In Marx’s Capital, the concept of primitive accumulation enters the conceptual stage via a dizzying tumult of cascading presuppositions: capital is only valorized by the constantly expanding extraction of surplus-value; surplus-value requires capitalist relations of production, the bifurcation of society into sellers of labor-power and commodity producers wielding capital, which, again, is only spurred on by that which it engenders (873). This theoretical difficulty is followed by a condemnation of the Smithean solution to it: the originary tale of capitalism is not one of independent actors, each with equal access to means of production, in which some were perspicacious enough to outmaneuver their lazy and ineffectual competitors to accumulate enough capital so that “the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins” (Marx, Capital 873). Marx counterposes Smith's previous accumulation with the real history of violent expropriation in Scotland and England that was the dawn of the capitalist system. In this counterhistory, as Walter Rodney notes about Marx’s broader body of work, method and factual data are intimately interwoven so that conclusions are historically and culturally specific (49-50). Marx himself is aware of this, writing, “[t]he history of this expropriation assumes different aspects in different countries, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different historical epochs” (Capital 876). Our first task in this paper is then to begin to disaggregate primitive accumulation as a particular spatio-temporal event and primitive accumulation as an abstract concept. We will do this by tracing the movements in English primitive accumulation and scrutinizing their particularity, revealing ambiguities along the way.
The smooth functioning of capital is dependent on the existence of two kinds of social actors: the sellers of labor power and the owners of the means of production and subsistence eager to valorize their capital through the purchase of the labor power of the other (Marx, Capital 874). These sellers of labor power are doubly-free from the means of production in a sardonic sense: they neither constitute it nor own it. So, in each and every case, “[s]o-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production” (Marx, Capital 875). The creation of these two classes marks the end point of primitive accumulation in England; we will establish a historical point of departure and sketch the processes which lead to the end.
As Marx writes, “wherever [capitalist production] appears, the abolition of serfdom has long since been completed” (Marx, Capital 876). Thus, the historical point of departure in late 14th century England was one in which independent peasant producers were the most populous class. The institution of serfdom was on the decline; the Great Rising of 1381 was not sparked by the “normal condition [of laborers], but the enforcement of the Statute of Labourers and the attempt of the lords to reassert legal claims which were practically obsolete” (Ingram, 1902-03). By this time, serfs had either, disguised by “feudal trappings,” become proprietors (Marx, Capital 877), began sporadically working for larger estates as wage-laborers while nonetheless engaging in subsistence farming, or fled persecution by their lords for the towns (Marx, The German Ideology 31). The guilds of the towns—characterized by a dogged protection of “laboriously-acquired skill”; an undeveloped division of labor between and within both craft and sale; non-commutable relations between journeyman, apprentice, and master; and a form of capital inextricable from “the particular work of the owner” (Marx, The German Ideology 31, 34-5)—were as Marx writes, “the fetters ( . . . ) which ( . . . ) restricted the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man” (Capital 875). Dynamism erupted in the feudal order as the division of labor between sale and craft gave way to the merchant class, whose real activity produced a consciousness alienated from use-value, purely oriented toward exchange, embracing price and its infinite commensurability as the driver of its conscious activity. And thus, manufactures began to flourish “in Italy and later in Flanders, under the historical premise of commerce with foreign nations” and in England under that of domestic production (Marx, The German Ideology 40). Weaving, once a mere means for a peasant’s acquisition of clothing, “receive[d] an impetus and a further development through the extension of commerce ( . . . ) which wrenched it out of the form of production hitherto existing” (Marx, The German Ideology 34). Weaving, as a relatively unskilled profession, circumvented the trammels of the guild; peasants, long excluded from the guilds’ activities, began to enter the weaving industry. Most saliently, this was the silent ushering in of the age of movable capital by the nascent merchant class. These are the conditions which undergird the moment when, as Marx declares in Capital, “the corresponding rise in the price of [Flemish] wool in England provided the direct impulse for these evictions” of peasants from the land (879).
