The Weird End-State of Pollyanaism

Holy Pinker, Batman! The world is a vastly better place than we knew. Because: war.

At first, when I read this piece, I thought that a strongly-worded letter to the editor was in order, but it appears to just be a plug for a book. An extremely inept plug. For a book that (judging by the plug) is hardly worth reading.

Part of me desperately wants to understand what motivates this kind of writing. It strikes me as without value of any sort – it’s not history, it’s not entertainment, and it’s hardly philosophy. It’s provocative, I suppose. But what are we supposed to think and conclude? “Oh, wow, everything I thought I believed, was wrong”? That’s an incredible idea, because the basic premise appears to be so contrarian, it’s nonsensical.

In the long run, wars make us safer and richer

Ian Morris writes, in the Washington Post: [wapo]

Norman Angell, the Paris editor of Britain’s Daily Mail, was a man who expected to be listened to. Yet even he was astonished by the success of his book “The Great Illusion,” in which he announced that war had put itself out of business. “The day for progress by force has passed,” he explained. From now on, “it will be progress by ideas or not at all.”

He wrote these words in 1910. One politician after another lined up to praise the book. Four years later, the same men started World War I. By 1918, they had killed 15 million people; by 1945, the death toll from two world wars had passed 100 million and a nuclear arms race had begun. In 1983, U.S. war games suggested that an all-out battle with the Soviet Union would kill a billion people — at the time, one human in five — in the first few weeks. And today, a century after the beginning of the Great War, civil war is raging in Syria, tanks are massing on Ukraine’s borders and a fight against terrorism seems to have no end.

So yes, war is hell — but have you considered the alternatives?

“Have you considered the alternatives”?


When looking upon the long run of history, it becomes clear that through 10,000 years of conflict, humanity has created larger, more organized societies that have greatly reduced the risk that their members will die violently. These better organized societies also have created the conditions for higher living standards and economic growth. War has not only made us safer, but richer, too.

See the problem here? He’s concerned himself only with the end-state of affairs. And he’s only looking at it from the winner’s perspective. The better organized societies that he’s referring to: those are the ones that won the wars. They are larger and more organized because being larger and more organized is how you win wars. He’s not making an argument, he’s just asserting that the status quo is great because it’s where we are.

Take the long view. The world of the Stone Age, for instance, was a rough place; 10,000 years ago, if someone used force to settle an argument, he or she faced few constraints. Killing was normally on a small scale, in homicides, vendettas and raids, but because populations were tiny, the steady drip of low-level killing took an appalling toll. By many estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all Stone Age humans died at the hands of other people.

One of the reasons that many parts of the world have moved away from autocracy is because of autocrats’ endless wars of self-aggrandizement. The word “pointless” fits in there: wars that are fought so that King Thag can feel his juices, or increase the size of his kingdom, or show his dominance – those wars are, literally, pointless: they’re just a thing that happens because King Thag sees violence as a thing to do. King Thag could have enlarged the kingdom by being a good ruler, being just and peaceful, and balancing the output of the kingdom so that there were temples of learning, trade bazaars, and beautiful public spaces – Thag’s people could have followed out of love (and self-interest) rather than fear. Those civilizations didn’t leave a bloody mark in the pages of history; they were overrun and crushed by civilizations that were larger or had technology developed for warfare. What Morris is saying sounds suspiciously like, “look at all the neat technology you have, thanks to warfare!” but we could have had that technology peacefully. Civilization is a system that evolved in order to allow an upper/elite class to exist and to justify (seldom rein in) their greed and desire for nice palaces and whatnot. But Morris waves a hand in passing at the enlightenment political philosophers (he mentions Locke) while studiously not mentioning that their concern with politics was the legitimacy of the state – i.e.: how can the people who do all the work live without autocrats? And what is the thing about autocrats that makes the people want to live without them: autocrats cause wars. Morris says that we now have nice big technological civilizations, but doesn’t want to engage with the fact that autocracy is on the rise and the most militant states on the world stage are autocracies. Yes, they are big and powerful, but the history of political thinking to date has been filled with “how to rein in the autocrats?” Why would anyone want to do that? The wars, of course.

