November 17, 2008

Primitive Accumulation, Transition and Colonialism

So some concluding remarks on these final chapters. The more I think about the text in its entirety, and the relation of these last few chapters to the argument that had been developed thus far, more questions emerge than are answered, which is a sign of a productive reading. Anyhoo….

For such a loaded concept, the Chapter on Primitive Accumulation was surprisingly short. Starting from Neil Smith and Harvey’s take on this last section, the later empirical surveys of enclosure, the Poor Laws, etc are directly juxtaposed to the Smithian conceptualization of a utopian market that Marx had previously been working within. Here, history, ‘actual’ history, is juxtaposed to the universal claims of property, natural rights and Bentham, which constituted the discourse of political economy.

So problem number (1): we can say, following Harvey, that on one level Marx has moved from a theoretical analysis of political economy into the realm of history in order to counter any claims of equality, natural outgrowth, natural basis for property, etc. But what are the implications of this inversion of the analytical narrative? Earlier Marx worked through an immanent critique where the argument was that if Adam Smith’s free market was allowed to function in its own terms, we would arrive to the accumulation models given in Chapter 25 - the result being the polarities of increasing capital accumulation and increasing misery (not a mutually exclusive relationship – but one produced through labor in capitalist production through time)? Here, however, the misery was explicit in its ‘origin’ – and has only been dampened by its sublimation into what Marx called the “silent compulsion of economic relations” (p. 899 - subsistence commodity consumption for the worker, competitive pressure for the capitalist). The misery has always been and is there, except now, with the history of primitive/originary accumulation, it is encapsulated within a ‘moment’ when it becomes possible to locate it analytically. Left at this, capitalism is book ended by a miserable and unequal situation that all are aware of (original Bloody legislation > possible Systemic crisis), but internal to its processes as accumulation drives on, the violence seems to be veiled as natural conditions that are self-legitimated.

A tangential question is what are the implications of moving in and out of an immanent critique of political economy? It seems here that the result is that political economy becomes merely “ideology” – in Marx’s terms, the economists are the ‘sycophants’ of capitalism. But now, what happens to the conceptual apparatus that he has left us, one developed out of a critique of political economy? Is this a corrective to political economy? Is this a higher development of political economy? In all honesty, I am not particularly invested in these sorts of questions, but they did come to mind when reading.

Issue number (2): I think one of the problems with the concept of ‘primitive accumulation’ is that it might be overstated – and this overstatement can be understood within the context of Marx’s presentation. Primitive accumulation is a rendering of Smith’s ‘original accumulation’. Thus, still taking the concepts of political economy in order to ‘deconstruct’ them (lack of a better term, sorry Derrideans), Marx shows that the state was central, that - while still situated in an earlier legal structure - what occurred was actually illegal, and that force/violence/etc was necessary in the process. But does this actually mean that Marx has a new and applicable concept of ‘primitive accumulation’?

In this regard, the chapter starts with a logical sequence of ‘presuppositions’ (see Andy’s citation below) – which, at a logical level of M-C-M’ - there does seem to be a need for a ghostly M (potential capital – yet not in circulation, and thus not capital) to be available in a different form of wealth (aristocratic, feudal, etc). But more important to Marx’s own conceptual apparatus is the important argument that primitive accumulation is when independent laborers, no matter if they are serfs or in corvee system, etc, are separated from their own means of production. Thus it is not primitive accumulation in a monetary sense, but the creation of a labor market. Thus, primitive accumulation has more to do with simple reproduction described in Chapter 23 (having to do with the reproduction of the relations of production) than the original circulation of capital – only in so far that the labor market is the central manifestation of capital once in circulation (i.e., the source of valuation).

As you can see from my own circular confusion, I think the question of ‘origins’ is a bunk one, and one that capital, understood at the abstract level in Marx’s terms, can never be known. In my reading, the most interesting aspect of this short chapter is that the logical analysis of models of accumulation, of exchange and circulation, of the dialectical forms of the commodity, money, etc that constitute the bulk of Volume One are, to a certain degree, foreclosed within their own conceptual boundaries; an episteme that is hard to approach the “non-history” / “pre-history” / “transition to” within its own terms. The problem is that, as Marx states at the very beginning of this chapter, primitive accumulation is a necessary presupposition of the entire process – both in the endless series within a circuit of accumulation, or at the level of social production, etc. The logic itself requires primitive accumulation, but when you think about it, it can never be known without presupposing what it conceptually anticipates.