Here, we see the first terrain of debate arise: is this tenuous division of labor between sale and craft a marker of the structural potentiality of capitalism within Feudalism? Or is the bursting forth of rabid enclosures a historical contingency? Furthermore, if even the “classic form” of primitive accumulation has an external dimension to it in the form of Flemish prices, is the conceptual problematic of the infinite regress of Capital of any tangible merit? In other words, can primitive accumulation ever be fully self-causing?
Eviction, however, is too gentle a word to describe the heartlessness visited upon the small peasants of the English countryside. As the common lands of the peasants, which served “to give pasture to their cattle and furnished them with timber [and] firewood,” were seized by feudal lords for the raising of sheep, the surrounding towns, churches, tithes, and human beings began to decay as rents sharply increased (Marx, Capital 877, 879). These lords opportunistically claimed ownership of the land on the basis of feudal titles, which like the titular claims of Celtic ‘great men’ who drove their fellow clansmen off of communal lands in Scotland, were spontaneously reconfigured as private property rights (Marx, Capital 878, 890). The Reformation and the subsequent collapse of the Catholic church in England led to the plundering of estates by royal favorites and the rising agricultural owner class (Marx, Capital 819). The Reformation was the ideological overlay to the shredding of the social fabric of feudal property relations and its reweaving into a regime of commodified land tenure. A fundamental transformation was already underway: small proprietors who once produced their means of subsistence were rapidly transformed into workers who had to go to market with their wages to acquire subsistence; with more compulsion to labor, towns and manufacture proliferated. The general movement of this period is one of opportunism characteristic to primitive accumulation in general. The taking up of previous conceptions of relations to land and their spontaneous conversion into private property rights; the transformation of already existing dynamics of power into a wedge between the producer and the land; and the exploitation of existing aspects of culture to produce dynamism within it to upend the material relations which sustain said cultural components; the creation of an undifferentiated mass of sufferers at one pole and the concentration of commodified land at the other: these are the abstract shapes of primitive accumulation, the blurry silhouettes produced by the thousand-yard stare following the witness of the brutality of early capitalist revolution.
The English State, for its part, underwent a period of extreme turmoil and vaciliation during this economic revolution. Henry VII (1489), Henry VIII (1533), Charles I (1638) all passed laws directed at curbing either the enclosure of the commons, the possession of massive amounts of sheep or cattle, the razing of estates, and the building of cottages separate arable land, but these legislative moves were powerless against the upheaval of property relations (Marx, Capital 880-81). There was massive, yet futile resistance of the upper echelons of the feudal ruling class to the paroxysm of private property. And yet, as within Henry VIII as an individual, both a purveyor of the dissolution of papal authority in England and a nominal opponent to enclosure, there were contradictory and competing interests within the State. As Marx notes, legislation which had “fought in vain” against the violent expropriation of peasant's arable land by the 18th century became “the instrument by which the people’s land [was] stolen” (Capital 885). This radical shift came into full force, when “between 1750 and 1850, parliament passed about 4,000 individual enclosures acts, each transferring a single piece of land out of common ownership and into the ownership of farmers and landowners” (Lazenby). Further evidence of this shifting interests are the “grotesquely terroristic laws” which “whipped, branded, and tortured” the displaced peasants who languished as vagabonds “into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage-labor” (Marx, Capital 899). Laws such as these were passed under Henry VII (1530), Henry VI (1535), Edward VI (1547), and so on, but they all at bottom amount to the same thing: he who refuses to work will die (Marx, Capital 896-97). Marx continues, detailing comprehensive legislative involvement in wage suppression for the purposes of maintaining a reliable rate of exploitation. By the late 1600s and into the 1800s, it [was] the rising bourgeoisie that ( . . . ) uses [the power of the state] to ‘regulate wages’ ( . . . ) to lengthen the working day, and keep the worker at his normal level of dependence” (Marx, Capital 899-900). Thus, the history of primitive accumulation entails two additional movements: the making of the surplus-value producer as a subject, and the transfer—or rather, as evidenced by The Glorious Revolution and Sir F.M. Eden’s tacit admission of the necessity of “a parliamentary coup d’etat”—wrenching away of state power from the previous to the bourgeoisie (Marx, Capital 886). Whether or not this surplus-value producer is always transformed into the orthodox “free” proletarian and whether this capitalist class must be born of the same process or may be already existing remains an open question. Another ambiguity that arises is whether or not this prehistory of capital appears as a single event in world history, or whether it is a process that repeats each time capital encounters a new object of expropriation and whether this object is always external to capital.
