“Dark Mirrors, Hidden Angels and an Algorithmic Prayer-Wheel” – John GRAY

For some advanced thinkers, violence is a type of backwardness. In the more modern parts of the world, they tell us, war has practically disappeared. A litter of semi-failed states, lacking the benefits of modern institutions and modern ideas, the developing world may still be wracked by every kind of conflict – ethnic, tribal and sectarian. Elsewhere humankind has marched on. The great powers are neither internally divided nor inclined to go to war with one another. With the spread of democracy and the increase of wealth, these states preside over an era of peace the like of which the world has never seen. For those who lived through it, the last century may have seemed notably violent; but that is a subjective, unscientific judgement, and not much more than anecdote. Objectively assessed, the number of those killed in violent conflicts was steadily dropping. The numbers are still falling, and there is reason to think they will fall further. A vast shift is under way, not strictly inevitable but still enormously powerful. After many centuries of slaughter, humankind is entering the era of the long peace. Presented with an impressive array of tables and figures, this has proved a popular message.

To be sure, the picture of declining violence may not be all that it seems to be. The statistics that are presented focus heavily on deaths on the battlefield. If these numbers have been falling, one reason is the balance of terror: nuclear weapons have so far prevented industrial-style warfare between great powers. At the same time deaths of non-combatants have been steadily rising. Around a million of the ten million deaths due to the First World War were those of non-combatants. Half of the more than fifty million casualties in the Second World War and over 90 per cent of the millions who have perished in the conflict that has raged in the Congo for decades almost unnoticed by western opinion belong in that category. Again, if great powers have avoided direct armed conflict since the end of the Second World War they have at the same time pursued their rivalries in many proxy wars. Colonial and neo-colonial conflicts in South-East Asia, the Korean War and the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the Vietnam War, the Iran–Iraq War, American involvement in the genocide of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, the first Gulf War, covert intervention in the Balkans and the Caucasus, the invasion of Iraq, the use of airpower in Libya, military aid to insurgents in Syria, the proxy war that is being waged against a background of ethnic divisions in Ukraine – these are only some of the contexts in which great powers have been involved in continuous warfare while avoiding direct conflict with one another.

War has changed, but it has not become less destructive. Rather than a contest between well-organized states that can at some point negotiate peace it is now more often a many-sided conflict among armed irregulars in fractured or collapsed states, which no one has the power to end. The ferocious and seemingly unending conflict in Syria – which features the methodical use of starvation and systematic destruction of urban environments, alongside continuous sectarian massacres – suggests a type of unconventional warfare whose time has come.

Among other casualties, statistics of battlefield deaths pass over the victims of state terror. With increasing historical knowledge it has become clear that the ‘Holocaust-by-bullets’ – the mass shootings of Jews in Nazi-occupied countries, mostly in the former Soviet Union, during the Second World War – was perpetrated on an even larger scale than previously realized. Soviet agricultural collectivization incurred millions of foreseeable deaths, mainly as a result of starvation, with deportation to uninhabitable regions, life-threatening conditions in the gulag and military-style operations against recalcitrant villages also playing a part. Peacetime casualties of internal repression under the Mao regime have been estimated to be around seventy million. How these deaths fit into the overall scheme of declining violence is unclear.

Estimating the numbers involves complex questions of cause and effect, which cannot always be separated from moral judgements. There are many kinds of lethal force that do not lead to immediate death. Are those who die from hunger or disease during a war or in its aftermath counted among the casualties? Do refugees whose lives are shortened by their sufferings appear in the count? Do victims of torture figure in the calculus if they succumb years later from the physical or mental damage that has been inflicted on them? Do infants who are born to brief and painful lives as a result of exposure to Agent Orange or depleted uranium find a place in the roll call of the dead? If women who have been raped as part of a military strategy of sexual violence die before their time, will their deaths appear in the statistical tables?

