September 25, 2008

The beds never get cold

This post will necessarily fail to do justice to the significance of so-called primitive accumulation in Capital. In a way, I am afraid to even write about it, for a few reasons. First, any google search for primitive accumulation will generate pages upon pages of analysis of the concept, which, although seemingly obscure, academic and definitionally relegated to the past, may be more relevant than ever (or, the fifteenth century). A good place to start is Michael Perelman's work, featured in a good issue from the Commoner on the topic of enclosure (not foreclosure, although that is certainly relevant too) (Other reads: Jason Read's essay which has become a book and the chapter on the universal history of capital in Anti-Oedipus).

Secondly, I think that although only lightly treated in Capital, primitive accumulation is the bridge to more nuanced, updated analyses of capital and neoliberalism today, prominently argued by David Harvey, such as uneven geographical development and the relationship between the rural and the urban, the peasant and the proletariat, ecological concerns, etc. Once one becomes familiar with recent scholarship emphasizing the spatial distribution of capital, uneven development, development of underdevelopment, post-development studies, colonial economy and post-colonial whatever, etc., it is almost too easy to re-read all of these concepts back into Marx. But that would give too little credit to the work of trying to rethink these concepts years later, work which to this reader is far more salutary than those who read Marx literally, as though what was true in 19th century England was and is true for the rest of the world ever since.

Finally, this is a difficult section to write about because there seems to be an imbalance between, on the one hand, all of the theoretical vibrancy and potential lying dormant in it and, on the other hand, the lack of much actual substantive material carried forward and cross-applied by latter day theorists. What I mean is, most everyone will talk about Marx's so-called primitive accumulation by circling around the concept itself and the famous first paragraphs of chapter twenty-six:
We have seen how money is changed into capital; how through capital surplus-value is made, and from surplus-value more capital. But the accumulation of capital pre-supposes surplus-value; surplus-value pre-supposes capitalistic production; capitalistic production presupposes the pre-existence of considerable masses of capital and of labour-power in the hands of producers of commodities. The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn in a vicious circle, out of which we can only get by supposing a primitive accumulation (previous accumulation of Adam Smith) preceding capitalistic accumulation; an accumulation not the result of the capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point.
But what everyone ignores is the actual beef of this last section: a slow, gradual reconstruction of the primitive accumulation of peasants in England, through the creation of a capitalist class, enclosing land, banishing farmers to cities, creating an industrial reserve army, the commoditization of everyday life, etc.

Upon first reading this section, one could easily believe it a historical text more than a theoretical one. And perhaps this returns to an earlier question raised by many: does Marx make logical arguments or does he make empirically historical ones? If one were a historian (let's just suppose) how does one digest this last chapter about the ongoing (but let's set that aside for a second) prehistory of capitalism and its constant transition into capital? One could be as literal as possible and try to reconstruct the primitive accumulations of every part of the world (or at least Europe) in sociological terms ("rent in kind? check."); or, one could say that all we need to know about primitive accumulation is the definition Marx explicitly gives on page 875: "So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as 'primitive' because it forms the pre-history of capital, and of the mode of production corresponding to capital" -- and then ignore all the details about the history of enclosure and proletarianization in England and simply tell a completely different story, preserving only the basic skeletal remains of that concise definition. More radically, one could also say, given that primitive accumulation has happened, let's deal with the results of it and bypass altogether the question of how it occurred.

As one could guess from my tone, none of these approaches seem satisfactorily nuanced to me, but on the other hand, each option represents in its extremity a viable position to take or at least bear in mind going forward. The problem is that their irreconcilability -- no, their singularity results in an expansive gap within which to form one's own approach (which one would no doubt have to justify against all others) towards thinking so-called primitive accumulation with regards to the present, or at least, with regards to different histories beyond the one given in volume one.

Obviously, no answer to these questions in this post; just some frustration. A good frustration.

The last point I want to make revisits something I wrote earlier about how capital is constantly revolutionizing itself, a position sprinkled throughout this and other texts from Marx. The idea alone should give one pause when trying to define what exactly is capital, since one of its characteristics is to be cutting edge, which really means completely unstable. In that sense, if one were to carry in mind a simple timeline version of the transition from precapital to capital as a bisected path of linear time:


---- (prehistory ) --- || -- (capital) ------

Well, that's just untenable right? The goalposts are always moving. And yet, doesn't Marx seem to write this last section as though capital were a state of conditions that could be isolated in history? Doesn't he, periodically at least, write in the bankrupt sociological mode that reduces capital from a total set of relationships into a checklist of landmark developments to be tracked down and framed as commensurable factors in historical equations, like opposable thumbs or birth control? Hmm, maybe. The overall message of Capital is overwhelmingly against that interpretation, but for clarity's sake Marx does list traits of capital as though they were timeless characteristics, bastardized by people who think in terms of timeless social science (e.g. the development school).


To perhaps guard against the idea of capitalism as a binaristic transition, one should pay extra attention to the last chapter on colonies, which contains one of the most explosive passages in all of volume one:
In Westrn Europe, the homeland of political economy, the process of primitive accumulation has more or less been accomplished. Here the capitalist regime has either directly subordinated to itself the whole of the nation's production, or, where economic relations are less developed, it has at least indirect control of those social layers which, although they belong to the antiquated mode of production, still continue to exist side by side with it in a state of decay. To this ready-made world of capital, the political economist applies the notions of law and of property inherited from a pre-capitalist world, with all the more anxious zeal and all the greater unction, the more loudly the facts cry out in the face of his ideology.
It is otherwise in the colonies (931).
I do not really care about the Wakefield or Hegelian views on American colonies to which Marx was primarily responding, and so much of this chapter is kind of a disappointment to someone who anticipated Marx to rip into the overseas imperial expeditions of the British (1867 wasn't yet the height of imperialism though, which probably explains the relative silence).

However, I am interested in the fact that Marx explicitly argues for the co-existence of multiple temporalities within a single socio-economic system; not the colonies and metropole but the feudal and the capitalist dimensions of the English classes. But, you know, let's extrapolate. Where earlier one could easily read Marx's accounts of Manchester industry and think "well this doesn't apply to me, I can ignore this analysis," Marx here is saying that even though you think a part of the world is outside or unconnected to or inculpable for the misery and exploitation of another part of the world; or if you think the unevenness of the global economy is incidental to development and could be corrected by the market -- Marx is saying that's wrong. These multiple temporalities, where capital means one mode of production in one area and another mode in another, are ultimately welded together. This is a continuation of earlier arguments that manufacture and pre-industrial production in Marx's time had been transformed by their dependency on the industrial home market, united by "invisible threads."

So, to recap, earlier Marx lays the groundwork to say that capital is uneven in its temporality. Constantly in flux, constantly self-revolutionizing, what is properly capitalistic today may be outmoded tomorrow. But he also lays the groundwork for its uneven spatiality: feudal here, cutting edge there, rich here, poor there, etc. etc. And then think of the permutations of space and time. In short, we have an analysis that tries to cut up its object and expose as many differentiations and variations as possible. What sustains it in the end is an analytical framework which argues that these differences and varieties are both the result and the basis for the motor of capital: its exploitation of labor. And from the outset, all of these uneven developments have already been accounted for as merely internal differentiations of a larger entity, which, if it didn't encompass the world before, is possessed by an ontological necessity to constantly accumulate and expand, to constantly push itself towards the edges of real subsumption.

1 comment:

Ike said...

Hi I just wonder why there isn't discussion on this site over the momentous events of the last week and how it relates to everything Marx predicts. Maybe its just for students. Not sure. But I sure would like to hear David Harvey's opinion of what is happening now.