Steve Biko. Flickr/ Sami Ben Gharbia. Some rights reserved.
‘The most potent
weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’,
Just as there are mainstream media, mainstream
narratives, mainstream academia, and mainstream organizations, so there are
also ‘mainstream ethics’. These widespread and established ethical strands assert,
for example, that humans are naturally egotistical, competitive and
nationalistic and prone to sexism and racism and other similar mindsets that
result in polarization among non-elites and their submission to elites.
building on the premise that socio-economic outcomes are based on merit,
mainstream ethics indirectly view women, non-white people, and other
marginalized groups as having lower human value. They are able to do so by
disregarding most of the unfair and brutal treatment of such groups at the
hands of the currently privileged groups (predominantly white men), which has occurred
over centuries and, when it comes to women, millennia.[i]
These ethics divide us, make us suspicious of
democracy, more prejudiced against people who are different from ourselves,
blame ourselves more than we should, delink us from collectivity, and sceptical
about the possibilities for structural change – all of which play into the
hands of the already powerful.
When most people are occupied with competing for jobs,
opportunities, social space, and other means to ‘make it in life’, there is little
unity and resistance to elite rule. If, at the same time, people are submissive
to elites – for instance, accepting their perceived superiority and power as
outcomes of individual merit – the end result is greater empowerment of elites.
These two channels – people’s disempowerment and elites’ empowerment – lead to further
power imbalances in our societies.
ethics are widely disseminated as if they are ‘normal’, ’natural’, and not
really up for debate. If they are discussed, it is often with the intention of
appropriating, distorting and dismissing any alternatives. They are also
normalized because they help to sustain and occasionally strengthen the status
quo of power distribution.
However, compared to other mainstream forms of power,
mainstream ethics are very difficult to pinpoint, illustrate and assess, given
their subtle and elusive character. It is also important to note that even
sensible, conscious and anti-elite people are, more or less, influenced by such
ethics, making them perhaps the most useful instrument in maintaining the state
of power, given that ‘power is most effective when least observable’, according
to the power theorist Steven Lukes.
In particular, this ethical dimension of power pre-empts
people’s grievances by shaping their perceptions and preferences in such a way
that they accept their role in the existing order of things, such as by regenerating
the belief that ‘this is the way of the world’.
In this manner, conflicts are prevented from arising
in the first place. This kind of power endures ‘though control’, which
generally includes the control or influence of information, diffused through
education, politics, culture, media and the process of socialization. The more we internalize such ethical tenets, the more submissive and
destructive human behaviour becomes.
Such subjection leads to self-surveillance,
self-censorship, compliance with prevailing norms, identity-related domination
and other power-accepting behaviour. In this ‘natural’ order, non-elites depend
on the elites, and preferences are generally sought and obtained according to
elite considerations. For instance, in the face of economic troubles, many people
obediently wait to cast a vote that is supposed to bring about change; or hope
that specific elite meetings will be followed by ‘policy solutions’; or strive
to adapt their job profile and manners to the ‘job market’; or behave in other ways
that reinforce the status quo.
Moreover, the more we internalize such ethical tenets,
the more submissive and destructive human behaviour becomes. For instance, otherwise
reasonable and sensible persons hold it as self-evident that people are
strictly egoist, competitive, racist, sexist and elite-oriented. In this
manner, people and elite groups may not even be aware that their behaviour
generates societies that veer towards plutocracy and totalitarian rule. Apart
from relatively few extremes, such outcomes are probably not really part of any
group’s interests and ideology, but given the current state of power worldwide,
this is not such a far-fetched scenario. The outcome of the 2016 US elections
is but one obvious example.
There is a need to acknowledge that such ethical beliefs
are to some extent real, at least for contemporary humanity, but that they are
far from natural and permanent. Humanity has witnessed a wide range of behaviour
and associated ethics. The plasticity of humanity is both a curse and a
blessing. It is a curse because we may be swayed to behave in an increasingly
destructive or even evil fashion. It is a blessing because we are able to cope
with extremely harsh circumstances, but also to build constructive and pleasant
behaviour when the opportunity prevails. The
economic, political and ethical systems generate feedback loops that
continuously entrench and expand power imbalances in society.
