A framework for understanding exploitative societies

This article was written some time ago (2016) and so doesn’t fully reflect where I am now, having developed these ideas even further. I’m sorry that I haven’t had time to update it yet; I haven’t taken it down because it still contains many useful 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.

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 (or others) – by hurting someone else, often in a similar way. Often, you won’t notice that you are doing this. If you do feel something, it’s often 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!

Almost everyone has become 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 classism, 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? 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 and not getting a chance to recover. 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 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 is 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 preventing and interrupting mistreatment or oppression (which are necessary and important) and blaming, vilifying or punishing someone for it (which are counter-productive).

Part 2


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 immense 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’? Why would anyone want to unite with you 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.

A little-understood part 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 become preoccupied with ‘the Jews’ rather than accurately understanding the whole exploitative structure.

Part 3

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?!

Part 4

The elites

You may have noticed that I haven’t said a lot about the top oppressors – the elites, ‘the 1%’, the owning class. It will be useful to mention them, while not putting more attention on them than is useful. We can mislead ourselves by attributing to them a power or importance that they don’t have.

On the one hand, they are the major beneficiaries of the economic exploitation that our societies have been organised around – and the internal logic of this economic system inevitably grinds towards them becoming richer and richer. They do promote division and mutual oppression amongst everyone else in order to maintain their position.

On the other hand they are just human beings. The same internal logic of this economic system also ensures that a small group of people will always end up at the top. If it wasn’t these particular individuals then it would be others. If these people were removed another set would take their place, as has happened many times throughout history. They are not special.

These people appear very powerful. But they, personally, have no more power than any of us. All of their power is enacted by other people, for example, politicians, the army, the police, lawyers, managers and many other middle-agent groups [See Part 3].  In fact we all play a part in this: the only ‘security’ offered by the exploitative system is a position where you benefit from the exploitation of other people, even though you may be exploited yourself. Fear of losing what ‘little’ we have makes us feel we have to cling on to these positions of false security, and in doing so we unwittingly become agents of the overall system.

This top group also have a kind of pseudo-power that is simply the absence of our own power. That is, how thoroughly divided and confused we are in the face of making big social changes – how we feel there is almost no one we can trust fully to stand with us, and how powerless each of us feels as an isolated individual.

So the elites, ‘the 1%’, are not our problem. Our problem is the way present human societies function to confuse, isolate, dehumanise and then co-opt every one of us.

The Unity Dividend

A huge fraction of all human effort is wasted because we organise our societies on the basis of exploitation. The same is true for the planet’s natural resources.

The power of human beings resides in two major areas: each individual’s intelligence, which is potentially huge, and our ability to work cooperatively with others, which is also potentially huge.

It is impossible for a small group of people to exploit a large population if the population retain their full power, therefore exploitation requires sabotaging both individual minds and their ability to work together. (As a starting point this makes no sense, but no one chose this system – it arose out of fear and contagious mistreatment a long time ago.)

This sabotage has to be held within rough limits: too little sabotage and the population become too powerful to exploit, too much sabotage and they become unable to do productive work, so there’s nothing to exploit.

One way to think about societies based on exploitation – divided societies – is that people have been turned against each other – that a significant amount of the work we do is, effectively, work against others. If we think of this using the mathematical or scientific analogy of vectors, then it might look like this:

Arrows showing forces at work at division compared to unity.

If the black arrows represent the productive effort of one group of humans, and the red arrows the productive effort of another group, then the lengths of the two blue arrows represent the total useful productive output under the different conditions of division and unity. The relative lengths of the two blue arrows suggest that an enormous increase in productive effort may be available to us as a species. We will need this if we are to address the coming crises in the destruction of the environment and the collapsing economic system.

Though the relative sizes of the black and red arrows were chosen to illustrate a point, I suspect that this represents something like the real situation. I hope to explore this in more detail in another article.

Reaching for our power

People often feel small, insignificant and powerless in the face of large entrenched injustices. To take on big challenges we have to find our power. However, when we reach for our power, very often what we find instead is a pull to mistreat people how we ourselves were mistreated as children (or how we witnessed others being mistreated).

An example is where activists who oppose oppressive policies are pulled to target with ridicule, anger or hatred, the politicians who put forward those policies. The activists are trying to not feel small and powerless by adopting the behaviour of an oppressor. This is always counter-productive because it rides on the same mechanisms that gave rise to the exploitative system in the first place. It strengthens the hold of these mechanisms on everyone’s minds rather than reducing their hold.

Real human power involves harnessing the creative intelligence of your own mind, and reaching for, organising and inspiring the creative intelligence of others towards mutually beneficial goals.

Constructing solutions

This document attempts to build a new framework for understanding the societies that we live in presently. We certainly need new understandings – our societies end up dehumanising every single one of us so we fit into their inhuman structures. Everyone, even the super rich, would have much better lives in societies that serve everyone’s real, human interests. And yet, even though our societies function in no one’s real interests, none of the many attempts to change them have succeeded, so far. We need to understand why.

What will real solutions look like? How can we dismantle the inhuman form of social organisation we have unwittingly fallen into, and transform it into a form that supports and reflects our humanness?

This document doesn’t attempt to provide solutions (that would be impossible), but to lay out elements of understanding that might be used to construct workable solutions. I’ve listed some of these elements below:

  1. Unresolved emotional hurts lead to an acquired vulnerability to mistreat others. These emotional hurts are acquired during childhood through unavoidable exposure to the mistreatment that is endemic in exploitative societies. This vulnerability is currently carried by every single individual in human society, not a separate group of ‘bad people’.
  2. It will be useful to develop methods for healing the emotional hurts that drive this mechanism, and also for preventing it passing on to the next generation of children.
  3. The presently-universal nature of this vulnerability to mistreat others, and other effects of unhealed emotional hurt, have led to wide confusion about human nature.
  4. Exploitation and oppression are simply organised mistreatment. They originally became organised through ‘self-organising’ processes, not through conscious human intention. No one is to blame.
  5. It will be useful to understand how exploitative societies place almost everyone in both oppressor and oppressed roles, and how this functions to create many cross-cutting social divisions. Each person becomes divided from others in many different ways and tends to think the problem is other people, rather than the overall organisation of society. While we are so confused and divided we are powerless to change the overall society.
  6. Effective action on many critical issues, such as the destruction of the natural environment upon which all human existence depends, will require united and broad-based mass movements. The biggest impediment to such movements arising and remaining effective has been division, whether spontaneous or externally provoked. Preventing and overcoming division are vital for the future of humanity.
  7. It will sometimes be necessary to restrain individuals when their acquired vulnerability to mistreat others is too dangerous. However…
  8. Punishment and/or blame of individuals or groups, for mistreating people or having oppressive attitudes of any kind, are completely counter-productive. They result in a denial and defensiveness across the whole society which prevents a wide and open examination of all aspects of the problem and the personal changes necessary at the level of each individual.
  9. Because the desire or compulsion to punish and blame are currently built into our cultures at an unconscious emotional level, avoiding the pull to indulge in punishment and/or blame will be very difficult. However, this is fundamental and it seems likely that attempts to fully solve problems that are, at their base, rooted in emotional hurt will fail until sufficient clarity is achieved on this point.
  10. Whenever any person or a group is held to be the source of the problem (whether it be migrants or ‘the 1%’) – then that gives strength to the actual source of the problem: a system that feeds off of turning people against other people.

This is a big subject and this article is only an overview. Also, there is so much more thinking to do, so many discussions to be had and implications to be worked out. Practically, there are so many experimental actions to be learnt from, bridges to be built and people to be reached for.

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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