The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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DEC 21-JAN 22 Issue
Field Notes

Capitalism, Rationality, and Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker
(Viking, 2021)

Today, 7 of the 10 wealthiest people in the world are tech moguls with backgrounds in software development.1 Below these industry captains stand an army of entrepreneurs and six digit-income professionals in information technology, making Silicon Valley one the wealthiest places in the world.2 Some of the more philosophical of these tech people congregate in a network of blogs and forums to discuss the activity of reasoning itself, calling themselves the Rationality community. Their main objective, claim the Rationalists, is to hone their skills at removing cognitive biases. For the most part, these skills are simple quantitative and logical tools. Recently, Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and one of the most popular Rationalists, has published a book called Rationality, based on a course he gives at Harvard, in which he treats the subject of reason scientifically, elaborating on subjects such as logic, probability theory, and cognitive psychology.3

Pinker is not only a scientist, but also a social commentator. He was an advisor to the proposed new university dedicated to “freedom for unpopular ideas” being organized in Austin, Texas, by a group of right-wing intellectuals including Niall Ferguson and Bari Weiss, notorious for her efforts to stifle academic free speech, although he has recently withdrawn from that enterprise. He has written popular books claiming to show that the world is becoming more rational and that this has led to decreased poverty, war, and disease, and increased wealth and happiness. Pinker describes his best seller Enlightenment Now (Bill Gates’s favorite book) as an “attempt to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century.4,5 It argues that modern capitalism, with its wealth and technological development, is rooted in the 18th-century Enlightenment. This view of history develops the theme of his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that war and other forms of violence have decreased from the beginning of human communities to present day civilization.

Aware that his views will be criticized from the Left, Pinker does not shy from battle; he claims that “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.” And in fact, left-leaning intellectuals have countered Pinker’s rosy view. For instance, Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, claims that Pinker’s account doesn’t properly assess the dispossession and genocide required to build the supposed progress that Pinker celebrates.6 Recently, the New York Times published a largely negative article on the Rationality community, associating it with white supremacists, anti-feminists, biological essentialists, and shadowy billionaires.7 The demographics of the Rationalists make them easy targets—geeky white men who work for Silicon Valley, profess libertarianism, and belong to the upper one percent are certainly easy enemies for humanities professors and lefty magazine editors. However, such criticism does not reach the most important claim of the Rationalists: that there is something called rationality that can be applied to elude cognitive biases. Instead, discussion is reduced to a question of culture war.

In a warming world increasingly destabilized due to inequality, financial fragility, pandemics, and impending food system collapse, the question of rationality is actually more important than ever, and the culture war is just a distraction. As workers are automated away and thrown into low-paying service sector jobs, and capitalists are incentivized by the financial system to get rich off appreciating stocks and real estate rather than by innovating and employing workers, Pinker’s assertion that we live in an increasingly rational world is baffling. Because Pinker’s misunderstandings are representative of the greater Rationality community, it is worth examining the views laid out in his books.

In fact, many of the ideas Pinker claims to share with the Enlightenment are the opposite of what the thinkers he cites believed. His naïvety about scientific tools such as statistics and measurement exemplifies one of the Enlightenment’s preoccupations: the limits of human perception and judgement. He doesn’t really consider the aspect of modernity that centrally puzzled that era’s thinkers; once God is removed as a source of revelation, the only ground of truth becomes limited human perception. They asked, “How much did our cognition capture reality, as opposed to reflecting erroneous thought or perception?” The most important philosopher of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, famously argued that human cognition can only perceive and process appearances, and that ultimately the “thing in itself,” the reality behind appearances, was unavailable to the human mind.

By conflating rationality with the quantitative, Pinker also misunderstands the Enlightenment’s positive content—namely, the idea that rationality is not a matter of specific tools for avoiding “cognitive bias,” but a procedure of deliberation among equals for the purpose of finding the truth. To see the limits of the quantitative tools which Pinker mistakes for Enlightenment rationality, it’s important to understand when they are useful.

The success of quantitative and data-centric approaches is best exemplified in the physical sciences. Already in the 1950s, theoretical calculations predicting the lowest energy state of a helium atom corresponded to experimental measurement with an accuracy of 1 part in 10 million. However, a helium atom in equilibrium is a very simple system, two electrons orbiting around a tiny nucleus. In contrast, the immense sea of information that affects the price of a stock or economic growth is completely beyond the capability of both mind and machine to calculate.

