Another work in progress.

Sidney Mintz writes that “[s]laves were a “false commodity” because a human being is not an object, even when treated as one.” (Mintz 1985, 43.) Mintz’s “false” commodities implies that there are “true” commodities. “True” and “false” here are used to register a protest. Mintz is saying that it is unacceptable to commodify human beings. Mintz’s protest is understandable, but contributes little in the way of understanding. Slaves were bought and sold by other people. That this practice is morally repugnant does not make the sale and purchase of human beings in some way a non-commodity exchange. No object is a “true” commodity in the sense of being naturally a commodity: commodity status is contingent upon a variety historical and social factors, including power relations. Commodified humans are special commodities in relation to this last, power relations, as, generally speaking, humans are only commodified when they are overpowered by those who do the buying and selling. (The same could be said of non-human animals.)

In the Grundrisse, Marx writes that, prior to production, there exists a “distribution of the instruments of production, and (…) of the members of the society among the different kinds of production.” (Marx 1973, 96.) This distribution involves the production and/or maintenance of relationships of overpowering I mentioned above. That is to say, economic activity occurs within and is composed of an ensemble of class relations, which are or which are maintained by power relations. Transitions between modes of production, then, can be thought of as power laden or political redistributions of class relations and of people into class positions. The beginning of capitalism, which Marx calls primitive accumulation, was such a redistribution.

Primitive accumulation created the class of workers who could live only by selling their labor power. This creation involved the removal of many avenues of access to use values by nonmonetary means, such that access to money became a necessary condition for access to use values needed to live. Money is accessible to most solely in the form of wages, and one gets wages only by working. Primitive accumulation thus created the compulsion to sell labor power, because otherwise people couldn’t get access to wanted and needed use values. This version of primitive accumulation can taken to be an originary and founding event, something which occurred in the past which inaugurated the capitalist era but was not itself capitalist.

David Harvey offers an important inflection on primitive accumulation, which he calls “accumulation by dispossession.” For Harvey, primitive accumulation “is a necessary condition for capitalism’s survival.” (Harvey 2006, 91.) This is a departure from the sense of “primitive accumulation” I used above. Harvey’s use of “is” means that for him primitive accumulation occurs in the present, during the era of capitalism. Harvey’s use of “survival” – an ongoing condition, rather than a one time event – means that for him primitive accumulation recurs or is ongoing. According to Harvey, primitive accumulation is not something outside of and prior to capitalism which gives rise to capitalism, but is something which occurs within capitalism, as a capitalist process. As Harvey writes later, “there is an aggregate degree of accumulation through dispossession that must be maintained if the capitalist system is to achieve any semblance of stability.” (Harvey 2006, 93.)

Harvey’s treatment of primitive accumulation and capitalism parallels Walter Johnson’s remarks on slavery and waged labor. The relationship between the two terms and what they name is one of “dynamic simultaneity rather than simple super-cession.” (Johnson 2004, 305.) For Harvey, primitive accumulation is not superseded by the capitalist mode of production but persists during or recurs periodically within it. For Johnson, the same is true of slavery.

Primitive accumulation involves power relations. One might say that primitive accumulation is the exertion of extra-economic force in the interest of economic ends. The distinction between force and economy, like the distinction between economic and extra-economic (political) force, should not be made too neatly, though. As Marx writes, “force (…) is itself an economic power.” (Marx 1967, 751.) Force and economy exist in a relation of “dynamic simultaneity rather than simple super-cession,” at least under capitalism. As Harvey writes, “the accumulation of power must necessarily accompany the accumulation of capital.” (Harvey 2003, 34.)

Foregrounding the persistence of primitive accumulation means foregrounding the role of and persistence of force within capitalism. Rather than self-regulating markets, capitalism is a continuing relationship of force whereby some are made to work for the profit of others. Emphasis on force also erodes the distinctions between labor which is free and unfree labor, along the lines which Johnson suggests. This erosion is problematic if it occurs in a flattening manner. Slave labor is different from non-slave labor paid by wages, just as waged labor is different from non-slave unwaged labor like much of what has been traditionally rendered “women’s work.” Certain historical moments do not make sense without distinctions between slave and nonslave, waged and unwaged labor.

