A Blinkered Reality

A review of Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

The author Steven Pinker’s blinkered perspective in Enlightenment Now is limited to critiquing what remains of an academic leftism often accused of a reflexive anti-Western bias. Pinker’s advocacy of rationality and science in itself adds little to the mainstream recognition of human intellectual advancement since the 18th century Enlightenment. Over the centuries, the main opponent of free inquiry, it should be recalled, was organized religion–the ideological dogmas of which sanctified State despotism and discouraged independent learning (and even literacy).

Yes, “wealth is created.” But how? Pinker blithely ignores the global reality of opposing class-interests. In the late 20th century, in the name of promoting “development,” the World Bank and the IMF produced a mountain of Third World indebtedness to the extent that many nations were compelled to drastically cut critical social services in order to service that debt (or default). Moreover, trans-national capital flow continues today to seek out poverty-wage locales for sweatshop manufacturing (little or no labor rights, few if any environmental regulations, etc.). Pinker likewise fails to discuss the quite favorable “profit-sharing agreements” imposed by oil companies and others (think Iraq, Nigeria, etc.)

In his paean to the establishment of the United Nations (1945), and of growing recognition of international human rights in general, he hypocritically ignores the United States’ repeated violation of the UN Charter and Security Council edicts (most egregiously in 2003, when the Bush Administration flagrantly ignored the Security Council’s veto of the imminent invasion of Iraq). And surely, such waging of aggressive war–in the case of Iraq, destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions, remains even today the foremost threat to the very “reason-and-progress” which Pinker proselytizes. And Pinker, who manifests a surprising ignorance of U.S. foreign policy (cf. Noam Chomsky’s seminal book Rogue States), also seems uninformed about the U.S.-imposed, draconian sanctions, which have deliberately caused very high rates of infant mortality and massive starvation (Iraq, North Korea, etc.). Such horrors remain unseen through rosy-colored spectacles which can only detect growing “peace-and-prosperity.”

(Computers were indeed labor-saving devices; i.e., substitutes for millions of white-collar workers, thereby making dramatic labor-cost reduction once again a major source of corporate profit.) What of the emerging “gig economy,” in which millions of young people, already saddled with about $1.25 trillion in student loan debt (U.S.), are finding themselves under-employed and without union representation? A possible “jobless future”? Ironically enough, Oxford Martin’s Our World in Data, the primary source for Pinker’s sunny diagnostics, has warned of just such a possibility.

Pinker strives to document his claims of decreasing world poverty and social problems with some dubious sources: not only Oxford Martin, but endless charts provided by the World Bank and the CIA. Without necessarily invoking – “lies, damned lies, and statistics”– one is entitled to question the objectivity and ideological agendas of such sources. Low-wages and dubious lending schemes, as well as fomenting insurgencies, have crippled economic conditions in innumerable nations. Pinker doesn’t seem aware that some 75 or so global mega-billionaires have a combined wealth greater than that of the roughly 3,500,000,000 living largely in the Global South (Oxfam data). Perhaps he is confidently awaiting that most elusive of phenomena: the “trickle down.”

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.