Rakesh on primitive accumulation

Julio Huato juliohuato at hotmail.com
Fri Jul 11 10:19:20 MDT 2003


I have objections to your interesting posting.  You wrote:

>the real problem [...] 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.

I may run the risk of doing what I often criticize -- distorting someone's
arguments to better refute them.  Yet, it seems to me that your argument
(first paragraph above) is very similar to Ernst Mandel's in the
introductory chapter of Late Capitalism.  Marx's research project was
'radically unfinished' and it cannot be regarded in any meaningful sense as
a 'finished theoretical system.'  In a sense, this is obvious.  How can any
mental construct ever match the complexity and ceaseless movement of life?
But it would be unfair to believe that Trotsky, Kautsky, or Bohm-Bawerk
weren't aware of this.  So let me spell out my qualms.

The notion that those who believe in 'theoretical systems' deny the richness
and endless dynamism of social life is a non sequitur. Let me be a bit more
specific.  Let us call the following a 'theoretical system': "IF X, THEN Y"
where the reasoning that leads from X to Y is subject to the rules of logic
(which, to Marxists, is just a codification of the regularities of objective
life).  This is how mathematics is often presented -- and mathematical
reasoning of this type is a limit case of a 'theoretical system' in the
physical sciences and -- to the extent social life is still a 'process of
natural history' -- in the social sciences as well.

Note that, in the "IF X, THEN Y" objects, Y is implicit in X.  If we think
the link between the premise X and the conclusion Y is 'obvious,' we deem
these objects 'trivial.'  It is when the link is not so 'obvious' that we
deem them 'interesting' and -- from a practical standpoint -- more 'useful.'
  But of course that is somewhat (not entirely) arbitrary because in both
the 'trivial' and the 'interesting' cases, Y is implied by X.

Mathematicians are aware of the incompleteness of any and every theoretical
system (Godel, etc.).  The people who use mathematics should as well.
Mathematicians know that the Xs in their theoretical systems cannot be
deduced within the theoretical systems themselves.  The Xs are -- as
economists say -- 'exogenous,' which is a bad word in this context because
it's something left hanging out of your neat 'theoretical system.'  In that
sense, all theoretical systems are incomplete, undecidable.

Yet these 'theoretical systems' are used routinely by mathematicians and
non-mathematicians.  How come?  Let me not answer yet.

I believe Marx's arguments in Capital are of the "IF X, THEN Y" nature.
Take volume 2 of Capital.  Some of the premises are not spelled out: IF the
'whole social infrastructure' of a concrete capitalist society, including
the state, is in place, etc. THEN the bulk of 'social' capital moves around
this way: M-C{LP, MP}... P... C'-M'.  Does social capital in a
historically-concrete society really change forms or move around that way?
Well, IF the whole social infrastructure is in place, IF some people have a
lot of accumulated wealth, IF workers are separated from the means of
production, IF there are markets sufficiently large and deep to handle this,
IF we simplify a lot, etc., etc. THEN that is the tendency we would observe.
   We don't have a physical laboratory, we use abstraction.  And abstracting
means building "IF X, THEN Y" objects.  Nothing more and nothing less.

Marx's theoretical arguments in Capital are of the "IF X, THEN Y" type
because they had to be.  And, to put it a blunt way that will make some
readers squirm, the theoretical arguments *are* the structure that organizes
the historical detours Marx takes in Capital.  Not the other way around.

Bear with me.  If Marx's 'inversion' of Hegel's Logic is not such that
Hegel's Logic is entirely trashed -- i.e., completely rejected (something
that strictly speaking is impossible) -- then something stands.  Right?  I
wonder then if in Marx's views, Hegel's view of his Logic as a description
of the way people actually think stands.  Not of how people SHOULD think,
but of how they ACTUALLY think.  Just like the description of digestion
(Hegel's analogy), a process that takes place mostly without us being aware,
the way people actually think follows a 'logic' that is -- to some extent --
outside our awareness.  Of course, we will say, if one knows how digestion
occurs, we can watch our diets better, help it a bit, make it more
efficient, etc.  But, to a large extent, digestion will still be outside of
our awareness and our watching our diets, etc. will be like using the
Niagara Falls to wash our hands.  Obviously, the cognitive process (unlike
digestion) uses up some of our awareness.  Analogies have limits.  But, with
all these qualifications and more that Hegel obviously was mindful of, his
view was that the 'Logic' was a description of how humans actually build up
their knowledge -- whether they know what they actually do or not.

