Ending the legacy of divide and rule


It is in everyone’s interest to understand how a long history of ‘divide and rule’ has fractured human society at every level, and continues to hold in place a very dangerous system (economic, social and political) that threatens life on this planet. It makes sense to find ways to end this fracturing as it is one of the biggest obstacles in the way of our building a society organised for the benefit of all people and all life.
[This article is a draft, for comment.]

There is accumulating evidence that humans are basically intelligent, cooperative and caring by nature, and that our early, smaller-scale societies were largely cooperative and egalitarian.

However, our later, larger-scale societies came to be based on exploitation rather than cooperation. It will be useful to understand why exploitative societies first came about but, right now, it is even more important to understand the mechanisms that hold these exploitative systems in place.

(It’s also useful to understand that, in exploitative societies, everyone loses out: even the people at the ‘top’ would have much better lives in a cooperative society.)

A history of empires

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

Divide and rule means setting individuals or groups against each other so that they see each other as their immediate problem, and so fail to see how they are both being used by someone else. Sometimes there were pre-existing divisions within the population that could be exploited, but if necessary, new divisions were created. One way to do this was to force people to compete over a scarce resource, for example, scarcities of land, food, paid work, love, respect, and so on. A scarcity did not even have to exist to be effective – for example in the cases of love or respect there is no real limit to the supply. Sometimes even the rumour of a scarcity was enough to provoke 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 instilled the fear in all of us that if we don’t grab something for ourselves then someone else will grab it first.

[*By ‘real situation’ I mean a situation that hasn’t been artificially arranged in order to ensure selfishness. A lot of the ‘proof’ that selfish behaviour is inevitable involves setting up artificial situations where cooperation has been ruled out to begin with, for example The Prisoners’ Dilemma.]

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.

A large part of the arms trade is about promoting or maintaining division. The economic exploitation enabled by a conflict, by preventing a population from uniting against external exploitation, is often far larger than the profit from the arms sales.

Fractures at every level

Divide and rule has come to divide populations at every scale. It has been used deliberately to dominate whole regions by pitting nation states against each other, as in the US engineering the Iraq/Iran war, or the British Empire’s control of India. It has been used deliberately on much smaller scales, such as pitting individuals against each other within a single office or factory*.

[*For people who find scientific analogies useful, divide and rule has produced a fractal structure of division in our societies: a similar pattern is visible at every scale.]

Divide and rule has been used countless times as a deliberate strategy. However, because almost all human societies have been organised on the basis of divide and rule for thousands of years, it has also become deeply embedded in our cultures and our minds. This is the legacy of divide and rule. It has distorted our understanding of people to such an extent that we regularly confuse this legacy with human nature.

Although divide and rule has been, and still is, used as a deliberate strategy, division now also occurs in many situations ‘spontaneously’ – that is, without conscious awareness or intention. It happens because unreconciled historical divisions and histories of broken trust make continued division seem normal. We may unawarely re-enact these patterns of division in our everyday lives and relationships. They have become embedded in our identities and our sense of ourselves and it will take some effort to dig them out.

Because division has become so ‘normal’ to us, at this point it is worth looking to see where it might be operating without our awareness. A new picture emerges: it seems that almost everywhere something is going wrong for humans, divide and rule, or the legacy of divide and rule, is operating.

The role of inequality

If you want to divide two groups of people, then it’s much more effective to give one group a higher status, and give them power over the other group. If two groups have equal status or power then they can more easily unite, as they tend to see each other as equals having common interests. But how do you unite with a group of people who systematically mistreat you, and who are almost completely unaware of it? Alternatively, how do you unite with a group of people if you see them as unimportant, unintelligent, ungrateful, irrational and weak? – or if they are angry in your direction, for no reason you can see?

So, hierarchies of privilege and power have always been a necessary factor in maintaining systems of divide and rule. Some of these hierarchies of power or status are organised as layers and others cut across each other. An example of a layered structure is social class, where the large-scale divisions of middle class and working class are themselves sub-divided into many layers. Examples of cross-cutting structures are where race divisions, or divisions between males and females, cut across class divisions, and cut across each other.

Dividing the population into layers and overlapping hierarchies like this meant that almost everyone came to occupy a position that was both ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ at the same time. See A framework for understanding exploitative societies.

However, we don’t have the same relationship to the ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ parts of our position. We more often notice (and feel hurt by) where we get mistreated, but rarely notice, and often deny strongly, any suggestion that we might mistreat others.

