BY TED BAKER
Published in Iskra, Volume 1 Number 1, Summer 1990. Quarterly Journal of the Internationalist Workers Party (Fourth International) – United States.
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“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theater. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin war, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, etc.” 1
“Primitive accumulation of capital” was the term Marx used to describe the accumulation of the social and economic conditions from which capitalism arose. In Capital and elsewhere Marx was primarily concerned with this process as it affected Europe, and particularly England, the birthplace of the capitalist mode of production. Even in the above-quoted passage Marx referred to the plunder of Africa, Asia, and the Americas as part of the preconditions for the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe, rather than attempting to establish how, or even whether, that same process was creating the preconditions for establishing the capitalist mode of production elsewhere.
Of course today there can be no question that “primitive accumulation of capital” did occur in the rest of the world: capitalism is the dominant mode of production on a global scale, and within every single country of the world with the exceptions of those states where it has been expropriated. Yet between today’s accomplished fact of capitalist imperialism and the precapitalist past of the non-European world lies a long, violent, and tortured transition. The different ways in which this transition was accomplished in different parts of the world played a major role in shaping the present social, economic, and political physiognomy of the planet. Understanding that process is vital if we are to understand either the different internal national political economic processes, or the international web of political economy within which those national processes are embedded.
This article will attempt to outline the most important features of the primitive accumulation of capital as they affected the present-day United States of America, both shaping its distinctive internal social and political structure, and propelling it towards becoming today’s hegemonic capitalist imperialism of the world.