As statisticians compress the immense sea of data into the few variables that machines and humans can manage, much of the data is filtered out, rendering the statistical aggregates produced unstable. Economic history yields many examples. For example, the Phillips curve, picturing an empirical relationship between inflation and employment, justified the Keynesian policies of high inflation and low unemployment during the 1950s in America. However, the advent of stagflation—simultaneous high unemployment and high inflation—in the 1970s rendered the Phillips Curve obsolete, overthrowing the Keynesian consensus. Other evidence of the shortcomings of statistical methods can be seen in the replicability crisis in psychology and the poverty of economic forecasts.8

Of course, these limitations haven’t prevented statistical specialists from joining the upper one percent, influencing the actions of politicians, corporate leaders, and central banks. Steven Pinker, who belongs to this class of specialists, is the strongest defender of the statistical world order. Pinker asserts in Enlightenment Now that it is the tools of his trade—science and reason—that are behind the progress he claims modernity has achieved. And Pinker makes his case for progress using a data-centric approach; it is undeniable that the average life expectancy has increased dramatically and that modern agriculture has basically eliminated starvation, at least in the developed world. Wealth, as defined by GDP, has increased exponentially during the last two centuries.

All these quality-of-life indicators exploded as capitalism rose. It’s commerce, as described by Adam Smith, that made the flourishing of science and reason possible, since exchange incentivizes technology and innovation, which require development of the tools of rationality. The growth of an open China and the obvious economic advantage of South Korea over its northern neighbor show that it is capitalism that is progressive. In this way Pinker links his understanding of progress to the 18th-century Enlightenment, tracing his thought to Adam Smith, Kant, and others.

However, the system Pinker describes is not as simple as that of a mere electron orbiting a hydrogen nucleus. Yet his interpretation of it, in terms of squiggly lines in a graph going up or down, treats it as though it is. Instead, the capitalist system is a turbulent machine made of billions of people interacting not only among themselves but with the rest of the Earth. It’s so complex that most of the interactions and links are intractable. Such a system requires a different set of scientific tools than Pinker’s naïve statistics.

Capitalism as a fragile, complex system

The flaws in Pinker’s notion of progress become the most obvious in Better Angels of Our Nature. Through almost a thousand pages, Pinker narrates the decrease of homicide and wars through trends in data showcased by plots and figures. An obvious counterexample to his thesis is the World Wars and genocides of the 20th century. However, for Pinker neither the Holocaust nor the two World Wars represented trends, but instead were outliers triggered by ideological setbacks (e.g. fascism) in an otherwise increasingly peaceful world. His view of the massive casualties of the 20th century as mere outliers compared to the overall trend is head-scratching. However, he brings sophisticated statistical tools in his defense. Everyday statistics assume that phenomena follow a “bell curve,” where events that are very different from the average have negligible probability and appear in the thin tails far away from the bulk of the distribution. Pinker argues, in contrast, that the place of wars and other deadly conflicts in modern society should not be represented within a bell curve, but by a “heavy-tailed”—called this because the tails of the curve are not thin but instead fat. Such a curve shows that extreme events, even though they are not representative of the average, have a non-negligible probability. But while the heavy tails allow for rare but extreme wars, they represent a situation in which such individual instances do not imply a statistically significant increase in violence.

Yet here Pinker misses a point: in systems capturable by a heavy-tailed distribution, not only are catastrophic wars possible, but their casualties can surpass the deaths caused by all previous conflicts, rendering perceived trends questionable.9 To quote Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the distribution’s “statistical properties (such as the average) are dominated by extreme events.” Using the perspective of heavy tails, Taleb calculates that there’s a one in a thousand chance that more than half of the world population gets wiped out by a major conflict. Humanity plays Russian roulette with a revolver of a thousand chambers every time a conflict pops up.

