Regarding primitive accumulation, that is. This in large part boils down to “capitalism is a relationship of force,” the argument made via the category of primitive accumulation. There’s more that could be said, linking this to questions about the distinctions between the political and the economic, and about the understanding of the state within marxism and the impact that understanding has had on various marxist politics. The relationships between waged and unwaged labor is also relevant here via Federici’s work on women and primitive accumulation. Those are all matters for further inquiry, but not immediately.

The next immediate question that I’ve come to out of this is how to think of marxian categories in a way which admits of historical difference(s).

The third step will be to actually engage with some such differences in a case study or studies.

For now, step two.


1. Primitive accumulation and historical difference

In the Grundrisse, Marx writes that, prior to production, there exists a “distribution (…) of the members of the society among the different kinds of production.” (Marx 1973, 96.) Capitalist society, as a relationship between classes, is composed of class positions and of people who ‘occupy’ these class positions. Operations of power occur in order to manage the relationships of power between classes, the movement of people into and out of class positions, and to manage the form of class positions. 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.

In this understanding, primitive accumulation is an originary and founding event, which occurred in the past. This is an important sense of the term and the sense which is relevant here. I want to note two other senses of the term. David Harvey and Giovanni Arrighi have devoted much attention to primitive accumulation as a recurrent phenomenon within the history of the world market, related primarily to the spatial extension of capitalist social relations to new parts of the planet. A group around the British web-journal The Commoner, among others, attempt to theorize primitive accumulation as continual within already capitalist societies, as an intensive expansion of capitalist social relations within already capitalized spaces.

Not all primitive accumulation is equal, however. Primitive accumulation occurs in specific locations at specific times. To simply call all of these historical occurrences “primitive accumulation” and therefore equivalent flattens out the differences between them and adds little, if anything, to our understanding of history. Furthermore, this flattening can limit our understanding of capitalism in the present. Actually existing capitalisms originate from specific experiences of primitive accumulation. It stands to reason that differences within experiences of primitive accumulation connect to the differences between instantiations of capitalism in the present. These differences should themselves be a matter of inquiry today, and such inquiry must include differences in the historical origins of various capitalisms.

This limited and limiting understanding primitive accumulation is an example of a flattening tendency which is often but not always present in Marxism. Arrighi identifies this flattening tendency when he writes that while for capitalists, as buyers of labor power, “all members of the proletariat are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use according to their age, sex, colour, nationalirty, etc” it is a mistake “to infer, as Marx does, from this predisposition of capital a predisposition of labor to relinquish natural and historical differences as means of affirming, individually and collectively, a distinctive social identity.” (Arrighi, Marxist Century, 63.) That is to say, if one holds that capitalism generally tends to operate by a logic of equivalence, treating all spaces and times as equivalent insofar as they are functional to surplus value production, one must not repeat this same logic of equivalence in seeking to understand or criticize actually existing capitalism(s). Marx is ambivalent with regard to primitive accumulation and historical differences. He writes that primitive accumulation “assumes different aspects in different countries, and runs through different phases in different orders of succession, and at different historical epochs.” This implies a relative flexibility and an attempt to be attentive to the specifics of primitive accumulation in different place at different times. On the other hand, Marx immediately qualifies this, saying “[o]nly in England, which we therefore take as our example, has [primitive accumulation] the classic form.” Here Marx implies that England – rather than being one case study – is the norm for capitalism and its development, with other capitalisms and their development being departures from the English experience. (Capital 876.)

In one sense, there is much room for difference within the category of primitive accumulation. Primitive accumulation is the dispossession of populations of the means of production and means of subsistence and in an important sense of themselves: waged workers must sell themselves to receive a wage in order to buy use values, nonwaged workers must make nonmonetary transactions in order to secure use values. If one understands this dispossession as the imposition of a capitalist logic of equivalences, then what is acted upon in primitive accumulation is a field of differences, of inequivalents. Enclosure during primitive accumulation is the enclosure of differences. Within an area undergoing primitive accumulation, and within that area prior to primitive accumulation, there may be a variety of ways of doing things.