Robert Nichols makes a pivotal contribution to this first debate when he writes, “not only is it entirely possible to imagine cases in which expropriation does not lead directly to proletarianization, this is in fact the historically dominant phenomenon in vast portions of the world” (81). This is a radical reorientation that challenges the teleological logic that pervades the pages of Marx’s section on primitive accumulation, which presents expropriation as carried out in order to enable exploitation. Nichols convincingly reframes the classic formulation, “so-called primitive accumulation is ( . . . ) the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production”: where Capital seems to weigh the creation of a “free” proletariat on the one hand and a concentrated mass of means of production possessed by a capitalist class on the other as equally guaranteed outcomes of primitive accumulation, Theft is Property! disaggregates the two outcomes and specifies the object to be expropriated not just as general means of production, but as the “productive power of nature” itself (Nichols 83). In doing so, Nichols comes to a definition of dispossession which treats nature, “the original fount of all other, secondary means of production,” as the target of “a logic of capitalist development grounded in the appropriation and monopolization of [its] powers” (83-84). Primitive accumulation, or rather dispossession, is then a process which seeks to replace whatever mediation exists between its victims and the natural world with one of strict relations of private property. Capitalist dispossession, fundamentally concerned with land, often treats the displaced human beings as incidental and superfluous to the process, failing to adhere to Marx’s traditional formulation of the birth of the “free” proletarian.
Nichols’s questioning of the “universality” of the concept of proletarian itself can serve as an entry point for the views of some theorists in the “world-system” or “dependency” tradition on primitive accumulation. We can briefly analyze Andre Gunder Frank’s conclusion “On So-Called Primitive Accumulation” in his World Accumulation: 1492-1789. Here, he argues that “the world has experienced a single, all-embracing, albeit unequal and uneven, process of capital accumulation that, for at least two centuries past, has been capitalist” (239). Frank argues that if primitive accumulation was based on “precapitalist relations of production and/or their transformation into capitalist ones ( . . . ) non-capitalist need not be pre-capitalist, since it can also be simultaneous with capitalist accumulation or even postcapitalist. Thus, insofar as primitive accumulation refers to accumulation on the basis of production with noncapitalist relations of production, it need not be prior to, but can also be contemporary with capitalist production and accumulation. Such non-capitalist production, and the accumulation based on it, may be called primary accumulation, to distinguish it from precapitalist primitive accumulation and production”. Frank asserts that “the process of divorcing owners from their means of production and converting them into wage laborers was not only primitive, original, or previous to the capitalist stage, but also continued during the capitalist stage, as it still does”. Frank asserts his own unique formulation of “so-called primitive, non-divorcing, primary, non-capitalist accumulation” (244), Frank argues that “incorporation into the worldwide process of capital accumulation may entail transformation of relations of production from one “non-capitalist” form to another or the utilization of preexisting forms of production to contribute to capital accumulation in combination with different circuits of circulation” (253). In other words, even if the world itself is under capitalism, the exact relations of production in any given place can be capitalist, pre-capitalist, or even some combination of the two simultaneously. As Frank says, “there is a variety of modes or, at least, of relations of production and of combinations among them and between them and the capitalist mode of production. Many of them are preserved or even created by the incorporation into the capitalist process of capital accumulation of the production that is organized through this variety of “noncapitalist” relations or modes of production. Though there is substantial agreement that only one mode of production can be dominant at one time and place, there is some disagreement as to whether here or there the dominant mode of production is indeed the capitalist one” (255). Essentially what Frank—and what many of the other dependencistas such as Ruy Mauro Marini—were driving at was a state of “super-exploitation” of workers in the periphery that, while not excluding them from capitalism as a system dominating their lives globally, meant that they were not exploited in the same fashion as the proletariat of the imperial core. Though all could be in the global system of capitalism that began with a collective global primitive accumulation, the process of primary accumulation continues to occur in the periphery insofar as non-capitalist relations of production are somewhat preserved to accumulate capital.
