Disaggregating primitive accumulation

RP 194 () / Article, Dossier, Property, Power, Law

For nearly 150 years now, critical theorists of various stripes have attempted to explicate, correct and complement Marx’s discussion of the ‘so-called’ primitive accumulation of capital provided in Part Eight of the first volume of Capital. [1] This is perhaps especially true of Marxism in the English-speaking world. Whereas French and German traditions have tended to focus more on the formal categories of Capital, anglophone debates have attended more closely to Marx’s historical-descriptive account, perhaps due to the privileged role that England plays in the historical drama staging the bourgeois revolt against feudalism, the early emergence of capitalist relations and subsequent industrial revolution. The enclosures of the English commons and transformation of the rural peasantry into an industrial workforce serve, after all, as the primary empirical referents from which Marx derives his conceptual tools. From Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb in the 1950s, to Christopher Hill, C.B. Macpherson and E.P. Thompson in the 1960s, to Perry Anderson and Robert Brenner in the 1970s, these ‘transition debates’ have focused on the accuracy and adequacy of Marx’s history of early modern England. [2]

Across a variety of interpretative traditions, a major point of contention with regard to primitive accumulation has been the sense given in Capital that it is best thought of as a historical stage eventually supplanted by the general law of capitalist accumulation – what we can call the ‘stadial interpretation’. One important reason why this has been contentious is that it implies a corresponding stadial succession in the forms of violence engendered by capitalism.

There are many passages in Capital in which Marx gives one the impression that we ought to interpret primitive accumulation as a historical stage, overtaken and superseded by the true, mature, general law of accumulation once a full and complete capitalist system is in place. As mentioned above, Marx’s primary empirical case of primitive accumulation is the series of ‘enclosures of the commons’ that took place in England and Scotland, primarily in the seventeenth century. While acknowledging some variation in the historical experience of different countries and regions, Marx designates this English version the ‘classic form’ and certainly suggests that, by his own time, this process had ended. He expressly relegates it to the ‘pre-history of capital’. [3]

In a certain sense, Marx’s own argument centrally depends on the interpretation of primitive accumulation as a historically completed stage. His argument requires this because of the role it plays in the account of the general law of accumulation under the fully developed form of the capital relation. Marx argues that the proper functioning of the capital relation is predicated upon systematic exploitation – intrinsic to capitalist production – rather than a side effect or a distortion. But if it is so systematic and widespread, then why does it require such elaborate unmasking by Marx in the first place? Why can’t the people who labour under this system of exploitation recognize it as such?

To explain this obfuscation, we need an account of something like ideology or hegemony. Marx has argued that one of the distinctive features of capitalism as a system of exploitation is that it operates through the nominal freedom of the exploited. Labourers ‘freely’ contract into their own exploitation, often experiencing this as an actualization of choice and free will, in part because they lack an analysis of how this context of choice was established in the first place, or a vision of how it might be replaced by another. Capitalism is ‘naturalized’ when one accepts only the range of possibilities within immediate view without recognizing the background structuring conditions of this range as the product of an arbitrary and historically contingent set of circumstances. But for this ideological normalization to be plausible, Marx must assert not only that mature capitalism does not require unconcealed ‘extra-economic’ violence, but also that the period when such violence was required has faded from immediate consciousness. Although capitalism’s prehistory is dripping in blood, once the fundamental capital relation is established, extra-economic force is thought to fade away. It is replaced by the ‘silent compulsion of economic relations [der stumme Zwang der ökonomischen Verhältnisse]’ which ‘sets the …