Primitive accumulation in ”post-socialist” capitalism

The transformation from socialism to capitalism was an historically unique event. In order to understand the nature of ‘post’-socialist capitalism one should return to the theory of primitive accumulation, which Marx had originally deployed to analyse the origins of capitalism. Marx understood this as a social process of divorcing the producer from the means of production, allowing for the free development of capitalist relations of production.

During the original creation of capitalism from feudalism, labourers were separated from their means of production and subsistence, primarily via the expropriation of the agricultural producer from the soil and the destruction of petty-commodity production. This created the necessary social relation for capitalist development. On the one hand, stood the owners of money, the means of production and subsistence, who increase the sum of values they possess by buying other people’s labour power. On the other side, there stood a class of free labourers who survive through selling their labour power in conditions of market exchange. According to Marx primitive accumulation, ‘ is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.’

The question arises as to whether ‘primitive accumulation’ can be applied to understand the creation of capitalism in the ‘post-socialist’ countries: i.e. the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In contrast to the feudal societies, the ‘socialist’ countries had largely industrialised and urbanised. Some have argued (e.g Michael Burawoy) that a process of primitive accumulation did not occur during the ‘post-socialist’ transformation, but rather a process of deaccumulation of capital, deindustrialisation and sometimes de-urbanisation took place. However, this ‘physicalist’ approach, fails to understand ‘primitive accumulation’ as a social process which also occurred in the unique historical conditions of the transformation from ‘socialism’ to capitalism.

The ’decommodification’ of labour in ‘socialism’ was upheld by the state’s monopoly control over production and trade and by such things as the policy of full-employment and provision of universal public services and goods. The ‘post-socialist’ transformation removed many of these barriers, thus creating the social relation necessary for the development of a capitalist economy. As within the social welfare states in western Europe, this is an ongoing process as capital attempts to remove protections and make workers reliant on selling their labour power to survive. Even to this day, many economic, social and cultural structures, inherited from the previous ‘socialist’ systems, survive and stand as barriers (or using Polanyian terminology counter-movements) to the expansion of capitalist economic forces and social relations.

The legal and social production of difference

In the chapters on primitive accumulation, Marx investigates how capital as a social relation becomes possible. Primitive accumulation can be considered as an ongoing process, as it has to “maintain itself and reproduce itself” (Marx 1865, 129 in Fuchs 2018). It is however important to consider that capital does not presuppose only free labor as a commodity, but labor that is subject to capital. The role in capitalist accumulation played by unfree, dependent and unwaged labour has nevertheless been undermined in Marxian and Marxist analysis. Moreover, recent debates on the persistent logics of expropriation and exploitation have suggested racializing and gendered processes to be inherent in capitalist societies. (Moulier Boutang 2005, Fraser 2016; Mezzadra 2011). Difference can thus be thought of as something neither external nor subsumed to capital, but as existing in intimate relationship to capital (Chakrabarty 2008).

In this paper I draw on research with workers in legally insecure migration statuses in Helsinki and demonstrate how the legal and social production of difference can offer perspectives for grasping the ongoing forms of primitive accumulation. Thus, social difference is constantly reproduced, which shapes the workers’ labour power. I furthermore connect this production of difference to the workers’ efforts of shaping their lives. I point to how due to insecure migration statuses workers develop their socially productive power in order to collectively not become replaceable, thus enchasing cooperation as a method that “costs nothing” Marx (1976: 451-453) and thereby simultaneously intensifying the exploitation of labour. In conclusion, the paper examines the transient laboring figures that the border regime both produces and captures, and which can be inscribed within the temporal and fragmented regimes of capital accumulation. Likewise, it is here the struggles among subjects in insecure legal statuses to challenge their positioning within the current social, economic and legal order arise as well as their battels for retaining the grip over their futures.

The privatization of the commons

The privatization of the commons has been widely discussed internationally. For Marx, the process was ”the primitive accumulation of capital” that drove the people to the factories. For Hardin, the commons were the epitome of how a joint management of resources results in predation and collapse, the ”tragedy of the commons”. In Swedish research on enclosure, however, the commons have hardly been examined at all.

This paper discusses the political and economic struggle over the commons from a study of more than 4,000 cadastral maps from the 18th and 19th centuries. The study shows how property formation on the commons throughout the early modern and modern era functioned as an engine in the economic modernization of Sweden, during the growth of mining in eastern and central Sweden in the 17th and 18th centuries; during the expansion of agriculture in the agrarian west after 1750; and during the growth of the lumber industry in northern Sweden in the second half of the 19th century.

On a theoretical level, the article discusses property rights and their social and economic significance. The development analysed in this study differs from Marx’s classical trajectory in important respects. Still, we argue that the enclosures of the commons in Sweden could be understood as a primitive accumulation of capital. Admittedly, enclosure in Sweden hardly pushed people away, but was rather a pull factor as a greater workforce was needed to exploit the resources of former commons. As dormant economic resources were freed up, opportunities in mining, forestry and agriculture grew. Just as in the English case described by Marx, rampant social polarization ensued.