Rethinking Prim Accumu and Capitalism

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Rethinking Prim Accumu and Capitalism

Postby TwinkleStarrs » Wed Mar 25, 2009 9:02 am

Hi Everyone,

In one of my classes (Comparative Politics Core Course at York U), we've been talking a lot lately about primitive accumulation and the origins of capitalism. The dominant view in the class seems to understand the origins of capitalism as being in the early modern English countryside as understood by Robert Brenner, Ellen Wood, and other so-called 'political Marxists'; set in motion by primitive accumulation, a la Marx, Capital, Vol 1, Part 8 (that's the first time I've quoted the bible like that, feels good).

It seems to me that what Marx describes as primitive accumulation- at its heart the process of ripping peasants off their land and removing them from their means of subsistence/ production, thus rendering them dependent on a wage- is an important process to try to understand the contemporary human condition. But I wonder whether primitive accumulation is not the precondition for capitalism (as Marx and others claim), but the precondition for industrialism. I think this distinction is important because I think it's possible to identify processes of primitive accumulation in non-capitalist societies, such as the Soviet Union in the early 20th century. Hence, industrialization could be divorced from capitalism (even if historically it predominantly is not). Perhaps it comes down to whether one views capitalism as a mode of production, or a mode of power.

And with this alternative conception, perhaps we can then begin to analyze the separate development of the capitalization model since 14th century northern Italy as the origins of capital; and with its much later marriage with the state (first in England, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688), and then the marriage of capital/state with the rise of industrialism in late 17th century Britain; and then the rise of the corporation in late 19th century America (and absentee ownership); and with the consolidation of Big Business (Dominant Capital) and Big Government (heavy state 'intervention' and protection) in the 1930s and 1940s, then the rise of financial globalization in the 1970s. And then, from 1991 with the collapse of the USSR, the universalization of the capitalization model. Obviously, this is presented to the teleological extreme, and one would also have to identify contradictions, alternative paths, etc. Also, I think it's important to include the rise of mercantalism/ colonialism/ imperialism as being the basis of the marriage between capital and the state.

And to state my purpose in this separation between industrialism and capitalism, I think the former is desirable if the latter can be abolished. Of course, this democratic industrialism would have to be based on non-fossil fuels, which I think is perfectly feasible given the current state of technology and resources (there is simply not the will, because it is not profitable). And for a vision of a socialist, democratic, industrial society, I would turn to anarcho-syndicalists such as Rudolf Rocker (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Rocker), Noam Chomsky, and Michael Albert (Parecon: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/topics/parecon).

What do y'all think about this general understanding of the origins of capitalism, its relationship with primitive accumulation, industrialism, etc?

Cheers,
Sean
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Re: Rethinking Prim Accumu and Capitalism

Postby dtcochrane » Sat Mar 28, 2009 2:26 pm

Sean,
I think you're absolutely correct to see a distinction between capitalism and industrialism. Although Veblen largely repeats Marx's error of identifying the emergence of capitalism with the emergence of industrialisation, I think his distinction between business and industry is useful in this respect. Capitalism begins with the origins of capital, which originates with the valuation of ownership/control itself. Prior to this valuation, an owner could sell assets, while after this valuation s/he could sell ownership itself. Capital attached itself to assets as they became profitable. Capital was dominant over other forms of business that were uncapitalised because of its flexibility: its capacity to expand through the raising of cash by means of dividing itself further and auctioning off the pieces. Braudel has an interesting section on the retreat of capital from the German silver mines as they ceased to be profitable at an acceptable rate. The mines continued to operate, but not under the control of capital. My totally unproven supposition is that capital moved into Britain - primarily through the idea of capitalisation - as industry became profitable. Marx mistook the introduction of the capital form to industry with the rise of capitalism itself. We retain the baggage of this misidentification.

Troy
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Re: Rethinking Prim Accumu and Capitalism

Postby sanha926 » Mon Mar 30, 2009 8:12 pm

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Re: Rethinking Prim Accumu and Capitalism

Postby dtcochrane » Tue Mar 31, 2009 7:49 pm

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Re: Rethinking Prim Accumu and Capitalism

Postby TwinkleStarrs » Tue Mar 31, 2009 9:45 pm

Thanks Troy and Sandy!

Yeah, that definitely helps, to see capitalism as a system of owning/ controlling ownership/ control itself (ie absentee ownership), rather than merely of tangible assets, means of production, capital stock, etc. But I wonder whether what you are referring to is the rise of the corporation, where shares in ownership could be continually repackaged and sold off to raise funds (as well as serving a whole bunch of other essential functions, such as limiting competition, overproduction, excessive price-cutting, etc). This is obviously crucial for understanding contemporary capitalism (though Marxists, esp political Marxists, have little to say about it), but there are many who claim that capitalism already existed at this point, and so the rise of the corporation is not an epochal shift, unlike the agrarian revolution beginning in 1450 England.

