The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation
By Michael Perelman
Duke University Press (2000)
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The Invention of Capitalism is about the origin of an economic concept known as “primitive accumulation.” Marx defined primitive accumulation as the process by which precapitalist modes of production, such as feudalism and chattel slavery, are transformed into the capitalist mode of production. Using the term somewhat differently, Perelman describes it as the brutal process by which government denies peasants the means of subsistence to force them into wage labor.
Tracing the rise of capitalism in the 18th and 19th century, the Invention of Capitalism also studies the origin of the concept in the work of classical economists, such as Adam Smith, Ricardo and Malthus.
Forcing Workers to Accept Wage Labor
Nearly all the 18th century economists and social philosophers seem to agree that workers never voluntarily accept wage labor so long they have alternative means of providing for themselves. They all acknowledge, either directly or indirectly, that it’s natural for human beings to prefer “self-provisioning,” in which they own or rent a piece of land to produce their own food, clothing, fuel and other necessities. In addition to allowing them more control over their work, there is more leisure time associated with this lifestyle, as well as strong community ties that disappear with wage labor. Unless brutal force must be applied to strip people of the ability to provide for themselves, they never voluntarily agree to wage labor.
In Britain, “primitive accumulation” was largely accomplished through the Enclosure Acts, the Poor Laws and the Game Laws. The Enclosure Acts drove peasants off large tracts of land they had farmed communally for thousands of years; the Poor Laws forced disposed peasants into poorhouses and workhouses; and the Game Acts denied them the right to hunt (ie poach) or gather berries, firewood etc on unoccupied land.
Capitalism developed more slowly in Scotland, France, Italy, Spain and the British colonies, where the ruling elite was less savage in stripping the peasantry of access to land. These regions enjoyed a long transition in which factory workers performed wage labor and self-provisioning simultaneously, by raising crops and chickens and engaging in spinning and other crafts in their leisure time.
The Innate Sloth and Indolence of Workers
As Perelman quite ably demonstrates, most classical economists gloss over the brutal force required to establish a successful capitalist economic system. A few of the lesser known political economists (Perelman focuses in Sir James Steuart, one of Adam Smith’s rivals) are honest about need for laws that prevent workers from self-provisioning. They blame the need for such laws on an innate tendency towards “sloth and indolence” in workers and peasants (and indigenous peoples).
Perelman devotes special attention to the Scottish economist Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, as well as the political economists and social philosophers who influenced Smith’s work. He also explores attitudes toward primitive accumulation in the work of Marx, Benjamin Franklin, Lenin and Mao Tse Tung. The forceful primitive accumulation that industrialized the Soviet Union and Communist China occurred much more rapidly than in Western Europe or North America. This makes the Soviet and Chinese process appear much more savage. However a close look at British history suggests they were far more brutal, especially in Ireland and the colonies, than either the Chinese or Soviets.
Yields Drop Under Commercial Agriculture
The part of the book I found most interesting concerns the drop in crop yields that occurred with the shift from labor intensive “spade labor” to commercial agriculture employing horse driven plows and eventually farm machinery. This corresponds closely with modern research showing that plowing reduces yields by destroying soil fertility. Then, as now, it’s clear that the goal of commercial agriculture isn’t to produce more food but to extract more profit from other people’s work.
A Return to Self-Provisioning
Perelman’s research seems especially significant in the face of growing unemployment and part time and casual labor. A growing number of unemployed and part time workers use their enforced leisure time to plant veggie gardens, collect rainwater, preserve their own food and make their own clothes and cleaning and beauty products. In other words, the cycle of primitive accumulation is being reversed, as more and more people leave formal employment and return to self-provisioning.
A fascinating overview of the forced shift from “self-provisioning” to wage slavery, and the recent necessity to return to past survival strategies that are ultimately healthier for individuals, communities, and the environment.
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I hope you download and read the book, Carol. Despite being geared towards academics (I don’t think you’ll find that a problem actually), it’s a fascinating read.
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Thank you for the suggestion, Stuart. Your overview of the book suggests that it weaves together many of the threads I’ve read before without such clear connections to capitalism. And the recent trend you describe is both logical and hopeful from my perspective.
Thank you for this. It is spellbinding, and incredible that we are seeing history now repeating itself exactly in the UK. There is no difference.
