In a steampunk, class divided world, farmers are among the lowest people on the societal ladder. The establishment offer them very low wages for their labour and keep them where they are. Although they are oppressed, and there is danger to speak out against the government, many of this class genuinely believe that the establishment is good, and just in the way that it acts.

Why would a member of this class disagree with someone who wants to overthrow the establishment? Why would he approve of, and even revere the oppressive establishment? A Why do they believe that the establishment is protecting them.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – James Nov 13 at 2:56
  • Have a read of Wild Swans (goodreads.com/book/show/1848.Wild_Swans). It has lots of such examples / is a bit of an eye opener. Over-simplified summary: the people have been brought up in a society where no one speaks out against those in power / many don't think to question this, or fear repercussions, so don't wish to rock the boat. – JohnLBevan Nov 13 at 10:19
  • Check out; telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/… Awful website, but a great quote. – Jontia Nov 13 at 16:15
  • does all of the above imply an unhappy life? I'm confused... people in lesser situations can be happy too. – tuskiomi Nov 14 at 23:33

24 Answers 24

If the ruling class actually needs the approval of the lower classes, they are already in deep trouble.

The romantic image of the lowest classes just organizing themselves and storming the palace of the evil emperor, followed by a happy end, only exists in fantasy and in political propaganda. The lower classes cannot do that even if they wanted to, as they lack the education, the means, the connections, and the skills for that. The state can easily stop any such attempt before it grows large enough. The police can easily arrest any troublemakers before they can achieve any results. Ohh, but it did happen in real history that the people revolted and changed the government, right? How did that happen? It happened because they were allowed to do so.

The power of the ruling class is not based on the loyalty of the lowest classes. It is based on the loyalty of the class directly beneath the ruling class. The chiefs of the police forces to uphold the laws. Bureaucrats to collect the taxes. Military generals to protect from foreign threats. Banks, and the owners of lands and businesses to keep the economy up and running. Lose the loyalty of these people, and when a rival to your power appears, they will switch allegiance to him. And then they will allow the masses to revolt. There is a wise saying: it's not the people who replaced the king, the court replaced the king.

Given this, it can still have advantages to have some loyalty of the lowest classes. Not because they would revolt on their own, just to make it harder for other powerful people who want to replace you, from being able to use them.

Now let's look at the motivations of the lowest classes. Revolution is risky. You might get a better life, but you also might end up dead or in prison. So you have to weigh the risks and possible rewards.

  • Stability. There may have been revolts in the past, or in neighboring countries, and the people know it only resulted in chaos, and at the end, it didn't get better for the common people. A stable, powerful government is needed. Everyone knows that. There are external enemies who would conquer us if our nation gets weaker. Everyone knows that. We are important cogs in the big machine. It's the natural order of the things. Why would a different ruler be any better? - Yes, if a group which promises a utopia gets strong enough, they might instill doubts about the above values. But if such groups are allowed to grow strong enough, then you already have much bigger problems than the loyalty of the lowest classes.

  • Possibility of rewards within the system. If there is even the slightest possibility of improving your condition within the system, you might hope to be able to benefit from it, instead of trying to demolish it. A slave can be manumitted for good behavior and faithful service. A simple peasant might earn the gratitude of the king by being at the right place at the right time and performing the right service. You might win the lottery. You might find some lost treasure. The probability of these things must be very low, to not upset the balance in the hierarchy too much, but if once in a while a very small number of lower class citizens are lucky enough to be able to climb one step of the social ladder upwards (and these events are given great publicity), it might instill hope in the others that they themselves might one day become lucky enough.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – L.Dutch Nov 14 at 9:25

Look back at our history.

A mix of tradition and indoctrination can make people accept their condition, for the major good of the society/deity.

Add to this strong punishments for those who attempt rebellion, and some poor old folk may prefer the usual, poor life to something even worse.

In 1984 by George Orwell the lower class all 'approve' of the government. I think the book does a good job explaining how come. In short:

  • they fear the enemy, other countries
  • they fear the repercussions they face were they not to approve of their own government
  • they've been indoctrinated throughout their entire lives

A good real life example of this is North Korea where the state does exactly this. By constantly bombarding its citizens with propagenda (in all forms, from television to school classes) and sending rebellious citizens to camps.

