Capital 1. Part 8: So-Called Primitive Accumulation

Part 8: ‘So-Called Primitive Accumulation’

This part is generally very historical in nature(except for the final section on the ‘Modern Theory of Colonisation’); continuing nicely on from the later part of the preceding chapter. Marx highlights the savagery involved in creating the necessary conditions for capitalism; in which the state played a significant role. It is interesting to note that the title ‘so-called primitive accumulation’, rather than just primitive accumulation, is a jibe at Adam Smith; who used the concept without a materialist historical analysis. There’s also been  theoretical work over the last two decades reclaiming the concept of primitive accumulation; as something that isn’t limited to the transition from feudalism, but rather constantly re-occurring and inherent to the functioning of capitalism. See, for instance, Midnight Notes, ‘Introduction to the New Enclosures’, Midnight Notes, No.10, 1990, pp.1-9. Available from Also of interest is Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch {Federici, S Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004)}. Federici argues that primitive accumulation must incorporate the disciplining of women through a campaign of terror in the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. The medieval woman gradually became domesticated, her labour mystified, pivotal for her husband to be put to work by capital. ‘Primitive accumulation’ not only forges the preconditions for capitalism but accumulates sexual divisions between proletarian women and men. Federici and Midnight Notes both critique the orthodox idea of the transition as being progressive-rather, as Federici describes, it could only “destroy the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle”.

Specific notes on the text

Chapter 26: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation

Marx describes primitive accumulation (note that i’ve just used the term primitive accumulation, rather than ‘original accumulation’, to avoid confusion) as the essential starting point for capitalism. It “precedes capitalist accumulation…is not the result of the capitalist mode of production but its point of departure.”p.873 This is an incredibly brutal process-“In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.”p.874

Capital only comes into play when “two very different kinds of commodity owners interact”. These are the “owners of money, means of production, means of subsistence” and “free-workers, the sellers of their own labour-power”. Free workers are not part of the means of production themselves: so are distinguished from serfs.  Therefore there is a “complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realisation of the labour”. This separation is reproduced “on a constantly expanding scale”. p874

‘Primitive accumulation’ that accomplishes this is deeply rooted in history. An evocative quote again outlines the savagery of such a change: “these newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.” p875. (this is counterposed with bourgeois historians who only see an “emancipation” from feudal fetters)

Chapter 27: The Expropriation of the Agricultural Population

Marx again chooses to study the English example, which best illustrates the concept. A detailed and heartwrenching exposition of the “blood and fire” involved follows. Arable land was transformed into sheep-walks: the dwellings of peasants were destroyed and enclosed. The Reformation exacerbated this: church feudal estates were sold to “rapacious royal favourites” or “speculating farmers and townsmen”. The ‘glorious revolution’ facilitated “thefts of state lands” on a “colossal scale”. Communal property was constantly undermined with “individual acts of violence”, and then removed by Parliamentary legislation-the ‘Bill for the Inclosures of the Common’. Finally, there is a “sweeping of human beings” from the enclosed land. The Gaels, for instance, were driven out.

Chp 28: Bloody Legislation against the Expropriated since the End of the Fifteenth Century. The Forcing Down of Wages by Act of Parliament.

Those expropriated were not immediately proletarianised. Rather they often became beggars or vagabounds. Consequently, “a bloody legislation” against them was deployed by the state in Western Europe.  Marx analyses the brutal treatment of the “fathers of the working class”-but what about women, as Federici points out. Several powerful cases, in the reigns of the various English monarchs, are spelt out.

Marx continues to develop the interesting point that “the advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws” p.899.

It’s very clear in this chapter, continuing on from the preceeding one, that the State is an integral part of the creation of the working class (bottom p.899.)Marx describes how “The rising bourgeoisie needs the power of the state, and uses it to regulate wages, i.e to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence. This is an essential aspect of so-called primitive accumulation.”

Chp 29: The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer

Marx considers where the ‘capitalist farmer’ originally came from. They emerged due to several key factors: including the agricultural revolution beginning at the end of the 15th century enriching them quickly, the ‘usurpation of the common land’ substantially increased their stock of cattle for free and the 16th century fall in the value of metals, decreasing wages.

Chp 30: Impact of the Agricultural Revolution on Industry. The Creation of a Home-Market for Industrial Capital

The Agricultural Revolution resulted in the urban proletariat increasing in size. Former agricultural labourers were ‘set free’ and “transformed into the material elements of variable capital”. From the end of the 15th century, there are “complaints…about the encroachment of capitalist farming..and the annihilation of the peasantry” p.912. Capitalist agriculture is complemented by the machinery of large-scale industry. Such industry “radically expropriates the vast majority of the agricultural population  and completes the divorce between agriculture and rural domestic industry”. Consequently, it “conquers the entire home market for industrial capital”.

