Saturday, September 09, 2006

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is the author of 'The Blank Slate' and numerous other works, professional and popular. he is a professor of psychology at MIT, and the essential gist of his work is the application of evolutionary psychology to visual cognition and language.
The Blank Slate is subtitled "The Modern Denial of Human Nature", and this really says it all. Evolutionary psychology is a thriving scientific field, but, shades of the 'two cultures of Snow', most non-scientific intellectuals deny that there is anything like "human nature". This denial is hardly echoed in "folk wisdom" where it is simple common sense that there are both commonalities and differences amongst people that are 'inherited'. The denial spans the political spectrum, and it is in the self interest of both the left and the right-for different reasons of course- to deny human nature. Even amongst anarchists who venerate, sometimes excessively, a man named Peter Kropotkin who could best be described as the "great grandfather of socio-biology" this prejudice continues.
Anyways, I'm not reading 'The Blank Slate' now, but it's in the stack of things I read while on the can. I knew beforehand that Pinker is nowhere near the demon made out in leftist mythology, just like almost all the researchers in this field are remote from the descriptions that dogmatic leftists assign to them. But imagine my surprise on coming upon the following jem on page 331 of the book,
"As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 AM on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike...
The author goes on to list the various aspects of the crime wave that broke out and continues...
"...By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist)."
The author refers to the habit (definition pretty well) of science as being the method of making predictions from a theory that can be proven right or wrong. The success of the predictions is evidence for or against the theory.
What Pinker relates is, of course, more than slight evidence against "the anarchism of Bakunin". Bakunin had a lot of dark shadows in his life, and he spouted a lot of foolishness. He had the good luck to 1)make a very few incisive observations that can be "cut out" from the rest of his words and deeds, 2)be opposed to somebody-Marx- who made him look like a saint by comparison and whose ideas have been falsified to the tune of almost 100,000,000 victims and 3) gather followers who were much more intelligent than he was and who corrected his errors without- unfortunately - ever acknowledging the magnitude of same.
Anyone who reads what Bakunin wrote and what he did in his life will, if they can set aside his contest with Marx while looking at it- a contest that was really a contest of national movements rather than one of personalities, and which was at least 5!!! pointed (Marx's followers, English trade unionists, the followers of Lasalle, the Proudhonists and the people gathered around Bakunin and his leftenants) rather than two pointed- will see that Bakunin wrote far too many things that are simply despicable. His actions remind one of a hyperactive true believer rather than an intelligent revolutionary.
Bakunin's anarchism can indeed appeal to a "teenager" where hormones and an urge to action can easily blind anyone to obvious deficiencies in one's "heroes". To my mind it is sad that too many otherwise rational people in the anarchist movement try to cover up the glaring deficiencies of someone who deserves far less than Proudhon to be seen as a "founder". As to the romantic trend of pseudo-anarchism popular in some quarters today where minor riots are seen as a substitute for real movement building and where sympathy is extended to pretty well anyone with criminal intent providing they can mouth PC rhetoric above the level achievable by any three year old- well, once more, of course.
As to what happened in Montreal i can just imagine the sort of results that would happen here in Winnipeg with a well publicized police strike. The differences would be instructive. Six banks ??? That would be what happened in the FIRST six hours once robbers realized the strike was for real. Arsons? Twelve ? It's hard to say. Here in Winnipeg that may be a very bad day with the police. But the local street gangs have gone on to new initiation fads so there may easily be less. Broken glass and looting of shops ? Not likely. maybe Winnipeg thugs are just too lazy and disorganized to form a mob. Maybe a bit in some neighbourhoods, but less than in Montreal. Killings ? Make it 6 or 10 not one. Pinker didn't mention simple assaults or robberies, but Winnipeg would probably have at least twice as many as Montreal experienced in that time. Etc. Appreciate that Winnipeg circa 2006 is NOT Montreal circa 1969. It's not even Montreal today. With a population of about 1/5th that of Montreal Winnipeg would far exceed what happened then in many ways and have far less crime in others.
Nobody except those who expend tremendous effort in justifying criminals while looking down their snotty noses at ordinary people can imagine that a simple immediate release from the state would result in-at best- something like what happened in Montreal in Pinker's adolescence. But...I am still an anarchist. Why ?
Unlike Pinker I grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan where there was a grand total of one time that the police came to down- to take a man into custody who had murdered his wife and who had come down to the general store to confess and wait for the Mounties. Seems like Pinker and I have seen different experiments run and have drawn different conclusions from them. I have drawn the conclusion that, given slow gradual change towards a less statist society, that different living arrangements can reduce and perhaps even eliminate the need for police. It actually worked and I had 13 years of observation to generalize from. Pinker had 24 hours.
The bottom line is that the "anarchism" that Pinker found so much in contradiction to reality is not all of modern anarchism. It may indeed be the anarchism of Bakunin. In Bakunin's time the police in the majority of European countries represented little more than tax collectors preying on peasant communities who upheld their own "law and order", just like the people in my home town did. It may indeed also be the "anarchism" of far too many people who mistake a violent outlook for commitment to just social change. These people exist today. They have always existed. It's the old con of gathering followers by beating your chest harder and yelling louder.
The "anarchism" that Pinker found to be false is a false anarchism. Period. end of discussion.


