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Archive for the ‘Capital Volume 1, Part 8: The So-Called Primitive Accumulation’ Category

Marx here illustrates some of the theoretical points just made by reference to the conditions of production in the ‘colonies’; the contrast between these conditions and those obtaining in Western Europe, where ‘the process of primitive accumulation has more or less been accomplished,’ where ‘the capitalist regime has either directly subordinated to itself the whole of the nation’s production, or, where economic relations are less developed, it has at least indirect control of those social layers which, although they belong to the antiquated mode of production, still continue to exist side by side with it in a state of decay’; and to the measures proposed in the colonising countries (i.e. Britain) to hasten the development of truly capitalist relations of production, i.e. to push forward the expropriation of the private producer.

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The function of this – short, but theoretically highly important – chapter is to situate original (‘primitive’) accumulation in its historical context. ‘What,’ Marx asks first, ‘does the primitive accumulation of capital, i.e. its historical genesis, resolve itself into?’

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1  The Moments of the Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist

The genesis of the capitalist farmer was, as we have just seen, a gradual and historically long-drawn out process. The genesis of the industrial capitalist, as we shall see, stands in this regard in sharp contrast.

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The expropriation of the agricultural population and their expulsion from the land provided urban industries with a mass of wage-labourers uncontrolled by the guilds, and standing outside of them. But it also had another effect.

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We now know where, in original accumulation, the wage-labourers came from; the logical question now – for, as Marx points out, ‘the only class created directly by the expropriation of the agricultural population is that of the great landed proprietors’ – is where did the capitalists come from?

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The ‘free and rightless’ proletariat created in the processes described in the last chapter could not be immediately absorbed by the nascent manufacturing complex. There was thus created, as the expropriations took effect, a mass of beggars, robbers and vagabonds. ‘Hence, at the end of the fifteenth and during the whole of the sixteenth centuries, a bloody legislation against vagabondage was enforced throughout Western Europe.’

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Marx begins by commenting on the class structure of late medieval England.

By the end of the fourteenth century, serfdom had effectively disappeared. The majority of the population was composed of free peasant proprietors (the ‘yeomen’). The feudal bailiff had been replaced by the independent farmer. Agricultural wage-labour was carried out by peasants on top of their labour on their own land, or, exceptionally, by actual wage-labourers. These latter would, normally, also engage in private farming on their own land. They would also, along with other peasants, have access to common lands. Overall, the economic picture was marked by the persistent parcellisation of landed property. ‘In all countries of Europe, feudal production is characterised by the division of the soil amongst the greatest possible number of sub feudatories.’

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