Forwarded from Anthony (primitive accumulation, etc.)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Sep 15 10:22:03 MDT 2003

As I indicated in my first post in this series, the unexpected 'discovery'
and subsequent conquest of America by Western European Imperialism in the
16th through 19th centuries was the key event in upsetting all social,
political, and economic in the world.

If the Americas had never existed, Europe might not have defeated Asia and

In other words, the conquest of the Americas by Western Europe was a corner
stone in the formation of the first ever, truly world system. That system
was held together by two threads: European military power - paid for by the
plunder of the Americas, and a world market, which came into existence for
the first time as a consequence of European military power.

It would be wrong to call that system at its outset in the 16th century a
'capitalist system'. Even the capitalists of the time did not know they
were capitalists. It was a hybrid system of plunder and commerce.

Over time commerce began to dominate the system, as plunder became more
difficult and costly, and consequently less profitable. Within the new
world market, almost anything could be sold. It did not matter how goods
were produced, as long as they bore a price in some part of the world
market. All kinds of social relations of production can produce goods for
sale, and many kinds did, including especially European feudal relations,
independent artisans and small farmers, chattel slavery, non-chattel
slavery, communal tribal relations, and capitalism. For me, it makes sense
to call each of these distinct and different social relations of production
a mode of production.

Capitalism is in my view, the employment of wage labor to produce goods or
services which are then sold in the market in the hopes of realizing
surplus value. It has become the dominant mode of production in the market,
thus allowing us to call the world system, the capitalist system. It never
was, and is not now, the only mode of production that can survive in a
market, nor has it ever existed in a pure, abstract form unconnected and
unmixed with other modes of production.

In the process of the formation of this world system we can talk about the
'primitive accumulation of capital." This expression has two useful senses:
A) simply the first accumulation of wealth that allowed some people to
become capitalists by hiring other people, possibly investing some of that
wealth in 'fixed capital' as well. This is the pre Karl Marx concept. B)
the accumulation of the social conditions for capitalism, especially a mass
of poor, landless, workers willing to work for wages, but also the
accumulation of wealth by those who would become capitalists.

This was the view of Karl Marx. The first concept is valid, but trivial,
only useful to mark a period of history. The second concept is dynamic and
useful to analyze social processes that continue today, especially in the
depopulation of the countryside in Latin America, Africa, and Asia today -
and the formation of a gigantic new world proletariat. But this is a topic
for another series of posts.

Before we get to that topic, I want to return to the issues of the 16th
century. In the next post.

All the best, Anthony

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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