Joseph Townsend’s Dissertation on the Poor Laws (1786) advances the thesis that aid to the poor generates more poverty. It is a work that twists and traduces a number of bibliographic sources in order to produce its famous theorem about goats and dogs, an idea that would have tremendous influence on public policy on overpopulation. The sources of Townsend's Dissertation are based on the figure of Alexander Selkirk, who lived as a castaway on an island of the Juan Fernández Archipelago. This essay analyzes Townsend's sources and takes note of the spread of his proposals, the Robinsonades, and their validation by ostensibly scientific discourses which have asserted their truth value over and above that of literary fictions. In closing, it demonstrates Townsend's own grounding in fiction, and considers the role the shaping power of literature might play in the reimagination of a world out of joint.
It's useless for you to shoot me, Mr. Pardo. . . . As you just said, you invented me—I'm a product of your imagination, “an artistic creation,” if you'll allow the slightly petulant phrase. And artistic creations don't die, Mr. Pardo—it's authors who die! Consult your library. It's not well stocked, but it does have a few classic books. Classics aren't for selling off. Oedipus, Hamlet, Don Quixote . . . invented beings, beings safe from murder . . .—Jenaro Prieto, El socio
In the South Seas there is an island, which from the first discoverer is called Juan Fernandez. In this sequestered spot, John Fernando placed a colony of goats, consisting of one male, attended by his female. This happy couple finding pasture in abundance, could readily obey the first commandment, to increase and multiply, till in process of time they had replenished their little island.* In advancing to this period they were strangers to misery and want, and seemed to glory in their numbers: but from this unhappy moment they began to suffer hunger; yet continuing for a time to increase their numbers, had they been endued with reason, they must have apprehended the extremity of famine. In this situation the weakest first gave way, and plenty was again restored. Thus they fluctuated between happiness and misery, and either suffered want or rejoiced in abundance, according as their numbers were diminished or increased; never at a stay, yet nearly balancing at all times their quantity of food. This degree of æquipoise was from time to time destroyed, either by epidemical diseases or by the arrival of some vessel in distress. On such occasions their numbers were considerably reduced; but to compensate for this alarm, and to comfort them for the loss of their companions, the survivors never failed immediately to meet returning plenty . . . When the Spaniards found that the English privateers resorted to this island for provisions, they resolved on the total extirpation of the goats, and for this purpose they put on shore a greyhound dog and bitch.** These in their turn increased and multiplied, in proportion to the quantity of food they met with; but in consequence, as the Spaniards had foreseen, the breed of goats diminished. Had they been totally destroyed, the dogs likewise must have perished. But as many of the goats retired to the craggy rocks, where the dogs could never follow them, descending only for short intervals to feed with fear and circumspection in the rallies, few of these, besides the careless and the rash, became a prey; and none but the most watchful, strong, and active of the dogs could get a sufficiency of food. Thus a new kind of balance was established. The weakest of both species were among the first to pay the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives. It is the quantity of food which regulates the numbers of the human species.
* Dampier, vol. I, parte II, p. 88.
** Ulloa, B. II. C. 4.—Joseph Townsend, A Dissertation on the Poor Laws
The events in this unusual story were recounted by Joseph Townsend, who immortalized them in his famous Dissertation on the Poor Laws. It's of more than merely anecdotal interest that they took place on the same island inhabited for years by a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk. This was one of several stories Daniel Defoe drew on in the creation of Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk approached the island around 1703 as sailing master of the Cinq Ports (16 cannon, 63 men) captained by Thomas Stradling and under the direct command of William Dampier of the St George (26 cannon, 120 men). It is said that a disagreement between Selkirk and Stradling led Dampier to abandon the former on the island as a punishment, though Selkirk had previously requested to be put on land under the mistaken illusion that some of his shipmates would join him. The commander knew the archipelago well—he'd visited it before and surely drew on his vast experience of the local shipping routes in assuming, much as Selkirk himself did, that anyone cast away there would soon get to board a new ship. Dampier left much of this in writing and so Townsend, who sought inspiration rather than sources, read Dampier and “picked up” the first part of his story about the biblical goats that populated an island named Más a Tierra (or Más atierra or even Más-a-Tierra), Spanish for “farther inland.” This naming already brings us to the strange forces that fictions exhibit, because what's strange about the names borne by the landmasses that make up the Juan Fernández Archipelago and that today form a great myth is that the island