Frank’s contribution engages with a central debate that has emerged from the ambiguities left in Marx’s definition of primitive accumulation: whether the process described is consigned to history or still ongoing. As Massimo De Angelis neatly describes, “according to one main traditional interpretation, Marx's concept of primitive accumulation indicates the historical process that gave birth to the preconditions of a capitalist mode of production ( . . . ) in this conception, the adjective “primitive” corresponds to a clear-cut temporal dimension (the past) ( . . . ) Alternatively, the same concept of primitive accumulation has been interpreted as a continuous phenomenon within the capitalist mode of production, especially in connection to Marxist analyses describing the subordination of the South to the North of the world economy” (De Angelis 1). This latter trend of analysis can find something of an origin point with Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg argued that “capital does not merely come into the world ‘dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt,’ it also imposes itself on the world step by step in the same way” (330), asserting that this process forms the basis of imperialism, which “requires noncapitalist social strata as a market in which to realize its surplus value, as a source for its means of production and as a reservoir of labor-power for its wage system” (265). David Harvey, who agrees with Luxemburg that primitive accumulation is an ongoing process, nevertheless critiques Luxemburg for “relegating accumulation based upon predation, fraud, and violence ( . . .) as being somehow ‘outside of’ the capitalist system” (74). He instead believes it foolish to call “an ongoing process ‘primitive’ or ‘original’” and chooses to “substitute these terms by the concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’” or “A.B.D.” (74).
While Harvey’s notion has attempted to reconcile the incorporation of an analysis of imperialism and an acknowledgement of the lack of an “outside” of capitalism as adopted by the world-system thesis, Harvey’s argument that A.B.D. occurs all throughout the world opens itself up to an easy accusation of false universality. For example, Harvey opens up his idea of A.B.D. by proposing that Luxemburg, though correctly asserting the continuous nature of primitive accumulation, falsely relegates primitive accumulation to “the imperialist plunder of non-capitalistic social formations” (Harvey xvi) without asserting that there is an ongoing process of accumulation by dispossession in the imperial core itself. As Raju Das rightly points out in a wide-ranging critique of Harvey, A.B.D. “is a part of his overall theory of neoliberalism” which asserts that “the main effect of neoliberalism has been redistributive” of existing wealth rather than “generative” of new wealth so “ways had to be found to transfer [existing] assets and channel wealth and income either from the mass of the population toward the upper classes or from vulnerable to richer countries” (Harvey 34). Harvey’s attempt to straddle both positions and assert that they collectively represent the experience of neoliberalism is what undoes his attempt to provide a unified theory; the experience of neoliberalism is not universal, and the experience of the European working class was not the same as that of workers in the periphery. Harvey’s assertion that he does “not think that accumulation by dispossession is exclusive to the periphery” (Harvey 2003, 173) leads Das to point out that “A.B.D. loses its coherence ( . . .) by clubbing together all these conceptually diverse processes” ranging from “privatization of pension funds” to the “IMF forcing open markets in a poor country” (599). Indeed, the latter process as a function of imperialism is inherently different from the former, if that is a process of neoliberalism in the imperial core. Das argues that Harvey does “not consider the fact that imperialism is (increasingly) a system of exploitation—and indeed, super-exploitation—of workers of imperialized countries, by capital of the imperialist countries” (602), concluding that Harvey’s “views on dispossession in the South with which he associates (new) imperialism are inadequate in part because he abstracts from the exploitative character of imperialism” (591). Harvey’s attempt to synthesize a “universal” process of primitive accumulation that can explain the process of imperialism in concert with neoliberalism within the core ends up being rather incoherent.