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    They're also deeply confused through the use of Newspeak and active alteration of historical documents. – MackTuesday Nov 12 at 6:43
  • @MackTuesday that is true, but I couldn't really think of any real world examples of that so I figured I'd keep it at this – Nathan Nov 12 at 8:27
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    @Nathan I'm not sure where you're from, but in the United States we see much of this happening today. History books are rewritten to downplay negative aspects of national history. Statistics are routinely misrepresented to push political agendas. Objective facts are countered by unsubstantiated claims. New facts are introduced by compromised scientific institutions. Politicians change opinions so often people aren't sure what they're voting for anymore. Xenophobia is stirred up to distract from corruption and scandal, and any dissenting sources are derided as "fake news". – MindS1 Nov 12 at 18:07
  • @MindS1 what you describe is propagenda, that's a completely different concept than MackTuesday was refering to with Newspeak. – Nathan Nov 12 at 21:11
  • @MindS1 I added a comment about propagenda and indoctrination – Nathan Nov 12 at 21:21

Fear - people who disagree with a powerful ruling class may end up losing what little they already have - maybe even their lives.

Social inertia - It was good enough for my parents and their parents before them. Why should we try to change things? It's the natural order.

Brainwashing - Our teachers and our great leader says it is so, therefore it must be so.

A talent for exploiting the system - Such people always exist. They use their wits to make deals and gather resources for themselves. Very often bribery, corruption and currying favour are involved. They are doing well and have no need to upset the apple cart.

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    "A talent for exploiting the system - Such people always exist. They use their wits to make deals and gather resources for themselves. Very often bribery, corruption and currying favour are involved. They are doing well and have no need to upset the apple cart." And such people are very useful as scapegoats. Everybody else is a farmer, there is a guy owning a store on the town square who buys produce from the others and resells it to the other farmers and / or sends it further away, That guy also loans you money from time to time. Guess whose head will be the first on pike come the revolution? – jo1storm Nov 13 at 9:46

They are too hungry to worry about it

There is a term for farmers that live off what they produce, "subsistence farming". That is, if they don't have a good crop, they starve.

If you have to sweat every day to feed yourself and your family, to provide clothes and shelter, why would you have time to worry about your oppressors?

Add a village priest announcing that "the meek will inherit the Earth," and you don't have much to worry about at all.

Edit

Note to haters: The OP never specifies that the prevailing conditions in society were anything like Victorian England. A steampunk US where the South won the Civil War could have slaves. Stop telling me what Victorian England was like, that has nothing to do with the question or answer.

  • A steampunk society needs a level of technology where subsistence farming no longer exists. – vsz Nov 11 at 21:09
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    I agree with @vsz that I'd expect a streampunk society to have some degree of mechanization to avoid starving. However, this very mechanization is also a trap: for the pieces to come, for the fuel to come, you need a stable economy. If you topple things, how are you gonna eat tomorrow? As such, it may be preferable to suffer a bit of oppression today but still live in relative comfort, rather than throw down the yoke and starve. – Matthieu M. Nov 12 at 9:01
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    Steampunk is typically Victorian-era-themed. Victorian farmers were still often subsistence farmers, who didn't own the land (and therefore didn't technically own the crop they grew on that land), they were allowed to keep a share of the money they could get from that crop in exchange for the taxes they paid the local lord. If you were lucky, your local lord (or someone sufficiently close in the hierarchy above him) cared about your well-being, at least in general terms, and would work with you to ensure you survived, even if your crop failed. If not? You were in a world of hurt. – Theo Brinkman Nov 12 at 19:56
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    I wouldn't complain so much about people bringing up Victorian England; after all, the comparison to Victorian England in the previous comment actually supports this answer. – David K Nov 12 at 21:00

Fear is a powerful motivator, but not just fear of government reprisal. Some people will be afraid that even if they win their rebellion, the changes put in place by the new government will be just as bad or even worse.

Look at how so many regime changes in real life have turned out; a few good examples include the French Revolution, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and the Haitian Revolution. In all of these cases, the revolutionaries got their way and things only got worse.

All of the existing answers are quite similar to one another, so I'll change it up a bit.

Since you're building a world, and you haven't given us the full parameters of your world, somewhere in the part we don't know there may be a reason why it actually is just for your social order to exist the way it does.

