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3, July 2011, 379–399
Primitive Accumulation and Capitalist
Accumulation: Notes on Social Constitution
ABSTRACT: Primitive accumulation is not just the historical start-
ing point of capitalism, but, qua coercive proletarianization, central
to its essence. It constitutes a speciﬁc mode of social labor and it is
this mode of labor that forms the concept of capital. Primitive accu-
mulation is therefore not just a historical past from which capitalist
social relations emerged, but also, and importantly, constitutive of
these relations, once established. Marx’s critique of political econ-
omy expounds economic categories as social categories founded
on the logic of separation. The methodological implications of this
reading of the signiﬁcance of primitive accumulation in capitalism
are profound and its political implications formidable.
ANY COMMENTATORS HAVE ANALYZED neoliberal
globalization to include developments akin to what Marx
referred to as “primitive” accumulation.
book The New Imperialism (Harvey, 2003) brought this stance to wider
attention and debate. He argues that primitive accumulation is the
basis of all further capitalist accumulation and that, in order to main-
tain the wheels of accumulation, it has eventually to be repeated,
especially in times of crisis. He calls this primitive accumulation within
capitalism “accumulation by dispossession,” and contends that in neo-
liberal capitalism accumulation by dispossession represents not only
a specific attempt to overcome the capitalist crisis of overaccumula-
1 See, for example, de Angelis, 2001; Dalla Costa, 1995, 2003; Midnight Notes, 2008.
* I wish to thank two anonymous readers at Science & Society for their helpful comments and
380 SCIENCE & SOCIETY
tion (2003, 140–42, 149–50, 158) but that it has in fact become the
dominant form of accumulation (ibid., 153, 172). Accumulation by
dispossession appears not only at capitalism’s periphery as a means
of developing capitalist social relations but also at its center. In his
view, accumulation by dispossession includes not only those processes
of expropriation that Marx identified as the violent separation of
the producers from their means of production and subsistence but
also, for example, the privatization of nationalized industries (see
The empirical argument about accumulation by dispossession is
well established, regardless of disagreements on detailed aspects of
interpretation. In this context primitive accumulation is discussed
as a permanent feature of capitalism either because it derives from
the expansive nature of capitalist reproduction (Harvey) or because
it is a capitalist means of subjugating labour (de Angelis, 2001). In
either case, its aim is expanded proletarianization. Primitive accumula-
tion is thus seen as a historical presupposition of capitalism and as a
necessary element of its reproduction. There is, however, hardly any
discussion in the literature about the constitutive presupposition of
primitive accumulation for capitalist social relations. The historical
presupposition of capitalist social relations is the doubly free wage
laborer, on the one hand, and the concentration of the means of
existence in a few hands, on the other. Marx’s account of primitive
accumulation refers to a range of processes that led to the divorce of
the direct producer from the means of production and subsistence.
As he put it, it is the “historical process of divorcing the producer
from the means of production,” transforming “the social means of
subsistence and of production into capital,” and “the immediate pro-
ducers into wage laborers” (Marx, 1983, 711). Capital “dripping from
head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (ibid., 712), was
created by the “complete separation of the laborers from all property
in the means by which they can realize their labor” (ibid., 668). He
says that capitalism presupposes this separation and maintains it “on
an expanding scale” (ibid.).
This paper focuses on this contention. It argues that capitalist
reproduction rests on this separation. It is its constitutive premise and
forms the concept of capital. The circumstance that its constitutive
premise in dispossessed, doubly free workers vanishes in its general
concept — value in process, money in process and, as such, capital
PRIMITIVE AND CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION 381
— says no more than, to begin with, that the violence of its becoming
and being hides in its appearance as an economic thing.
I argue that primitive accumulation refers, on the one hand, to
the historical processes from which capital was born. On the other,
it focuses the foundation of a certain mode of social labor — a labor
divorced from the soil, its means of subsistence, product, and exis-
tence; a labor separated from its object, its results, and its conditions
of social being (Negt and Kluge, 1981; Fracchia, 2004).
Labor in the
capitalistically organized form of social reproduction is labor divorced
from its conditions, and I argue that the conceptuality of capital is
founded on this labor. The logic of the “original” separation of the
mass of the population from the means of existence is the constitutive
presupposition of capitalist social relations.
Part I explores the foundations of capitalist production relations
in primitive accumulation. Part II expounds Marx’s notion that the
divorce of social labor from its means assumes the form of capital.
Part III examines the distinction between Forschung (research) and
Darstellung (presentation) and shows the significance of this distinc-
tion for Marx’s development of economic categories. The Conclusion
summarizes the argument and emphasizes its political implications.
The separation of the means of labor from labor “is the founda-
tion of [capitalist] production” (Marx, 1972, 272).
