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Marx's Economics for Anarchists - Chapter 4
international | economy | opinion / analysis Friday October 21, 2011 08:59 by Wayne Price drwdprice at aol dot com
Primitive Accumulation at the Origins of Capitalism
This is the 4th chapter of a work in progress: Marx's Economics for Anarchists; An Anarchist's Introduction to Marx's Critique of Political Economy. This chapter discusses "primitive accumulation", the oppression of women at the beginning of capitalism, the destruction of the environment, and the nature of the three epochs of capitalist history.
Primitive Accumulation at the Origins of Capitalism
For Marx, capitalism has a beginning, a middle, and an end. What was that beginning like? To the classical political economists, when they dealt with the question at all, capitalism began with small businesses in the nooks and crannies of feudalism. Gradually they made more money for their owners, until they could afford to hire some employees. The first workers were available to be hired because they had not been as industrious as the original businesspeople. As in the fable of Aesop, the workers had been lazy grasshoppers while the original capitalists had been hand-working ants. Eventually the capitalists became rich enough to displace the feudal lords.
To begin with, this pretty story overlooks the violent upheavals of the Cromwellian British revolution, the US revolution, the French revolution, the South American and Caribbean revolutions, and the 1848 failed European revolution. But some of this story was true, no doubt. There were blacksmiths and artisans who did build up their original capital; there were merchants who carried goods between widely separated markets until they decided to directly invest in production here or there. However, this misses the main dynamic of the beginning of capitalism. “In actual history, it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part” (Capital I, 1906; p. 785).
The earliest time (which I will call an “epoch” to leave room for several periods within it) was described by Marx, in Capital I, as a “pre-historic stage of capitalism.” Borrowing from Ricardo, Marx called it “primitive accumulation” (in German, “Ursprunglich”). This could just as well be translated as “primary,” “original,” “initial,” or “unspoiled” accumulation. For capitalism to begin on a large scale, even in only one country, it needed two things: the accumulation of masses of wealth in the hands of a few people who could invest it (capital), and secondly, free workers who were available for work in factories and fields under capitalist discipline.
In Europe, these two things were achieved through violence, legally and illegally: driving peasants off the land, replacing them by sheep; taking away the common grazing lands which had been open to all peasants and giving them to the lords; forcing poor people to wander the highways; cutting the benefits to the poor and unemployed, and so on. On a world scale, the European rulers seized continents and subcontinents--in the Americas, India, other parts of Asia, Australia, and Africa. Black people were forced into slavery far from their homes while Native Americans faced genocide. European people were settled on land once owned by others. The Asian-Indian economy was destroyed by foreign imports, even as natural resources (from gold to cotton) were robbed from them.
“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, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.” (Capital I, 1906; p. 823). Marx was fully aware of the interaction of class, nationality, and race in the origins of capitalism.
Sometimes Marxists, and even Marx himself, criticized anarchists for supposedly underemphasizing the role of economic forces and overemphasizing the power of the state. But when discussing primitive accumulation, Marx was quite clear about the key role played by the state and other forms of organized violence. While capitalism may be said to have created the modern state, the state may also be said to have created capitalism.
In Capital I, Marx wrote of “… the power of the state, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, hothouse fashon, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode…. Force is…itself an economic power” (Marx, 1906; pp. 823—824).
The anarchist Kropotkin writes of the same period, “The role of the nascent state in the 16th and 17th centuries in relation to the urban centers was to destroy the independence of the cities; to pillage the rich guilds of merchants and artisans; to concentrate in its hands the… administration of the guilds ….The same tactic was applied to the villages and the peasants….The state…set about destroying the village commune, ruining the peasants in its clutches and plundering the common lands” (Kropotkin, 1987; p. 41). If not precisely the same as Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, it describes the same process.
Women under Capitalism
Marx did not directly discuss the effects of primitive capitalist accumulation on gender. However, Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation is directly relevant to understanding the history of women—and the role of women is essential for understanding the origins of capitalism.
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