Bread Labor

Memphis, TN ©2006 Jeff Ward

I first came across the concept of “bread labor” in Helen & Scott Nearing. It was part of a time management strategy. They divided their time by self labor, community labor, and bread labor. A person should budget time to read and reflect, to think and work on themselves, to interact with others and maintain social bonds, and to work satisfying the more mundane needs of life– bread labor.

Changing social conditions during the twenty years that began in 1910 cost us our professional status and deprived us of all our means of livelihood. Whether we liked it or not we were compelled to adjust to the new situation which war, revolution and depression had forced upon the western world. (12)

The Nearings were in their 50s when they purchased several farmed-out Vermont farms in the Green Mountains for small sums in an attempt to find self-sufficiency outside the money economy. Their first thought was collective living, but no viable communal options were available. Land was about $3 per acre at that time, and they reasoned that they might sell timber for a small living, but they ended up turning to maple sugaring instead. They survived, not because they were lucky enough to find a productive enterprise but because they so totally altered their expectations of what “livelihood” really was.

The Nearings confess that they had a problem with the “social” part of the equation. They ate primarily raw nuts and fruits, excluded all domestic animals from their economy (no dependent dogs or cats, no dairy or meat products), no tea or coffee (for political reasons), and no alcohol. They also weren’t fond of dancing. Theirs was not a very lively hood. It’s little wonder that they had a problem bonding with the local social groups, preferring instead productive work and solitary reading and writing.

Living outside the circulation of money came at a price. Sugaring provided enough revenue to pay their taxes, and they mostly tried to use materials found on their farm to build with while trading the produce of their garden with neighbors to get the other necessaries. They called it “The Good Life” and it certainly was a considered life, though it’s hard to imagine it being attractive to most: crude bread or handfuls of grain, no milk, beer or cigarettes. Eventually, the beer and cigarettes crowd showed up when a ski resort opened up adjacent to their farm and they had to relocate to Maine.

Still, I am drawn to their leisure driven idea of the good life. They sought to have four hours to read and write each day with four hours dedicated to bread labor. Bread labor included the household routine of meals, washing and cleaning; organized homestead activities including capital improvements and gardening, wood cutting, and repairs, etc.; and work on the cash crop or crops. All these things constitute productive work, and curiously they also had strong feelings about labor saving machines: they were against them.

The Nearings felt that human labor alone was adequate to sustain things once all the politically questionable activities (stimulants, animal slavery, cooked foods, etc.) were removed from the domestic economy.The soup of ideas that the Nearings drew their program for the good life from is a complex one, filled with references to communist, anarchist, and capitalist sources.

Bread labor is lifted from Tolstoy, and it also factors heavily in the writings of Gandhi, although the asceticism seems distinctly New England. A few of their new neighbors in Maine, including Bill Copperthwaite and Eliot Coleman, share the same intellectual DNA. All of them, to varying degrees, thought that adjustments to our theory of value were necessary in order to attain “the good life.”

Though the Nearings would be loathe to admit it, in contrast to Marx, their value system is anti-social. The emphasis is on moving as far away as possible from exchange value by deepening the care taken to access use value in all aspects of human production, which largely places the emphasis on individuals doing the using. Tolstoy’s great political awakening in Tsarist Russia was that his comfort was built on the slavery of others. That’s why the Nearings swore off many products, like coffee and tea, because the foundation of their production and exchange was built on slavery.

The implication in these communal and individual movements “back to the land” at the turn of the 20th century was that only by staying in touch with the skills and technologies necessary to stay alive would we ever abolish slavery through better understanding the relations between production and consumption.

The Nearings sought, to their credit, to make it possible to support themselves through better labor management, matching their effort to local conditions and history, both in terms of their productive capabilities and reducing consumption whenever possible. Obviously, it’s not scalable as a solution and is reliant on an ableist view of the social contract, where all members of society can contribute equally to the production of food and shelter.

The argument that humans are not created with equal abilities— even if they may have equal rights, a separate issue— is easily mounted to answer this sort of Yankee idealism. Some division  (and segregation) of labor has historically been necessary to increase efficiency. The capitalist mode, reliant as it is on surplus production, a thing studiously avoided by the Nearings, is central to the foundation of city-states. In the same time period as the Nearings, another movement for technological management emerged, and assumed surpluses would be bureaucratically distributed.

Genetically related to Edward Bellamy’s popular utopian vision, Technocracy was heavily reliant on “scientific management” to envision a future without money, a future where machines would satisfy our needs in an equitable fashion. Rather than money, the proposal was “an energy system of value” where the potential to do work was currency. Bellamy and the technocrats had a political bent more aligned with fascism with its egalitarian authoritarianism.

Obviously, there are problems with integrating humans into these proposals, perhaps making Technocracy the most anti-social idea of all. It persisted in thinkers like R. Buckminster Fuller. The societal emphasis on alternative (and conventional) energy sources continues, as well as the multiplication of automation, which never seems to consider where humans fit into all these utopian plans. Machines have no need for bread.


