Whilst we tend to dismiss conflict as unnecessary and unproductive, the reality is quite different, and to acknowledge this fact is not to glorify conflict. Indeed, and although not to be judged by modern standards, much of our history was actually forged in conflict. Many of the achievements we marvel at today were also made possible by conflict. Without conflict there would be no competition, no diversity, no individual and indeed even no democracy.
Conflict has defined human endeavour since humans first organised themselves into communities (or tribes) and came into contact with one another. Like wild animals that characteristically show aggressive behaviour towards other neighbouring animals and instinctively know that survival depends on protecting (or acquiring new) sources of food (territory), much of our history has been based on geographical conflicts for the same reasons. It may have started as an incursion, raid or even skirmish, but as populations grew, localised resources soon came under pressure. When a neighbouring tribe produced a better harvest, the choice was stark and brutal. If there was nothing to trade in exchange, food had to be taken by force. Conflict was essential to survival.
Human settlements expanded from small communities in the countryside to well-fortified and self-sufficient urban centres. With the emergence of city states came the intense rivalry that today we associate with opposing sports teams. These inter-city rivalries spilled into, and later became dominated by, cultural and intellectual conflict (competition), without which civilisation would not exist. Athens/Sparta, Rome/Carthage, Córdoba/Baghdad, Thebes/Memphis and Florence/Milan are but a few of the rival cities that contributed hugely to the shaping of the modern world.
Conflict was the main source of economic power long before international trade existed. In fact, for thousands of years most of the world's economy relied heavily on conflict (even to the extent where we can sometimes speak of a 'war economy'). Men had to be armed and trained. Weapons had to be produced, repaired and improved over time. Armies had to be mobilised, fed and paid, and men later transported back to their cities, towns or farms. Conflict brought the opportunity for spoils, and, of course, soldiers (being human) would fight much harder if the spoils were divided. Throughout history huge wealth changed hands by force of arms, often used by the victors to build their formidable castles, opulent palaces, magnificent places of worship/temples and even entire cities. The able bodied were taken into captivity and provided a cheap and abundant source of labour. Conflict became organised conquest and conquest turned into empire building.
With vast regions under the control of a single ruler, monarch or central system of governance, came the ability to communicate in a common language making the exchange of ideas much easier, the development of a common system of law throughout the land, and the opportunity to trade goods over long distances. Alexander the Great brought the East and West together into what we know as the Hellenistic age and Greek language and culture dominated the region for hundreds of years. Rome surpassed the Greeks in both the scale and grandeur of their imperial ambitions and there is no doubting the intellectual, cultural and physical legacy of the Roman Empire. Other empires followed, including the Islamic Empire (known principally to scholars in the West for the Islamic Golden Age), the Mongols (who reopened the trading links between Asia and Europe under the Pax Mongolica), and the British Empire with its focus on international trade and the deployment of capital at a large commercial scale not seen before (capitalism).
Of course, conflict was not confined to the military sphere. Wherever there are two sides with strongly held opposing views, there is bound to be conflict. Since religious beliefs are as old as humanity itself, religion has been a natural source of conflict for thousands of years. Every religion teaches its followers that theirs is the true faith, and most that it is also the duty of the faithful to spread religious teachings and/or convert non-believers (even if they have no immediate desire to be converted). Religion and conflict became synonymous. Armed with sacred scripture on the one hand, and the sword on the other, many of the wars of the last three millennia were wars of religion. As long as the armies of believers from one side or the other won, their actions on and off the battlefield were easily interpreted as 'God's will'. But religion also brought order, stability and a sense of purpose to vast geographical areas. Some of the greatest cultural and architectural achievements took place under the auspices of one religion or another, each during a period separately known as its own 'Golden Age'.
The Italian Renaissance, in turn, brought the 'individual' into direct conflict with long-established principles in the ethical, political, scientific and, of course, artistic fields. As its influence spread across Western Europe (including England), it paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. Not surprisingly, when the individual took centre stage, the ideal of 'competition' in all its splendour (itself a form of conflict) flourished.
Eventually wars of religion and clashes of Empire gave way to the conflicts of ideology. The American Revolution trumpeted the modern era as did the French Revolution shortly after. Both had a profound impact on all aspects of society. With the spread of the ideas of freedom and liberty came the ideological and political struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - the emergence of class struggles, trade unions, communism, universal suffrage, human rights and, of course, democracy. None of this would have been possible without conflict. Even the modern parliamentary and party-political system (not to mention legal system) is based on an adversarial notion of conflict.
Karl Marx tried to explain history dogmatically as one of class struggle: "The history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles." To describe the history of humanity in such narrow terms, whilst self-serving, ignores that history has been dominated by incessant conflict and that the world continues to evolve through different types of conflict. Today, in many parts of the world, social divisions have become virtually indistinguishable, but it would be impossible to talk of a conflict-free society. Nor should conflict in the modern sense be confused with the brutality and violence that afflicted much of our past. Advanced weaponry means that mutually assured destruction would follow any acts of state-sponsored aggression. Contemporary conflicts are now more a commercial arms race for technological supremacy than they are ideological. But they are no less human in nature. At its simplest, with man's individualism and innate desire to improve and compete (not to mention dominate and control), a society without conflict would not only be a utopian ideal but would mark the end of humanity as we have known it, and this is not about to happen any time soon or probably ever.
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