The hidden evils behind “divide and conquer”

By Mike Tudoreanu

It’s an old tactic: Get your opponents to fight amongst themselves so that they will get weaker and you can pick them off one by one. Gaius Julius Caesar coined the phrase “divide et impera” – divide and conquer – to describe it. He used it in his war against the Gauls, but in the millennia since then it has also become a very common political strategy. Again and again, the ruling classes of various societies at various times have used this trick to keep the people in line, to make ordinary people fight each other both literally and figuratively and forget about the guys who are really in charge. It continues to be used today all over the world, sometimes with great success. But sometimes people figure out what’s going on, and refuse to be divided.

Capitalists and politicians love to use whatever excuse they can find to get different groups of workers to be suspicious, afraid and hostile to each other. In the Middle East, and also increasingly in the West, they are currently trying to instill hatred between Christians and Muslims. They are helped in this task by the existence of real religious extremists who really are crazy. The media gives them excessive attention; they are made to look much more powerful than they actually are and books get published telling the adherents of one religion that everyone in the other group is secretly out to get them. Right-wing talk shows in the United States say that there is a secret Muslim plot to destroy America. Right-wing talk shows in Pakistan say that there is a secret Christian plot to destroy Pakistan. Some people fall for it, angry crowds protest against Muslims’ right to free speech in New York City or Christians’ right to free speech in Karachi; each side sees the other side’s anger as a confirmation that all the people in the other religion really are dangerous and scary. We end up with a self-reinforcing spiral of hate and the capitalists who started it all laugh all the way to the bank as they use the excuse of imminent danger to start profitable wars and cut social spending.

But, fortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. Last December, there was a bomb attack on a Christian church in Egypt. One might expect that this would increase sectarian tensions and mistrust between Egypt’s Christians (who make up 10 percent of the population) and Muslims. But in fact, the opposite happened. Weeks later, at Christmas, thousands of Muslims flocked to Christian churches and formed protective human shields around them in an impressive display of solidarity. They said they were ready to die for their Christian neighbors in case the fundamentalists tried to stage another attack. “We either live together, or we die together” was the slogan. The fundamentalists were nowhere to be seen that night. They did not dare face the people. A month afterwards, as millions of Egyptians of all faiths took to the streets to bring down Hosni Mubarak, inter-religious solidarity was taken to new heights. Christians defended Muslims during their noon prayers in Tahrir Square when it looked like Mubarak might send his thugs against them at any moment. Muslims attended an open-air Christian service, also in Tahrir Square, a few days later. Signs and graffiti depicting a crescent and a cross were among the symbols of the revolution. The people of Egypt were not divided, and as a result they were not conquered.

There is a lesson here for America, and it’s not just about religion. Our own rulers are trying to divide us in many different ways. Recently, there have been blatant attempts to turn private sector workers against public sector workers (especially teachers). After spending hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the banks, after extending Bush’s tax cuts to the super-wealthy, the American ruling class has apparently decided that the time has come to make workers pay the bill – especially public workers. So Obama instituted a wage freeze and state governments are busily chopping away at the wages, benefits, pensions and union rights of public workers.

The attack on the working class has reached an intensity not seen since the 1920s, with the Republican governor of Wisconsin trying to ram through a law that basically takes away the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. And how do they justify this attempt to roll back the clock to the age of robber barons? They say that public sector workers are overpaid and get too many benefits. That’s right. Not Wall Street bankers. Not CEOs with their multi-million dollar bonuses. No, no. Schoolteachers are the ones making the real money. They’re the reason the government is out of money – not, you know, bailouts for corporate America, tax cuts for the rich, or endless wars. This may sound insane (because it is), but there is a good reason why they’re suddenly trying to paint public sector workers as fat cats. The point is to divide the working class. The point is to make workers in the private sector hostile to their neighbors in the public sector.

Whether the wedge being used is religion or employment status, the strategy is the same: divide and conquer. Corporate America knows that it cannot fight all American workers all at once. So they must turn us against each other if they are to win. And if we are to win, we must stand together just as the Egyptians did.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]