But instead of promoting such constructive and
emancipatory ethical values, the powerful conveniently promote destructive and subjugatory
ethical values, such as by redirecting frustration and blame away from
themselves and towards immigrants, minorities, women, and other marginalized
groups. In their language and narrative, they claim that there is only one
system and that your plight is due to people who are not playing according to
the rules, who are creating trouble, who should fix themselves, who should work
harder, and so on.
This ethical system is built on narratives that put
the individual at the centre of success and failure, while broader structures
and mechanisms are simply to be submitted and adapted to. In this way, people’s
struggle with poverty, inequality, social stigma, and sense of powerlessness is
largely their own fault. At the same time, again in a subtle manner, people are
powerful because they are ‘that good’. In such ways, the economic, political
and ethical systems generate feedback loops that continuously entrench and
expand power imbalances in society.
It is unlikely that these developments arise from regular
and systematic elite conspiracy. The elite are seldom sufficiently collective,
homogeneous or smart. More often than not, they play out because the powerful
are driven by similar ethics, but have the position and opportunity to impose
their preferences. Those who control the means of
interpretation and communication diffuse their own experience and culture as
That is why it is rarely about individuals, but rather
about the structures and mechanisms based on major power imbalances among different
individuals, groups, nations and organizations. Individual, but often
collective, decision-making by powerful elites becomes structural, systematic
and pervasive in our societies. Those who control the means of interpretation
and communication diffuse their own experience and culture as the norm.
This entails dismissing the perspectives of those who
are subordinate, while simultaneously stereotyping and marking people out as
‘others’. Moreover, elite connections facilitate the transfer of information
and help either to coordinate or to produce appropriate forms of action based
on their own shared interests.
There are several ways to categorize people in
relation to the most powerful, but I would divide them into four, albeit
overlapping, groups: the dominant economic elites, the dominant political
semi-elites, the managerial quasi-elites, and the general population. The
political semi-elites often share similar values, ideologies and interests with
the economic elites, but are lower in the power hierarchy because capital now
trumps political positions. The managerial quasi-elites include academia,
polity, bureaucracy, the staff of international organizations, transnational
corporation managers, and other upper middle-class individuals who do the
thinking and drafting according to the directions of the two higher powers.
Sources of subjugatory and emancipatory ethics
Most current subjugatory ethical strands have been
popularized via economics. Economic discourses not only carry implicit positions
and assumptions about the economy, but also about humanity, the environment and
other matters that affect us.
Similarly, economic outcomes affect not only the economic
sphere but also have an impact on human behaviour, the environment, and other
non-economic realms. Economics and economists enjoy high prominence around the
world, and the predominant version of economics supports the interests, values
and ideologies of the already powerful and those who aspire to power.
This economics has not only been financed by the
powerful, but has also been strengthened by other academic disciplines that have
adopted its basic approaches and ethics. Its ethical tenets have also been
popularised through media, books, music and other forms of cultural expression.
For instance, a number of popular books on ‘freakonomics’ describe how people
supposedly behave as calculating egoists in a range of contexts. For example, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the
Hidden Side of Everything, by
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, shows how teachers in the public school
system in Chicago cheat by passing more students than they should, since this
is how their performance is judged. By providing many similar examples, the
authors conclude that people are driven by selfish incentives. ‘Freakonomics’ does
not consider that this type of selfishness is context-specific, and that other
types of ‘selfishness’ could be generated in other contexts and systems. In the
end, especially since neoliberalism assumed dominance in the 1980s, pretty much
everyone spoke this type of economic language, based on the same underlying
One of its central ideas is that the economy comprises
a collection of rational and selfish individuals, devoted to the maximization
of utility and minimization of disutility, both of which are usually defined in
material terms. Adam Smith’s well-known passage has been exploited extensively
to represent this position: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the
brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their
However, economists and others tend to overlook Smith’s second, and equally
important book, The Theory of Moral
Sentiments, in which he suggests a far more complex human character: ‘How
Selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in this
nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their
happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the
pleasure of seeing it’.[iii]
It is not empirically true that human beings are
‘rational’, especially if this is defined as making calculated selfish choices.
