An ongoing series going through Marx, Capital Volume 1. Access free electronic copies of Volume 1 here or here. [Capital Volume I, Chapters 26-29, pgs. 870-908 of Penguin Press]
We’re almost through! This should be the second to last installment.
These last chapters of Capital are grouped under Part Eight, which is titled “So-Called Primitive Accumulation” (yes, seriously). Marx is saying some theoretically important things in these chapters, mixed in with generous helping of shade thrown at various bourgeois haters. Here we go.
Chapter 26: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation
Primitive accumulation is the starting point, the “pre-history”, the “original sin” of capitalism. We have discussed capitalism’s laws of motion C -> M -> C’ and M -> C -> M’ . It is this motion, and the organization of society around this motion, the transforms regular ol money and regular ol use-values into capital. But this movement describes a world already divided into capitalists and workers – that is, those who have the means of production and the means of subsistence and those who do not. Primitive accumulation refers to the historical forces and events that divided the world into those camps: the forces that alienated workers from the “conditions for the realization of their labor” or “ownership of the conditions of his own labor”, which are materialized in the means of production.
That capitalism is based on theft of people, their things, their freedom, their land, and their dignity is in sharp contrast to the soaring ideals described in the political rhetoric of the ruling elite that jealously guard the spoils of these thefts: among those ideals, the sanctity of life, liberty, and property. But life’s funny like that.
Chapter 27: The Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land
Speaking of theft: this chapter’s a history lesson. Call it a case study in primitive accumulation In England, there were a bunch of free farmers, and some peasants did wage-labour in their “leisure time” (to be fair, this was pre-Netflix). There were common lands where everyone’s cattle could graze and everyone could get firewood, and all that good shit. This was part of indigenous (may I?) Teutonic culture that had survived feudalism imposed by the elites (885). The Celts had a similar but clan-based sort of system over in Scotland (890). But then, at the end of the fifteenth century, English feudal lords decided to snatch up the common lands and drive the peasantry and “small farmers” off them. The writing was on the wall.
The political elite played their part. Parliament passed legislation saying that folks weren’t allowed to so much as build homes without paying for private ownership of at least four acres of land, which meant peasants were largely shit out of luck. The Catholic church, which held lots of English land, responded to the Protestant Reformation by giving away their land holdings in a combination of bribes, favors, and nominal prices to speculators: that is, usually not the poor masses of people. (Even Queen Elizabeth thought all this shit was wild, and said so in Latin, apparently the medieval language of “my thoughts and prayers are with you”)
Later on, the “Glorious Revolution” brought William of Orange and his team of land-owning, banking, and (other) capitalist fuck boys. They really drove that whole stealing land thing into high gear: fuck a Teuton, they said, we’re going to give away all these old Church estates or “sell them” at nominal prices (remember that article from last time on policing and civil asset forfeiture?)
The forces of the crown had natural allies among the ruling elites of the indigenous peoples, whose “great men” tried to join the system of private property by converting the clan’s common land into their own legal property. Their clansmen told them they could catch these hands, but it was too late: capitalist manufacturing was already changing the economic landscape, and political elites wielded immigration law against the Gaels to drive them from the land but prevent them from emigrating from the country entirely. What option was left, you ask? Residence in other manufacturing towns of course, where they would survive by – you guessed it, wage labor. Ain’t that some shit.
Chapter 28: Bloody Legislation against the Expropriated since the End of the Fifteen Century. The Forcing Down of Wages by Act of Parliament Marx goes through the greatest hits of political fuckery in which the ruling elite lays the political and legal groundwork for wage-labor. This shit is wild.
Henry VIII 1530, Beggars’ Licenses: This included essentially setting up a government recognition of disability, where the old or otherwise infirm could apply for a beggar’s license. Anyone without one, a “sturdy vagabond”, would be publicly tortured until they agreed to go put themselves to labor. Edward VI, 1547: ordained that if anyone refuses to work, they would be condemned as a slave to the person who denounced them as an idler, to be fed on bread, water, “weak broth” and “refuse meat”. Everyone can also keep the children of vagabonds as apprentices (paid nominally, if I have my history right) until age 24 for men and 20 for women.
maybe white people’s relationship to seasoning is intergenerational trauma?
Elizabeth, 1572: the first penalty for unlicensed begging is branding and (an English favorite!) public torture, unless someone agrees to “take them into service” for two years. The second penalty is execution. You get the picture.
Also they passed laws against unions because, you know, super villains gon super villain.
Chapter 29: The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer
More history. The difference between farmers and peasants blossomed into a new relationship. Under late feudalism a landlord would give a farmer seed, cattle and tools (means of production?!). But the farmer would hire extra hands to help. But then the farmers and landlords got on more of an equal footing: they’d make a contract which would decide how much each would put up in order to run the farm for an agreed period of time. Marx refers to this second sort of farmer as a “sharecropper”, though not with exactly the implications we might have in mind.
After the lords and elites stole all the common land, those who were still farmers had huge cattle supplies and lots of land to cultivate. Wages were low in this period, so the farmers made bank. They started to become capitalists.