Primitive Accumulation as Creative Destruction?

This post is the first part of a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal (Ed Baptist was sadly unable to be there). My first post will focus on Beckert’s comments, my second on Rosenthal’s.

As a protagonist in the debate over slavery and capitalism, Sven Beckert’s principal aim seems to be to show just how crucial violence was to the emergence and success of capitalism. This violence is not something standard, mainstream, or traditional accounts—the kind we see in economics textbooks or breezy historical surveys—are willing to acknowledge. Rather, the role of violence and slavery in the history of capitalism was erased, Beckert noted in his roundtable comments, by a “process of mystification,” an “active act of forgetting,” that took place from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Especially after the Russian Revolution and the beginning of the Cold War, he argued, American scholars and public intellectuals transformed the story of capitalism into a story of the spread of freedom. In this narrative, the nineteenth-century Civil War took on the role of a violent clearing of the decks, eliminating slavery as a remnant of the past, and opening the way for capitalist modernization.

Beckert and his fellow “new historians of capitalism” have made it their task (building on the work of earlier pioneers from what he called the margins of the profession, including C.L.R. James and W.E.B. DuBois) to push back against this “utopian” account. In his book, Empire of Cotton, Beckert introduced the concept of “war capitalism” to emphasise the role not just of violence, but of state-sponsored, state-perpetrated violence in constructing the global processes of production that characterise the capitalist economy. Plantation slavery in the American south was one part of a larger system that incorporated many different regimes of labour and forms of coercion. In Egypt and India, Africa and South America also, states and capitalist entrepreneurs organised violent mechanisms by which to extract the cotton that, Beckert claims, drove European economic growth during the nineteenth century.

In his comments to the roundtable, Beckert condensed and reiterated some of the positions he staked out in Empire of Cotton. What interested me the most, and made me rethink my reading of the book, was the way he framed his concept of “war capitalism,” within which slavery was a crucial element, in terms of the weakness of capitalist forces. Market mechanisms, Beckert argues, simply didn’t have the power to transform the globe in the way that capitalists needed; so they used state-backed violence instead. In a notion that was picked up in Caitlin Rosenthal’s talk afterwards, Beckert emphasised the political power inherent in slavery: slavery as a system of rule as much as a system of production. Political strength had to be exerted before capitalism’s economic logic could take hold.

As Peter James Hudson has pointed out, Beckert’s account of “war capitalism”—especially as expressed in his roundtable remarks—reads a lot like Marx’s notion of “primitive accumulation,” the historical moment (albeit an extremely long moment) in which violent expropriation made capitalism possible. But if Marx’s notion emphasises, well, accumulation—the monopolisation of land, resources, and labour by first-generation capitalists—Beckert seems to want to draw attention to something slightly different: destruction. War capitalism may be less about what capitalists gained than what other people lost. The structures of social organisation, law, government, culture, and community that preceded the dominance of capital were also the greatest barriers to its expansion. It was these that had to be, in many cases, violently destroyed. Just as Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” paves the way for new heights of capitalist innovation, Beckert’s war capitalism broke down institutions of resistance. In this light, we could imagine primitive accumulation as less like the dragon’s hoard of gold… more its annihilating fire.

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14 comments on “Primitive Accumulation as Creative Destruction?

  1. ”Rather, the role of violence and slavery in the history of capitalism was erased, Beckert noted in his roundtable comments, by a “process of mystification,” an “active act of forgetting,” that took place from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Especially after the Russian Revolution and the beginning of the Cold War, he argued, American scholars and public intellectuals transformed the story of capitalism into a story of the spread of freedom”

    Another interpretation: economic historians actually took seriously the topic of the effects of empire and what Beckert calls ‘war capitalism’, and assessed their importance to the development of Western economies. You can see this in the Engerman-Inikori debates (which Beckert mentions in passing), the monumental audit of the British empire by Davis & Huttenback (which Beckert ignores), the works of Paul Bairoch, the interminable debates about the role of trade and the ‘external sector’, etc. etc. etc. The ‘external’ was found wanting. It’s very difficult to come up with estimates which make the interactions with the non-West terribly important to the economic emergence of western Europe. Even cotton was not that important, and no amount of narrative colour & detail by historians will ever make it so. Yet, even if ‘internalism’ is the dominant view amongst economic historians, there is always a dissenting minority ‘externalist’ view which never disappears (see recently a paper by Palma “Sailing away from Malthus”). Apparently this is quite unlike the ‘historians of capitalism’ amongst whom ‘externalism’ is an article of faith and ticket to club admission….

