Ending the legacy of divide and rule

This article is based on a talk I gave to the Green Economics Institute Conference in Oxford, UK June 2017. 

Divide and rule has been used to control populations for thousands of years. It has divided our societies at every level and locked in place a very dangerous economic, social and political system that now threatens the ecological basis of human civilisation. This division is not natural or inevitable – we can understand it and undo it; we can build a society organised for the benefit of all people and all life.


There is accumulating evidence that humans are intelligent, cooperative and caring in our basic nature, and that in our early, small-scale societies, people lived and worked together as equals. However, almost all of our later, larger-scale societies have been characterised by narrow self-interest, competition, exploitation and conflict. (Actually, all human societies contain huge amounts of cooperation – they could not possibly work without it – but almost all of this cooperation is currently in the service of exploitation.)

It will be very interesting to think about how exploitative societies first arose, but it is much more important now for us to understand what holds the current exploitative structures in place so we can begin to dismantle them.

Almost everyone understands ‘divide and rule’, and that it has been used to facilitate domination and exploitation in certain situations. But few seem to have understood that it has been much more widely and deeply destructive. Division has been built in to our societies and cultures. It has become embedded in our minds and our identities. In fact, our identities – who we feel we are deep down – are essentially divisions. It will take some effort to dig this out!

This article will show that endemic division – which is the legacy of divide and rule – is implicated in almost all of the big problems currently facing humanity. It will show that it is not possible to solve any of these problems in isolation because they have become thoroughly entangled. It is only through understanding how the overall system works that real solutions will become possible.

Loops of cause and effect

I don’t think division, conflict or exploitation are natural or inevitable for humans – but that once we fell into them a number of things happened that then made it very hard to get out. One of the difficulties in writing this article, and in understanding this whole topic, is that many of the things I will be describing have become self-perpetuating systems. Self-perpetuating systems no longer have a root cause – instead they have loops of cause and effect. This makes it hard to find the beginning of a narrative, so instead I will begin by setting out some of the basic elements of the story.

Element 1: Cooperation is everywhere in nature

Everywhere you look in nature you will find cooperation. The evolution of life has also been the evolution of mutually-beneficial cooperation. All natural ecosystems contain far more cooperation than competition, for example:

  • Cooperation within species – starting with the safety provided by simply clumping together.
  • Cooperation between species, or symbiosis.

There are so many examples of cooperation both within and between species that I can’t begin to give a representative list here. But even where there is evident competition there is often huge cooperation present too. For example, trees in a forest may compete for sunlight. But each tree is itself made up of billions of cells, all cooperating in many highly complex and successful ways to form the tree. More personally, if the cells in your body weren’t cooperating you would be an ineffective puddle of cells on the floor. If they started competing then you’d also be in big trouble: that’s one way of understanding cancer.

The huge diversity of species on our planet arose through the avoidance of competition. A single species tends to use one food source, for example, making competition more likely. It makes sense for that species to become several different species using different food sources because diversity and coexistence allows betters lives than competition.

(Why is the predominance of cooperation in nature not widely understood? – this will become clear later – it’s another loop of cause and effect…)

Element 2: No inherent conflict of interest?

This is a conjecture: There is no inherent conflict of interest between any two people or any two groups, but under certain conditions, the perception of conflict can arise and become self-perpetuating. What are those conditions? One candidate is the widespread fear that other people can’t be trusted.

Element 3: Young human minds are very vulnerable

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

That is, you become vulnerable to acting out the ‘victim’ role: fearful, passive, not standing up for yourself, and so on.

You also become vulnerable to acting out the ‘aggressor’ role – by hurting someone else 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 racism, sexism 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 experiences or witnesses, and that we are all now vulnerable to acting it out at other people, but it seems to be true of everyone.

Quick audience survey

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

  • Do you ever get irritated with someone? Or impatient?
  • 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.

I listed some less harmful forms of mistreatment above – to illustrate how we are all affected by this. 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. The mistreatment of individuals by other individuals evolved into structures of power and dominance. These power structures organised and encouraged 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.

This has become endemic. Among other things, this creates a widespread fear that people can’t be trusted. Feeling like you can’t trust anyone to take your interests into account then makes arranging things for your own narrow self interest (i.e. exploitation) seem desirable – and at the same time, it also makes it possible.

Exploitation requires division

If you set out to exploit people then you have to divide them against each other. Almost any degree of unity among the exploited population would make them impossible to exploit. They would regard your attempts as amusing.

Much of recorded human history has been dominated by empires. Each of those empires was controlled by a tiny ruling class. For such small groups to be able to dominate such large numbers of people they had to initiate or maintain systems of divide and rule.

Divide and rule means turning 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.

How was division accomplished?

If possible, pre-existing divisions were used – but if necessary new divisions were created. One way to create a division was to force people to compete over a scarce resource, for example, scarcities of land, food, water, fuel, jobs, love, respect, and so on. A scarcity did not even have to exist for this to be effective – for example, in the case of love or respect, there is no real limit to the supply. The appearance of scarcity, or the rumour of a scarcity, was enough to create a division.

In every real situation* it is always better (better for everyone) to cooperate rather than to compete – but the legacy of divide and rule has left many of us with the fear that if we don’t grab something for ourselves then someone else will grab it first. And, the grabbing then itself creates a scarcity if one didn’t exist before!

*By a ‘real situation’ I mean a situation that has not been artificially arranged in order to ensure narrow self interest. A lot of the ‘proof’ that selfish behaviour is inevitable comes from artificial situations where cooperation has been implicitly or explicitly ruled out, for example in ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’ in Game Theory. Because cooperation often yields far more than the simple sum of the individual efforts, it is always better in the long term for two people or groups to cooperate.