currently bearing Selkirk's name isn't the one on which Selkirk, and hence Robinson, lived (Más a Tierra), but rather the other one named Más Afuera, “Farther Away,” also once known as the Isle of Dogs. It is so called because it lies approximately 165 kilometers farther to the west (that is, farther inside) than the others and in particular than Más a Tierra, today known as Robinson Crusoe. And so the original of Robinson Crusoe didn't live on Robinson Crusoe, which suggests to us that the fictional character usurped the place of the “real” character, sent him farther out to sea, thus pushing him away, quite literally, from history, to the point that there are those who have never heard of Selkirk and who have come to believe that Robinson did exist. Among them is Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, who once affirmed while visiting the archipelago that “this marvelous island has been the cradle of so many stories, of so many emotions, of so many lived experiences. Robinson Crusoe lived on this island for four long years, and his story not only fascinated the whole world; it put this island, the home of eight hundred Chileans, on the world map” (emphasis mine). On which map? I have the impression, and it's just an impression, that Sebastián (our de-foe, our enemy) is well aware that a map is a fiction and also that, rather than being opposed to reality, a fiction constructs it, just as Daniel constructed Robinson and Robinson constructed Daniel, or, put another way, as Defoe constructed Crusoe and Crusoe constructed Defoe. Sebastián, then, seems to know what life death is. As Jacques Derrida reminds us, a novel like Robinson Crusoe, which plays masterfully with names by multiplying them, consists of “a fantasmatic virtuality, a fiction, if you like, but this fictive or fantasmatic virtuality in no way diminishes that real almightiness of what thus presents itself to fantasy,” but rather “organizes and rules over everything we call life and death, life death.”1 True, I might be overestimating Sebastián. Because what's most likely is that he hasn't heard of the powers of fiction and much less of life death. But that doesn't keep us from suffering its effects: the production of a world named and dominated by supposed laws that were fashioned one day out of tales seen, imagined, traduced, twisted, and eventually taken as true. “Facts” that serve as the foundations for some of the theorems that science uses to validate itself and that dictate its truth-value over and against that of literary fictions. In this case, however, we'll see that “science” (with its theorems and laws) and literature start from the same tale.
A flagrant distortion rather than a confusion is what Townsend perpetrated in his Dissertation of 1786, a text published under the pseudonym “A well-wisher to mankind” that contains perhaps the first version of natural selection as well as the affirmation that aid to the poor produces more poverty. As he puts it: “in general it is only hunger which can spur and goad them on to labour.”2 This idea is central to arguments against public spending in general and against free education in particular. We can thus consider Townsend as one of the pillars of what Albert O. Hirschman calls “the rhetoric of reaction” and a clear precursor of “the third reactionary wave: the contemporary critique of the Welfare State.”3 Hirschman finds in this wave an element that folds neatly into this essay: for neoliberals, assistance to the poor is understood as “self-consciously rank interference with ‘market outcomes,’”4 with a market that regulates itself perfectly as long as it isn't interfered with in any way and whose healthy and welcome equilibrium could be catastrophically damaged by any interference. Echoing the famous theorems put forth by Milton Friedman, who himself echoed Townsend, an editorial that ran in the far-right Chilean newspaper El Mercurio on January 2, 2016, states that “those who receive a free education tend to value it less and consequently put less effort into it.” This judgment aligns perfectly with one that Hirschman finds in Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “The Poor Laws were intended to prevent mendicants, they have made mendicancy a legal profession; they were established in the spirit of a noble and sublime provision, which contained all the theory of virtue; they have produced all the consequences of vice . . . The Poor Laws, formed to relieve the distressed, have been the arch-creator of distress.”5 These affirmations, by El Mercurio and by Bulwer-Lytton, have no solid support, and neither do the models invented to think through the use of collective goods (whether “the tragedy of the commons” or “the prisoner's dilemma”). They all rest on the same fictional ground as the “propositions” that Townsend (who was plagiarized by Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population) would contribute to the establishment of modern political economy, according to the account given by Polanyi in The Great Transformation. Let's take a look, then, at the sources of A Dissertation on the Poor Laws: starting with A New Voyage Round the World (1699) by William Dampier, and moving on to Relación histórica del viaje hecho de orden de su Majestad a la América Meridional (1748) by Antonio de Ulloa, a text that Townsend surely read in its English translation, A Voyage to South America (1758). What does Dampier tell us about the Juan Fernández Islands after traveling through them for sixteen days?
