Commons and Primitive Accumulation

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George Caffentzis:

"Marx's discussion of the "secret of primitive accumulation" (Chapter 24 of Capital I) was integrated with the commons/enclosures discourse with the result that the antiglobalization movement (with its thousands of demonstrations, riots, rebellions against the privatization and commodification of land, water, education, information, etc.) could be seen as fundamentally anticapitalist. This integration was hinged on the most powerful logical points that Marx made in explaining the origin of capitalism: in order for capitalism to exist there has to be a working class to exploit; and the main condition for there to be such a working class is that workers are separated from the means of subsistence (Marx 1909i) (Federici 2004, Caffentzis 1995). As long as workers have the capacity to live well on the basis of their own labor and keep control of the tools for subsistence and social reproduction, there would be no motivation to sell their labor power to capitalists so that surplus value could be created from it to be appropriated by capital. That is why the separation process, in Marx's words, had to be "written in letters of fire and blood." Indeed, the secret of the primitive accumulation of capital was that the origin of capitalism had to be violent. Marx agreed with both Hume and Smith that the notion that capitalism arises irenically from some sort of voluntary process (e.g., a Lockean social contract) is nonsense, but he gives an impressive historical account of the fire and blood that the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers failed to provide.

What do commons and enclosures have to do with primitive accumulation? In describing the logical condition for the origin of capitalism, the separation of workers from the means of subsistence, Marx presented a clear historical example of this violent separation process which could be traced over four centuries in the British Parliamentary Acts of enclosure of common lands and the deadly attacks they legitimated. These common lands, often communalized as the result of class struggles between serfs or peasants and local lords that occurred hundreds of years before their enclosure, made it possible for the agricultural workers in 16th through 19th century Britain to subsist either outside of waged work or, if a waged worker, to be able to refuse the lowest of wages. The persistence of the commons was the historical remainder of a still incomplete "separation" of worker from the means of subsistence and hence a logical impediment to the totalization of the capitalist relation throughout Britain. It was also a historical prefiguration of another, non-commodified world where rational association and human solidarity would become the basis of social life.

One of the attractions of Marx's account was that "commons" and "enclosure" were well defined legal terms in England. "Commons" has two uses in English political vocabulary. One, of course, is the designation of the legislative body (the House of Commons) that, by the way, had very few commoners (in the other sense) as members. But the second meaning of "commons" arose out of the fact that certain lands in or near villages were open for productive use by the villagers who collectively regulated this usage. "Enclosures" became a technical term in English law and it arose from the fact that the privatization of common lands (which the term designates) often was accomplished physically by the new owner surrounding the land with hedges or fences and often employing armed guards to prevent the commoners from continuing to use the land that had previously been theirs collectively. Given the precision of these terms, Marx traced the process of primitive accumulation by simply examining the historical record available to him in the British Museum's parliamentary records and judicial decisions justifying the attack on the commons.

But Marx also recognized that the notions "commons" and "enclosures" went far beyond their particularly English meanings. For example, in Scotland there was an institution of "run-rig" farming organized by the Highland clans which were similar to English commons and when the various forms of communal access to land were abolished what followed, in Scottish parlance, were "Clearances." Similarly, there were communal forms of land tenure in pre-conquest Ireland called "rundale." The abolition of communal access to land and subsistence networks in Ireland was accomplished not through individual Acts of Enclosure, but on a large-scale through the "Penal Laws" that literally made it illegal for Catholics (the large majority of the Irish population) to own land throughout the eighteenth century.

Even more important for the development of capitalism, Marx saw, though only vaguely, that the three great continents (Africa, North and South America) capital, in its the initial wave of colonization, used for its self-expansion through the enslavement and genocide of their populations were also sites of commons and enclosures. For most (though not all) of the land holdings in these areas before the arrival of the conquistadors, settlers or slave traders were communally held. The military conquest of the Americas (as well as the transformation of parts of West Africa into a great "slave warren") could also be seen as enclosure of a gigantic scale compared to their tiny British exemplars (Linebaugh and Redicker 2000).

Thus the commons and the violence of the enclosures constituted the historical language that Marx used to exemplify the logical stage of primitive accumulation, the necessity of separating workers from their means of subsistence. On the basis of the textual evidence, we might say that Marx largely saw primitive accumulation as a one-time historical affair and that when capitalism became mature its accumulation of the proletariat takes on the unconscious force of a natural law. However, many in the Marxist tradition have challenged this view (including some major figures like Rosa Luxembourg), and have discovered in the history of capitalism a series of returns to primitive accumulation of the proletariat including the "scramble for Africa" at the end of 19th century and the most recent period of neoliberal globalization (Luxemburg 1968) (Midnight Notes 2001)." (

More Information

The full essay is referenced in our entry: Antagonistic Usage of the Commons Concept