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Primitive Accumulation as a Concept (Bernstein, Hermann, Furlan)


Since at least the time Rosa Luxemburg wrote The Accumulation of Capital, there have been various applications and theoretical developments of Marx’s historical account of the so-called primitive accumulation. Luxemburg argued that Marxists should expand Marx’s fixed historical description and rework it into a theoretical concept that could be used to describe not only what had happened (and ended) at the birth of capitalism, but also what has been going on to this very day. She criticised the reproduction schemes developed in Capital, Vol. 2, and stressed the necessity of capital’s expansionary and engulfing nature. Despite the flaws in her critique of reproduction schemes, capital’s inherent tendency to extract surplus value by non-economic means is undoubtable.

Other Marxist theorists, for instance David Harvey and Giovanni Arrighi, have proposed similar concepts of the ongoing process of primitive accumulation. Harvey’s argument incorporates an explanation of the ‘subtle colonisation practices’ which he terms ‘spatial fix’, and an all-encompassing idea of non-capitalist environments from which surplus value is extracted in non-economic ways, the so-called ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Referring to the ‘spatial fix’, Harvey emphasises that capital not only devours un- or underdeveloped nations and geographic locations, but also periodically destroys the already developed regions on behalf of the production od value. His idea of accumulation by dispossession has provoked critiques and controversies, mainly because of its inclusivity. In this panel  discussion, we will address these responds. In general, we will discuss the contemporary relevance of such developments of Marx’s historical description of primitive accumulation.


Henry Bernstein – Primitive Accumulation: What’s In a Term?

The short answer seems to be a great deal, or maybe everything concerning capitalism in some accounts of ‘primitive accumulation’. The aim of this presentation is to try to clarify different applications of the concept, how they connect – and diverge – with special reference to ‘continuing’ primitive accumulation and arguments that it is a process constitutive of capitalism versus an original founding moment or historical event. Claims for the latter proposition are argued across various terrains, termed (for the sake of convenience): historical debates about the emergence of capitalism, and its subsequent expansions; philosophico-theoretical ; political economy debates about the formation of world capitalism and its mutations; political analyses and programmatic positions.

In suggesting a map of these terrains of debate, the following (types) of important issues are noted: the centrality of non-capitalist social relations and practices of different kinds to the constitution and functioning of ‘advanced’/‘mature’ capitalism, or forms of capitalism in the Third World, or both; associated (but not identical) issue of relations between the ‘economic’ and ‘non-economic’ or ‘extra-economic’ in capitalism; associated (but not identical) issues of the centrality of ‘free’ wage labour to capitalism; the reproduction of capitalism/imperialism, and its modalities of accumulation, through moments of crisis.

Henry Bernstein is Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His research interests include the political economy of agrarian change, social theory, peasant studies, land reform and the rural economy in South Africa. In 2010, he published Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change.


Christoph Hermann – Primitive Accumulation or Commodification

In recent years Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation and especially David Harvey’s interpretation as accumulation by dispossession has attracted new interest in Marxist theory. One reason for the renewed interest are repeated waves of privatization of public goods and services that have swept across Europe and the developing world – most recently fueled by the ongoing economic crisis in Southern Europe. The concept of primitive accumulation gives Marxists the possibility to leave the narrow framework of mainstream economics and avoid the related disputes about efficiency and instead point to the more fundamental character of the changes that are underway when a public good or service is taken out of the public realm and handed over to the private sector for profit-making. The sale of public water systems, the corporatization of public hospitals and the commercialization of public universities have all been described as examples of accumulation by dispossession.

The link between privatization and primitive accumulation/accumulation by dispossession has some important advantages – it underlines the fact that the public is forcefully deprived of a valuable asset. However, the concept also tends to obscure or at least downplay a number of interesting aspects that are characteristic for privatization processes. In my view two aspects are of particular importance:

First, privatization not only changes the ownership of public goods and services; with very few exceptions, privatization processes also entail a transformation of employment and working conditions of those who are producing these goods and services. Privatization typically results in less job security, wage cuts, longer or more flexible working hours and an intensification of work. In other words, the process of privatization can hardly be separated from the changes in production methods and the maximization of surplus labor, which are highly characteristic for the process of continuous accumulation and wider reproduction, described by Marx.

Second, privatization also entails a transformation of public good and services. Private providers not only maximize profits by reducing labor costs; they also increase profitability by changing the character, quality and accessibility of privatized goods and services. Contrary to the common believe that privatization enhances choice, privatization processes are often accompanied by far-reaching standardization. As a result consumers may be able to choose – but only from a limited number of increasingly staple-like supplies. Perhaps the ongoing standardization of higher education is an excellent example for the drive towards standardization.

My argument is that rather than understanding privatization as a form of primitive accumulation or accumulation by dispossession, we should analyze privatization processes as form of commodification. Commodification not only allows us to understand the transformation of a public good or service into a private commodity, but also the related processes such as the further commodification of public sector labor and changes in quality, accessibility and effectiveness.

Christoph Hermann is Senior Researcher at the Working Life Research Centre in Vienna,Lecturer at the University of Vienna and Visiting Professor at the Berlin School of Economics and Law. His research interests include Marxism, political economy and neoliberalism. He is the co-editor, with Jörg Flecker, of Privatization of Public Services: Impacts for Employment,Working Conditions, and Service Quality in Europe (2012).


Sašo Furlan – On the Production and Reproduction of the Capital Relation

Many Marxist authors have correctly pointed out that Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation should be used to describe not only the period of the initial transition from feudalism to capitalism but also processes that continue up to this day. Relying on textual evidence from Marx’s Capital, they have emphasised that separation of the workers from their means of production and subsistence, which is constitutive of primitive accumulation, also characterises capitalist accumulation proper. There is no doubt that the separation that produces what Marx called ‘the capital relation’ must be constantly reproduced throughout the process of capitalist development, as well as there is no doubt that capital, in order to expand itself on an ever larger scale, must bring new workers under its command by separating them from their means of production and subsistence. However, since some authors have used the term primitive accumulation not just to describe the ongoing practices of the separation of new populations from their means of production and subsistence, but also to describe the practices through which this separation is reproduced, they have often conflated the processes that lie at the core of capitalist accumulation with the practices of continuous primitive accumulation. This paper will argue that the use of the concept of primitive accumulation is accurate when it comes to describing the current, ongoing practices of separation that produce the capital relation, while it leads to verbosity when used to describe the practices of reproducing this separation within the already established capital relation. Since the reproduction of this separation is a fundamental characteristic of capital accumulation as such, the use of the adjective primitive is in this case redundant.

Sašo Furlan is a student of Political Science at the Faculty of Social Science in Ljubljana. He is a member of the Workers and Punks’ University and a researcher at the Institute of Labour Studies in Ljubljana.


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