Marx’s Capital

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Capital; A Critique of Political Economy. 1867.


“On Primitive Accumulation”

In Marx’s metaphor for primitive accumulation, the theological concept of original sin is juxtaposed with the myth that the beginnings of accruing capital began when, as my mother would put it, the squirrel began gathering nuts while the grasshopper continued his late night debauchery.  In contrast, the theological myth of original sin (Adam and Eve) is lacking in this direct comparison, for there is no “good” Adam who stays in the garden and simply doesn’t care for the tree of knowledge, in other words, it seems as if all mankind would have done the same as Adam. This missing “good Adam” may indeed be an anticipation of Adam Smith, whose notion of “previous accumulation”—as opposed to Marx’s primitive accumulation—assumes that economic development progresses through participants engaging in voluntary acts, a notion that Marx believes is only half correct.

According to Marx, “primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology” (873). With this idea, it might be better to take Marx as many American political theorists have, that is, to follow him halfway, but turn our backs at the last second—therefore I go to the myth of Cain and Abel. Like with the squirrel and the grasshopper, this mythical legend presents two archetypes with conflicting characteristics, where one is exemplified (squirrel) while the other is vilified (grasshopper) and held as an example of the negative. No wonder then that the bad seed, Cain, works the agricultural fields, is rejected by God for an insufficient offering and becomes the progenitor of evil, while Abel, who is usually portrayed as a fair skinned adolescent that is both his father’s and God’s esteemed favorite, becomes the first martyr. For the rest of history, there would be races that “bore the mark of Cain” and would become working slaves (both in the sense of serfdom and “free workers”) to those who had accepted the paradigm of Abel, and who, by the grace of God, were in positions of higher esteem. Thus this mythical paradigm serves to separate mankind, justify inhumane acts and promote the exploitation of the “cursed”.

So too are the roots of primitive accumulation not so idyllic. In Marx’s  myth, two classes are formed by historical events (colonialism, the move from feudalism to modernity and industrialization), one a class of commodity owners and the other “free workers” who do not own their own means of production, and yet are not obliged to work for another (except of course for their own subsistence). To Marx, “primitive accumulation…is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production” (875). This bifurcation from self employed peasant proprietors to commodity owners and free workers was the beginning of primitive accumulation that would be completed with the advent of colonization and the proliferation of the myth of previous accumulation: “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” (873).

Moments of private accumulation turn into vast accretions of capital through “the commercial war of the European nations, which has the globe as its battlefield” (915).  How does this myth of previous accumulation coincide with the myth of original murder in Cain and Abel? Despite the obvious fact that “the barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race….are not to be paralleled by those of any other race,”—that the believers in these myths are the same people—both of these myths are in fact idyllic tales of which the European races and bourgeois class become direct inheritors. Naturally, the danger in this ideological cohesion isn’t that the “Abel” and “Squirrel” archetypes lead believers to adopt certain role models, but that both myths inadvertently imply justification for a hyper-stimulated mimicry: that one must re-enact God’s curse upon the descendents of Cain—the primitive and disfavored peasant farmer who was perhaps too lazy to provide a decent offering—and that one must too become a hyper-stimulated squirrel by “making of profit as the ultimate and the sole purpose of mankind” (918). The archetypes that make up the ideological strata was thus firmly formed for  the “ethics” of merchant capital—provided that such soil be formed from a lava bed of slavery, colonialism, blood and fire!

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