Marx's Economics for Anarchists - Chapter 4
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.
Feminist historians, as well as specialists in religious and medieval history, have studied the persecution of “witches” in Europe and North and South America. This was concentrated in the 16th and 17th cenuries, and somewhat before and after. Led by the church, but including state authorities, a hue and cry was raised against women who were accused of following a heretical sect, composed almost only of women, which supposedly worshipped the devil. Special tribunals were set up, methods of torture were standardized, and witch hunting manuals were published.
The numbers of women so persecuted is unknown. Some estimates run into the millions, but the best estimate is that, over three centuries, about 200 thousand were accused of witchcraft, of whom 100 thousand were killed (Federici, 2004). It is impossible to know how many of these people were just women whom someone disliked, how many were midwives or herbalists, how many were practitioners of pre-Christian religions, and how many were genuine worshippers of the devil. If any were.
The witch hunt was an attack on half the population, mostly focused on poor women in the cities and countryside. The campaign against supposed witches was part of general misogynist sentiments promoted by the church and state. It whipped up hysteria and misdirected people’s fears and angers from the rich to other poor people (similar to the rise in anti-Semitism of the time). It divided working people, causing men to cling to male privileges even while their general conditions were being undermined. It drove women out of the traditional workforce. It prepared women to become modern “housewives” and part of the working class.
While Marx does not discuss the role of women in the capitalist economy, it is implicit in his theory. Of course, women may work in paid jobs, as do male workers, and Marx describes their actual conditions in the factories and mines. In that case they were paid less than men for the same work, being more vulnerable. Female waged labor, and also child labor, was common in Marx’s time in the 19th century in British industry. Female paid labor is common now. (That women workers are directly exploited does not cancel out that there may be positive effects also, such as increased individual independence.)
But there was another, and more fundamental role for women, which applies to women not as waged workers but as nonwaged members of the working class. (The working class--as a class--is broader than those who are immediately employed; it includes children, the unemployed, the retired, and wives and mothers who labor in the home.) The commodity labor-power of the workers (mostly male) included what was necessary to recuperate them, to let them rest-up and be able to work another day. It fell on the women as “homemakers” (or “housewives”) to see to it that the men were recuperated. And the price of the wage (the “family wage”) also covered raising a new generation of workers. The work of doing this also fell on the women. (This included passing on the necessary social psychology and ideology to the children.)
In all this, the women at home were not directly creating surplus value but were producing (reproducing) the necessary labor power commodities of their husbands, children, and themselves. If we define capitalist “productive labor” only as what directly produces surplus value (as Marx did), then this was not “productive” (in this narrow, technical, sense) but it was (is) essential labor for surplus value to be produced--in plain English, highly productive labor!
In Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State
, he described the reproductive work of women as being as much part of the “base” of society as is industrial production (as distinct from the “superstructure”). He speculated that class society grew out of the original oppression of women.
The above is not at all an adequate analysis of how women are oppressed; but it is clear that the oppression of women, in the family and in the workplace, is thoroughly intertwined with capitalist exploitation (as it had previously been with pre-capitalist forms of exploitation).
Primitive Accumulation and the Destruction of the Ecology
Marx and Engels noted the way early capitalism was destroying the biological environment. They saw human labor as the way humans interact with nature, satisfying human needs while maintaining a biological balance. They saw this as a “metabolism” between humans and nature. But through capitalism they believed that there had developed a “rift” in the metabolism.
The most important factor, to them, was the split between city and country, between industry and agriculture, between town and farmland. This concept had been raised by a number of the “utopian socialists” before them, as well as by bourgeois agronomy specialists. Kropotkin and other leading anarchists (several of whom, like him, were professional geologists and geographers) were also to raise this as a problem, well before the modern Green movement.
What Marx and Engels noted was that the farms and the cities were increasingly separated. Agriculture drained the soil of nutrients, which had once been returned to the soil through local consumption of food and the use of animal and human manure. But now the animal and plant nutrients were shipped over increasing distances to cities. Their eventual waste was not returned to the land, but polluted the cities and the rivers and lakes around them. Meanwhile waste products from production—coal dust, dyes, cotton dust, etc., polluted the air, the water, and the food of the workers and others. Engels walked through Manchester, the center of British industry, and noted the ill-health of the working class, the filthy conditions they lived in, and the diseases which spread through their quarters.
Of course, since then we have learned a great deal more about the ill effects which capitalist production has on the ecological environment and on general health. But Marx and Engels saw this quite early.
During the epoch of primitive accumulation, the capitalists were able to accumulate wealth by robbing the land of its nutrients and by not paying to keep their cities clean or their working classes healthy. These were not simply matters of indifference or ignorance; they were a way to accumulate riches, to increase values.
In his Grundrisse
, Marx proposed essentially three epochs of capitalism. “As long as capital is weak, it still itself relies on the crutches of past modes of production….As soon as it feels strong, it throws away the crutches, and moves in accordance with its own laws. As soon as it begins to sense itself as a barrier to development, it seeks refuge in forms which, by restricting free competition, seem to make the rule of capital more perfect, but are at the same time the heralds of its dissolution and of the dissolution of the mode of production resting on it
” (quoted in Daum 1990; p. 79).
That is, in the earliest stage, capitalism is weak. It must rely on non-market forces (primitive accumulation) for overall protection, in order to expand. It uses force, the state, religious hysteria, anti-women prejudices, robbery and slavery, “robbery” of the natural environment. This process may be said to have begun as far back as the 14th century, but reached its high point in the 17th to 18th centuries.
In the 19th century capitalism may be said to have really taken off, first in Britain and then as a world system. As this is the height of its well-being as a system, it relied mainly on market forces to batter down all obstacles to expansion. This was the heigh-day of capitalism! It was also the time when the working class and socialist movements begin to grow. It was when Marx wrote his books and led the First International, and in which Bakunin started the anarchist movement.
Last is the final epoch, beginning in the early 20th century, when capitalism has reached its limits and its contradictions threaten to tear apart all society. This will be discussed in the next chapter.
There are no sharp divisions among the three epochs. They are just abstractions to help us conceptualize the history of capitalism. They overlap in their traits and tendencies. Primitive (non-market) accumulation, including violence by the state, continued during the height of market capitalism and expanded again during the final epoch of capitalist decline.
For example, in the epoch of primitive accumulation, there was a vast expansion of African enslavement in the Americas. This lasted into the 19th century and was only ended through revolutionary violence in various countries (Haiti, the US, parts of South America, etc.). However, the special oppression of African descendents continued. In the US, Jim Crow segregation laws (not customs, laws) continued through the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century and were not abolished until the late 20th century. Even now, African-Americans remain oppressed, discriminated against, and mostly at the bottom of society. Capitalism does not seem to be able to end its racism.
Chapter 3 - Cycles, Recessions, and the Falling Rate of Profit
Chapter 2 - The Labor Theory of Value
Chapter 1 - An Anarchist's Introduction to Marx's Critique of Political Economy