In praise of conflict

Sometimes, conflict is inevitable

Today’s post is from  Brad Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and Professor of Law at Arizona State University

Absent the occasional nihilist, anarchist, or arms dealer, it is hard to find anyone sane who wishes conflict well.  The human costs of war, from Afghanistan to the Congo to the Balkans, are all too real; the backdrop of a century of global conflict all too recent.

At an individual level, few people seek increased torment and conflict in their personal lives.  Activists and experts in domains from sustainability to Marxism to various religions seek the balm of peace: surely as a species we can finally craft the simple principles that eliminate conflict and lead us forward to the Golden Age that is our due?

Striving for peace, the absence of conflict, is not a bad thing, and most folks that do it are also realistic about the need to keep one’s guard up in a dangerous world (as Trotsky is reputed to have growled, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”).  But there is perhaps a more important nuance, as pointed out by those eminent social critics, The Jefferson Airplane: “Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for, in the only way it is granted, in a place among the fossils of our time.”  Less poetically, the obvious costs of violence and war tend to blind most people to the importance of conflict to innovation and creativity.  Elizabethan London, the Athens of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Renaissance Florence, the chaotic Spring and Autumn Period of Confucius in China, the India of Gandhi – none of these highly creative periods were stable and peaceful.

But there is constructive conflict – the conflict inherent in trading cities as different cultures meet, for example – and there is destructive conflict.  What we have now in many places is the latter, either as physical conflict – war – or, more widely, as destructive conflict over foundational values.  Ethics, morality, and values are usually at play in various political environments, of course, and the dialog among them can be an important source of cultural evolution.  But a different dynamic begins to dominate when conflict over moral absolutes gains ascendancy over the usual political arguments.  Constructive conflict can be resolved through traditional rational discussion and dialog, political solutions which spread benefits among constituencies, and the like; destructive conflict is phrased in terms of moral absolutism, of good and evil.  The latter is accordingly far less amendable to rational discourse and compromise.  I can talk to you about different ways to raise taxes; I can’t talk to you about taxes when to you they represent primordial evil.  I can talk to you about ways to manage climate change; I can’t talk to you when anyone who doesn’t accept your perspective on the phenomenon is the equivalent of a Nazi.  The tactic of terrorism is ineffective, indeed fails dismally, in an environment of constructive conflict; it is a signature activity of destructive conflict.

The apparent shift towards destructive conflict may be partially illusory, but there are some reasons to suspect it may not be.  We are, after all, in a period of unprecedented technological change across essentially the entire technological frontier, as a result of accelerating evolution in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics, applied cognitive science, and similar technology systems.  Technological change at this scale causes accelerating social change; the flexible thought necessary for success in high technology environments undercuts traditional social norms and practices.  And, of course, how do individuals react to a complex and unpredictable world if they are left behind, baffled and unable to cope, as technological and social change continues to accelerate and a global technocratic elite increasingly captures economic and political power?  They retreat to belief systems: they’re simple and provide psychological refuge, and, equally important, because they rely on faith rather than reason, they are resilient against scientific and policy discourses that are complex and demand unpleasant change.  Destructive conflict is thus a predictable outgrowth of modernity.  Conditions favor not the creative interplay of pluralistic democracy creating adaptability and flexibility in the face of an uncertain future, but retreat to simplicities that are both enormously powerful and yet profoundly dysfunctional when deployed against irreducible complexity.  Creationists are not arguing the factual basis of evolution; rather, they are rejecting a fundamental tenant of modern science and Enlightenment rationality, and they are doing so for very real and important reasons.

So at a social and cultural level, we should not wish for peace (although, in the interests of generating the pluralism that must underlie social wisdom, we should support institutions and individuals that do so).  Conflict cannot be avoided and, in the age of the complex and anthropogenic Earth, that would be a dysfunctional goal in any event: we need if anything to accelerate the social and cultural innovation that constructive conflict generates.  Rather, our challenge is to learn to incent and protect constructive conflict, while at the same time reducing destructive conflict before it overwhelms us.  So perhaps somewhere in the Department of Defense we need the Institute for Creative Conflict, a necessary oxymoron for the challenges of our complex modern world.