Works such as this give me strength and reinforce my long held beliefs.
Warm Regards –
Thanks, Robert. I had the same reaction to the book. The way Adam Smith and his buddies describe the advent of capitalism has never made any sense to me – mainly because it didn’t coincide with life as I experienced it. Ordinary people had such a good life – such strong social networks – when they all had access to land that they farmed communally. I always sensed they didn’t give that up voluntarily. That’s why I was so pleased to run across someone who took the trouble to research what actually happened.
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First of all, thank you for sharing this book my Earthling friend, stuartbramhall. I’ve started to read already. There are the things I want to add. I hope this book would help me to illuminate these.
French bourgeois revolution was born out from labor exploitation; but the working class could not show its power by moving together until 1917 revolution. (of course the events happened which theory will develop together in practice, such as the industrial revolution). In 1917, rural peasants and urban workers formed a proletarian revolution in government together in Soviet-Russia. It was impossible that the French bourgeois could do in the Paris Commune 1871, because there was no class consciousness at that time.
French revolution is an important action, which has experienced in the heart of the Europe. However, it needs to see that religious and racial conflicts are the major factor to prevent its spread across Europe, even inside France. Aristocracy is a situation that ordinary European citizen accepted, not only aristocrats. Even today there are effective traces of it. But it is not the same at east. The 1917 revolution has triggered to all kind of revolt against oppression, not only working class. We can not see the same thing in Europe. Actually, this is a condition that prevents the revolt of the European people who don’t belong the aristocratic class, in historical means. If the public class in France has not been unity against the occupation of Algeria; or with today’s example, if the public class in France does not oppose to pressure on different ethnic groups which belong to same social class with them actually, there is no class consciousness in here. Class consciousness does not contain ethnic discrimination. But the Europeans tried to build it through ethnic separation without aware. It didn’t achieve “to live together with different cultures”. It didn’t semtinize that the real problem was “capital-labor” conflit as consciously.
That thesis can be argued: It was easier in Russia, because there was no ethnic discrimination at there already.
No, that would be a wrong thesis. Because in Russia, there are more ethnic class than those estimates. Azeris, Georgians, Kazakhs, Tajiks, White Russians and others. They have different languages mostly. But we see that, while Stalin was Georgian, Lenin was Kazan Tatars. So the class struggle has reached a consciousness that can eliminate ethnic discrimination in here.
My idea is, this distinction needs to be addressed primarily in the western world and in Europe. If you noticed; the events emerge that will trigger ethnic discrimination continuously. If all the oppressed class in whole planet will unite, then the ring of this chain which was created by the capitalism monopoly needs to break by workers in western.
Thanks for your long thoughtful comment. I think you raise a really good point about the ruling class using ethnic divisions to keep us divided. I think you’ll love the section where Perelman writes about Lenin and the dilemma he faced in bringing about rapid industrialization in Russia. Perelman believes (and cities evidence) that Lenin was far more influenced by Adam Smith than Marx in his approach to primitive accumulation.
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I will check that section immediately:)
I am very impressed with this. If there is any way you could get it Tweeted it would be great. History repeating itself at this very moment in the UK/EU/U.S.
Thanks again –
Thanks for reposting my review. I’ve posted your article to my Twitterfeed. One point Perelman makes that I really like is that primitive accumulation isn’t in the distant mythological past. It’s going on now constantly, as African and South American farmers are driven off their farms to make way for multinational corporations.
