Primitive accumulation of capital

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In Marxian economics, the phenomenon of primitive accumulation (also called previous accumulation, original accumulation) of capital concerns the origin of capital, and therefore of how class distinctions between possessors and non-possessors came to be.

Adam Smith's account of primitive-original accumulation depicted a peaceful process, in which some workers laboured more diligently than others and gradually built up wealth, eventually leaving the less diligent workers to accept living wages for their labour. Karl Marx rejected this explanation as "childishness", instead stating that, in the words of David Harvey, primitive accumulation "entailed taking land, say, enclosing it, and expelling a resident population to create a landless proletariat, and then releasing the land into the privatised mainstream of capital accumulation". This would be accomplished through violence, war, enslavement, and colonialism.

The crucial distinction that lies between marx's account of the pritimitive accumulation and that of political economists is this: whereas for political economists like Smith economy has transhistorical laws of motion—in his words, man has a natural "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange" and this is why we end up with capitalism, for Marx every economic epoch has its own historically specific laws of motion. Capitalism is for Marx by no means the result of human nature but that of a historical process.

In Capital, Marx writes: "The essential difference between the various economic forms of society, between, for instance, a society based on slave-labour, and one based on wage-labour, lies only in the mode in which this surplus-labour is in each case extracted from the actual producer, the labourer."

So what distinguishes one epoch from another is the mode in which the surplus labour, that is, the total product of labour minus the amount consumed for the producers' own reproduction, is extracted. As capitalism rests on the commodification of labour power, it presupposes the appropriate production relations that make this possible. The concept of primitive accumulation for Marx refers exactly to the genesis of such production relations. In his account of the primitive accumulation in Capital, Marx traces primitive accumulation to the process of the expropriation of the peasants from their means of production in the English countryside. As peasants came to lose their access to the means of production which had been secured under feudalism in the form of customary tenures, they were increasingly forced to sell the only thing they were left to sell: their labour power.

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