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The term ‘primitive accumulation’ has become central to discussions on the origins of capitalism
“the accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour”
(Smith 1776, II.3, p. 277).
Marx translated Smith’s word, “previous,” as “ursprunglich” , and in the hands of Marx’s English translators, it became in turn, “primitive.”
This conception Smith took from Steuart, but denuded of the process of dispossession and spatial reallocation of labour that he witnessed and advocated. For Smith it just happened, a relic from a mysterious past.
Division of labour alone of course happens even in insect societies. But elsewhere Smith ties it with the appropriation of land. In book I of Wealth of Nations
In that original state of things, which precedes both the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, the whole produce of labour belongs to the labourer. He has neither landlord nor master to share with him.
…But this original state of things, in which the labourer enjoyed the whole produce of his own labour, could not last beyond the first introduction of the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock.
Smith does not have a historic explanation of the appropriation of land. It would appear he accepted a Humean rather than a Lockean theory of the origin of property, believing it deriving from prior conception of justice in that idealised prior state beloved of philosophers of the period, rather than as Locke believed it deriving from an original melding of man with land. Steuart’s actual physical acts of state enforced dispossession and starvation did not fit within this framework.
Smith, though a radical and egalitarian for his time, was keen to stress a future of peaceful trade and markets benefiting all humanity, and one that made unnecessary the previous mercantalist concept of wealth acquisition as conquest of booty and enforcement of monopoly. One where the State would play a back seat to the free market.
Therefore Steuart’s conception of state enforced capitalism was an embarressment. One Marx tellingly would call capitalism’s ‘original sin’
Marx held a variety of views on the process of primitive accumulation at different stages in his writings. In Grundisse he held a very hegelian concept of capitalism emerging from fudealism.
In CAPITAL his approach was more one of economic history, of how over a number of centuries, the capitalist economy emerges from the feudal economic system, and where workers are forced into wage slavery.
The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England, in more of less chronological order. These different moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England.
In his later writings on Russia however Marx moves away from the unilinear approach of capital, denying in his 1877 letter to Mikhailovsky letter that he implied.
“a historico-philosophical theory of the general course fatally imposed on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed.”
James White (1996) states that this Statement “imposed retrospectively on CAPITAL an interpretation completely at variance with the spirit in which it was conceived.” It is clear that some of the criticims of CAPITAL were getting to him.
Unpicking this approach for Marx the capitalist economy existed alongside feudal systems for centuries, before it became what Marx termed a ‘mode of production’. Unfortunately Marx did not give a concise definition of ‘mode of production – ‘in German: Produktionsweise, meaning ‘the way of producing, and by implication what made a capitalist ‘way of producing’ distinctive from previous ways. Being definitive about this is of central importance in describing economic change.
The question ‘what is capitalism’ is often posed in terms of the assumption that capitalism is total. A mode of production dominant in the place to which the question is referred to. But capitalism is one of many ways of producing that has existed alongside others for centuries, as it still does today.
We could explain capitalism as a system of means of production and social relations, as Marx does, that create mutually reinforcing subsystems that drive forward the accumulation of wealth and are driven by the profit motive.
But this approach is only useful where capitalism is the dominant way. If certain social relations or means of production are missing then which ones are the most important, in what order did they need to be introduced, and how could they have been introduced from previous ways of producing when in those societies the profit motive wasn’t dominant and may even have been disapproved of?
The problem is twofold, we can describe a capitalist system, which might exist alongside other ways of producing, or we can describe a capitalist society where capitalist systems are dominant through the economy. The term ‘mode of production’ can be used to describe one but not both or we are committing a category error.
The second problem is related, Marx may have considered he did not need to describe separate categories because of the Hegelian nature of his philosophy. That one mode of production will emerge from the previous mode and supplant it.
But this approach is essentialist and teleological if it does not explain how one way of producing had advantages which led it to supplant another, and conversely had disadvantages which may have led it to be overshadowed or supplanted in the particular economic and social context of the time.
