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Home > 2021 > Primitive Accumulation in Neoliberal Times | Arup Kumar Sen

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 51, New Delhi, December 4, 2021

Primitive Accumulation in Neoliberal Times | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 3 December 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen


‘Primitive Accumulation’ is a seminal theoretical concept used by Karl Marx to trace the genesis of capitalism. He characterized it as “an accumulation which is not the result of the capitalist mode of production but its point of departure”. The history of primitive accumulation includes “those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians”. Again, to put it in the words of Marx: “The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil is the basis of the whole process. The history of this expropriation assumes different aspects in different countries, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different historical epochs”. (See Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 1867, Chapter 26)

In his seminal article titled ‘Primitive Accumulation from Feudalism to Neoliberalism’ (Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2007), Michael Perelman has located the rebirth of ‘primitive accumulation’ in our neoliberal times. He argued: “Primitive accumulation is most often associated with history, but it has ongoing importance today…After a long period when expropriation in Western democratic nations seemed to be a thing of the past, today it is on the rise. In the United States, local governments have recently begun to use the right of eminent domain to take over people’s homes to give land to private corporations. Most blatantly, multinational corporations are taking over resources – for example, water, forests, land for mining operations, and even the ownership of food by privatizing its genetic codes – in a manner that would have made earlier primitive accumulationists proud”.

David Harvey has characterized the path of accumulation in the age of neoliberalism as “accumulation by dispossession”. He argued that both legal as well as illegal means are deployed in this process of accumulation. The illegal means identified by him are violence, criminality, fraud, and predatory practices being used in recent times. The legal means being adopted include privatization of Common Property Resources (CPRs) and the use of power of eminent domain to seize assets. (David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, pp. 47-49, Profile Books, London, 2011)

The emerging path of capitalism in neoliberal India bears testimony to the fact that Marx’s concept of primitive capitalism “has ongoing importance today”.

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