Pinker’s Enlightenment and Liberal World Order

12 March 2018, 1209 EDT

“There is not one civilized nation in the world that ought to rejoice in seeing India escape from the hands of Europe in order to fall back into a state of anarchy and barbarism worse than before the conquest.” ~Alexis de Tocqueville, in correspondence with William Nassau Senior in 1857, regarding the Sepoy Rebellion in India.

Psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, has caused quite a stir. The book itself provides the reader with an optimistic narrative about how the contemporary period is the best time to be a human; we have never lived in a safer, more joyful, period of human history. As in his monstrous prequel, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker provides statistics and data as a way of demonstrating this fact, and draws a causal historical connection about the rise of Enlightenment-era ideas–especially ideas regarding science and the decline of religious beliefs–and our moment of “bliss.”

Pinker’s optimism, however, is based on a poor reading of Enlightenment philosophy (well, actually, a clear lack of having read Enlightenment philosophy), as well as a questionable metaphysics. Others have written brilliant critiques of these issues, so I will leave you to read those (see here and here, for instance). I would like to draw on some of these themes in order to integrate the “Pinker Problem,” as I am terming it, with the recent discussion of liberal world order in both academic and policy circles (see my previous post here for some background). The issue of a declining liberal world order tends not to address the question of the genealogy of Enlightenment liberalism, and how liberal world order is not just about the creation and maintenance of cooperative institutions, but how this order reproduces the problems of Enlightenment thought, especially as relates to race, empire, and Western dominance.

In writing my current book manuscript, Liberalism and Transformation, which looks at the various iterations of liberal world order since the mid-nineteenth century, many of the issues that have perplexed and occupied me seem to have not bothered Pinker or other “liberal triumphalists” in the contemporary international affairs discourse. The first of these is: what do terms like “Enlightenment” or “liberalism” mean at all? Pinker does not define “Enlightenment” in any satisfactory way that can link theorists like Locke, Kant, Rousseau, or scientists like Newton. As alluded to earlier, it is not clear that Pinker has read or engaged with these theorists, all of whom had their own skepticism(s)/warnings about modernity, all of whom were religious, and all of whom shared a suspicion about extending the definition of “humanity” and the demand of “humaneness” to all human beings.

In the same way, when we talk about liberal world order, it is clear that we have a genealogical origin, but we implicitly ignore that (1) liberal world orders—especially those founded on empire—long predate the post-WWII institutional order and (2) that this order, itself, is implicated in its own horrors: in the Middle East in the 1950s, the Caribbean in the 1960s, East Asia in the 1960s-1970s, etc. (The liberal empire literature does a good job of reminding us of this, however. See here for a brilliant recent study).

Furthermore, one of Pinker’s most disturbing tricks in both Enlightenment Now and Better Angels of Our Nature, is the faith (and yes, I use that term purposefully) that science and expertise will solve all of our problems. He writes in an op-ed that climate change, for instance, is not about “ideology,” it is about finding technological solutions to the problem (in this case, nuclear power). Science tends to consistently save the day for Pinker. This is no different than the sorts of arguments liberals make for a strong liberal world order. After all, much of liberal international theory since the 1970s has been interested in detailing why institutions can remove politics from the equation altogether, and bring states and other actors to the table as bargainers over interests. The real benefits of a liberal international order are not that they can change the context of world politics, but that they will kill the political altogether—something that Carl Schmitt had previously called out as hypocrisy.

The difference between Pinker’s glorification of the Enlightenment, and liberals’ glorification of international liberal order, is that the latter attribute potential disruption/decline to political forces that do have dangerous intentions apropos world politics. Pinker’s blame is shifted onto the “nihilism” of thinkers like Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault—whom he cites as being part-and-parcel of the “disaster” of postmodernism.

The shame of Pinker’s arguments is that Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault (as well as Heidegger for that matter) have taught us that we should be wary of the metaphysicians who try to sell us snake oil. Contemporary conditions are not a function of a teleological “end of history,” where progress has won and are now facing challengers at the margins—be this from religion in Pinker’s case, or from global populism, in the case of liberals. They are part of long, contingent, and complicated histories, histories with tragedies and triumphs, humaneness and inhumanity.

For every Newton that the Enlightenment produced, there is a Tocqueville—ready to justify the domination of entire races in the name of reason, science, humanism, and progress.