Politics in Practice

Insights from our authors

Robinson’s Wall

Alfonso M. Iacono is a Professor of the History of Philosophy at the University of Pisa, Italy. He is the author of two volumes in the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms book series: The History and Theory of Fetishism (2016) and The Bourgeois and the Savage: A Marxian Critique of the Image of the Isolated Individual in Defoe, Turgot and Smith (2020). Read the chapter “Robinson Crusoe’s Adventure on the Island: From the Isolated Economy to Political Supremacy ” for free until 28th April 2020.

There are walls upon which we can place our hands while meditating and crying. There are those walls that observe the shoulders of men who are waiting to be executed. There are walls that function as screens, playing our desires and fantasies. In front of such walls we are prisoners of ourselves or of others. There is a wall in Plato’s cave, displaying shadows for men who are chained up. There are walls that divide us and other walls that unite us in prayer. There is the Great Wall of China. There was the Berlin wall. Jerusalem built a wall to pray upon, but Israel built a wall to divide itself from the Palestine.

The wall in Tijuana, which in Mexico they call The Wall of Shame, runs all along the Mexican-USA border; meanwhile Erdogan’s wall keeps the Turks isolated from the Kurds and the Syrians. Then there is the wall in Hungary that turns back the immigrants and the wall of Lima in Peru that divides the rich from the poor. Kenya is also building a wall to stop Somalian refugees from entering its country. In literature there is The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre, but there is also Firewall by Henning Mankell. Kafka wrote The Great Wall of China and nowadays someone should write about the Great Wall of Mexico.

In the background there is Robinson Crusoe’s wall. It stands at the origin of every mental, ideological and cultural wall that exists today and is used to divide, separate and push back. And it is this of what I speak.

"It happen’d one Day about Noon going towards my Boat, I was exceedingly surpriz’d with the Print of a Man’s naked Foot on the Shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand: I stood like one Thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an Apparition; I listen’d, I look’d round me, I could hear nothing, nor see any Thing, I went up to a rising Ground to look farther, I went up the Shore and down the Shore, but it was all one, I could see no other Impression but that one, I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my Fancy; but there was no Room for that, for there was exactly the very Print of a Foot, Toes, Heel, and every Part of a Foot; how it came thither, I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering Thoughts, like a Man perfectly confus’d and out of my self, I came Home to my Fortification, not feeling, as we say, the Ground I went on, but terrify’d to the last Degree, looking behind me at every two or three Steps, mistaking every Bush and Tree, and fancying every Stump at a Distance to be a Man; nor is it possible to describe how many various Shapes affrighted Imagination represented Things to me in, how many wild Ideas were found every Moment in my Fancy, and what strange unaccountable Whimsies came into my Thoughts by the Way. I slept none that Night; the farther I was from the Occasion of my Fright, the greater my Apprehensions were, which is something contrary to the Nature of such Things, and especially to the usual Practice of all Creatures in Fear"

This is what Robinson is thinking when he comes across a footprint on his Island. It seems to me, that Defoe is very good in describing the shift from astonishment to fear, from fear to terror that Robinson feels in finding himself facing the existence of another man on his Island. Robinson almost reaches that morbid terror that William James describes as “the fear of fear.” This is the fear of others: that form of fear that pushes Robinson to create a relationship with Friday based on Lordship and Bondage. The fear of others transforms that relationship between a white man and black man into a relation of supremacy. Robinson dominates over Friday for fear, and Friday is dominated by fear. Robinson is the one who gave the name to Friday and he calls himself the Master. And above all they speak only English; only Crusoe’s language is used for communicating.

The fear of others is the fear of everything that is foreign, unfamiliar, something that is out of our control, or from which we need to defend ourselves and which needs to be pushed away or eliminated or enslaved. This is the case with Friday; like a black man facing a white man or a woman facing a man. The colonial middle-class ideology is represented by Robinson in the most powerful yet naïve figure of speech: the black men and the women have to mask themselves as white men or they have to succumb to the white man.

What does Robinson do after a long moment of reflection? Does he take a decision? How does he react to the shocking discovery of another man’s footprint? He decides to build another stronghold for his shelter. He builds a wall.

"Now I began sorely to repent, that I had dug my Cave so large, as to bring a Door through again, which Door, as I said, came out beyond where my Fortification joyn’d to the Rock; upon maturely considering this therefore, I resolv’d to draw me a second Fortification, in the same Manner of a Semicircle, at a Distance from my Wall, just where I had planted a double Row of Trees, about twelve Years before, of which I made mention: These Trees having been planted so thick before, they wanted but a few Piles to be driven between them, that they should be thicker, and stronger, and my Wall would be soon finish’d."

Daniel Defoe gives us so many details about the construction of the wall! Why? Because he is describing the frantic search for security from the insecure isolated modern man, a search that comes to an end by building walls between us. Fear of others is a fear which makes us conceive each relationship as a relationship of dominance. Walls that outline and defend private property, walls that hide us away and at the same time limit the possibility to open our souls, walls that divide the rich from the poor, dominant walls against which hope shatters and we have no choice but to succumb to them.