Goats were first put on the Island [of Más a Tierra] by John Fernando, who first discovered it in his Voyage from Lima to Baldivia. . . . From those Goats these were propagated, and the Island hath taken its Name from this its first Discoverer, who, when he returned to Lima, desired a Patent for it, designing to settle here; and it was in his second Voyage hither that he set ashore 3 or 4 Goats, which have since, by their increase, so well stock'd the whole Island. But he could never get a Patent for it, therefore it lies still destitute of Inhabitants, tho’ doubtless capable of maintaining 4 or 500 Families, by what may be produced off the Land only. . . . The Sea about it is likewise very productive of its Inhabitants. Seals swarm as thick about this Island, as if they had no other place in the World to live in. . . . The Seals [of which there are thousands] are a sort of Creatures pretty well known, yet it may not be amiss to describe them. They are as big as Calves, the Head of them like a Dog, therefore called by the Dutch the Sea-hounds. (emphasis mine).6
Properly speaking, there are no dogs on the island, at least not according to Dampier, who crossed the island from stem to stern when he visited. Townsend, however, only cites him on the matter of the multiplying goats. Let's now see what Ulloa, a Spanish military officer and natural historian, has to say about “La Isla de Tierra”:
La Isla Peñasquería peynada, y escarpada ácia la Mar, donde otro Animal, que ellas no pudiera mantenerse, son estos los sitios, en donde andan mas regularmente, y donde con mas frecuencia se dexan ver. Los Perros tuvieron alli su origen de haverlos puesto, no ha muchos años, de orden de los Presidentes de Chile, y Virreyes del Perú, con el fin de exterminar las Cabras, y de que los Navios Pyratas, o de Enemigos no hallassen este recurso para refrescarse, y hacer su provision: pero no surtiò la idèa el efecto, que se deseaba; porque el arrojo de los Perros no es tal, que se atreva a perseguirlas en los parages tan peligrosos, donde ellas estàn de continuo, saltando de unas Peñas à otras con extrema ligereza; siendo esta causa para que no puedan servir de provecho a los Navios, que lleguen a aquella Isla, quando no es fácil haver, sino es tal, ò qual por alguna particularidad.7
The English translation isn't very literal, but it's the one that Townsend must have read. It reads:
Here are many dogs of different species, particularly of the greyhound kind; and also a great number of goats, which it is very difficult to come at, artfully keeping themselves among those crags and precipices, where no other animal but themselves can live. The dogs owe their origin to a colony sent thither not many years ago, by the president of Chili and the vice-roy of Peru, in order totally to exterminate the goats; that any pirates, or ships of the enemy might not here be furnished with provisions. But this scheme has proved ineffectual, the dogs being incapable of pursuing them among the fastnesses where they live, these animals leaping from one rock to another with surprising agility. Thus far indeed it has answered the purpose; for ships cannot now so easily furnish themselves with provisions here, it being very difficult to kill even a single goat.8
Even though Townsend attempts to make us believe in the truth of his argument by citing firsthand accounts of the island that achieved that masterful “natural equilibrium,” we can start to see that the narrative that allows Townsend to criticize the Poor Laws by claiming that poverty comes from laziness and that aid to the poor increases both it and other vices, is found in neither Dampier nor Ulloa. Neither is it found in the pages of literary fiction: Robinson himself tells us that his “Dog . . . was now grown very old and crazy, and had found no Species to multiply his Kind upon.”9 As for the goats, the diary reads:
January 1. Very hot still, but I went abroad early and late with my Gun, and lay still in the Middle of the Day; this Evening going farther into the Valleys which lay towards the Center of the Island, I found there was plenty of Goats, tho’ exceeding shy and hard to come at, however I resolv'd to try if I could not bring my Dog to hunt them down. Jan. 2. Accordingly, the next Day, I went out with my Dog, and set him upon the Goats; but I was mistaken, for they all fac'd about upon the Dog, and he knew his Danger too well, for he would not come near them.10
Drawing on both Dampier and Ulloa, and even taking Defoe into account, we can gather the following: the animals that actually live on the island, and in great numbers, are seals, not dogs. The latter would only appear if (1) you remove the “seal” from “seal dogs” and you emphasize the term “hounds,” thus switching surf for turf; or (2) you follow the opposite path of Julio Cortázar, who published a translation of Robinson Crusoe that altogether eliminated the “Dog who was now grown very old and crazy, and had found no Species to multiply his Kind upon.”11 In other words, we'd imagine that this read: “My Dog who was now grown very old and crazy, and had found a lot of Species to multiply his Kind upon.” So the dogs only appear when the seals vanish and when we forget that they weren't numerous at all (or if we imagine that they underwent some biblical multiplication). I think this is how Townsend replaced the marine mammals with dogs, a species that did at one point inhabit the island, but never in great numbers—Dampier, Ulloa, and Robinson all agree that it was only the difficult-to-capture goats that were “many.” The effortful business of catching the goats wouldn't change with the years, either, as we learn from Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who begins his famous Voyages with his account of having visited what he dubbed a “fortunate isle” (in stark contrast to Robinson, who writes in his diary that he had arrived at the Isle of Misfortune). Sarmiento's description, which Paul Groussac describes as existing “between the real and the imaginary,”12 again highlights how difficult to hunt the goats were, even with trained dogs and “carbines and rifles.” Sarmiento and his companions set out wearing “Robinson-style” footwear, and after a “near-perpendicular ascent” that they began “with the first rays of the rising sun,” they bag only one solitary quarry. “On one of these islands,” Sarmiento writes, “and without a doubt on the one called Mas-a-afuera, the sailor Selkirk was castaway, thus inspiring the immortally famous story of Robinson Crusoe. You can imagine how surprised we were to see it right before us, so alive that every moment it called to our imaginations the unforgettable events of that classic reading experience of our childhoods!”13 I hate to ruin Sarmiento's story, but, as Groussac points out, Selkirk's residence was actually Más a Tierra. It's there that, like Robinson, he dressed in goatskins. But Sarmiento is not wrong about where on the island he lived (the summit) or about its abundance, which he describes in terms that unwittingly echo Townsend: “this” island, Sarmiento muses, “is a fortunate eden to fifty thousand goats, each one a direct descendant of a single pair, a male and a female placed there by the immortal Captain Cook, who bid them, like the Creator to Adam and Eve: ‘be fruitful and multiply.’”14 Sarmiento, in 1845, changes the island's name but not its mythic “content,” thus mixing firsthand experience, popular tale, and fiction. There's no doubt about the location or number of the goats that thickly populate the island's heights, while those difficult-to-describe creatures, the seals, occupy its lowlands. Together, the two species achieve an imaginary equilibrium derived not from the survival of the fittest, but rather from a mutual ignorance about each other's existence.
