Occasionally it seems to be “steam engine time” for some idea as I’m writing a column, with an apparently synchronicitous series of related news items coming to my attention in just a few days. This time it’s the large-scale expropriation of land by privileged classes, at the expense of those who would otherwise be cultivating it.
In the first volume of Capital, Marx mocked the idea — common in classical political economy — of a “primitive accumulation” by which abstemious capitalists had painstakingly saved up capital to found industrial enterprises and hire labor. Against this “fairy tale,” he juxtaposed the real story of primitive accumulation: Massive robbery including wholesale abrogation of peasant property rights in land in early modern Europe, the imposition of mercantilist empire around the world, enslavement of millions, and expropriation of land and mass colonization in the colonial world.
In England this took the form first of enclosure of Open Fields (the arable land worked in common by villagers) and later the Parliamentary Enclosure of pasture, forest and waste. One heroic act of resistance to this robbery survives in legend — the band of so-called Diggers under Winstanley in the mid-17th century, who broke down the enclosures and attempted to cultivate the waste at St. George’s Hill in Surrey before their crops and cottages were burned by soldiers. If you’re looking for a stirring anthem for the global justice movement, you could do worse than Billy Bragg’s cover of the Digger’s Song: “We work we eat together, we need no sword; we will not bow down to the masters nor pay rent unto the lord.”
But as Marx pointed out, this real-world primitive accumulation wasn’t just a one-time thing at the dawn of capitalism, after which the capitalists instituted bourgeois legality and said “OK, no more robbery, starting … now!” This primitive accumulation, this robbery, is an ongoing phenomenon without which capitalism — a system of state-enforced privilege and rent extraction, as opposed to the free market — would cease to exist.
Primitive accumulation continued in the full-scale colonial partition of the Third World in the 19th century, which peaked after Marx’s death. It went on in the neocolonial period of the 20th century, with Third World landed oligarchies dispossessing peasant cultivators of their remaining traditional rights in the land in order to consolidate their plots for cash-crop export agriculture. Western extractive industries, like mining and oil, operate on concessions previously extracted by such means, or continue to work through local governments to obtain access to il and mineral reserves by similar means.
I’ve got a whole string of open browser tabs on examples of this phenomenon that just came to my attention just over the last few weeks. In Cambodia, the government has handed around a quarter of the country’s land area over to private corporations — including pristine forests, national parks and farmland cultivated by many thousands of people. In recent weeks numerous reports have surfaced of government authorities murdering peasants trying to return to their land.
Ethiopia plans to lease three million hectares to foreign investors. As Center for a Stateless Society Media Director Tom Knapp pointed out (“Zenawi: The Ethiopian Marriage of Marxism-Leninism and Capitalism,” August 21, 2012), this has already been the policy of a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist land-reforming regime for some time:
“At first, many of the previously state-operated ‘parastatal’ farms were retitled not to those who actually worked them, but to functionaries of Zenawi’s party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Starting in 2008, the state began leasing ’empty’ (read: Inhabited and worked by the same serfs who had worked it under the monarchy and the ‘people’s republic’) farmland to foreign ‘investors’ (read: Multinational corporations looking for cheap land and cheap labor, courtesy of political connections).”
In Tanzania, the state may force up to 48,000 Masai nomads from their traditional lands to create luxury game preserves for Middle Eastern monarchs.
At the Daily Mail, Fred Pearce writes of an assortment of “land-grabbers” (“Chinese billionaires, Saudi sheiks, Wall Street whizzkids and a motley array of British adventurers who agree with the financial guru George Soros that ‘farmland is one of the best investments of our time’”) who’ve taken control of African land equivalent to ten times the area of Britain. That land seizure, as with every other from the eviction of English cottagers to the tractoring off of Okie sharecroppers, has entailed the dispossession of village cultivators from land they naively regarded as their own.
In Canada, the federal government is attempting to “privatize” First Nations land (i.e. abrogate traditional common titles to the land and convert it into individual parcels that can be bought up by fossil fuels and mining companies). You can be sure this will be attended by the same kind of skulduggery and collusion between the state and local First Nations elites that characterized the “privatization” of the Open Fields and commons in England three centures ago.
In the United States the GOP, together with so-called “sagebrush rebels” out West, calls for “privatizing” tens upon tens of millions of acres of federal land. Of course what they call “privatization” means funny auctions, closed to outsiders, involving a handful of major industry players, with mining or timber companies buying the land at fire sale prices. And then, with title to millions of acres of rightfully unowned land, they can exclude homesteaders until they’re ready to develop the whole ball of wax in one giant blockbuster project — without the hassle and transaction costs of buying out or working around the homesteaders who already would’ve settled it in a just world.
Such land robbery serves two purposes, under capitalism: First, it separates the laboring classes from the means of subsistence, making them increasingly dependent on wage labor and reducing their bargaining power in the labor market. And second, since it is stolen land, it carries no capital outlay cost to be amortized; hence, it increases the average rate of profit at a time when corporate capitalism is plagued by chronic tendencies toward overaccumulation and stagnation.
Yet another reminder that corporate capitalism has nothing to do with a free market. It’s a system of state-assisted robbery by the rich and powerful.