Chp 31: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist

Marx ascribes colonialism, the introduction of public debt, the international credit system and the taxation system as reasons for the ‘genesis of the industrial capitalist’; and therefore as devices of primitive accumulation

On pg 915, Marx breaks out, to some extent, of the weaknesses of his thought concerning colonialism. Perceptively notes that “the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into preserve for the huntings of blackskins” form “the chief moments of primitive accumulation”. Theorists like Samir Amin and Andre Gunder Frank have expanded upon this point.

He gives several examples: of the Dutch Colonial System, the English East India Company, the ‘plantation colonies’ and in New England. He quotes W.Howitt who describes the ‘barbarities and desparate outrages of the so-called Christian race’. However the analysis of colonialism, in this case, still doesn’t ascribe ‘agency’ to the native people. This system, eventually “ripened trade and navigation as in a hothouse”: supporting processes of primitive accumulation.

Further, “the public debt becomes one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation” p.919. Such debt has “given rise to stock exchange gambling and the modern bankocracy”. There is the “emergence of (a) brood of bankocrats, financiers, rentiers…”

The international credit system functions as a part of primitive accumulation. For instance, this facilitated massive Venetian loans to Holland, which was then able to expand overseas enormously. (being the “secret foundations” of its success) Over-taxation leads to the “forcible expropriation” of “peasants and artisans” (i.e the lower middle class).

Marx makes the fascinating point that the role of the “public debt and fiscal system” in the “capitalisation of wealth and the expropriation of the masses”, have led many to understand them as the prime source of misery. He could be writing today! (p.921.)

He describes how “with the development of capitalist production during the period of manufacture, the public opinion of Europe lost its last remnant of shame and conscience”. (p.924.) The powerful critique of the practices of capital that follows reinforces the evocative descriptions in the previous chapter and chapter 10 (The Working Day). He concludes eloquently that “capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.

Chp 32: The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation

Marx begins with a description of the progressive nature of some elements of this shift. We are escaping a society with “narrow limits”, for which to continue under would be ‘to decree universal mediocrity’. However, Marx re-emphasises that the “terrible and arduously accomplished expropriation of the mass of the people forms the pre-history of capital”.

Now, after this process is accomplished “what is to be expropriated is..the capitalist who employs a large number of workers”. This occurs through one of the ‘immanent laws of capitalist production’-the “centralisation of capitals”.

Marx declares encouragingly that eventually the “integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”p.929. This “negation of the negation” results from factors immanent within capitalism -“It does not re-establish private property, but it does indeed establish individual property on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist era: namely co-operation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself”. The points about increasing “co-operation of labour” and “forms in common” will sound familiar to readers of Hardt and Negri… This is the ‘inspiring conclusion’ to Volume 1 that seems to have partly led, erroneously, to charges of economic determinism.

Chapter 33-The Modern Theory of Colonisation

In the colonies “the capitalist regime constantly comes up against the obstacle presented by the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself instead of the capitalist”. p.931.The political economist, following the interests of capital, calls for the “expropriation of the workers and the corresponding transformation of their means of production into capital”.

Marx then entertainingly cites Wakefield on how, in the colonies, capital’s goal is “manufacturing wage-labourers” p.932. Capital is, as we know “a social relation between persons mediated by things” not “a thing”: so the unhappy Mr Peel cannot simply export people and means of production to Western Australia and operate as a capitalist. Consequently, the “truth about capitalist relations in the mother country is revealed”-in Europe there is a ‘social contract’, dividing the ‘owners of capital and the owners of labour’-as opposed to the conditions in the Swan River Settlement.

In those colonies, moreover, where ‘land is very cheap and all men are free”, and there is limited “separation of the worker..from the soil”, there is some prosperity: independent production can exist.  The “beautiful illusion” of the political economist, with the “relation of absolute dependence” turned into a “free contract between buyer and seller”, is rejected in the colonies (with cheap land, an understocked labour-market and new workers constantly entering the country through migration). Instead, for Wakefield the government should set an exorbitant price on land, to ensure a large class of wage-labourers who remain as such. A fund derived from the sale of land will support a substantial “importation of paupers from Europe”. p.939.

However Wakefield’s recipe has been “rendered..superfluous”: by the “enormous and continuous flood of humanity”, driven out of Europe. Marx concludes Vol 1 by stating again, that: “However we are not concerned here with the condition of the colonies. The only thing that interests us is the secret discovered in the New World by the political economy of the Old World, and loudly proclaimed by it: that the capitalist mode of production and accumulation….have for their fundamental condition the annihilation of that private property which rests on the labour of the individual himself; in other words the expropriation of the worker”. p.940.


3 Responses to “Capital 1. Part 8: So-Called Primitive Accumulation”

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  2. 2 raphaelcruzcs 9 July 2014 at 5:35 am

    Reblogged this on Caderno de Sociologia and commented:
    Acumulação primitiva – Marx

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Reading Capital in Sydney records reading notes on Marx's Capital I, II and III, and other bits and pieces.

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