The understanding of primitive accumulation as a permanent feature
of capitalist reproduction goes back to Rosa Luxemburg (Luxemburg,
1963). She maintained that capitalism must always have something
outside of itself in order to stabilize, and that crises of capitalist accu-
mulation find a temporary resolution in the imposi tion of conditions
of primitive accumulation upon new populations, creating new mar-
kets, discovering new raw materials, and recruiting new and cheaper
proletari ans (cf. Marx, 1966, ch. 14). Writing in the 1970s, Amin (1974,
3) reasserted this view. The mechanisms of primitive accumulation,
he argued, “do not belong only to the prehistory of capitalism; they
2 I have explored this double meaning in Bonefeld, 1988; 2001; 2002; 2008a. See also Krahl,
382 SCIENCE & SOCIETY
are contemporary as well. It is these forms of primitive accumulation,
modified but persistent, to the advantage of the center, that form
the domain of the theory of accumulation on a world scale.” Har-
vey’s analysis follows on from Luxemburg and Amin, emphasizing the
processes of primitive accu mulation that the expansion of capitalism
into the periphery has brought about under neoliberalism, and he
expands on their analysis by arguing that it is also a contemporary
force at capitalism’s center (Harvey, 2003).
In this perspective primitive accumulation is a permanent accumu-
lation. It is the basis of the capitalist mode of production in its infancy,
and the result of expanded capitalist reproduction. However, this dia-
lectical movement, in which the historical presupposition of capitalism
becomes a result of its reproduction, suggests that the relationship
between accumulation by means of dispossession and accumulation
by means of “making value expand itself” (Marx, 1966, 237) through
exploitation of free labor is more intricate than Luxemburg-inspired
conceptions of the permanence of primitive accumulation allow. It is
the presupposition of capitalism and one of its “effects.” The dialecti-
cal transformation of “presupposition” into “effect” suggests that its
significance is innately capitalist. Indeed, Marx argued that primitive
accumulation “forms (bildet) the concept (Begriff ) of capital” (Marx,
1966, 246). In this view, the originality of primitive accumulation has
to do with its social contents, that is, the forceful separation of labor
from her means; and therewith the constitution of the capitalist mode
of labor that is founded on dispossessed labor. Capital rests on this
foundation. Its werewolf hunger for surplus labor, appropriating social
labor time without an equivalent, rests on and develops through the
expanded reproduction of dispossessed labor. The divorce of labor
from her means of subsistence, primitive accumulation, is more than
just an imperialist effect of expanded accumulation. It is the premise
of capitalist social relations, and as such determines the conceptuality
of the capitalistically constituted mode of production.
3 One reader asked that I clarify the term conceptuality (Begrifﬂichkeit) and wondered whether
it means something like “essence” (Wesen). While I appreciate the need for a clariﬁcation,
it is not as straightforward as it seems. What is the concept of essence, and how might its
conceptuality be conceived? Essence has to appear, for if does not, it is not the essence.
What however appears in appearance? There is only one world, and that is the world of
appearance. Essence, that is human social relations, appears, say, as “a metal, a stone, as a
purely physical external thing which can be found, as such, in nature, and which is indis-
tinguishable in form from its natural existence” (Marx, 1973, 239, writing on the money
PRIMITIVE AND CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION 383
Labor divorced from its means is the precondition and contin-
ued premise of capitalist social relations. As Marx put it, “the exchange
of labor for labor — seemingly the condition of the workers’ property — rests
on the foundation of the workers’ propertylessness” (1973, 515). Capitalist
accumulation reproduces its constitu tive presupposition in disposses-
sion as the result of its own operation. The laborer
constantly produces material, objective wealth, but in the form of capi tal,
of an alien power that dominates and exploits [the labourer]: and the capi-
talist as constantly produces labour-power, but in the form of a subjective
source of wealth, separated from the objects in and by which it can alone
be realised; in short he produces the labourer, but as a wage-labourer. This
incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the labourer, is the sine qua non
of capitalist production. (Marx, 1983, 535–36.)
Capitalism cannot divorce itself from its historical genesis — the
divorce of labor from her means forms the concept of capital.
The separation of “genesis” from “existence” underlies discussion
of primitive accumulation as a time-specific period of transition from
non-capitalist modes of production to capitalism (cf. Zarembka, 2008;
Bonefeld, 2008b). In this perspective primitive accumulation appears
progressive. It is, says Glassmann (2006, 611), a “necessary step in the
direction of fuller human development.” Glassman’s point is either
banal — the present is the result of historical development — or teleo-
logical in its conception of historical laws that unfold with necessity for
the benefit of human development.
He argues that Marx’s discussion
of primitive accumulation focuses “largely on proletarianization, since
he is pre-eminently concerned with the formation of what he takes to
be the most revolutionary subjects and the central issues over which
they struggle” (ibid.). Glassman seems to suggest that Marx was not
concerned with conceptualizing the social foundation of capitalism
in free wage labor, but rather in developing the revolutionary subject.