The Glad Game

Littleton, NH © 2017 Jeff Ward

It’s been hard to see a bright side to alienation / estrangement / detachment as I write my way through theoretical issues mired in them: a slough of despond, indeed. When I passed through Littleton, NH in 2017, it was by choice. It had a bit of the character of a pilgrimage, for multiple reasons. I had no idea, however, that it was the birthplace of Eleanor Porter, creator of Pollyanna

Pollyanna was the instigator of “the glad game,” a game in which the player is tasked with finding the bright side of any situation. In the novel, it’s origin was a particular Christmas where Pollyanna had wished for a doll, but instead received a pair of crutches.

“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—’EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly. “You see it’s just as easy—when you know how!” (5)

I went to Littleton, NH, largely because it was the home of Benjamin W. Kilburn, one of the largest stereograph manufacturers of the late 19th century. There’s not really a trace of him there, that I saw– they are much more proud of Pollyanna. It’s just as well, at this stage I really wasn’t looking for anything.

But there was another reason: it was around ten years after Victoria Mikelonis, one of my favorite teachers at the University of Minnesota had passed away. I only took one class from her on theories of metaphor, and it was the most intense and rewarding experience that I had in grad school. On of my last memories of her was stopping by her office and talking, excitedly, about Kilburn and stereographs. She told me she had recently visited a granddaughter who lived in Littleton, and raved about what a nice place it was. Vicki was one of the few people who was always cheerful, always looking on the bright side, and above all always engaged with the world and the ideas around her.

Dr. Mikelonis was primarily engaged with working with women in Poland and the Ukraine, training them to be technical communicators using a wide variety of pedagogical strategies– cross cultural communication would be another way of labeling it. That’s where her research interest in metaphor, schemas and ontologies came from. How do we know things? How do we learn things? These are the questions that animated her.

She was living with cancer, and like Ian Dury, the man who gave us reasons to be cheerful, she also died from it. The class is burned on my memory; it was dense and rewarding. We began with short papers by Max Black and others in philosophy of language, and worked our way through Paul Ricoeur’s Rule of Metaphor. The basic plan began with a word level examination of metaphor, through sentences into larger schema in Hesse & Arbib’s The Construction of Reality. The capstone essay was Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies, with its oft quoted maxim regarding truth:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

Pollyanna is a metonym for someone with irrepressible optimism, and as the 1913 novel and its Disney movie treatment fade, the word substitutes for an idea, a moment of illusion celebrated in a statue. In the mountains above Littleton, in Franconia another anthropomorphic image drew great excitement.

B.W. Kilburn and others did a brisk trade in stereographs of the old man of the mountain. The White Mountains are one of America’s oldest tourist destinations, and where there are tourists there is a market for souvenirs. A shared experience of a rock, a unique bit of sublime America, drew most of the great writers and statesmen to the the small towns scattered along the edge of wildness, to gather and be glad.

Postcard c.1955

Philosopher Patrick Maynard built a strong case that photographs are props in a game of make-believe, and like metaphors they allow for a form of transport to places we have or haven’t been. Thomas Southall’s essay “White Mountain Stereographs and the Development of a Collective Vision” further suggests that what was developing during Kilburn’s time was set of practices that contributed to a particular truth of shared experience. Photographers were encouraged to alter the landscape to reinforce the “glad game” of seeing awesome nature in a collective way. Southall cites Kentucky photographer James Mullen at the 1873 meeting of the National Photographic Association:

And let me advise you here to always have with you on your photographic trips a spade and a good axe, the latter particularly will often be found a ‘friend in need’ when it is desirable to cut a small tree or remove a branch that would otherwise obscure some important point of your view. (101-102)

Human intervention to stabilize an agreed upon truth operates in predictable ways. We chip away at the rough edges of truth, shaping it to fit what we need at the time. There’s a selective, arbitrary, and culturally driven need to reshape the world for our purposes. In the 1920s chains were brought in to hold the face of the old man of the mountain together, and later cement and other prosthetics.

The old man’s face collapsed in 2003: nature injects its own arbitrary elements. People still make the pilgrimage to the White Mountains above Littleton, NH, and the souvenir vendors still do a brisk business.

The truth is out there.

Medium of Exchange

Every time I drive out of Syracuse on the NYS Thruway, I nearly always stop at a particular rest stop that features a common automated gypsy fortune teller machine, Zoltar. Cross his mechanism with pieces of silver, and he’ll dispense some random prognostic wisdom for you.

