A framework for understanding exploitative societies

Human beings are capable of high levels of cooperation, love and caring.  However, for thousands of years most of us have been living in societies that systematically suppress these human qualities.  These inhuman social systems now function to sustain themselves, the systems, not the people within them.

Our societies are organised so that almost everyone derives some material benefit or sense of security from the exploitation or subordination of others.  It is a network of inhuman relationships that has persisted and reproduced itself but which serves no human purpose. As human beings, even ‘the elites’ are victims of these inhuman social systems.

In this article I look at exploitative societies, how they arose and what now holds them in place, to assist in the development of effective policies and programs for transforming them into fully human-centred societies.

I look at the role of mistreatment and oppression, and how, by dividing us, they derail attempts to change the inhuman structures. I also look at how oppressions – such as racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, and so on – arose, and how they became part of our cultures, our societies and our unconscious minds.

Oppressive attitudes and behaviours aren’t individual ‘character defects’, but are part of a wider and more fundamental problem in our societies. Oppression and mistreatment operate in individuals mostly at an unconscious and emotional level but, because they are often unconscious, we have also unwittingly built them into our cultures, institutions and social structures. Transforming our societies will require understanding how mistreatment and oppression work, both at the emotional level and at the structural level.

Blame and punishment tend to perpetuate the root causes of mistreatment and oppression, both at the emotional level and at the structural level, and so are entirely counter-productive.

Where does mistreatment come from?

Exploitation is a particular kind of mistreatment, so it will be useful to look at where mistreatment, in general, comes from.

If you are mistreated as a child (or simply witness the mistreatment of others) and you don’t recover from the emotional hurt of that experience, then you become vulnerable to acting out either ‘end’ of the mistreatment later in your life.

That is, you become vulnerable to acting out your original role – that of a child being hurt: fearful, passive, not standing up for yourself, etc.  You also become vulnerable to acting out the role of the person who hurt you – by hurting someone else, often in a similar way. Often, you won’t notice that you are doing this. But if you do feel something, it’s often related to how you felt when you were originally hurt. So, you may feel like you are the victim, even as you hurt someone else. This can be very confusing!

All of us are vulnerable to mistreating other people because we were all mistreated (or witnessed mistreatment) when we were young and we haven’t recovered from those experiences. If you grow up in a society where sexism, racism and other oppressions are present, you can’t avoid witnessing mistreatment because it’s built into ‘normal’ interactions. It’s hard to face how much mistreatment every child in our society is exposed to, and that we all now act it out at other people, but it seems to be true of everyone.

Quick Audience Survey

Whenever I give talks on this I do a quick audience survey.  I ask people to raise their hand if they do any of these:

  • Have you ever been irritated with someone? 
  • Do you ever feel like you have to win? Or at least not lose?
  • Do you ever want to have the last word? Or be seen to be ‘right’?
  • Do you ever react angrily to someone? – Or snap at them?
  • Or stay distant, cold or uncommunicative? Or quietly withhold your full cooperation?

I raise my hand to all of them. Most people in the audience tend to laugh and raise their hands in recognition.

These all result from being on the receiving end of, or witnessing, hurtful behaviour. If you do any of those things, you could ask yourself ‘Where did that come from?’

Not understanding that every child, and so every adult, has been affected by this has led to much confusion about human nature.

Oppression is organised mistreatment

I called attention to some less harmful forms of mistreatment, above, to illustrate how we have all been affected.  But this mechanism has meant that mistreatment, and an ensuing vulnerability to mistreat others, has been passed down to each new generation of children for thousands of years.  At the same time our societies were growing larger and more complex. Mistreatment of individuals by other individuals evolved over time into structures of power and dominance. These power structures organise and encourage different groups of people to act out mistreatment, based on unresolved childhood hurt, at other groups.  This is a significant part of the organised mistreatment we now call oppression.  It is a self-perpetuating system that serves no human purpose.

Oppression is organised mistreatment, but the organisation of the mistreatment has arisen more through a complex interaction of unconscious and unintended actions than through conscious human intention. Even when intention was involved, it was driven by an acquired vulnerability to re-enact mistreatment. No one is to blame for this self-organising system.

Another way of saying this is: through no fault of their own, every individual has acquired a vulnerability to mistreat others. However, social structures have evolved where different groups of people have been assigned different platforms to mistreat others. For example, men have been assigned the platform of sexism that organises and encourages us to mistreat women. Each of these platforms also evolved justifying narratives (including ‘scientific’ theories) that typically dehumanise the target group.

[This model explains why apparently-successful revolutions often reproduce oppressive structures.  When the revolutionaries become the new leaders they suddenly find themselves in a new position. The acquired vulnerability to mistreat others, that they and we all carry, suddenly has a new platform.]

Punishment and blame are counter-productive

Everyone in our societies has been loaded up with a vulnerability to mistreat others, and then assigned one or more platforms that organise and encourage us to do it. However, some groups of people are disproportionately blamed and vilified for this. For example, white working class people tend to be singled out as the racists, and blamed for their racism. Black men and Muslim men tend to be seen as the sexists, and blamed for their sexism.

Part of the oppression of these groups is that they are labelled as ‘the oppressors’. This is confusing because they are acting oppressively. But they are also an easy target for being labelled the oppressors. We are all part of this system, but we are not all singled out for blame. For example, the sexism of white men, or the racism of white middle class people are not held up for public vilification in the same way.

This mechanism of blame damages the groups being singled out, but it has a much wider and more damaging effect. When a group of people are blamed for acting out oppression, everyone else moves away from them. We try to make sure we aren’t seen to behave in similar ways, for fear of being the next targets.

Given the harsh blame that we see aimed at others, it’s easy to see why many of us become defensive at any suggestion we might carry similar attitudes and behaviours. Most of us try to hide where we carry this vulnerability to mistreat people, and its organised form, oppression. Often the best we can do is to pretend it’s not there, hope it doesn’t show, and avoid situations where it might. If (when) we are pulled to mistreat other people, we are also pulled to conceal or defend the wrong things we have done. It can become attractive to find groups of people whom ‘everyone’ agrees are ‘the oppressors’, or ‘the bad people’, as it directs attention away from ourselves. This then perpetuates the problem.


We humans seem to recover from the vulnerability to mistreat others when we can release the emotions from hurtful and confusing childhood experiences. This involves crying, laughing and talking about what happened to us. This works best in a caring and supportive environment. Emotional release often allows us to open our minds, re-examine our behaviour, and reject misinformation about ourselves and others. It’s very difficult to do this when we feel like we have to hide our thoughts and behaviours, or defend ourselves. Blame and punishment tend to lock oppression and mistreatment in place because they prevent the necessary conditions for emotional healing.

There is a difference between stopping mistreatment or oppression (which is necessary and important) and blaming, vilifying or punishing someone for it (which is counter-productive).

[The strong compulsion to punish and blame other people is yet another example of an acquired vulnerability to mistreat people. In this case, we are vulnerable to re-enacting at others the blame and punishment we witnessed or experienced as children.]

This article is continued in Part 2, looking at the relationship between division and oppression.

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