While the seeming exactitude of statistics showing a decline in violence has a compelling charm, the human cost of warfare may be incalculable. Deaths by violence are not all equal. It may be terrible to die as a conscript in the trenches or in an aerial bombing campaign. It is worse to be killed as part of a systematic campaign of extermination. Even among the worst kinds of violence there are qualitative differences. To perish from overwork, beating or cold in a labour camp, your end unknown to those who care for you, may be a greater evil than death in battle. It is worse still to be consigned to a camp such as Treblinka, which existed only to deal out death. Passing over these distinctions, the statistics presented by those who celebrate the long peace are morally dubious, if not meaningless.

The highly contingent nature of the figures is another reason for not taking them too seriously. If the Socialist Revolutionary Fanya Kaplan had succeeded in assassinating Lenin when two of the three bullets she fired at him entered his body in August 1918, violence would still have raged in Russia for some years; but the Soviet state might not have survived and the killing machine Lenin went on to construct could not have been used by Stalin for slaughter on a larger scale. If a resolute war leader had not unexpectedly come to power in Britain in May 1940, Europe would most likely have remained under Nazi rule for decades if not generations to come – time in which it could implement more fully its plans of racial purification and genocide. If the Cuban missile crisis had not been defused as the result of action by a single courageous individual – a Soviet submariner who rejected orders from his captain to launch a nuclear torpedo – a nuclear war could have occurred causing colossal numbers of fatalities.

There is something repugnant in the notion that endemic warfare in small and weak states is a result of their backwardness. Desolating some of the most refined civilizations that have ever existed, the wars that ravaged South-East Asia in the Second World War and the decades that followed were the work of colonial powers. One of the causes of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was the segregation of the population by German and Belgian imperialism. War in the Congo has been fuelled by western demand for natural resources. If violence has dwindled in advanced societies, one reason may be that they have exported it. Then again, the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world. It also has the highest rate of incarceration, some way ahead of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Around a quarter of all the world’s prisoners are held in American gaols, many for exceptionally long periods. The state of Louisiana imprisons more of its population per capita than any country in the world – three times as many as Iran, for example. A disproportionate number of the vast American gaol population are black, many prisoners are mentally ill and growing numbers aged and infirm. Imprisonment in America involves the continuous risk of violence from other inmates, including an endemic threat of rape, and months or years spent in solitary confinement – a penalty that has sometimes been classified as torture. Along with mass incarceration, torture appears to be integral in the functioning of the world’s most advanced state. It may not be accidental that the practice is often deployed in the special operations that have in many contexts replaced traditional warfare. The extension of counter-terrorism operations to include assassination by unidentifiable mercenaries and remote-controlled killing by the use of drones is part of this shift.

Deaths on the battlefield have declined and may continue to decline. From one angle this can be seen as an advancing condition of peace. From another point of view that looks at the variety and intensity with which violence is being employed, the long peace can be described as a condition of perpetual war.

It is obvious that these are quibbles. Talk of state terror and proxy wars, mass incarceration and torture only dampens the spirit, while questioning the statistics is to miss the point. It is true that the figures are murky, leaving a vast range of casualties unaccounted for. But the human value of these numbers comes from this opacity. Like the obsidian mirrors the Aztecs made from volcanic glass and used for purposes of divination, these rows of graphs and numbers contain nebulous images of an unknown future – visions that by their very indistinctness are capable of giving comfort to anxious believers in human improvement.

Plundered and brought to Europe after the Aztecs were conquered and destroyed by the Spaniards, one of these mirrors was used as a ‘scrying-glass’ by the Elizabethan mathematician, navigator and magician Dr John Dee (1527–1608/9). In her celebrated study The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, first published in 1972, Frances Yates describes Dee as ‘a figure typical of the late Renaissance magus who combined “Magia, Cabala, and Alchymia” to achieve a world-view in which advancing science was strangely mingled with angelology’. Described by Queen Elizabeth as ‘my philosopher’, Dee acted as a court adviser and ‘intelligencer’ or spy. Travelling widely in Europe, he pursued his interest in science and hermetic philosophy while engaged on other missions.