Since rationality has a positive connotation, it becomes a prescription rather
than a description of reality, but can be defined in various ways – driven by
beliefs, habits, mood-swings, and unselfish behaviour – all of which have the
perceived objective of maximizing one’s own and perhaps others’ utility. For
instance, you may do things that will make your friend happy, even at the expense
of your personal discomfort, but your friend’s happiness may outweigh your
discomfort in ways that also make you happy. But it is not easy to be
‘rational’ when our mindsets and preferences are continuously manipulated and
distorted through information flows that manufacture illusions and trends.
Another assumption underlying this economics is that
of individual choice. Individuals and their economic circumstances are regarded
as the outcomes of their personal choices, and social inequalities are simply
the aggregated outcomes of such choices. In reality, choice is always dependent
upon the available alternatives, which vary greatly among different groups and
individuals. People may also ‘choose’ to behave in certain ways in order to make
their reality more bearable. For instance, a non-white person in a
white-dominated society may adapt to the prevailing language, norms and dress
code in order to secure a decent, or even successful, living. Or an economist
who does not truly share the mainstream ethical tenets and research approaches,
nevertheless internalizes them in order ‘to make it’ in the profession. In both
cases, the status quo of power imbalances is maintained.
Competition is another essential ingredient in mainstream
economics. According to this view, consumers get the best quality and lowest
prices when firms compete. In competing to stay in business and make profit,
firms must produce the best possible products that are also priced
In reality, markets involve powerful, manipulative and
colluding corporations, where ‘competition’ is also based on large corporate power
imbalances. By extension, individuals, workers, public officials and even countries
are encouraged to compete in their own self-interest. For instance, countries
compete to attract foreign investment in ways that essentially give
transnational corporations a green light to exploit natural resources, workers,
and public administration, for instance by relaxing legal and tax requirements.
In the name of protecting national interests, powerful nations subsidize their agricultural
production – which, for example, makes it cheaper for West African countries to
import rice than to produce, although that region is highly suited to rice
production – while at the same time promoting ‘free’ trade policies through the
World Trade Organization (WTO). Mainstream
ethics has built-in biases towards maintaining the status quo.
Finally, mainstream ethics has built-in biases towards
maintaining the status quo. This is most evident in the Pareto criterion, which
forms the basis for all judgements on socioeconomic outcomes in mainstream
economics. In this view, a change is positive only when it makes some people better
off without making anyone else worse off. This means that no-one’s utility
should be sacrificed in the name of a given goal.
In the real world, changes usually harm and benefit
different individuals and groups. But the subtle prescription here is to leave
things as they are. More recently, the compensation principle holds that it may
be acceptable to violate the Pareto criterion if the total gains for the
winners are large enough to compensate all the losers and still leave some
gains to spare. In reality, the likelihood of compensation or redistribution from
winners to losers has proven minimal at best. It is extremely rare, for
instance, that large extractive corporations compensate for the environmental
degradation, health hazards to which workers are exposed, or lives lost as a
result of their activities.
Overall, dominant economics prescribes, in very subtle
ways, destructive and subjugatory human behaviour – constantly exploiting humanity’s
weaker ethical characteristics. Let us now see how this colonization of the
mind is regenerated.
Regenerating subjugatory or emancipatory ethics
The gap between theory and reality is essential to our
concept of mainstream (subjugatory) ethics as power. The more we internalize
its theoretical assumptions, the more this gap closes. Indeed, empirical studies
find that when people act as if a theory is true, the more it becomes true. Three
channels through which theories become normalized are institutional design,
social norms and language.
Institutional design involves situations in which
people’s tasks and responsibilities are pre-arranged to reinforce the
prevailing order. For instance, in a quasi-elite working environment, since the
implicit expectation is that a draft research paper should not challenge the
status quo, the drafter either meets this expectation, or risks disciplinary
measures. This kind of behaviour becomes a reality and norm without anyone
taking an explicit decision – and hence the number and size of elephants in the
room increases over time. This kind of behaviour
becomes a reality and norm without anyone taking an explicit decision – and
hence the number and size of elephants in the room increases over time.
