Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 10, 2019

The Primitive Accumulation debate

Filed under: Political Marxism,primitive accumulation,transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

I want to alert my readers, especially those living in Europe, to a conference being held on May 9-11, 2019 at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam on the topic of “Toward a Global History of Primitive Accumulation”. Among the speakers are people I have a strong affinity with, including Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, Edward Baptist, and Dale Tomich. They are scholars who tend to identify with the definition of primitive accumulation in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital (Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist):

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.

While I doubt that any of the sessions there will directly address the Political Marxists, they implicitly challenge its premise that primitive accumulation refers exclusively to the emergence of agrarian capitalism in late 15th century England, the linchpin of Robert Brenner’s scholarship. For Brenner and his acolytes, slavery and all that colonialism stuff do not enter the picture. It is only when land was enclosed in England as part of the rise of tenant farming that the “social-property relations” unique to capitalism kicked in. When a tenant farmer began to hire wage labor to milk cows, shear wool, and harvest wheat with a sickle, it set into motion the competitive drive that allowed England to rule the world. Cotton being picked by slaves was “pre-capitalist” and if it hadn’t been fed into the maw of emerging English capitalism, it would have gone to waste in Spain or Portugal whose rulers were only interested in using the gold and silver extracted from Bolivia, Peru and Mexico to buy silk pantaloons from India, powdered wigs from Bulgaria, and tea from China. England was the proverbial ant and the Iberian empires were the proverbial grasshoppers.

Speaking of Aesop’s fable, it should be understood that Marx developed the theory of primitive accumulation to rebut Adam Smith who was trying to account for the emergence of a capitalist class. In Smith’s world, the capitalist was someone who was thrifty like the ant and put aside the capital that was necessary to hire wage labor in the nascent manufacturing sphere of 18th century England. In Smith’s language, the term was “previous accumulation” rather than primitive. Perhaps, the best term would be “primary accumulation” since it only denotes the gathering of capital used a priori to capitalism.

In chapter 26 of V. 1 of Capital, the allusion to Aesop is palpable:

This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work.

Robert Brenner first presented this version of primitive accumulation in the 1977 NLR article that attacked Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank as “neo-Smithian” ideologues. He argues that prior to capitalist “social-property” relations, there was no surplus value since there was no wage labor. Thus, all the gold in Peru and all the silver and Mexico was outside the sphere of capitalism, strictly speaking. This analysis, of course, rests on the premise that slave labor was “pre-capitalist”.

With “social-property relations”, you get a kind of Procrustean Bed. Unless there is a capitalist paying wage labor, you are outside of the capitalist world. In Greek mythology, Procrustes took people captive and then either stretched out or cut flesh and bone from their legs so they would fit in his iron beds. At least the people being excluded from “social-property relations” in Brenner’s writings only suffer from historical mutilation.

In V. 2 of Capital, Marx had a more inclusive view of the sphere of capitalist property relations:

No matter whether commodities are the output of production based on slavery, of peasants (Chinese, Indian ryots). of communes (Dutch East Indies), of state enterprise (such as existed in former epochs of Russian history on the basis of serfdom) or of half-savage hunting tribes, etc. — as commodities and money they come face to face with the money and commodities in which the industrial capital presents itself and enter as much into its circuit as into that of the surplus-value borne in the commodity-capital, provided the surplus-value is spent as revenue; hence they enter in both branches of circulation of commodity-capital. The character of the process of production from which they originate is immaterial. They function as commodities in the market, and as commodities they enter into the circuit of industrial capital as well as into the circulation of the surplus-value incorporated in it.

For some Marxists, this was always an aspect of primitive accumulation that was either explicitly presented in chapter 31 referred to above or in need of amplification. In Rosa Luxemburg’s “Accumulation of Capital”, you get a clear statement about the intersection of capitalist and non-capitalist sectors in the accumulation of capital. In chapter 26, she writes:

[C]apitalism in its full maturity also depends in all respects on non-capitalist strata and social organizations existing side by side with it. It is not merely a question of a market for the additional product, as Sismondi and the later critics and doubters of capitalist accumulation would have it. The interrelations of accumulating capital and non-capitalist forms of production extend over values as well as over material conditions, for constant capital, variable capital and surplus value alike.

Hence the contradictory phenomena that the old capitalist countries provide ever larger markets for, and become increasingly dependent upon, one another, yet on the other hand compete ever more ruthlessly for trade relations with non-capitalist countries.

More recently, David Harvey adopted Luxemburg’s analysis in order to describe the same kind of ongoing process of capital accumulation in terms of “accumulation by dispossession”. In the 2004 Socialist Register, Harvey wrote:

A closer look at Marx’s description of primitive accumulation reveals a wide range of processes. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; conversion of various forms of property rights – common, collective, state, etc. – into exclusive private property rights; suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative, indigenous, forms of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets, including natural resources; monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; slave trade; and usury, the national debt and ultimately the credit system. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes and there is considerable evidence, which Marx suggests and Braudel confirms, that the transition to capitalist development was vitally contingent upon the stance of the state – broadly supportive in Britain, weakly so in France and highly negative, until very recently, in China. The invocation of the recent shift towards primitive accumulation in the case of China indicates that this is an on-going issue and the evidence is strong, particularly throughout East and South East Asia, that state policies and politics (consider the case of Singapore) have played a critical role in defining both the intensity and the paths of new forms of capital accumulation. The role of the ‘developmental state’ in recent phases of capital accumulation has therefore been the subject of intense scrutiny. One only has to look back at Bismarck’s Germany or Meiji Japan to recognize that this has long been the case.

Returning to chapter 31, with its emphasis on slavery and colonialism, it is important to read the fine print. Since the chapter is concerned with the genesis of the industrial capitalist, it begins with his forerunner during feudalism who were small guild-masters, independent small artisans, or even wage laborers.

Eventually, as feudalism began to collapse, seaports arose beyond the reach of the feudal guilds in order to take advantage of increased global trade. Within these “free trade zones” of the 17th century captured so vividly in Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean, you get the growth of manufacturing, mostly in textiles, woolen at first and then cotton.

Marx writes that “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital.” Even though commerce belongs to an earlier type of capital, it dovetailed with the new industrial capital as Marx points out: “In the period of manufacture properly so called, it is, on the other hand, the commercial supremacy that gives industrial predominance. Hence the preponderant role that the colonial system plays at that time.”

The next to last paragraph of chapter 31 could not be clearer about what tends to be overlooked in Political Marxism:

Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.


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