    ( Oh, by the way, even the ultimate example of ‘primitive accumulation’ — the enclosures in England — has been seriously questioned in Allen ‘Enclosure & the Yeoman’. The enclosures contributed little to English agricultural productivity and released few ‘surplus’ workers into the cities and factories. )

    By the way, none of this is market ‘utopianism’, because economic historians do find tremendous merit in the argument that the West powerfully and adversely influenced the economic development of the non-West through colonialism. That Britain ‘deindustrialised’ India is a much more plausible argument than India helped develop Britain.

    Beckert apparently does not even realise that, either. From http://chronicle.com/article/SlaveryCapitalism/150787/

    “When we marshal big arguments about the West’s superior economic performance, and build these arguments upon an account of the West’s allegedly superior institutions like private-property rights, lean government, and the rule of law, we need to remember that the world Westerners forged was equally characterized by exactly the opposite: vast confiscation of land and labor, huge state intervention in the form of colonialism, and the rule of violence and coercion. And we also need to qualify the fairy tale we like to tell about capitalism and free labor. Global capitalism is characterized by a whole variety of labor regimes, one of which, a crucial one, was slavery.”

    Daron Acemoglu (probably a future Nobelist) rules the roost on this question, and THE dominant strain of thinking amongst economists today is to blame imperialism for the economic problems of the Global South !!! Western implantation of ‘bad’ institutions, coercive labour regimes, extractive land tenure regimes, etc. are typically described as persistent effects of imperialism. But Acemoglu shouldn’t get all the credit — he builds on the work of Eltis & Engerman, North, etc. And other economists have for the first time have demonstrated quantitatively the persistent effects of the transatlantic slave trade on the source countries in Africa (cf Nunn). There’s a lot more.

    • Richard Drayton says:

      Pseudoerasmus, there is a rather mid 1980s feel to your comments. The weaknesses of Davis and Huttonback’s “monumental” study were rather clearly shown by Tony Hopkins almost 30 years ago — a lot of heavy number crunching of what was actually a rather unbalanced data set (portfolio investment was actually not the dominant mode of capital export, even within their data set – only in the start up period of the very late 19th c were overseas yields lower etc). Even Patrick O’Brien who in an infamous essay in 1982 concluded ‘the periphery was peripheral’ was compelled by the late 1980s to rethink things, ending up with a position in which both the state and overseas trade were more important than the home market/endogenous growth in determining the long term structure of the British economy and so on…. Rather than ‘the external[being[ found wanting”, the whole corpus of early 2000s scholarship on the Atlantic economy which includes Inikori, Ryden, Zahedieh and the results of the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project have in fact restored into visibility just how important the external was. Beckert can perhaps be faulted for not citing (possibly not being aware of) the British atlantic/empire economic history, but then he is mostly speaking to US historians about US history.

      • Let’s get some things straight. By “the external was found wanting”, I mean the measurable impact of the periphery on the core’s national income & wages & other measures of living standards was surprisingly modest. I acknowledge that’s not the only way to look at the relationship between the core and the periphery. But the parochially American historians of capitalism are obsessed with American slavery’s contribution to US and British economic growth; and Beckert does assert the crucial importance of ‘war capitalism’. That’s what I’m talking about: the contribution of the external sector to Britain’s economic development and more generally the contribution of the periphery to the core’s economic development.

        That issue is separable into 2 periods — 1700s-1860s and 1860s-1914. Debates about the earlier period usually involve the links between the British Industrial Revolution and the Caribbean, the American South, and the African slave trade.

        Debates about the 2nd period are often confused by an inconsistency about geography: is it about the external sector as a whole, or the formal colonial empires, or imperialism in the much wider sense, or just what today we call the Global South ? Moreover, the 2nd period is clouded by a subtly different question from the one about the core’s economic development: was empire profitable? was it a net gain or loss? Empire could have been profitable in a commercial sense even if it had been an economic liability.

