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.