Rather than a Hegelain concept of political economy we need an evolutionary one.
The materialist concept of history of Marx contends as an evolutionary driver, but this has leverage only if materialistic social relations are dominant in society. When it is economic, change from agents seeking greater material gain is self-reinforcing. But when it is not then the introduction of such social relations can only be enforced by coercion, or by non-material means.
Again we have the bootstrap problem, Marxian analysis through a materialist conception of history can explain changes within a capitalist social system but not how capitalism itself arrived. Marx was forced to look outside his base determines superstructure model, as ‘primitive accumulation’ implies that at its origins the social coercion and the state (superstructure in Marxian terms) determined economic relations.
Marx himself is not consistent in describing primitive accumulation, as Perelmen sets out in his magisterial ‘Origins of Capitalism’
the presentation in Capital still does suggest a temporal cleavage between the initial moment of primitive accumulation, when capitalists accumulated by virtue of direct force, and the era of capitalist accumulation, when capitalists accumulated surplus value in the market. This dichotomy might appeal to our common sense; however, it is itself rather a historical.
… at some times, Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation sometimes seems to be a process that ceased with the establishment of capitalism. At other times, it seems to be more of an ongoing process.
Marx himself, referring to the institutions of Mexico, insisted that “[t]he nature of capital remains the same in its developed as in its undeveloped forms” (Marx 1976, p. 400n).
Thinkers since Marx, including those writing in a Marxian tradition, have moved away from the unilinear stages approach.
For example for Ernest Mandel primitive accumulation is part of the uneven and combined development of capitalism on a world scale. As expansion of markets, and expropriation of peasants is going on all the time, primitive accumulation is also a process which happens all the time. The focus is a global one rather than looking at a particular phase of European history.
David Harvey in his 2003 book, “The New Imperialism” builds on Mandels ideas and introduces the concept of accumulation by dispossession. A continuing process within the process of capital accumulation on a world scale. He links this to an approach we will look at in future chapters, the idea from Rosa Luxembourg that expansion of capitalism is necessary to resolve crises of overaccumulation. However we dont need such a concept to explain accumulation by dispossession, the availably of resources by seizure, rent free, is sufficient, the profit motive is sufficient.
Perelmen stresses how
the separation of people from their traditional means of production occurred over time as capital gradually required additional workers to join the labor force. Secondly, the process of primitive accumulation is a matter of degree…all out primitive accumulation would not be in the best interest of capital.
Perelmen also emphasises that the means of social control shift over time.
once capitalism had taken hold, capitalists learnt that purely market pressures were more effective in exploiting labor than the brutal act of primitive accumulation.
He quotes Marx on this point
The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorization requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker.
We need to examine all of these mechanisms of social control, silent and violent, and in all ways of production, not just capitalist, as they exist side by side and competing with each other.
Bahraini Student and Poet Ayat al-Ghermezi, 20 has been jailed for a year for using poetic metaphor at a rally at Pearl Roundabout.
In February this year She addresses King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifah Ibn Salman al-Khalifah, directly and says to him:
“We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery,”
We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice.”
“Don’t you hear their cries, don’t you hear their screams?”
She was charged with taking part in illegal protests, disrupting public security and publicly inciting hatred towards the regime.
She was forced to turn herself in to the authorities on 30 March after masked police raided her parents’ house repeatedly and reportedly threatened to kill her brothers unless she did so.
Ayat al-Qarmezi alleges that she was beaten in detention and tortured with electric shocks.
“By locking up a female poet merely for expressing her views in public, Bahrain’s authorities are demonstrating how free speech and assembly are brutally denied to ordinary Bahrainis,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
In January 2007 David Cameron said he would scrap ‘top down NHS Targets’.
In June 2008 David Cameron proposed to
‘scrap all centrally imposed process targets’
– simply publishing information on outcomes and allowing patients to choose.