The true law of political economy is chance, from whose movement we, the scientific men, isolate certain factors arbitrarily in the form of laws. (Karl Marx)

Reflecting on the permutations of usage of the term instrument that I wrote myself through the other day, it occurred to me that I had neglected to think about financial instruments. The omission was a curious one, given the common thread I was attempting to pull was that instruments frequently are marked by their detached and arbitrary nature. Marx’s notes on John Stuart Mill are particularly helpful:

Mill very well expresses the essence of the matter in the form of a concept by characterising money as the medium of exchange. The essence of money is not, in the first place, that property is alienated in it, but that the mediating activity or movement, the human, social act by which man’s products mutually complement one another, is estranged from man and becomes the attribute of money, a material thing outside man. Since man alienates this mediating activity itself, he is active here only as a man who has lost himself and is dehumanised; the relation itself between things, man’s operation with them, becomes the operation of an entity outside man and above man. (Marx)

The concept of financial instruments illustrates this this in an interesting way. There are two primary types of financial instruments— those directly tied to capital (stocks, loan agreements, etc.) and instruments that are derived from them (index funds and things whose values are based on things related to actual cash value indirectly). It was real-estate derivative markets, a dense and impenetrable miasma of complex modes of financing, that were the dominant factor in the crash that brought the world to its knees in 2008, an entity outside and above man. Other crashes can also be tracked to financial instruments. Tulip Mania was linked to inflated values in purchase contracts, or the crash of 1929 tied to margin loan contracts. The latest disaster was even more disconnected, more alien from real events— this was an abstract dehumanized problem.

Owing to this alien mediator – instead of man himself being the mediator for man – man regards his will, his activity and his relation to other men as a power independent of him and them. His slavery, therefore, reaches its peak. It is clear that this mediator now becomes a real God, for the mediator is the real power over what it mediates to me. Its cult becomes an end in itself. (Marx)

The common characteristic of instruments as inherently detached from commodity values (and human beings), has taken some turns, mostly negative. Writing this as  “prosperity gospel” preacher has become a White House advisor, and on the 30th anniversary of Pretty Hate Machine is its own dark twist. Hollywood’s favorite goth was prescient.

God money I’ll do anything for you.
God money just tell me what you want me to

Marx’s materialist philosophy, derived from his studies of political economics take a curiously spiritual turn in his notes on John Stuart Mill. He suggests that money behaves in a way analogous to the holy trinity. The reasoning for this is that because objects only have value in relation to their mediator (money), the initial relationship (i.e. money is exchanged for objects) is inverted. Money is the estranged essence of property: “it is the alienated species activity of man, the externalized mediation between man’s production and man’s production.” Economics, in a sense I think, is the attempt to attach laws to the arbitrary and chance facts that one thing has a greater value than another because the actual workings of how things are valued is mysterious. Why are diamonds are more valuable than rubies, or glass more valuable than sand?

Marx’s theological explanation is striking:

Christ represents originally: 1) men before God; 2) God for men; 3) men to man.

Similarly, money represents originally, in accordance with the idea of money: 1) private property for private property; 2) society for private property; 3) private property for society.

But Christ is alienated God and alienated man. God has value only insofar as he represents Christ, and man has value only insofar as he represents Christ. It is the same with money.

It sent chills up my spine when I began to really understand this passage. What Marx is suggesting is the equivalence in character between the father (property), the son of property (money), and the holy ghost– the spirit essence of property that drives society, mediating value between commodities and working in mysterious ways. I think it’s important to note that this isn’t simply a matter of identifying money as a “false god” (mammon) but rather a necessary condition of estrangement, and estrangement that begins any time property is exchanged between men. Marx also identifies estrangement as a characteristic of barter. There is no society without exchange, and no exchange without estrangement.

Where do these first principles take us? There are levels of estrangement. At the base there is the exchange of property for property. In the middle, the median, property is exchanged for money; and finally, in the superstructure, money is circulated in exchange for money. This is the operative level of financial instruments, moving at a distance and detached from reality, spirits moving on the face of earth.


Bakersfield, 1983 © Jeff Ward

Instrument has a variety of usages reaching back to the middle ages. I’ve been encountering it in Hannah Arendt and Frederick Engels as the compound “instruments of violence” and in Karl Marx as “instruments of production.” Other uses include “musical instruments” and “legal instruments” –the term has been around seemingly forever. Another somewhat unique usage was by Chaucer in the Wife of Bath’s tale where he called the penis a “holy instrument” of generation. With a nod to John S. Hall, it seems to me that the overriding characteristic of most usages of instrument is that it is detachable from the human who employs it.

Musical instruments are of course one of the oldest types. The connotations are vast; these instruments are used to generate sounds, sounds that are within the grasp of human beings but always just outside of our control. There’s always the possibility of arbitrary accidents, slippages, wanted and unwanted resonances that simply can’t be completely predicted or controlled. When they work, whether in skilled or amateur hands, they produce sounds that can easily be identified as fundamentally productive, and yet through dissonance (intentional or unintentional) they provide a force that can disrupt and overthrow the status quo. The link between music and aggression is summoned at critical cultural moments, and besides its power to sooth and cajole, music also incites violence.

Frank Zappa once suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that in countries where beer consumption was high, nations were often warlike because they were susceptible to marching music.