Useful links

OECD work on conflict and fragility

Of kissing, the less the better

1 in 7 billion. Now click to see how population growth affects you

Today’s post to mark the birth of the 7 billionth baby was written in collaboration with Lynn Robertson of the OECD’s  Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs, and follows on discussions that led to this post we did in September on children’s happiness

The world’s 7 billionth baby was born today, or a couple of years ago, or maybe will be born in a couple of years from now. Demographers can’t say exactly when we reach the magic number, but Halloween 2011 is as good a guess as any. Many experts agree though that there’s never been a worse time to be a child. Extensive research in a number of bars has proved that when we were kids, life was much better, and so were children. And this result is robust over time: whatever period you look at, it turns out that you missed the golden age by a generation.

One change over the millennia is that now we talk about children being more selfish, lazy, etc rather than just people. That in itself is an improvement the golden agers probably haven’t thought about. Until the late 19th century, children enjoyed no special status or protection. They worked long hours often in dangerous conditions, could suffer barbaric punishments, and be abused with impunity by practically any adult. In fact, we’re only now learning of many cases of abuse that took place when today’s adults were children.

When things did start to change, progress was slow, with great faith in harsh treatment. L. Emmett Holt’s 1894 bestseller  Care and Feeding of Children explained that: “Babies under six months old should never be played with, and of kissing the less the better”.  In 1928, the most influential child psychologist in America, John B. Watson, echoed this advice in Psychological Care of Infant and Child when he warned against the dangers of “too much mother love”, telling women “Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap.” Otherwise, the result would be spoilt, self-centred, unproductive brats.

This drivel is sometimes called a “no-nonsense” approach to child rearing, and obviously influences people who want to return to a time when they had no responsibility and someone else always told them what to do. It’s impossible to argue against nostalgia, fond memories, and the feeling that things were better before despite the world wars, genocides, diseases and squalor of times past, but the fact that this view can be retraced back over the centuries suggests that it’s nothing more than a myth. The objective facts paint a different picture.

Take health for example. A child born fifty years ago when the OECD was created could expect to live to over 73 on average in only two countries of the world compared with 87 countries today. In OECD countries, average life expectancy reached 79.1 in 2007, more than ten years better than in 1960, and exceeded 80 years in almost half the OECD countries.

Elsewhere, improvement has been dramatic too even over short time spans.  According to UN figures on the Millennium Development Goals, the global mortality rate for children under five has declined by a third, from 89 deaths per 1000 live births in 1990 to 60 in 2009. Despite population growth, the number of deaths in children under five worldwide declined from 12.4 million in 1990 to 8.1 million in 2009, or nearly 12,000 fewer children dying each day. Access to education is also improving, and there is progress on the other MDG targets too.

Much of the evidence on more subjective aspects comes from small-scale studies with only a few participants, but last year Brent Donnellan of Michigan State University and Kali Trzesniewski of the University of Western Ontario published an analysis of nearly half a million high-school seniors spread over three decades. They argue that “more often than not, kids these days are about the same as they were back in the mid-1970s” regarding a whole range of topics, including individualism, happiness and antisocial behaviour. Their data also suggest that compared with previous generations, today’s youth are more cynical and less trusting of institutions;  less fearful of social problems such as race relations, hunger, poverty and energy shortages; and have higher educational expectations.

Still, the basic problem remains: they’re not us. The good news is that in a decade or two they will be, and they’ll be boring their own kids with stories about how they were happy with a simple iPad for their birthday. So, whoever you are little 7 billion, good luck. With parents like us, you’ll need it.

Useful links

The OECD is partnering 7 Billion Actions, established by the UN Population Fund to “inspire change that will make a difference by highlighting positive action by individuals and organisations around the world”. You can find out more about the OECD Better Life Initiative and make and share your own Better Life Index here

Doing Better for Children provides data, analysis and policy advice on child well-being in OECD countries

UNICEF IRC, the OECD, the Learning for Well-being Consortium and the European Commission are co-organising an expert consultation on cross-national research on child indicators and well-being on 2-3 November 2011 at the OECD. You can download the papers here.

Wikichild is part of the OECD’s Wikiprogress platform for sharing information on global societal progress

In praise of the Luddites

Revolutionary propagandist?

In 1811, there were more British troops on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border in the north of England than there were in Europe fighting Napoleon’s armies. The reason was the Luddites, whose 200th anniversary coincides with our 50th. Is there anything we can learn from them?