Again, under these systems of divide and rule, no one has a simple oppressed or oppressor position. This is one reason why it has been hard to build a fair society: most of us have been encouraged to identify with ‘the good guys’ (the oppressed) and hate ‘the bad guys’ (the oppressors). But, in this system, we are all both. If your liberation policy is basically “Organise against the oppressors” then you’ve already decided not to see the position you yourself occupy within the system. This makes it impossible to understand the system accurately enough to organise people to end it.

The main function of oppression is division

There is a fairly general understanding that oppression is a bad thing. An oppression is unfair, and it hurts people; it often kills many people. It is very important that we organise and act to stop each of the different oppressions that are going on in the world – those that are widely recognised (such as racism and sexism), and those that haven’t become part of popular consciousness yet (such as the oppression of young people).

However, oppression isn’t an unfortunate by product of human nature, or an individual character defect. It arose out of a particular vulnerability of human minds: that we become vulnerable to re-enacting mistreatment we witness or experience, if we don’t recover from the emotional hurt of the experience. Oppression is where this individual vulnerability become tangled in with the organisational structures that evolved in larger-scale societies (link).

The main function of any particular oppression (such as sexism) is to create a division between the people on each ‘end’ of the oppression (i.e. between oppressor and oppressed) – so as to make it almost impossible to organise a group large enough, and united enough, to effectively challenge the exploitative system.

The other major function of oppression is to install and maintain strong feelings of powerlessness and despondency in almost everyone, starting from childhood. These feelings lead us give up on most endeavours before we’ve even started them. But if you examine it more closely, what we all feel most powerless and despondent about is other people’s selfish behaviour – which is the product of division.

When fighting against oppression it is very important to remember that the people in the oppressor role are not the enemy. Within systems of division-through-oppression, everyone is assigned at least one oppressor role. If ‘oppressors’ are the enemy then we are all the enemy.

If you can be persuaded to view any other group as ‘the enemy’ then you remain confused by the system of division. You remain ‘dividable’, and your actions will tend to reinforce the system of tangled oppressions and divisions, and thus be easily diverted into maintaining the overall system that causes oppression in the first place. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have to defend yourself sometimes: you can defend yourself and still understand what is happening.

There is another division that gets set up by oppression, but typically as part of the fight against an oppression. People in an oppressor group, who have come to see that the oppression is wrong, can start to hate the people who most visibly act out the oppression, and so become divided from them. An example is where white people in anti-racist groups commonly refer to other white people, the organised racists, as ‘scum’.

Evolutionary processes

Though divide and rule is often used as a deliberate and conscious strategy, much of it is now driven by history and context as much as it is by deliberate action. Systems that are driven by history and context are subject to the logic of evolution. That is, what ‘works’ within the overall system survives, mutates, refines and develops.

Life on earth started very simple, but eventually evolved multicellular organisms. These multicellular organisms evolved internal structures (organs) that more effectively support the function of the whole organism. In a similar way, our exploitative societies have also evolved internal structures that support their overall functioning. Of course, I maintain that this overall functioning is destructive when seen in a wider context, but the logic of evolution still applies within the narrower context.

The ‘middle agent’ role

One of the internal structures that has evolved in our societies is the ‘middle agent’ role. A group of people is given, or acquires, some limited privilege over other groups. Their day to day role becomes to carry out the direct management or control of the groups ‘below’ them. However, just as important is their other role: to be hated – to take the blame for the overall system, especially when it gets particularly harsh. People in these roles tend to identify (at some level) with the established order, or at least, with the positive portrayals of the established order. Partly this is because the privileges they hold are provided by the overall system, and partly because they look to it for protection against the hatred of those they oppress on it’s behalf.

In fact the largest source of positive portrayals of the established order comes from people in middle agent roles: teachers, religious leaders, journalists, etc.

Most of the people reading this article are probably a member of at least one middle agent group. We are good people – though we often feel bad about our role, consciously or not – and rarely understand accurately the role we have come to play. Many of us are trying to do good, as we see it.

Examples of middle agent roles are: the police, mainstream politicians, bankers, traffic wardens, journalists, teachers, managers, many higher officials in trades unions.

Examples of middle agent groups are: the middle class. Jews in Europe for hundreds of years, Israel within the Middle East to the present day. The ex-patriot Chinese in south-east Asia. South Asians in East Africa. The rulers of many (Middle Eastern Arab, and other) states supported by the West.

Hating, and becoming fascinated by, people in middle agent roles (while often not recognising one’s own membership of such a group!) is one of the more confusing aspects of the whole system of divide and rule.


Blame is a significant part of maintaining division. If the role you have been assigned within this system doesn’t require you to visibly target other people you can end up feeling innocent in comparison to others who have been assigned a more visibly-active oppressor role. This is a mistake. If you find yourself feeling justified in blaming someone, then you don’t understand how this system works.

