[Marxism] Michael Perelman on primitive accumulation

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 7 09:18:35 MST 2006

Articulation from Feudalism to Neoliberalism
By Michael Perelman
California State University (Chico)

Through a very roundabout way, I came to the conclusion that primitive 
accumulation has an
ongoing importance for the global economy. I was beginning a dissertation 
on capitalists'
application of technology in the context of dynamic game theory -- a new 
technique at the time
that I was probably ill-equipped to pursue. My advisor, George Kuznets, 
supposedly Simon's
smarter brother, just left my drafts unread.

Irritated, I became determined to write the easiest dissertation ever 
produced in our
department. I went to the departmental library to find the shortest 
dissertation ever
published. I determined to make my proposal the first chapter. I looked for 
a subject that I
though would be of relatively little consequence, so no advisers would be 
tempted to meddle.
I found a data series on tractors in the United States. I became especially 
interested when I
discovered that the person who had compiled the data had just retired and 
that nobody was
going to take up his work. Unfortunately, Kuznets suddenly got interested 
in my work, but
that is another story.

The dissertation had nothing to do with primitive accumulation, but my work 
interest in the subject, even though I did not know what primitive 
accumulation was at the
time. The American agricultural community used to regularly celebrate its 
success by
compiling statistics that showed that one farmer feeds 10, 20, 30 U.S. 
citizens. This number
grew steadily over the decades as the farm sector shrunk. I realized that 
this statistic was
ridiculous because a new social division of labor was at work. Farm labor, 
which had once
raised horses, for example, was now hard at work building tractors and 
other farm inputs.
Similarly, another part of the agribusiness industry took over farmers' 
traditional work in
distributing food.

At the same time, this number also reflected an element of primitive 
since relatively self-sufficient, self-provisioning farmers were the first 
to fall by the wayside.
At the same time, the tractor data led me to look at the fossil fuel 
consumption of the
agricultural sector. I concluded that the agricultural sector was consuming 
more than 10
calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of food that it was delivering to 
the table.
A bit of further research revealed that the large, supposedly successful 
farms that were
taking over the agricultural sector were not necessarily more efficient 
than small farmers;
instead, they just seemed to be making more intensive use of purchased 
inputs, many of which
depended upon cheap fossil fuels. When I showed this data to the professors 
in my
department, they dismissed it, explaining that if fossil fuels became more 
expensive in the
future, farmers could easily find substitute technologies that depended 
less on fossil fuels.
When the first oil crisis hit, severely affecting much of the farm sector, 
these same professors
denied having said what they did.




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