On the other hand, the erosion of the free/unfree labor distinction due to the emphasis on force can be a positive thing. The erosion of the distinction can open things up and render then complex, rather than flattening things. The emphasis on force recognizes that free labor is not so free, that is to say, that capitalism is a relationship of coercion and the ‘freedom’ of the waged worker is often times a mask for coercion. The emphasis on force also helps make it possible to see that the unfreedom of slaves did not mean that slaves were without freedom in the sense of agency: slaves exercised freedom materially in revolts against their position as subordinated.

Starting from force as a central category, the industrial characteristics of 17th century Barbados sugar plantations which Mintz identifies no longer seem anomalous. As Mintz notes, a defining feature of industry is the role of authority: “discipline was probably its first essential feature.” (Mintz 1985, 51.) Industry is a highly effective mode of the exercise and maintenance of power over others, in order to compel them to work. From this perspective, Mintz’s findings that plantations involved a labor force “composed of interchangeable units” commanded by extremely time conscious overseers is becomes a case of a type of power relation, rather than a troublesome case which doesn’t fit into narratives of clear break between pre-capitalist and capitalist epochs.

The centrality of force fits within a transnational perspective, which, against U.S and other version of exceptionalism, aims to see how different locations related to other places on the globe. Barbados sugar plantations, for example, involved a circuit of capture and enslavement in Africa, using money and force from Europe, slaves being sent to Barbados to produce sugar which was sent back to Europe. At every moment, capital operated by force, was defended by additional force which could be called in if needed (in the form of state and private military power), and the aim was, to quote Harvey again “ever larger and continuously expansive power.” (Harvey 2003, 34.)

Asymmetry of force produced capitalism: the greater power of owners and state against commoners who were dispossessed, the greater power of slave catchers and their allies against those who were enslaved. In order to have a differential of power, one must have the resources need to overpower another (adequate quantities of such resources can be difficult to acquire, since even massive asymmetries of force are not always a sufficient condition for completely overpowering a group of people, as the United States government discovered in Vietnam and is rediscovering in Iraq). These resources were and are often transferred or loaned to others around the globe, out of the resources forcibly extracted and accumulated from local power relations. Capitalism both requires and reinforces differentials of power, allowing some to accrue greater power with which to subjugate others, via loans of money, goods, and people (private employees and soldiers). This makes the history of capitalism a history of changing differentials of force or power, which take on a variety of forms – slave and nonslave, waged and nonwaged – across different spatial, temporal, and social locations. Why one form arose at a given time, its dynamics, and its after effects locally and elsewhere, is itself a project for transnational history.

For Marx, the force involved in primitive accumulation deals with the production of people as workers. Harvey’s sense of primitive accumulation is more expansive. For Harvey, primitive accumulation can include not only the production of class relations and the placing of people into class positions, but also the seizure of natural resources and land, money, and elements and objects of culture. With all of these “the creativity embedded in the web of life [can be] appropriated by capital and circulated back to us in commodity form so as to allow the extraction of surplus value.” (Harvey 2006, 92.)

Using Harvey’s expanded sense of primitive accumulation, as force exercised for the seizure of not only labor bodies but other things as well, a number of aspects of American history can be seen as part of an ongoing history of primitive accumulation, of force, under capitalism. Mintz’s slaves in Barbados plantations were “primitively accumulated” – dispossessed of their self-ownership – by slavers. The process which William Cronon narrates of colonists imposing property rights over native usufruct rights, followed by the building of fences and the expropriation of animal and plant life was dispossession an a number of fronts. (Cronon 1983, 54-80.) The transitions which Richard White narrates of changing political relationships between Indians and the French, English, and colonial governments alongside expropriation of beaver pelts and Indian lands is another narrative of primitive accumulation. (White 1991, especially 94-140.)

In each of these cases, one power acting in a location – plantation owners, colonists, French traders, etc – had the financial and military backing of a much larger and usually transnational power. This larger power helped create the outcomes in these encounters. This larger power was itself the product of accumulations – and conflicts – elsewhere. Transnational study is in many respects a requirement for understanding the history and the efficacy of the capitalist mode of production, and of the class struggle within and against it.


Cronon, William. 1983. Changes In The Land. New York: Hill and Wang.

Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, David. 2006. Spaces of Global Capitalism. New York: Verso.

Johnson, Walter. 2004. The Pedestal and the Veil. Journal of the Early Republic 24: 299-308.

Marx, Karl. 1967. Capital, Volume I. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1973. Grundrisse. New York: Vintage.

Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin.

White, Richard. 1991. The Middle Ground. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.