It’s worth being suspicious of any time you want to blame another person or group for anything at all – even the so-called ‘1%’, or any group where blame feels completely justified because they are playing a clearly oppressive role.

Motivation on the basis of division

There is a real need for large numbers of people to understand the systems of economic exploitation that have existed for many thousands of years, and which continue today in only slightly modified forms. However, there is also a tendency to try to promote understanding of exploitation through the hatred or blame of people who visibly benefit from exploitation. This is a mistake.

Firstly, almost everyone feels like they benefit in some way from the existing order. The arrangement of the economic system as a pyramid-like set of layers ensures this. Targeting any single group in this structure, because they benefit from the exploitation of the people ‘below’ them, leaves almost everyone else scared of being the next target, because they also benefit from it. It further cements in place existing divisions between people. It leads to people denying the structure and their position it, rather than facing it in order to end it. It actually locks the structure more firmly in place. Blaming or targeting any single group, because they benefit in some way from exploitation, divides and alienates almost everyone.

Secondly, the major economic beneficiaries of the system, the owning class, don’t have good lives. They may have essentially unlimited physical resources, and thoroughly dominate economic and political structures, but their lives are devoid of meaning. Their attempts at close relationships get distorted by wealth. In their role, they don’t do anything useful for humanity, but rather make things worse for everyone, and at some deep level they understand this. They spend a lot of their money simply trying to convince themselves and everyone else that their lives are worthwhile. It is important not to be naive about them – just like most of us, they’ve been conditioned to put their needs first – and some are able to organise deadly force to achieve this. However, all of them would have better lives within a cooperative society, and some of them may realise this and have the potential to become very good allies. [More needs to be said about how the owning class are just a part of a system of exploitation that they don’t actually understand, but think that they do. They (and we) may believe that they control it, but actually it controls them.]

Because our societies have been organised on the basis of division for so long, our populations are, currently, relativity easily motivated and manipulated on the basis of division. Unfortunately, this ‘ease of motivation’ is attractive even to those of us who want to organise for a better world, where divisions don’t exist. For example, even when we are attempting to counter racist messages that blame and target immigrants, there is a pull to use derogatory material about the people promoting those messages. So, division, one of the most fundamental confusions promoted by the system we are trying to change, is perpetuated within some of the methods we are using to attempt that change.

Division within progressive groups

One of the major obstacles in the way of achieving a fair and cooperative society is the (formation of) internal divisions that reduce the effectiveness of almost every group organised to end oppression and unfairness. These divisions can completely neutralise a group: a group breaks apart, or becomes diverted by the division by focussing on it to the exclusion of their original mission.

These divisions often occur along the lines of an oppression that has not been fully faced and understood within the group. For example, racism within the women’s movement, or sexism within anti-racism movements. These issues do need to be fully faced, but facing them successfully requires a good understanding of how the fundamental role of oppression is to create division.

Division in the media

Virtually every story in the mainstream media directly or indirectly promotes or perpetuates some kind of division. Some of this is active and deliberate; some is because these kinds of stories turn a profit through increased sales. Some is due to the way division has distorted our cultures, which then affects the consciousness of journalists and other media producers.

The reason these kinds of stories turn a profit is because we (the population in general) have become fascinated by division.

Misunderstanding human nature promotes division

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 all 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.


It is in everyone’s interest to understand that a long history of divide and rule has fractured human society at every level, and continues to hold in place a very dangerous system that threatens life on this planet. It makes sense to find ways to end this fracturing as it is one of the biggest obstacles in the way of our forming a society organised for the benefit of all people and all life.

We are at the point where we need to start constructing solutions to these fractures. But it’s important to realise that we can’t construct workable solutions based on inaccurate understandings of the problem. The purpose of this article is to lay out some elements of a better understanding of the problem to inform thinking on new solutions.

I say more about this process at the end of this article, and I will write about it further in future articles.

The enemy is never another human being – it is the system that turns human beings into enemies.

Possible improvements:

  • Divide and rule (and/or its consequences) drive so many aspects of what is going wrong in the world today, on both large and small scales. I’ve not listed nearly the full range in this article. It would be good to have a discussion of the full range, either in this article, or in a separate article.
  • I’m thinking about the phrase ‘refusing to be divided’ – that might be something to adopt as a goal.
  • Possible addition of a paragraph or section on why it’s not physically possible for any person to actually benefit from more than a certain amount of material wealth.

Central Ideas

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...

When we humans are very young, our fragile minds are sometimes overwhelmed by experiences they can’t yet handle...

Human minds seem to be vulnerable to being hurt emotionally, but also equipped with emotional healing processes...

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