This understanding is problematic, however, for two reasons. It can be indifferent to the differences in areas undergoing primitive accumulation. That is, these differences can be held as things which get formatted into sameness, into the logic of capitalism. This may well be true in a sense – capitalism does exist and areas became capitalist which were not – but it’s not true in another. That formatting, the appearance of capitalism in some place is not necessarily the same as in another place. Primitive accumulation may proceed differently in different places and times, which in turn relates to how different places and times (under actually existing capitalism[s]) differ from each other (and themselves!).

It’s important not to posit primitive accumulation as a transition from difference to sameness, which would imply that under capitalism there is only sameness, equivalence. This is so, but only in a sense.

This is clumsly, but – the sameness or equivalence of sameness and equivalence should be qualified. From one perspective, an object is itself, it is the same as or identical with itself. A=A. My copy of Capital is my copy of Capital. A book is a book. To identify any particular book as a book implies traits that the book has in common with other books. To say, however, “this book and that book are both books” is not to say that the two books are the same. It may be to say that they are equivalent, depending on the frame of reference. The two books are the same insofar as they are books. They may be two copies of the same book (two editions of Capital, or two copies of the same edition), but their being the same is predicated on their being two, on their being different from each other. Difference, in at least one sense, persists within and is the condition of possibility for sameness (and vice versa).

Setting that aside, while within capitalism there is a logic of equivalence involved in rendering things commensurate (such that ratios can be determined) via money and pricing, difference persists within and is the condition for this equivalence and in the exchanges which embody and spread it. When two commodities are exchanged, the commodities can be equivalent – if they’re not then someone’s getting ripped off – but if they are the same then there would be little reason to exchange them. I might have reason to exchange one book for another – say I’ve read this one and I haven’t read that one – or to exchange on edition of a book for another – say a copy of the Fowkes translation of Capital for Moore and Aveling translation – but I’m not likely to exchange one edition of a book for another identical edition. I might – perhaps by accident, if they’re really identical – but it won’t matter.

Capitalism is about difference(s) with regard to the differences between the use values of different items, and with regard to the differences between amount paid for labor power and amount earned by the capitalist by selling the product of labor power (surplus value). One might say “these differences don’t make any difference, they’re just more of the crappy shit of capitalist society” which would be fair. These are market and police differences. A third difference is crucial to capitalism as well, which is the production of new needs over time, which provide new areas for capitalization and is part of struggle against capitalism. Thinking these spaces is similar to thinking the commons which are enclosed during primitive accumulation. In one register they’re equivalent, being non- or pre- or anti- (or Todd might say para-) capitalist (a sort of unifying a la the enemy-of-my-enemy). One the other hand, they’re not all the same nor equivalent.

That’s all for now. In closing, a long quote from a piece by some of the Midnight Notes:

“[C]apital cannot be society.

We might envision capital as a power grid overlaid on a vast nebula, with the working class as that nebula.(15) Workers are captured by and in some ways defined by the grid. That is the sphere of exploitation. However, the nebula is life: capital must draw on it and cannot survive without it, but the workers have life and can survive without the grid. As others have discussed it, this is the sphere of everyday life, however corrupted and influenced by capital, which seeks to control it and tap its energy and creativity — but no matter how controlling, capital cannot be everyday life, which thus remains a great reservoir of energy against capital.


Let us put this just a bit more formally (c.f., Caffentzis, in press). Capital creates identity via work and commodities. Workers sell their labor power and purchase consumer products, thereby creating identities as workers and consumers. Refusal and resistance move in all these circuits. More, it is only because workers can resist and refuse that they have the ability to negotiate to sell their labor power. If they have no autonomous space, if they are fully capital, they cannot negotiate and therefore cannot sell their labor power.

This is another way of saying that capital depends on the life energy of the working class — but that life energy cannot be reduced to capital nor fully possessed by capital. This harkens back to our earlier discussion of homogeneity and diversity: capital must have access to diversity, but must reduce that diversity to a usable homogeneity to control it, while maintaining the diversity in a capitalist, hierarchical form in order to have productive energy. [Said discussion is here.]

As capital attempts to control all aspects of life, the logical end of capital is pure machine (as science fiction writers often suggest). Ironically, the total triumph of capital would be the end of capitalism.

It is the space outside of capital, the space of human life not defined by capital, that is the fundamental source of power against capital as well as the basic source of capital itself. That is, working class struggles necessarily come also from outside the working class’ existence as working class and move not only within the circuits of capital but also extend or create spaces outside of capitalist circuits. ”