This post presents some writings and some videos that give an overview of the capitalist system.
The presentation below goes over the sources of capitalist wealth.
Note: When you have finished viewing that presentation, refresh this page so you can view the videos below.
Given how bad the capitalist system is for so many people, it’s easy to wonder where capitalism came from in the first place. It’s also no surprise that the history of capitalism is both a history of power and of resistance.
People fought against the initial rise of capitalism. The song below is about the Diggers, a group who fought the beginnings of capitalism in England. The lyrics are below the video.
The World Turned Upside Down
In 1649 to St. George’s Hill, a ragged band they called the Diggers came to show the people’s will. They defied the landlords, they defied the laws, they were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs.
We come in peace they said, to dig and sow. We come to work the lands in common and to make the waste ground grow. This earth divided, we will make whole, so it will be a common treasury for all.
The sin of property we do disdain. No man has any right to buy and sell the earth for private gain. By theft and murder they took the land. Now everywhere the walls spring up at their command.
They make the laws to chain us well. The clergy dazzle us with heaven or they damn us into hell. We will not worship the God they serve, the God of greed who feed the rich while poor folk starve.
We work, we eat together. We need no swords. We will not bow to the masters or pay rent to the lords. Still we are free though we are poor.
You Diggers all stand up for glory, stand up now.
From the men of property the orders came. They sent the hired men and troopers to wipe out the Diggers’ claim. Tear down their cottages. Destroy their corn. They were dispersed, but still the vision lingers on.
You poor take courage. You rich take care. This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share. All things in common, all people one. We come in peace. The orders came to cut them down.
What the Diggers were fighting against was a process called enclosure, the changes that made capitalism possible in the first place. As the example of the Diggers makes clear, this was a violent process. Capitalism originated with violence. The video below summarizes some of the history of enclosure.
The processes of enclosure didn’t just happen in England and they didn’t just happen once. They have been repeated, and been opposed, many times. In this video, David Harvey talks about recent examples, which he calls “accumulation by dispossession.”
In another speech, below, Harvey discusses the current crisis of capitalism. He goes over the different ways that people have tried to explain the crisis.
The origins of capitalism involved a lot of violence beyond England. What are some things you know about the history of violence and brutality that helped create capitalism? Where are some other places where people were pushed off the land or otherwise brutalized as part of the rise of modern capitalism? Dick Gaughan’s song is about English peasants’ resistance to being pushed off the land. They called themselves the Diggers. What are some examples we know of where people resisted these attacks? What are some other names we know that people in struggle have given to themselves? How important are these collective names?
Capitalism originated with the dispossession of people from their homes, ways of life, and ways of getting what they wanted and needed. David Harvey argues that today we’re seeing similar forms of dispossession. What are some areas today where we can see this happening? And how are people fighting back?
The first presentation, about where capitalist wealth comes from, is about exploitation. Capitalists sell the things we do and make. The source of capitalists’ profits lies in the difference between our wages and the amount that they sell that stuff for. The material below that presentation points out that capitalists get wealth in another important way, through dispossessing people of their livelihoods. Exploitation and dispossession are important parts of capitalism today and the history of capitalism. David Harvey talks about the importance of uniting struggles against exploitation and struggles against dispossession. How well are movements today doing at this? What examples can we think of when this was done well in the past?
The last presentation is about the current economic crisis and where it came from. Understanding where the crisis came from is important, but it’s also important to talk about the meaning of the crisis. Many people suffered greatly and are still suffering from the crisis. And many people have been suffering under capitalism for a long time. How has the crisis had an effect on your life? What problems of life under capitalism have persisted under the crisis?
Suggested Reading on dispossession
Karl Marx discussed the origins of capitalism under the term “primitive accumulation.” Reading chapters 27-31 of his book Capital give a good overview of how Marx understood the origins of capitalism at least in England. These sections are much more readable than a lot of other things Marx wrote, they’re short, and they can be read without reading the rest of the book first. Chapter 27 is available online here, and the rest of Capital is online here.
The Midnight Notes collective’s essay on what they call New Enclosures is an attempt to talk about forms of dispossession happening now. Michael Perelman’s essay on the history of capitalism in England is worth reading as well. Perelman argues that economists knew that capitalism required state intervention to create and maintain.
Harry Cleaver’s commentaries on Marx’s writing are definitely worth reading as well. Cleaver discusses the historical origins of capitalism, more recent forms of enclosure, and resistance to enclosure.