Some would suggest that our modern world has become less violent and more peaceful; the truth is more complicated and a lot more violent.
The idea that previous historical periods were distinctly more brutal than one’s own has dominated much of the social thinking over the past 300 years. The philosophers of the Enlightenment – from de Saint-Pierre to Kant and Leibniz – all understood modernity as the panacea for violence. In their view the rise of reason would eventually confine war and other violent behaviours to the dustbin of history. Such ideas have gradually been embraced by the wider public, and now most people see their pre-modern ancestors as violent barbarians who engaged in killings, torture and rape on a daily basis. The stereotypical associations invoke the Spanish Inquisition and European medieval torture as an illustration of how widespread premodern violence was.
Our predecessors are often depicted as aggressive and merciless creatures engaged in never-ending wars of conquest. In contrast, one’s own times are represented as the pinnacle of human history wherein violence has experienced an unprecedented decline. The leading academic representative of this view, Steven Pinker, argues in his recent books that we live in "the most peaceful era in ours species' existence." He makes a case that human beings are inherently violent creatures and as civilisation progresses, it allegedly tames our inner beasts.
However, this simplified and one-dimensional narrative flies in the face of empirical evidence. As I argue in "The Rise of Organised Brutality" rather than witnessing incessant decline, organised forms of violence have experienced a staggering and relatively continuous increase over the past 10,000 years. To understand the historical dynamics of violence it is important to contextualise its occurrences. Hence rather that taking pre-modern documents at face value and assuming that the traditional world was engulfed in daily violence it is crucial to probe such sources.
Most historians now agree that the pre-modern documents tend either to exaggerate or completely fabricate the numbers of war casualties or torture victims. For example the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" just as the Bible and Talmud contain many descriptions of mass slaughter such as the famous line on the killing of Amalekites in Samuel 15:2-3 that instructs the faithful to "kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." However, such statements should not be read as factual recordings but as deliberate exaggerations intended not to inform but to invoke fear and religious reverence.
Hence ancient religious texts are no reliable guides on the scale of actual violence in the ancient world. Similarly one of the most influential early history books, Flavious Josephus’ "War of the Jews" (75 CE) states that the siege of Jerusalem resulted in over a million deaths.
Nevertheless, as the archaeological research indicates Jerusalem at that time had fewer than 60,000 inhabitants so this obviously could not be possible. The Spanish conquest of America is often portrayed in terms of a few conquistadors destroying entire civilisations: Pizzaro’s 106 men conquering the several million people-strong Inca Empire or the killing of 100,000 natives by 200 Spanish soldiers on the island of Hispaniola in 1495.
Recent scholarship indicates clearly that none of these claims are true as conquistadors relied heavily on local allies who did most of the fighting and the scale of direct casualties were substantially smaller. Even the infamous Spanish Inquisition was not particularly brutal, as only 1.8 percent of those condemned were actually executed.
In sharp contrast, the modern era is characterised by unprecedented, and well documented, mass killings. While war-related casualties and other human driven violent episodes have experienced a dramatic increase throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, it is the 20th century that has, so far, been the pinnacle of mass slaughter in human history.
The two world wars together with the genocides, revolutions and other mass killings, including the systematic destruction of one’s own populations have resulted in around 200 million deaths worldwide. Furthermore, organisational and ideological developments have made mass killings easier to undertake and legitimise, while technological advancements have quickened this process. For example while Tsarist Russia executed less than 4,000 individuals accused of political crimes during a period of 85 years, the Soviet NKVD killed around 700,000 political prisoners in a few months with an average of 1,000 executions per day.
The speed and scale of mass killings in the Nazi death camps was even more staggering: in Majdanek extermination camp 18,000 Jews were killed on November 3, 1943 in a few hours. No premodern state had the organisational and technological means to destroy this many people in such a short period of time.
Although conventional wars and revolutions have recently been replaced with civil wars and insurgencies, there is no sign that violence as such is decreasing.
For one thing, the proliferation of nuclear weaponry has made global annihilation an ever present daily possibility while also making some traditional forms of political violence redundant in this process.
While organised violence has experienced a transformation wherein the relative decline in direct war fatalities is now replaced with the ever increased coerciveness of states and non-state organisations, the expansion of military spending, the development of selective and strategic killing systems, the unprecedented scale of population displacements, staggering incarceration rates, worldwide increase in suicides, the opioid epidemics and the irreparable destruction of the environment leading towards very likely future wars over scarce resources. As the UNHCR documents, there are currently 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, which is the highest number ever recorded.
To fully understand how and why violence surges over the course of human history, it is necessary to zoom in on the role of organisation, ideology and small group solidarity.
In my book, I show how violence is not a biological propensity but something that is dependent on ever-increasing organisational capacities – the presence of effective state apparatuses, social movements, political parties, private corporations and religious institutions. As these entities grow and expand, they attain greater coercive power that is periodically deployed for mass destruction.
With the rise of infrastructural capacities, including better communication networks, transport, technology and information exchange, modern social organisations possess enormous coercive capabilities that are also successfully justified through the use of elaborate ideological narratives.
The democratisation of politics in the modern era allows for the state’s greater ideological penetration into society. Ultimately this process creates conditions for the mass justification of violence as well as for the mobilisation of millions of people for wars, genocides, revolutions, terrorism and other forms of organised violence.
Ideological narratives gain traction from their ability to emulate small group solidarity – our intimate networks of families and friendships. It is no accident that all major ideological doctrines invoke kinship concepts such as motherland and fatherland, our sacred brotherhood or precious sisterhood.
Organisational and ideological powers work best when they successfully tap into our micro-worlds and justify the use of violence through 'ethical' and emotional appeals of solidarity and justice. Hence collective violence is dependent on organisational capacity, ideological diffusion and small group solidarity, and as long as these processes proliferate so does the potential for large-scale destruction.
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