”Expropriating the expropriators”: The past, present and future of a gnomic utterance.

"Expropriating the expropriators": The past, present and future of a gnomic utterance.

Panel with Cecilia Cavalcante-Schuback, David Payne and Erik BryngelssonPalme

Embedded within the somewhat historically laden chapters on ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ that trace the ignoble historical origins of capitalism – emerging from a series of expropriative and privative acts – is the striking passage that announces the imminent revolutionary task in terms of the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’. If the wheels of capital accumulation and private property are not natural and organic processes but were initiated and driven historically by way of the expropriation of the commons into ever fewer hands, if the proletariat were forcibly created as an outcome of the direct displacement of rural workers into the towns, where they had nothing other than their labour-power to sell, then the practical and revolutionary negation of private property, the immiseration of the working class and the logic of capital accumulation would necessitate, according to Marx, its own logic of expropriation. As Marx writes: while once ‘it was a matter of the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers’, in the overcoming of capitalism there would be ‘the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.’ The dialectical logic of the ‘negation of the negation’ that Marx’s claim avowedly follows in this phrase has, with respect to its political and philosophical significance, been much discussed in the history of Marxism.

However, the debate surrounding it converges along no one single philosophico-interpretive or politico-strategic line. What would the qualitative difference be between the violent expropriation that constitutes the genesis and historical development of capitalism and the revolutionary force of an expropriation that would usher in a new emancipated era? Is the dialectical logic of a ‘the negation of negation’, by which the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ operates, an overtly simplified and too schematic solution to a set of problems surrounding property, appropriation, and expropriation that have become increasingly more complex and ambiguous? Where do we stand with respect to expropriation, both as a problem and a solution to the problem, today? And how might this differ from the logic of appropriation, towards which Marx had a far more complicated and ambiguous relation?

The purpose of this panel will be three-fold: (i) to retrace the complex field of interpretations that, subsequent to the publication of Capital Vol 1, situated Marxists made surrounding the revolutionary process that made capitalism possible and that would make communism a lived actuality; (ii) to explore and critically elucidate the rich field of concepts (appropriation, property, the proper, disappropriation) that are, more generally, germane in Marx’s account of capitalist social relations and their revolutionary overthrow, as well as serving as interesting conceptual markers for thinking through the possibilities and obstacles that arise from the dialectical logic to which the claim of ‘expropriating the expropriators’ seems tied; (iii) to examine what meaning Marx’s claim may have for us today, in a context of a further generalization and deepening of the logics of appropriation and expropriation that reach beyond spatial displacements of peoples and material forms of dispossession, and extend to cultural forms, political ideas and the history of emancipatory struggle itself as sites of dispossession and deprivation.

Cecilia Cavalcante-Schuback, PhD researcher in Aesthetics, at Södertörn.

David Payne, wrote his doctoral dissertation at Essex University (UK) on the idea of emancipation. He is presently a lecturer and researcher in Political Theory at Södertörn, with specific interest in Marxist and Post-Marxist thought.

Erik Bryngelsson, Department of Philosophy, Södertörn University

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