It is possible to imagine a world in which the economics of free markets and competition brought about similar accretions of power, technology, and inequality. It’s just unimaginably unlikely because we haven’t figured out how to get power out of the hands of the autocrats. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible because power is what autocrats do.  They create it, or steal it when someone’s back is turned – and the first thing they do when they get in power, once their palace is re-decorated, is start wars. Morris has to confront the fact that the history of politics is at least in part a dialogue about how the mice can bell the cat: live peacefully without war. You can’t say “yes! It is because of the desire to avoid war that we have all the good things, including …. (drum roll) a massive history of war.” We were trying to avoid that. The desired outcome was peace, unless you asked the autocrat.

This puts the past 100 years in perspective. Since 1914, we have endured world wars, genocides and government-sponsored famines, not to mention civil strife, riots and murders. Altogether, we have killed a staggering 100 million to 200 million of our own kind. But over the century, about 10 billion lives were lived — which means that just 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population died violently. Those lucky enough to be born in the 20th century were on average 10 times less likely to come to a grisly end than those born in the Stone Age. And since 2000, the United Nations tells us, the risk of violent death has fallen even further, to 0.7 percent.

I’m struggling to find the point here. Morris appears to be arguing that we’re supposed to be impressed – happy, even – with the idea that the people who survive have been proportionally less likely to die in a war but we still killed 100-200 million people. Those people are not thankful for the wars that put an end to their hopes and dreams and families. It seems to me that Morris’ viewpoint aligns solidly with the winners – oh, yes, we had a nice gleaming British Empire on which the sun never set, but it was built out of genocidal wars. Proportionally, life is better for the survivors and the winners. The losers aren’t complaining. Well, the ones that died aren’t. There are a lot of survivors that face famine, horrendous living conditions, brutal dictatorships, water shortages, etc., all in service of making life better for the survivors of the wars. It makes sense that Morris would say that, because he’s writing for the winners of a global war of empire, and all the wars sure did make life (eventually) very good for the winners. In fact, though, the massive economic drag of wars and reconstruction – let alone the human cost – are a zero-sum waste. I can assert safely that if the world’s economic output were spent on producing more beautiful, intelligent, just civilizations, even fewer people would die in wars or of starvation or other miseries. The US spends about $1tn annually on its global empire, and it could quite easily spend that money on social programs, education, medicine, science, etc. Saying “it is possible” does not mean it’s likely, of course – because the world is run by war-causing autocrats and every advanced civilization needs to prepare to defend itself from every other advanced civilization. Morris seems to think that everyone should be grateful, but I think he’s really writing mostly from the perspective of the autocrats, who have successfully used war to elevate themselves so that they attract boot-lickers who crawl over to them, asserting “no, really, it’s OK that you killed a bunch of my ancestors; my house is much roomier that way and there are fewer mouths to feed.” Or some such nonsense.

As this process unfolded, humanity prospered. Ten thousand years ago, when the planet’s population was 6 million or so, people lived about 30 years on average and supported themselves on the equivalent income of about $2 per day. Now, more than 7 billion people are on Earth, living more than twice as long (an average of 67 years), and with an average income of $25 per day.

