Rakesh on primitive accumulation

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Thu Jul 10 17:12:28 MDT 2003


Rakesh writes:

"In consigning the centrality of non economic coercion to early
capitalism, Marxism, always threatening to collapse into economism,
confronts grave problems as a social theory in terms of its
theorization of contemporary state power. Marx never did write the
book on the state, which may reflect not only time and health
limitations but an illicit theoretical demotion of non-economic forms
of power."

This is a really excellent point - Marxists are often more mesmerised by the
spontaneous operation of markets than are those business people who actually
have to operate those markets, and the latter are better aware of all sorts
of "extra-economic" factors, the whole social infrastructure which is
necessary to operate markets, and without which those markets break down.

Many Marxists seem to think that Marx's somewhat caustic, satirical
discussion of "primitive accumulation" represents an exhaustive account of
the process, but this is not true - one of Marx's main intentions was simply
to combat petit-bourgeois fantasies such as that, historically, the original
accumulation of capital necessary for the formation of industrial capitalism
had its principal source in thrift, saving and abstinence of consumption,
with or without a "Protestant ethic" etc. This source is overshadowed by the
systematic pillage of other foreign countries and the role of international
trade (emphasised by Pirenne), which provided the capital stocks for the
system of manufactories to expand. In this sense, imperialism is indeed
implicated in the origins of industrial capitalism, though, of course, the
modus operandi of imperialism changes with the growth of a world market in
industrially produced goods. Some Marxists deny this, because they feel it
undermines the idea that imperialism is the necessary outcome of the
operation of capitalism on a world scale. But this is more a "hot air"
argument, which flies in the face of the historical facts.

The role of the state in social reproduction has always been central in the
development of capitalism, the modalities of original accumulation are much
more diverse than Marx himself suggests, and original accumulation is, as
Ernest Mandel emphasised, a continual, on-going process, both within the
core and within the periphery of the capitalist system.

I do not think that Marx is guilty of an "illicit demotion of non-economic
forms of power", this is quite clear when you read his more journalistic
articles which deal with aspects of state power - and the same goes for
Engels. Engels later wrote that he and Marx had placed perhaps too much
emphasis on the economic side of things, neglecting cultural, political and
ideological phenomena. But the real problem was rather different, it was the
propensity of the epigones to convert Marx's radically unfinished research
project into a finished theoretical (or, worse, ideological) system, without
doing much research of their own. Thus, a variety of fin-de-siecle Marx
interpreters, from Bohm-Bawerk and Kautsky to Boudin and Trotsky and many
others refer to the "theoretical system" of Karl Marx. This however was
explicitly contrary to Marx's own intention, and in fact he refers in all
modesty at one time to his "brief sketch of the development of capitalism in
Western Europe".

Marx and Engels, especially in their later years, frequently ridiculed
scholars who sought to quickly knock up their scanty historical and
theoretical knowledge into a "theoretical system" or "philosophical system"
of their own, which provided a general framework for answering "all of the
answers to all of the questions". The "system" that Marx was interested in
was not a "philosophical system", but rather the capitalist system in
objective reality, and this is exactly the meaning of his inversion of
Hegel's dialectical system, his application of Hegel's exposition of
dialectical forms to the self-contradictory, self-negating and spasmodic
developmental logic of the capitalist mode of production. The development of
the market economy contains many conflicting tendencies, and Marx felt that
Hegel's conception of dialectical logic and historical dialectics was
appropriate to the theoretical exposition of the forms of capital and the
driving forces of the capitalist system. Hegel's dialectics are a dialectics
of thought, of ideas, and Marx says this has its origin in material reality,
that in material reality you have these dialectical forces operating, and
these are reflected in thought - the very possibility of Hegel to abstract
dialectical forms has its source in the growth of the cash economy.

In addition, I think Marx considered that "what drives politics" is
economics, i.e., politics follows economic developments and interests, i.e.
in the broad sweep of history, the superstructures of society adjust
themselves to developments in the economic base, i.e. business practice
shapes the forms of governmental power and law.

The "overemphasis" on economics was mainly in response to the idealist
philosophical interpretations of social life which Marx sought to overcome
from the 1840s, when the discussion about the "social question" was often
dominated by speculative philosophers. The bourgeois political economists
mostly did not discuss the "social question", this was more the province of
philosophers, and even today, there is a separation between economics and
sociology or other behavioural sciences. In an age where commercial forms
dominate the whole of human culture, the falseness of this separation is
becoming more and more palpably evident - and thus we get all sorts of
subdisciplines, such as "economic anthropology", "economic sociology" and so
forth. The academically practised social sciences cannot arrive at any
consensus about the object of their own discipline, but that is precisely
the result of the fragmentation of the totality of bourgeois society which
Marx sought to capture in an one overall conception linking the most diverse
aspects of human experience.

I don't think most non-Marxist authors interested in serious, scientific
historical research would nowadays disagree very much at all with Marx's
materialist conception of history, in practice, rather, they would disagree
with too schematic interpretations by Marxists of historical dynamics, and
with the specific patterns of social causation which Marx and Engels
suggested.

Thanks Rakesh for your post - I wish I had a command of the literature as
good as you !!!

Jurriaan









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