The second channel involves situations when theories
become accepted truths and norms. People feel obliged to act according to
norms, because acting differently is perceived as violating descriptive and
prescriptive norms. Research shows that when people believe in the norm of
selfishness, they tend to conceal a different norm, for instance by avoiding taking
up a cause. By the same token, if you expect someone to behave in a selfish,
competitive, conservative fashion, and impose their power, it is easy to act in
a more guarded, less pleasant, and perhaps even harmful way, so that the end result
will mirror the perceptions. For instance, managers who adopt such worldviews may
pit people and organizational units against one another in the belief that
competition among self-interested agents produces optimal solutions. In this
way, people tend to act accordingly.
The third channel, language, implies how we talk about
certain norms. Language influences perspectives, circumstances, decisions,
actions, values, and so on. It reproduces and validates the terminology we use
to describe perceived reality – the way we talk about reality re-constructs it.
A research experiment highlighted this in a concrete manner. Two groups were
asked to play exactly the same game, which had two different names. Mutual
cooperation was the general norm when the game was called The Community Game,
while competition was the general norm when it was called The Wall Street Game.
The way we talk about reality re-constructs it.
Through such repetitive outcomes in each of the three
channels we are helping to realize the theory, idea and ethical position: our
fellow human beings, leaders, organizations, and societies become increasingly
trapped in unproductive and harmful cycles of behaviour. At some point, very
few people consider defying the accepted norms, so that it becomes increasingly
difficult to reinforce alternative behavioural pathways. This also suggests
that systemic (r)evolutions are increasingly difficult to imagine, since
subjugatory and submissive cognitive frameworks take a greater hold and
alternatives fade away. This process is probably part of the pessimism we are
observing today. But this is exactly what totalitarians want us to feel, since
it leads to passivity.
Instead, we have to recognize anecdotal and research
evidence exhibiting our beautiful inherent, but often latent, ethical tenets.
They include non-selfish, cooperative, progressive, collective, anti-racist,
anti-sexist, and anti-elitist characteristics – attitudes based on regard for equality.
In fact, for more than 90% of our history, when we
were hunter-gatherers, the human species was characterized by cooperation and
equality. Today’s economic inequality dates back to several thousands of years
but in evolutionary time it is relatively short. Inequalities and associated
competitiveness became entrenched when we began to accumulate surplus food and
goods. In times of unequal resources, those surpluses were contested. It should
also be noted that inequality between ethnic groups become significant only
about 150–200 years ago, following the Industrial Revolution.
An increasing number of research papers (in economics,
perhaps best represented by the works of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis) suggests
that we still possess constructive traits. Our real behaviour seems to be
characterized by cooperation and ‘strong reciprocity’. For instance, research
experiments show that individuals often contribute voluntarily to collective
goods as long as they believe the majority are willing to do the same. Individuals often contribute voluntarily to collective goods as long as
they believe the majority are willing to do the same.
To solve collective-action problems, we often promote
trust as an alternative to costly incentive schemes. Explicit penalties and
subsidies are seen to worsen rather than solve collective-action problems
because they are based on doubting other citizens’ willingness to contribute
voluntarily to the common good.
These research results confirm that we are still as
much a cooperative as a competitive species. We are complex, as our behaviour
may be moved by self-interest, cooperation, patriotism, class solidarity,
altruism, justice, honesty, ideology, duty, vicariousness, friendship, love,
pursuit of beauty, curiosity, or something entirely different. We are also
easily swayed by instinct and emotion, as we may make different decisions at
different times in reaction to the same scenario. We seem to overreact to new
information and under-react to existing information. We tend to operate with an
intuitive, shortcut system of thinking, which results in poor logical
reasoning, while we are over-confident in our own ‘rationality’.
