Draft paper presented at the Historical Materialism 2022 conference, SOAS London - 12 November 2022
Author: Jonas Van Vossole, Center for Social Studies, Coimbra University
This text is a preliminary exercise of reflection that seeks to develop and systematize Marx's approach of primitive accumulation and Rosa Luxemburg’s approach to imperialism as a tool to re-understand nature, race and gender as a relation between capital, the state and its boundaries. The text seeks to understand different forms of exploitation and discrimination with the background of value theory and thus a form of understanding of capitalism that facilitates unified forms of anti-capitalist struggle and solidarity.
Since the dawn of capitalist modernity, the boundaries of civilization have been considered as “nature”. Within this modernist perspective, “nature” always functions as “the other”, the “non-human” or at least the “non-social”. Nature is conceived as opposed to society, natural sciences are opposed to social sciences, the natural body is opposed to the human spirit.
The opposition between human and nature is a dialectic opposition though, as humans are, appart from being opposed, themselves also part of nature. The separation between what is nature and what is human is itself a field of constant struggles and change.
In most of the modern philosophy and social science, the state of nature functions as an abstract “original position”, a pre-civilized situation, upon which laws and theories about reality are projected.
This state of nature usually includes humans. Humans who are attributed only a “natural” dimension. Without a state and “modern” norms and institutions these humans are considered as uncivilized. They are often represented through stereotypes, as barbarian, indiginous, non-evolved, without culture or by contrast with an excess of culture. This is the state of nature of Hobbes in which violence, the homo-homini-lupus, reigned. A state of nature which could only be saved through the modern state and the European enlightened colonizer.
Such perspective is only the ideological reflection of the capitalist political economy which started to develop around the same time as when those theories became popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The divide between nature and labour tends to reflect the taqae,wo different forms of accumulation of wealth upon which capitalism as a socio-economic system came to be based.
Karl Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Program describes how both labour and nature are sources of wealth or use-values. It is, however, in the interest of capital to divide the categories of Labour and Nature in order for the accumulation process to be structured: Marx writes:
“Nature is just as much the source of use values as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. Insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.”
In Capital, Marx described the different forms of accumulation based on the exploitation of human Labour and the dispossession of nature, respectively as expanded and primary accumulation. The “normal” process of capitalist accumulation is called expanded accumulation and seems a purely economic process. It is the transformation of C into C+, through the exploitation of labour. Money is transformed into Capital when an initial amount of Money is used to acquire means of production, hire labour power, and eventually sell commodities through the circulation process. From the start its goal is to eventually achieve a larger amount of Money. To get this process started, however, an initial amount of Capital is necessary. The process of acquiring this initial sum is what Marx, in a polemic with the classical liberal economists, sarcastically unveiled as the “secret of primitive accumulation”. According to Marx, such primitive accumulation was based upon undisguised violence and bloodshed. In Capital, Marx writes:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation (p. 915).
Marx, however, saw this process of primitive accumulation rather as an initial or primitive phase of Capitalism.
Rosa Luxemburg, in her “The Accumulation of Capital” and her analysis of the phenomenon of imperialism, upgraded the status of this so-called “primitive” accumulation. Rather than approaching primary accumulation as a mere initial phase of the development of capitalism, Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism assumed that primary accumulation is a continuing process. This form of violent accumulation happens not only before but also parallel to expanded accumulation.
Luxemburg arrived at this conclusion from the analysis of the phenomenon of imperialism. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Imperialism became an ever more relevant phenomenon. The period was marked by the scramble for Africa since the Berlin conference in 1884 to the wake of the first world war. Luxemburg explained the logic of imperialism by the ever growing need for Capital to find new resources and markets. Capital needed to overcome the inherent obstacles or contradictions in the “normal” accumulation process - particularly during crises when those contradictions emerged. Value is thus continuously extracted both through exploitation AND dispossession. The latter occurred in the relation between capital and non-capitalist economies.
As you all know, Lenin, inspired by Hilferding, defined imperialism as the stage of capitalist development in which financial capital took over control of the state. Its goal was to guarantee the accumulation process beyond its national borders. The state is thus THE essential institution of imperialism. Its goal is to control non-conquered, wild, “natural” territories and resources: these included the scramble for the colonies, new trade routes and the development of slave plantations.
For Luxemburg, the phenomenon of imperialism - through its relation to the state - is essentially linked with political struggles and strategies of the working class. In particular, the practical implementation of imperial logics by the state are a consequence reformism in the Labour movement and the incorporation of this movement into the bourgeois state. Reformism guaranteed some economic advantages and limited political emancipation in the form of liberal democracy for the organized working class in the imperialist countries. It was particularly beneficial for its bureaucratized leadership and the labour aristocracy. At the same time, it made the working class complicit with imperial phenomena of war and colonialism beyond its borders. In order to achieve social peace at the domestic front, the class conflict - expressed in declining exploitation rates - was literally exported to foreign affairs. Literally, Labour aristocracy colluded for a social agreement that exchanged expanded accumulation for accumulation by dispossession.