As you probably know, the Luddites were ignorant machine wreckers, opposed to progress in general and modern technology in particular. At least that’s what’s implicit in the modern term Luddite, often applied to anybody who doesn’t share the user’s enthusiasm for some gadget or innovation.

In fact, like almost everybody, the Luddites weren’t opposed to change and technological progress they found useful. You’ve no doubt noticed that even the most ardent defender of “life was better in the old days” probably uses electricity, modern medicines and motorised transport, to name but a few advances.

Charlotte Bronte, of all people, gives the best description of the Luddites’ motivation in her novel Shirley. She describes how at the same time as the war closed export markets for Yorkshire’s woollen mills, “…certain inventions in machinery were introduced into the staple manufactures of the north, which, greatly reducing the number of hands necessary to be employed, threw thousands out of work, and left them without legitimate means of sustaining life.”

She then goes on to give a short lesson that every political and business leader should learn by heart. “Misery generates hate. These sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them; they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.”

Not having Facebook to organise and express their discontent, they took other forms of action, notably the well-established sanction of machine wrecking. In fact the earliest “Luddite” actions, in March 1811, received little attention in the media since outbreaks of industrial violence were common as manufacturing industry developed and modern capitalism emerged.

It’s no coincidence that Luddism was born among textile workers. Theirs was one of the first industries to see traditional production methods and working practices threatened by the mechanisation and deskilling of crafts described by Bronte.

The origins of  the name Luddism are unclear, but it may come from Ned Ludd, an apprentice knitter who smashed his frame after being sentenced to a whipping for disobeying his master’s orders to work faster. In any case, the names the Luddites gave their groups – General Justice, No King, Tom Paine – clearly reflect a feeling that they were fighting injustice, not machinery.

They were also fighting within a system where the rules had still to be written and tensions were running high. (In 1812, news of the Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination – for a personal motive –  was greeted by scenes of jubilation.) There was no pretence, on either side, that they shared a common interest. The landed aristocracy feared a French-style revolution, while the Luddites wrote approvingly of “the brave citizens of Paris who…brought a tyrant to the ground”.

The 1799 Combination Acts outlawed unions, with penalties including transportation to Australia with hard labour and death by hanging. This forced the Luddites to become more secretive and better organised. And more radical. In addition to purely economic demands, the explanations they left at factories they attacked became more insurrectionary, as did their other tracts aimed at a wider public. In the end though, they were no match for the sheer numbers opposing them and the movement was smashed. Added to that, they were fighting against economic forces that were far more powerful than a few groups of workers.

To return to my question at the start of this article, I think we can learn a number of things from the Luddite revolt.

The breakdown of established social orders and the rise of new ones is usually accompanied by unrest and violence. First because the old order defends itself with violence, as we see in the Arab world right now. Second, because other means of expression such as democratic elections or trade unions don’t exist. The most reactionary, outdated system still provides some benefits for those at the bottom – even serfs had the right to protection from their feudal masters. In periods of transition, these benefits disappear, but haven’t been replaced by new ones yet, so feelings of anger or despair can push people to violence. On a totally different scale, workers in declining industries would still prefer an “outdated” job to no job at all. A feeling of injustice is the most potent fuel for violence.

Finally, I don’t think our world is so wonderful that we should speak with contempt of people like the Luddites who fought to make theirs better.

Useful links

Create your own Better Life Index

Kate and Will vs Charles and Diana – how the times they are a changing

These days, most couples can afford a car

For today’s cut out and keep Royal Wedding Special, our court correspondent Spencer Wilson took some time off from polishing his top hat to tell us what the OECD’s evidence-based horoscope says about the young couple.

They’d be likely to have two children. The same as Charles and Di. But having a university education, there’s still a 50% chance Kate won’t have any children. Over 60% of UK households have no children.

Kate, at 29, will be an older first-time mum than most women in the UK – the UK average is 29.4 years, above the OECD average of 27.8.

There’s a two in three chance that Kate will take a job, slightly more than in 1980.

 If she works, she’s likely to earn 20% less than Will: the gender gap in earnings is higher in the UK than in most OECD countries (17.6%).

 They’re among only one in five UK couples where both spouses have a university-level education.