        The weaknesses of Davis and Huttonback’s “monumental” study were rather clearly shown by Tony Hopkins almost 30 years ago — a lot of heavy number crunching of what was actually a rather unbalanced data set (portfolio investment was actually not the dominant mode of capital export, even within their data set – only in the start up period of the very late 19th c were overseas yields lower etc).

        Forget Hopkins. Every critic of Davis & Huttenback made the same complaint ! The data were all based on portfolio investment, not direct investment, and the data for portfolio investment were derived from capital calls in London. (For our purposes, though, the latter bias would OVERESTIMATE the export of British savings since Germans and French bought in London too….) Besides, has anyone countered with estimates of British direct investment 1870-1914 ???

        But there are independently derived estimates of net overseas property incomes, which peaked around 9% in 1913. That substantially reduces the scope for the ‘portfolio bias’ in Davis & Huttenback. At any rate, Stone (1999) and Esteves (2007) extend and confirm the overall picture painted by D&H: a geographical pattern of British foreign investment in which the empire plays a minor role. In the latest estimates you can find in the most recent edition of the Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe (vol 2), colonies exclusive of the neo-Britains made up ~17% (the high estimate) of the British total foreign investment, with India accounting for about half of that. The rest of the contemporary Global South that received British investment in 1870-1914 were Latin America (~18%), with Argentina dominating. For French and German investment the periphery was even more marginal.

        Besides, the maximum in any given year in 1870-1914 for British capital exports was ~8% of national income. That’s massive compared with what we generally see today. But it also puts a severe upper bound on the possible contribution of the periphery to British national income. That is the sense in which the external is found wanting for the period 1870-1914.

        Even Patrick O’Brien who in an infamous essay in 1982 concluded ‘the periphery was peripheral’ was compelled by the late 1980s to rethink things, ending up with a position in which both the state and overseas trade were more important than the home market/endogenous growth in determining the long term structure of the British economy and so on….

        Perhaps it’s you who stopped reading this literature in the 1980s… I don’t know what is the late 1980s O’Brien reference you’re talking about, but lots of subsequent research support the basic contention of O’Brien 1982 — Eltis, Engerman, Darity, etc. Even Solow, sympathetic to Williams, put the upper bound on the profits of slave trade at 10% of British capital formation in the relevant period. 10% is not nothing, but not indispensable.

      • PS — Let me amplify my point about Davis & Huttenback. They argued that the British empire was a net economic loss, a ‘waste of money’ (in the words of Avner Offer who wrote the best critical review in my opinion). I agree with Offer that this they failed to demonstrate. But that does not detract from the point I was making, which is that economic benefits to the core from the periphery may have been positive but were not very large. Offer for example calculated using D & H data that the annual difference between overseas and domestic rates of return on investment amounted to 2% of British national income in the first decade of the 20th century. That’s Britain’s annual benefit from investing in the entire world other than domestic. Given the geography of British investment on the eve of the Great War, there is just no way to make the “drain” from the periphery to Britain any more substantial than a fraction of that 2% — even if you take into consideration the limitations in the data and methods of Davis & Huttenback.

        • Richard Drayton says:

          Very briefly – as I clearly don’t have as much time as you do for these comments – your essential error (one shared by many others) is to seek to quantify the impact of the imperial economy as 2% or 10% or whatever estimate you prefer. “Drain” is a red herring to raise here. It is the dynamism of the global economy as a whole which matters, for which the contribution of the ‘external’, even when in currency terms it may sometimes appear small s still absolutely vital. Thus Inikori and others (including Beckert) on cotton, Zahedieh’s nice little essay on copper (Ec Hist Rev 2013), not to forget silver, gold, and the post-1846 supply of cheap food which gave Britain a freedom from dearth (and riot) unequalled in Europe. The problem with all the endogenous/home market explanations for British economic growth is that they assume — handy if you want to play counterfactual mathematical games — that domestic economy and society would have been stayed the same without the imperial and global peripheries of British economic activity. With the second industrial revolution this becomes even less likely, given how poor Europe is so many of the commodities needed for the electrical and chemical industries.

          • “the dynamism of the global economy as a whole which matters”

            But we were talking about Beckert’s “war capitalism”, right? Yes? So the question is, NOT what the British economy might have been like under isolation and autarky, but what the global economy would have been like without this British “war capitalism”.

