Here – believe it or not – is a quite useful piece of work by Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule. ‘Divide and Conquer’ does not contribute much new analytically. What the paper does provide is a lengthy discussion and taxonomy (from the authors’ impeccably Establishment perspective) of the ubiquity and variety of top-down divide-and-rule strategies adopted in various settings involving bargaining or strategic interaction (labour contracts, constitutional design, imperial rule and counterinsurgency, Great Power rivalry, oligopoly industries, etc.).
This observation, too, has been made many times (Kant listed divide et impera as one of his three political maxims of statecraft; Machiavelli described it in his Art of War). But for that reason, it seems, it is commonly regarded as being old hat, divide and rule having been superseded as a strategy by more advanced and subtle techniques. The leaders of ancient Rome and British India, it’s said, may consciously have plotted to pit the governed against each other; but in the present day things are not so crude. Or, if they are, we’ve known about it anyway for centuries so it’s not worth talking about anymore.
Not so, show Posner and Vermeule. Today divide and rule is a strategy applied in many different domains. It is not just part of the strategic toolkit. It is perhaps the key instrument, for which the wary must keep lookout in all its multiform Swiss-knife guises: nationalism, battle of the sexes, between-generations baiting, etc.
Since the 1970s many people – not just political scientists – have grown accustomed to discussing political matters using game-theoretic terms and formalism. Among these may be numbered the description of climate-change negotiations as a public-goods game; welfare-spending or fiscal-appropriation decisions as a bargaining game; and the forming of legislative coalitions as a Downsian contest for the median voter. Most of these, however, take the form of n-player coordination games in which the problem is how to induce cooperation between agents. But Posner and Vermeule show that often for rulers the goal instead is to foment fractious discord among the governed or subordinate.
Of course, many theoretical discussions, by people like John Roemer and Joshua Cohen, have acknowledged the contemporary role of divide-and-rule strategies. Orthodox economists working on principal-agent problems in labour contracts (i.e. how managers can best induce work effort through payment-reward) have agreed that payments which induce competition between workers are optimal. Conservative think tanks have forthrightly advocated use of divide-and-rule strategies as part of the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Posner and Vermeule provide a domain-general and simple discussion of the strategy and its use in various institutional circumstances. The following conditions, they explain, ‘are essential to any divide and conquer mechanism: (1) A unitary actor bargains with or competes against a set of multiple actors. (2) The unitary actor follows an intentional strategy of exploiting problems of coordination or collective action among the multiple actors.’ This is for Stag-Hunt games in which agents have two possible strategies (cooperate or defect) and in which there are two equilibria: (1) cooperate, cooperate and (2) defect, defect. The attention focuses on ‘the role of third parties who are not themselves players of these games but who will be harmed if the players cooperate’. The third party, whose payoff depends on the result of the ‘nested’ game, tries to prevent the other two players reaching the cooperative equilibrium. Note that what here are called ‘unitary actors’ may include organised collectives like armies, corporations and political parties, which are each subject to a unified command-and-control structure. (The term itself comes from the ‘realist’ school of international-relations theory.) Whole societies, made up of millions of component individuals with different objectives, cannot be understood as such. There is no such thing as a general will. The interaction of these multiple agents may be understood as the nested game.
As Posner and Vermeule describe it, the ‘unitary actor is, in essence, a first mover in the larger strategic environment. If cooperation appears likely, the unitary actor will attempt to create and exploit divisions between the game’s players’. This may take various forms: pitting one agent against the other through penalties, bribes or other incentives, sowing mistrust or degrading communication channels. In general, the ruler, who will be adversely affected if the subordinates cooperate with each other, aims at ‘splitting similar groups through dissimilar treatment’. In practical real-world situations, this first-mover advantage generally takes the form of control over rationed scarce resources (jobs, wages, health and education services, political influence), and their allocation to different groups.
