Divide and rule

Divide and rule is a classic political tactic of a ruling class fearful of a threat to its power from discontented workers. Give certain sections of the working class enough material comfort to feel that they are getting something out of the system — that they are “middle class” — and they will make sure that there is no working class revolution.


This is a strategy that the present government is pursuing vigorously. Make sure that workers who have skills that capitalism needs at present get reasonable wages and salaries. Give them mortgages and tax relief. so that they can “buy” their own homes. Let them take out private medical insurance and buy shares in British Telecom or TSB. In short convince them they are part of the “property and share owning democracy”.


By contrast give the unemployed and others who are marginal to the needs of capital as hard a time as possible. Cut their benefits, subject them to intrusive investigations and means testing. Force them to love on what is left of the council housing estates — usually high rise slums that councils sell off because no one wants to buy them. Give them second-rate health care after waiting months for NHS treatment.

In addition make sure that those who are comfortably off have little sympathy with the plight of those less fortunate by spewing out a steady stream of propaganda that blames the obvious ills of capitalism on selected vulnerable groups. Unemployment is high because the unemployed don’t want to work; greedy workers are pricing themselves and others out of jobs by asking for too much pay. Claimants aren’t poor they’re just “bad managers” and therefore deserve to have their electricity cut off when they can’t afford to pay their bills. Young people are undisciplined, promiscuous and degenerate so no wonder AIDS is spreading and drug abuse is rising. Violent crime is on the increase in inner city areas because that’s where blacks live. Blacks should therefore be sent home or not allowed into the country at all.

Throw in a few appeals to the “national interest”, some references to the threat of international terrorism, “enemies within”, or political subversives and then use all of this as a justification for increased expenditure on the police and security forces (at the same time claiming that there is no money for homes, health care, welfare benefits . . . ). Then give the police increased powers to harass people and prevent demonstrations or other expressions of political discontent or opposition. Finally curtail the legal rights of trade unions so that they find it more and more difficult to defend the pay and conditions of work of their members.

The government can get away with this kind of coercion of selected groups within the working class because such groups within the working class because such workers, since they are marginal to the needs of capital, have no political or industrial muscle. Without the support of other workers the feeble protests of those at the sharp end of government policy will continue to go unnoticed. What is so depressing is the fact that this divide and rule strategy has been so successful. Many workers who are relatively well off don’t believe that any of these attacks on the working class and civil liberties have anything very much to do with them. They don’t have to worry about homelessness because they’ve bought their own house. They don’t have to worry about waiting lists for medical treatment because they can go private. They don’t have to worry about increased police powers because they don’t commit crimes or go on demonstrations or take strike action.

Those with “good” jobs and a decent standard of living can continue to delude themselves that they are  middle class and have a stake in the capitalist system and don’t have to worry until it’s their teenage children who can’t get jobs; until they themselves are made redundant because their particular skill is no longer needed by the capitalist class and are forced to try to subsist on state handouts; until they get chronically ill and then discover that their health insurance doesn’t cover them for serious, long-term illness; until they get harassed by the police because they stepped out of line.

All workers, white-collar and blue-collar, skilled or unskilled, manual or non-manual, wage earning or salary earning, lead insecure lives in capitalist society. Robbed not only of the fruits of our labour we also have little control over our own lives irrespective of whether we have a few shares in BT or live in a house that we’ve “bought”. Poverty, insecurity and lack of control, as well as state coercion and harassment of the most vulnerable workers or those who refuse to accept the status quo, will continue so long as we allow ourselves to be divided politically by petty distinctions engineered by the ruling class for their own political ends.

Janie Percy-Smith