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.