            We don’t need Richard Drayton to tell us that a factor can be quantitatively small yet very important… The value of petrol consumed in relation to today’s GDP is small yet obviously vital. But just as we have some idea of the impact of higher oil prices, so we can do the same for resources which would have been supplied at higher prices in the 18th century.

            If there hadn’t been coal in Britain, England would have imported coal from France and Flanders, peat from the Netherlands, and/or wood from the Baltic. (See Clark & Jacks 2007.) Hell, most British textile mills were powered by water until the 1830-40s.

            If there hadn’t been any slave cotton, England could have imported less of more expensive cotton whether from India or from America.

            “The problem with all the endogenous/home market explanations for British economic growth is that they assume…that domestic economy and society would have been stayed the same without the imperial and global peripheries of British economic activity.”

            Wrong. No one has ever argued things would have been the same: prices of many imports would have been higher, there would have been many domestic adjustments, and growth would have been slower. I can’t think of any counterfactual exercise about imperialism or colonialism which ignores such domestic adjustments. But you apparently think some price difference would have nipped the Industrial Revolution in the bud. Or something.

            Zahedieh 2013 is a nice footnote to the history of innovation in England. But it illustrates once again the weakness of the emphasis on colonies in the evolution of the British economy. France and Portugal had sugar colonies too, but somehow theirs did not inspire a copper industry which ultimately contributed to steam engines.

          • By the way, your “dynamism of the global economy as a whole” counterargument was made a long time ago by Peter Mathias (as related by Kenneth Morgan): “[calculating the ratio of some sector to national income] is rather like trying to measure the importance of ball bearings to the dynamic performance of a motor car by measuring their cost as a percentage of the capital cost of the vehicle”. Very witty. But nothing more than a rhetorical flourish. Then as now, Mathias, Morgan, and you misunderstand that these ‘small ratios’ computations allow you to reason about what might have happened if the price of ball bearings had doubled because free and not slave labour made it.

            • Richard Drayton says:

              “No one has ever argued things would have been the same…” actually, yes they have, just in things you haven’t read yet. Take a look at the Patrick O’Brien / Paul Kennedy debate in Past and Present, and indeed at what Davis and Huttonback are doing in the book you refer to in your post of 8.16 am as “monumental, but which I begin to worry now you haven’t really read carefully for some time. All your comments seem to turn also that, given a market, things would have stayed the same with or without ‘war capitalism’ per Beckert, or overseas peripheral economies based on servile labour and unequal exchange, all that would have changed was the rate and the price, that there would have been substitution of peat for coal, east indian for atlantic cotton etc. etc. . This is precisely the fallacy I was trying to have you pay attention to. Because substitution is in some cases impossible, or it would impose limits on rate or form of growth which would change the entire pattern.

              I don’t like Mathias’s “ball bearings” as a metaphor, preferring we think of leading edge industries [ask yourself what share of the United States economy was made up of computers in 1970, would that be a fair estimate of the real value of what was going on in Bell Labs, IBM etc] such as banking, insurance, metal and textile manufacture in 18th century Britain, all of which could not have happened without the Atlantic economy as a source of inputs and markets.

              I’m rather intrigued by a chap, and there’s too much chap coming out of your prose for me to go for gender neutral pronoun, who spends so much of his time writing aggressive anonymous critiques of — and these are only the ones I’ve noticed — David Armitage, Steve Pincus, Ed Baptist, Sven Beckert. These are, or have become, high profile figures, who have produced substantial original work which has been widely received and even often forcefully and critically responded to. Why not publish these pieces with your name behind it? It begins to look rather mean spirited, even envious, and as if you are afraid to defend your position in public, or afraid that somehow whoever you are would diminish the respect with which your opinions are received?

              • ” such as banking, insurance, metal and textile manufacture in 18th century Britain, all of which could not have happened without the Atlantic economy as a source of inputs and markets.”

                Many, like Richard Drayton, fail to understand that their “factual reasoning” is just as speculative as any counterfactual reasoning. “It could not have happened but for the way it happened” is every bit as speculative, theoretical, and assumption-laden as “it might have happened this way, had this and that changed”.