Another way to create and maintain a division is to promote retaliation and revenge between two communities. Sometimes the original action that triggers a cycle of retaliation and revenge is carried out as a deliberate act by the controlling group. But even without deliberate external provocation, given enough tension over a scarcity of some kind, trigger events will arise spontaneously. The cycle is then maintained by promoting a sense of hurt, humiliation, victimhood and false pride on both sides (and otherwise preventing reconciliation) – and by supplying the weapons or other means with which to retaliate.

The role of inequality

In the absence of difficulties, people tend to like and get on with each other. It is not easy to divide people who like and trust each other. If you want to divide two groups of people, then you have to break their natural bonds. The most effective way to do this seems to be to give one group a higher status, and give them power over the other group. These inequalities break relationships and make it hard to mend them.

For example, how do you unite with people who continually mistreat you and then deny that they are doing it? Or who hold on to privileges you are denied?

Alternatively, how do you unite with people who are angry or resentful in your direction? Or, how can you unite with people if you are unwilling to give up your privilege over them?

So, inequalities of power and status (that is hierarchies and oppression) have always been necessary to maintain systems of divide and rule.

More inequalities divide us more finely

Some of these inequalities have a layered structure and others cut across each other. An example of layered inequalities 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 inequalities 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 hierarchies has meant that almost everyone has come to occupy a position that is both ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ at the same time. However, we tend to notice where we are mistreated but deny that we mistreat others!

This has been very confusing to many liberation movements. Organising against ‘the oppressors’ reflects a misunderstanding of the wider problem and so has always been ineffective in the long term.

In this system of division it doesn’t matter who does wrong to whom – all that matters is that someone does wrong to someone else, because that’s all that is necessary to create an effective division.

The legacy of divide and rule

Almost all human societies have been organised on the basis of divide and rule for thousands of years. People are now divided from each other on every ‘scale’, from whole nations pitted against each other, down to individuals in a single office, school or factory.

The effects of this have become deeply embedded in our cultures and our perception of the world. Divide and rule has required endemic inequality, mistreatment and mistrust, and these now seem normal. Division now occurs spontaneously, without conscious awareness or intention. We often unawarely reproduce the patterns of these divisions in our everyday lives, in

  • Who we socialise with
  • What we believe about ourselves and others
  • Who we trust (almost no one! Why is privacy considered so normal and desirable in our cultures?)

Divide and rule has distorted our understanding of each other to such an extent that we regularly confuse its legacy with human nature.

Misunderstanding human nature facilitates divide and rule

Not only has the long history of divide and rule distorted our understanding of human nature, but this distorted view of human nature then facilitates divide and rule. The idea that people are, at some deep level selfish, or not to be trusted, reinforces the idea that it is better to try to secure your own position, or the position of your group, above all others.

Ideas that support this view of human nature then tend to receive greater support because they facilitate division and so serve the (perceived) interests of those holding more power in our societies.

Competition reduces efficiency

Because divide and rule necessarily means turning people against each other, a huge fraction of all human productive effort is wasted because it is essentially effort against others.

Each person may feel that this system allows then to have ‘more’, but this is an illusion: what it actually delivers is more than someone else. Because of the huge waste inherent in organising people on the basis of sabotaging our ability to work together, this system actually delivers far less than what we are capable of. Almost everyone would have better lives materially (and everyone emotionally) if we organised our societies on the basis of mutually beneficial cooperation.

Ending the Legacy

We have to bring this legacy to an end very soon because it is now destroying the ecological basis for human existence. However, it doesn’t work to target people in our societies who benefit from division and exploitation. Almost everyone feels that they benefit in some way from the exploitation of others. Our economic system is arranged in a pyramid-like structure of layers, where the people in any layer benefit (directly or indirectly) from the exploitation of those on lower layers. Targeting any one group, because they benefit from this structure, leaves almost every other group scared of being the next target, because they also benefit from it. (They may even be pulled to join in with targeting those others, to divert attention from themselves). This pushes almost everyone to deny the structure and their position in it, rather than facing it together in order to end it. Targeting any one group tends to entrench almost every other group. It only serves to lock the system further in place, and so is entirely counter-productive.


Every day we take many small decisions, each one making sense from the limited perspective of our own immediate struggles with life – but all of these small decisions together add up to the whole inhuman system. So a major breakthrough in ending the legacy of divide and rule will be when a significant number of people understand how the whole self-perpetuating system of division works. Anyone with a clear view of the overall situation would understand immediately that it serves no one’s real interests for it to continue.

Also, the problem doesn’t just arise from the people who use divide and rule against others, it is also that we all allow ourselves to be divided.

One piece of understanding we have to come to is this: for this system of division to continue, it doesn’t matter who does wrong to whom – all that matters is that someone does wrong to someone else, because that is all that’s necessary to create an effective division.


One of the tangled loops of cause and effect that drive the system of division is the acquired vulnerability to mistreat others, elaborated in Element 3 above:

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

Recovery is important. We humans seem to recover from the vulnerability to mistreat others when we can release the emotions bound up in hurtful and confusing childhood experiences. This involves crying, laughing and talking about what happened to us. It 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. This means that we have to stop blaming and punishing each other for the effects of the societies we grew up in. Blame and punishment tend to lock oppression and mistreatment in place because they prevent the necessary conditions for recovery from emotional hurt.

Karl Lam
May 2017

2021: My thoughts about this topic have evolved since this article was written, as I applied more rigorously the concept of emergence in complex systems.  Emergence shows that intention is not necessary for organisation and structure to arise within random, chaotic, or previously-unstructured systems – that the spontaneous evolution of organisation and structure is the rule, not the exception, within complex systems.  Later articles build on this.  However I’m leaving this article here as it still contains important ideas not yet represented elsewhere, and it is part of the evolution of my thinking on these topics.

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