A divide-and-rule strategy underlay James Madison’s argument, in Federalist No.10, for a large republic of gentlemen senators as the best constitutional form through which to avoid ‘faction’ (tyrannical rule by the majority interest) and thus preserve the rights of propertyholders:
[The] most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination… The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.
And in a contemporary letter to Thomas Jefferson:
If then there must be different interests and parties in Society; and a majority when united by a common interest or passion can not be restrained from oppressing the minority, what remedy can be found in a republican Government, where the majority must ultimately decide, but that of giving such an extent to its sphere, that no common interest or passion will be likely to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit. In a large Society, the people are broken into so many interests and parties, that a common sentiment is less likely to be felt, and the requisite concert less likely to be formed, by a majority of the whole. The same security seems requisite for the civil as for the religious rights of individuals. If the same sect form a majority and have the power, other sects will be sure to be depressed. Divide et impera, the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain qualifications, the only policy, by which a republic can be administered on just principles.
More recently, witness the dismemberment of supra-national political entities like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, and their division along ethnic lines, with various parts then brought under the NATO umbrella. Divide-and-rule strategies commonly work by narrowing the focus of loyalty and solidarity, or nurturing or encouraging attachments to nation, race or gender. In situations where a population shares language, behaviour, habits and traditions, it may successfully be divided by making most salient whatever single trait its members do not hold in common: religion, skin colour or some other phenotypic characteristic.
This is also how to understand the emergence during recent decades of particularism and ‘identity’ projects as political movements in the economically-developed countries. Each of these functions to partition people and weaken their political unification by upholding the political exclusivity of a group based on some characteristic, often enough inherited from birth, which reproduces a division. Of course, attention to such matters (e.g. racial prejudice or oppression) may have progressive potential to the extent that it overcomes segregation and leads to political unification on a wider basis than before. But such progressive potential can be depleted and continued focus become regressive.
As the historian Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, a universalist movement aims to abolish the category that brings injustice and inequality (e.g. the division of people into classes via differential private ownership of scarce productive assets, in the case of socialism). No nationalism or identity project, on the other hand, aims to abolish nationhood or whatever is the relevant vehicle of identity. Particularism is thus a form of interest-group rent seeking that seeks to gain privileges for its constituent members: access to prestigious law schools, quotas for seats in parliament, favourable welfare payments, etc. As such it is acutely vulnerable to manipulation by ruling groups – which dangle inducements to ‘defect’ rather than ‘cooperate’ – of the sort described by Posner and Vermeule. It is known, for example, that elements of the US and Australian states sought deliberately to deal with 1960s radicalism by diverting it into more amenable nationalist channels. Pliable figures were cultivated and funded, feuds nurtured and groups played off against each other – it being important, J. Edgar Hoover remarked, ‘that Black extremist groups be kept divided so that their strength is not increased through united action.’ External powers, meanwhile, have long promoted secession or separatist movements in resource-rich and strategic regions, from the Kaiser’s posture as ‘protector of Muslims’ during the late Ottoman Empire, through the Biafran conflict, down to the Ogaden and Nubian peoples today. (Which is not to say that such groups aren’t sometimes or usually genuine victims of misfortune and repression). In this they have been assisted by the ‘progressive’ gloss applied to the principle of ‘self-determination’ through its wielding by Austro-Marxists and Stalinists along with Wilsonian internationalists and their latter-day epigones among the NGO and activist set.
These tactics are the bread and butter of security and intelligence organisations, diplomats and politicians. The propertied classes, meanwhile, may benefit from segmented labour markets (where due to scarcity or costly training for some jobs there is a dispersal of wage rates and other conditions of employment, with horizontal mobility of workers limited) and anti-immigrant xenophobia.
There are other groups, foremost among them the media, that assist divide-and-rule strategies without themselves sharing the incentives and immediate objectives of ruling groups. Both the ‘yellow’ and ‘quality’ press, for sound business reasons, revel in promoting, egging on and inventing lurid tales of social conflict, pitting one group – race, gender, generation – against another.