Part 2 showed how division is one of the major mechanisms holding exploitative forms of society in place, and how inequality and oppression function to produce division. Here, we look at a particular form of division-though-inequality: the middle agent mechanism.
The middle agent mechanism
Middle agents are people or groups who end up controlling an oppressed group on behalf of an overall oppressor group, and in doing so, become the ‘visible face’ of the oppression. Because they are the nearest and most obvious oppressor, and are the ones actually doing the ‘hands-on’ harm, they attract attention away from the overall oppressor group.
Examples of middle agents are mainstream politicians, the police, the army, lawyers, teachers, social workers, managers and some union leaders. There are many others – almost everyone in an oppressor role ends up playing a middle agent role of some kind (for example, men). Also included are corrupt regimes in resource-rich countries, whose role is to oppress their own people on our [the dominant country’s] behalf. Sometimes a cultural group comes to occupy a middle agent role, for example (a section of) Jews in medieval Europe; Israel in the Middle East; South Asians in East Africa, ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia or Scottish Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Middle agents tend not to understand that they are middle agents. That is not necessary for the arrangement to work. All that is necessary is that a situation exists where, merely by pursuing what appear to be their own interests or feeling that they need to defend themselves, a group ends up carrying out the policies of a more powerful group and – just as importantly – taking the blame for these policies.
People in middle agent roles tend to identify with the interests of the overall oppressor group, or at least with the established social and economic order, even though they are being used by it. The privileges they hold are provided by the overall system and they see its apparent strength as protection against the resentment and hatred of those they oppress on its behalf. They don’t understand that a significant part of their own role is to take the blame for oppression and, in extreme circumstances, to be sacrificed in order to protect the established order.
The middle agent mechanism is effective partly because it’s confusing, and it’s confusing because it doesn’t fit into simplistic understandings of oppression: are they oppressed or oppressor?! Are they the good people or the bad people?! It’s worth looking at an example in more detail: anti-Semitism.
In medieval Europe our rulers had a long history of inviting stateless Jewish people into our countries to play roles that were carefully chosen and often enforced by law. For example tax collectors, money lenders, court officials and others. In this way Jews were manipulated or forced to become the ‘visible face’ of oppression in the eyes of the general population. The rulers could then maintain a good, clean, romanticised image among the general population by diverting resentment about unfair conditions in the society on to ‘the Jews’. (Only a small section of the Jewish community actually played these roles; most Jews were poor peasants or workers.)
To maintain this system, anti-Semitic propaganda was systematically encouraged, but maintained at a low level, ready to be built up when the need arose. When the repression of the majority population reached such a level that revolt was imminent, it was ‘the Jews’ who were offered up to the anger of the peasants or workers, by the ruling class. In this way, struggles against exploitation have been repeatedly ‘short circuited’, or diverted, and ruling classes have been able to maintain their position – at the expense of Jews.
This mechanism involved those in power offering some Jews special protection and privileges, which were attractive, but which also helped to fuel resentment of all Jews among the rest of the population. When convenient, that protection was easily withdrawn, leaving all Jews in the precarious position of being both vulnerable and hated.
At these times, Jews were killed or driven out of the area. Another part of the overall mechanism involved the rulers later ‘apologising’ to Jews and inviting them back again with new offers of privilege and protection, so that they could be used in the same way all over again.
Similar mechanisms are still active in the modern world. The most obvious example is the role of Israel in the Middle East, where the largely-Jewish state plays the role of middle agent, to control the Middle East on behalf of the West.
The real target is the broad population
The underlying reason for anti-Semitism is control over the broad population, not harm to Jews. Jews have simply been used as a means to an end. This mechanism is not unique to the oppression of Jews – there are many other groups who have been used in a similar way, such as ex-patriot Chinese in South-East Asia, South Asians in East Africa, or Scottish Protestants in Northern Ireland.
It is this middle agent aspect of anti-Semitism that is the most important to understand because it has been the most confusing and therefore causes the most damage, both to Jews and to those progressive movements who have been too easily diverted by it.
Though people on the Left of politics often consider ourselves thoughtful around issues of oppression, and will often fight on behalf of many oppressed groups, it has been hard to get a clear commitment to this for Jews. One reason for this – perhaps the main one – is that, because the oppression of Jews involves using them as the proxy oppressor, many of us on the Left have been confused by this and so find it hard to see Jews as oppressed.
Another reason might be that the Left has struggled for well over a hundred years to try to achieve a better society, but has only made slow progress. The gains we do make have often been lost before they can be fully consolidated. This can feel discouraging and frustrating, and can engender strong feelings of powerlessness. It is much more comfortable to avoid feeling powerless in the face of these difficulties by attacking easy targets – not fully understanding that they are offered to us for that very purpose.
This article continues in Part 4, looking at ‘the 1%’, reaching for power, and constructing solutions.