I have a theory about beer: Consumption of it leads to pseudo-military behavior. Think about it — winos don’t march. Whiskey guys don’t march, either (sometimes they write poetry, which is often more horrible, though). . . .

Maybe there’s a chemical in beer that stimulates the [male] brain to do violence while moving in the same direction as other guys who smell like them [marching]“We, as a group of MEN, will drink this refreshing liquid, after which we will get together and beat the snot out of that guy over there.”

(Real Frank Zappa Book)

Wine drinking countries are more associated with love songs. It’s not really a stretch to say that popular music is almost always tied to, as Chaucer might put it, “the holy instruments of generation.”

The detachable nature of instruments is perhaps best illustrated by the usage of legal instruments, which  are just as old as musical ones. A writ, or a warrant carries with it the force of authority granted by law, codes which have been separated from individual human judgement. It amounts to an order, and can be directed by nobody, as evident in a building code. Laws, of course, can be arbitrary and have unintended as well as intended consequences. They can promote productivity, of course, but they can also incite violence. It’s worth noting that the production of the instruments of violence (guns, bombs, etc) is referred to manufacturing ordinance. Ordinance, of course, shares its root with ordain, that is, to issue a ruling.

The point I’m getting at is that all instruments have the potential for generative or destructive usage, and all instruments have an arbitrary and uncontrollable quality which always seem just outside of human control. That may be because they are by definition detachable from humans, and as John S. Hall, referenced earlier, suggests– they can be lost.

But there is one usage of the term “instrument” which doesn’t fit the detachable thesis. Also in use since the Middle Ages: a person may be described as an instrument of destruction; initially, this appears when writing about a murder or killing, but in contemporary usage this usage is probably best labeled as metaphorical rather than actual. People, knowingly or unknowingly, enter into causal chains (generally involving other, detachable instruments) that bring about destruction.

In What Are People For Wendell Berry writes forcefully in an essay called “Damage” of his attempt to put a pond on his property. He sought advice, and hired a bulldozer to dig one in a plateau nestled in a hillside. Everything went well at first, but then after an extremely wet fall and winter a slice of the forest above his pond broke free and slid into it. He had destabilized the hillside, despite the best advice and intentions, and was now forced to live with the scar on the land he had created. He invokes the proverbs of hell from William Blake:

“You can never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” I used to think of Blake’s sentence as a justification of youthful excess. By now I know that it describes the peculiar condemnation of our species. When the road of excess has reached the palace of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.

Culture preserves the map and the records of past journeys so that no generation can permanently destroy the route.

The more local and settled the culture, the better it stays put, the less the damage. It is the foreigner whose road of excess leads to a desert.

Blake gives the just proportion in another proverb: “No man soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.

No thought or word called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect– and so to describe the limits of what can be done without damage.

The use only of our bodies for work or for love or pleasure or even for combat, sets us free again in the wilderness, and we exult.

But a man with a machine and inadequate culture— such as I was when I made my pond— is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.

Berry is in line with Engels in thinking that in order to do violence, man requires detachable instruments. There’s another discussion of pond construction that bears mentioning here, which involves instruments of a different category.

In a chapter of Cræft: an Inquiry into the Origins and Meanings of Traditional Crafts Alexander Langlands describes pond construction, both his own attempts and the archeological evidence regarding a particular pond the Oxna Mere. It is situated within a series neolithic clay ponds in Wessex, along well worn migratory routes. the consensus is that these ponds were human made, using livestock. It’s short sighted to think that all extensions of human strength are recent developments in the construction of mechanisms, or that instruments began in the industrial age.

Langlands attempted to work backward from the ethnography of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century pond practices to determine how these ponds were built and maintained. Clay is a porous material, and in order to make them hold water it was longstanding practice to drive herds of animals across the area to compact the clay to make it hold water. Obviously, there’s a lot of technique/craft involved. Why does this matter? As Langlands argues:

The implications of using puddled chalk were important to me in the context of the Oxna Mere. Ultimately, its significance lay in the simple revelation that if you had the knowledge and the skill to puddle chalk, you could create a watering hole using materials sourced entirely from the hilltop. In turn, this facility would make an important contribution to the methods of husbandry used by valley community in that it enabled them to exploit valuable resources of summer grazing in a more effective manner. This is the kind of thing I get excited about: resourcefulness on a level almost inconceivable to the post-industrial pond maker whose favored materials were concrete and asphalt. (250)

What seems to be at work here is the use of animals as instruments in a way inconceivable to us now; we think of them solely as raw material.  They fit the parameters I was looking at earlier. They are arbitrary and frequently outside human control, capable of both generative and destructive aspects. And yet they have been successfully operating in concert with human beings assuring our mutual survival; without herd animals we wouldn’t survive, and with our coordination in the construction of ponds in the neolithic period, they also thrived and multiplied.

If we admit the possibility of a living instrument, there’s another aspect consider. Marx offers another paradigm for instruments. His class theory (and theory of alienation) presumes that man himself can be transformed into an instrument.