If the Aztec priestly class had been correct that the sun wouldn't rise in the morning without blood sacrifices...blood sacrifices would have been just. If witches actually did exist and a population of innocents was in danger of being tempted into eternal damnation at their hands, the medieval burning of witches would have been just. Etc.

Basically any situation where the story told about the world by the ruling elite is true would make support for the institutions of the elite rational and just. If your steampunk world became a steampunk world because the elite possess some ability that the farmers do not, and that ability has resulted in rapid technological advances that our world did not experience - then it's not irrational for the farmers to want to leave the rulers alone, so that they can continue to propagate those advances.

Religion is always a great reason.

You are the lowest rung of society because of transgressions in a previous life. If you follow the laws of those above you and stick to your caste, you will be moved up a class in the next life. Eventually you'll be ruling class and from there eternal reward.

Religion is great because you don't have to prove anything. People just believe it.

All you need is a scapegoat, and almost any will do.

This answer will get politically charged if I lean on any present-day real-world examples. But pick any time or place in real human history (or present, but maybe lets shy away from that for now) and observe racism, zealotry, or just any form of tribalism altogether serve as the basis for an invented or exaggerated enemy. The systems at play can be varied: genetic, religious or moral, economic, philosophical (i.e. political models), or even geographic.

The common factor is how easily people in power can sell a message rooted in any form of tribalism, redirecting the majority of fear and consequent hatred to some external force. Even better, the oppressed will then place their faith in their real oppressors to protect them against such external threats whether completely fabricated or just exaggerated, and gladly surrender the power needed for that protection.

This answer is light on details, but mainly because you can pick almost any. A known oppressor has the benefit of familiarity and the effects of Stockholm Syndrome, while outsiders are automatically subject to rampant xenophobia.

And if some real external threat need no exaggeration, that's even better, for such are the times when super powers are born to long outlive the conditions that birthed them.

Consider any of the following Real life examples:

i) The churches regime ( maybe not what your looking for considering you did't mention a belief system)

ii) The monarchy in Britain, even today many working class people love the royal family. The queen acts a surrogate mother figure that the nation can unite behind.

iii) American capitalism despite the fact that many Americans are below the poverty line they are adverse to changes in policy that would improve these conditions seeing the nordic socialist model as too communistic.

iv) The caste system in india which despite the cultural influences now reaching the country many people refuse to abandon ( infact particularly in the poorer areas it has stuck around)

v) China , currently very oppressive their leader has even written into the constitution that he cannot be deposed. Yet the chinese are in general still very proud of their country. Their willingness to accept such a state likely deriving from their ancient idea that a kind is divinely chosen ( although they also believed that if he lost favour with the people he had been deselected by the gods)

I'm sure there are many more than what I've mentioned here but it should be enough to get you started

If your society's farmers are at the bottom of society, most likely they literally "live off the land". They don't buy the essentials for survival, they grow and breed them. That was not so far from the truth in the UK within the memory of a few old people who are still alive. My grandparents lived in the time when farm workers were literally paid wages once per year - they didn't have any need to use money on a regular basis to survive.

And the same farmers know very well what happens if you stop farm work for a few months. Over a one-year timescale, you starve.

But so long as you are used to hard work 365 days a year, actually it's a pretty good life. The best part about it is that you don't have to worry about anything much that is "above your pay grade". So why would you want to disrupt the status quo? You can be pretty sure that you won't get any benefit from doing that.

One premise in the OP's question is wrong, though: they don't "genuinely believe that the establishment is good, and just in the way that it acts." They don't believe it is "bad and unjust" either. Like the weather and the yearly changing seasons, the establishment just is. It's not something to spend time thinking or worrying about!

A followup to this part of L. Dutch's answer:

some poor old folk may prefer the usual, poor life to something even worse.

The Devil you know is usually better than the Devil you don't know.

Tie this to your country being the head of an empire, memories of Rebellion Gone Horribly Wrong (i.e. The Terror during the French Revolution), and not being too oppressed (rulers learning the right lesson from the Revolutions of 1848), and you've got a relatively stable class-conscious society.