But mainstream economics has not only provided the
intellectual backbone to a world economy in which severe economic imbalances
are regenerated, but has also promoted an increasingly elite-oriented and
subjugated humanity. These imbalances have, in turn, sustained severe power
imbalances, mainly through poverty, economic inequality, loss of democracy, and
social polarization. The three subjugatory channels (economy, ethics and power)
have created societies that, in a vicious cycle of development, veer towards
plutocracy, totalitarianism, and even fascism.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of alternative
pathways, not only for economics, politics, but also for ethics. Let us now take
a look at them.
Emancipation from subjugatory ethics
If we are falling for all this nonsense and allowing
ourselves to be subjugated, does this mean we are foolish?
We should not shy away from this important question.
The answer lies in the historical turn of events and normalization processes
(partly described above), in which the vast majority of humanity has never
really been given a chance to develop reasonably independent intellects,
cognitive maps and worldviews.
In fact, history suggests that when we have had such
chances, we have managed our societies in a more cooperative and egalitarian fashion
than we are experiencing today. At present, most of us are born into a world marked
by extensive power imbalances. This world involves continuous inferences of
overt and covert form, including physical violence, threats, ideological
conditioning, and injections of subjugatory ethics. And most elites have
inherited or accumulated their wealth through shady businesses and by
exploiting their power.
Also, if we are foolish, we are all foolish – it is
simply that elites are allowed to be so but with more power, and so better placed
to accumulate wealth, knowledge, skills and other forms of power. And even if
we are ‘stupid’, we are obviously capable of being less so, and of generating
less destructive and happier societies. It is also obvious that we can all help
each other to promote emancipatory knowledge, expand our perspectives, deepen
our ethics, and thereby empower ourselves, while working to disempower the
powerful. It may very well be that we are generally both stupid and
intelligent, but that our intelligence is so suppressed that we rarely use or
express it in emancipatory ways. If we are
foolish, we are all foolish – it is simply that elites are allowed to be so but
with more power, and so better placed to accumulate wealth, knowledge, skills
and other forms of power.
Of course, it does not help that we are continuously
faced with extreme complexity and confusion, often coming from the constant flow
of news, information, disinformation, misinformation, social media, knowledge
and personal experience. In addition, most of us simply lack the time and
energy to engage, participate and take action to challenge the powers that be,
especially if we are marginalized. It is also very difficult for the billions
of people who are juggling multiple jobs, or facing under- or unemployment (as
part of the global precarity) and struggling with everything from social stigma
to hunger, among many other problems. By contrast, elite groups work and live
in ways that, by design and construction, help to sustain the status quo, which
includes everything from ‘development assistance’ to luxury consumption,
abusive production lines, to mass murder through war.
The behavioural order
There may, however, be two positive aspects arising
from these terrible circumstances. One in which totalitarian rule becomes more
visible, which makes attacking it relatively easy (or at least less difficult).
The second in which there is a greater scope for unity of purpose, as few would
be interested in fascism, or the risk of fascism.
W.Du Bois around 1920 by Winold Reiss. Flickr/Cliff. Some rights reserved.
The activist opposition to Apartheid South Africa is a
good example of both. The racist government was a clear, visible and present
enemy, against which there was great unity of purpose from people around the
world. But South Africa is now also an example of how we should be beware of
elite appropriation and subjugatory ethics in the aftermath of (r)evolutions. In
other words, it is not sufficient to change the political order, even the
economic order, without also changing the behavioural order.
It is possible to achieve this by two (difficult)
processes. The first involves efforts to raise the awareness of peoples and
elites of the real existence of the constructive and emancipatory aspects of
our minds. The second involves efforts to raise and empower these aspects,
while suppressing and disempowering the destructive and subjugatory
(mainstream) sides. After all, ethical power is always focused on particular
domains and is never more than partially effective. There are clearly many who
are to some extent aware of this kind of ethical dichotomy – who consent to
power, but resent, resist, or rebel against it at the same time.
In fact, we seem to possess, more or less, dual and
contradictory mindsets. About a century ago, Du Bois famously posited that
black people had to be in a state of ‘double consciousness’, with a ‘sense of
always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s
soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’ .[iv]
In this way, ethical injections are never wholly effective because the
dominated never fully internalize ways of interpreting the world that devalue
and stereotype them.