De Angelis (2001) argues similarly but with a different emphasis. His
subject is capital. He argues that primitive accumulation is a basic
ontological condition of capitalist production and he conceives of
fetish). Conceptuality focuses the essence of things in their appearance (see Backhaus,
2005). “Conceptuality expresses the fact that, no matter how much blame may attach to the
subject’s contribution, the conceived world is not its own but a world hostile to the subject”
(Adorno, 1973, 167). For an exposition of this point, see Bonefeld, 2009. See also Reichelt,
2005 on Marx’s characterization of the commodity as a “sensuous supersensible thing.”
384 SCIENCE & SOCIETY
primitive accumulation as a capitalist means to enforce market rule
on (new) populations. Capital, he suggests, employs “primitive accu-
mulation” as a weapon to decompose society’s natural desire to pro-
tect itself from its rule. The separation of “genesis” from “existence”
constitutes the blind spot of teleological, or in any case subjectivist,
thought, in which social practice is conceived of as a functional agent
in a structure of Being and Becoming. In contradistinction, I argue
that primitive accumulation is significant because it is the centrifugal
point around which resolves the specific capitalist mode of existence
of social labor, that is, human purposeful productive activity in the
form of a laboring commodity.
“Commodity” exchange and “money” pre-date capitalist produc-
tion. For money, however, to be “transformed into capital, the prereq-
uisites for capitalist production must exist” (Marx, 1972, 272). The first
historical presupposition is the separation of labor from her means
and “therefore the existence of the means of labor as capital” (ibid.).
For Marx, this separation comprises a world’s history.
Commodity and money are transformed into capital because the worker
. . . is compelled to sell his labour itself (to sell directly his labour power) as
a commodity to the owner of the objective conditions of labour. This separa-
tion is the prerequisite for the relationship of capital and wage labour in the
same way as it is the prerequisite for the transformation of money (or of the
commodity by which it is represented) into capital. (Ibid., 89.)
Expropriation “freed” the worker from the means of existence and
this “separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence
and . . . active [human] existence” is “completely posited only in the
relation of wage labor and capital” (Marx, 1973, 489). It is both “the
foundation of [capitalist] production . . . [and] given in capitalist
production” (Marx, 1972, 272). There is thus an inner connection
between the two forms of accumulation — the historical presupposi-
tion of mass expropriation is suspended in the necessity of the other
as its secret premise. “Every pre-condition of the social reproduc-
tion process is at the same time its result, and every one of its results
appears simultaneously as its pre-condition” (Marx, 1972, 507). The
constitutive content of primitive accumulation seemingly disappears in
capitalist accumulation but it does so only to reappear as the result of
its reproduction. It seems as if rationally acting individuals exchange
PRIMITIVE AND CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION 385
on the labor market as equals in liberty and freedom, each pursu-
ing their ends. In reality, however, the worker has sold herself to the
capitalist before they meet on the labor market. That is to say, the
apparent freedom of wage labor amounts to the same “old dodge of
every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the
money he has robbed them of” (Marx, 1983, 546).
The violence entailed in the “separation of free labor from the
objective conditions of its realization — from the means of produc-
tion and the material of labor” (Marx, 1973, 471)
appears now, at
least for some, in the civilized form of contractual relations between
equal legal subjects. For them direct coercion has been replaced by
(silent) economic compulsion. The existence of sellers and buyers
on the labor market presupposes the existence of the free worker as
the seller of his own labor power. “A presupposition of wage labor,
and one of the historic preconditions for capital, is free labor and the
exchange of this free labor for money, in order to repro duce and to
[valorize] money, to consume the use-value of labor not for individual
consumption, but as use-value for money” (ibid., 375, adapted from
the German original). The conditions of work confront labor “as alien
capital” (Marx, 1972, 422) because they “are lost to [the laborer]
and have assumed the shape of alien property” (ibid.). That is to say,
the existence of “object-less, free workers” (Marx, 1973, 507) is the
“foundation of capitalist reproduction” (Marx, 1983, 585). Capitalist
property rights rest on the divorce of labor from her means, compel-
ling the doubly free laborer to submit to “the command of capital”
(Marx, 1973, 508).
What “originally appeared as conditions of its becoming . . .
now appears as results of its own realization, reality, as posited
by it ” (Marx, 1973, 460).
In the German original, Marx does not speak about “primitive” accu-
mulation. This term is offered in the English translation and, I sup-
pose, it is as close to the German original as that is possible. Yet, it is
4 As documented for example in E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class,
Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, and Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down,
all published by Penguin (Harmondsworth).
