Eritis insuperabiles, si fueritis inseparabiles.
You would be insuperable if you were inseparable.
— Edward Coke
I have often railed against “elites” who run things, as have many others, Joe Bageant’s rants being the most memorable. Recently, though, as a result of reflecting on the surprisingly enthusiastic reviews of Ralph Nader’s latest book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! I have modified my view. No, I am not falling for the persistent fantasy that those with vast amounts of wealth and power will suddenly step up to the plate in a brand new way. Paul Newman is dead, and Warren Buffett’s too busy playing bridge. Nevertheless, I have begun to see the division of rich and poor, privileged vs. non-privileged, as part of the ancient and still going strong “divide and rule” routine.
“Divide and conquer” is an old label for a rich trove of strategies that split and weaken a resisting constituency. These machinations range from sowing suspicion and fear, trashing capable leaders, inventing enemies, and stirring up trouble while blaming “certain people,” all the way to lavishing attention on wedge issues and extremists factions, and discriminating in the allocation of resources and opportunities. The aim is to induce opponents to fight among themselves, thus losing track of their mission and their chance at a unified front. Did you know that racism was fomented in colonial days to drive a wedge between black slaves and white indentured servants who often ran off together?
As James C. Scott shows in his well-researched study of a Malaysian village in Weapons of the Weak (an on-the-ground description of the ways the poor and disempowered discreetly defy the rich and powerful), the only division that really matters in the world is the division between the unprincipled, and the rest of us. Scott begins the book by describing in great detail two people, one a poor wily slacker, the other, a wealthy miser. Both are antisocial personalities and famous in the village for their excesses (which, strangely, are tolerated). Both the poor man and the rich man are always scheming how to game the system to their advantage. The poor man is aggressive in seeking charity gifts from rich neighbors, does not hesitate to sell the lumber given him to repair his house – twice! (meaning the first buyer got nothing) – and pilfers his neighbors’ rice harvest before it’s stored. The rich man, nicknamed Haji Broom because he managed to sweep large chunks of the village lands into his possession, lends money to area farmers who are in need, then hides when the loan is to be repaid so that the debtor runs out of time and loses the land.
Professor Scott is a Marxist who went to this village to study the strategies of the downtrodden. His intent was not to study the untrustworthy, and my interpretation of his data is my own. But reading of the exploits of these two individuals, what jumped at me was that the village as a whole was being screwed by both people. Screwed by a both kinds of people, that is; those – rich or poor — who want to game the system for their own personal advantage, no matter the harm to the polity. Both are tolerated, and both serve as a rich trove of outrageous stories validating for the rich their contempt of the poor, and equally validating for the poor their contempt of the rich. And nothing is done to stop their predatory ways.
When the poor villagers employ their “weapons of the weak” – dissimulation, backbiting, false compliance, feigned ignorance, desertion, petty arson — they always lose ground even though the strategies do work, and occasionally work very well. Scott does not address this particular ‘why.’ I think they fail because their society has been successfully divided along a misleading line… a line cultivated by aggrandizers since the Neolithic. This line divides a formerly-cooperative polity into the scorned, naïve, lazy poor, and the thriving, clever, provident well-to-do. It’s a ruse. The division is systemic – aggrandizers can gain status only when some others lose it. If all had status then the strategy of aggrandizement would not work. This is why, by the way, aggrandizer-run tribal economies (big man societies) have been known to destroy valued items when the items’ sudden plenty threatens their usefulness in the maintenance of privilege.
This class division focus has been picked up in our latter days by social reformers enraged by the injustices attendant to social stratification, effectively turning the poor into deserving victims and the rich into undeserving predators. There is allure in this way of dividing the world, because indeed the poor are frequently victimized, and the rich behave like dicks or sociopaths all too often. Still… isn’t it just another way to weaken the commonwealth?
The only boundary that matters is the one between those that game the system at the expense of their fellows, and those who by and large do not. (I say ‘by and large’ because none of us are perfect. Perfection is not required.) Human communities must wake up and take power away from antisocial types who come from all classes and layers of society. Which brings me back to Ralph Nader’s fantasy. While it is very hard to imagine the current elites who have most of the power and money in the world doing something breathtakingly wonderful and outstanding for the planet or for America, it’s indeed misleading to put them all into one basket. There are those who prey remorselessly, and there are those, like Paul Newman or Ted Turner, who try to do some good with their big sack of money and influence. Those are potential allies.
Suppose we sever our allegiance from that hoary ol’ rich-poor paradigm and do the radical thing? Suppose we say no to this fractured way of looking at the world? Cleansing the doors of our perception, we focus on the real culprits. Slashing boldly through the layers of social stratification, we expose those who, from within any stratum, any class, prey on the commonwealth. It could be that some of the rich and privileged are our allies. (And some of the middling and downtrodden are not.) Our allies can be anywhere and we need them all. Let’s not exclude potential supporters from the upper reaches of society on principle.
I would like to end my musings with an example from American revolutionary times. After independence, the newly-American gentry turned against their former democratic ideals, and successfully schemed to push democracy back. It is easy to see them as greedy aggrandizers, and clearly some of them were. But they, as a class, were in a pickle. They had become enmeshed in a web of generous flood of credit extended them by wealthy Europeans. When the tab came due and the French revolution threw a monkey wrench into land speculator hopes for massive European investment, many of the gentry’s finances were on the brink or underwater. The war debt IOU scheme got them out of the worst, but when the land bubble burst, even Robert Morris ended up in debtors’ prison. Many of these rich and influential people were so enmeshed in debt and speculation they were no longer able to act freely on their ideals. When their desperate policies were met with obstructionism and resistance from common taxpayers, they stood to lose a great deal. Sometimes everything.
The elites were faced with the choice of pleasing overseas bankers and continued prosperity, or pleasing their farmer and mechanick neighbors and getting punished, maybe even ruined, by the faraway lenders and investors on whose goodwill hung their personal future. The resistance of the ‘moneyed men’ to economic forms of democracy provoked the resistance of the poorer sorts to explotive policies, which in turn energized the gentry to make institutional changes to hamstring democracy. Resistance fed the “us against them” paradigm. While Americans had successfully united to win political independence, they lost the battle for financial independence and deeper democracy because distant financial manipulators managed to split them into inimical factions.
Thus the foreign financiers kept America on a leash by dividing its people into those who were willing to tighten the screws of economic warfare, and those who suffered from it. A bitter rift emerged where before there was a great deal of common ground. Ideals were abandoned in the face of economic realities. The more radical notions of the American revolution had to be put on hold, and all Americans were the losers.
The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Things left unspoken for too long; disturbing, difficult things. The time has come to unify across all social divides: economic, religious, dietary, ideological, ethnic, gender, parties, and any others the system so eagerly churns out. Enough already! Let us get away from the habit of harping on our differences, extremely annoying though they often are, and focus on the one key lever of change: unity. Only unity can disable and render null and void the millennia-old strategy of ‘divide and rule.’
Are you sick and tired of being conquered yet? Well, are you?