I'm on very thin ice here, but I wonder whether 'capitalization' beginning in 14th cen northern Italy is a little different, referring to the act of calculating an asset's future stream of expected income as a specific pecuniary value, and then trading/ buying/ selling those assets with reference to those calculated values. This set in motion for the first time a forward-thinking economic system, that continuously looked to increasing profit in the future. The state then eventually got involved (and eventually inextricably linked via the bond market, mercantilism, colonialism, imperialism) in capitalist activity because it needed to raise funds for war, as per Charles Tilly. There was mutual interest because the concentration of coercive means in the state was needed to guarantee property. And with this concentration of coercive means and capital, and with the enclosure movement, the onset of the industrial revolution. And then with the tendency of the profit rate to fall due to hyper-competition and over-production, etc as per Marx, the rise of the corporation to control competition and productivity. This still wasn't enough, so the rise of massive government spending 40 years later. So actually, I wonder if the origins of capitalism proper lie with the rise of the corporation in the late 19th century. But like I said, I'm on very shaky ground here because I only started thinking about all this in the last 6 weeks or so...

We had a 2.5 hour discussion in class about some of this yesterday, and the political Marxist prof accepted that one could separate industrialism and capitalism. But how to do this and what are the implications were left unclear. For to me, it seems that the Marxist account of the rise of capitalism in the English countryside reduces many different processes to one mode of production, 'capitalism', without ever being clear what exactly capitalism is. That is, everything from the penalization of vagrancy in the 15th century to the slave trade of the 18th, from dissolving communal peasant land to the rise of the joint-stock companies like the British East India Co., from the peace of Westphalia to the American Revolution, etc etc, is all "the origins of capitalism". But what is capitalism? The prof deemed the definition of terms to be unworthy of serious attention. He merely kept pointing to a graph. The graph was a very effective one, visualizing the explosive growth of industry from the beginning of the 19th century, after relative stagnation over the previous 1,000 years. But to ascribe this quite sudden exponential growth SOLELY to a process set off in 1450 in the English countryside seems to me quite limited and reductionist. To say that primitive accumulation after 350-400 years climaxed in some sort of a Big Bang, after which exponential growth begins and is self-sustaining, leaves a lot out, over-simplifies many things, and down-right muddles a lot of separate processes. Not to mention accepts very problematic neoclassical assumptions that expunges power from the 'self-sustaining growth model' of the constant imperative to compete, cut costs, innovate, increase productivity, etc. Or what Brenner calls the Smithian growth dynamic, which he himself says he accepts (once one considers primitive accumulation to set this model off- ie without naturalizing it in human nature as our propensity to truck and barter). After seeing the prof repeatedly and confidently pointing to the graph over an hour and a half and claiming that political Marxism is the best to explain it (as opposed to all others like Nitzan who speak of capitalism after capitalism already took off in 1800), and after we discussed many things, I stepped in and tried to bring it back to the graph, and questioned whether a very specific process beginning in 1450 could really explain dramatic and exponential growth beginning in 1800, and furthermore an even bigger leap in growth from the 19th to the 20th century. He wasn't so confident about the graph anymore, and said that it doesn't tell the whole story because it subsumes England with the rest of the world. But England was the first to industrialize, and for much of the 19th century represented about half the world's production, so it represents half of that big bar on his graph- even more if we include the British Empire and spheres of influence .

I think Brenner has a lot to say about the agrarian revolution, which was a precondition for the industrial revolution (of which he has very little to say), both in England, which was then a precondition for the rise of the corporation in the US (of which Brenner et al have nothing to say). And what Brenner has to say about the past 40 years is patently wrong (that capitalism has been in deep crisis with falling profit, productivity, increasingly intense competition- the latter is partly wrong, because while competition for small and medium-sized enterprises has possibly increased, the opposite is true for dominant capital), and I think his misunderstanding of the present partly stems from his faulty analysis of the past. But for the political Marxist prof, it all came down to that graph, of which theoretical framework can explain the massive explosion in growth from 1800.

Another interesting point that came out of the discussion was the labor theory of value. The prof asserted that he does not 'fetishize' it, and accepts that the 'problem has not been solved'. But he claims that maybe it will be solved in another 50 years. So there you have the classic neoclassical postponement of enlightenment to the future. Rational choice game theory may not work now, but it will in the future. Structural Adjustment Programs may not work now, but either they haven't been implemented enough or things will improve after the cold shower. Perhaps that's one reason why they are 'political Marxists', as opposed to Marxian political economists who understand the fundamental necessity of maintaining the LTV, as the glue that ties together accumulation, exploitation, surplus value, the organic composition of capital, etc. There were also come-backs that what Marx couldn't solve in Volume One, he did a better job in Volumes Two and Three, and so on.

C U,
Sean
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Re: Rethinking Prim Accumu and Capitalism

Postby dtcochrane » Tue Mar 31, 2009 10:12 pm

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Re: Rethinking Prim Accumu and Capitalism

Postby DanielRose » Tue Apr 07, 2009 5:02 am

You might want to check out David Harvey's ideas concerning "."
Harvey uses Marx's concept of primitive accumulation, but unlike Marx, who frames the concept in the far past of the capitalist system, Havery views it as an ongoing process. The act is characterized by acts such as privatization of government-owned assets, by modern enclosures of natural resources and land, and by other such disposessive acts, led mostly by state institutions. I would also recommend Harvey's The New Imperialism, in which the concept is utilised throught the book, and Harvey's lecture on Marx's Capital, on .
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