With the sole purpose of confirming certain suspicions I harbored, I consulted A Cruising Voyage Round the World, a report that the corsair Woodes Rogers published in 1712 after completing a voyage that lasted around three years (from 1708 to 1711). Rogers would go on to achieve posthumous fame as the rescuer of Alexander Selkirk, who had spent four years and four months on the island and whom Rogers refers to as The Governor (a title perfectly suited to the figures of The Beast and the Sovereign, a seminar in which Derrida performs a comparative reading of Robinson Crusoe and Heidegger's Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics but which, unfortunately, barely mentions Selkirk). Traveling in the same fleet as Rogers, who would also become the first real Royal Governor of the Bahamas was Dampier, the same man who, we should remember, ordered that Selkirk be left on Más a Tierra in 1703. The future Royal Governor reports that Selkirk told him that he had arrived on the island in the kind of calamitous state we now associate with Crusoe: “He had with him his Clothes and Bedding, with a Firelock, some Powder, Bullets, and Tobacco, a Hatchet, a Knife, a Kettle, a Bible, some practical Pieces, and his Mathematical Instruments and Books.”15 Rogers's account barely mentions the goats. All we're told about them is that Selkirk was a great hunter and that he was wearing their skins when he was rescued. And if we check the historians, we can see that the dogs introduced to get rid of the goats in hopes of getting rid of the corsairs had quickly become extinct. We could see this already in Ulloa. But let's see what we can find in the work of César-Frédéric Famin, a French writer and diplomat who never visited Chile but who nevertheless wrote a history of Chile, one that finds room for Dampier, Ulloa, Rogers, and even Defoe himself. This history must have achieved a certain degree of fame, for it was translated and published in Spanish, in Barcelona, in 1839. In it, Famin tells us a story that's broadly similar to Townsend's, that also lies somewhere “between the real and the imaginary,” but that possesses a different beginning and ending. After affirming that Selkirk is “the original” Robinson, he indicates that “we'll strive to not be overly preoccupied by Daniel de Foé's [sic] ingenious novel,” even though he'd previously written that “a ship had run aground on these shores of this island and of its crew a single sailor survived. That unfortunate soul had lived on the island for five solitary years when fortune decided to grant him a liberator.”16 And that when he arrived he'd done so with “his bed, a rifle, a pound of gunpowder, some bullets, a hatchet, a knife, his clothes, a pot, tobacco, a Bible, some pious books, and his seafaring tools,” all of which gives the distinct impression that the “original” is Robinson. Soon thereafter, he adds: “Selkirk, according to several sailors who knew him and described him to us, was a man of good habits, grave, reflexive, melancholic, and more devoted to spiritual comforts like prayer and mysticism, than to the pleasures and noise of the world.” He established himself on the island, and “after a few months, he'd become such an agile practitioner of the dangerous task of goat hunting that it became nothing more than a pastime to him,” just as it became for Robinson himself. And even though he managed to survive so well thanks to his wit and skill, Selkirk, Famin writes, found himself “buried alive, written into the book of the dead, but knowing he was destined to live.” Once more, he resembles Robinson. Put another way, it's not Selkirk who shapes Robinson but the other way around: it's Selkirk who becomes a living corpse, a ghost, a tale that will become “real” in several different ways, Robinson Crusoe being just the first. Because if it's true that literary characters don't die, perhaps they can bring the dead, like Selkirk, back to life. After “losing all hope of returning to the world,” Selkirk manages to leave the island, which, thanks to his efforts, is well-stocked with goats and thus useful to corsairs who continue to use it as a refuge, which in turn spurs the (sovereign) Governors of Chile to introduce dogs in order to “deprive them of this resource.”17 Thanks to their attacks, the goats' numbers are effectively reduced, and only those who retreat to the heights survive. Famin concludes: “Once the dogs were deprived of this resource, their number was notably reduced; and when this enemy race disappeared altogether, the goats once again descended from their wilderness and multiplied so quickly that the effects of the war they'd lived through soon became unknown.”18 It's thus possible to think that when the humanitarian reverend Townsend published his essay in 1786, seals and goats were abundant on the island, while the dogs had disappeared completely. And as for the famous “new equilibrium,” it only existed in his lucubrations. Which doesn't in any way impede this “product of his imagination,” as Jenaro Prieto would say, from achieving existence. His goal was to keep the poor where they couldn't move, and he achieved that with his story. And not only did his story achieve that; it's since become the foundation of other lucubrations that seek the same end. The claim that poverty is the result of laziness is part of a rhetoric of reaction, Hirschman would tell us, that trades in prejudices rather than proofs.
