Sunday, December 07, 2008

Massive pub fights on primitive accumulation

Hi Tom,

first of all thank you for answering. I don't know, maybe it is just me, but looking through the Grundisse I had the impression that for Marx what comes first is the free play of human creativity, living labor. His discussion of the "civilizing power of external trade" seems to point out that it is only through trade of surplus product that human products become quantitatively comparable on the base of their exchange-value - as opposed to being only qualitatively comparable as use-values. Independently from exchange the object created by our own labor is only valuable because it is useful, not as embodiment of an abstract "socially-necessary-labour-time". We can compare our home-made trinkets only qualitatively, not quantitatively. So first is human creativity, then is trade and the commodity. And what's next? Then, while all of the product of social labour comes slowly to be commodified ("not even the bones of saints can resist this alchemy"), we have primitive accumulation.

My problem with primitive accumulation in Capital is that it is something that Marx leaves at the margin of the argument, as if it was an appendix. We have to "assume the existence of a primitive accumulation". One can not understand why primitive accumulation happened in that specific moment in time and in that fashion reading Capital. It is a story of the original sin, it is not explained either theoretically or historically. Why did primitive accumulation starts? In the Grundisse you have an explanation, more or less explicit, which says it has something to do with the effect of growing English foreign trade with Holland. One could also think of a technological reason, and I guess there must be also that in Marx somewhere.

But I don't think that saying this, saying that also primitive accumulation must be dialectically explained, is to state that there is an identity between the historical content of the book and the exposition of its contents. Indeed I think Capital can hardly been thought as an historian's book, although clearly there is lots of history in it. The exposition clearly does not want to be historical. So, I am not sure, but I think I really agree with your comments on "On the Method of Political Economy".

About the mode of exposition: Marx is trying to explain "the whole movement of capital" which "seems to turn around in a never ending circle". The explanation of that circular movement takes the first 25 chapters (all of the book but 70 pages). The last part, on primitive accumulation, poses two theoretical arrows at the opposite sides of the circle of capital. One very real, violent and historical - that is the moment of primitive accumulation - the other still to come, a possibility which Marx wants to indicate. I think the purpose of the last part of Capital is to draw these two theoretical arrows. That's why Marx doesn't go on explaining the origins of primitive accumulation itself. In my understanding the origins of primitive accumulation seem to lay in commerce, "external exchange" and the rise of commodification. I don't know if you would agree with that or if you see it as problematic.

Maybe on wednesday we will end up having a massive group fight on the correct understanding of primitive accumulation!
Nick: cheers for the link to the essay. It look's interesting, and I'll have a proper read of it tomorrow.

Amadeo: I'm not disagreeing with your comments, but just one question (in lieu of a further conversation in person, perhaps on Wednesday): does this notion of the commodity coming first mean that we end up with an identity between the historical content of the book and the exposition of its contents? In other words, does it mean that the developing arrangement of concepts and categories becomes akin to their 'real' historical development? I don't think that's what you're saying, but it does seem to imply it - and it's problematic, as the concepts are slowly moving from the abstract to the concrete, and we can't say that one epoch is any less concrete than another. It might be worth bearing in mind that Hegel himself avoids any kind of identity between a logical and historical sequence. He states this explicitly at the beginning of the Philosophy of Right (whilst explaining why private property is discussed prior to the family), and in the Phenomenology talks about the French revolution before Greek religion. One of the most useful texts that I've looked at whilst trying to figure out what Marx is up to in this wierd mode of presentation is the short piece entitled On the Method of Political Economy, also in the Grundrisse (in the introduction). In that one he talks about the need to use the commodity as the concept from which you can unfold all the others that explain society. ...but again, and as we discussed on Thursday, the emphasis that I'm placing on 'concepts' here is perhapsd problematic.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


I stumbled across this rather good article on 'capital’s attempt to measure immaterial labour and thus (re)impose value and the law the value' which uses the UK university as an example. Might be useful for people writing the self-reflection essay, and for anyone thinking of doing a Phd. Doesn't exactly bode well for the future of Cultural Studies Departments.....


