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James Mill on the ruling Few and the subject Many (1835)

James Mill (1773-1836) identifies two groups in British society, namely “the ruling Few” who enjoy legal and economic privileges, and “the subject Many” who pay the taxes and submit to the regulations:

To understand this unhappy position of a portion of our fellow-citizens, we must call to mind the division which philosophers have made of men placed in society. They are divided into two classes, Ceux qui pillent,—et Ceux qui sont pillés [those who pillage, and those who are pillaged]; and we must consider with some care what this division, the correctness of which has not been disputed, implies.

The first class, Ceux qui pillent [those who pillage], are the small number. They are the ruling Few. The second class, Ceux qui sont pillés [those who are pillaged], are the great number. They are the subject Many.

It is obvious that, to enable the Few to carry on their appropriate work, a complicated system of devices was required, otherwise they would not succeed; the Many, who are the stronger party, would not submit to the operation. The system they have contrived is a curious compound of force and fraud:—force in sufficient quantity to put down partial risings of the people, and, by the punishments inflicted, to strike terror into the rest; fraud, to make them believe that the results of the process were all for their good.

To understand this unhappy position of a portion of our fellow-citizens, we must call to mind the division which philosophers have made of men placed in society. They are divided into two classes, Ceux qui pillent,—et Ceux qui sont pillés [those who pillage, and those who are pillaged]; and we must consider with some care what this division, the correctness of which has not been disputed, implies.

The first class, Ceux qui pillent [those who pillage], are the small number. They are the ruling Few. The second class, Ceux qui sont pillés [those who are pillaged], are the great number. They are the subject Many.

It is obvious that, to enable the Few to carry on their appropriate work, a complicated system of devices was required, otherwise they would not succeed; the Many, who are the stronger party, would not submit to the operation. The system they have contrived is a curious compound of force and fraud:—force in sufficient quantity to put down partial risings of the people, and, by the punishments inflicted, to strike terror into the rest; fraud, to make them believe that the results of the process were all for their good.

First, the Many were frightened with the danger of invasion and ravage, by foreign enemies; that so they might believe a large military force in the hands of the Few to be necessary for their protection; while it was ready to be employed in their coercion, and to silence their complaints of anything by which they might find themselves aggrieved.

Next, the use of all the circumstances calculated to dazzle the eyes, and work upon the imaginations of men, was artfully adopted by the class of whom we speak. They dwelt in great and splendid houses; they covered themselves with robes of a peculiar kind; they made themselves be called by names, all importing respect, which other men were not permitted to use; they were constantly followed and surrounded by numbers of people, whose interest they made it to treat them with a submission and a reverence approaching adoration; even their followers, and the horses on which they rode, were adorned with trappings which were gazed upon with admiration by all those who considered them as things placed beyond their reach.

And this was not all, nor nearly so. There were not only dangers from human foes; there were invisible powers from whom good or evil might proceed to an inconceivable amount. If the opinion could be generated, that there were men who had an influence over the occurrence of this good or evil, so as to bring on the good, or avert the evil, it is obvious that an advantage was gained of prodigious importance; an instrument was found, the power of which over the wills and actions of men was irresistible.

Ceux qui pillent have in all ages understood well the importance of this instrument to the successful prosecution of their trade. Hence the Union of Church and State; and the huge applauses with which so useful a contrivance has been attended. Hence the complicated tissue of priestly formalities, artfully contrived to impose upon the senses and imaginations of men—the peculiar garb—the peculiar names—the peculiar gait and countenance of the performers—the enormous temples devoted to their ceremonies—the enormous revenues subservient to the temporal power and pleasures of the men who pretended to sand between their fellow-creatures and the evils to which they were perpetually exposed, by the will of Him whom they called their perfectly good and wise and benevolent God.

If, besides the power which the priestly class were thus enabled to exercise over the minds of adult men, they were also permitted to engross the business of education—that is, to create such habits of mind in the rising generation, as were subservient to their purposes, and to prevent the formation of all such habits as were opposed to them—the chains they had placed on the human mind would appear to have been complete: the prostration of the understanding and the will—the perpetual object of their wishes and endeavours down to the present hour—to have been secured for ever.

The alliance of the men, who wielded the priestly power, was, in these circumstances, a matter of great importance to those who wielded the political power; and the confederacy of the two was of signal service to the general end of both—the maintenance of that old and valuable relation—the relation between Those qui pillent, and Those qui sont pillés.

About this Quotation:

In this essay Mill provides one of his regular surveys of “the state of the nation” in which he sums up political developments in Britain. It was written a few years after the success of the “Reform Party” in agitating for electoral reform which greatly increased the size of the electorate with the Reform Act of 1832. Now that most of the middle class could vote it was hoped that the Members of Parliament who represented them would dramatically reform British politics, especially in the areas of aristocrat control of Parliament, the legal system, the established church, and free trade. Concerning the latter, the Anti-Corn Law League was established in 1838 under the leadership of Richard Cobden and it was able to achieve its goal of eliminating the protectionist corn laws in 1846. Mill acknowledges “the strength of the spirit of reform” which was sweeping Britain but is also aware of the continuing strength of its opponents among conservatives and the fact that the reform party was split into “moderate” and “radical” reformers. Concerning the former, he develops a French liberal inspired theory of class which explains politics as a struggle between two contending groups, “ceux qui pillent” (those who pillage, also known as “the ruling Few”) and “ceux qui sont pillés” those who are pillaged, also known as “the subject Many”). Concerning the latter, he urges the reform party to continue pushing for reforms in all areas by adopting the strategy of the radical reformers. Mill believed that liberty in Britain would not be achieved until the privileged elites had been deprived of their power and the people were allowed to rule in their place. He had in mind removing the privileges of “the priests of all three classes; those who serve at the altar of state, those who serve at the altar of law, and those who serve at the altar of religion.”

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