More imaginary than real, the “new equilibrium” that Townsend “found” on a small island off the coast of Chile, is one of the most powerful stories we've known. It's a great Robinsonade, in Marx's term, that continues to affect our lives because there are those who firmly believe in it and continue defending it and disseminating it via metaphors. Space constraints don't allow me to track its development from Malthus to Garrett Hardin, who, in a 1998 paper on the author of the Essay on the Principle of Population, notes: “More generally it may be said that, to survive and persist, every species needs its ‘enemies' to keep its numbers down. This truth was enlarged upon by Joseph Townsend, twelve years in advance of Malthus's essay.”19 Hardin is the inventor of the famous dilemma known as “the tragedy of the commons,” which he introduced in the once-prestigious journal Science in 1968. Since then, he's been considered one of the most important ecologists of the twentieth century, a neo-Malthusian who wrote his own dissertation on the poor laws: “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor.” Making use of his titular metaphor, Hardin calmly and plainly recommends that “developed” countries close their borders to unrestricted immigration from “needy” countries. He seeks to correct those who bet on a world of solidarity: “in their enthusiastic but unrealistic generosity, they confuse the ethics of a spaceship with those of a lifeboat”20 (clearly not everyone fits on the latter). In what sounds like one more echo of Townsend, Hardin claims it's evident that “poor countries will not learn to mend their ways” if they continue to receive aid. What's more, aiding them is the worst possible option, because “if poor countries received no food from the outside, the rate of their population growth would be periodically checked by crop failures and famines.” What he leaves implicit is that this achievement of a “natural equilibrium” would result from the dying off of the least fit. These ideas, which have gained Hardin his fame, share a common precursor in another metaphor: “The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy” (emphasis mine).21 It's staggering that one of the major proponents of the so-called hard sciences would resort to rhetoric and fiction in order to develop an influential theorem (that he would publish in one of his field's two major journals, one of the venues that set the standards for how one ought to write and publish), and that we've never thought to read him literarily, that is, to deconstruct his writing. I'd like to clarify that what's surprising isn't that he uses fictional methods—all science does—but rather that there hasn't been the appropriate level of attention paid to the literary devices on which his dilemmas depend. In Hardin's writing, in his texts, the goats and dogs are replaced, first, by selfish shepherds and then by castaways much like Robinson, as the lifeboat metaphor suggests. These subjects all employ their rational faculties for the sole purpose of gaining a greater individual share of a space that's common and “open to all” but also scarce. This is assumed to be “natural behavior,” but long and rigorous fieldwork conducted by Elinor Ostrom has demystified it completely, showing its fallacies and inconsistencies.22 So we see that those who defend self-regulating markets don't need any proof to justify their position; it doesn't get in the way of their shaping the world according to their interests, beliefs, and prejudices. What's more, making the impossible real is one of their main strategies. In fact, it may be the only one they deploy. “That, I believe,” writes Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, “is our basic function, to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”23 Unlike so many literary theorists and critics, scientists, economists, lawyers, and legislators are quite well acquainted with the power of fiction. That's why they attempt to stay away from literary discourse and treat it like a scapegoat; why they act as if it were the only product of the imagination, as if the metaphors they use to support their arguments weren't metaphors but rather the results of the scientific research that (quite tautologically) allows them to arrive at scientific laws. Jeremy Bentham was already aware that fictions are the products of this method. In fact, his definition of fictions runs as follows: “an object, the existence of which is feigned by the imagination—feigned for the purpose of discourse—and which, when so formed, is spoken of as a real one.”24 This has been the case not only for metaphors of overpopulation, but also for those created to explain both the origin of poverty and the origin of the state. Hence Pécuchet's disbelief when he exclaims “Where's the proof of the contract? Nowhere!”25 In this sense, Friedman is quite direct: to insist that “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable” is to transform impossible dreams from mere slogans into incipient realities. Backed by the likes of Pinochet, his fictions developed on firm and protected ground, because the difference between literary fictions and the other kind (financial, legal, and so forth) comes down to the fact that the former can't count on violence to help them impose themselves. Neither do they require a supposed “assumption of knowledge” to spread. That assumption, Valentín Letelier noted in 1896, in practice always punishes the poor: “In states where simple compilations of laws take up many shelves, there's no one outside the forensic order who knows them even superficially and under these conditions, the previously mentioned assumption is the most harmful one for the poor, a noose left for his ignorance by the carelessness of the legislator.”26 This apparent oversight is congruent with Friedman's politics, and it's what separates writers from intellectuals, who act, according to Kant, as “instruments of the government, invested with an office for its own purpose (which is not exactly the progress of the sciences),” which is why they can be called the “businessmen or technicians of learning.”27