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Commodity exchange and primitive accumulation

Oi guys,

here there is a great piece of the Grundisse which I found trying to make sense of what we were discussing earlier - how is the process of primitive accumulation related with the establishment of commodity production. Which one comes first?

Here, although the wording "original accumulation or primitive accumulation" would make us think otherwise, I think Marx is saying that the origin of the capitalist mode of production rests in the sphere of exchange. It is through the "“civilizing influence of external trade" (sigh!) that the process of transition to the capitalist mode of production start to realize itself. This, I think, for two main reasons.
First of all, through external commerce the product of labour is more and more – first only the surplus product, then the all of social production – is stamped with exchange value. The product is made into a commodity which value is determined by the quantity of socially necessary labour time embodied in it (dead labour).
Second, capital appears in its original form of merchant capital. It is the particular power-position of the mediator – ie the possibility of “outbargaining” and “cheating” (commercial profit not only appears as out-bargaining and cheating, but also largely originates from them - Volume III) – which allows the creation of capital before it becomes able to control the two poles of production which in the first phase is only able to mediate.

Here you have the first part of the fragment titled "Transition from Circulation to Capitalist Production" in the Grundisse (you can find it in Quite usefully I think it goes back to the example used by Marx in the chapter on Primitive Accumulation - ie the expropriation of the commons in England. Here, though, Marx goes one step further back in his analysis and says that the reason behind the movement of primitive expropriation was the growing commerce with Holland and the creation of new needs and new possibilities of realizing surplus production.

So, I would say, the commodity comes first. After all - if capital is dead labor which valorizes itself sucking living labor - it means that the product of human labour has first of all to take the form of dead labor - ie it must take the form of exchange-value as opposed to simple use-value - and only then can, given the right social relations are established (through violence), rise up and sucks the living.

That's also why, i guess, the chapter on commodities and commodity fetishism comes first.

Is this making any sense? Please let me know because i am trying to think this through.

Transition from circulation to capitalist production.
This movement appears in different forms, not only historically, as leading towards value-producing labour, but also within the system of bourgeois production itself, i.e. production for exchange value. With semi-barbarian or completely barbarian peoples, there is at first interposition by trading peoples, or else tribes whose production is different by nature enter into contact and exchange their superfluous products. The former case is a more classical form. Let us therefore dwell on it. The exchange of the overflow is a traffic which posits exchange and exchange value. But it extends only to the overflow and plays an accessory role to production itself. But if the trading peoples who solicit exchange appear repeatedly (the Lombards, Normans etc. play this role towards nearly all European peoples), and if an ongoing commerce develops, although the producing people still engages only in so-called passive trade, since the impulse for the activity of positing exchange values comes from the outside and not from the inner structure of its production, then the surplus of production must no longer be something accidental, occasionally present, but must be constantly repeated; and in this way domestic production itself takes on a tendency towards circulation, towards the positing of exchange values. At first the effect is of a more physical kind. The sphere of needs is expanded; the aim is the satisfaction of the new needs, and hence greater regularity and an increase of production. The organization of domestic production itself is already modified by circulation and exchange value; but it has not yet been completely invaded by them, either over the surface or in depth. This is what is called the civilizing influence of external trade. The degree to which the movement towards the establishment of exchange value then attacks the whole of production depends partly on the intensity of this external influence, and partly on the degree of development attained by the elements of domestic production -- division of labour etc. In England, for example, the import of Netherlands commodities in the sixteenth century and at the beginning of the seventeenth century gave to the surplus of wool which England had to provide in exchange, an essential, decisive role. In order then to produce more wool, cultivated land was transformed into sheep-walks, the system of small tenant-farmers was broken up etc., clearing of estates took place etc. Agriculture thus lost the character of labour for use value, and the exchange of its overflow lost the character of relative indifference in respect to the inner construction of production. At certain points, agriculture itself became purely determined by circulation, transformed into production for exchange value. Not only was the mode of production altered thereby, but also all the old relations of population and of production, the economic relations which corresponded to it, were dissolved. Thus, here was a circulation which presupposed a production in which only the overflow was created as exchange value; but it turned into a production which took place only in connection with circulation, a production which posited exchange values as its exclusive content.