Hannah Arendt’s discussion of force, when defining vocabulary in “On Violence” is specific.

Force, which we often use in daily speech as a synonym for violence, especially if violence serves as a means of coercion, should be reserved, in terminological language, for the “forces of nature” or the “force of circumstances” (la force des choses), that is, to indicate the energy released by physical or social movements. (143-4)

This sentence packs a lot of complexity in a tight space. Forces of nature are elemental and arbitrary, but in a way different than violence, once energy is released. It occurs to me that one thing that these energies have in common is that they are frequently beyond human understanding and control. But the alternative defining energy, “force of circumstances,” deserves deeper consideration. Citing it in French alludes to a 1963 autobiography by Simone de Beauvoir, with the additional suggestion that the energy released by physical or social movements are potentially beyond understanding and control. I think this reading is fair, given Arendt’s implication that power (also released by social movements/moments) is intelligible and not particularly arbitrary.

Taking the first alternate definition, forces of nature there is the implication of individuated forces (i.e. earth, air, water, fire) making the term potentially singular in nature. The second, force of circumstances  seems more like a plural term although it is expressed as singular. Power is a plural term (humans acting in concert) while strength is individuated as a potential energy of a single human. Such distinctions are difficult to make with force.

If, as we say in Star Wars terms, the force is strong in a Jedi, then in that universe we are speaking of a sort of power similar to that defined by Arendt, but a power that is not human. Recall that Dagobah is a planet of murky swamps teeming with life which Yoda draws upon to perform acts of will. The force, in Star Wars, is a force of life generally beyond understanding and control, except by Jedi masters As such, it is plural without any discernible singular forms.

While I initially found it tempting to argue that force was demarcated by being inhuman in nature, it isn’t possible to embrace that with a Star Wars example. After all, humans are alive too. Looking closer at the Arendt, it seems clear that she sought to include the social aspects of force as well– and if we can concede that there are social forces beyond human control, then accepting this seemingly overlapping definition is still possible.

There are no Jedi here. Force, as a term, represents energy outside human understanding and control, even if it is derived from human instruments (productive forces) or social interaction (political forces). For Arendt, violence is derived from human instruments and ultimately beyond human control due to its arbitrary and often unintelligible results.

Defining power to be of a different category from violence is crucial to the understanding of political states, particularly when most theorists have tended to conflate them. In her lead-in to her definition of these concepts, Arendt cites The Notion of the State by Alexander Passerin d’Entrèves as one of the few who suggests  a separation, though she feels he does not adequately address it:

If the essence of power is the effectiveness of command then there is no greater power than that which grows out of the barrel of a gun, and it would be difficult to say “which way the order given by a policeman is different from that  given by a gunman.” . . .”We have to decide whether  and in what sense ‘power’ can be distinguished from ‘force’, to ascertain how the fact of using force itself presents us with an entirely different picture of human relations,” since “force, by the very fact of being qualified, ceases to be force.” But even this distinction, by far the most sophisticated and thoughtful one in the literature, does not go to the root of the matter. (“On Violence” 136-7)

Suddenly, I am getting flashbacks to all those years of reading Foucault, all those circular discussions of power that never brought me closer to understanding it. Somehow, this makes more sense to me now. It’s couched in a notion of states as the nexus of power (violence, deployed by the state, becomes institutional force, better defined as power) Arendt’s argument is that violence justified in this manner destroys power rather than demonstrates it.

Short version: “Please don’t use the force.”

Who is it deploying the force? Just where is this force/power coming from? People, obviously, but organized as states. That’s a matter for another day.

Means of Production

In classical economics, “Means of production” are the necessary conditions for producing things that do not include financial capital or human beings– together, all three elements are termed “factors of production.” Interestingly, Marx apparently used factors of production interchangeably with productive force (paralleling List’s use of political force). Because Marx and Engels proposed that economics were primary, concern over production was central to their technological theories.

Marxist theory is substantially an instrumental theory in that factors of production include instruments of labor and subjects of labor (raw materials). Encountering this usage, I find myself wondering if it’s actually possible to sort instruments into these niche categories. Recall that Engels had argued that instruments of violence  were the source of all political power; a hammer can be used to produce a house, or to bash in someone’s skull. Given that, are such these terms useable in a coherent manner?

It bears noticing that List’s National System  fed directly into National Socialism as it nationalized industry in the name of the Fatherland, seizing not only the factories but also the raw materials to produce a war machine in the name of political force. Mao and Stalin used Marxist theory to justify deploying their workforce in camps and cooperative farms in the name of national economic force. These developments are part of the reason why by the time Hannah Arendt was approaching her terminology in “On Violence” she chose to avoid the term force to describe this type of means, because force had become synonymous with violence.

