The Invention of Capitalism

Perelman, Michael. The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. [Intro, Ch. 1-6]

Michael Perelman shows in The Invention of Capitalism how classical political economists were practically and ideologically complicit in the primitive accumulation that sapped the poor of their self-sufficiency. Not only did the promotion of dispossession contravene liberal economic claims of a laissez faire economy, in many cases they also obfuscated their plain awareness of the sheer violence and injustice of this process in their theories and public lives.

One of his main concerns in the book is to also show the integral nature of primitive accumulation in producing a social division of labor in capitalism. Adam Smith presented the division of labor as the conscious decision of agents (capitalists) within the factory on the shop floor. Smith and his colleagues, however, ignored the systemic nature of the social division of labor throughout the social body. Citing the complaints of weavers, Perelman writes: “primitive accumulation was a massive transformation of the social division of labor, which extended much further than the formal eviction of the peasants from the land” (71).

He traces how the household gained paramount importance in this new social division of labor. In effect, the household ends up subsidizing capitalist accumulation by allowing a higher rate of surplus value. “The substitution of household work for work done for wages reduces the value of labor power and raises the rate of surplus value”—a point echoed by Silvia Federici and in terms of peasant production by Karl Kautsky. Perelman even notes how urban gardening played the same function of driving down wages by allowing worker self-provision (Engels found this phenomenon particularly objectionable for political reasons). Household self-provisioning is functional for capital only up to a point—in as far as it does not cut into the actual time of wage labor.

Perelman’s main points are that primitive accumulation plays an ongoing role in capitalist development, that it plays a formative role in the social division of labor, and that classical political economists obscured their own role as material and intellectual authors of primitive accumulation. Though preceding the full impetus of capitalist relations (14, 33-34), the process of wrenching peasants from the means of subsistence and blocking all possibilities to other forms of provisioning that did not involve wage labor gained new force with increased industrialization. Perelman does not deny that primitive accumulation provides necessary conditions for the development of capitalism, but he claims that Marx himself viewed it as an ongoing process.

Perelman says that Marx’s sarcastic claim of primitive accumulation as the “original sin” of accumulation in Smith’s account is one of many examples that the process was not conceived as a moment in a mythical past. Perelman argues that primitive accumulation does not only refer to processes of landed dispossession—though, that’s much of his focus—but can also refer to broader processes by which people are deprived of their means for self-provisioning (34). His conceptualization is quite broad and comes to be almost any process by which non-wage labor becomes increasingly reliant on waged labor—for instance, one of his examples is the way cramped living spaces force people to rely on Laundromats and entertainment outside the home (35).

The work that this broad conceptualization does for Perelman is his intent to focus on the mutual relations between wage and non-wage labor, including the role of the social division of labor. One of his main points in linking primitive accumulation in this way is to show how “classical political economy sought strategies to manipulate the social division of labor in a way that would expand the power of capital vis-à-vis labor” (66).

A more traditional example is his treatment of the “Game Laws,” which he contends were implemented due to the double-duty they did for both the interests of landed elites and capitalists. “The gentry could enjoy the prestige of hunting, while the capitalists could enjoy the labor of many of the people who were forbidden to hunt as a means of subsistence” (45). The Game Laws are also a clear instance where classical political economists supported a system that was clearly at odds with their own theories and was even economically unjustifiable—unless in a cynical way of creating fresh factory labor.

I was struck how Perelman also dissects the Game Laws as a “useful disciplinary device” (46). It is easy to extrapolate how such forms of enclosure are a prefigurative form of modern counterinsurgency and he quotes William Blackstone to this effect: “The prevention of popular insurrection and resistance to the government, by disarming the bulk of the people; which last is a reason oftener meant, than avowed, by makers of forest or Game Laws” (46). This is all very reminiscent of E.P. Thompson’s work, too. Having laid this groundwork, the “silent compulsions” of the market, including the production of hunger (102), could work their “invisible” magic.

Since I’m a bit behind schedule, I’ll leave this one at that.


This entry was posted in Agriculture, Forests, Historical Materialism, Insurgency/Counterinsurgency, Karl Marx, Land, Law, Marxism, Political Economy, Power, Primitive Accumulation, The State, Violence. Bookmark the permalink.