The Master's Tools:
The Wisdom of Audre Lorde

In the schoolyard fight that is philosophy, there are a few intellectual body-slams that will finish any tussle. 

Take, for example, the saying that I consider to be the atomic bomb of discussion enders: Audre Lorde’s well-known declaration that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” 

The terrifying force of Lorde’s putdown comes from the fact that it can be applied to absolutely everything from language, to violence, to art. Furthermore, her statement has such an uncanny intuitive force that it is often leveraged without the speaker even being aware of his allusion. It is, in a sense, the ultimate meme of cynical inaction: if the master’s tools cannot be appropriated then, in an age where our capitalist masters claim ownership over everything, only resignation is possible.

Every time someone proposes that we take the marketplace back from the megacorps, relocalize capitalism or end the cancer of unrestrained growth there is a chorus of naysayers: “But you can’t use capitalism/money/advertising to dismantle consumerism/globalization/mental pollution!” But before we allow ourselves to be derailed from hope for a self-funded global anticapitalist movement strong enough to take its followers out of the consumer rat race,let’s pause a moment and consider what Audre Lorde might have actually meant.

Is protest broken? Micah White, co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, thinks so. Recent years have witnessed the largest protests in human history. Yet these mass mobilizations no longer change society. Now activism is at a crossroads: innovation or irrelevance.

Is protest broken? Micah White, co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, thinks so. Recent years have witnessed the largest protests in human history. Yet these mass mobilizations no longer change society. Now activism is at a crossroads: innovation or irrelevance.

If we go back 25 years to the first utterance of Lorde’s categorical imperative, we will find that she did not intend to develop a reactionary weapon against revolutionary experimentation. It was actually quite the opposite. Speaking of her experiences as a black lesbian feminist, she derided the then-burgeoning feminist academia for its heterosexual white bias. She wrote of the need to embrace difference – not to “merely tolerate” people who are different, but to embrace difference because it provides a “fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” Her concern was that feminist academia had coalesced around a false consensus that left out the voices of those whose difference was essential to the project of overturning patriarchy. In other words, she attempted to draft an ethical principle that would overthrow the status quo: We cannot disrupt our oppression using the logic that justifies our oppression. Lorde asked, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” And she responded, “It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.”

Let's reclaim our stolen tools.

One of the problems with those who misread Audre Lorde is that they assume everything that is good or powerful or potentially useful constitutes “the master’s tools.” Thus the most common use of Lorde’s exhortation is to attack those who would use the English language to undermine Western society. But if we learn anything from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s exceptional A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia it should be that the dominant powers appropriated from us first. Take the example of warfare, which most people would consider an example of the master’s tools. Not so, argue Deleuze and Guattari. Based on anthropological, archeological and philosophical evidence, they hold that warfare was originally developed by nomadic anti-State forces and was only later appropriated and turned against its developers. A similar situation has occurred today: the creative, local and artistic forces of culture have been forced into subservience by a global megacapitalism, which holds all the purse strings. Just because we are forced to sell our creativity does not mean that it constitutes the master’s tools. If that were the case, capitalism wouldn’t need to constantly “cool-hunt,” and turn what is authentic and genuine into trends for consumption.

It is a tragically ironic that a saying originally intended to be a revolutionary tool has come to play a reactionary shutdown role. But if we give Audre Lorde back her voice, we will find that she does not wish us to cower in fear of the master. Instead, she wanted us to stand up, to break the false consensus that limits our options and to act boldly. Thus Audre Lorde wrote, “… survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

— Micah White is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street and the author of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.