harvey and primitive accumulation again

I’m reading Rajesh Bhattacharya’s dissertation, Capitalism in Post-Colonial India: Primitive Accumulation Under Dirigister and Laissez Faire Regimes (2010), this morning. I’m embarrassed to have waited this long, but better late than never.

He has an excellent characterization of primitive accumulation in the vein of Harvey:

I would like to emphasize two aspects of contemporary interventions of Harvey’s kind. First, class is often understood in property terms. Thus, privatization of state or public sector enterprises—those that are, in our understanding, state capitalist enterprises—is often understood as a movement from the “outside” to the interior of capitalist production. This is distinct from the surplus-based concept of class—put forward most clearly in Resnick and Wolff (1987)—which I use in this dissertation. Second, primitive accumulation is understood more in terms of enrichment than separation. To the extent separation matters to this understanding, it matters as a means to enrichment. This is in sharp contrast to Marx’s understanding, which I have argued, focuses on enrichment as a means to separation, where separation itself is understood in its class-transformative aspect. Theoretical positions leaning on the “enrichment” aspect tend to emphasize the redistributive role of primitive accumulation, rather than its class-transformative role (pp. 57-58).

The two tendencies both make a certain political sense. Including privatization, in general, allows one to appeal to a broad set of groups that might oppose “neoliberalism” or the 1% without necessarily being antagonistic to capitalism itself. And the outright theft involved in many acts of enrichment violates, or severely strains, the ethical and moral positions most people profess to hold. Indeed, it even violates the explicit norms of a nice liberal capitalist society. As has been pointed out (in my mind I am thinking of Perelman’s The Invention of Capitalism, but I believe there are others), the discussion of primitive accumulation in Capital is somewhat out of step with the rest of the text. For much of the text, Marx is making an “even if” critique. Even if capitalism could achieve its idealized view of itself, it would still be exploitative and unstable. The truth of primitive accumulation is an “as is” critique. Capitalism is not its idealized self-view. It is bloody.

While I understand the appeal of the “as is” critique, and have no interest in obfuscating the history of capitalist development, it is not without limitations. Most importantly, it has to deal with the defense of capitalism that the “even if” critique is designed for – capitalism “as it could be.” Now, some notions of an idealized capitalism are easily pushed aside (i.e. if only the state subsidized higher education more, the economy would not need bus drivers and custodians or people to make i-phones, and we could all support upper middle class lifestyles in expensive urban areas by writing online reviews of Girls episodes), but others are not so easy.

Couldn’t we have a capitalist economy that involved less violent dispossession? Significantly less environmental destruction? I’m quite skeptical, but I’m also not convinced the argument has been made convincingly (Marx’s discussion of crisis and expansion in the Manifesto, as just one example, is beautiful and incredibly prescient but its not a fully-articulated theory). As I mentioned in my previous post on Harvey, despite his claim that the overaccumulation of capitalism required this morally repugnant period of accumulation by dispossession, I’m not sure he really has a theory of overaccumulation.

I’m not finished reading Rajesh’s dissertation, but if I understand what I’ve read so far correctly, I’m excited by two points. First, it is not historicist. Second, it does not attempt to (unconvincingly) argue that capital’s violent/dispossessive relationship with its outside is due to some internal consistent logic to capitalism, but rather locates it in capitalism’s contingency (or at least that is what I think I read). Not only is this latter point methodologically appealing to me, but I think it provides a much more convincing and intelligible account of capitalism as is.

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2 Responses to harvey and primitive accumulation again

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