What Frank, Luxemburg, and Harvey disagree on is related to the “continuous/historical” and the “outside/inside” aspects of primitive accumulation. Frank’s model seems the most coherent for understanding the manner in which primitive accumulation also exists in some combination of the “universal/particular”. This has implications for how we understand the transition into capitalism that primitive accumulation represents. Here, we can briefly look at how the dependency/world systems view helps us understand the “Transition Debate”. As Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu handily summarize,
in particular, the debates within (neo-)Marxist approaches have largely split between these two ‘internalist’ and ‘externalist’ poles. On one side, scholars such as Maurice Dobb, Robert Brenner, and Ellen Meiksin Wood locate the generative sources of capitalist social relations in the internal contradictions of feudal European societies. On the other side, Paul Sweezy and Immanuel Wallerstein view capitalism as having developed from the growth of markets and trade ( . . . ) the main issue between these different positions thus revolves around whether the intensification of exchange relations (trade) or class conflicts were the ‘prime movers’ in the transition to capitalism. (78)
These categories will help us understand later how Nichols and Frank’s views, as just two examples, serve as a basis for going beyond a Eurocentric notion of the concept.
We can take as a starting point the debate between Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb in 1952 on the question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Dobb boldly proposes that “capitalism on the continent of Europe” had to develop “what may be termed an ‘internal colonial policy’ of industrial capital towards agriculture before its interest in an export market for manufactures had been fully awakened” (196); in other words, primitive accumulation was decidedly an internal, self-causing process. Critiquing Dobb in a 1952 article, Paul Sweezy argues that “having neglected to analyze the laws and tendencies of western European feudalism, he mistakes for immanent trends certain historical developments which in fact can only be explained as arising from causes external to the system” (7), asserting that the process of primitive accumulation was in part enabled by “precious metals” (20) which could not have come from an “internal colony” but were historically of an external origin.
Robert Brenner’s "The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” in 1977 was invested in further criticizing Wallerstein and Frank (the aforementioned “Neo-Smithians”) for their continuation of Sweezy’s “method”, which he argued had “led them to displace class relations from the centre of their analyses” (Brenner 27). Much of Brenner’s critique hinges on the debate around the origins of capitalism itself: on primitive accumulation. Brenner advances a “class-centric” (or class reductionist) view, that focuses on the promulgation of “free wage labour” (33) as the inherent feature of primitive accumulation; places without free labor cannot have undergone primitive accumulation. Brenner’s contention is that Wallerstein, Frank, and others, in their “renunciation of this position”, assert that “the origins of capitalism come down to the origins of the expanding world market ( . . . ) the rise of the world division of labour which emerged with the great discoveries and expansion of trade routes—from the emergence of a system of free wage labour, and contend that the latter is derivative from the former” (33). Brenner condemns the idea of “exploitation of the colonial and class structure based on ultraexploitation” (84). This is what leads Brenner to invoke the “neo-Smithian” argument; he asserts that “the parallels between the positions of both Sweezy and Wallerstein and that of Adam Smith are striking, and the defects of their arguments are the result of their adopting his assumptions. Like Smith, both Sweezy and Wallerstein, implicitly or explicitly, equate capitalism with a trade-based division of labour” (38).
Brenner specifically condemns Wallerstein and Frank’s views on primitive accumulation. He heavily criticizes Wallerstein for “essentially ignoring any inherent tendency of capitalism to develop the productive forces through the accumulation of capital, in favour of a view which sees such development in the core as a result of a ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ extracted from the periphery” (61). In critiquing the “notion, widespread among Marxists, that a ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ was largely responsible for the uniquely successful development experienced by certain areas within the Western European core from the sixteenth century, as well as for the onset of underdevelopment in the periphery”, Brenner asserts that Marx had sought to reject the very notion of primitive accumulation itself as an invention of Adam Smith (66). Nevermind Marx’s own assertion primitive accumulation was in fact a reality, and that its “chief moments” were “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins” (Capital, 915).
