Five Faces of State Oppression

Young, I. M. (1990). Five Faces of Oppression. (E. Hackett, & S. Haslanger, Eds.) Theorizing Feminisms, 3-16.

“Five Faces of Oppression” by Iris M. Young (1990) attempts to create an objective criteria by which we can judge the existence and levels of oppression of different groups. Young argues that oppression is a structural concept, preserved institutionally. In other words, oppression cannot be fought by replacing the ruler, but by overthrowing the system that keeps the ruler in place. Privilege and oppression are two sides to the same coin. For every oppressed group, a privileged group exists that benefits from their oppression, knowingly or not. Oppression is categorized into five different types: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence (Young, 1990). By breaking down each type of oppression, we can demonstrate the State to be an objectively oppressive institution that fosters and benefits from the oppression of its citizens.


Marx’s theory of exploitation identifies the injustice of wage labor in that “some people exercise their capacities under the control, according to the purposes, and for the benefit of other people.” (Young, 1990, p. 6). Not only does the State perpetuate the existence of wage labor, but also the State itself relies on other people exercising their capacities under its control, according to its purposes, and for the benefit of the State.

The State perpetuates wage labor by making it difficult for people to seek alternatives, such as self-employment. State regulations create barriers to entry through zoning laws, licensing requirements, and special privileges awarded to large corporations with large political lobbies. Because the State makes starting and maintaining a business so difficult, those without large amounts of capital or political power have little choice but to work for those benefiting from the State’s policies.

The State also functions using money taken by force from workers in the form of taxation. When workers contract with their employers or earn money by working for themselves, they do not get to profit fully from their labor, having to hand a portion of their income to the State or face legal penalties. The State, therefore, systematically exploits its citizens in the form of expropriation. Without institutionalized theft, the State would not have the means to continue its daily operations.


According to Young (1990, p. 8), “Marginals are people the system of labor cannot or will not use.” For much of its history, the State has explicitly excluded marginalized people from citizenship through laws that discriminate against the poor, women, children, racial minorities, and the disabled. Although in the United States many of these laws are gone, the social effects of such laws remain. Groups that have historically been legally excluded from citizenship continue to remain in poverty and are most affected by other forms of oppression (Young, 1990).

This is not to say, however, that legal marginalization ceases to exist. The elderly, the poor, and the disabled rely on bureaucratic institutions for aid, while laws prevent unregistered charities from feeding the homeless or offering other services to those in need. The State forces children to stay in schools reminiscent of prison until their later teen years. Children cannot make most legal decisions for themselves without being emancipated. The mentally ill are involuntarily hospitalized in prison-like institutions when the State considers them to be a danger to themselves or others. The State deports poor immigrants for failing to fall in line with difficult and discriminatory immigration procedures, treating them as no more than criminals. Even today, the State marginalizes and excludes classes of citizens and treats them as less than people.


Powerlessness, according to Young (1990), refers to the inability of an oppressed group to make decisions about their own lives. The State makes decisions daily for its citizens, removing them from the decision-making process, and rendering them powerless. For citizens who want to get involved in the political process, the only options are voting, lobbying, or running for political office. Voting is ineffective and lobbying and running for political office are expensive, so the average citizen has little ability to affect political decisions.

Those who run for political office are an economic elite. Politics is a career for the haves, not the have-nots. Even political activism takes a person away from their job, making the opportunity cost of getting involved much too high for the average worker. Voting takes very little time itself, but educating oneself on the options takes a substantial amount of time, making rational ignorance much more cost-effective. Government-hired bureaucrats, not elected officials, make many political decisions that affect citizens. Citizens have no say in who the FCC hires or who is in charge of the FDA. They must simply hope for the best.


Violence is perhaps the most obvious and easy to detect face of oppression. The State thrives on violence against its own citizens and the citizens of other countries. The State relies on violence and coercion to enforce its laws by creating a monopoly of force in the form of police and military. Through violence and the threat of violence, the State maintains its policies, which exploit, marginalize, and render powerless the State’s subjects.

Police officers are above the law, killing unarmed citizens without any form of recourse. Police get away with murder, assault, corruption, and other crimes in a system of justice designed to protect those in power. Rarely are police examined with legal scrutiny despite rampant misconduct. The State places citizens who commit nonviolent crimes in cages where they are subject to rape and other violence by their fellow inmates and by prison guards. Prisons do nothing to reform prisoners, making them more likely to continue to commit crimes and end up back in prison.

State violence also rears its ugly head in wartime. Even if war were ever justified, civilian casualties are an inevitable result of military action. The U.S. government spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year on the military, despite not having declared a war since 1942. The military gives people with a passion for killing a legal outlet, and fosters a community where sexual assault runs rampant.

Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism refers to “the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture, and its establishment as the norm.” (Young, 1990, p. 12). The State relies on a dominant nationalist culture to legitimize its practices. Through propaganda and popular culture, the State generates loyalty among its citizens. One of the most obvious cases of the United States’ cultural imperialism is Cold War era propaganda that made acceptable massive increases in State power such as McCarthyism. After the Cold War, the U.S. continues to use propaganda to generate support for war and other rights violations. In the last four years, the U.S. government paid the NFL 5.4 million dollars to honor soldiers at football games.

The culture of patriotism is a culture that places decision-making power in the hands of rich, old white men in Washington. Cultural imperialism makes every other face of State oppression possible. Patriotism, or loyalty to the government, leads average citizens to accept their own exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, and violence.

Overcoming State Oppression

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Young’s essay is the notion that oppression is structural. In other words, oppression is rooted in unquestioned cultural norms and practices, not individual choices. Young says, “We cannot eliminate this structural oppression by getting rid of the rulers or making some new laws, because oppressions are systematically reproduced in major economic, political, and cultural institutions.” (1990, p. 4). The State systematically reproduces oppression in all its faces, and we must oppose it as an institution. Changing the law or voting in new politicians will not make the State less inherently oppressive, as the State relies on exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, violence, and cultural imperialism to thrive. In order to overcome State oppression, the only option that remains is to overthrow the State.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory