primitive accumulation

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Sat Jul 12 2003 - 04:10:52 EDT

Sent this to the marxism list. Pretty much in agreement with Michael
Perelman's analysis of primitive or original accumulation (which I've
supplemented with Grossmann's analysis of the population problem in
early capitalism), So I'll post this reply here...

>Where do you get the idea that my insistence on getting the
>straight denies extra-economic compulsion in the concrete history
>capitalism?  Have you ever heard of the term 'abstraction'?

You  seem to reduce primitive accumulation to external plunder
only. However, Marx's theorization  is much broader, and includes
the use of direct force in the compulsion of  labor and  the use of
public debt for the accumulation of capital within early capitalism.
The theory of primitive accumulation does not reduce in spatial
terms to external relations or in temporal terms to capital's origins

To put the point another way: New World plantation farming was
as true a form of capitalist and surplus value production as
English capitalist farming and the putting out system (through
which independent craftsmen were turned into defacto wage
earners). The first two did not and could not have relied on free
wage labor in an idealized sense. If plantation capitalism was only
formal, so then was early English capitalist farming; in fact w/
slavery more of the means of subsistence, in particular clothing,
may have been monetized (though of course not directly
purchased by the formally enslaved proletarian)! By the way, your
attempt to read Marx as denying that New World plantation slaves
ever produced surplus value strikes me as, at best, tendentious.

In the putting out system the worker was not even formally
alienated from the means of production; it is an example of what
Marx calls formal subsumption, capital's colonization of an earlier
mode of production without having overthrown and revolutionized
it.  However, slavery  was not  a survival of earlier economic
conditions but was rather a resurrection of an institution only by
the means of which capitalist production could have got off the
ground in land rich, labor scarce zones. By saying that slavery
was not true capitalism, all you do is raise anachronistic and
idealized standards and grasp the external features of the
social relation, viz. the exchange of labor power for a wage
in the realm of circulation, at the expense of a focus on the
content of that relation, i.e., the production of surplus value.

Even Wood (after criticism by Robert Albritton) no longer bases the
centrality of English agrarian capitalism on the grounds that the
agrarian proletariat best approximated the free wage worker
(servants in husbandry were pinned down by various statutes,
worked only seasonally and  produced much of their own
subsistence); in fact one gets almost no description of the
degradation of the early agrarian proletariat in her rustic account of
the origins of capitalism. Her account is not only Eurocentric but
prettifying all the way through (no rural unrest, no riots, no
suppression and violence!). There is almost nothing on the
forcible creation of a rightless proletariat subjected to bloody
legislation so that capitalists could sweat a profit from them.
Rather than being introduced to Marx's theory of primitive
accumulation, an annal of horror, we are sung the songs of rising
labor productivity and a new economic logic.   Wood  emphasizes
in bloodless prose that only in agrarian capitalism  were the inputs
to production necessarily monetized--tenants had access to land
only via leases (she may also exaggerate the landlord's actual
powers of eviction and renegotiation).  At any rate, the monetization
of necessary inputs doesn't distinguish agrarian capitalism from
plantation slavery, so one wonders what motivates the focus on
one to the exclusion of the other.

In the end we are not allowed to explore how as a late comer England
developed a slave based empire larger than its rivals, and far better
integrated, so that colonial demand and profits fed back to the
metropolis more reliably. Wood cannot be bothered with the history
of how long before England achieved a true revolution in industrial
productivity it was as a late comer able to penetrate the
commercial systems of these other colonial empires. She cites
Blackburn  but does not actually entertain a single argument
which he makes about  the stimulus Britain's slave empire made
not only to its industrial  revolution but also its far-from-
complete agrarian one(see for example p. 553 of The Making of the
New World Slavery and  the chapter as a whole ).

Moreover, if the growth of the world market to which New World
slavery made a  pivotal and explosive contribution (as Marx underlined)
had not loosened feudal  bonds and stimulated proto industry and
petty commodity production throughout  Europe, how are we to explain
that soon after England  had first  achieved an industrial revolution
perhaps in part to well positioned coal deposits, it was outcompeted
in sector after sector by industrial European  powers which had not
undergone  the agrarian revolution that the Wood-Brenner thesis claims
to be the sole path to true capitalism?

Can it be that what we are dealing with here is the making of
relatively pleasant myths with Marxist imprimatur  about the origins
of capitalism and the rise of the West? That would certainly explain
the refusal both to consider  counter-evidence to claims
about the timing and depth of a capitalist agrarian revolution and
the theory of agrarian capitalism as primus mobilis and  to refute
patiently counter-arguments about the crucial role played by
New World slavery and colonial plunder in British industrialization.

Capitalism does not seem to me to have had its origins in a
productivity revolution, agrarian or industrial,  but rather in
unbridled violence by which capital was amassed and a global
proletariat was expropriated and compelled through coerced overwork
and minimal subsistence
to satiate a new boundless thirst for surplus value; slowly that
system would evolve compulsions for the capitalization of a rising
percentage of an ever rising mass surplus value.  At a certain
point, this too undergoes dialectical inversion--the demand for
credit retracts, potential surplus value is not realized and a general
crisis cascades throughout a now global society.

To return to the point of contention: Marx's primitive accumulation
covers relations external and internal to early capitalist
development which spanned at least two centuries (of course
primitive accumulation is not simply a historical category but
despite its continuation throughout the history of capitalism, say
South Africa in the late 19th century, it loses its centrality--again
your argument that South African miners did not produce surplus
value and were not part of the proletariat proper  is tendentious).

You may want to consult Grossmann's chapter on the population
problem in early capitalism; his magnum opus is available in
German, Spanish and Italian (however the abridged English
version leaves this chapter out).

In consigning the centrality of non economic coercion to early
capitalism, Marxism, always threatening to collapse into
economism,  confronts grave problems as a social theory in terms
of its theorization of contemporary state power. Marx never did write
the book on the state, which may reflect not only time and health
limitations but an illicit theoretical demotion of non-economic
forms of power.


DMS whose arguments seem similar to Charles Post (do you
know his work?) wrote

>Slavery was indeed a barrier to mechanization. But later.  The
>technical "equivalence" between plantation and "free" agrarian
>disappears in the second half of the 18th century and and the
>resistance of
>plantation production to mechanization, technical inputs, is critical
>to its

Yes, yes, slavery became a barrier to industrialization but this
side-steps the point--what contribution did it make to the industrial
revolution or to the development of the capitalist system out of
which the industrial revolution eventually issued? Another question
of course is how the integration of slavery into a historical uniquely
wide and deep world market changed its character. In Africa royal
households had kidnapped or purchased or conquered slaves to
use  as servants, soldiers, concubines and labourers. The status
of slaves changed over a few generations, if not in a lifetime. This
was not New World Slavery (as Jurriaan seems to forget in his
praise of David Landes' comments).

At any rate, please explain why exactly slavery became a barrier to
mechanization. Slavery made it difficult to identify wage costs
which in turn made it difficult to see the profitability of substituting
machines for labor?

Did resistance to mechanization lead to slavery's demise because
said resistance undermined profitability? Evidence of declining
profitability and declining profitabilty as caused by resistance to
mechanization (as opposed to say the cut off of the African slave
trade as continental Africa was brought directly under colonial
control, emphasized by Wallerstein in his review of Fogel and
Engerman)? Please site the sources on which you are relying.

And when did slavery or rather forced labor fall? Capitalist systems
of indentured (aka coolie) labor (see David Northrup), near slave
plantations (see E Daniel Valentine,ed) and colonial forced labor
(see Frederick Cooper) persisted across the globe well after
formal abolition into the 20th c. Cotton continued to be produced
under formally unfree labor relations in Egypt, India and Central
America (Eric Wolf''s Europe and the People Without History
remains an excellent overview). By focusing on American racial
plantation slavery only, you make it seem that industrialism had to
have been more incompatible with formally unfree labour than it
actually was. The British had not done away with formally unfree
labor in their Empire, as you seem to suggest.

Now are you saying that in the US the rising industrial sector had
to eliminate slavery (as opposed to small family farming) because
slavery was not a good market for its wares given its resistance to
mechanization (suggested by Charles Post)? That is, are you
saying that the American Civil War was fought in order to gain
markets in which the surplus value embodied in industrial goods
could be realized? Such a market centered approach conflicts with
the primacy of industrial production  which your posts seem meant
to underline. Moreover, the more industrial production develops,
the more it creates its own market for its own goods, esp. Div I
products. The function of agro-raw material exporting colonies and
semi colonies becomes over time less one of realizing surplus
value (they are too poor to do much realization!) but rather of
producing it or rather distributing it outward through unequal terms
of trade by which the profitability of imperialist and industrial capital
is bolstered. I don't think there is anything dangerously
circulationist about that.

Moreover, this argument now has the burden of having to reply to
the conclusion of Blackburn's magisterial study in which it is
argued that the market created by plantations before the industrial
revolution allowed  the Amercian Northeast and Mid Atlantic to
break out of autarchic modes of development.

You refer to anecdotal reports about technical backwardness and
inefficiency of slavery ("Reporter after reporter bemoans the
ignorance, backwardness, inefficiency of the plantation producers
during the late 18th/early 19th centuries.") I suppose you are
referring to Adam Smith, Olmstead and Cairnes (though Cairnes
is late mid 19th C). Please clarify. It's not clear that their accounts
stand up to empirical scrutiny even though Marx himself leaned
hard on the last two. I think it's unfortunate that TJ Byres relies on
such anecdotal evidence in Capitalism From Above and Below
(roughly the title).

>One plantation colony did become the exception to the rule, Cuba.
>There the
>application of steam and iron in the construction of railroads
>(financed by
>exported British capital, engineered by US engineers, powered by
>locomotives) and applied also to the processing of the cane itself
>the island to pre-eminence in sugar.

The rule being the resistance of plantation colonies to the
assimilation of industrial inputs?

Simply untrue that other raw material exporting colonies and semi
colonies in which formally unfree labor relations prevailed did not
assimilate chemical fertilizers, steel tools, rail roads, complex
processing technology, etc.

Moreover,  the main function of colonies in which unfree labour
relations prevailed became (once again) not one of absorbing the
surplus industrial product or realizing surplus value--this is a
Luxemburgian idea, effectively criticized by Grossmann. Rather it
was in reducing costs for industrial capital through unequal terms
of trade or simply in the provision of basic inputs which could only
be produced in the tropics. I don't see how you have proven the
incompatability of agro and raw material production on the basis of
formally unfree labour with industrial capitalism. If that were true,
much of capitalist history would have to be whited out.

If your argument is that the dynamics of capitalism came to be
centered in machine production and relative surplus value, I am
not opposed. I even agree that there is good presumptive evidence
in favor of the counter-intuitive thesis that the Northern working
class is exploited at a higher rate!

  My point is that the boundless search for surplus value should not
however be equated with the continuous revolutionization of the
conditions of production: capitalism is not industrialism.  The
boundless production of surplus value is the essence of
capitalism--in a kind of Hegelese surplus value as a concept has
no self limitation (see exploration of the relation between surplus
value as a concept and infinity by Christopher Arthur whose
Hegelese is vigorously contested by John Rosenthal), though of
course it is limited in fact by the surplus labor which can actually
be appropriated. Industrialism or the continuous revolutionization
of the conditions of production is consequence as capitalism.

At a late stage  capital also becomes a barrier to industrialism in
two ways: 1) rising organic composition of capital, falling rate of
profit, shortage in the mass of surplus value for the purposes of
continued accumulation, excess capacity (a shortage of surplus
labor in the production process appears as an excess of capacity
and commodities in the marketplace, as Mattick Sr once roughly
put it), crisis-driven centralization and concentration of capital,
growth of the reserve army of labor and surplus population, rising
rate of exploitation though the higher the rate of exploitation already
is, the less future productivity gains can raise it further; and 2)
capitalists pay for labor power, not labor time itself; if they had to
pay for the latter, it may well prove profitable to expand the scope of
mechanization beyond that which capitalists will allow.


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