Brenner clarifies that his view on primitive accumulation is that without a referencing system of class relations, however, we can “wonder why [this] wealth transferred from the core to the periphery did not result merely in the creation of cathedrals in the core and starvation in the periphery” (67). Brenner wants us to believe this is an oversimplification of primitive accumulation; indeed, in subtly implying that there was also starvation in the core as a result of capitalism, Brenner reiterates many of the points of Dobb’s view of the “internal colony”. Brenner is interested in rejecting Wallerstein’s view that “free labor is the form of labor control used for skilled work in the core countries” (to build cathedrals, perhaps) “whereas coerced labor is used for less skilled work in the peripheral areas” (Wallerstein 127) on the basis that it violates “Marx’s massive emphasis ( . . . ) on the rise of free wage labour/labour power as a commodity, presented as the fundamental basis for the capitalist mode of production” (55). Brenner’s view is put to the test later on, when he engages with Frank’s view that the introduction of slavery into the Caribbean and the disruption of small-holder settler farming “demonstrated that the class structure was immediately determined by the needs of the market and of capital accumulation”. Challenging this view, Brenner asks “how was the ‘so-called primitive accumulation of capital’ accomplished? In other words, how did the separation of the population of small farmers from the land actually take place?” (87). In answering his own questions, really engaging on the question of how slavery came to be foundational to capitalism and primitive accumulation, Brenner comes to no real conclusion, and instead somewhat feebly asks that we not even “enter into the debate concerning the degree to which the formation of such a structure marked the emergence of a new mode of production” instead arguing that “class formation, or the intensification of exploitation, is generally an outcome of class conflict” (88). Confronted with the question of how slavery came to be introduced to the colonized Americas, Brenner has no answer but to emphasize again class struggle, failing to incorporate in any way race, settler-colonialism, and slavery to his view of primitive accumulation.
Walter Rodney offered a strong rebuttal to the assertions made by Dobb (and thus Brenner), writing that “most bourgeois scholars write about phenomena such as the industrial revolution in England without once mentioning the European slave trade as a factor of primary accumulation of capital ( . . . ) But even Marxists (as prominent as Maurice Dobb and F.J. Hobsbawn) for many years concentrated on examining the evolution of capitalism out of feudalism inside Europe, with only marginal reference to the massive exploitation of Africans, Asians and American Indians” (1972, 101). Indeed, Rodney’s rebuke allows us to conclude by theorizing a conception of primitive accumulation beyond the narrow, Eurocentric and class-reductionist arguments put forward here. Rodney’s answer frames our conclusion on primitive accumulation.
Frank was correct to assert in his conclusion to World Accumulation that “the question [of primitive accumulation] is related to political strategy for national liberation and democratic or socialist revolution” (256). Brenner’s interpretation has helped form the school of thought known as Political Marxism, which centers a class-reductionist, falsely universalist view of struggle. This is of relevance to us today, because these same ideas are advanced in contemporary debates in Marxism. In the conclusion of his polemic, Brenner asserts that those who emphasize underdevelopment and super-exploitation
open the way for the adoption of similarly ill-founded political perspectives ( . . . ) So long as capitalism develops merely through squeezing dry the ‘third world’, the primary opponents must be core versus periphery ( . . . ) not the international proletariat, in alliance with the oppressed people of all countries, versus the bourgeoisie ( . . . ) The notion of the ‘development of under-development’ opens the way to third-worldist ideology ( . . . ) buttressed by the assertion that the revolution against capitalism can come only from the periphery, since the proletariat of the core has been largely bought off as a consequence of the transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core” (91-2).
Brenner’s rejection of a certain view of primitive accumulation is thus deeply related to his universalist analysis of “class” as a category devoid of any discussion of race, gender, or colonized status.
This Eurocentric interpretation of primitive accumulation continues to be repeated today. Ellen Wood, part of the Political Marxist tradition, wrote that “we cannot go very far in explaining the rise of capitalism by invoking the contribution of imperialism to “primitive accumulation” or, indeed, by attributing to it any decisive role in the origin of capitalism” (Wood 148). But within Marxist circles, as Anievas and Nisancioglu argue, “four decades after Brenner’s first works on the origins of capitalism, what became known as the Brenner Thesis is now often conceived as the Marxist explanation of the transition” (2016). Scholars like Anievas and Nisancioglu argue that “by offering a critique of ( . . . ) the ‘Brenner thesis,” we can obtain “a more robust conception of ‘primitive accumulation’ allowing one to visualize the intersocietal contexts of capitalism’s emergence” (83). Instead of “obliterating the histories of colonialism, slavery and imperialism” as Brenner did to thus “substantially narrow Marx’s more robust conception of the process of so-called ‘primitive accumulation’” (85), learning the whole truth tells us that the “story of capitalism’s genesis was not then a national phenomenon, but, rather, an intersocietal one” (87).
