April 2007, Number 4


Primitive Accumulation in the Era of Globalisation

- - Arindam Sen

As regards economic essence, the eviction of peasants and other toilers from their natural socio-economic habitat is best understood in the Marxian framework of “primitive accumulation of capital”:

“The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realise their labour.” Involved here is “a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage labourers.” This “historical process…appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital…” (Capital, Volume I, Part VIII, Progress Publishers, p 668)

The separation, however, is not completely achieved in one stroke. Petty production lingers on even under capitalism and the process of separating the labouring people from the means of production has to be continued or “reproduced” again and again:

“As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains the separation, but reproduces it on a continually extending scale.” (Ibid, p 668) In a mature capitalist economy this is achieved mainly through the market mechanism but occasionally, barbaric extra-economic coercion is also utilised. In semi-feudal/backward capitalist countries, where market forces by themselves are not powerful enough to effect the complete separation by overcoming the primary producers’ economic and cultural attachment to their means of production and subsistence (e.g., forest dwellers’ dependence on forests, landless villagers’ dependence not only on common pastures, but on various indigenous or alternative occupations related to agriculture), capital aided by the state has to take recourse to the cruder methods of primitive accumulation much more decisively and regularly.

And this is what we see today. Fresh reinforcements of predatory big capital arrive on the horizons of India “dripping from head to foot” — as Marx observed — “from every pore, with blood and dirt.” It is an aggressive campaign jointly carried out by Indian monopoly capital and international finance capital, spearheaded and administered by the Indian state (the legislature, administration and judiciary working in perfect synchronisation in this regard) and all the ruling parties from the Congress and BJP to the SP and CPI(M). At the receiving end stand the true sons and daughters of the soil, whose traditional access to and rights over rivers, forests, grazing grounds are arbitrarily taken off; who are suddenly dispossessed of the lands they have been cultivating over generations.

In the whole course of primitive accumulation, Marx regards as most basic “those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour market….” (Ibid, p 669). He describes how at a certain point “law itself becomes… the instrument of the theft of the people’s land.” (Ibid, p 678) and adds, “The history of this expropriation, in different countries, assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods.” (Ibid, p 669-670; emphasis added). As noted here, such expropriation assumes different forms, features and orders of succession depending on peculiar socio-historical conditions in different countries. Thus in post-independence India we saw the first wave of this in the shape of Jawaharlal Nehru building the “temples of modern India” and things like the river dams; we witness another wave today in Raigad and Jamnagar, Barnala and Singur, with the archaic Land Acquisition Act 1894 being freely used for the theft of people’s land. The contexts and features very, but the essential economic implications remain largely the same; and so do the conditions of the different generations of development refugees.

While describing the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, Marx also takes note of various other forms/levers of primitive accumulation such as “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in the mines of the aboriginal population”, slave trade, piracy, pillage of colonies by European powers, “the system of public credit, i.e., of national debts” (governments taking loans from members of the public as treasury bonds), the “international credit system …”, the modern system of (over-) taxation and so on and points out the basic commonality: “… they all employ the power of the state….” (Ibid, p 703)

As the Indian experience shows, when primitive accumulation returns in the era of, and as an instrument of, neo-liberal globalisation, (such instances of the most modern utilising the services of the pre-modern should surprise only those who are blind towards comparable developments like ‘green revolution” in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP reinforcing and thriving on extra-economic (caste, gender) coercion and semi-feudal bondage.), it does so with a vengeance. And to be sure, expropriation of the agricultural population is accompanied by a whole range of other modern levers such as the debt trap and the WTO regime. But this is not the place to go into all these.

A Necessary Price for Development?

As far back as in the middle of the 19th century, Marx took note of “the identity between national wealth and the poverty of the people” (Ibid, p 678). In our time, the role of parasitic, decaying finance capital has made the contrast between the shining top and the darkening base of the social pyramid even more manifest. Whatever progressive role capitalism played in its initial period cannot be expected to repeat itself in the era of imperialism/neoliberal globalisation, when ‘development’ for the few has become coterminous with destitution of the broad masses.

But in any case, should not Marxists support/promote any measure — such as the proletarianisation of the peasantry — that speeds up the transition from feudalism to capitalism? To say this would be an outrageous vulgarisation of Marxism.

As one wades through Part VIII of Capital (Volume I) devoted to primitive accumulation and related issues, one cannot but feel the heat of a noble rage against the original sin of capital. Karl Marx never taught the working class to support the eviction and lumpenisation of its most dependable ally, the toiling peasants, any more than he supported British colonial rule in India simply because in certain respects it helped remove the Asiatic obstacles to the development of capitalism. His closest associate Friedrich Engels discussed the question in greater detail:

“What, then, is our attitude towards the small peasantry? How shall we have to deal with it on the day of our accession to power? …we foresee the inevitable doom of the small peasant, but … it is not our mission to hasten it by any interference on our part.

Secondly, it is just as evident that when we are in possession of state power, we shall not even think of forcibly expropriating the small peasants (regardless of whether with or without compensation), as we shall have to do in the case of the big landowners. Our task relative to the small peasant consists, in the first place, in effecting a transition of his private enterprise and private possession to cooperative ones, not forcibly but by dint of example and the proffer of social assistance for this purpose. …

We, of course, are decidedly on the side of the small peasant; we shall do everything at all permissible to make his lot more bearable, to facilitate his transition to the co-operative should he decide to do so, and even to make it possible for him to remain on his small holding for a protracted length of time to think the matter over, should he still be unable to bring himself to this decision. We do this not only because we consider the small peasant living by his own labour as virtually belonging to us, but also in the direct interest of the Party. The greater the number of peasants whom we can save from being actually hurled down into the proletariat, whom we can win to our side while they are still peasants, the more quickly and easily the social transformation will be accomplished.” (From The Peasant Question in France and Germany, our emphases to mark out positions the CPI(M) deviates from.)

Clearly, Engels’ basic concern here is to strengthen the revolutionary unity of workers and peasants even after the proletariat seizes power; in a similar vein Lenin stressed the decisive importance of strengthening worker-peasant alliance against landlords and capitalists even during the NEP period. Before seizure of power, and the more so in a peasant country like ours, the very core of proletarian class line must be to actively promote the militant alliance with the toiling peasantry. This is what the CPI (ML) is consistently doing all over India even as the official ‘Marxists’ join the Tata- Salem bandwagon in the basic form of primitive accumulation of capital – the forcible separation of the rural poor from their means of production and subsistence — and that before the seizure of state power! 