I believe such part of Hegel's 'system' stands in Marx.  I have read some of
Marx's works and I'm not aware of any writing where Marx explicitly rejects
this in Hegel's Logic.  On the contrary, there are places where Marx seems
to imply it.  In this sense, when Marx discusses 'his' method in Grundrisse
and Capital, he is not proposing an alternative, 'correct' way to do social
science that stupid or corrupted Smith, Ricardo, Mill, and others didn't
get.  No.  He's simply saying, look, we produce knowledge and science
because we need it, for survival at first and later for whatever we humans
decide that matters.  It's always been this way.  We routinely produce
knowledge to improve our lives, etc.  At least since the emergence of
capitalism, people have been preoccupied as well with producing knowledge to
reign in our messy social life.  And that is because we *need* to reign in
social life.  We cannot just accept exploitation, oppression, alienation,
economic crisis, etc. upon us.  We evolve radical needs.  Etc.  Technology
is about taking advantage of natural laws; obviously social laws are
radically different.  Yet -- until now -- history is something like a
'process of natural history,' i.e. a largely spontaneous process where
humans as individuals are not in control.  There's objectivity in social
life (although of a different type than the objectivity of nature), which
makes it somewhat discernible.  This is not social technology -- it is
'political economy' (and its critique), but knowledge production
nonetheless.  People like Smith, Ricardo, Mill, etc. are somewhat
inconsistent in their views about this 'natural historical' process, because
they had blinders placed by their personal and surrounding circumstances,
etc. but they made some good points.  And they came up with solid insights
in the same way we all do -- in this tentative, trial-and-error, digestive

Now, it is clear to me that Ricardo impressed Marx so much in part at least
because Ricardo's reasoning is unmistakably of the "IF X, THEN Y" type.
There are some passages where Marx applauds this clean, explicit clarity in
Ricardo's reasoning.  With time I could find the specific reference.  For
Marx, that's Ricardo at his best.  Ricardo's work is a shameless,
in-your-face 'theoretical system' of the "IF X, THEN Y" type.  Besides
sharing the common denominator of all bourgeois thought by assuming
capitalist production, markets, etc. are eternal, natural, etc., something
that doesn't let them see 'surplus value' in its generality but as 'profit,'
'rent,' etc., Marx thought this or that specific Ricardo's conclusion was
not supported by his premises and reasoning properly.  Some 'intermediate
links' are missing here or there.  But Marx did *not* criticize Ricardo's
'method' in the sense of Ricardo's using "IF X, THEN Y" objects as if they
were 'finished theoretical systems' when economic life is in fact a complex
and endless process.  If Marx criticized Ricardo on the grounds of Ricardo's
"IF X, THEN Y" way of thinking, then I'd like to know where.  I don't think
we will find that.  Theoretical systems are incomplete, theoretical systems
are undecidable, but theoretical systems work.  Better if they are explicit
about their ifs and thens.  A Marxist should appreciate this.  No matter how
much history you flesh your 'theoretical system' with, and how
'dialectically,' 'organically,' 'mushily' you do it, how discursively you
present it so that it doesn't look squared on the edges like mathematical
objects are perceived by non-mathematicians, still, if your dialectics and
mushiness is not just hand waving, then it still is a 'theoretical system.'
It is still and "IF X, THEN Y" thing.  Mandel seems to sense this, but he
doesn't just say it.  We should.

It seems to me that Marx, who had to shape his pitch to different media and
different audiences, assumed a lot of Hegel (unlike Hegel to wrote as if he
were the only reader of his stuff).  That is obvious in Marx's deeper works.
  But Hegel transpires in Marx's whole work.  And Hegel viewed human
cognition, yes, as a long arch whereby humans try to actively, subjectively
match or map the infinite scope of a moving universal object because the
Idea is the ultimate driver and substance of such unfolding universal object
whose ultimate expression is human history.  Cognition is an effort that --
as Engels would put it -- only in a long-run and asymptotical sense tends to
converge towards a perfect mapping of the objective world.  But however
flawed Engels' view of science might have been, in Hegel's Logic the Greek
tragedy in the human cognitive quest is that the mapping is not free or
arbitrary.  Ultimately, this subjective mapping of the object is a
'mediation' and stays that way.  ('Ultimately,' because we take turns at
making a 'means to an end' into an 'end in itself' and turning 'ends' into
'means to other ends.')

