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The Problem with the Tools-House Metaphor

Recently, in a class discussion, one of my students quoted Audre Lorde's claim "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."  Although this was one of my better students, and I have great respect for Audre Lorde, I was reminded again of why I have always been troubled by this statement.  Generally I think it fails as a metaphor and leads to some rather problematic and ahistorical assumptions.  This is not to say that I disagree with what might have been Lorde's initial motivations for the tools-house analogy (an essay designed to attack the underlying racism of certain feminist movements), but that this aphorism is often cited by activists without any critical thought––as if it is some scientific insight, some truism that holds for activism as E=MC2 holds for the General Theory of Relativity.  It is used all the time to reject both theory and praxis, mainly by quasi-lifestyle activists and culturalists who have very dubious understandings of history and struggle.

The most obvious problem with the metaphor is that, historically speaking, the oppressed have always used the "tools" that "belong" to the oppressor to dismantle his "house."  (I will get to the issue of who owns these metaphorical tools below, but for now I just want to stick to the bare bones of the aphorism.)  The oppressors actually do not want the oppressed to pick up those tools that might dismantle the oppressive power structure and go to great lengths to keep these tools away from the oppressed.  Slave masters did not want their slaves armed with anything that could cause them violence.  As the character Jose Dolores says in the movie Burn!, the knife that cuts the sugar cane can also cut down the slaver.

The oppressors have never been keen on allowing the oppressed to use the implements of labour to smash their houses.  The truth is that the oppressors create a whole host of RULES to prevent and structure the way that their TOOLS are engaged with on the part of the oppressed.  Lynch mobs could legally carry guns and other weapons, slaves could not.  Slaves also turned field implements into weapons in various rebellions.  And Peoples Wars have always begun by amassing the tools that were used to keep them oppressed.

Moreover, in the larger sense of "tools", the oppressor class has always gone to great lengths to keep the oppressed illiterate and outside of any context where they could access those "tools" that would allow the oppressed to engage in any meaningful matter with the terms of their oppression.  We must remember that Toussaint L'Ouverture was an educated slave who used the tools of literacy, as well as the ideological claims made by the more radical sects of the French Revolution, to wage the first successful Slave Revolution.  And the fact that Haiti was eventually placed into a position of imperial dependency after this revolution is because of international rules brought in to cordone off the rebellious use of the tools that smashed slavery.  International rules backed by bigger guns that, had the Haitian revolutionaries had an equal and better cache of these supposed "master's tools" they wouldn't have to bow to these rules.

The next major problem with this aphorism is that it assumes that the "master" doesn't simply own these "tools" but that the tools are somehow imbued with the master's oppressive essence.  How does a hammer or a gun, by itself, possess an oppressive essence?  Or a language by itself?  Or anything that was made by human labour for multiple purposes?  Most importantly, though, we have to realize that these tools are only owned and controlled by the "master" and that, most often, they emerged because of the labour of the oppressed.  It is not the master who spends all day in a factory making hammers and guns, or the master who invented, on one magical day with other masters, languages and cultural concepts.  The masters mainly take ownership of, and claim as their own, implements that have emerged through the long and collective struggle of invisible labour.  (And so what if some terrible slaver designed a certain gun?  He can still be murdered by the gun he made by his former slave.)  Every tool, both concrete and theoretical, is the product of social history that involves so much invisible labour.  And the European colonizers, as writers like Walter Rodney have pointed out, often stole ideas/inventions/concepts from the colonized populations, claiming these ideas as their own.

The point, then, is that the tools-house metaphor by itself doesn't hold.  The entire claim that the master's house will never be dismantled by the tool's that supposedly belong to the master is just untrue: the tools owned by the oppressor have always been used against this oppressor in revolutionary situations; these tools often don't even belong to the oppressor, outside of ownership and control, in the first place.  If we want a more accurate metaphor it should be, as I hinted above, "the master's rules will never dismantle the master's house."


  1. I love the idea that the rules rather than the tools of the master can not be used to dismantle his house. The master does not have a monopoly on any tools. I think Audre Lorde would agree with you. I love your quote "As the character Jose Dolores says in the movie Burn!, the knife that cuts the sugar cane can also cut down the slaver."

  2. Thanks! I think Audre Lorde's essay is actually arguing about "rules" rather than "tools." But I think a lot of people actually take the title as a foregone conclusion without reading the essay to begin with...

  3. There are no "master's tools". There are only tools. I always respond to this (as you correctly point out) mis-application of the title by activists by pointing out that a hammer can put nails in and it can take them out. That's what the claw is for. Hell, it can smash the master's fucking window!

    In the last decade or so Derick Jensen has written quite a lot (as he always does) about this, as well as Ward Churchill. There's another element to this sort of "master's tools" argument that deserves calling out, too. The argument just serves to facillitate professional activists' control over movements by dictating tactics, validating their special privileged position regarding the movement as above, apart and, supposedly, better informed than the rest of the movement. Of course, it's nonsense. It's a control technique.

  4. Great points! As you note, the aphorism has been used to validate the especial "insights" of certain people in the movement. I also like your example of the hammer.


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