Das Capital: The Primitive Accumulation

At Nate’s behest I read and finished (in one sitting I might add) the last section of Volume 1 of Kapital about primitive accumulation (oooh and I scored volume 2 and 3 hardbound Charles H Kerr editions mad cheap from powells). A few side notes before I go into that. I think I’m becoming a Marxist in the Capital sense, but not a Marx in the history or organizational sense. There’s part of those Marxs in Capital, but you can pull them apart. Essentially Marx is most useful in his critique of Capital, while his philosophy of history, logic, politics, power, etc., are not so hot at all (I’m still quite hostile to them). On to the so-called primitive accumulation

The <a href="http://marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch26.htm">Primitive Accumulation</a> section of Capital is where Marx explores the history of how Capital came into being basically in England. It is thus way easier to read than anything else in Capital and perhaps more emotionally engaging. In essence the section describes how it was that a peasant society was changed to a mass displaced working class with nothing but their labor to sell to earn a living. I don’t want to go indepth but will give some kernels and some things I found interesting. Marx outlines this process as being a shift from individualized private property to one of mass private property. That is peasant society was founded on private property of individual peasants who had to deal with other private landowners, but there were not analogues of say mass factories. The shift to capitalism then was one of concentrated ownership of the means of production. This was produced through the State engineering mass theft of the land of the peasantry, and the criminalization of free peasant life (i.e. vagrancy laws, laws about idleness, etc). One of the best parts is when a capitalist brings some 3000 working class families to Australia and all the equipment he needs for factories. Capitalism doesn’t emerge though. The workers build a life for themselves, and subsist on their own. He says:

"First of all, Wakefield discovered that in the Colonies, property in money, means of subsistence, machines, and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative — the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free-will. He discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things. Mr. Peel, he moans, took with him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 3,000 persons of the working-class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, “Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.” [5] Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River!

For the understanding of the following discoveries of Wakefield, two preliminary remarks: We know that the means of production and subsistence, while they remain the property of the immediate producer, are not capital. They become capital only under circumstances in which they serve at the same time as means of exploitation and subjection of the laborer. But this capitalist soul of theirs is so intimately wedded, in the head of the political economist, to their material substance, that he christens them capital under all circumstances, even when they are its exact opposite. Thus is it with Wakefield. Further: the splitting up of the means of production into the individual property of many independent laborers, working on their own account, he calls equal division of capital. It is with the political economist as with the feudal jurist. The latter stuck on to pure monetary relations the labels supplied by feudal law." 

Now one aspect of Marx I have never been able to swallow is the historical stories he tells like about non-indoeuropean nations. Current anthropology has a cottage industry of discrediting marxist assumptions about the economic and political organization and evolution of non-capitalist cultures. Still I think this chapter does tell us something about england and possibly europe, but more importantly capitalism generally. The relationship between the state, the form of work and ownership, and the development of capital is crucial. The fact that capital is a historically rooted social relation is primary. Looking at this evolution in history doesn’t teach us ahistorical truths we can apply everywhere, but shows us how capital evolved, general categories that exist within it, and a methodology for understanding it.

At one point Marx briefly notes that the medieval guilds prevented the rise of capital in the free cities. Instead capitalism would have to erect whole new urban areas to avoid the power of these municipalities. He doesn’t say more than this. Now I’ve read a bit of Kropotkin and Rudolph Rocker’s description of the free cities run by guilds. They make the claim that the federations fo free cities that flourished in the 13th-15th centuries reflected anarchist principles. These cities acted as horizontal federations in opposition to imperial and monarchist power, and often kept such state powers from rising at all throughout europe. All the art and thought of the time came not from state powers but from the free cities, and the real dark ages set in once the power of the cities were crushed. The cities supposedly were run as councils federated along craft (guild) lines. I’m not trying to idealize them as they were a stark contrast to the majority peasant population (I think the cities were like 20-30% of the populace). I also can’t evaluate the historical claims they make.  


The interesting point becomes, if Marx is right, and Kropotkin is right, then the birth of capitalism came about with a struggle against autonomous libertarian(ish) structures. Of course this is true in general (peasant struggles for example), but the fact that capitalism could not conquer the cities but had to venture beyond them is interesting. The same was true in India where all the great british cities were erected anew. It perhaps gives us something to look at when we consider some of the arguements I made about revolution. That is if we cannot assume an anarchist revolution, if we must live with the state after insurrections against capital, perhaps the free cities show a time in history where dual power truly existed, or the state and anti-state structures co-existed in a state of competition.  


3 thoughts on “Das Capital: The Primitive Accumulation

  1. Wicked. The last bit is really succinct, capital as class struggle from the get go, or rather, the economic classes of capitalism imposed by struggle and resisted from their inception, which means there’s moments when the other side tried and lost. I think there’s stuff similar to this sensibility in some of the passages on machinery in v1. If you get a chance, you might check out the book on Russia I posted about recently. Marx is very clear that he doesn’t see capitalism as a necessary stage for all parts of the world (he still isn’t clear if it’s necessary for some parts). He says at one point basically “all I’m saying is that capitalism requires for this to happen, not that capitalism is required.”

    You also might be interested in Cleaver’s commentaries on the primitive accumulation chapters, I think his view of this stuff is very similar to ours and I remember finding the commentary quite good.

    take care,

  2. Man we are too in sync. I’ve been thinking about the bits on Russia and meaning to read them, and then your post comes along. I’ll look into that stuff. It’s weird cause marx got less retarded at the end of his life on this stuff, but then there’s the social democracy stuff too.

  3. Hey there, I forgot to mention, if you get a chance you might be interested in this collection of stuff from late in Althusser’s life, Philosophy of the Encounter. He’s all about the later Marx, though he doesn’t deal w/ the Russia stuff unfortunately. The book’s definitely got its flawed and flakey moments but there’s some useful stuff in there too, I think, not least because he’s a marxist who makes use of marx while still avoiding a lot of the dumb stuff. I don’t know that it’s a must read, but I dug it.
    happy new year!

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