A mediation of what?  A mediation of human practice.  Hegel was better than
Feuerbach at seeing in 'der Gegestand' more than just 'Objekts' or
'Anschauung,' but something closer to the Marxist notion of 'Praxis.'
("Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was
developed by idealism -- but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism
does not know real, sensuous activity as such." - Theses on Feuerbach.)

When I read Hegel's Logic for the first time, it anachronistically reminded
me of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen.  Anachronistically because Georgescu-Roegen
could read (apparently did read) Hegel, but not vice versa.  In other words,
the cognitive effort made by humans is subject to the laws of
thermodynamics.  They are like the stations punctuating a long -- endless in
fact -- railroad track.  We need to get off the train every now and then,
check to see if we're moving in the right direction.  That's why we need
them.  Just as in industry we need tools (mediations, *means* of
production).  When we make a tool, we know that's not 'the' perfect tool.
If we were to remake the tool anew right before we use it for the first
time, just by what we learned building it the first time (our
self-transformation as producers) -- even if we used identical materials and
followed basically the same blueprint -- we would still be making a new
(hopefully improved) tool.  Moreover, our needs and productive goals would
have shifted by then as well.  So tools are highly transient, highly
contingent.  Yet we use them 'as if' they were 'finished' or self-contained
means to our ends.  Again, they are not, but we second guess ourselves
discretely, not continuously.  Otherwise we would be paralyzed by our
doubts.  (Just as the contradiction between individuation and cooperation in
political activity could paralyze us -- as you suggested in a recent

Surgeons tried to separate the conjoined Iranian twins.  They had a certain
knowledge and expertise at the point when they began the surgery.  They made
the choice of going ahead.  All the complex contingencies that popped up
during the surgery could have made them second-guess their expertise, but
with no time to sort things out 'theoretically' on the spot, they went on
all the way.  It ended tragically.  But it could have worked and then it'd
be a success.  Etc.

In a Georgescu-Roegen sense, there's an economy of science.  We are not in
the business of mapping the world exactly because we only have 24 hours a
day, minus the time we use to sleep, rest, work, have sex, struggle, etc.
We would die before moving one foot.  One way or another, if social life is
to be workable, we need to figure out a way to allocate time among cognitive
and non-cognitive tasks that can be sustained and 'does the job.'  In fact,
if neuro-science is right, our senses and brains are the result of a highly
discriminating evolutionary process.  We need brains basically because we
need to junk a lot of 'useless' information, not because we need to absorb
more of it in mass.  And it's that Hegelian digestive, trial-and-error
cognitive mechanism that decides (very imperfectly, of course) what is
'useless' and what is 'useful.'  'Marx's method' cannot be the Mandelian
never ending, boundless project of mapping the whole course of capitalist
history.  (This in fact may not do justice to Mandel, who was well aware
that we don't do 'Marxist economics' for its own sake.)  We map in a
discriminating way, we do it because we struggle and we need it for that.
First things first: We struggle to overcome capitalism.  We don't have all
the time to 'finish' Marx's unfinished research project -- we have a limited
amount of time to continue it, to push it forward a bit as we need it.
Meanwhile, we must take its (preliminary, unfinished) results as if they
were 'finished' and use them as tools.  If they are not good, we will know
it and we will refine them.  Then we will use the new ones, and so on.