Arendt’s vocabulary is attractive because it makes it possible to argue from definitions, which does not seem possible with loose categories like instruments of production and instruments of violence. For example, if we define power as separate from strength then it isn’t possible to talk of the “strength” of a nation-state, because strength is defined as an individual characteristic. Power, on the other hand, could be attributed to the confluence of people working together in the nation-state. Her move to distance violence from either of these categories (by definition) contributes a lot to our understanding of it. However, making the claim that violence is instrumental in nature without clearly differentiating it from instrumental production is a dangerous oversight. I’m discovering that Marx has quite a bit to contribute in this area, if not through a clear frame of reference, through demonstrating just how fraught the terminology is.

Force vacillates between productive and destructive impulses that aren’t teased apart easily. Another aspect is deciding if it is singular (like strength) or plural (like power). Questions for another day.

Infant Industries

I wasn’t expecting the evolution of the notion of “force” to lead me to Alexander Hamilton, nor was I expecting it to lead to a deeper understanding of protectionism, which seems to be all the rage with the US government at the present moment. Why?

By the 1960s, UNESCO had begun to argue for a more level playing field for information. The thought was that better informed people made better decisions, and increased innovation through improved technologies. In a strong sense, it was a net neutrality argument before the internet existed. The AT discussions of the 1960s and 1970s were also about unequal access to technologies, and in some ways can be divided between large scale, centralized models like R. Buckminster Fuller and decentralized, individualist models like EF Shumacher. In essence, these approaches were developed to promote equality in technological development by disparate means.

It seems as if Alexander Hamilton’s 1790 Report on Manufactures is the nexus of a lot the centralist side. Hamilton’s infant industry argument is remarkably forward thinking regarding economies of scale. Simply put, Hamilton suggested that moderate tariffs coupled with industry subsidies would allow emergent nations, such as the US, to develop a strong technological and industrial base. Otherwise, more developed nations would simply “undersell” local industries and leave the nation stunted and exploited. The approach is controversial at best, with free trade advocates arguing that economic and technological growth proceeds faster without such measures.

Fuller’s Earth Inc. concept owe much to the ideas suggested by Hamilton. Of course Fuller attempted to side-step the issue by suggesting that we’re one planet, not a cluster of nations– centrist approaches might lead to a more prosperous planet, not simply more prosperous nations. What gets missed in the oversimplified centralist/decentralist framing of the problem is the question of where power, in the sense of potential for action, can possibly be found. Hamilton believed that the power of a nation to act in its interests was key; Fuller’s planetary power simply doesn’t exist as of yet.

After Hamilton, the argument developed in interesting ways through Friedrich List. List was a dual citizen of the US and Germany, owning major property in Pennsylvania. His was the theory of political force that Eugen Duhring deployed, that Engels railed against. Recall that Adam Smith had argued that “rational self-interest,” that is to say individualism,  was the best way to promote economic growth. List, in contrast suggested that the health of the nation depended more on the political force of its citizens to marshal development for the common good: “Canals and railroads may do great good to a nation, but all waggoners will complain of this improvement. Every new invention has some inconvenience for a number of individuals, and is nevertheless a public blessing.” List’s National System, and the related American System, guided technological development that created the modern US.

Engels took exception with the idea that “political force” might function as primary with economic force being a secondary manifestation. Marxist theory might point out that canals and railroads are controlled by bourgeois interests, and industrial development benefits the few rather than the many. Marx conflates under the term “labor” both the instruments of production and the raw material/labor involved. However, the idea that the development and control of instruments of production is key to both the capitalist and communist approaches.

So, in essence it’s technological theories (or turtles) all the way down.


Alan Gross, my advisor in graduate school at University of Minnesota, frequently accused me of wrestling with pudding. Of course, he also demanded precisely considered and systematic vocabulary for discussing whatever problem/research question at hand. That’s what I find most attractive about Hannah Arendt. The problem is that most terms become slippery under pressure.

Often, people trace the lineage of the instrumental view of technology to Heidegger and stop. Arendt directly cites Engel’s 1877 text, Anti Duhring, which provides a completely different sort of slippage. Why assert that violence requires instruments/technologies? What grounds that? Oddly enough, Engel’s example (taken from Eugen Duhring) is from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a refutation of Duhring’s completely different definition of force. Recall that Arendt considered force to be a term reserved for elemental/non-human means. Duhring (as cited by Engels) had different ideas:

The formation of political relationships is historically the fundamental thing, and instances of economic dependence are only effects or special cases, and are consequently always facts of a second order. Some of the newer socialist systems take as their guiding principle the conspicuous semblance of a completely reverse relationship, in that they assume that political phenomena are subordinate to and, as it were, grow out of the economic conditions. It is true that these effects of the second order do exist as such, and are most clearly perceptible at the present time; but the primary must be sought in direct political force and not in any indirect economic power. (Anti-Duhring)

It’s pretty easy to see what got Engels upset. He (and Marx) were certain that economics was primary. Engels summarizes Duhring’s position, which he sees as unexplained and unargued:

