Note on Primitive Accumulation
The word primitive is here used in the sense of “belonging to the first age, period, or stage,” i.e., of being “original rather than derivative,” and not in the sense of “simple, rude, or rough.” Marx’s original term was “ursprüngliche akkumulation,” and as Paul Sweezy suggests, it would have been better translated as “original” or “primary” accumulation. But it is too late to change current usage, and the word primitive should be interpreted in a technical sense, as in mathematics, where a primitive line or figure is a line or figure “from which some construction or reckoning begins.” In economics primitive accumulation refers to the period from which capitalist accumulation springs. It was not simple, though it was rude and rough.
The solitary and isolated figure of Robinson Crusoe is often taken as a starting point by economists, especially in their analysis of international trade. He is pictured as a rugged individual—diligent, intelligent, and above all frugal—who masters nature through reason. But the actual story of Robinson Crusoe, as told by Defoe, is also one of conquest, slavery, robbery, murder, and force. That this side of the story should be ignored is not at all surprising, “for in the tender annals of political economy the idyllic reigns from time immemorial.” The contrast between the economists’ Robinson Crusoe and the genuine one mirrors the contrast between the mythical description of international trade found in economics textbooks and the actual facts of what happens in the international economy.
The paradigm of non-Marxist international trade theory is the model of a hunter and fisherman who trade to their mutual benefit under conditions of equality, reciprocity, and freedom. But international trade (or, for that matter, interregional trade) is often based on a division between superior and subordinate rather than a division between equals; and it is anything but peaceful. It is trade between the center and the hinterland, the colonizers and the colonized, the masters and the servants. Like the relation of capital to labor, it is based on a division between higher and lower functions: one party does the thinking, planning, organizing; the other does the work. Because it is unequal in structure and reward it has to be established and maintained by force, whether it be the structural violence of poverty, the symbolic violence of socialization, or the physical violence of war and pacification.
In this essay I would like to go over the details of Crusoe’s story—how, starting as a slave trader, he uses the surplus of others to acquire a fortune—in order to illustrate Marx’s analysis of the capitalist economy, especially the period of primitive accumulation which was its starting point. Continue reading