The reason people live longer has nothing to do with wars at all – that’s almost entirely due to humanity’s discovery of bacteria and basic sanitation. As you can see, we’re struggling with virology, but we’ve sort of got a handle on how bacteriology works. But, really, the point comes down to Morris’ metrics for “success” – he’s looking at longevity and income and he’s not taking into account other, equipotentially important, things like “not being subjected to an autocracy”, or “not having food used as a weapon or means of social control against me.” The US looks great, for example, until you examine its labor practices and the way medical insurance is used to create a permanently trapped intermediate class that is beholden to corporate masters who control medical care – or how racism, drug policies, a financial system that services mostly the rich, and a divided educational system that produces oligarchs or office workers – wage slaves to be slotted into an economy. Morris is trying to convince us that lamentable system is great because more people live under it than ever before but how are we supposed to thank warfare for that when the whole system of oppression has grown in place to replace the need for “war”? Did Morris not notice how the police have become militarized, or how the military/industrial complex depends on cheap labor from an economically captive work-force? Success is not necessarily living a long time, and having food: it’s having a peaceful life with an interesting culture, education, a sense of social equality, a functioning justice system, and non-autocratic government. When Morris talks about how there are more humans, and they get paid better, he sounds like a salesman for shit: 5 trillion flies love the stuff and you should too!”

This happened because about 10,000 years ago, the winners of wars began incorporating the losers into larger societies. The victors found that the only way to make these larger societies work was by developing stronger governments; and one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence among their subjects.

A little slavery’s good for ya, amirite? Because it beats being killed.

“You’ll thank me for this, later.”

That’s an outright mistake, there. Morris decides for some reason that what governments do, to stay in power, is somehow not warfare in spite of the fact that it uses the methods of warfare as the state tries to control the subjects. No subject is going to be fooled by that reasoning: they don’t care if it’s King Thag’s spearmen who come through and kill a bunch of people, or the principality across the river’s spearmen. To the losers of the wars, the point of the spear always looks pretty much the same – it’s only different and interesting to the kings who win. But I keep coming back to the question, “what is ‘success’?” is a successful civilization merely one that is large and powerful, or does it have opportunity, culture, uplift, and greatness? I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and assert for the sake of argument that perhaps there are more of us alive living under barbarian autocracies, but there is more to human progress than getting an endless succession of iPhones with more storage and shorter battery life. Perhaps the civilizations we have, now, are miserable failures, not successes – they just haven’t collapsed, yet. The US, for example, has a military that produces so much greenhouse emissions that it has a bigger “carbon footprint” than Venezuela, and the US government decided (with no supporting rationale) that the military does not count against its national carbon emissions targets. Why? Well, “you and what army?” who is going to tell the autocracy what to do? Sure, Morris can jump in and say, “but the US has not used violence to achieve those goals” but the US is actually fighting a global cold war, armed with nuclear weapons that other nations have asked it to scale back, because somehow Morris is going to tell us that the risen hegemon, raised out of endless wars, is good. Again, it seems to me that only an American can look at what has come out the other side of Europe’s 20th century wars and say, “that’s a good thing.” It’s maybe better than some of the alternatives, but that doesn’t make it good.

The men who ran these governments were no saints. They cracked down on killing not out of the goodness of their hearts but because well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones. The unintended consequence, though, was that they kick-started the process through which rates of violent death plummeted between the Stone Age and the 20th century.

This process was brutal. Whether it was the Romans in Britain or the British in India, pacification could be just as bloody as the savagery it stamped out. Yet despite the Hitlers, Stalins and Maos, over 10,000 years, war made states, and states made peace.

Now I see where Morris is going. Because the autocrats have won, and have established a power-sharing detente of sort that allows them to not rely on warfare as much, “war is good”? That’s like saying that “cancer is great stuff because it gives you so much of an education about modern medicine.” The point of all of this is that the people of the world want peace and are willing to put up with a lot of autocracy just in hope that the autocrats will leave them alone and maybe not start a nuclear war. I’m looking forward to seeing how Morris attempts a philosophical back-flip and argues that nuclear weapons are just peachy because so far they have only killed a few hundred thousand people, and we should somehow ignore the fact that they are designed and intended to kill us all. I’m tempted to argue back at Morris that none of us are prospering because we are constantly threatened with death if we don’t play nice and leave the autocrats in charge. That is the devil’s bargain we have made: the people of the world will never own their own politics because the autocrats have made it clear that they will kick over the table and walk away from the game if it looks like they’re going to lose. Some success, that.