386 SCIENCE & SOCIETY
inaccurate. The German word is “ursprünglich.” This term can also be
translated as “original,” “initial,” “unspoiled,” as well as “beginning,”
“first manifestation,” and “springing to life.” The term does not con-
note “causality,” where, say, an historical event “causes” the formation
of a distinct mode of social relations. Instead the term asks about
the genesis of the existent. The significance of primitive accumula-
tion is capitalist accumulation. In other words, and with reference
to Marx (1973, 105), the anatomy of Man can explain the anatomy
of the ape, but not conversely, the anatomy of the ape does not explain
the anatomy of Man. If the anatomy of the ape would really explain the
anatomy of Man than the ape would already possess Man as the innate
necessity of its evolution — a natural teleology or an already written
future. That is to say, and drawing on Marx’s critique of the “econo-
mists”’ naturalization of economic catego ries, such an approach would
present the capitalist mode of production as “encased in eternal natu-
ral laws independent of history,” and it is this conception that allows
the “economists” to smuggle capitalist relations in as the “inviolable
natural laws on which society and history in the abstract are founded”
(Marx, 1973, 87). Primitive accumulation is primitive only from the
standpoint of capitalist accumulation. Conceived as an ursprüngliche
accumulation it is not primitive at all — its terror that has been “writ-
ten into the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (Marx,
1983, 669) led to the complete separation of labor from its means
of existence, and this separation, which capitalist reproduction per-
petuates and maintains on an expanding scale, “forms the concept
of capital” (Marx, 1966, 246).
Capitalism’s original beginning weighs like a nightmare on the
capitalistically organized form of social labor. Not only is it “free” labor
“under the command of capital” (cf. Marx, 1973, 507, 508). It also
vanishes in its own social world, and appears in economic categories,
such as capital, profit and rate of interest, that, devoid of human–
social content and purpose, make themselves manifest behind the
backs of the producers. Thus, the capitalist and wage-laborer “are as
such merely embodiments, personifications of capital and wage-labor;
definite social characteristics stamped upon individuals by the process
of social production” (ibid.). Capitalist and wage-laborer appear as
human derivatives of those same economic categories that resulted
from the class struggle over the original expropriation of the mass of
the population from their means of subsistence.
PRIMITIVE AND CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION 387
Instead of relations of personal dependency, capitalist social
relations are governed by abstract forms of dependency. Economic
compulsion appears to issue directly from the things themselves. It
seems as if the social world existed twice, once as economic thing
that imposes itself on the acting subjects as if by the force of nature,
and then as human personification of that thing. Society makes itself
felt behind the backs of the acting individuals, as if it were a world
apart. The logic of separation is such that the human subject subsists
as a personification of her own social world. Capital is thus not only
“the form assumed by the conditions of labor” (Marx, 1972, 492).
It also appears as if commodities are “a product of capital” (Marx,
1966, 880) rather than of capitalistically constituted living labor. In
is the existence of social labour — the combination of labour as subject as
well as object — but this existence as itself existing independently opposite
its real moments — hence itself a particular existence apart from them. For
its part, capital therefore appears as the predominant subject and owner of
alienated labour, and its relation is itself as com plete a contradiction as is that
of wage labour. (Marx, 1973, 471.)
The extreme expression of this contradiction is interest-bearing capi-
tal: the “most externalized and most fetish-like form” of capital (Marx,
1966, 391). And the “wage” — the defining characteristic of wage
labor? “Labor-wages, or price of labor” is an expression that “is just as
irrational as a yellow logarithm” (ibid., 818). What, then, needs to be
explained is not the relation between capital and wage labor in its
direct and immediate sense — say, capital as subject or as structural
power — but rather the social constitution upon which the capital
relation is founded and through which it subsists (cf. Marx, 1966,
ch. 48). The capitalistically organized form of social labor presupposes
the expropriation of the direct producer, and is itself the posited social
form of that expropriation. It “originally appeared as conditions of
its becoming — and hence could not spring from its action as capital
— now appears as results of its own realization, reality, as posited by
it — not as conditions of its arising, but as results of its presence” (Marx,
1973, 460). As a result of its own realization, primitive accumulation
is a permanent accumulation.
What is to be understood by “permanent” in this context? In
Latin, “per” means through, way; and “manere” means to remain, to be
388 SCIENCE & SOCIETY
continuous; permanent then connotes a lasting character, something
maintained through and also in time. Regarding primitive accumula-
tion, permanence means that the divorce of labor from the means of
production is the innate necessity of capitalist social relations, which
capital has to reproduce as the foundation of its existence. Capital-
ist accumulation entails reproduction of the fundamental process
of separation, a process of separation in which nothing remains in
the way it was and in which, and at the same time, the essential rela-
tions between the classes remains unchanged: capital on the one
hand, and the doubly free laborer, on the other. Adorno’s concept of
“dynamic within stasis” focuses this well (Adorno, 1975): capitalism is
a dynamic, ever-developing and changing configuration of social rela-
tions, where everything that is solid melts, at the same time as which
the “law” of development remains unchanged: expansive reproduction
of the object-less, free worker as the foundation of the exploitation
of living labor, sacrificing human purposeful practice on the altar of
profit. That is to say, the freedom of labor from its conditions entails
the capitalist property right to preserve abstract wealth through the
“sacrifice of ‘human ma chines’ on the pyramids of accumulation”
(Gambino, 1996, 55). The law of capital can thus be summarized
as follows: the law is what remains in disappearance. Whatever the
specific and changing historical forms of capitalism, it rests on and
develops by force of “the logic of separation.”