The manifesto stated ‘We will give patients more choice and free health professionals from the tangle of politically-motivated targets that get in the way of providing the best care….we will scrap the politically-motivated targets that have no clinical justification’
In June 2010 Andrew Lansley said he was ending the right of patients to see a family doctor within 48 hours and axing the 18-week target covering the period from hospital referral to start of treatment.
Lansley said: “I want to free the NHS from bureaucracy, and targets that have no clinical justification, and move to an NHS which measures its performance on patient outcomes.”
Yet on the 7th of June Cameron did a u-turn Reinstating the 18 week targets and retaining a measure on how long patients wait in accident and emergency departments.
After a process of listening he had discovered that targets were widely popular amongst the public and health care staff, and there was widespread concerns that waiting times were creeping up.
The triage system ensures that someone will not die in an A&E through having to wait if they are not severely sick. But they might be in great pain and suffer poor customer service. Lansley and Cameron should not have been surprised that alleviation of pain and quality of customer service were seen by the public as priorities.
Waiting times for cancer referral is a good example of where they have a good clinical justification. But even here Lansley wanted only to measure performance with outcomes. But if you are worried you don’t want to wait five years for an outcome based target to tell you if the policy was successful – you could be dead by then.
The shift towards focussing on outcomes, and ensuring that process targets don’t create perverse incentives, was a good thing.
But some processes are essential to lead to outcomes – for example you need to allocate land before a house-builder will build, and some processes are seen as good things in themselves by the public, such as responsiveness to feedback on consultation.
If you are a consumer and taxpayer you want to see value for public spending and that politicians are doing what they are paid for. Paying for the NHS and leaving outcomes to doctors is a recipe for treatment based on doctors convenience, not that of the patient. The purpose of targets is to ensure that patients needs are prioritised.
In a world where all targets are locally set this only acts as an incentive for performance if you can choose your provider. If a gp has a long referall time then if another is available locally that is better no problem. It acts as an incentive if the money follows the patient.
You cant do that with planning and housing. If we had a system where all those wanting to buy or rent a house pitched a tent in the local authority of their choice, and targets and money for housing flowed on that basis then local targets would not dincentivise production. But then our national parks and coasts would be swamped and the locals would be furious.
The primary incentive for locals to get involved in planning is to stop rather than facilitate new housing. In a modern housing market the large majority of people living in a large new developments wont have lived in that parish or community before. Indeed in areas of rapid economic growth new suburbs and possibly whole towns may need to spring up where relatively few locals were before.
Such consumers will still be voting nationally and value affordable housing.
The minimum housebuilding targets are designed to secure minimum outcomes demanded by a public, and until the crash of 2007 were succeeding in raising housebuilding despite the vociferous opposition of some local authorities wanting to lower it, in their own back yard.
Localism in planning dis-empowers when it means the privileged few who now can afford a house in a field on the edge of town can prevent the many from having a house in that field. It is a reinforcement of privilege and a denial of democracy.
Since the proposal to make planning for housing targets local we have not seen targets raised but dramatically slashed according to Tetlow King 200,000 proposed homes have been removed since the election.
As the House of Commons Environment Select Committee noted:
With the figures for new house building contained in local authorities’ plans already estimated to have reduced by 200,000 following the announcement of the abolition of RSSs, we conclude that the Government may well be faced with a stark choice in deciding whether to compromise either on its intention to build more homes than the previous Government, or on its desire to promote localism in decisions of this kind. No evidence was produced to support the Government’s view that local authorities will achieve comparable rates of house building to those in the past, let alone an increase. If the evidence of success fails to materialise very quickly, the Government is going to have to review its selection of levers of influence.
The threat now is that, in the proposed National Planning Policy Framework, if you dont provide or meet your local housing targets you will be overrun by appeals and those appeals will be granted. However as I have written here local authorities can simply roll forward old low targets.