War may well be the worst way imaginable to create larger, more peaceful societies, but the depressing fact is that it is pretty much the only way.

Because our imaginations are so limited, we cannot imagine peace, therefore we must be grateful for wars because they illustrate to us the desirability of peace. But by all means ignore the thousands of years of history of ordinary people trying to rein in autocrats to stop them from fighting wars. We figured out bacteria and are figuring out viruses and those have pushed human life-spans to the point where we live so long our brains fail. That was not something gifted to us by war, it was given to us by peace. It takes peace to grow crops, make iPhones, and engage in trade. We shouldn’t be fellating autocracy and thanking autocrats for the pointless deaths of hundreds of millions, so we could learn how nice it is not to die.

People almost never give up their freedoms – including, at times, the right to kill and impoverish one another – unless forced to do so; and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that such a defeat is imminent.

I am generally untrusting of the language of “rights” and I try to avoid it. But I really raise my eyebrow at Morris’ apparent claim that there is a right to kill and impoverish one another. There is power a’plenty to do so, but I don’t see how it’s a right. It’s telling and a bit disturbing to me that Morris immediately orients toward a negative view of liberties: we have a right to kill and impoverish but no right to enjoy ourselves and live peacefully? Now, Morris is arguing that we should appreciate war for its power to get autocrats off our backs. Except that it doesn’t get autocrats off our backs – violence is a poor tool with which to build peace.

By the 18th century, vast European empires straddled the oceans, and Scottish philosopher Adam Smith saw that something new was happening. For millennia, conquest, plunder and taxes had made rulers rich, but now, Smith realized, markets were so big that a new path to the wealth of nations was opening. Taking it, however, was complicated. Markets would work best if governments got out of them, leaving people to truck and barter; but markets would only work at all if governments got into them, enforcing their rules and keeping trade free. The solution, Smith implied, was not a Leviathan but a kind of super-Leviathan that would police global trade.

See what I mean? I have trouble taking this seriously and I can’t imagine that Morris is absolutely ignorant of the fact that the markets of the empires are enforced by gunboats. Does he think that the British and American imperial messing about in the middle east, or China, were somehow free markets in effect? Of course not – but he wants to apparently consider that free markets are what we suddenly have, because millennia of warfare allowed us to build what we have? I don’t get it.

However, the Pax Britannica rested on a paradox. To sell its goods and services, Britain needed other countries to be rich enough to buy them. That meant that, like it or not, Britain had to encourage other nations to industrialize and accumulate wealth.

The Taiping Market Correction

Where does he come up with this stuff? Britain used gunboats and opium to pry open markets in India and China, then proceeded to ruthlessly extract as much silver and gold as they could, giving nothing but bullets and addiction in return. I can’t seem to make out the line that Morris is trying to draw between “the bad old days” and “the golden age that is now.” Basically, his argument seems to be that war brought us all this great wealth, therefore it was good – but, please, completely ignore the millions of people who were broken in the process because the end-point where we are now is really good.

All this smacks, to me, of “the end of history” stuff. You know, when the winners of imperial struggle and extractive capitalism declare, “our job here, is done” – sort of the economic equivalent of George W. Bush’s landing on the aircraft carrier and announcing that we were about to lose an insurgency.

Like its predecessor, the United States oversaw a huge expansion of trade, intimidated other countries into not making wars that would disturb the world order, and drove rates of violent death even lower.

This is weirdness, to me. Overlooked and ignored are the Vietnam war, Iraq war, Afghanistan war – wars that cost millions of lives, and a tremendous amount of money, while accomplishing exactly nothing. Those wars did not make the world a better place for anyone except defense contractors; they didn’t even make the world a better place for autocrats. Yes, the overall rate of violent death has been driven down but that’s only because Morris has cherry-picked a very narrow metric on which to hang his argument. Sure, there are more people alive and making a living, but what percentage of them are working for subsistence wages making iPhones, while the average wage goes up because the distribution is increasing but it’s violently skewed toward the elite class and their minions?