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In case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s another excellent book about the devastating effect of The Enclosure Acts. Fred Harrison believes that throwing the peasantry off our communal lands amounted to cultural genocide for Europeans. This is where genuine European culture was replaced by a cheating culture, in which the primary goal is to get something for nothing: http://stuartjeannebramhall.com/2013/12/31/the-trauma-of-cultural-genocide/
Perelman sounds to me like he is trying to say libertarianism but all that will come out is self-provisioning. My question to those who advocate it so much is what are we supposed to do with those who have abused both the environment they live in and the infrastructure of the society that shelters them in an all you can eat buffet of self-provisioning? I don’t know about elsewhere but I sure do know about the United States and Dr, that is the traditional method of acquiring wealth in America. This criminal class, these hereditary psychopaths, these parasites, have greatly prospered from the lack of morality that must strike the reader of each paragraph scrawled out for posterity by the patron saint of duplicity and sloth Adam Smith. If you want to take what you need to survive then I will be the first man to help you carry it back to your cave but if you want to interpret “self-provisioning” as take what you want, like the current “free enterprise” advocates, then you are going have to do so over my dead body…
I’m really glad you raised the point about libertarian self-provisioning, Jack, because it’s really important. Perelman spends a really long time describing the 1000 years of communal agriculture that preceded the Enclosure Acts. Peasants were really poor, but they survived because they had really strong social networks and shared all their resources, as well as sharing their labor. They helped each other build their homes, raise their children, bring in their harvests and just basically looked after one another. This was the main reason there was no money to speak of during this period – there was an extremely strong expectation that other community members wouldn’t let you or your kids go without food, clothes or firewood. That if you helped them, others would reciprocate and help you when you were in need.
Reblogged this on News for the Revolution.
Dr. Bramhall, those that insist that capitalism run amok is THE only way to go, will go to any lengths to stop people from returning to a life of self-sustainment or become self-sufficient and that is the reason why here in America, people are getting fined and even jailed for ‘living off the grid’. It is to discourage them from living ‘debt free’ and to get off the ‘hamster wheel’ of work to pay off debt that never gets paid off. It takes 30 years or more to pay off a mortgage and student loans are another never ending debt with the constant accumulation of interest fees and wage garnishment of people who are in default, including the retired and the disabled. There is debtors prison for those who are unable to pay their taxes and who get behind on child support. This is usually aimed at the poor who are working at low-wage jobs. Our compliant acceptance of wage labor is destroying us; mentally and physically.
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Thanks for your very astute comment, Shelby.
You’re right. Student loans, mortgages, debt are all examples of modern day primitive accumulation that leave people no choice but to accept the exploitation and oppression of wage labor. People naively believe that they voluntarily select an occupation to work at. Nothing is voluntary about capitalism. Everything is held in place by violent force – if only the violence of being thrown in jail.
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“The result was a significant advance in the science of killing.”
Children are still taken (by the thoroughly corrupted government agency titled Child Protection Services in collusion with the medical establishment and family courts) for medical experimentation, drug trials, and ideological conditioning of the population. Children are increasingly being given false or inaccurate medical, psychiatric, and learning disabled diagnosis and labels and/or are targeted for minority or low-income status. The U.S. federal government, in association with the medical field and the public school system beginning with the heavy reliance on federal financial incentives to operate, have designed an information system which allows data collection on every child in the United States of America from “cradle to grave”, birth to death.
The words, programs, and organizations surrounding these practices are intentionally designed to sound altruistic, benevolent, and of immediate necessity to rescue, help, or empower suffering children. The truth is anything but. There is pure insanity and evil behind the very design and implementation of the monstrous practices being installed under the guise of “best practices” and “core _______ (fill in the blank, the foundations are the same) throughout the country.
Targeting the sick, the disabled, the poor, minorities, and/or the ideologically or socially unfit is nothing new. The focus on these segments of the population ALWAYS begin with the Humanitarian embrace of society’s “most needy”. The result is ALWAYS widespread abuse, large-scale suffering, genocide, and annihilation.
“History repeats” Understand history and understand the connections. What you don’t know can kill you or someone you love. While Socialism appears appealing to some, you must understand a society and an economy based on pure Socialism can NOT run efficiently or effectively for very long. At some point the consumers outweigh the producers. In order to keep the Socialist system afloat, the consumer population MUST be decreased significantly. TPTB know and understand this. The consumer becomes easy prey based on cost analysis for utter extermination. Survival of the fittest and the most productive becomes priority.
All socialist societies eventually fall to complete totalitarian rule under the ideology of Communism or Fascism, often the utilization of a combination of the two. To argue over the specific -ism being implemented is akin to arguing over which political candidate up for election is the lesser of two evils. The outcome is evil regardless of the path chosen.
-“The result was a significant advance in the science of killing, or ktenology.”
This paper discusses the origins of the activities being being secretly plotted behind closed doors in the upper echelons of government and elitist society as well as their consequences upon the body social, and the motivation of those participating in them. Thorough explanation of the assault on medicine and science to be used for ulterior purposes is exhaustedly researched and documented. The document in it’s entirety is located at the link below.
