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History and Social Constitution: Primitive Accumulation is not Primitive

History and Social Constitution:

Primitive Accumulation is not Primitive

Werner Bonefeld

March 2002

Prologue

Paul Zarembka's (2002) essay focuses well the conceptual difficulties that 'primitive accumulation' presents. His intervention has to be welcomed as an opportunity to further the debate on this most important concept and to clarify its meaning beyond the pejorative connotation of its adjective: as primitive pre-history.

Zarembka shares The Commoner's insistence on the continuity of the separation of labour from the means of production within the established relations of capital. He argues that primitive accumulation is epoch making but denies its epochal character by insisting that it is merely a period of transition from feudalism to capitalism, rendering it 'primitive'. He insists that the accumulation of capital entails violence and continued processes of dispossession but claims that this should be seen in abstraction from primitive accumulation. Marx, he insists, offered clear statements and, then, says that there are ambiguities in Marx's thought. He commends The Commoner for showing that separation is the constitutive presupposition and result of the accumulation of capital but charges that the argument is reductionist.

This charge appears to derive from what he sees as 'the basic theoretical mistake' of The Commoner and that is of 'presenting "primitive accumulation" as if the concept is applicable for all times of capitalist development rather than just the process of initial transition' to which he reduces its relevance and significance. His critique of my contribution is emphatic on this: He endorses its emphasis on separation but then charges, with relish, that I 'never cite a place in Marx where Marx himself refers to "primitive ccumulation" other than in the historical process of movement from feudalism to capitalism'. He criticises that I do not even attempt to make a distinction between accumulation proper and primitive accumulation. I agree with him that separation is the essence of both but disagree that I draw no distinction between them.

In contrast to The Commoner, Zarembka states that 'a stronger theoretical position is to stay with Marx's definition of "primitive accumulation", and to probe more deeply the concept of "accumulation of capital" as used by Marx'. Zarembka's formulation is schematic: primitive accumulation is time-defined as the period of transition that gave rise to capitalist accumulation. Primitive accumulation brought about capitalism. Once capitalism is there, primitive accumulation has finished. Marx's insight that the history of past generations weights like a nightmare on the living, is thus dismissed.

Even if one were to accept that primitive accumulation refers only to the pre-history of capitalism, problems arise. When did primitive accumulation end and when did capitalism begin? For England, Marx indicated that the period of primitive accumulation lasted about 350 years, coming to an end about 1850 (see Negt/Kluge, 1981). And in Germany or in Russia? The question of transition was of great concern to the Russian left: could Russia 'leap' directly into socialism or should there have to be a bourgeois revolution first. In his State and Revolution, Lenin provided the magic resolution when stated that the proletarian state is a bourgeois state without bourgeoisie. The question of transition had already been raised in the correspondence between Vera Zasulich and Marx, the former asking whether Russia could leap directly from feudalism to socialism and the latter writing several drafts, finally offering a most conditional and that is prohibitive 'yes' (see Godelier, 2000). When did primitive accumulation come to a conclusion in Russia? Did it after the forceful industrialisation which under Stalin amounted to a form of primitive accumulation, as Dyer-Witheford (1999) argues?

Primitive accumulation is extremely difficult to 'time'. It occurred in different countries at different times. It was not a one historical event but a series of events, divided by space and time, and form. England was the classical form, but not the only form, of primitive accumulation. The difficulty of offering a time-specific delineation of primitive accumulation does not invalidate the understanding that it belongs, as an independent historical form of social relations, to the pre-history of capitalism. However, it remains a matter of debate when this pre-history was concluded and when new forms of enforced separation emanate from capitalist accumulation itself. The answer to this, interesting though it might be, is academic. Much more important than the precise timing of the end of the one and the beginning of the other, is the understanding of its constitutive character and that is, the forceful separation of new workers from the means of subsistence and the retention, in the established relations of capital, of the alienation of labour from her means.