Nationalism, chauvinism and racism became important political devices to save capitalism. In Luxemburg there is thus not only an essential economic but also a political link between primitive accumulation and expanded accumulation, between the factor Labour and the factor Nature, as we will defend here further on!
Over the last decades, various Marxist authors have been inspired by Luxemburg. Her approach was integrated into many new debates about Imperialism in Political Economy and International Relations. She inspired David Harvey's approach towards new imperialism, and the way how accumulation by dispossession became essential to understand the processes of privatizations and over-exploitation under neoliberlism.
Here, I defend however that this relation between Imperialism, political strategy and the two forms of accumulation can be generalized as a much broader phenomenon. In which sense is the silenced agreement of Union leaderships with industrial waste not a similar cooptation in detriment to renewed accumulation by dispossession.
The phenomenon of primitive accumulation is, after all, not restricted to international relations. It happens in all new territories or scales capital enters. These include all non-conquered and wild territories and phenomena such as space, the amazon, genetics, the internet… But more importantly for this discussion today: also in feminine bodies and so-called “uncivilized” races and nations.
Capital deals with the identities of gender and race in a similar way as it does to nature. In the historical development of bourgeois ideology, race and gender are literally “naturalized”. Within the framework of primary accumulation racialized people are pushed towards the fringes of civilization and humanity. They are robbed of their history and rationality. Animalistic characteristics are attributed to them. In the same way, women have long time been denied human rationality. Their essence being restricted to their natural body. Their social role has been pushed towards the “natural” activities of reproduction.
Plenty of authors have applied the schema of accumulation by dispossession to several of these “natural” fields. To name some examples: Maria Mies and Silvia Frederici have applied the idea of primary accumulation to the familiy economy and female bodies. Jason Moore has used it in the field of nature and climate. Nancy Fraser focussed on it in her debate with Dawson on the question of racial capitalism. Boaventura de Sousa Santos has developed the same logic in his paradigm on the Abissal line.
The difference between feminine and racialized bodies and other “natural” phenomena is, of course, that these are never fully, or only, “nature” - they are human Labour as well. The relationship between accumulation by exploitation and by dispossession is thus often complex, changing and dependent on political struggles.
Let us take the example of the position of a black male worker in the United States. Untill the abolishment of slavery; for Capital his existence was purely a natural resource; its value was extracted through a legal system based on pure violence. For the female enslaved worker, the lived reality was even worse, as besides the extracted value of work, she was reduced to a breeding machine of new slaves at the lowest possible cost. But the very possibility of understanding and organize resistance to these inhumane living conditions by these violated subjects, and their desire to change those things - the very essence of political praxis, is what makes them ultimately human. In contrast to other “nature”, they have the potential to be “labour” as well. Since the abolishment of slavery; the black worker is confronted with both regulated-labour and violent-nature dimensions of his or her life. While his or her labour is paid in the labour market - and can even over time have gained social and trade union rights, its value is kept low, - and super-exploitation occurs - through the continued structural violence in other aspects of life.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos explained this recently in one of his lectures on the Abissal line. The student living in the favela can have decent formal status and working conditions, but when he quits the job, he crosses back into nature when going home, confronted with police violence because of his skin colour and neighbourhood.
Ricardo Antunes, in his análises of working conditions of Uber workers during the Pandemic, aknowleged the same phenomenon: workers subject to both exploitation and expropriation in the same labouring proces.
Likewise the salaries of women are structurally kept low by their reproductive labour at home, the risk of domestic violence. They are confronted with their “nature” as they risk walking home alone at night. The nature-labour frontier crosses their reality at different aspects of their lives, depending upon political power relations.
None of the things described here is “new” to you, of course. But in the end, I believe a systematization of such approach provides a very useful overall framework to understand many different phenomena within the overall framework of value theory. It provides an advantaged position to understand race and gender for several reasons. First because it makes it possible to understand race and gender within the mechanism of commodity exchange and the capitalist political economy without abandoning the idea of class. And second because it provides a political framework to articulate those political struggles. It provides a framework for labour, feminist and anti-racist struggles, not just to work together in accidental alliances or political articulations. It structures alliances through the form in which the capitalist mode of production itself works.
At the same time, it is a critique of reformism. Thus it is a critique of liberal feminism and postcolonialism - like Luxemburg’s imperialism was a critique of the reformist SPD. It assumes that any improvement of living conditions or social emancipation within capitalism eventually tends to provoke a strengthening of imperialist logics towards its borders and a further expansion of primitive accumulation in other spheres and markets. It is thus a call for revolution. Luxemburg viewed international solidarity and anti-imperialism as essential in the anti-capitalist struggle. She claimed that the responsibility for this lies with the strongest and organized workers movements. In a similar way, it should be the primordial responsibility of organized labour to struggle for the emancipation of the subjects at the nature-labour border, while recognizing their own right to sovereignty. It thus also provides a critique of the male-chauvist and racist tendencies in bureaucratized labour.