If they have children after getting married, they’ll be among the 6 in 10 couples who do. Four in 10 births in the UK are outside of marriage, a rate which has nearly quadrupled since 1980.

Kate’s very likely to put her child in childcare from the age of 3. Nine in 10 UK mothers do, compared to an OECD average of 7.5 in 10.

Kate’s likely to spend two more hours a day doing housework than Will, below the OECD average of 2 hours and 28 minutes.

Kate’s likely to spend twice as much time looking after children than Will: 1 hour 40 minutes a day compared to 40 minutes, based on OECD averages.

Kate’s likely to spend 83 minutes a day cooking and cleaning up, nearly four times more than Will at 21 minutes, based on OECD averages.

Useful links

Doing better for families Useful data, analysis, and advice for Her Majesty’s, and other, governments

Society at a glance 

It’s a family affair

Click for press material and country notes

Remember what Tolstoy said about families? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But what is it that makes a family happy or safeguards its well-being? A new OECD report, Doing Better for Families, provides some answers, and looks at what governments can do to support the family in a time of rapid social change.

The extent of that change is striking. In 1970, women in OECD countries had an average of 2.7 children; today that’s down to 1.7 children. Other changes: In 1970, the average age at which a woman had her first child was 24; by 2008 that had risen to 28. Also in 1970, just over 8 people in every 1000 got married in a given year; by 2009, the marriage rate was down to just 5 in a 1000. Over the same period, the divorce rate doubled to 2.4 divorces per 1000 people. 

Another change is that more women now work and have university qualifications than before. There’s a lot of variation between OECD countries, but on average more than 6 out of 10 mothers with children age 16 or under have some sort of job. On average, about 60% of families now have two breadwinners.

It’s perhaps a little surprising, then, that there’s been a rise – albeit fairly small – in the number of children living in poverty. Just around 12.7% of children in OECD countries are poor, i.e. living in a household with less than half the median income; this rises to 20% or more in a number of OECD countries, including Mexico, the United States and Poland. The problem can be especially acute for lone parents: Almost everywhere, poverty rates in families with a jobless single-parent are at least twice as high as among those who are working.

Can governments help? They already spend about 2.4% of GDP on average to support families. Some of this goes direct to families, through child allowances paid to parents, for example, and some is indirect, such as providing childcare. With budgets tightening in many countries, there’s a risk that this spending could face cuts. That could be a mistake, according to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría: “Family benefits need to be well designed to maintain work incentives, but they need to be effective in protecting the most vulnerable, otherwise we risk creating high, long-term social costs for future generations”

The report argues that governments may need to rethink when they spend money on families. For instance, researchers like Nobel laureate James Heckman have long argued that children – especially those in the poorest families – enjoy lifelong benefits most from investment in the preschool years. Yet, according to Doing Better for Families, “many countries wait at least six years before the main public intervention towards child development begins”. The result is that, by the time they go to school, children from the poorest families may already be at a disadvantage in terms of their development compared to children from better-off families. The report suggests that there may be a case for shifting public spending: At tertiary level, it says, “countries could envisage a greater role for private investment and a well-developed system of student loans. Freed-up public resources could then be spent on young children.”

The report suggests a number of other approaches that could make life better for families. For example, it says a business case can be made for more family-friendly workplaces, where employees enjoy more flexible working arrangements. The benefits include “improved retention rates (up to 99%) of female employees after taking maternity leave; reduced overhead costs through home-working and flexible contractual arrangements; and increased productivity and creativity of workers”.

Useful links

A Facebook chat on Doing Better for Families with Dominic Richardson, an OECD expert on child well-being and Willem Adema, a senior economist and expert on family policy at the OECD starts later today (27 April) at 3pm Paris time (that’s 2pm in London, 9am in New York, 10pm in Tokyo).  

OECD work on children and families and on preschool and school

Doing Better for Children

OECD Family Database

A social media revolution?


Click to see the book

Today’s post comes from Professor Annabelle Sreberny, of the Centre for Media and Film Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Her latest book, “Blogistan: The Internet and Politics in Iran” (with Gholam Khiabany) warns against stereotyping bloggers as dissidents, and argues that the Internet is changing things in ways which neither the government nor the democracy movement could have anticipated.