I have argued that primitive accumulation is the historical pre-
supposition of capital, and that its systematic content forms the
foundation of capitalist social rela tions. Its content is suspended
in capitalist economic forms. The critical issue here is the precise
meaning of “suspended.” “Suspended” is usually used as the English
5 One reader noted that my argument points towards some sort of “stadial” analysis in order to
give an account of “how, why and when” the reproduction of the class relationship requires
“supplementation by social power ‘outside of’ the spontaneous market (value) system.” I
argue that free wage labor is constituted through its separation from the means of produc-
tion, and such separation is the presupposition, continuous result and constitutive premise
of generalized commodity production. It is for this reason that the so-called “spontaneous
market system” represents the appearance of the separation of labor from the means of
production (see Bonefeld, 2004). Capitalism is of course a very dynamic mode of production
which entails constant re-conﬁguration of its fundamental social relations. It would however
be wrong to distinguish between the abstractly conceived “social laws of capital” and their
historically concrete manifestations. Social praxis does not take place within the framework
of the abstract laws of capitalist development. There is only one world. The reality in which
the social individual moves day in and day out has no invariant character, that is, something
which exists independently from it. On this, see the debate in Bonefeld and Holloway, 1991.
PRIMITIVE AND CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION 389
translation of the German “aufgehoben” or “aufhebung.” Aufhebung is a
term that is most difficult to translate into English, and “suspended”
does not carry the full meaning of this typically many-sided Ger-
man term. The notion that primitive accu mulation is “suspended”
in capitalist accumulation does not collapse two distinct concepts,
as if there were no difference between accumulation by expropria-
tion (dispossession) and accumulation by means of exploitation of
“free” labor. This difference is important, but so, too, is the inner
connection between them.
In Hegelian language, Aufhebung connotes a dialectical process of
determinate negation. That is, the determination of a term negates it,
at the same time as the so-negated term transforms into a new term.
In this process, the negated term loses its independent existence and
it does so at the same time as its essence is re tained in the new term
— the new term is informed by the negated term. The circumstance
that the essence of the negated term is maintained in the new term
means that the essence of the old term is also the essence of the new
term. Aufhebung has more than just different meanings; they are also
contradictory. The concept entails all these different and contradic-
tory meanings. Aufheben has three main meanings: “to lift up” or “to
raise”; “to make invalid” or “to cancel/eliminate”; and “to keep” or “to
maintain.” In our context, Aufhebung means that the historic form of
primitive accumulation is raised to a new level where its original form
and independent existence is eliminated (or canceled) at the same
time as its substance or essence (Wesenshaftigkeit) is maintained in the
new form. In other words, the notion that the essence of primitive
accumulation is aufgehoben in accumulation proper means that the
principle of primitive accumulation is raised to a new level, eliminat-
ing the history of primitive accumulation as a specific epoch. At the
same time its essential character is maintained in the new form, that
is, the historical presupposition of capitalism becomes the premise
of its existence: labor divorced from its means becomes the result of
a process of accumulation that is based on the appropriation of the
surplus labor that capital is able to extract, and validate in exchange
in terms of socially necessary labor time, from the free laborer in the
hidden abode of production. Paraphrasing Marx’s treatment of the
commodity, the process of the disappearance of primitive accumula-
tion in accumulation proper “must, therefore, appear at the same
time as a process of the disappearance of its disappearance, i.e., as
390 SCIENCE & SOCIETY
a reproduction process” (Marx, 1987, 497): capitalist reproduction
perpetuates the doubly free laborer as its necessary condition of exis-
tence (see Marx, 1983, 535–36). In short, the notion that primitive
accumulation is suspended in capitalist accumulation emphasizes that
“the logic of separation” is the constitutive presupposition of capitalist
social relations (cf. Krahl, 1971, 223).
“Presentation must differ from inquiry” (Marx, 1983, 28).