Werner said...

Pinker's observations try to solve a problem which is "conservative" at least in the since of a kind of "first approximation" [to borrow from engineering] to what may actually be happening in the world. Put in simpler terms what may normal, sane, and literate people do to oppose ideologies which pander-to and encourage the worst aspects of human nature? These "memes" operate by a process of denying the reality [and importance] of neurological "programming".
In two dollar language this translates into phoney tolerance for everything and everyone except the person who doesn't tolerate everything and everyone. Nothing really new there ...

Werner said...

type " sense of a kind of " ,etc.

Larry Gambone said...

I suspect that a real community, as were many peasant villages where people are guided by custom and not law, would not revert to violence minus the police. The huge, alinated uncommunities that are our cities and suburbs? If they didn't erupt into murder and mayhem in such circumstances, I would be surprised. Anyway, the idea that anarchism means the state will disapear overnight is a straw man and Pinlker, if he was half the "inlektool" he thinks he is, would be well aware of that. From my observations participating in internet discussion forums, a great many non-anarchists these days can discuss anarchism without decending to such foolishness.

Werner said...

I heard some story about the cops going on strike in Chicago around 1971 and the crime rate there actually went down!! Maybe this was just an urban legend? In the later seventies the police in Regina went on strike for a short period...actually some kind of "restricted" shift thing...they ignored generally everything except maybe arson and Murder One. Kids were riding around in old cars, perched on fenders, public drinking and whatnot. One stereo store got the shit kicked out of it a few times ie. looting. But there was no mass murder, or major increase in serious accidents or similiar disasters. And this is/was in a city which had,for decades, one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. Actually, as anyone who lives here knows, it's usually natives fighting over welfare money or sex OR the occasional politician murdering his wife. "Most" of the lowlifes don't have enough imagination or brains for really organized mayhem. I guess you can take that a couple of ways ...

mollymew said...

Pinkers View of Anarchism
The narrow view of anarchism that Pinker puts forward is actually even more strange if you realize that he was a colleague of Chomsky's at MIT. Given the difference in ages I wouldn't even be surprised if he was a student of Chomsky's at one point. For all I know they were drinking buddies.
Now, whatever one may think about Chomsky IT IS A ROCK SOLID FACT that he is NOT of the, "Little Johnny turns seven tomorrow; let's invite the Unibomber over to provide the entertainment for the party." school of anarchism (sic).
A couple of possibilities here:
1)Pinker is indeed totally ignorant of the varieties of anarchism that differ from his adolescent enthusiasm- despite the exposure to them that he later received. Perhaps he considers the subject so unimportant that such facts simply didn't register.
2)More likely he is indeed aware of such things, but ignores them for stylistic reasons. When he was writing his book it would hardly do in terms of the point he was trying to make to get bogged down in a complicated exposition of "types of anarchism".
This is a "semi-lie". He lies by ommision rather than commision. In other words he believes in the old adage- "never let inconvenient facts get in the way of a good story"