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Publication Details

Reference
Perelman, Michael (2006) Articulation from Feudalism to Neoliberalism. Centre for Civil Society Colloquium on the Economy, Society and Nature: 1-18.

Summary
Through a very roundabout way, I came to the conclusion that primitive accumulation has an ongoing importance for the global economy. I was beginning a dissertation on capitalists' use of technology to combat labor in the context of dynamic game theory a new technique at the time that I was probably ill equipped to pursue. My advisor, George Kuznets, supposedly Simon's smarter brother, just left my drafts unread.

Irritated, I became determined to write the easiest dissertation ever produced in our department. I went to the departmental library to find the shortest dissertation ever published. I decided to make my proposal the first chapter. I looked for a subject that I though would be of relatively little consequence, so no advisers would be tempted to meddle. I found a data series on tractors in the United States, which became doubly attractive when I discovered that the person who had compiled the data had just retired and that nobody was going to take up his work. Unfortunately, Kuznets suddenly got interested in my work, but that is another story.

My dissertation had nothing to do with primitive accumulation, but this work sparked interest in the subject, even though I did not know what primitive accumulation was at the time. The American agricultural community used to regularly celebrate its efficiency by compiling statistics that showed that one farmer feeds 10, 20, 30 U.S. citizens a number that soared as the farm sector shrunk. I realized that this statistic was ridiculous because a new social division of labor was at work. Farm labor, which had once raised horses, for example, was now hard at work building tractors and other farm inputs. Similarly, farmers' work in distributing the food was now controlled by another part of the agribusiness industry.

At the same time, these numbers also reflected an element of primitive accumulation, since relatively self sufficient, self provisioning farmers were the first to fall by the wayside. At the same time, the tractor data led me to look at the fossil fuel consumption of the agricultural sector. I concluded that the agricultural sector was consuming more than 10 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of food that it was delivering to the table, undermining the claims of efficiency.

A bit of further research revealed that the large, supposedly successful farms that were taking over the agricultural sector were not necessarily more efficient than small farmers; instead, they had more access to capital and made more intensive use of purchased inputs, many of which depended upon cheap fossil fuels. When I showed this data to the professors they dismissed it, explaining that if fossil fuels became more expensive in the future, farmers could easily find substitute technologies. When the first oil crisis hit, severely affecting much of the farm sector, these same professors denied having said what they did.

After I finished my first book on agriculture, I decided to study the social division of labor in agriculture. Peasant movements at the time seemed to be a very dynamic force. I had also begun teaching a class in the history of economic thought, a subject for which I was untrained, having taken only one undergraduate class.

The classical political economists took a keen interest in the social division of labor in agriculture, although this subject was almost entirely absent from their theoretical works. Instead, they largely confined to this subject to their non theoretical writings. These authors were consistent: the peasant system of self provisioning had to be destroyed in order to create a labor force, but the destruction had to be gradual.

I was struck by the sophistication of some of these primitive accumulationists. They realized that to destroy the subsistence economy altogether would not be in their best interests for two reasons: first, and most obviously, the capitalist employers were not prepared to absorb the entire subsistence sector. Second, and more subtly, self provisioning subsidized wage labor.

I was not aware at the time either of the literature on the articulation of modes production or of the works of Harold Wolpe, but these primitive accumulationists clearly described how such matters worked. Crudely, for the capitalist sector as a whole, surplus value represents the difference between variable capital and the total output. If, for example, the worker or the worker's family produces food or support from within a pre capitalist mode of production, the quantity of necessary variable capital falls, leaving more surplus value. In effect, capitalism sucks value from the peasant sector.

Here, the question of labor time was crucial. Early capitalist technology was almost identical to the traditional methods of production. Since the early capitalists had nothing to contribute to the production system, they had only two ways to extract surplus value from the population in the countryside. Either they could reduce the workers' standard of living or increase their labor time, what Marx called absolute surplus value. Neither option would seem particularly attractive to the potential working class, which had reason to engage in wage labor.

For example, Samuel Johnson observed that a pair of traditional Scottish brogues could be made at home in one hour. On the market, shoes sold for one half crown per pair (Johnson 1774, 50). According to Adam Smith's estimates of wage rates for labor in the vicinity of Edinburgh, where workers were undoubtedly paid more than in the countryside, a citizen of that city would have to work for three full days to earn enough money to purchase a pair of shoes (Smith 1976, I.viii.31, 92). Commercially produced shoes would need to have a great deal of appeal to induce people to work for almost three days to purchase them, when people could make their own brogues in an hour, assuming that they could obtain leather cheaply.
Such a transaction would make no more sense than for the Chinese peasant to come to work in a Nike sweatshop for a two dollars day wage in order to purchase a $100 pair of Nikes.

Given the unfavorable exchange between wages and purchased commodities, people in the Highlands generally preferred self provisioning to wage labor. In light of this resistance, primitive accumulation was necessary to jump start the transition to capitalism. For example, Thomas Pennant, a prominent botanist, approved of whatever restricted people's opportunity for self provisioning. For example, he commended the practice of the Earl of Bute, whose "farms were possessed of a set of men, who carried on at the same time the profession of farming and fishing to the manifest injury of both. His lordship drew a line between these incongruent employs, and obliged each to carry on the business he [Bute] preferred, distinct from the other" (Pennant 1774, 2, 160).

Pennant did not base his objection to these poor husbandmen on technical grounds. He admitted that "in justice to the old farmers, notice must be taken of their skill in ploughing even in their rudest days, for the ridges were strait, and the ground laid out in a manner that did them credit" (ibid.). Pennant wanted a new system of dependency. Thus, he praised the management of the Breadalbane estate, where tenants could stay rent free "on the condition that they exercise some trade. [Consequently, Breadalbane] has got some as good workmen, in common trades, as any in his Majesty's kingdom" (Pennant 1772, 90). To establish such dependency, Pennant saw the need to restrict the possibility of hunting for one's own food.

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 Relevant Publications
 The Accumulation of Capital. Chapter 27: THE STRUGGLE AGAINST NATURAL ECONOMY: Rosa Luxemburg 
 Capitalism & cheap labour power in South Africa: Harold Wolpe 
 Labour Market Discrimination and its Aftermath in Southern Africa Guy Mhone 



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