The catastrophic heavy tails are the result of the massive inequality characteristic of the society that Pinker is promoting: studies have found that heavy tails are caused by “cumulative advantage,” when some quantity, whether mass in gravitational astrophysics, or wealth and credit in human social dynamics, will be distributed with a skew towards entities that already have more.10 In the solar system, 99 percent of the mass is contained in the sun, while the rest is dispersed among smaller but more numerous objects, such as planets or asteroids. In the modern economy, most of the wealth is associated with a few individuals and firms, for example, the top 20 percent of Americans who owned 77 percent of wealth in 2016.

Network theory illuminates the physics behind catastrophic heavy-tails. Capitalism can be represented by a network where nodes represent firms or individuals, and the links between them, flows of matter, labor, and money. The poorest nodes are workers, those who have only their labor to sell, or those that, even when unable to work, are still bound by debt. The economist Thomas Hauner modeled wealth in such a network, where the nodes are creditors and debtors linked through interlocking financial balance sheets.11 The rich nodes, who have the most links, can command predictable money flows from other nodes by accruing interest, whereas the poorest, debtor nodes, only have their labor as assets and are linked to the creditor nodes through debt. Hauner found that the more unequal the network—that is, the more creditor nodes can command cash flows from worker nodes—the more fragile the network. Wealthy nodes that suddenly go bankrupt will bring down other connected entities through interlocking balance sheets.

In fact, the capitalism that Pinker defends has nothing to do with the free market defended by Adam Smith, who Pinker cites mistakenly for support. In the 18th century, “market” referred to physical spaces in towns or cities where even ordinary peasants could sell their surplus grain. Today’s complex chains of middlemen between producers and buyers didn’t dominate the market. In the words of historian Fernand Braudel, it was “on the easily observed processes that took place [in small shops, workshops, banks, exchanges, and fairs] that the language of economic science was originally founded.”12

In contrast, Braudel called capitalism the “anti-market”: the realm of opacity, monopoly, and long distance. Whereas the economic-textbook market, based on Smith’s observations of local, traditional markets, regulates supply and demand through transparent deliberations between buyers and sellers; capitalism, the anti-market, imposes prices through power, cunning, and calculation. Today, the embodiment of the anti-market is a tech giant like Amazon. A recent Congressional report revealed that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook engage in calculated and underhanded attempts at curbing competition. Amazon wields market power to enforce predatory pricing, strong-arm suppliers into servicing only Amazon’s products, and force itself as a middleman between buyers and sellers.13

These large machines of cunning and power—the Amazons, Goldman Sachs, and almost all governments—vie for control over the Earth and its inhabitants, scrambling humanity through calculations that not even share-holders or managers fully understand. Nobody asked for global warming or a deadly coronavirus that spread through global supply chains. All this is the outcome of an incomprehensible chain of calculations done by states and corporations.

The deregulation of the financial system in the 1970s made markets fertile for speculation, the manipulation of assets to gain access to cheap credit lines. Profits from manufacturing declined as the number of workers that can be automated diminishes with time: labor inputs don’t become cheaper as fast as output prices can fall. Industries where workers can’t be automated away, such as healthcare and other care work, absorbed the surplus workers from manufacturing.14 However, profit margins are low in the service sector since technology can’t make labor more efficient at producing output. Due to this declining profitability of manufacturing, and the razor-thin margins of the service sector, investors began to spend on “financial products” rather than depend on dividends from profitable companies. Given that the financial sphere is made of interlocking balance sheets of pledges for future payments, it’s extremely fragile, since the failure of an agent to deliver promised payments will propagate across the chains of liabilities. In 2008, the Fed incentivized investors’ “animal spirits” even more, since the central bank printed cheap money and bought tanking assets, exchanging them for minted dollars and making asset values rise even more.

The market, instead of functioning as Pinker imagines, through scientific innovation, is instead dictated by the animal spirits of speculators irrationally pumping up assets through herd behavior. This animal psychology, already described by Keynes, fuels an increasingly more unequal society as asset holders who immediately benefit from the financial euphoria and low interest rates distinguish themselves from the precarious workers who are indebted with high-interest loans or who will never afford a house.