On one hand, we have to deny the brute fact that wars rip lives apart, kill, destroy, sow chaos, and pointlessly waste resources and on the other we have to ignore that those longer better-paid lives are only enjoyed by an increasingly narrow band of winners – winners in the war of all against all.

I’ve been thrashing at this topic for too long, and I can’t seem to reach a point in Morris’ traipsing through history. That worries me, because I’m afraid that he actually has one, and I’ve missed it. But what I come up to is this:

  • The Present is good. Especially because I’m one of the people who’s on the winning side of “The present” and everyone else are just eggs that had to be broken in order for me to be here where I am, which is pretty much great.
  • “Success” is defined in alignment with the oligarchs who rule the world: more stuff, higher wages, and all of the rich people’s lawns that you want to mow.

His conclusion, though, is that because we’re here where we are, and he likes it, that that’s how it always had to be. That’s nonsensical. Can you imagine a world where the Vietnam war never happened? I can. It would have saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars. The lines on the map that were established post-war could have been established through honest diplomacy if only the autocrats on all sides of the situation had been willing to negotiate instead of sending other people to war. Can you imagine a world where the US did not topple Iraq? I can. In fact, other than death, political turmoil, and – oh, yes, holding down oil prices – that adventure didn’t accomplish a damn thing. Can you imagine a world where the US did not topple Afghanistan and try to rebuild it into a Starbucks’ franchise? I can. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination.

So my conclusion is that Morris is dishonest in how he chooses “success” and his dishonesty is inexcusable. There is much more to life than living longer and making a better salary. In fact, that’s a remarkably self-serving bourgeois metric; ignored are the all-important personal moments between lovers and families, the shared meals, time spent in conversation with friends, art, music, dancing, story-telling – the vast panoply of human experiences that do make life valuable; human experiences that are the first things that get shattered by war. As I read Morris’ little book plug, I’m afraid my jaw kept hanging open as I imagined “tell that to the civilians who lived in Stalingrad.” Perhaps the dead at Hiroshima are simply unappreciative of the autocrats’ efforts to make their lives better; they’re ungrateful bastards aren’t they?

I’m depressed, but not surprised, that any reputable newspaper would carry something so pointlessly provocative and endlessly wrong as Morris’ little advertorial. Surely, as Doctor Pangloss says, “this is the best of all possible worlds.” I wish I could read Voltaire’s response to Morris’ book – it would be sharper, better, and wittier than I have managed here.


  1. astringer says

    Is this book just a post hoc ergo propter hoc error along the lines of Harry Lime but dressed up posh. “in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”.

    Next in the series: “Smallpox gave us modern medicine. Therefore getting rid of smallpox was a bad idea”.

  2. Jean says

    I’d speculate that the space race has more to do with how the world evolved in the last 60+ years than the wars, at least in the western world. Of course, the funding was allowed in large part due to the potential for making toys for the generals but that is still not a result of wars.
    War is a net loss with more inequality as a result.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the thing about autocrats that makes the people want to live without them: autocrats cause wars.

    Please point us to good histories of egalitarian and pacifist movements. Nearly all uprisings have intended just to replace autocrats, not to abolish autocracy.

    And what democracies we’ve had did not tend towards peacefulness: vide Delian League, Roman Republic, USA, etc.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    “Norman Angell, the Paris editor of Britain’s Daily Mail”

    … and at that point, I’m out.

  5. dangerousbeans says

    it’s interesting how the cost of war is just measured in the people dead, not the rapes, refugees, and suffering of the conquered. i live on land stolen from the Kulin by the British, nearly two hundred years later there’s still ongoing suffering and persecution of the surviving indigenous people. the consequences of violence are not limited to the act itself.

  6. lakitha tolbert says

    So once again, we have a case of history being written by people who think they’ve won it. I think Indigenous peoples, and most of the Global South might actually have an opinion on this matter. Pinker can get back to us with his next book about how the Western nations create horrible living conditions for the rest of the world.

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