I argued above that it is not the anatomy of primitive accumula-
tion that explains the anatomy of capitalist accumulation but that
it is instead the anatomy of capitalist accumulation that explains
the anatomy of primitive accumulation. This contention rejects
both teleological explanations, such as Adam Smith’s stages theory
of history, and natural law explanations of history, such as, again,
Adam Smith’s natural propensity of Man to barter and truck. The
circumstance that Marx discusses primitive accumulation at the end
of Volume I of Capital might therefore not be an afterthought, as
Glassman (2006, 610) believes. In his view, “Marx came to the issue
of primitive accumulation late in the day. . . . [A]fter having spent
hundreds of pages analysing the labor process through which com-
modities and surplus value are produced in capitalist society, the
process of ‘expanded reproduction,’ he backtracks to consider the
origins of the surplus that made the first process of accumulation
possible — the ‘so-called primitive accumulation’.” In distinction
to Glassman, dispossession does not create a surplus in wealth, it is
mere robbery of the many by the few. It changes the distribution of
the means of existence and in this process creates the social founda-
tion of private property, that is, the doubly free laborer. Primitive
accumulation, as I have argued, is the constitutive presupposition of
capital. Marx’s presentation of the historical presupposition of the
commodity form in Part VIII of Volume I of Capital is thus in part
explained by the insight that the significance of primitive accumu-
lation does not lie, as Glassman argues, in primitive accumulation
as the first capitalist surplus, but, rather, in the development of
the capitalist mode of social reproduction. That is to say, capitalist
PRIMITIVE AND CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION 391
accumulation “illuminates” the historical significance of primitive
accumulation, and not the other way round.
According to Marx’s own understanding of Capital, it was to “trace
out the inner connection” among the capitalist economic categories
(Marx, 1983, 28). Its subject matter is capitalist social relations of
production. It would therefore be “unfeasible and wrong to let the
economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that
in which they were historically decisive. Their sequence is determined,
rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society”
(Marx, 1973, 107). The chapter sequence of Capital I does not follow
historical events and the “mode of presentation” does not parallel
any actual course of events. Historical generation is analyzed in terms
of the fundamental categories of the existent social relations. The
constituted categories of capitalist economic forms presuppose the
formation of the wage laborer, a laborer free of the means of produc-
tion, free to sell his/her ability to work, and a laborer in whom labor
discipline has been instilled, more often than not by means of terror
and always abject poverty. This historical presupposition is the premise
of the capitalist economic categories that Marx seeks to decipher in
his critique of political economy.
With the exception of Horkheimer’s essays of the 1930s, the dis-
tinction between inquiry (Forschung) and presentation (Darstellung)
has by and large been ignored by commentators on Marx’s Capital
(Horkheimer, 1992; see, however, Schmidt, 1968; Psychopedis, 1992).
Following Alfred Schmidt’s account, the understanding of Capital
“stands and falls with the concept of presentation” (Schmidt, 1968,
35 6). For Schmidt Capital’s “mode of presentation” (Darstellungweise)
does not follow the narrative history of its development but begins
with the finished forms — commodity, exchange value, abstract labor,
money, etc. — the fundamental categories of capitalistically consti-
tuted social relations. He discusses their histori cal presupposition at
the end of the volume. Marx’s argument is thus in reverse order to
the actual, historical sequence in which the social relations underlying
these categories developed. That is,
6 In Hegelian language, capitalist accumulation “posits its presupposition.” On this in the
context of Marx’s dialectical development of economic categories, see Fineschi, 2009; Psy-
392 SCIENCE & SOCIETY
the method of presentation must differ from that of inquiry. The latter has to
appropriate the material in detail, to analyze its different forms of develop-
ment, to trace out the inner connection. Only after this work is done, can
the actual movement be adequately described. If this is done successfully, if
the life of the subject-matter is ideally reﬂected as in a mirror, then it may
appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction. (Marx, 1983, 28.)
The logical development of the decisive economic forms takes “a
course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development”
(ibid., 80). That is to say, the analysis “begins, post festum, with the
result of the process of development already in hand. . . . The char-
acters that stamp products as commodities, and whose estab lishment
is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have
already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of
social life, before man seeks to decipher, not their historical character
. . . but their meaning” (ibid.). The categories of abstract labor, value,
exchange value, money, capital, exploitation, surplus value, capital
accumulation, etc., presuppose the systematic content of primitive
accumulation in their conceptuality — a “conceptuality of separation”
(see Backhaus, 2005).
At the very end of Capital I Marx argues that “the capitalist mode
of production and accumulation, and therefore capitalist private
property, have for their fundamental condition the annihilation of
self-earned private property; in other words: the expropriation of the
laborer” (Marx, 1983, 724). The separation of labor from the means
of production “is given in capitalist production” (Marx, 1972, 272)
and “capitalist production . . . of itself reproduces the separation
between labor-power and the means of labor” (Marx, 1983, 541). It
does so by perpetuating the
conditions for exploiting the labourer. It incessantly forces him to sell his
labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour
power. . . . it is the process itself that incessantly hurls back the labourer on
to the market as a vendor of his labour-power, and that incessantly converts
his own product into a means by which another man can purchase him.