Underlying this tumbling pyramid of balance sheets, workers, and things, a biophysical machine imbibes fossil fuels. As automation lowers the costs of goods and services, businesses need to circulate and produce more goods to maintain decreasing margins. As economic growth slows down, more energy needs to be dissipated and matter needs to be scrambled to maintain profitability, ultimately increasing the number of possible future states (uncertainty). This growth in the number of state spaces is referred to technically as an increase in entropy. Joseph Tainter, the anthropologist, has discussed how complex stratified societies create a feedback of energetically expensive complexity growth, since problem-solving complexity begets more uncertainty that requires even more complexity, and therefore, more energy.15 As social and ecological uncertainty is increased, collapse becomes likely, since the growth in possible states increases the possibility of catastrophic events (fattening the tails I mentioned earlier).

Progress or the decline of reason?

The fragility of civilization can only be addressed with reason, but it is reason itself that capitalism undermines. Karl Marx described how capitalism separated individuals from their ancient peasant ties to throw them into factories. However, he and his socialist followers thought that the workers would become unified by factories, creating their own communities of reason, where through deliberation, self-education, and collective action they would finally take over the “means of production” and self-manage through a democratic “association of producers.” What has actually happened is that the increasing complexity, precarity, and modularization of workplaces and supply chains has progressively separated workers from each other. Every bit of human reality, from a computer network to a shirt, requires a global network of growing granular division of workplaces and labor, implicating everyone in the system but denying them the democratic and communicative mechanisms to rationally plan it. It’s this “unity-in-separation” that encroaches upon the social nature of reason, turning it into mere calculation.16

In fact, the post-Enlightenment philosophers that Pinker disdains in his book, Hegel and Marx, showed the precariousness of Pinker’s notion of progress. Hegel was interested in the Enlightenment problem, how ideas that are considered given can often be just flawed generalizations from a more intricate and unstable reality that often threatens the concept’s coherence. Marx connected the instability of concepts to the instability of society itself. The reason why the concepts of “freedom” and “equality,” which had violently changed society, often seemed to serve the powerful, was because society was divided into classes. Marx didn’t think these concepts of the Enlightenment were hollow, but that their subservience to the interests of capitalists didn’t allow them to develop more fully.

Despite Pinker’s confused notion of reason, he’s still aware of its social nature. Pinker cites philosopher Thomas Nagel to describe the practice of reason as an open-ended conversation, where the other side tacitly demands to be persuaded by reasons rather than through “bribery or violence.” Pinker captures the social nature of reason succinctly when criticizing thinkers skeptical of rationality:

As soon as their defenders open their mouths to begin their defense [of skepticism about reason], they have lost the argument, because in that very act they are tacitly committed to persuasion—to adducing reasons for what they are about to argue, which, they insist, ought to be accepted by their listeners according to standards of rationality that both accept. Otherwise, they are wasting their breath and might as well try to convert their audience by bribery or violence.

The ancient Greeks already knew of the social nature of reason. Logos, the ancient Greek word for “reason,” also means “discourse.” Plato’s dialogues depict a procedure where ideas are refined through argumentation in the pursuit of truth. Western philosophy began in the democratic city-state (democratic at least for male citizens and non-enslaved people), since equal citizens can only rule themselves through mutual persuasion, in contrast to monarchies or oligarchies, where the few don’t require to give reasons to rule over the many. Kant defined enlightenment as the right to question the authorities publicly through reason.17

It is by ignoring the social element in rationality that Pinker comes to confuse calculation with reason. He mistakenly argues that “the world has not been getting less rational” since “we are seeing the conquest of dogma and instinct by the armies of reason.” He suggests the following for evidence: “Newspapers are supplementing shoe leather and punditry with statisticians and fact-checking squads. The cloak-and-dagger world of national intelligence is seeing farther into the future by using the Bayesian reasoning of super-forecasters.”

Once the social nature of reason is considered, the modern world becomes visibly more irrational than many of the societies Pinker condemns as backward, such as medieval towns or hunter-gatherer bands. The rationality of pre-modern life developed from communal and public life. Hunter-gatherer groups survived pitiless ecosystems, such as jungles or deserts, by cataloging edible and medicinal plants and transmitting this information within the community through speech.18 The Middle Ages were dotted with peasant insurrections precisely because people living in villages organized against tyrannical lords by deliberating among themselves.19 In contrast, today’s citizens are passive in the face of the arbitrary machinations of corporations and the state.