Dee’s fame came from his reputed possession of occult powers. Working with a scryer or medium, he claimed to discern ‘angels’ pointing to letters and symbols, which he transcribed. According to Dee, the archangel Michael appeared in one of these sessions with a message about the relationship between divine and earthly powers. Commanding Dee to record what he was about to see, the angel produced some elaborate tables, each containing lists of numbers and letters, which together contained a revelation of a future global order based on godly principles. Dee copied the tables into his note90k, and at that point the scryer fell silent.

In his biography of Dee, Benjamin Woolley writes that more than almost anyone at the time Dee realized that the impact of the scientific revolution would be to displace humankind from the centre of things. He:

had seen with his own eyes the world spill off the edge of the map, and the universe burst out of its shell. And as the cosmos had spread into infinity, so he had seen his and everyone’s position in it correspondingly reduced. For the first time in over a thousand years, anyone with the learning to see (and there were still very few) beheld a universe that no longer revolved around the world, and a world that no longer revolved around humans.

The role of occult beliefs in Dee’s time was peculiarly modern. The emerging science of astronomy reinforced the appeal of magic as a way of securing human primacy in the world. Like many others in late Renaissance times, Dee needed reassurance of the continuing importance of human action. Offering a vision of the future in their tables of letters and figures, the angels confirmed that humans still had a central place in the cosmos.

Five centuries later, there are many who need reassurance of their significance in the world. The Aztecs and the Elizabethans looked into their mirrors to discern danger. Today those who peer into the future want only relief from anxiety. Unable to face the prospect that the cycles of war will continue, they are desperate to find a pattern of improvement in history. It is only natural that believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt, should turn to the sorcery of numbers. Happily there are some who are ready to assist them. Just as the Elizabethan magus transcribed tables shown to him by angels, the modern scientific scryer deciphers numerical auguries of angels hidden in ourselves.

To give succour to the spiritually needy is an admirable vocation. No one will deny the intellectual ingenuity and humanistic passion that go into the effort. Still, there is always room for improvement. Whether they are printed on paper or filed on an e-reader, books cannot give the most enlightened among us what they most need: an instantly available sensation of newly created meaning. It is only new inventions that can meet modern needs. At the same time, inspiration can be found in more primitive technologies.

A revolving metal cylinder containing a sacred text, the Tibetan prayer-wheel is set in motion by the turn of a human hand. The result is an automated form of prayer, which the votary believes may secure good fortune and a prospect of liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The belief-system that the prayer-wheel serves may possess a certain archaic charm, with the sacred texts displaying a dialectical subtlety rarely found in western philosophy. Still, it is self-evident to any modern mind that the practice is thoroughly unscientific. How much better, then, to develop a state-of-the-art prayer-wheel – an electronic device containing inspirational texts on the progress of humanity, powered by algorithms that show this progress to be ongoing.

Unlike the old-fashioned prayer-wheel, the device would be based on the best available scientific knowledge, including big data demonstrating the decline of violence. Designed as an amulet or talisman that could be worn at all times, it would have the ability instantly to process and deliver statistics that never fail to show long-term improvement in the human world. If regress of any kind occurred, it would appear as a temporary pause in the forward march of the species. Best of all, the device would be fully interactive. In order to ward off moods of doubt, it could be programmed to broadcast at regular intervals a sound version of the figures. The wearer could recite the statistics out loud, and by constant repetition expel any disturbing thoughts from the mind.

There will be some who object that meaning cannot be manufactured and then programmed into our minds in this way. Meaning shows itself in intimations, these reactionaries will say – the shadow that reminds of mortality; the sudden vista that reveals an unimagined loveliness; the brief glance that opens a new page. Such objections will count for nothing. The advance of knowledge cannot be halted any more than the desire for improvement can be permanently thwarted. A state-of-the-art electronic tablet continuously generating meaning from numbers will render the dark mirrors and prayer-wheels of the past obsolete.

GRAY, John, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom. New York: Penguin RandomHouse, 2015.