This is actually pretty much the standard condition world-wide. In many countries, such as the USA, there is a political alliance between the ultra-wealthy and the dependent poor, together pitted against the middle classes. Typically the rich and the poor agree on a few things: ever-increasing taxes levied against the working and middle classes (which include small business owners), the money going to pay for ever-growing government bureaucracies and government-connected institutions like banks (making the ultra-rich richer and more important), bureaucracies which give handouts to the dependent lower classes who are, if not grateful, at least psychologically addicted and willing to viciously fight to keep those handouts. Both groups will furiously attack and demonize the working and middle classes when they ask for things like tax cuts.

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    Funny, I was going to go with a very similar answer about industry and the wealthy manipulating the poor, middle class and the government to oppress everyone. Although our reasoning is opposed the final point is the same, we are pretty much all supporting something someone would call oppression. – Bill K Nov 13 at 22:38
  • Well as long as everyone ends up oppressed and hating each other, it's probably a sound theory... – Joe Nov 14 at 2:45

Poorly educated, non-integrated, hungry, hand-to-mouth poor peasants are supremely susceptible to propaganda. They don't know any better, or have bigger concerns than who thinks they can wear some fancy hat.

The powers that be need only provide a life slightly better than what the peasants think they would have without it. We are protecting you with our flashy weapons, from those that would kill you, or take all of your food. We care (tm).

Or they need to control the local authority. By the way, head man, here is some cream for you skin, that's much better yes? I'll try and get some more next month, but its not cheap. It would really help me convince them if you filled this truck up full next month. Also here is the salt you really need. And wow you are lucky to have such a daughter. Lets keep it that way.

Or reward those who take on the dangerous labour (and they will because they are starving). I'll need twenty volunteers to help us dig this yellow stuff out of the ground. Those that do will get food drops for their family.

Any individual that rejects such a system is either rich enough to dislike it. Such as the local authorities children who are probably better off, and feeling indignant. They may have been educated somehow, say by a traveling merchant that has brought to light contradictory news, or by some omission from a loose tongued guard. Alternately the system failed them, and now feel that not being a part of it is in their better interests. The rest won't follow and will actively support the system.

  • I think we're all susceptible to propaganda. It's kind of a core problem with democracy. Education helps some, but it's not a vaccination by any means (And you will even encounter some who feel that education itself is generally filled with propaganda). – Bill K Nov 13 at 22:43
  • True no one is immune to propaganda by any means. Societies both authoritarian, libertarian, small, and large are rife with the stuff. My implication is that people: without access to many sources of information controlled by separate interests; in an environment of purely physical survival; being addressed by a well armed, better dressed, healthier looking group of individuals is a recipe for being deceived. Breaking any aspect of that opens up the way for realisation of the propaganda and correcting for it. – Kain0_0 Nov 14 at 2:59
  • Yet if you ask either the liberals or the conservatives in America, they are both convinced that the other half have given completely over to propaganda. IMO it's likely that one half has given over and that propaganda includes a message that the other side is being manipulated, either way a significant number of well fed people with access to all the information they choose to take in are definitely being propagandized. – Bill K Nov 14 at 17:17
  • It is a weird meme certainly. CPP Grey on YouTube has an interesting perspective on this, i think the title was "This video will make you angry". As to information quality: there are numerous studies out their about how gerrymandering has been homogenising neighbourhood opinions and views; how search engines, social media sites, and targeted advertising are editorialising ads and information presented; and how people tend to spend more time studying arguments which support their theories than those that don't. The sources may be many, but they aren't different, and they support the status quo. – Kain0_0 Nov 14 at 23:09

Because they [the oppressors] could be worse, especially pertinent if the oppressors before the current ruling faction were worse, or if the current rulers were much worse and have mellowed due to reforms. If overthrowing the group that is currently top of the pile is seen to include the possibility of a return to the bad old days then the current regime is preferable even if they aren't as good an option as you might like.

The oppressors tell the oppressed that some day they'll earn their way to the top, and that if you haven't yet you're just not trying hard enough. Plenty of people will see through it but plenty won't. Thanks to this beautiful little thing called the sunk cost fallacy most people who blew everything on what they thought was their ticket to success will rather hang on to their false hope than reject it, and so long as the lower class is inundated with stories of how the richest man in the world was once a lowly farmer that hope will have no trouble getting started. Combine that with a few shows of force every now and then, attacks from outside for the elites to protect them from, and artificially cultivated animosity between subgroups of the common folk, and those few who don't see their oppressors in a positive light will still be discouraged from speaking out against them.

