The dirty roots of capitalism

Reading Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Class 12

The Dirty Roots of Capitalism

Marx’s description of the origins of capitalism is a systematic process of alienation of the worker from the means of production, preventing you from consuming what you produce without the interface of the market.

This is a process that is ever expanding, reaching into new markets and colonies and offshoring. A look at the process of capitalism readying these new areas for exploitation quickly makes it clear that capitalism is not a natural form. At least not natural in the sense that people would choose it if they had other options.

But then force has never been far beneath the surface of any society.

There are two consequences of the utopian vision of capitalism,

  • the first is when the decentralised mode of production is increasing replaced or forced out by the centralisation of capital (competition creates or moves towards monopoly)
  • the second is an accumulation of wealth on one pole and accumulation of “misery” at the other pole.

The market system is officially egalitarian, it’s easy to succumb to the illusion of the system “myths” of being virtuous. An important element of this was keeping the state out of things, the market was there and would take care of things, laissez-fair was the ideal order. In Adam Smith’s account, it could almost be naturalised in terms of human aspirations and the lack of them at the other end.

“Long, long ago, there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living … and from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority, who. despite all their labour, have up to now nothing to sell but themselves and the wealth of the few that increases constantly, although they have long ceased to work” (page 873).

Looking behind the scenes as to how things all began Marx’s version sees the accumulation of capital in its original stages as horrific. “in actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part” (page 874).

And summing it up,

it is a process which operates two transformations, whereby the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage-labourers. So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production” (pages 874-5).

Agricultural Capitalists – How it happened (short version)

Through a combination of the abolition of the feudal system ( with what protections they had), confiscation of land from the church and seizure of common land, people were left with nowhere to go and dependent on wage labour.

The spoilation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the state domains, the theft of the common land, the usurpation of feudal and clan property and its transformation into modern, private property under circumstances of ruthless terrorism, all these things were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. they conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarions (page 895).

In other words, the current capital ownership has some rather dodgy roots.

This was backed by a change of thought or repositioning towards the wealth of the nation. As we’ve seen in previous chapters, what is good for the nation usually involves the sacrifices of the many; the wealth of the nation and the poverty of the people.

Back to the movement as it’s simply described. People are forced off the land and forced to find paid work, either in agriculture or more likely in the cities. They have lost their land, and the common areas so become divorced from their produce (they can no longer consume what they produce, instead it goes to market and into the capitalist sphere).

Industrial Capitalists – How it happened (short version)

The guilds and existing city authorities had a lot of power. One way of avoiding this was to set up in “greenfield sites”. Places where labour organisation was weak.  there are parallels in this today with a process of geographical shifts, both within countries, but also moving production completely externally, colonies were an early example of this (and state-sponsored under the “national good” and the offshoring to Asia, China, etc, a example of how the scene is playing out today.


Colonies offer a lot of things, space, resources, etc, but they suffer from one clear problem. If you create a place where people are free to do what they want there is no labour for the capitalists, and without labour, there is ni such thing as capital.

We know that the means of production and subsistence, while they remain the property of the immediate producer, are not capital. They only become capital under circumstances in which they serve at the same time as a means of exploitation of, and domination over, the worker.

“If,” says Wakefield, “all members of the society are supposed to possess equal portions of capital, no man would have a motive for accumulating more capital than he could use with his own hands. this is to some extent the case in new American settlements where a passion for owning land prevents the existence of a class of labourers for hire.” (page 933)

This is a clear problem for the capitalist,

Where land is very cheap and all men are free, where everyone who so pleases can easily obtain a piece of land for himself, not only is labour very dear … but the difficulty is to obtain combined labour at any price. (page 934-5)

And how can it be fixed? Again, by forgetting the free market when it doesn;t suit and calling on help from the government in the name of what’s good for the country.

The trick is to kill two birds with one stone. Let the government set an artificial price on the virgin soil, a price independent of supply and demand, a price that compels the immigrant to work a long time for wages before he can earn enough money to buy land and turn himself into an independent farmer. The fund resulting from the sale of land … is to be applied by the government … to the importation of paupers from Europe into the colonies , so as to keep the wage-labour market full for the capitalists.  (page 938-9)


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