A framework for understanding exploitative societies – Part 2

Part 2: division and oppression

Part 1 looked at how individual mistreatment can become self-perpetuating and evolve into structural oppression, and how punishment and blame lock this in place. Part 2 looks the relationship between division and oppression.


For thousands of years we have been living in societies where the mechanism of ‘divide and rule’ has been used to control and exploit people. Divide and rule means turning different sections of a population against each other so that each section sees the other as their immediate problem. They fail to see that they are being used by someone else. They fail to see that if they were united it would be impossible to exploit them. The enormous power latent in any group of organised people is neutralised by turning it against itself. In effect, the divided population controls itself and facilitates its own exploitation.

Divide and rule has been used on every ‘scale’, from whole nation states down to individual people. Examples include the British Empire’s control of India and competition over limited privileges within a workplace.

Many people are familiar with the concept of ‘divide and rule’ and that it has been used to facilitate domination and exploitation in certain situations. But the division has been more widely and deeply destructive. It has been built into our societies and cultures. It has become embedded in our minds and our identities. In fact, our identities – who we think we are, who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ – are essentially divisions.

This long history of division has distorted our understanding of reality. It is hard to see that we have many interests in common with other people, that we can work towards mutually beneficial goals and that what we ‘lose’ by sharing we regain many times over through the power of cooperation and organisation. This individual outlook has become so accepted and normal it is widely seen as ‘reality,’ or at least ‘human nature’.


Deep and lasting divisions seem to occur when one group acquires, or is given, a higher status and power over another group.

From the ‘oppressed’ group’s point of view, how can you trust a group of people who systematically mistreat you, and deny (or can’t see) that they do it? How can you trust a group of people who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy by repeatedly treating themselves and their interests as more important than you and your interests? How can you unite with people you can’t trust?

For the ‘oppressor’ group, how can you unite with people you don’t value or respect – or even see? Or who seem to be angry with you ‘for no reason’? How can you unite with people if you are not willing to give up your privileges over them – privileges you have come to depend on for your sense of security or self-worth?

This is why hierarchies, or small gradations of power and status, have always been necessary to maintain systems of divide and rule.

Some of these hierarchies have a layered structure and others cut across each other. An example of layered hierarchies is social class, where the large-scale divisions of owning class, middle class and working class are themselves sub-divided into many layers. Examples of cross-cutting hierarchies are where race divisions, or divisions between men and women, cut across class divisions and cut across each other.

Dividing the population into these complex, cross-cutting hierarchies has meant that almost everyone has come to occupy a position that is both ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ at the same time.

Each distinct oppression (each type of racism, each ‘layer’ within classism, and so on) produces its own separate division. The result is that each individual ends up divided from every other by one or more relationships of mistreatment or privilege. However, we don’t have the same relationship to the ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ parts of our position. We more often notice and feel strongly about where we are mistreated, but rarely notice, and often deny strongly, any suggestion that we might mistreat others! [See Part 1 for a discussion of unawareness and denial.] Everyone ends up thinking that the problem is other people.

Growing up in such finely divided societies leaves most people feeling that no one can be fully trusted and not understanding that we all have many interests in common. Under these conditions it often appears better to acquire or retain small material advantages or status for oneself or one’s group, than to reject these in order to build unity with others.


The critical role of inequality in forming divisions allows us to understand oppression differently. Irrespective of how they originally got started, all oppressions (such as sexism, racism, classism, and many more) now serve a higher function: to keep the population thoroughly divided and confused, to make it impossible for any movement to form that is large enough, united enough or clear enough in its aims to challenge the established order. The mistreatment, damage and exploitation of the oppression are almost incidental – it’s simply that arranging for one group to systematically mistreat or exploit another has proven to be the most effective way to keep people divided, confused and powerless.

Sometimes oppressions were invented specifically to divide two groups, but others simply evolved [See Part 1].

Some examples:

The racism we see today was originally invented in order to divide white people from the darker skinned peoples being colonised by Europe at the time. In the absence of racism, too many white men in the colonising armies ‘went native’ and refused to kill. Today, within ‘developed’ nations, a major function of racism is to divide the majority of working class people from various others to keep them preoccupied with a false sense of danger or competition.

Similarly, sexism creates a division between all females and all males. Women can’t fully trust men, and men find it hard to respect women, and often trample over women’s interests in favour of their own. This division then sabotages relationships in any situation where males and females might live or work together – that is, almost anywhere – for example, within families, workplaces or liberation groups.

Homophobia, or gay oppression, sets up heterosexuals to target gay people, and so divides heterosexual people from gay people. But the division goes wider: fear of being labelled and targeted as ‘gay’ makes it hard for the majority heterosexual population to form very close, trusting same-sex friendships, and so divides male from male and female from female. Particularly for men and older boys, the threat of gay oppression means that showing caring towards another male is, or feels like, risking violence, humiliation and isolation.

The main function of anti-Semitism is to set up some Jews as the immediate oppressors of the non-Jewish working class (or another oppressed group), so that oppressed peoples (and their allies) become preoccupied with ‘the Jews’ rather than accurately understanding the whole exploitative structure.

Karl Lam

Part 3 will look at anti-Semitism in more detail, because it, and similar structures, have been particularly confusing.

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