So the joke goes that Mubarak dies and meets Nasser and Sadat in the afterlife. They ask him, “were you poisoned or shot?” Mubarak shrugs and answers “Facebook!”  Actually, an Egyptian family did recently name their newborn daughter Facebook.

There is no doubt that we’re witnessing a world-historical moment.  The insurrectionary wave that started in Tunis in December and is still unfolding across the Maghreb and Middle East has raised important questions about the role of new media technologies and platforms in contemporary political mobilizations. There has quite possibly never been such a dramatic set of political changes in contiguous or close state formations ever in history.  The revolutions of 1848 in Europe were supposed to be inspired by each other; how much more is that the case in a 24-hour transnational news environment and world-encircling Internet. As Lenin said,  “sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.”

It is evident that both new and old media have played significant and fascinating roles in the recent insurrections to topple autocratic regimes from Tunis to Cairo and beyond. New media can no longer be considered the epiphenomena of political movements but are rather significant tools of political mobilization. This is NOT to repeat the fatuous claim that Tunisia was a ‘twitter revolution’, as had been claimed for the Green Movement in Iran after the June 2009 election, nor that such tools are indispensible for political change. Clearly people have made revolution without such tools. But in repressive regimes where face-to-face public politics is extremely curtailed, a platform such as Facebook provides a space where silence and fear are broken and trust can be built, where social networks can turn political, and where home and diaspora can come together. Whatever the intentions of their developers, social media are being used to provide news and information hard to come by from regime channels; to plan and coordinate action; and to tell the world what is going on.

But the conditions and mix of platforms differs from country to country. Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent. The Kefaya movement had been blogging for many years in Egypt and numerous YouTube videos circulated about police torture and bread riots. Libyans have limited internet access but mobile telephony is widespread. The Egyptian Facebook pages We are All Khaled Said, set up by Wael Ghonim,  and 6th of April Youth Movement became important nodes in a growing movement; at the end of March 2011,  they each have over 100,000 ‘followers’.

Even the Egyptian military interim government announced the resignation of Shafiq and his replacement on their Facebook page. Twitter was another way to keep in touch and share useful suggestions across national borders, as the Tunisian who tweeted “Advice to the youth of Egypt: Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas” or like the Egyptian feminist, Mona Eltahawy, telling the world what is going on across the region. These platforms provide the power of instantaneity, immediate diffusion of and access to information, and extensiveness, crossing national borders and addressing diasporic and foreign populations.

But perhaps as significant as the new social media platforms has been the role of broadcasting, especially Al Jazeera Arabic and English. The Arabic channel and BBC Arabic played a multiplier role in articulating the diverse events across the region.  Al Jazeera English kept the rest of the world enthralled, with strong on-the ground coverage and moments of brilliant television direction. These included the use of split-screen to broadcast Mubarak’s last speech live whilst showing the response in Tahrir Square, the scores of shoes being thrown in the air an unmistakable sign that his end was fast approaching. A sympathetic global public opinion may have played a role in the unanimous UN resolution to instigate the no-fly zone over Libya.  In the US, Hillary Clinton has berated the US media for poor coverage which was delivering audiences to Al Jazeera.

We know that the demographic across the region is youthful and, as everywhere else, where possible they have embraced new technologies to download music and film and keep abreast of events around the world. These movements are about the rising expectations and rising frustrations of unemployed young men and the social obstacles encountered by increasingly better educated young women, and ring with an optimistic universalism for human rights and economic opportunities.

There is evidently more to come, in Bahrain, in Yemen, in Syria where the Facebook page The Syrian Revolution has 87,000 followers.  And new policies to support a free press and internet access have to be written in to the new constitutions in Egypt and Tunisia.  Small, alternative media (neither controlled by states nor by big business) are not a simple answer to political repression as Clay Shirky style cultural optimists and Jared Cohen would have the Washington beltway believe. But neither are they so controlled and monitored by strong states that nothing can be achieved, as the pessimists like Evgeny Morozov would argue.

When used creatively within a rich mix of local face-to-face politics, configured in the languages and symbols of national traditions, and in contexts where the older generation simply doesn’t want to give up power, it is evident that small media can punch way above their weight.

Useful links

OECD work on the Middle East and North Africa

OECD work on the Internet economy