Adam Smith and other classical political economists used the term “primitive accumulation” to refer to the process by which capital was concentrated in the hands of some people, who became the employers of other people with only their labor to sell. As depicted by Smith et. al, this was a peaceful process in which the industrious worked and saved, gradually accumulating capital with to expand their enterprises. Others, less provident and industrious, could subsist only by hiring themselves out as laborers to the industrious capitalists.
Radical critics later pointed out the ahistoricity — as ahistorical as the Social Contract — of the myth of primitive accumulation. Karl Marx referred to it as the “nursery tale of primitive accumulation.” In fact, as Marx pointed out, the actual process of original accumulation, by which property was concentrated in a few hands, was carried out through massive robbery — a history, as he put it, “written in letters of blood and fire.”
In Britain, the original home of the Industrial Revolution, it involved the expropriation of peasant land from late medieval times on through the enclosure of the Open Fields for sheep pasturage and later Parliamentary Enclosure of pasture, waste and marshland to which the peasantry had had rights. It involved social controls like the Combination Laws (which prohibited free association) and the Laws of Settlement (which functioned as an internal passport system much like those of the USSR and the South African Apartheid state). It involved mercantilist wars and colonialism, by which the European powers forcibly concentrated control of world trade in their fleets, conquered most of the Third World, stamped out competing native industry, enslaved millions, evicted natives from their land on the same pattern as the Enclosures, and looted entire continents of mineral wealth.
But the words “primitive” and “original” don’t mean this was a once-upon-a-time process of the distant past, after which “free market capitalism” began its normal functioning. In fact it continues to the present. All forms of economic exploitation, all forms of rent extracted through state-enforced monopolies, artificial scarcities and artificial scarcity rights, serve to accumulate more capital in the hands of them what already gots.
We need only read the news to be reminded, on a weekly basis, that primitive accumulation is still happening. A good example is the TransCanada corporation, which is seizing the lands of sovereign Indian peoples to construct the southern stretch of the Keystone XL Pipeline. TransCanada’s claim that “there is no legal obligation to work with the tribes” directly contradicts a large body of treaty law. Almost 200 years after the Trail of Tears resettled the surviving minorities of Indian tribes in Oklahoma, Keystone is condemning land inhabited by the Sac and Fox Nations. As Sandra Massey, aide to the Chairman of the Sac and Fox Nation, asked: “How many times do we have to move? Our dead are never at rest.”
Bear in mind that this isn’t TransCanada’s first abuse of eminent domain; the entire history of the pipeline’s construction is a sorry record of one theft after another. This is just one of the rare occasions when there’s some legal ground for fighting back. TransCanada was also embroiled, back in February, in legal conflict with the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council.
Meanwhile, in Namibia, communal village lands — like the common woodland, marsh and waste of England 300 years ago — are being illegally fenced off and “privatized,” with the connivance of the state. The same has been done in recent years with communal lands in Russia and China, with village authorities colluding with transnational corporations to rob the peasants of their land.
In 1649, in England, a band of landless peasants — “the Diggers” — tore down an enclosure at St. George’s Hill in Surrey and began cultivating the land in common. Although their cottages and crops were eventually burned by soldiers in service to the local landlords, their heroic stand survives as an example for people in similar circumstances today. From the landless peasant movement in Brazil, to villagers at Wukan in China’s Guangdong province who blockaded their village in protest against the selling of common lands to a factory hog-farming operation, spiritual descendants of Winstanley and the Diggers take their stand again, again, and again.
And unlike the repression at St. George’s Hill, every such stand is recorded on video to inspire other heroes around the world. For the first time in recorded history, the rentiers and owners of the entire planet live in fear that their days are numbered. In Oakland, Spain and Greece, we see scene after scene of cops in black uniforms and riot gear abandoning the pretense of legality and assaulting peaceful protestors with rubber bullets, clubs and teargas. Why are they doing it? Because they’re afraid of us.