A second duality is about transforming power itself.
It is usually assumed that power works against others’ interests, but it can
also be used in a positive manner. Such an exercise of power could be
benevolent, transformative and empowering, by, for instance, increasing others’
resources, capabilities, effectiveness and abilities to act. Ordinary examples
include apprenticeships, teaching, parenting and therapy. In other words, power
can be emancipatory.
Elites that genuinely respect non-elites are few and
far between, but they may support the push for policies that evoke, cultivate,
and empower transformative behaviour. They could also support policies that
reduce economic inequality, since this is one of the greatest obstacles to
further cooperation. They may also push for policies toward genuine democracy,
which would also help to re-balance the state of power.
It is more likely that such ‘emancipatory power’ will
be realized by mass mobilization and pressure, but it can be complemented by
collaboration with semi-elites, quasi-elites, and people who are currently
elite-oriented. In order to realize such solidarity, it is essential, to transcend
our subjugatory worldviews in favour of the positive potential of humanity.
This means that we should be strategic and reconsider strong positions that are
perhaps counterproductive to the greater goal of halting and reversing the
trend towards fascism. Elites will not learn to care on their own. We have to
make them care.
The third and final duality to reconcile is about the
balance of power: disempowerment of plutocracy and people’s empowerment. This
is, of course, the most difficult challenge of the (r)evolutionary project, as elites
have generated a form of capitalism in which capital is almost entirely equal
The disempowerment process needs to involve
dispossession and blockage of both their material and non-material forces that
shape, influence and subjugate our minds. This type of re-balancing should be
important for all agents of transformation, be they radical, progressive or liberal,
since they all want to avoid the risk of totalitarian rule. This is not an
impossible task since elites’ greatest strength may also be their greatest
weakness: their ever-more-concentrated capital and power, and also their small
numbers. As their extreme concentration of wealth, and the relative poverty and
unhappiness of the masses become more visible, it will be more difficult to
conclude that this is a ‘natural’ and deserving order.
In this endeavour, as ethical power is difficult to
concretize, it is essential to establish a critical juncture. A crisis is
generally a fertile ground for change, although not necessarily positive. The many
crises worldwide are all more or less linked, forming one massive, overarching
crisis or one global critical juncture to remedy, such as the risk of fascism.
A critical juncture may mean little, however, if it is
not combined with alternatives that are perceived as appealing and feasible.
(R)evolutionary alternatives should not only be about economic policy and
political institutions, but also about ethics.
In fact, given the current realities, we are perhaps
in a better position to invest efforts to empower our ethical base than the
other two spheres. This would include efforts to release humanity’s inherent
potential for emancipatory behaviour. In the short run, some would be more
receptive than others, but by building pockets of like-minded people we could
form a worldwide network of emancipatory resistance. A gradual transition would
continuously expand the network’s quantity and quality, so that we are better
positioned to encroach on the economic and political spheres of the powerful.
This is not to say such efforts are not being made,
but this suggestion involves two complementary proposals. First both our
organization and accumulation of power should take place in subtle ways, given
that power is most efficient when least observable. Second, the process should
include more efforts to change human behaviour by raising both our consciousness
and our sub-consciousness.
Another humanity is possible.
[i] See Kellecioglu, D.
(2010) ‘Why some countries are poor and some rich – a non-Eurocentric view’,
which is basically a short descriptive analysis on the globalization of
colour-coded economic inequality.
[ii] Quotation from page 30 in Smith, A (1776) An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the
Wealth of Nations ElecBooks
[iii] Quotation from page 3 Gintis,
H., Bowles, S., Boy, R. and Fehr, E. (2005) Moral Sentiments and Material
Interests. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[iv] Quotation from page 8 in Du Bois, W (2007)
 The Souls Of Black Folk
Oxford: Oxford University Press
Disclaimer: The United
Nations, including its various entities and staff members, are not responsible
for and do not necessarily endorse the contents of this essay.
This article features in State of Power,
an annual anthology on power published by Transnational Institute, an
international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just,
democratic and sustainable world.