Probably hope. Make them think that they could get into the upper class; take your inspiration from today's world ! Accordingly, tell them that your current upper class of course deserves it all and that you can also make it if you just worked as hard as they did.

While the question makes clear we are talking about revering the current government, it's worth pointing out that you can have people supporting something they detest if they see the alternative as worse

Real world examples include Churchill allying with Stalinist Russia in WW2.

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    You might want to clarify whether you mean people supporting Churchill despite his many flaws (bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/soutikbiswas/2010/10/… etc), or Churchill allying with Stalin despite his many flaws. Both have body counts in the millions of their subjects. – Pete Kirkham Nov 12 at 13:45
  • @PeteKirkham will edit to make clear I meant Churchill supporting/aiding Stalin. Of course the Stalin body counts can be directly attributed to malice. – Orangesandlemons Nov 12 at 15:02

in general human beings are afraid of change. a sudden change to the entire ruling system could have disastrous effects on society and the economy on which these farmers rely. they may not live in the best conditions but they can still get by. the government would need vital industries such as farming as well for food production as well and would protect farms and such from any sort of crime offering the low class farmers a much safer life than other low class civilians

The Caste System

Everyone believes that they are where they are in life because they deserve their circumstances. The poor believe they are poor because they deserve to be poor. Possible because of their own actions, religion, genes, or any systematic reason that you come up with. They also believe that their rulers and oppressors are where they are because they also they deserve to be there. It is their right (again because of religion, morality, hardwork, whatever).

So everyone feels like there is a grand sense of justice in the system, even if things are chaotic and unjust on the surface. So this sense of justice should stop the general population from wanting to overthrow their system because it would be immoral, and wrong.

Maybe they believe that if they do the right thing they too will succeed. The point however is that the people keep themselves down, rather than the government having to do anything.

It is easy to know that the nobles as our betters. They are taller, stronger, handsomer, better educated and possess a refined speech and manner that we could never match. Raised from the cradle to be confident and self assured they are brave, honourable and skilled in equal measure, the very definition of natural born leaders! Magnificent in their benevolence and terrible in their wrath they are everything a man could aspire to be and more. Surely the favoured of the Gods, it is only natural that we should defer to them.

For an in depth look at a revolutionary movement in a Steampunk world, I recommend Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series. New Britain is a steampunk, class divided world introduced in the second book in the series, The Hidden Family. It has an authoritarian system and the reader meets a revolutionary network seeking to overthrow the status quo. The network features prominently in subsequent books.

Historically speaking, a static Status Quo dissuades rebellion, as does a steadily improving quality of life. Almost every uprising of lower classes has coincided with a sudden drop in quality of life.

In short, if the oppressors are reliable and those oppressed don't know any better life, they don't rebel.

These things actually happen in the real world, there are many examples and many reasons.

Religion might be used to keep people at bay.

People might just simply not know any better. If that is the system they had always known, and possibly in the past or somewhere else it is/was even worse, they'll be ok with it. If in the past people were also enslaved or beaten up, it won't seem too bad to simply have to work for a poor pay.

Brainwashing: you can make people believe it is good. And make them believe that outside, in all other places, it is worse. Whether that it is true or not.

You can find examples of this literally everywhere around the world.

In some countries there are codified classes, and people keep accepting it, for religious/cultural reasons.

In some countries there are monarchies, and people seem ok with being inferior to the royals.

In most religions women are considered inferior. Even just in the Catholic Church. Yet churches keep on being full of women, who seem ok with the idea. If you internalise some concepts since you're a kid, you won't question them too much.

In USA, most people would benefit from public health system and public education. Yet among the poorest classes you'll find millions who defend a system that goes completely in their disadvantage, just because that is what they have been taught to believe.

In most Western countries people who can barely make ends meet will pay money to go to see the new illiterate reality-show star showing up in a club for half an hour. Is that different from accepting that you are underpaid, while some other people just deserve more, and even being happy about it?

You really do not have to invent too much to create a reality where the lowest classes will happily defend the oppressing system.

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