The logic of separation determines the class antagonism as a rela-
tionship of negative dependency — no capital without dispossessed
labor. That is,
PRIMITIVE AND CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION 393
capital pre-supposes wage-labour, and wage-labour pre-supposes capital.
One is a necessary condition of the other; they mutually call each other
into existence. Does an operative in a cotton-factory produce nothing but
cotton goods? No, he produces capital. He produces fresh values that give
fresh command over his labour, and that, by means of such command, create
fresh values. (Ibid., 542, fn. 3.)
Commodities must be realized as values.
The fact that value — whether it exists as money or as commodities — and
in the further development the conditions of labor confront the worker
as the property of other people, as independent properties, means simply that
they confront him as the property of the non-worker or, at any rate, that, as a
capitalist, he confronts them [the conditions of labor] not as a worker but
as the owner of value, etc., as the subject in which these things possess their
own will, belong to themselves and are personiﬁed as independent forces.
(Marx, 1972, 475–76.)
Capital appears here as the subject incarnate of the invisible hand
— a transcendental subject that is neither this nor that, and yet both
at the same time. Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism does not
reject the reality of the invisible hand that, with unyielding steadiness,
regulates the relations of abstract value by reproducing the inequality
in property between capital and labor on an expanding scale. Indeed,
fetishism is real. What the critique of the fetishism of commodities
seeks to reveal is its social constitution in the peculiar mode of social
labor. The world of things manifests itself behind the backs of the
individuals, yet it is their work — their sen suous practice subsists
through the reified world of things as manifestation of their alienated
Having developed the categories of value, value form, use-value
and exchange value, abstract labor and concrete labor, Marx develops
his argument from the transformation of money as money into money
as capital, to the analysis of the buying and selling of labor power. Then
it follows the free laborer into the factory, analyzing the relationship
between necessary labor and surplus labor, the constituent parts of
the working day. Here capital sets the free laborer to work, attempting
to appropriate as much labor time as possible — in effect an attempt
7 See footnote 3.
394 SCIENCE & SOCIETY
at expropriating the life-time of the laborer, seeking to reduce it to
labor-time in its entirety. From the production of surplus value we
arrive at the re-conversion of surplus value into capital. This conver-
sion “reveals” the law of equal exchange as fiction: the “separation of
property from labor has become the necessary consequence of a law
that apparently originated in their identity” (ibid., 547). On the other
hand, the individual capitalist has constantly to expand “his capital,
in order to preserve it, but extend it he cannot, except by means of
progressive accumulation” (Marx, 1983, 555). The risk is bankruptcy.
Thus, mediated through competition, personified capital is spurred
into action. “Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, [the
personified capitalist] ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for
production’s sake,” increasing “the mass of human beings exploited
by him” (ibid.). In sum, the law of private property entails that “labor
capacity has appropriated for itself only the subjective conditions
of necessary labor — the means of subsistence for actively produc-
ing labor capacity, i.e., for its reproduction as mere labor capacity
separated from the conditions of its realization — and it has posited
these conditions themselves as things, values, which confront it in an
alien, commanding personification” (Marx, 1973, 452–53). Capital-
ist reproduction thus reproduces the class antagonism by positing
capital as the owner of the means of existence on the one hand, and
the doubly free laborer on the other. It posits its own presupposition
— a presupposition that transformed from historical presupposition
into the constitutive premise of the conceptuality of a capitalistically
organized mode of social reproduction.
Turning finally to capitalist accumulation, Marx argues that it
“merely presents as a continuous process what in primitive accumulation,
appears as a distinct historical process, as the process of the emergence
of capital” (Marx, 1972, 272; 1983, 688). Capital accumulation repro-
duces the underlying relationship between capital and labor, and the
analysis of the fate of the worker shows primitive accumulation as an
essential concept for the analysis of the ongoing process of capitalist
accumulation. It also continues the process of expropriation in its
own terms, as capital centralization. Centralization of capital is not
accumulation by means of value expansion. Instead, centralization is a
form of expropriation. “One capitalist kills many” (Marx, 1983, 714).
At the same time, “the capitalist reproduces himself as capital as well
as the living labor capacity confronting him” (Marx, 1973, 458). “Each
PRIMITIVE AND CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION 395
reproduces itself, by reproducing the other, its negation. The capitalist
pro duces labor as alien; labor produces the product as alien” (ibid.).
Leaving aside his desperately triumphal remarks when analyzing the
historical tendency of capitalist accumulation — the “centralization
of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a
point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integu-
ment. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private
property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated” (Marx, 1983,
715) — his development of the economic forms reveals the logic of
separation as the condition of capitalist social relations at every turn
of the development of capitalist economic categories. It is the con-
stitutive premise of capital and as such forms the concept of capital
(see Marx, 1966, 246).