So it is that we need to deconstruct legal and scientific metaphors and, above all, build fictional machines that will allow us to invent worlds on top of the ones that have been imposed upon us. Townsend's goat and dog theorem, I insist, has no empirical or theoretical basis, and neither does the dilemma of the tragedy of the commons. Both are built exclusively upon their authors' Robinsonades, and both imagine dogs and shepherds where there are none. Their reflections mask their prejudices and perceptions, which, writ large, exemplify the emergent economic liberalism of the eighteenth and the neoliberalism of the late twentieth century. Both also exhibit a need to mold workers in such a way as to control entire populations. Nevertheless, this fictionalizing didn't keep Townsend from transforming how society was understood. As Karl Polanyi noted: “By approaching human community from the animal side, Townsend bypassed the supposedly unavoidable question as to the foundations of government; and in doing so introduced a new concept of law into human affairs, that of the laws of Nature.”28 This is the case because in Townsend's fiction the “natural” equilibrium wasn't produced by any governmental action but rather by the goats' escape to the island's heights and by the way hunger stabilized the growth of grasses, dogs, and goats. Townsend claimed:
Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse. . . . In general it is only hunger which can spur and goad them on to labour; yet our laws have said, they shall never hunger. The laws, it must be confessed, have likewise said that they shall be compelled to work. But then legal constraint is attended with too much trouble, violence, and noise . . . whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but, as the most natural motive to industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions; and, when satisfied by the free bounty of another, lays a lasting and sure foundation for good will and gratitude.29
More effective than the laws of men, hunger (supposedly) establishes its own proper and natural law and pushes humanity towards a scenario that “naturally” proscribes any intervention. What's important above all is to protect the delicate, emerging societal balance that nature has bequeathed us. Polanyi concludes: “Thus it came to pass that economists presently relinquished Adam Smith's humanistic foundations, and incorporated those of Townsend. . . . Economic society had emerged as distinct from the political state.”30 That prejudice is what constitutes the origin of this naturalization is clear in Townsend himself, and not because he asserts that a law of nature has determined that the poor can't provide for themselves “to a certain degree,” but rather because he recognizes the necessity of their exploitation. This is desirable, Townsend holds, for multiple reasons, “whilst the more delicate are not only relieved from drudgery, and freed from those occasional employments”31 which might coarsen their temperaments. He's certain that “the stock of human happiness is thereby much increased,” because “it seems to be a law of nature, that the poor should . . . be some to fulfil the most servile, the most sordid, and the most ignoble offices in the community . . . ; the hope of their reward makes them cheerful in the midst of all their dangers and their toils.”32 Secondly, given this law, it's necessary that these fine people be protected by everyone from the army and navy on down, because only then can they dedicate themselves to “those callings which are suited to their various dispositions.” Any aid to the poor, then, “tends to destroy the harmony and beauty, the symmetry and order of that system, which God and nature have established in the world.”33 Polanyi affirms, in counterpoint: “unconsciously, it was from the island of the goats and dogs that Victorian England drew its sentimental education.”34 That island is found off the coast of Chile, and I suspect that such a geographical fact must have affected “us,” even if we've forgotten it, just as we've forgotten that complete economic freedom, the principle of nonintervention, laissez-faire, didn't arise naturally, but was rather imposed by one or many invariably severe and prejudiced laws. There is no natural law that's not unnaturally willed. What Townsend and his followers forget is that both the goats and the dogs were introduced onto the island in the service of concrete economic and political interests in an effort to shape nature. The goats were meant to reproduce at first; later they had to be destroyed. It's due to this will that legal fictions are backed by police forces and armies. And the same can be said of Hardin's dilemmas, which achieve perfect existence only in his imagination, an imagination formed by an island that was eventually wholly subsumed by the fictions that surround it.
