Wither primitive accumulation?

Finally, primitive accumulation is no longer the best way to frame the early history of capitalism, and this not because the epoch of commercial capitalism did not contribute decisively to the rise of modern production – it obviously did – but because that remains a purely teleological perspective and one that diverts attention from the real lacuna in materialist historiography, which is the study and, one hopes, ultimately a synthesis of the emergence of capitalism, which in the sporadic form that Marx described it as having was certainly in place by the thirteenth century. If the obscure early centuries of capitalism were defined by the ‘sporadic existence of capitalist production’, this was much less true of the fifteenth century, when a sort of merchant-controlled industrial capitalism was widespread in centres such as Genoa and led the way into the great watershed of the sixteenth century. The section on primi- tive accumulation sums up much of the history it deals with as the ‘period of manufacture’, but manufacture, as Marx knew, was a legacy of commercial capitalism, of the fusion of commercial capital with production, as indeed were the slave plantations. The ‘forms’ thrown up by the early capitalism of the Mediterranean were essentially those that continued to drive global history down to the expansion of large-scale industry and its revolutionary mode of production in the nineteenth century, so that the history of commercial capi- talism is no longer simply a prelude to industrial capital but more like an act (to retain the operatic metaphor), something that is best seen as a totality, a narrative with its own coherence, forms, internal periodisation, and concep- tions of empire. Marx was right, ‘the different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England, in more or less chronological order’, only today, with so much more historiography before us, there is no compelling reason why this whole swathe of history should remain the compressed if brilliant histoire raisonnée Marx inserted into Volume I and not acquire the expansion of content it deserves.” – Jairus Banaji, Theory As History, p 44.

For those unfamiliar with this work by Banaji, I strongly endorse its general message that more work needs to be done on the specific modes of production and modes of political arrangement instead of instantly classifying huge parts of history into a simple, stagist typology. That said, this passage is a stumbling point for me. While Banaji does prove that “asiatic despotism” is a problematic historical category which has very little explanatory power, this condemnation of the idea of “primitive accumulation” seems harder to justify. Sure, hath is can degenerate into pure formalism that avoids actually having to know the actual historical developments in perspective regions related to social arrangement, but that is more of a reification error than a critique of an entire schema of historical understanding.

Is primitive accumulation purely teleological? If so, in what sense? Teleological tends to be used in a metaphysical sense meaning inevitable, but it’s original meaning, one that would not have eluded Marx, would progress towards a purpose. If the understanding behind primitive accumulation is that it was purposive for economic development and thus led to capitalism, even if it occurred in several places at different times, it may be teleological only in the second sense we are discussing, and not in the metaphysical or stagist sense but purely in an understanding that systems designed for a certain purpose while generally do certain things, particularly when Banaji is saying that it is an accurate description for the economies Marx was referencing.



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