The difficulties of timing apart, Zarembka's reproach appears to derive from his misconception of the meaning that is given to the concept of primitive accumulation in my contribution. This might be because by the sort of language difficulties which Backhaus (1992) detects in relation to Marx's critique of political economy. In my earlier essay, I spoke about the permanence of primitive accumulation in the following terms: social constitution, presupposition, constitutive separation, constitutive pre-positing action, etc. Most importantly, I argue that primitive accumulation is suspended (aufgehoben) in capitalist accumulation as its secrete history of constitution. These terms draw attention to the critique of political economy as a theory of social constitution. This leads me to a few

Semantic Clarifications

In the German original, Marx does not speak of 'primitive' accumulation. This term is offered in the English translation and, I suppose, it as close to the German original as that is possible. Yet, it is inaccurate. The German text says 'ursprünglich'. This term can also basis. Marx's notion that capital 'is the separation of the conditions of production from the labourer' (1972, p. 422) and that this separation 'forms (bildet) the conception [Begriff] of capital' (Marx, 1966, p. 246), not only conceives of capital as separation but, also, sees it as capital's constitutive force. Social constitution is historical constitution.

What is to be understood by 'permanent' in this context? In Latin, 'per' means through, way; and 'manere' means to remain, to be continuous; permanent then connotes a lasting character, something which is maintained through time. Does this not give in to Zarembka's charge that primitive accumulation is used by The Commoner in a transhistorical sense and that it loses its significance as a consequence? It does not. Regarding primitive accumulation, permanence means that the principle of separation is constitutive of the capitalist form of social reproduction and that, it forms its dynamic of reproduction. Permanence, then, means a constantly re-constituted process of separation where nothing remains in the way it was. Adorno (1975) offered the concept of 'dynamic within stasis'; and autonomist Marxism focuses this in its theory of class composition.

The recomposition and decomposition of capitalist social relations rests on the permanently reproduced and expanded 'logic of separation' (cf. Negri, 1991). Capital is not constituted once and for all. It has continuously to return to its Ursprung: on the one hand, labour is reproduced on an expanded scale as free labour and, on the other, capitalist ownership of the means of production. Capital achieves this permanent return to its Ursprung with no cost: it is the outcome of accumulation. Zarembka does not object to the insight that the accumulation of capital entails the permanently reproduced separation of labour from the means of production and he argues that this has to be understood from within the 'logic' of accumulation proper. This is why he objects to the adjective 'primitive' when dealing with accumulation proper. Yet, he does not use the adjective civil to describe 'separation' within accumulation proper. If it is neither civil nor primitive, what is it? The connection between the relations of equality that the commodity form represents and the relations of inequality between labour and capital, needs to be determined, and that is negated, to show their social constitution. The conceptualisation of primitive accumulation as the secrete history of capital that is suspended (aufgehoben) in the commodity form, focused this connection. Primitive accumulation, I argued, is the first presupposition of capital and the commodity form is the first presupposition of the principle of capital, where the separation of the producers from their means forms the basis of their existence as mere personification of the relations between things. The original producers are indeed separated from their products which appear to have mastery over them. The critical issue here is the precise meaning of 'suspended'.

'Suspended' is usually used as the English translation of the term 'aufgehoben'. Aufhebung is a term that is most difficult to translate into English, and 'suspended' does not connote the full meaning of this typically many-sided German term. The understanding that primitive accumulation is 'suspended' in capitalist accumulation appears to have caused some confusion, leading to the charge primitive accumulation is equated with accumulation proper. I accept that I am guilty here of using an inappropriate term. The German term should have been used throughout to give full meaning to the argument that primitive accumulation is suspended in the commodity form as its 'subterranean condition, constitutive presupposition, and historical basis'.

In Hegelian language, Aufhebung connotes the dialectical process in which the negation of a form transforms the negated into a new form, in which it loses its independent existence and at the same time maintains its essence, constituting the substance of the new form. Aufhebung has more than just different meanings; they are also contradictory.

The concept entails all these different and contradictory meanings. Aufheben has three main meanings: 'to lift up' or 'to raise'; 'to make invalid' or 'to cancel/eliminate'; and 'to keep' or 'to maintain'. In our context, Aufhebung, thus, means that the historic form of primitive accumulation is raised to a new level where its original form and independent existence is eliminated (or cancelled) at the same time as its substance or essence (Wesenhaftigkeit) is maintained, putting it on to a new footing. In other words, the notion that the essence of primitive accumulation is suspended (aufgehoben) in accumulation proper means that the principle of primitive accumulation, that is separation, is raised to a new level, rendering primitive accumulation as a specific epoch historically redundant.