The famous Poor Laws, which provided aid to the poor and which were also opposed by Edmund Burke and Jeremy Bentham, would only last until 1834. The capitalist need for a “labor market” needed to be fulfilled quickly and freely, as did freedom of commerce, which requires the free buying and selling of labor power (without these preconditions, the much touted laissez-faire could not arise, as wage labor is necessary for capital growth; what's more, without the former, the latter would not exist). Arrayed against the Laws was the inscrutability of the value of labor or the origin of prices. These being unknown, it was “inexplicable” how destitution, instead of being reduced, actually increased over time with the introduction of machine production. Thus nature, Polanyi holds, came in as a deus ex machina: “As gradually the laws governing a market economy were apprehended, these laws were put under the authority of Nature herself,”35 which would set the limits of growth and establish the conditions of possibility for subsistence itself. Even war and disease could be ascribed to it, as they also seemed to crawl out from this “new” jungle. Under this new framework, any aid to the poor could be tarred as a harmful intervention set to undermine the longed-for natural economic equilibrium, an equilibrium that could only be achieved by liberating workers from all state intervention and by liberating the market itself.
Selkirk surely never read the book that he inspired, but the story that begins with him has so drawn me in because it is the starting point for both a famous novel and a famous theorem, for two fictions that emerge from a single tale. One gave us a questionable “natural law” that governs population growth; another gave us one of the most memorable characters in all literary fiction. And beyond their common origin, they cross each other time and again in the fields of economics and politics. It was William Forster Lloyd, a neoclassical economist avant la lettre, as Fritz Söllner described him,36 who started to illustrate his theories of the fall of marginal utility by citing Robinson as an example. He did so in his first opus, his Lecture on the Notion of Value of 1833, which he would soon follow with a work on population control (also 1833) and one on the Poor Laws (1835). It's worth noting that Hardin considered Lloyd one of his precursors and that he cited him in each of his papers on the “tragedy of the commons.” Lloyd would be only the first of many economists who saw Robinson as the paradigm of individualist economic rationality.37 Hence we can see that what Marx dubbed Robinsonades include not only Smith, Ricardo, and Rousseau, but also Townsend, Hardin, and their many intermediaries. In his Foundations to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, more commonly known as the Grundrisse, Marx defines the Robinsonade as the fictional belief that an isolated individual could be placed fully outside the bounds of all social relations. It's a kind of fallacious naturalism that obviates historicity in order to present him “as an ideal whose existence they project into the past. Not as a historic result but as history's point of departure.”38 With Barthes, we could say that what we have here is “speech justified in excess” that transforms story into myth and “history into nature.”39 For Marx, on the other hand, “The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole.”40 A whole that allowed Robinson to arrive on the island well stocked with quills, paper and ink, compasses, mathematical tools, letters, navigation guides, as well as three bibles and a dog; provisions that the Robinsonaders tend to overlook. But this poor castaway didn't only represent an image of an economy that produced what we can now see as myths that pass for laws and theorems. A few decades after the publication of Robinson Crusoe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom we could well call Jean-Jacques CRousseau, also fell under the sway of the Robinsonade, using the mode to illustrate both his political theories (as Derrida shows) and his model of education. “What, then, is this marvelous book? Is it Aristotle? Is it Pliny? Is it Buffon? No. It is Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe on his island, alone, deprived of the assistance of his kind and the instruments of all the arts. . . . This state, I agree,” claims CRousseau, “is not that of social man.”41 The capacity for fabulation among the Robinsonaders is striking. They disappear precisely what allows the castaway to survive, just as they deny the relations of exploitation (and the international division of labor) that keep workers in a state of destitution. As Marx affirms, “this is the semblance, the merely aesthetic semblance, of the Robinsonades, great and small.”42 Luckily, James Joyce didn't hold back when he described Robinson as the true symbol of British conquest, “the true prototype of the British colonist,”43 thus joining a line of critical anti-Robinsonades to which this essay is indebted. “Marx's point is serious,” we read in the first session of the second volume of The Beast and the Sovereign. For Derrida, the Robinsonade
translates an ambition that is difficult to measure, if not immeasurable, for it consists, among other things, in trying to refer, or even reduce, no less, what he calls “inspid fictions,” here literary fictions (like Robinson Crusoe, and Marx's thesis is a thesis on literature as superstructure) or philosophical-political fictions . . . to aesthetic superstructures at once significant, symptomatic and dependent on what they signify, namely merely a phase in the organization of material production and the “anticipation of [European] bourgeois society which had been preparing itself since the sixteenth and which in the eighteenth century was taking giant strides towards maturity.”44
As for fictions, I'd hazard that Robinsonades don't just name an “epochal ensemble” (or phase), as Derrida says. They have made possible that epochal ensemble and not any other. And that ensemble is sustained to this day.45 There is a direct relationship between Dampier, Ulloa, Defoe, Townsend, Lloyd, and Hardin. Indirectly, slyly, fitfully, sometimes unwittingly, they've brought forth a powerful fiction which, legitimized by legal proceedings, manages to hide its mythical character and thus shapes and regulates a certain reality.