The whole affair has been already proved through the famous original sin, when Robinson Crusoe made Friday his slave. That was an act of force, hence a political act. And inasmuch as this enslavement was the starting-point and the basic fact underlying all past history and inoculated it with the original sin of injustice, so much so that in the later periods it was only softened down and “transformed into the more indirect forms of economic dependence” {D. C. 19}; and inasmuch as “property founded on force” {D. Ph. 242}, which has asserted itself right up to the present day, is likewise based on this original act of enslavement, it is clear that all economic phenomena must be explained by political causes, that is, by force. And anyone who is not satisfied with that is a reactionary in disguise. (Anti-Duhring)

Engel’s proof that Duhring’s assertions are ridiculous rests on his reading that Friday was enslaved by Crusoe at the point of a gun, a gun that had been manufactured by technological progress brought about through economics. His analysis is fascinating, and of course wraps around to suggest that in the end all carefully wrought political and economic systems can be destroyed by someone in possession of a superior gun. The idea that violence is instrumental, then, at least partially stems from a particular reading/counter-reading of Robinson Crusoe. In detail, Engel’s analysis goes like this:

The childish example specially selected by Herr Dühring in order to prove that force is “historically the fundamental thing”, therefore, proves that force is only the means, and that the aim, on the contrary, is economic advantage. And “the more fundamental” the aim is than the means used to secure it, the more fundamental in history is the economic side of the relationship than the political side. The example therefore proves precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to prove. And as in the case of Crusoe and Friday, so in all cases of domination and subjection up to the present day. Subjugation has always been—to use Herr Dühring’s elegant expression—a “stomach-filling agency” (taking stomach-filling in a very wide sense), but never and nowhere a political grouping established “for its own sake”. It takes a Herr Dühring to be able to imagine that state taxes are only “effects of a second order”, or that the present-day political grouping of the ruling bourgeoisie and the ruled proletariat has come into existence “for its own sake”, and not as a “stomach-filling agency” for the ruling bourgeois, that is to say, for the sake of making profits and accumulating capital.

However, let us get back again to our two men. Crusoe, “sword in hand” {D. C. 23}, makes Friday his slave. But in order to manage this, Crusoe needs something else besides his sword. Not everyone can make use of a slave. In order to be able to make use of a slave, one must possess two kinds of things: first, the instruments and material for his slave’s labour; and secondly, the means of bare subsistence for him. Therefore, before slavery becomes possible, a certain level of production must already have been reached and a certain inequality of distribution must already have appeared. (Anti-Duhring)

Being the kind of guy I am, of course I had to look at the interlude in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe that they insist on pointing at. The course of events that binds Crusoe and “his savage” whom he names Friday is the man’s escape from a group of cannibals, assisted at one point by Crusoe. Crusoe shoots one of the pursuers, nervous that the other thirty cannibals might hear. But he felt threatened because the native had pointed a bow and arrow at him and was about to fire; the second pursuer was laid low by the butt of Crusoe’s rifle. The escapee was grateful:

I beckoned him again to come to me, and gave him all the Signs of Encouragement that I could think of, and he came nearer and nearer, kneeling down every Ten or Twelve steps in token of acknowledgment for my saving his Life. I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckon’d to him to come still nearer, at length he came close to me, and then kneel’d down again, kissed the Ground, and lead his Head upon the Ground, and taking me by the Foot, set my Foot upon his Head;  this seemed to be in token of swearing to be my slave forever; I took him up, and made much of him, encouraging him all I could. (188)

The gesture, at least the way I read it, is one of fealty. Crusoe interprets it as consent to be a slave; as the native who has been clubbed stirs on the ground, the escapee gestures at a sword at Crusoe’s side and he hands it to him. The escapee then beheads his pursuer, as Crusoe marvels at the ability of the “savage” to wield Western technology. None of the conditions Engels argues from are actually apparent in the novel. Crusoe is barely surviving; he can barely offer even subsistence to his new companion, and only when Friday joins him does he then work out the means that he might enjoy some comforts. Emphasis on the slave dynamic, and superior force are roundly dismissed by Defoe– though Crusoe was initially worried that his companions access to instruments might result in violence, he quickly finds his cares unfounded. Theirs is clearly a political relationship. He is a “slave” through consent, not force.


Trying to work my way through the terminology offered by Hannah Arendt in “On Violence” (1968) because they seem quite useful: power, strength, force, and violence. I got sidetracked searching for an umbrella term to group these terms as, and the closest word I could arrive at was means. The O.E.D. had an interesting obsolete definition of mean, which disappeared just after Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” circa 1616.

A condition which permits or is conducive to something; an opportunity. In early use also plural: conditions or offered terms (of peace). Obsolete.

Arendt is speaking directly to the human condition in “On Violence.” Power is something that is defined as being a condition that emerges from human beings acting in concert. It is not a property of an individual, or a structure, or an apparatus– power is a motive term reserved for specific moments of human beings acting or having the potential to act in concert. This contrasts with strength, which is the ability/potential for individuals to provoke an action or response. Force is reserved as a term used for elemental forces, such as the wind, which cannot be possessed by humans only exploited.

