By John Talbut

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22nd November 2016

The Pillars of Institutional Oppression

Oppression is the opposite of empowerment. Whereas empowerment is about helping people to be more able to choose for themselves from the possibilities in any situation, oppression is about coercing people into feeling that they do not have choices when in fact they do. The effects of oppression are internalised within people, they lead to internalised oppression. It leads to people feeling that they must do this, they cannot do that, other things are too difficult and they are oblivious to many of the possibilities available to them.

I became involved in personal development after many years of involvement in politics. A key question for me at that time was why on earth people made the decisions that they did, decisions that were clearly not in their own self interests like voting for politicians who would make life worse for them. It all made a lot more sense when I learned about internalised oppression.

What I then became aware of was that the same oppressive practices were turning up across all government departments, in commerce and in the media. I call these The Pillars of Institutional Oppression.

To consider how these operate it is useful to see how they affect the key aspects of personal empowerment or being more in ones own power, i.e.:

Oppression involves coercing people in to feeling or internalising the opposite of these.

1. Misinform

The manipulation of information is a time-honoured tool of oppression. The direct effect is to restrict our choices because we do not have information about what some of the options might be. Indirectly all our oppression is the result of information that has been communicated to us.

Often the communication is non verbal. This may be interpersonal communication, for example in childhood we may perceive threats that if we do not conform our parents will abandon us. With modern communication there is considerable use of images and video that carry non verbal messages. For example many advertisements have very little verbal content and rely on images to persuade us to feel like buying the product.

All the pillars of institutional oppression rely on communication and the manipulation of information.


Make things seem much more complicated than they really are or make things more complicated than they need to be.

Physics and maths tend to be badly taught in school, because of government requirements, so that people do not have a sound understanding of basic principles. This makes all sorts of day to day things seem more complicated. This is then compounded, for example with household DIY, by complex regulations that even tradespeople do not understand well. So people end up feeling unable to sort things out themselves.

Many things in economics and politics are made out to seem much more complicated than they really are. We are given a lot of confusing detail and not helped to understand basic principles like the difference between capital and revenue expenditure or between deficit and debt.

Perpetuate myths

For example that austerity is either necessary or economically desirable or that competition is a good thing and nearly always results in people getting better value for money.

Say you are doing the opposite of what you actually are doing.

For example:

Legislation is framed to some apparent purpose and it is only by looking at the details that it is seen to have the opposite effect. Energy companies proclaim their commitment to renewable energy while focussing mainly on using fossil fuels. “Evidence”, “statistics” and other assertions are produced to “prove” that the apparent purpose is being achieved. This has two effects. One is to conceal the real agenda. The other, more insidious, is to confuse people and undermine their belief in their own experience.

2. Promote dependency

Instead of understanding freedom as a state of mind it is promoted as the absence of constraints imposed by others. So we are dependent on others to allow us to do things.

Institutions promote the idea that it is up to them to provide solutions to our difficulties. They have to provide the resources or the structures to enable us to do anything. If our environment is untidy, only the local authorities can do anything about it. If I am being ill treated it is up to the authorities to do something about it.

Unfair discrimination is discussed on the basis that it is a problem that is solely in the hands of the discriminators. There is nothing that those who are discriminated against can do about it.

The narrative is that we are helpless to do anything about the distribution of wealth and income. Either we put up with inequality or we depend on some form of socialist parentalism to impose equality.

3. Denigrate the service providers.

Teachers, social workers, even police officers and judges are accused of being “woolly minded liberals” with “trendy” ideas and the cause of all societies ills. The problems with the health services are because doctors and nurses do not work a seven day week.


This is another form of denigration. Whenever something goes wrong, e.g. some incidence of crime or child abuse, an enquiry is set up, with limited terms of reference, to come out with a report that blames the service providers.

Two effects of denigration are to disable the workers and to make them aggressive and oppressive. In feeling undermined the workers are less able to oppose state action and organise to provide an effective service. Worse, they will act out their feelings of frustration etc. by being aggressive and unsupportive to their clients. This is a chain of persecution effect.

4. Pass responsibility down to the lowest level.

Thus local government is made responsible for carrying out functions previously carried out by the state, e.g. provision of community health services, responsibilities for policing aspects of pollution or health and safety. School governors are made responsible for managing schools. GP practices are given more responsibilities for the provision of health services.

Whenever there is a problem with the provision of a service, targets are set, for example for waiting times or train punctuality, but no resources are provided to achieve these. The people at the bottom are just expected to “work harder”.

This is put forward in the guise of enabling people to have more control over things that effect them. In fact the intention is the opposite (see 1.). It pushes responsibility down to people who do not have the expertise, the experience, the overview or the resources to carry out their responsibilities effectively. The achieves less effective services, enables the service providers to be blamed for problems (scapegoating, see 2) and enables the state to exercise more control over the ways in which services are provided.

5. Keep changing the goalposts

Keep bringing out new legislation on the same topics. Keep financial objectives short term and change them each year. This has the effect of making service providers commit considerable resources to training, trying to keep up with the legislation, preparing budgets and chasing funds.

6. Prescribe in detail how services are to be provided

This also provides a good example of 1. Governments claiming to be “cutting out red tape” actually delivering a mass of detailed legislation, rules, regulations and procedures.

Apart from the fact that what may be prescribed may not be in the interests of providing a good service, this stifles initiative and bogs service providers down in detail. Service providers are not allowed to operate in the ways that they believe to be in the best interests of the service or to develop examples of alternative good practice. The monitoring of the provision usually involves a great of detailed form filling, reports, portfolio building etc.

7. Promote fear

In militaristic states this is done by the fairly crude methods of discriminatory legislation arbitrarily applied using violence backed up with surveillance and secrecy. Modern democracies tend to use more subtle methods, although the cruder ones are still used, e.g. laws restricting assembly, greater police powers, surveillance and official secrecy. Again, as an example of 1, moves towards freedom of information by governments are sidestepped by more and more information being held by businesses.

More subtle approaches include encouraging people to feel helpless and exaggerating threats in society. These tend to go hand in hand, so considerable attention is given to threats, particularly by the media, e.g. terrorism, drugs and paedophilia. Politicians promote the idea that these can only be addressed by the state, usually through repressive legislation.

8. Restrict resources

Expect people to do more, or at least the same, while giving them fewer resources with which to do so.

Obviously this restricts the options that people have, but this is not the way in which it is oppressive. What it also does is to restrict the opportunities that people have to work out how to make best use of resources. Workers start doing their job in a fire-fighting mode, going from one emergency to the next. Management becomes crisis management. People are under pressure and exhausted. There is never time to stand back and look at the work, to learn and work out how things could be done differently.

Like many of these techniques, this is usually used alongside others. Saying one thing and doing the opposite, for instance. Often the message is put out that, in fact, resources are being increased, with statistics being produced to “prove” it, despite people’s actual experience of cutbacks. Denigrate the service providers is another, with examples of other places in which excellent services are being provided on even less resources.

Promoting poverty is an example of this technique. It is difficult for people who are struggling to maintain the basics of life to act powerfully, to recognise the options that are available to them. Which then means that they can be denigrated for not taking up these options.

9. Money is everything

This is the incessant message that in order to have anything or do anything you have to have money and if it does not cost it is not worth having.

Most of the so called “voluntary sector” in the UK has been taken over by government. The message is that we cannot organise anything in the community without external sources of money. And that involves applying for grants, which will be short term (see 4), from government or government sponsored bodies.