We need theoretical systems.  They are preliminary, but in practice, we need
to take them as 'finished' objects.  We must do it in the same way we need
maps of the NYC subway system that don't incorporate the latest changes in
routes, that exaggerate the size of Manhattan because historically -- due to
the mobsters' historical control over public transportation or whatever --
Manhattan is the big hub, etc.  You want to travel from Queens to Brooklyn,
the 'shortest way' is through Manhattan.  Hence Manhattan must look bigger
in the map than it would in a proportionally scaled map.  The subway map
leaves out a lot of 'useless' information and distorts reality to some
extent because it needs to tell us what we want to know presto and
economically, and that only.  A proportional scale subway map would be
stupid.  A 1:1 map of Manhattan would be absolutely useless.  The subway map
we have is the 'theoretical system' that does the job.  We don't second
guess a subway map every time we use the train.  And a subway map is your
typical "IF X, THEN Y" thing.  IF NYC were like this and IF you were at this
circle labeled "Union Square," THEN you'd get on an imaginary train (not
drawn) at this circle and you'd go along that yellow line labeled W and that
would take you to that other circle labeled 'Times Square' where you'd get
off.  And that suffices.

We need science because (unlike my posting!) we need a way to simplify, to
cut things short.  We need a way to deal with the sensorial informational
overload that feeds our brains nonstop 24/7.  We need "IF X, THEN Y" things
not because we believe they are complete representations of a complex
historical process, but because we need incomplete shortcuts to make
practical choices and take actions to shape a history that we make but not
arbitrarily.  That is why I push the point that theory is objective in its
content and that counter-posing it to concrete history the way it is often
done on this list is not good.  (A few years ago, I had an e-mail debate
with Cyril Smith on this very topic and I just grew firmer on my
conclusions.  The debate began because Cyril objected to saying that we
'apply' a method.  Methods are not tools, like a hammer -- he said.  Yes,
they are -- I said, and it doesn't do justice to hammers to deny it.  And so

Those are my qualms.  I hope I made my points with the required subtlety.
If not, I'll stand corrected.  It won't be the first time I learn something
from you.

A few notes on other parts of your posting:

>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.

On the other hand, some Marxists misunderstand and consequently
underestimate the historical necessity of markets under a rather broad range
of social conditions.  Yes, there is a 'whole social infrastructure'
necessary to operate markets -- infrastructure that is not created through
the markets themselves.  But, if we are to be consistent in our viewing the
development of markets and the development of capitalist production as a
process of 'natural history,' then we must admit that such social
infrastructure has been put in place by societies driven by the 'natural
historical' necessity of markets and capitalist production.  Why would a
society have laws to regulate private ownership and market exchange if
market exchange were not to solve some of their contradictions (even if

I know this sounds Hegelian.  But it is not entirely Hegelian.  I'm not
talking about a meta-historical necessity here.  I am talking about a
necessity by concrete human beings in the specific contexts they inherit and
reproduce to find by trial and error, by computational iteration -- if you
will -- the 'optimal' social way to distribute their social labor time.

It is no accident that the use of optimization mathematical techniques
developed by, say, Newton, Leibniz, et al., are applied in economic analysis
and -- if carefully applied -- they work (imply effects that match our
observations).  They work, not because economists impose on economic reality
a structure that has nothing to do with economic reality.  No.  Social life
is -- in a highly mediated way -- a peculiar extension of the evolution of
nature.  If optimization models work in mechanics and thermodynamics, they
will work in economics too (to some extent, to the extent social processes
are, until now, processes of 'natural history').

I expect hell to break loose now, not with you who have a mind of your own,
but with others who decided already that I am mindless pusher of bourgeois
economics.  But I shall let readers think about my claim or reject it
offhand.  Their decision.

But back to whether the social infrastructure generated, not by the markets
themselves, but extra-economically, denies or excludes the historical (and
logical) specificity of markets and capitalist production.  No it doesn't.
My point all along has been that the extra-economic conditions that make
markets possible and operational are to be carefully distinguished from the
markets themselves and their operation.  If we don't draw the distinction,
we are not abstracting enough.  And we will pay a price for that.  Marx did
draw the distinction sharply and exploited it theoretically.  And if we are
to understand how concrete complex capitalist societies operate, we must do
the same.

>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

I agree 100% with this.  That is, I deny that my argument (the one that led
Rakesh to discover that I am an ignorant) is that (1) Marx's description of
primitive accumulation is exhaustive, (2) primitive accumulation is only
chronologically prior to 'pure' capitalist production,  (3) the accumulation
of wealth doesn't matter in the concrete history of capitalism, and (4)
imperialism was absent in the early history of capitalism.  You don't say
you're referring to my views, but I am one to whom Rakesh responded.

>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", [...] neglecting cultural, political and ideological



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