Capitalism is driven to growth irrespective of the volition of the State.
What then triggers the growth impulse, what social relations are needed so that the growth impulse becomes systematic and self-sustaining and how are those social relations formed?
These are the questions which are at the heart of the puzzles over the origins of capitalism – the puzzle over the previous.
Growth as a process of accumulation, of using property to gather more property, of money to gather more money, requires a previous accumulation.
If the view is taken that capitalism is such a system of accumulation then the problem is to account for its origination in a previous accumulation before capitalism began. Of accumulation in different social relations.
James Denham-Steuart (1712-1780) was a key link in the chain in the development of early classical economists. Though one of the last thinkers to propagate the mercantist doctrine – of accumulating wealth through acquiring specie, rather than through production – he was influenced by new ideas, such as those of Cantillon – aquired during years of exile as a Jacobin. Indeed because of war and hostility between England and France Scotland, in the mid 18th Century through the Napoleonic war, became the transmission mechanism for classical economics between the two countries.
His 1767 Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy was one of the first full treatises on the subject, though overshadowed by Smith’s the Wealth of Nations published only 9 years later. It certainly influenced Smith and much of Welath of Nations can be seen as an expanded essay on reasons for disagreement with Smith especially about mercantalist doctrine.
Steuart was observant of the breakdown of feudalism with the highland clearances. But Steurart was no nostalgist for Clan life, for him agricultural transformation was progressive, even if it was enforced by the violence of the State.
Steuart called for the ‘‘separation between parent earth and her laborious children’’ so that they be no longer ‘‘suckle[d] in idleness.’’
‘‘Any person who could calculate his labours in agriculture purely for subsistence, would find abundance of idle hours. But the question is, whether in good economy such a person would not be better employed in providing nourishment for others, than in providing for other wants’’
For Steuart, an admirer of Sparta, such dissappropriation crearted an opportunity for a new and useful form of slavery.
In the past, he argued, ‘‘men were . . . forced to labour because they were slaves to others; men are now forced to labour because they are slaves to their own wants’’
‘‘Those who become servants for the sake of food, will soon become slaves’’
Micheal Perelman in his 200 Study ‘The Origins of Capitalism’ writes:
Time and time again, Steuart repeated that the crux of his investigation was to discover how people came to submit voluntarily to authority. In a capitalist society, submission implied the acceptance of the wage relationship….
How could the first capitalist firm, say a shoe factory, emerge out of a noncapitalist economy? Since the factory would presumably be the first capitalist institution in the economy, the workers there could not exchange their wages to obtain the goods that they customarily consumed, except for shoes.
Steuart concluded that the best means of doing so were through the actions of a benevolent despot.
I conclude, that the best way of binding a free society together is by multiplying reciprocal obligations and creating a general dependence between its members. This cannot be better affected, than by appropriating a certain number of the inhabitants, for the production of food required by all, and by distributing the remainder into proper classes for supplying every other want. . . .[my emphasis]
Such a despot should
“lay down his plan of political economy, and chalk out a distribution of its inhabitants’
A social and territorial division of labour enacted by State Power, even at the end of a musket.
‘‘I am very far from wishing to see any industrious person in distress for want of food. . . . But I think . . . that the more soberly our lowest classes are made to live at all times, the cheaper may our manufactures be sold’’
Steuart’s self admitted candour gained a harsh reception by reviewers, Perelman quotes one as describing his principles as a ‘well constructed instrument of war.’
In the next section ill look at how Steuart’s ideas were taken up by Adam Smith and by Karl Marx, who complained that Smith obscured Stuart’s true analysis of the origins of Capitalism. But I will argue that Marx was inconsistent. That a theory of the origins of capitalism resting on violent appropriation is inconsistent with his particular materialist theory of history and that we must reconstruct a view of history based on the insight that economic change is driven by elites using food and its absence, the threat of starvation, as a tool of social control.