Does this mean that the history of the emergence of capitalism cannot be known? Of course not, as Marx himself clearly shows in the last few chapters. The records are there, the magistrates, factory inspectors, the political battles, the statistics on pauperism, the emergence of classical political economy, etc is the archive of this history. But the concept of ‘primitive accumulation’ has problems that need to be thought through. One final example of the problems inherent in the concept is revealed in Marx’s own presentation: Marx goes through the “history of primitive accumulation” in the last chapters– an analysis that covers about 400 years of history. Thus primitive or original accumulation cannot be pinpointed, but only understood at the level of massive social transformations, population movements, urbanization, peripheral industrialization, etc. In other words, only at the level of the very general. Thus the interesting thing is thinking about the connection between (1) at the logical level there is the presupposition of a singular or isolated origin in which the spiral of accumulation emanates from through time, but: (2) at the level of history, it is a durational “moment” – a process that never actually disappears - which Harvey theorizes as “accumulation by dispossession.”

Or, to approach from a different direction, what can be known through the analytical concept of primitive accumulation (or for that matter, “transition”) if not what is already presupposed in the historical narrative? I think that the most useful aspects of the concept can be found in the multiple “levers” of accumulation that emerge at different points from 1450 through to the 19th Century; the state, taxation, public debt, etc. These are, of course, not limited to an ostensible historical period of ‘transition’, but comprise a genealogy of capitalism’s own constitutive elements. The question becomes, at what point does their conjuncture constitute the “capitalist” moment?

One final comment is that it is, following Harvey, very interesting to ask why Marx would end this text with a discussion of colonialism. We would assume that this would be an attack on the emergent imperialist forms of the mid-19th Century (as Andy noted, British imperialism in India being the most explicit example). But Marx here is ONLY discussing settler colonialism, thus this chapter is merely about the economic situation in America and Australia. Thus what I believe Marx is doing is, following his method of analysis throughout Volume One, is merely arriving at certain tendencies within capitalism through a critique of conventional political economy, here, represented by Wakefield. Wakefield’s project was to answer why capital investment was difficult in these settler colonies, and through Wakefield’s comments, Marx shows that it is the instability of the labour market (i.e., plenty of land for potential labour to cultivate, no compulsion to sell labour or concentrate the means of production, etc) that did not allow industrial capitalism to fully lay its determinative roots. In other words, this chapter is the logical extension of the preceding chapters – the settler-colonial situation is juxtaposed to a process that has already occurred in Europe whereby the compulsions inherent to capitalist accumulation were fully borne out (labour forced to sell labour-power, pauperism criminalized, means of production secured by an elite through property laws, etc). What are not explored are the connections between colonialism (settler or imperialistic) that were logically and historically related to capitalism (think classical imperialism theories like Hobson, Lenin, Luxemburg, or current divergence theorists like Pomeranz). Interesting that Harvey did not make that distinction but rather linked this up with later theorists like Rosa Luxemburg, since they are not related (different form of colonialism, and also different analytical function within the respective arguments).

Speaking of transition, onto Vol II.


Civilian said...

Thanks so much for doing this. I am reading with great interest, and also trying to keep up with the text itself.

One minor question: does Marx make the distinction between settler colonialism and imperialism when he speaks of it in this section?

Max said...

Hey Civilian (have we met in 'reality', or just via the virtual?) -

I'm unsure of if Marx makes the distinction in another text, but here he is pointing to Australia and America, not as sites of imperialism (obviously) but as counter-examples of a functional capitalist economy. So the 'settler colonial' tag comes from me more than a fully developed theoretical category of Marx.

From what I remember from my own, cursory, glance at the development of colonialism in Marxism is that it was never a fully developed category at the tme of Marx's writings....thus it was left to later Marxists to try to situate it within their respective readings of Marx's writings.

But you might want to explore texts such as _Marxist Theories of Imperialism_ by Brewer, or other texts comparing Hobson, Lenin, Luxemburg, et al where the distinction might be made.


Civilian said...


Thanks for this. I am not sure if we've met in reality, I know Andy from CU (I'm Sheetal from CU) and perhaps we've met there?

I'll check out those other texts on imperialism.