What modernity has brought about, and is ultimately confounded with reason, is an increased capacity for information processing. The billions of human brains, coupled with the flows of planetary information, has created a maelstrom of bits and technologies that overshadows the information content of a hunter-gatherer band. A deep technical know-how in supply chains connected the slave plantations in the Caribbean with the sugar a starving worker in England mixed in his tea. Punch card machines and train tracks led six million Jews to mechanized death. Advances in seafaring technology decimated almost all the Indigenous people in the Americas.

Pinker’s notion of progress implies a unified humanity that through trial and error finds truths, and then transmits those findings to future generations. In reality, the history of homo sapiens is one of innumerable cultures and civilizations popping in and out of existence. For thousands of years in Central America, a vast galaxy of decentralized villages engineered the rain forest while feeding 10 million people sustainably (some of those techniques are still preserved by contemporary Mayans).20 Today, European-style farming transforms moist forests into barren and brittle grasslands, destabilizing food systems and the climate. It would be stupid to say that our agricultural system has taken the lessons of the Mayans and “made them better.”

Hegel realized that humans enact progress when they come together despite their differing passions and goals, producing an emergent reason in the process that changes history. Karl Marx took this idea and gave it a materialist foundation in his conception of the “real movement,” where popular uprisings serve reason through the coalescence of disparate wills into strikes, trade unions, and parties, with workers coordinating and deliberating and transforming society. The irrationality of the capitalist mode of production confronted these working-class movements, through its impersonal economic domination that came about from the intractable aggregate of market transactions, which curtailed the workers’ ability to self-organize, choose, and think.

Marx speculated that the blind motions of the market must be replaced by the democratic planning of the economy, through a “free association of producers.” The culmination of Marx’s concept of reason was the “social republic,” which he saw emerge in 1871 in the working-class uprising of the Paris Commune. Instead of the typical electoral system, where disparate individuals merely vote a couple times a year for unaccountable professional politicians, the social republic is made of assemblies and associations that coordinate through mandated and recallable delegates who are paid a working-class salary, subordinating the executive to the legislative. This social republic is the precondition for democratic planning.

The 21st century has produced tantalizing hints of this “Cunning of Reason.” In the 2010s democratic movements that stressed public assemblies appeared, such as Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados Movement in Spain, and the Arab Spring uprisings. In 2019–21, millions poured into the streets of Chile to protest inequality and rising costs of living. Recently, the murder of George Floyd led to possibly the biggest uprising in American history, as millions rose against the carceral state that murders and enslaves Black people through prison labor. Although these social explosions dissipated, they’ll keep appearing, as social revolt inevitably erupts in a civilization divided by classes. Maybe someday, out of the storm of future and inevitable revolts, a rising multitude will self-organize into the social republic, dismantling the prisons, corporations, and banks, founding an equitable property regime where happy and competent humans plan their economy, freeing themselves from the arbitrary machinations of investors and bureaucrats. The details of this social order are unknowable except to its future participants.

  3. Pinker, S. (2021). Rationality: What it is, why it seems scarce, why it matters. Allen Lane.
  4. Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. Penguin.
  8. Baker, M. (2015), “Over half of psychology studies fail reproducibility test,” Nature News 27.
  9. Cirillo, P., & Taleb, N. N. (2016), “The Decline of Violent Conflicts: What Do The Data Really Say?” The Nobel Foundation, Causes of Peace, forthcoming, NYU Tandon Research Paper, (2876315).
  10. Barabási, A. L., & Albert, R. (1999), “Emergence of scaling in random networks,” Science 286(5439), 509-512.
  11. Hauner, T. (2016) “A network model of wealth inequality and financial instability,” CUNY Graduate Center mimeo.
  12. F. Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 23.
  14. See Smith, J. E. (2020). Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation. Reaktion Books.
  15. Tainter, J. (1988), The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press.
  17. Kant, I. (1996). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment?
  18. ​​Levi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind.
  19. Brenner, R. (1976). Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe. Past & present, (70), 30–75.
  20. Ford, A., & Nigh, R. (2016). The Maya forest garden: eight millennia of sustainable cultivation of the tropical woodlands (Vol. 6). Routledge.

The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

All Issues