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.