by Carl Freedman
Originally published in Film International #49 (2011): 8-41.
Marx sometimes describes his own surprising secret as “so-called primitive accumulation” (emphasis added), for in some ways it is not really an accumulation at all, at least insofar as that term connotes a smooth, routine, essentially peaceful operation. Primitive accumulation is, on the contrary, a process of staggering disruption, fraud, theft, and violence, one that is, in Marx’s words, “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (875). Within Europe, it was accomplished primarily by the forcible dispossession of the peasantry: the unilateral usurpation of their ancient feudal rights, the forcible seizure and privatization of their common lands, and, in addition, the forcible seizure and privatization of traditional state and church domains and of various kinds of feudal and clan property—all of which were transformed into modern, bourgeois private property. The peasant producers were left with nothing, that is, with no land and no rights save the right, as newly “free” wage-laborers, to sell their labor-power to the bosses of a newly capitalist agriculture (and, later, of course, of capitalist industry as well). The enclosure movement in sixteenth-century England, against which Thomas More, for one, protested so bitterly at the time, is today probably the best known example of this process. In leaving the discussion of primitive accumulation to the end of his book, Marx is, in a way, mimicking and satirizing the psychology of capitalism itself. For primitive accumulation remains, throughout the capitalist era, the secret that must be repressed, the thing that must not be spoken of. The system which holds the right of property and the right of “free” contract (paradigmatically the contract between worker and capitalist) to be sacred naturally tends to discourage memory of the fact that this very system is based on massive theft of property and wholesale violation of established rights by naked force. Capitalism inevitably disinclines us to recall that capital, as Marx puts it, comes into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (926).
Nor, indeed, was the foundational bloodiness of capitalism confined only, or even mainly, to Europe. Capital accumulation in the European metropolis could never have reached the level that made the “take-off” of the capitalist mode of production possible without the massive appropriation of non-European wealth: through the systematic thievery organized by Europe’s rising empires in East Asia and South Asia, through the genocidal “discovery” and exploitation of the New World, and through the large-scale and frequently lethal kidnapping of black Africans into slavery. In Marx’s own words:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. (915)
One of the most frequent mistakes made in discussions of capitalism today is the assumption that “globalization” is an entirely recent development. Throughout Capital, Marx makes clear that the world market has always been the most ultimately powerful determinant in capitalist production, circulation, and exchange. But in the discussion of primitive accumulation it is evident that capitalism has been a global enterprise not only from the beginning but even, so to speak, from before the beginning. The violent plunder which produced sufficient capital accumulation to allow for capitalist take-off in Europe spanned every inhabited continent of the globe (save Australia, whose murderous “discovery” came later). Taken together, the various foundational moments of primitive accumulation may well constitute the largest and most violent crime against humanity in all of history.
If accumulation, with its tranquil and mundane connotations, thus seems a potentially misleading term for such an enterprise, the force of “so-called” applies also to the other term in Marx’s phrase, “so-called primitive accumulation.” For primitive might be taken to suggest that the force and thievery of primitive accumulation, however appalling, exist decisively and exclusively in the past: that primitive accumulation is a fact about the history of capitalism but not about capitalism as an ongoing mode of production today. It is, indeed, true that primitive accumulation is heterogeneous to the deliberately simplified model of “pure” capitalism that Marx constructs from Part One through Part Seven of Volume One of Capital. Yet as this model is fleshed out and complicated in the succeeding parts of Marx’s multi-volume “critique of political economy”—and also in important work by such later scholars as Ernest Mandel and David Harvey—it becomes evident that primitive accumulation never really ends. If it is imagined as the series of explosions that started the motor of capitalist production, then, though these explosions may sometimes partially subside during the “normal” running of the engine, they are never completely extinguished. The model proposed in Volume One suggests that, in principle, capitalism could function without continuing theft and violence, just as it could, in principle, function without ever lowering wages below the true exchange-value of the workers’ labor-power, and without ever raising prices above the exchange-value of the commodities offered for sale. But the actual history of capitalism shows that the system does not, in fact, operate without these things.
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