                The Zahedieh 2013 paper mentioned by Drayton earlier is a good illustration. She argues that the demand for copper and copper products created by the slave-sugar colonies in the West Indies revived the long-extinct copper industry in England. This industry would go on to contribute innovations to the Newcomen technology. So she argues, colonies mattered to British industrial innovation. This is a perfectly respectable argument, but it does make numerous (implicit) assumptions, the most important of which is to ally with Allen’s theory of induced innovation — despite the observations made by many (such as Mokyr) that innovations were ubiquitous and widespread across sectors and industries regardless of relative factor prices, exposure to foreign trade, patent incentives, etc.

                The idea that overseas markets (particularly coercive-captive overseas markets) were absolutely required for various industries to even get started implicitly assumes what is called “underemployment of domestic resources”, i.e., resources which were used in production for overseas markets would have just lain idle if those markets did not exist. That’s not impossible, but it’s still just a theoretical assumption.

                all that would have changed was the rate and the price, that there would have been substitution of peat for coal, east indian for atlantic cotton etc. etc. . This is precisely the fallacy I was trying to have you pay attention to. Because substitution is in some cases impossible, or it would impose limits on rate or form of growth which would change the entire pattern.

                This is just a pro forma recitation of the standard “everything is dynamic and complicated and interlocked and if you change one thing you’ll change everything” — the sort of plot device one might find in time travel movies.

                Yes, if raw cotton prices had been high enough, you might have “changed the entire pattern”, e.g., no cotton textile industry. But that’s not a qualitative point, it’s a quantitative one. You can’t just say the “entire pattern” would have changed without some idea of the price range at which that might have happened. Even people who have been sympathetic to Williams, Inikori, etc., such as Solow or Findlay, have made this point. Counterfactuals aren’t done just by people like McCloskey or O’Brien or Engerman. They’re also done by people who agree with you.

                “No one has ever argued things would have been the same…” actually, yes they have, just in things you haven’t read yet. Take a look at the Patrick O’Brien / Paul Kennedy debate in Past and Present

                Actually you’re quite wrong. O’Brien’s counterfactual is rather elaborate, but it does not imply that “things would have been the same”. For example, he cited Edelstein’s attempts to quantify the impact on British exports if colonies imposed on Britain tariffs comparable to the United States. He even cited Hobsbawm’s (plausible) argument that access to imperial markets retarded British productivity growth because it afforded a cushion against French and German competition. None of these implies that things would have stayed the same.

                “I don’t like Mathias’s “ball bearings” as a metaphor, preferring we think of leading edge industries [ask yourself what share of the United States economy was made up of computers in 1970, would that be a fair estimate of the real value of what was going on in Bell Labs, IBM etc]”

                I’ve already covered this: many things (water, crude oil, patents on HIV anti-virals, etc.) have economic value far greater than their accounting value. But you’ve used a really bad example, because we do have an upper bound on the “real value” of what was going on in Bell Labs, IBM, or what ever proxies of the IT revolution you have in mind. And the real social values is not infinite. It’s quite finite.

  2. winiznayne says:

    A small quibble on the notion of Marx,if I may. It should probably be noted that Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation is referred to by Marx as “So-called ‘primitive accumulation'” because his point is to undermine the idea that accumulation is the tipping point that led to capitalism. Rather the shift in *social relations* enables things like enclosure and alienated labor, and violent appropriation emerges out of market pressures that result from these changing relations. So, Marx’s emphasis is on social relations rather than accumulation itself.

    • Tom Cutterham says:

      Thanks, that’s a really helpful clarification.

    • John Clegg says:

      This is an important point. Both Beckert’s “war capitalism” and Marx’s “so-called primitive accumulation” are fundamentally about destruction of precapitalist social structures. However I worry that there’s an implicit functionalism/teleology in Beckert’s account of destruction, and that he conflates cases where Europeans destroyed precapitalist social structures in order to replace them with other precapitalist structures of domination (see ref. to Acemoglu in pseudorasmus’ comment) with cases where the destruction was of a particular type that made way for capitalist markets. Remember that in the chapter that follows the section on primitive accumulation Marx describes the lack of capitalist property relations in early Australian colonies. His point was that it wasn’t just a matter of destroying aboriginal cultures, but also of destroying the capacity of colonists to aquire free land.

  3. […] Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal. Yesterday’s post focused on Beckert’s comments, today’s looks at […]

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