What does this enable us to understand? Predominantly, we can appreciate better how race, gender, and the overall stratification of the world play a fundamental role in forming the exploitation Marx discussed as integral to capitalism and imperialism. Anievas and Nisancioglu point to “the continuing prevalence of racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies ( . . . ) and ask how far these forms of oppression can be included in the Political Marxist critique of capitalism. The answer, it would seem, is they can’t. Ellen Wood, in a critique of “diversity, ‘difference’, and pluralism,” argues that “gender and racial equality are not in principle incompatible with capitalism ( . . . ) although class exploitation is constitutive of capitalism ( . . . ) gender or race inequality are not” (2016). This is demonstrably false. Following Rodney and others like Eric Williams, Robin Blackburn has argued that slavery was an “extended primitive accumulation‟ lasting well into the nineteenth century (1997: 572). Andrew Higginbottom argues in “Enslaved African Labour in the Americas” that “subjugated or super-exploited labour in the Americas is not only an artefact of the original accumulation of capital that is later converted into free labour under the wage form; rather it is a continuing essential feature of the capitalist mode of production, which is reproduced as capitalism reproduces its class relations on a world scale” (2018, 43). He criticizes “the Brenner school” for privileging “free labour”, arguing that “this fits in the Eurocentric tradition of identifying the essential characteristics of the system as a whole as only those features which were first or most prominently manifest in Europe. This false universalization from the European experience leaves the manifestations of the birth of capitalism in the colonised world as particulars ( . . . ) in this way the colonial manifestations of capital accumulation are relegated to the periphery of theory, and so there is an epistemological reproduction of the core-periphery, but in this case in a system of knowledge claiming Marxist heritage” (32).
We wish to conclude with this idea because it reveals the essential dilemma of Marxism, epitomized by the debate around primitive accumulation. An inability to see the relevance of race, of colonization, of gender, and of the entire world outside Europe, leaves us with no tools to change the world. Anti-capitalism as a political ideology is left bereft of solutions to address real problems outside the purview of the European working class. The class-reductionist analyses of Brenner and his acolytes propagate the lie that capitalism can exist without slavery, without racial, national, and gender oppression. It gives a second wind to imperial white chauvinist reformism. While we are left with few clear answers about exactly what primitive accumulation is, we must be clear about what it is not: the origins of capitalism could never have occurred without colonialism and slavery. Likewise, Harvey’s attempt at an answer to “bridge the gap” in the form of A.B.D. is simply, in the words of Das, too “chaotic a concept” to provide us clear political answers. Instead, while we claim no easy answers from these insights, we must assert that Marx, who throughout referenced colonialism and extraction, would not have approved of the efforts by Brenner and the like to diminish the role of a violent global process in forming the world system we live under today. Acknowledging that capitalism exists worldwide and that we all have an interest in overthrowing it does not necessitate a blindly universalist view, especially one that asserts capitalism’s rise was enacted through a common process that affected us all equally, irrespective of the historical realities of race, nation, and gender. Instead, as Rodney once asserted “there is a body of Marxist literature which is inadequate to the needs of the Third World because it just does not deal, for the most part, with the problems of the Third World ( . . . ) one has to emphasize—and to emphasize and to emphasize once again—that Marxism can only be of value if whatever it takes to be the universal is applied to the particular; and it is in the very particularity of the exercise that one will demonstrate that the universal is actually universal and that it is applicable” (69-70). This necessarily applies to all elements of Marxism, primitive accumulation included. Dispelling the Eurocentric notion of this concept is an essential step in the direction of theorizing a Marxism that can match the ongoing struggle against capitalism, and the historical underdevelopment that enabled it from its inception.
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By Joseph Mullen & Samuel Araura