A propaganda barrage was directed against the traditional compassionate nineteenth-century attitudes toward the chronically ill, and for the adoption of a utilitarian, Hegelian point of view. Sterilization and euthanasia of persons with chronic mental illnesses was discussed at a meeting of Bavarian psychiatrists in 1931. By 1936 extermination of the physically or socially unfit was so openly accepted that its practice was mentioned incidentally in an article published in an official German medical journal.
Lay opinion was not neglected in this campaign. Adults were propagandized by motion pictures, one of which, entitled “I Accuse,” deals entirely with euthanasia. This film depicts the life history of a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis; in it her husband, a doctor, finally kills her to the accompaniment of soft piano music rendered by a sympathetic colleague in an adjoining room. Acceptance of this ideology was implanted even in the children. A widely used high-school mathematics text, “Mathematics in the Service of National Political Education,” includes problems stated in distorted terms of the cost of caring for and rehabilitating the chronically sick and crippled, the criminal and the insane.”
The first direct order for euthanasia was issued on September 1, 1939, and an organization was set up to execute the program. Dr. Karl Brandt headed the medical section, and Phillip Bouhler the administrative section. All state institutions were required to report on patients who had been ill five years or more and who were unable to work, by filling out questionnaires giving name, race, marital status, nationality, next of kin, whether regularly visited and by whom, who bore financial responsibility and so forth. The decision regarding which patients should be killed was made entirely on the basis of this brief information by expert consultants, most of whom were professors of psychiatry in the key universities. These consultants never saw the patients themselves. The thoroughness of their scrutiny can be appraised by the work of on expert, who between November 14 and December 1, 1940, evaluated 2109 questionnaires.
These questionnaires were collected by a “Realm’s Work Committee of Institutions for Cure and Care.” A parallel organization devoted exclusively to the killing of children was known by the similarly euphemistic name of “Realm’s Committee for Scientific Approach to Severe Illness Due to Heredity and Constitution.” The “Charitable Transport Company for the Sick” transported patients to the killing centers, and the “Charitable Foundation for Institutional Care” was in charge of collecting the cost of the killings from the relatives, without, however, informing them what the charges were for; in the death certificates the cause of death was falsified.
What these activities meant to the population at large was well expressed by a few hardy souls who dared to protest. A member of the court of appeals at Frankfurt-am-Main wrote in December, 1939:
There is constant discussion of the question of the destruction of socially unfit life—in the places where there are mental institutions, in neighboring towns, sometimes over a large area, throughout the Rhineland, for example. The people have come to recognize the vehicles in which the patients are taken from their original institution to the intermediate institution and from there to the liquidation institution. I am told that when they see these buses even the children call out: “They’re taking some more people to be gassed.” From Limburg it is reported that every day from one to three buses which shades drawn pass through on the way from Weilmunster to Hadmar, delivering inmates to the liquidation institution there. According to the stories the arrivals are immediately stripped to the skin, dressed in paper shirts, and forthwith taken to a gas chamber, where they are liquidated with hydro-cyanic acid gas and an added anesthetic. The bodies are reported to be moved to a combustion chamber by means of a conveyor belt, six bodies to a furnace. The resulting ashes are then distributed into six urns which are shipped to the families. The heavy smoke from the crematory building is said to be visible over Hadamar every day. There is talk, furthermore, that in some cases heads and other portions of the body are removed for anatomical examination. The people working at this liquidation job in the institutions are said to be assigned from other areas and are shunned completely by the populace. This personnel is described as frequenting the bars at night and drinking heavily. Quite apart from these overt incidents that exercise the imagination of the people, the are disquieted by the question of whether old folk who have worked hard all their lives and may merely have come into their dotage are also being liquidated. There is talk that the homes for the aged are to be cleaned out too. The people are said to be waiting for legislative regulation providing some orderly method that will insure especially that the aged feeble-minded are not included in the program.
Here one sees what “euthanasia” means in actual practice. According to the records, 275,000 people were put to death in these killing centers. Ghastly as this seems, it should be realized that this program was merely the entering wedge for exterminations for far greater scope in the political program for genocide of conquered nations and the racially unwanted. The methods used and personnel trained in the killing centers for the chronically sick became the nucleus of the much larger centers on the East, where the plan was to kill and to cut down the population by 30,000,000.