What is interesting to me about the early definition of means is that it conflates with opportunity. Rather than offering the criminal justice proposal of means, motive and opportunity, for a short time, means was taken to imply opportunity. Thus, if people have the power they also have the opportunity– Sí se puede! Yes we can!  

Violence, in Arendt’s reasoning, is the opposite of power. Following Engels, Arendt asserts that violence  requires instruments. This is the intersection with technology, and technological theories. Specifically, weapons of violence are instruments that multiply speed, strength, and reach in order to inflict harm. They have an element of arbitrariness, and inflict harm usually with unpredictable consequences, save one– they destroy power.

To sum up: politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where one rules the other is absent. Violence appears when power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence; to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it. (155)

There is much to think about here. It is tempting to think that the arbitrariness of violence is brought about through the arbitrary nature of its instrumental means– technologies always have unintended consequences, but that would be a logical fallacy. Equivocating technology and violence is dangerous, I think. But it is hard not to wonder if all multiplications of speed, strength and reach (even in, for example, communication technology) aren’t violent in one way or another.

Arendt asserts categorically that violence cannot create or increase power because it promotes disunity. The arbitrary way that communications technologies, in the name of promoting unity, have increased polarization and disunity, promoting distrust and creating variations on a hallucinatory vision of reality makes me wonder if the idea that technology can lead to a better future dubious at best.

Can technology empower people?

I’m beginning to suspect not. People already have the power.

Community Collapse

I suppose the reason why I’ve been thinking hard against the 70s lately is to try to get a grip on my cynicism. I was exposed to a lot of optimism, early on, through the Whole Earth Catalog and 60s “counterculture” and it didn’t necessarily jibe with the world I saw emerging around me. When Buckminster Fuller spoke in 1977 (drawing on his book Earth, Inc. published in 1973) It was starting to become obvious that founding communities based on these theoretical practices was not particularly likely. Thanks to Witold Rybczynski, I’ve started reading a different perspective from a contemporaneous curmudgeon, Martin Pawley. I wish I’d read him then. From The Private Future (1974):

In the private world of the West the chain mail of the old social contract has rusted away, and overlaid upon it is a new, linear pattern of supply and consumption which has erased all intermediate regimes. There is now nothing but a vacant, terrorized space between the government– which controls and maintains production–and the isolated consumer, who increases his consumption in proportion to his isolation. Public life today is the glimpse of the celebrity linked with the product. No one knows his place any more, only what he wants. (5)

It’s a dark and depressing book, really. When Pawley claims “no one knows his place” he isn’t speaking of social level, he’s actually making the claim literally. The central argument of the book is that words like community, society, and family have become meaningless because (by choice) we have designed these groupings as things to be rebelled against and avoided at all costs, in favor of a private world of self-gratification through intense consumerism. And yet those constructare preconditions for satisfying those desires. In short, it’s not late capitalism that destroyed us, we destroyed ourselves by desiring and insisting upon the current system of consumption and constant progress towards oblivion. What we want, ultimately is to be lost in ourselves rather than present in the world.

The Private Future is a fascinating polemic. The subtitle is “Causes and Consequences of Community Collapse in the West.” I find it fascinating that he’s identified “colony collapse disorder” among humans, long before it became apparent in bees.

For years, I’ve been haunted by the finale of Wim Wenders Until the End of the World (1991). In the wilds of Australia, William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin are lost inside virtual reality headsets that allow them to live inside their own dreams. It’s not necessarily as well argued as Pawley’s book, but it’s certainly entertaining.

The conclusion of the book is striking. I’m not surprised that it’s not mentioned in most reflections on the 70s. Pawley mercilessly calls out the hypocrisy of sanctioning most bourgeois pleasures while criminalizing drugs, pornography, etc.

Drug taking has confirmed a pattern of private indulgence in the face of punitive attempts at prevention. Popular photography, cheap color reproduction and the cinema have converted millions to an image-based, voyeuristic form of sexuality. All these expressions of private freedom, irrespective of their legality, are part of the widespread unremarkable social experience of the citizens of the consumer societies of the West, which is no different in any way from the legally approved forms of private pleasure associated with consumption in any society of private wealth. (210)

For Pawley, the process of privatization– not in the sense of central corporate or governmental ownership, but rather the triumph of individuation over community and retreat to the private sphere–,  is inevitable. His vision of the future is chilling:

Alone in a centrally heated, air-conditioned capsule, drugged, fed with music and erotic imagery, the parts of his consciousness separated into components that reach everywhere and nowhere, the private citizen of the future will become one with the end of effort and the triumph of sensation divorced from action. When the barbarians arrive they will find him like some ancient Greek sage, lost in contemplation, terrified and yet fearless, listening to himself. (211)

Don’t look for any suggestions from Pawley about how to avoid this; for him it was simply inevitable. I certainly hope he isn’t right.