Do we live in the most peaceful of times?

We live in a violent era –at least that is a feeling that many of us have. However, the Second World War was a tea party, it has been said. In the Middle Ages murder was a hundred times more common than today. In Europe there were three new wars every year and killed up to five per cent of the population. Torture was a popular entertainment. According to Steven Pinker violence has decreased gradually at global level. Two key institutions are the main reasons: the State and the Capital. They helped to pacify and civilize humanity. Pinker builds on a theory introduced by Norman Elias: The violence monopoly of the state made crime more expensive, whereas better mobility made cooperation more profitable.

A beautiful theory. Dazzling, seductive, but with a couple of complications.

Mass murder and genocide killed at least 130 million during twentieth century. Most of these murders were committed in the name of the state – for that matter a strong state: The People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and so forth.

This is a list based on a combination of sources:



Adjustments, additions
Soviet Union




Nazi Germany


Nationalist China






Cambodia, Pol Pot






This is an illustration. The individual figures may be disputed. Most likely they are not on the high side. Additions can be made. You may wish to adjust them – it is probable that you will reach at least the same amount of murders. Mass murder is also a matter of definition. Many of the deaths on the battle field could well be included.

In 1940 the total population was around two billion. 130 million divided by 2 billion is 6.5%. This is more than the 5% murdered in the medieval ages.

So what was the role of the state in these cases?  What is a state? Certainly a top down structure, bureaucracy, obedience and discipline follow with a strong state. In which cases in the list above was the state responsible for the murders not strong?

I think we need another explanatory variable if we want to show that the state is good towards humanity. It has something to do with democracy – and with the use of words.

There is no weapon as strong as the word. And if the state has monopoly of the word it can use it to kill very effectively. The case of Rwanda illustrates this in a powerful and awful way. The state disposed of a machinery to effectuate genocide – but the most important was the word cockroach. This word was broadcasted by a  commercial radio station, urging to kill named cockroaches.

This radio station was “free”, capitalist and market operated.

The drug war has killed around 55 000 people in Mexico. A less effective market would perhaps result in fewer murders. Or would a “free” capitalist market take away the reasons for the cartels to kill?

My main point is that the idea – or “theory” – that the State and the Capital decrease murder is interesting and beautiful, but simply not true. It contains lots of definition problems and cannot be verified.

The theory points at the importance of the freedom of expression and the urge for democracy, ruling over state and capital.

Leave a Reply