In sum, the “logic of separation,” which as Marx insists is consti-
tutive of capital, “begins with primitive accumulation, appears as a
permanent process in the accumulation and concentration of capital,
and expresses itself finally as centralization of existing capitals in a few
hands and a deprivation of many of their capital (to which expropria-
tion is now changed)” (Marx, 1966, 246). It is now also in the process
of transforming the individual owner of redundant or, in any case,
superfluous labor power into a bodily thing that can be hired out or
dissected into saleable parts. Paraphrasing Dalla Costa (1995, 12),
humanity is “turned topsy turvey, vivisectioned, and made a commod-
ity.” Marx’s notion of the doubly free wage laborer appears to have
been transformed. The doubly free wage laborer has indeed become,
at least for a growing part of humanity, more than just a laboring com-
modity. It has also become a carrier of body substances that, like any
other commodity, can be sold on the market (see Bonefeld, 2006).
I have argued that the violence of capital’s original beginning is the
formative content of the “civilized” forms of equality, liberty, free-
dom, and utility.
These forms mystify the real content of bourgeois
“equality” — violence hides in civilized forms (cf. Benjamin, 1965).
8 Or as Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, put it when recommending that children be
put to work at four rather than fourteen years of age: “ten precious years in which nothing
is done! Nothing for industry! Nothing for improvement, moral or intellectual!” (Bentham,
quoted in Perelman, 2000, 22). Ten lost years for progress, for civilization, for proﬁt!
396 SCIENCE & SOCIETY
The rule of the law of value presupposes the force of the law of pri-
vate property that primitive accumulation established in “antithesis to
social, collective property” (Marx, 1983, 713) — once the laborer has
been set free from her means to become the owner of labor power, she
is free to sell her labor power for a wage, and the capitalist acquires
the right to consume what he has bought by making the worker submit
to his command in the production process. Once the wage contract
is signed, the factory floor beckons. The labor contract focuses well
the class content of bourgeois freedom and equality. It connects the
exchange of commodities ostensibly undertaken between equal legal
subjects in freedom and liberty with exploitation. In contradistinction
to de Angelis (2001) and Harvey (2003), I have argued that primitive
accumulation is not a weapon that capital can employ to subjugate
labor (de Angelis), and that it is more than a necessary outcome of
imperialist forms of expanded reproduction (Harvey). I have argued
that capitalist accumulation is founded on, and depends on the con-
tinued reproduction of, a certain historically specific mode of social
labor, a labor divorced from its means of existence, and that this
labor is the constitutive presupposition of capitalist social relations.
The logic of separation has its reality not in primitive accumulation
as capitalism’s prehistory and/or as imperialist effect of expanded
reproduction, at home and abroad. It has its reality in capitalist social
relations — relations of separation that form the concept of capital.
For the “community of revolutionary proletarians” (Marx and
Engels, 1962, 74), the overcoming of capitalism’s constitutive presup-
position in dispossessed labor is decisive in order to transform the means
of production into means of emancipation, into the common, social
property of the associated producers themselves. It is not by means of
the nationalization of the means of production but instead by means
of their socialization that Man “recognizes and organizes his ‘forces
propres’ as social forces and thus no longer separates social forces from
himself in the form of political” and economic forces (Marx, 1964, 370).
That is to say, “the society of the free and equal” (see Agnoli, 2000) or, as
Marcuse (2000) put it, the “association of communist individuals” can-
not be built on the basis of separation of the social forces into political
forces and economic forces. Instead, it is “precisely necessary to avoid
ever again to counterpose ‘society’ as an abstraction, to the individual”
(Marx, 1959, 93). The community of revolutionary proletarians tackles
the secret foundation of capitalist social relations in the expropriation
PRIMITIVE AND CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION 397
of labor “by extending their own control over the conditions of their
own existence” (Marx and Engels, 1962, 74).
However simple the idea of human emancipation, its practice
is most difficult. I doubt that history contains an objective logic of
development, in which primitive accumulation figures as a necessary
step in the transition from feudalism to capitalism and from capital-
ism to socialism. The second and third Internationals subscribed to
naturalized conceptions of society and history, as if history contained
a developmental objective, which akin to Smith’s stages theory of his-
tory moves relentlessly through the ages until transition to socialism
becomes an “objective possibility.” The revisionists did so to argue
that revolution was unnecessary; the orthodox that revolution was a
product of natural necessity. If history does not, however, follow some
objective abstract historical laws of development, then it really is “the
activity of Man pursuing his ends” (cf. Marx and Engels, 1980, 98). In
this perspective, nothing is certain and history is not predetermined.
It takes no sides. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the “victory of
the political economy of labor over the political economy of prop-
erty,” if it is to come about, will come about by means of the collective
power of labor, a power that demonstrates by its cooperative effort,
especially cooperative factories, that social reproduction can be “car-
ried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class
of hands” (Marx, 1976, 10 11).
The critique of class society finds the
positive only in the classless society, in communism.
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