In This Review

The Value of Violence
The Value of Violence
By Benjamin Ginsberg
Prometheus Books, 2013, 250 pp

Ginsberg’s book is a direct challenge to the optimism of the celebrated cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker, whose 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that violence is playing a diminishing role in human affairs. Ginsberg counters that violence is essential both to transformational change and to the preservation of political and social order. Ginsberg stresses the importance of bureaucratic organization to effective violence and examines how apparently peaceful processes can still rest on the possibility of violence -- for example, the risk that security forces will attack a peaceful antigovernment protest. Despite his book’s title and his professed cynicism -- which reads more like frustrated idealism -- Ginsberg is not arguing that all violence is valuable: for example, he deals with the excesses of law enforcement agencies and criticizes U.S. foreign policy’s overreliance on war. Ginsberg suggests that activities that governments characterize as legitimate alternatives to violence, such as exercising “soft power,” in reality mostly serve as force multipliers. But this claim minimizes the qualitative differences between actual violence and coercive threats that simply set limits on behavior.