At the same time its essential character is maintained as the constitutive presupposition of capital: separation. In short, my argument that primitive accumulation is suspended in accumulation proper does not equate primitive accumulation and accumulation proper, asZarembka asserts. Rather, it shows that the principle of primitive accumulation, that is separation, is the constitutive presupposition of accumulation and that this principle constitutes the essence of the capital. Primitive accumulation is not the result of capital, but its presupposition; and once it is aufgehoben, it transforms from historical presupposition into the constitutive presupposition of capital. The historical presupposition of primitive accumulation inverts thus into the premise and precondition of capitalist accumulation. The result of primitive accumulation, that is the separation of labour from its means, has to be posed continuously in capitalist accumulation, rendering separation the premise and result of accumulation proper.

In short, capital cannot liberate itself from the results of primitive accumulation - they are constitutive of its form and have to be re-constituted continuously in the process of accumulation proper. Capital has constantly to return to its beginning. Were this not the case, the principle presupposition of capital, i.e. separation, would not longer hold and that is, capitalist accumulation would be something we read about in history books. This leads me to

Some Conceptual Considerations

Zarembka insists that primitive accumulation is a time-specific, never renewed, epoch that gave birth to capitalism. The restriction of primitive accumulation to a time-specific historic period of transition from Feudalism to Capitalism contradicts its characterisation as an epoch. Might it not be argued that Zarembka conceives of primitive accumulation as an epoch making historic thing in itself? If it is a mere 'historic thing in itself', his treatment of primitive accumulation as an epoch would mean that its meaning is internal to itself. History, once made, appears to be cancelled in the present which itself assumes the dubious quality as a self-constituted thing. Is history really bunk?

Primitive accumulation, Marx writes, 'is written into the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire' (Marx, 1983, p. 669). Have these letters of blood and fire been expunged from the modern world - have the annals of mankind been cleansed of this blood and fire? If so, how can one comprehend the social constitution of 'the logic of separation' upon which capital rests and which it has to reproduced on an expanding scale? There are, then, two sides to the primitive accumulation of capital. On the one hand, primitive accumulation is the historical epoch which precedes capital and from which capital developed. It characterises in this sense a time-specific dimension, a time of transition from capitalist pre-history to capitalist history. On the other hand, primitive accumulation is defined by its systematic character, the so-called 'logic of separation'. This logic which 'begins with primitive accumulation, appears as a permanent process in the accumulation and concentration of capital, and expresses itself finally as centralisation of existing capitals in a few hands and a deprivation of many of their capital (to which expropriation has now changed)' (Marx, 1966, p. 246). The systematic character of primitive accumulation is constitutive. It does not refer to a specific chronology but is rather a process of continuously re-constituted new 'beginnings' (cf. Bonefeld/Gunn, 1991). It posits the principle constitution of capital, a principle which capital has to reproduce on an expanding scale and to which capital has always to return in order to posit itself as capital. 'Capitalist production, therefore, under its aspects of a continuous connected process, of a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplusvalue, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer' (Marx, 1983, p. 542) Further, 'this incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the labourer, is the sine quƒ non of capitalist production' (ibid., p. 536). In short, '[c]apitalist production, therefore, of itself reproduces the separation between labour-power and the means of labour' (ibid., p. 541). The constitutive presupposition of capital, that is the divorce of labour from the means of production, is posited in the accumulation of capital as its result. I used the term aufgehoben earlier to indicate this inversion between the historical presupposition of separation and its transformation into the constitutive presupposition of capital. The 'logic of separation' is capital's historical presupposition and the premise and the result of its reproduction. Capital can not liberate itself from its constitutive presupposition; it has to posit it in order to maintain itself as 'the form assumed by the conditions of labour' (Marx, 1972, p. 492).

Primitive accumulation focuses the dissolution of the ursprüngliche unity between abourers and the means of labour (historical presupposition) and forms the concept of capital (constitutive presupposition). Marx emphasised this when he argued that 'it is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of historic process, but the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital' (Marx, 1973, p. 489). It is completely posited because the presupposition of primitive accumulation, i.e. separation, is aufgehoben in the social constitution of capitalist accumulation, and figures now no longer as its historical becoming but as the result of accumulation, a result that capital has to pose continuously to reproduce itself. 'The capital relation pre-supposes the complete separation between the labourers and the means by which they can realise their labour.