The original program developed included also the genocide of the English, with the provision that the English males were to be used as laborers in the vacated territories in the East, there to be worked to death, whereas the English females were to be brought into Germany to improve the qualities of the German race. (This was indeed a peculiar admission of the part of the German eugenists.)
In Germany the exterminations included the mentally defective, psychotics (particularly schizophrenics),epileptics and patients suffering from infirmities of old age and from various organic neurologic disorders such as infantile paralysis, Parkinsonism, multiple sclerosis and brain tumors. The technical arrangements, methods and training of the killer personnel were under the direction of a committee of physicians and other experts headed by Dr. Karl Brandt. The mass killings were first carried out with carbon monoxide gas, but later cyanide gas (“cyclon B”) was found to be more effective. The idea of camouflaging the gas chambers as shower baths was developed by Brack, who testified before Judge Sebring that the patients walked in calmly, deposited their towels and stood with their little pieces of soap under the shower outlets, waiting for the water to start running. This statement was ample rebuttal of his claim that only the most severely regressed patients among the mentally sick and only the moribund ones among the physically sick were exterminated. In truth, all those unable to work and considered nonrehabilitable were killed.
Thanks, gb888, for the link and for your long thoughtful comment. I think the important lesson for all of us is the need to work towards a way of life in which ordinary people have the ultimate say in how they organize and lead their lives and to resist authoritarian control, whether it comes from the state, multinational corporations or a combination of the two working in concert.
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It’s on the “to read” list (which is growing faster than I can make time to keep up) — although I presume that one can anticipate the gist of Perelman’s exposition if only from reading the following chapter from Marx’s ‘Capital: Volume 1:’ Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, that can be read online, here:
Unless you grasp this particular aspect of what Marx called ‘Capitalism’ — a word that for him referred to the actual reality of the society in which he lived rather than to an idealized fiction and which remains very much our own reality to this day — unless you understand the ‘dependency’ by ‘dispossession’ that underpins ‘capitalist accumulation,’ then you do not “get” capitalism: a majority without property titles to the means of production and subsistence; the necessity of having to work for a wage in order to live; and a free and open market that permits the capitalist cartels to introduce lower wage (or lower production cost) products into market exchange economies where the average income of labor (or production cost) is higher, profit margins being in the aggregate the difference between the so called ‘costs of living and production’ in one locality as compared to another.
So in other words, you can’t have capitalism without dispossession and poverty for the majority of the people incorporated into the system. Anything else is not capitalism.
And indeed, “. . .primitive accumulation isn’t in the distant mythological past. It’s going on now constantly, as African and South American farmers are driven off their farms to make way for multinational corporations.” Or in other words, primitive accumulation is what war is all about and nothing much besides, not to mention that it explains the purpose of debt.
Great review. Many thanks.
Norman, I’m very glad you inserted the word “dispossession” into the discussion, because that describes exactly what happens. Not only do the ruling elite totally rewrite our history, but they constantly redefine and reframe our daily experience to leave us in a continual state of confusion. It’s feels like really hard work at times just to reclaim our own experience instead of being constantly told what we should think and feel.
Yes, the dispossession isn’t only economic and political, but profoundly cultural and psychological. That is why it is crucial for us to recover through works such as Perelman’s a sense of the real history of what was done and continues to be done to us — quite deliberately. Otherwise, we are condemned to a condition of naive acceptance or induced helplessness before a state of affairs that, in our historical and collective amnesia, confronts us as something akin to a force of nature about which we can do nothing.
Once we begin to realize that our social, economic, and cultural context is to a high degree something that was and continues to be engineered, that what we thought we had to bear as immutable fate is really a confidence game, our mood begins to change from passive acceptance to something more appropriately defiant.
Historical awareness can be a powerful antidote to what is in effect an inflicted and collective resignation to what in fact does not need to be but for a blind complicity in our own defeat. And that is the reason that people like Michael Perelman (or E.P. Thompson or Karl Marx or Howard Zinn) ought to be read. Psychologically speaking, the truth can set you free, from a state of ‘dispossession’ to one of ‘self-possession,’ from inaction to action.
Interesting comment Norman Pilon. I’ll have to think on it for awhile.