The Balance Sheet: Exploitative Groups

Having multiple wives displays both personal power and wealth.
Having multiple wives in the FLDS church displays both personal power and wealth.

So, I was thinking about the world of exploitative groups more. And I was thinking specifically about what counts as value. If the goal for those at the top is to extract as much value as possible from others while offering as little as possible in return, then what counts as value that can be extracted?

Power, of course, must be at the top of this list. Power is the name of the game. It’s the reason for the exploitation. Power feels good, and we all want a little of it, but power in this world is different from the power over ourselves that we also need. Power over others is the goal here–not the power to make choices for oneself. Power means telling someone else what to do and having them do it. So, it’s something everyone has on offer. But there are ways of being able to offer more power. Having power over someone who has power themselves is more meaningful. Obeying in carrying out very distasteful or humiliating acts offers a greater sense of power as well.

Money is a kind of power: Money is potential, and is a way to get other people to do things as well as securing material goods for oneself. It can give you the resources to protect other members of your group as well as enhance your prestige.

Information can be used to obtain either power or cash, and so information can have a value as well. Of course, it needs to be the kind of information that’s needed, or that can translate into some other benefit. In families, this can mean informing on your siblings, and in the sex industry it can mean informing on other sex workers or on your observations of a rival pimp. In the corporate world, it might mean selling trade secrets or insider stock tips. Information, as they say, is power.

Goods and services are not only nice to have in themselves–we all know that–but they can enhance power and prestige. Powerful war lords display their wealth openly: it states plainly what kinds of resources they have at their disposal. Luxury items like jewelry, big houses, and fancy cars are symbols–just as they are in the rest of the world.

Certain performances have a value as well. What I mean by that is that most people have a certain image of themselves that they prefer–maybe they think they are smart, witty and charming. Or perhaps they see themselves as a violent, heartless thug. Behaving around them as if that view is correct–even if all their jokes are decidedly unfunny or you know they cry themselves to sleep like a baby whenever they drink–has a value. It’s something you can trade on.

So does behaving in a way that supports that persons view of how life works or what people are supposed to be like–so this form of value has to do with carrying out a performance of yourself that supports their cherished beliefs.  If the boss thinks that desirable people all shine their shoes every day, then by God you’ll shine your shoes. If they think people ought to go to church, you go to church. If they believe that everyone is always out for themselves, then you won’t mention the poor woman on the bus you saw give a homeless guy with no shoes a dollar so he could get where he wanted to go.

Prestige should probably be at the top of the list, because it’s the sum total of everything you have to offer, and it includes intangibles that suggest you have the character traits valued by other members of the group, such as acts of daring or violence in a street gang.

Protection and material sustenance. You can protect someone from dangers in the outside world, or those posed by members of the group. Lower status members protect the leader, and the leader’s hold over his members can in turn provide them with a degree of protection. We all need safety, food, shelter–and they can so easily be taken away.

That’s what I’ve got so far.


Niceness is Nothing More than a Long Con

I watched a documentary yesterday. It’s really very good. You should watch it too.

It’s about Britain’s child beggars, many of whom are Romanian Roma, and many of whom were trafficked into Britain for the benefit of organized crime bosses with the complicity of the children’s parents.

A child beggar in the UK can earn up to 100 pounds a day. Quite a tidy sum when you think about it, and if you add in the ill-gotten gains of benefits fraud, it makes for a very nice living for those at the top of this system.

Children from the same communities are also being exploited as thieves.
Children from the same communities are also being exploited as thieves.

But it got me to thinking about the children brought up in this system, for whom dishonesty and trickery is a way of life, because that’s in part how I was raised. Different kinds of exploitation of children can look somewhat alike, even if the form of exploitation is different. I’m not even sure if the exploitation involved needs to be economic to function similarly: Meeting someone’s sick need for sadistic power within a family or ritual abuse ring (what Kenneth Lanning calls a multidimensional child sex ring) might work much the same.

At any rate, the view of the world it creates is one in which everyone is out for themselves in some way, and everyone is potentially exploitative–because exploitation is how this world works. People are there to be used for whatever benefit they can provide. It isn’t explicitly about harm, but simply a disregard for the rights or integrity of others, and a failure to engage deeply or if at all in mutual, caring relationships. People are often harmed because no one’s well-being is taken into account when decisions are made. If something hurts you in the process of all of this, well, I’m sorry. That’s just how life is. Or that is how life is within exploitative groups.

It is a selfish, competitive, and brutal world to grow up in. There are rarely clear-cut victims or perpetrators. What you have instead are a few people at the very top who are most certainly perpetrators, and many more people at the bottom who are most certainly victims, but the majority of individuals who occupy this world are both victims and perpetrators. They survive by submitting to the exploitation of someone with more power while also exploiting someone with less power.

There is no real relief from exploitation. Escape exploitation from one person, and someone else will be happy to step up and take his place. Your only hope is to align yourself with whoever is most powerful within this system, so that you can reap the greatest benefits and garner the most protection.

In the United States, gangs are increasingly involved in human trafficking.
In the United States, gangs are increasingly involved in human trafficking.

In the world of sex trafficking, a sex worker can become a bottom girl and gain status and protection in that way. Romanian Roma women can marry into the family of a crime boss. But that’s the best there is.

We see these groups as a unique underworld phenomenon, but when you grow up in that world, you assume that that’s how everyone works: All this talk about love and mutual respect, honesty, and integrity–that’s just to sound good. Kindness is one con among many.

Others outside the group are assumed to be in rival groups that function in much the same way as the one you are in. Leaving the group that is exploiting you doesn’t land you in freedom. Instead, it lands you in hostile territory, where groups that care about you even less–and where you have no status or power or allegiances–will eat you alive.

In the cult I grew up in, this point was hammered home repeatedly. Although most members had no knowledge or connection to the sex trafficking ring that exploited me, they set the stage for it perfectly. “Outsiders” as we called them, were judgmental, fickle, uncaring. They only looked for what might be in for them. As soon as you had a problem, stopped being entertaining, or had a different idea, they dropped you. Just like that. According to them, the rest of the world behaved exactly as they did–only worse.

In a practical sense, what this means is that escape from an exploitative group can seem both impossible and pointless. On the one hand, there is nothing better to flee to and, on the other, the world outside of this group is actively dangerous–more dangerous than the group that is exploiting you in the first place.

Of course, if you’re really smart, you may realize that that isn’t how the rest of the world works, but that brings its own problem: will anyone outside of your own group ever accept you? Will you ever be anything else but tainted, criminal, illegal, immoral, bad? It seems doubtful, especially if what you did in the group to survive was illegal or deeply immoral. And that’s not really a fun way of looking at things either.

But I wasn’t even that smart, and I didn’t figure it out. Not for a long time. And it was an even longer time before I understood that niceness was something more than a long con.