dispossession and compensation

In a recent post, I mentioned Rajesh Bhattacharya’s distinction between primitive accumulation stories based enrichment and those based on separation (class transformation). He uses the language of means/ends which is useful. People who tell enrichment-dominated stories would not deny class transformation if asked. Those who emphasize changing class relationships recognize the distributive effects of primitive accumulation. The question is what the relationship is between the two processes. His contention is that much recent work, in the vein of Harvey, tells a story in which changing relationships are a means to enrichment; the older Marxist story is that the enrichment is a means to class transformation.

Plunder is real. Plunder can suck. Plunder creates winners and losers. While plunder is probably given less attention than it should, my impression is that it is more visible, or at least recognized, than class transformation. Alternatively, the class transformations associated with capitalist accumulation might be seen as completely unproblematic. For example, a formerly self-subsistent farmer losing their land, moving to an urban region, and finding employment as a waiter might be seen as progress (this is not a random example; I am inspired by a comment a graduate student once made in a room full of academics – “who wouldn’t rather be a waiter in a city than a peasant?”). Putting what is “progressive” aside for the moment, this is a classic case of separation (from the means of production) and class transformation that someone with a background in Marx should recognize. It isn’t a quantitative issue (the value of agricultural products previously produced, the value of the wage+tips, the relative costs of living, etc.), but a qualitative one.

The reason I’m writing another short post on this is to give a concrete example of the limitations of the enrichment story. I’m currently in Dersim/Tunceli. There have been two periods of dispossession here in recent history. First, in the 1990s the military evacuated (sometimes burning/destroying) many villages in region in an attempt to undermine support for Kurdish guerrillas. More recently, people have had to leave their villages due to dam projects. While these actions are incredibly unpopular in the area, some victims are sometimes view ambiguously (I apologize for the some…sometimes phrasing). Some of the dispossessed have been compensated for their loses (animals, houses, land, trees, etch.). I’ve heard the families that have been compensated described as “lucky.” Of course, it is luckier to be compensated than to get nothing. It is better to be compensated well than poorly. Ok, fine.

There are two problems with compensation. First, staying within the logic of enrichment/plunder, the compensation may not be sufficient. Perhaps the value lost is greater. Perhaps some of what has been lost is invaluable for personal or cultural reasons. Second, money in a bank account does not erase the act of separation. It makes it easier to buy tomatoes at the store, but it does not necessarily reproduce your ability to make your own. It makes it easier to pay rent, but you only need to pay rent because you lost your home. This latter point, which seems pretty obvious to me, is lost on people who think strictly in terms of enrichment. In short, Marx did not think the enclosures were important for the development of capitalism because they were not matched by some compensation.

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