As soon as capitalist production stands on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually expanding scale [hence permanent]. The process, therefore, that creates the capital relation, can be none other than the one which separates the labourer from possession of his means of labour; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage-labourers [hence the systematic meaning of primitive accumulation]. The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production [primitive accumulation as time-specific]. It appears as "primitive" ["ursprünglich"], because it is the pre-history of capital and it forms [bildet] its mode of production [constitutive presupposition]' (Marx, 1983, p. 668; adapted from the German original: Marx, 1979, p. 742).

In sum, capitalist 'accumulation merely presents as continuous process, what in primitive accumulation, appears as a distinct historical process, as the process of the emergence of capital and' following Zarembka's proper referencing, 'as a transition from one mode of production to another' (Marx, 1972, p. 272). Despite the addition, the quotation still says that accumulation merely presents as a continuous process what in primitive accumulation appears as a distinct historical process, its result forms the historical basis of capital; it is aufgehoben in the form of capital and form its concept. And finally, the universal reduction of all specific human social practice to the one, some abstract form of labour, from the battlefield to the cloning laboratory, is indeed characteristic of a form of social relation based on the separation of labour from its means. 'The separation of labour from its product, of subjective labour-power from the objective conditions of labour, was therefore the real foundation in fact, and the starting-point of capitalist production. But that which at first was but a starting point, becomes, by the mere continuity of the process, by simple reproduction, the peculiar result, constantly renewed and perpetuated, of capitalist production' (Marx, 1983, p. 535). Further, 'it may be called primitive accumulation, because it is the historic basis, instead of the historic result of specifically capitalist production. ... [I]t forms the starting point. But all methods of raising the social productive power of labour that are developed on this basis, are at the same time methods for the increased production of surplus value or surplus-product, which in its turn is the formative element of accumulation' (Marx, 1983, p. 585). The systematic force of primitive accumulation does indeed weight like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

The violence of capital's original beginning is the formative element of the 'civilised' forms of equality, liberty, freedom, and utility. These forms mystify the real content of 'equality' as an equality in the inequality of property. They are the constituted forms of the original violence - violence as civilised normality (cf. Benjamin, 1965).

Luxemburg's dictum 'socialism or barbarism' recognises that the 'civilised forms' of capitalist accumulation have a sinister content. Barbarism is not an aberration of capitalism. Rather, the violence of its beginning is suspended in its constituted form. Just as the primitive accumulation of capital, Auschwitz has been written into the annals of human history. The difference between primitive accumulation and Auschwitz should not be overlooked. Primitive accumulation has been written into the annals of human history with blood and tears. Auschwitz has been written into the annals of human history with industrialised slaughter. The difference, I agree with Zarembka, should not be overlooked. Nor, however, should its connection be denied. Barbarism amounts to a form of primitive accumulation within the established relations of capital. Capital, in short, cannot leave its foundation behind. That is only possible for labour. This leads me to my

Postscript

Marx's critique of political economy is more than just an explanation of the accumulation of capital and the violence of separation that it entails - that too; it is also, and importantly so, a critique of the fetishism of capital as a self-constituted thing. This fetishism, as Marx's critique makes clear, has a real existence. The 'relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things' (Marx, 1983, p. 78). The critique of fetishism does not deny the reality of fetishism. It shows its social constitution and that is, it brings to the fore the social constitution of a human existence where the products of social labour appear to have mastery over, instead of being controlled by Man [Mensch] (cf. Marx, 1983, p. 85). Human emancipation means that the 'mastery of capital over man' has to be abolished so that Man's social reproduction is 'controlled by him' (cf. ibid.). This, however, means that the constitutive presupposition of capital, that is the separation that appears in primitive accumulation as a distinct historical process, has been overcome.

The opposing term to expropriation is not re-appropriation. The opposing term is realisation (Verwirklichung). The presupposition of this realisation is the transformation of the means of production into means of emancipation. 'All emancipation is the restoration of the human world and of human relationships to Man [Mensch] himself' (Marx). Its practical resolution has to abolish the constitutive presupposition of capital in order to create communism not as a competitor with but as a real alternative to capitalism.

 

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