The Ideology of So-Called "Original Accmulation"

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  1. automattick
    I was reading sections of Capital earlier today and found the following passage on Primitive Accumulation to be particularly helpful in helping me understand how ideology buoyed an economic system--capitalism. This is from the beginning of Chapter 26 of the Ben Fowkes (Penguin Classics) translation entitled "So-called Primitive Accumulation":

    "This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past. Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority who, despite all their labor, have up to now nothing to sell but themselves, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly, although they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in the defense of property [...] In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder in short, force, play the greatest part. In the tender annals of political economy,, the idyllic reigns from time immemorial. Right and 'labor' were from the beginning of time the sole means of enrichment, 'this year' of course always excepted. As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic."
    I think it is quite clear what Marx is talking about in this passage, so eloquently rendered. The working class today were not the historic losers of a bygone era, descendants of ancestors that squandered their wealth and therefore lost in the lottery of life. What Marx begins to describe in later passages of the chapter is how the process, as he highlighted above, was above all one of violence and deceit, of theft and force, and so on. That is what Marx calls "primitive accumulation" and it still goes on today albeit on a much smaller scale.

    As cottage industries and traditional medieval occupations were beginning to be swept asunder by the emergence of industrialization in the urban centers of the world, men and women both had to give up their previous occupations in order to survive in this harsh new environment. The countryside underwent rapid depopulation and the urbanization of the medieval city grew exponentially. Former blacksmiths, weavers, carpenters, etc. were now reduced by in terms of their skill, their wealth, their livelihoods--in short, their way of life, as they took up residence in the big cities such as Manchester in northern England and underwent the process of what one could call "proletarianization." Wage-labor, or the sale of their labor power to a capitalist in exchange for a salary which was never equivalent to the amount of labor they had given, was the new norm.

    Bourgeois conservatives everywhere like to imagine that this process was a morally necessary adjustment, and not just that, but on in which the working class today still had to "atone" for their sins as Marx suggested in reference passage. While today they may not be as explicit in saying quite bluntly that the working class "deserves" to be where they are today, the residue of this thought still lingers on as presuppositions. Why? For one, in the democratic West, people attempt to overcome the immediate paradox which confronts them: how is it possible that in such an egalitarian society where the rights of all are ensured, can poverty still exist? This line of questioning is precisely how the ideology of original accumulation operates, the reality never quite matches up to our own indoctrinated worldview, and therefore must seek mystified explanations in order to surmount them, or keep the illusion intact.
  2. Ismail
    Although not a Marxist, R.G. Price wrote an article somewhat related to this:

    Regardless, Marx brought economics further into the realm of science. Just as Western views of economics had been integrated with a Christian worldview prior to Marx, Marx integrated economics with a Materialist worldview, i.e. a purely natural worldview, where “free will” was once again in question, and people’s choices were seen purely as natural processes that are governed by the laws of nature. Marx also took people’s emotions into greater consideration as well, which played a major role in his theories on commodity fetishism, human social identity, and religion.


    Because opposition to Marxism at the same time embodied an opposition to his economics and to his views on religion, religious thinkers became more involved in the school of economics, and philosophically religious concepts began working their way back into major elements of major economic theory. I say philosophically religious concepts, because we are not talking about Biblical principles or codes of religious law, but logical derivations...

    Once again, people’s economic conditions and economic choices were seen as a judge of their spiritual character. Wealth was seen as a sign of virtue and piety, and poverty was seen as a sign of sinfulness and divergence from God. This is not to say that all Neoclassical economists held this view, but that the popular acceptance of Neoclassical economics was greatly bolstered by this view....

    What the Neoclassical economists were not is they were not scientists, they were not sociologists, they were not psychologists. In general, they were not people concerned with the functioning of human beings - they were people concerned with the functioning of business.
  3. automattick
    say philosophically religious concepts, because we are not talking about Biblical principles or codes of religious law, but logical derivations...
    Yes. And whether they are Biblically-generated or not, the point is that they mystify the actual process of capital accumulation. Those adhering to neoclassical economics still believe that their Liberal ideas somehow govern capital in the way they see fit, and not vice-versa. Marx saw that not only were their ideas wrong (in sense that they did not go "deep" enough into the matter, i.e., theory of value or accumulation) but that in fact economic life dominates ideas. These ideas or theories in turn become a "material force" as when they begin to govern life itself.

    Here it is worth mentioning that Adam Smith was not entirely misguided. He would probably be an anti-capitalist himself, as Noam Chomsky once said that only under perfect conditions can markets make life better. Unfortunately, there were never any perfect conditions, which is why people should understand how accumulation works in the Marxian sense.
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