Divide and Conquer

In politics and sociology, divide and rule (derived from Latin divide et impera) (also known as divide and conquer) is a combination of political, military and economic strategy of gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into chunks that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy. In reality, it often refers to a strategy where small power groups are prevented from linking up and becoming more powerful, since it is difficult to break up existing power structures. (see also counter-insurgency)

Maxims "Divide et impera" or "Divide ut regnes" are traditionally identified with the principle of government of the Roman Senate. This attribution is not entirely reliable, insofar as the Roman policy mainly aimed to unite the conquered nations both politically and culturally, under Roman rule. It is, however, borne out by the example of Gabinius parting the Jewish nation into five conventions, reported by Flavius Josephus in Book I, 169-170 of The Wars of the Jews (De bello Judaico) . Likewise, Strabo reports in Geography, 8.7.3, that the Achaean League was gradually dissolved under the Roman possession of the whole of Greece, owing to them not dealing with the several states in the same way, but wishing to preserve some and to destroy others.

In modern times, Traiano Boccalini cites "Divide et impera" in La bilancia politica, 1,136 and 2,225 as a common principle in politics. The use of this technique is meant to empower the sovereign to control subjects, populations, or factions of different interests, who collectively might be able to oppose his rule. Machiavelli identifies a similar application to military strategy, advising in Book VI of The Art of War (Dell'arte della guerra), that a Captain should endeavor with every art to divide the forces of the enemy, either by making him suspicious of his men in whom he trusted, or by giving him cause that he has to separate his forces, and, because of this, become weaker.

The strategy of division and rule has been attributed to sovereigns ranging from Louis XI to the Habsburgs. Its historical reception has been mixed. Thus Edward Coke denounces it in Chapter I of the Fourth Part of the Institutes, reporting that when it was demanded by the Lords and Commons what might be a principal motive for them to have good success in Parliament, it was answered: "Eritis insuperabiles, si fueritis inseparabiles. Explosum est illud diverbium: Divide, & impera, cum radix & vertex imperii in obedientium consensus rata sunt." [You would be insuperable if you were inseparable. This proverb, Divide and rule, has been rejected, since the root and the summit of authority are confirmed by the consent of the subjects.] On the other hand, in a minor variation, Sir Francis Bacon touts the cunning maxim of "separa et impera" in a letter to James I of 15 February 1615. Likewise James Madison recommends in a letter to Thomas Jefferson of 24 October 1787, summarizing the thesis of The Federalist #10: "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." In Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch by Immanuel Kant (1795), Appendix one. divide et impera is the third of three political maxims. The other being Fac et excusa and Si fecisti, nega. Typical elements of this technique are said to involve

  • creating or encouraging divisions among the subjects in order to forestall alliances that could challenge the sovereign.

  • aiding and promoting those who are willing to cooperate with the sovereign.
    fostering distrust and enmity between local rulers.

  • encouraging frivolous expenditures that leave little money for political and military ends.

The use of this strategy was imputed to administrators of vast empires, including the Roman and British, who were charged with playing one tribe against another to maintain control of their territories with a minimal number of imperial forces. The concept of "Divide and Rule" gained prominence when India was a part of the British Empire, but was also used to account for the strategy used by the Romans to take Britain, and for the Anglo-Normans to take Ireland. It is said that the British used the strategy to gain control of the large territory of India by keeping its people divided along lines of religion, language, or caste, taking control of petty princely states in India piecemeal.

Also mentioned as a strategy for market action in economics, it can be applied to get the most out of the players in a competitive market.