, tools than the generation before.This fact has profound and mostly unacknowledged implications for the story of violence.

For example: When children have a better grasp than their parents of the capabilities of the most powerful tools ever created, the usual balance of power between parents and children is radically upended. In hunter-gatherer societies and in modern societies until recent decades, adults would carefully induct their children into the use of the tools of household, forest, field, and factory. This was part of the sacred ground of parenting. Though parents will always have more knowledge and experience than their children in a wide range of significant domains, the breakneck speed of technological innovation has broken the spell of parental omniscience. Adults are a bit dim-witted and out of step; kids have a real claim to knowing more about the world than their parents.

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld has identified this as one key cause in a new crisis of childhood development, what he calls peer orientation.  With the loss of power by adults, kids are looking to one another for leadership and wisdom at far too young an age. As a result, the real wisdom of elders gets lost, and young people get caught up all the more in the shallow world of social media, unaware of deeper layers of human experiencing, feeling, and thought. On balance, we might imagine, this is more likely to support the logic of violence than the less obvious riches of peace. According to Neufeld, peer orientation correlates with higher aggression and more bullying.

Something still more sinister and disturbing, however, lurks in the story of modern technological innovation. The breathless pace of technological innovation is driven almost entirely by large corporations whose sole motivation is to capture as many users as possible in order to extract the greatest possible profit. For decades these corporations have been using the most advanced psychological methods to market directly to the very children who are cast adrift in a sea of confusion based on peer orientation. As a direct result, the lives of average members of the world’s industrialized societies are now almost entirely mediated by cutting-edge and proprietary technology. We work all day at a computer, our leisure is overwhelmingly screen-based, our social lives occur more on social media than in person, and our political discourse is enacted within the virtual echo chambers of the likeminded. We have become more isolated from real human contact, from the natural world, and from any source of wisdom other than our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feed.

We live in an age of technotalitarianism. The explicit goal of those major corporations that own the technological infrastructure is to mediate more and more of their users’ experience. This trends in the direction of totalistic control over the whole life of each user. In this way, our every moment can be monitored, monetized, and shaped according to the aims and values of the corporate owner. While we retain our freedom to some degree out in the physical world, we become enslaved to the masters of the virtual world. Best of all, we not only submit to this slavery without resistance, but consider ourselves very fortunate indeed to have the magical realm of cyberspace at our disposal at all times. Every new device and every new app becomes a prized possession and symbol of status—and a further capitulation of our freedom of thought and expression. While we managed to escape the clutches of totalitarianism in the 20th Century, we have fallen headlong into the abyss of technotalitarianism in the 21st.

Apologists for technology forever remind us that technology is neither good nor bad. Indeed, without technology we might never have grown our bigger brains and never discovered higher consciousness, art, philosophy, or romantic love. As for today, technology has been appropriated both for violence and for peace. Indeed, I suggest that modern technology enables humans to do something unthinkable without it: to create a global community of peace. But so long as technology is developed, marketed, and utilized under the logic of violence, it only amplifies the potential for humans to harm one another, as a review of modern military history most unambiguously demonstrates. But on a subtle and much more pervasive basis, the logic of violence leverages advanced technology to keep us socially isolated, feverish for satisfaction that is never quite fulfilled, and unable to think radically for ourselves. This all plays to the advantage of the owners, by design.

Since the original Agricultural Revolution, we have created a culture rooted in the logic of violence and, hence, one that is fundamentally exploitative. The particular forms of exploitation developed in the culture of the Fertile Crescent, later brought to Europe and then exported throughout the world, have found their most advanced expression in the age of globalization. This culture has always been rigidly hierarchical and floridly violent. It is a culture that uses maladaptive shame to maintain its hierarchical structure, raising up those with power and demeaning those without it. These themes run through most of our cultural forms. In religion we can see it clearly in the Old Testament, with its violent and shaming God, and how this is forcefully deployed by the fundamentalists of today. And, as we have seen, we can find it everywhere in our political and economic systems. The sword by which this culture has come to rule the world is the very same sword that will destroy that culture in an orgy of suicide/genocide/ecocide. The last 10,000 years have been a murderous rampage of a species bent on its own destruction. We now approach the final hour.