One characteristic of legal fictions is that they're able to camouflage their fictional nature. Literary fictions, on the other hand, offer immediate displays of their artificiality. By way of conclusion, I'd like to define what I mean by this second category of fictions. The epigraph with which I began gave a preview of this, and I'd like to thank Pablo Faúndez Morán for having introduced me to Valentín Letelier and, above all, to a writer like Jenaro Prieto, who knows the effects of literary and nonliterary fictions so well. It's not a coincidence that his characters are stock traders or lawyers from hell. Etymologically, fiction comes from the Latin fingō, fingis, finxī, fictum, and, like the Greek πλάσµα (plasma), it has to do with setting, molding, shaping, or configuring, as the lexicographer Covarrubias put it in 1611, “with the understanding or with the hand.”46 “With the hand!” Fiction doesn't depend, as we may have thought, on imagination alone, or on just the intellect. No: fiction cannot be separated from the hand and its digits and thus from the idea of labor. Fiction is always a material production. The English word “finger” is a clue. As is the French doigt, which is much closer to dheigh, the Indo-European term for fiction, from which mass, figure, lady, and paradise are all derived (this last originally meaning a closed garden, walled in clay): beautiful notions that I can't delve into due to space constraints. We write with our hands because we think and create with them. . . . If Defoe's fiction is about configuring a character, Robinson's is about amassing a fortune by working the island. Hence the interest of those economists and jurists who want to form so-called “reality” to their purposes, by imagining laws and theorems based on metaphors that have been shaped in the context of a story neither real nor imaginary. Sadly, this creative [facedor] power also shared by literature is being forgotten or, in the best of cases, underestimated, in favor of literature's power to entertain, which is real, but surely inferior to its power to shape. Selkirk is an invention of Crusoe's. So are Townsend, Ulloa, and Dampier, and even Lloyd, Hardin, and their dilemmas. If “the book lives its beautiful death,” as Derrida holds, so do those who are related to it, whether or not they declare it or know it. Characters are revived by the “breath of a living reading,”47 which in turn gives life to those readers who will rewrite what they've read. A work of literary fiction, Derrida continues, is one of the “living dead”48 who possesses the capacity, I hazard, to grant their “fantasmatic virtuality” to those who read. Literary criticism and theory, therefore, possess the necessary tools to show that literary fiction is a form of politics that can and should face those legal and economic fictions that have shaped the world around us and, in the process, made us believe that we can't reshape it and that we shouldn't even bother to try. If, as Fredric Jameson has pointed out, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than something more modest like the end of capitalism, this is because the power of literary fiction has been under attack. In schools and universities, fiction has been reduced to a mere means for teaching the basic reading and writing skills required by the current mode of production. Its enclosure suggests the fear it inspires, the mistrust that its power elicits. After all, it has the capacity to develop the imagination we require to create a world in which the use of common goods doesn't give rise to the sad affects of tragedy but rather to the joyful affects of which Spinoza speaks. I'm sure that when this power is recognized, literature will be dusted off and treated as an indispensable means for the development not only of our society but of humanity itself. When faced with the question of what literature and the humanities are for, we can offer an answer on a par with those that the applied sciences or medicine give: we can say that without them, the human species would disappear. This is why our focus has nothing to do with equilibrium: we don't believe that the world can be stabilized through laws and theorems; we believe it can be transformed by the imagination. Literature can face nuclear disasters and the ecological crisis not because it can banish them at once, but because it can produce the subjectivity needed to keep them from overwhelming us and set us on the path to eliminating them. But, worked improperly, literature can also deepen these crises. That's why we must use it to work toward survival. If we give literature, criticism, and theory their proper places, they will help to ensure that what's living will endure beyond its representation. Fiction is more valuable than medicine because without it there would soon be no bodies to care for. If the world is out of joint, fortune has given us literature to put it back together. As Hamlet would say, let's go together.
Dampier, New Voyage Round the World, 89–90 (emphasis mine).
Ulloa, Voyage to South-America, 172–73.
It's noteworthy that this phrase is absent from Cortázar's famous translation, it simply reads: “Mi perro, ya muy viejo y chocho, se tendía a mi derecha . . .” Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (trans. Cortázar), 153.
In The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida cites a brief, but relevant, text that gives an account of the political and economic bibliographies that take Robinson as a point of departure for theorizing the relationship between supply and demand: White's “Robinson Crusoe.” White, however, does not mention any of the works I've referred to here.
As Angela Mitropoulos has recently pointed out: “For more than a decade, Hardin was involved with the white supremacist, anti-immigrant group the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)—much of that time as a member of its board—as well as the Social Contract Press, a white nationalist publisher. As it happens, the Trump administration includes a number of people with long-standing ties to FAIR, among them Jeff Sessions, Kris Kobach, Kellyanne Conway, and Stephen Miller, and the ombudsman of US Citizenship and Immigration Services was an executive director of FAIR for around a decade. Current White House policy on migration has been dictated largely by a slate of proposals outlined by FAIR in November 2016 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.” See Mitropoulos, “Lifeboat Capitalism.”
Derrida, Beast and the Sovereign, 117.