Monday, January 4, 2010

Primitive Accumulation

One of the great questions of history is how did a handful of western European nation states come to so completely dominate the entire planet earth and all of its inhabitants?

While the era of overt European colonialism is officially over, its legacy is alive and well. The European Union and the United States combined account for 54% of the world's Gross Domestic Product, while accounting for only 12% of the world's population. Other measures ranging from military spending to the virulent spread of such western cultural icons as McDonald's and Coke, demonstrate that Euro-American world domination is not only not a thing of the past but is arguably still expanding.

In fact, the continued penetration of Western culture is especially marked in the two most populous (and most powerful) non-western states: India and China (both of which are nuclear powers, one of which sits on the UN Security Council, and which together account for 1/3 the entire human race).

Karl Marx proposed a famous explanation for the Western domination of the world in one of the more celebrated sections of Das Kapital, dealing with the phenomenon of The Primitive Accumulation of Capital:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England's Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

The different moments of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.
[Marx, Das Kapital, Volume I, Chapter 31]
The connection between colonialism and Christianity was hardly lost on Karl Marx. Immediately after the above passage he quotes from William Howitt's Colonisation and Christianity: A Popular History of the Treatment of the Natives by the Europeans in all their Colonies (London, 1838):
The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race, throughout every region of the world, and upon every people they have been able to subdue, are not to be paralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and of shame, in any age of the earth.
European Christians have demonstrated over and over the truth of the adage that the mere possession of power is not by itself sufficient to dominate: one must also possess the will to use that power to do violence to others. And even that
comes in degrees, and the greater the degree of that will to violence, the greater the domination.

The European conquest of the Americas (in particular) initiated an explosive feedback loop in which savage violence led to a massive influx of wealth, which led to greater power, which led to even greater savagery and violence, which led to even greater wealth, and so forth.

It is no coincidence that "Great Power" colonialism, the African Slave trade and full-on genocide in the Americas were all taking place simultaneously. Just as it was also no coincidence that the perpetrators regularly inflicted the same level of violence on each other. In fact, spiraling European militarism eventually resulted in catastrophic "world wars" which almost seemed to threaten Christendom with self-immolation.

But it must be emphasized that there was nothing unpredictable about the inter-European wars that scarred the 20th century. in the sense that these horrors were completely consistent with past behavior. These were the same people who had conducted the Inquisition and the witch-hunts. These were the descendants (indeed, they proved themselves the rightful heirs) of the people who had given the world such "idyllic proceedings " as the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the Court of Blood, the Thirty Years war, and so forth and so on. In this grisly context even the Nazi Holocaust no longer appears as an aberration.

(Is it unhealthy to dwell on this aspect of western history and recite this nightmarish litany? But shouldn't Russians study the deeds of Stalin, Germans those of Hitler, the Chinese those of Mao, the Spanish those of Cortes? Or should each be excused from such unpleasantness and only be required to be familiar with the evils done by others, but not the evils done by their forebears to others?)

Throughout all of this bloodletting, the United States ended up in the enviable position of being able to participate in the Primitive Accumulation of Capital, but without having its cities and factories bombed as part of the bargain. The United States has been almost completely spared the mess and bother of fighting wars on our own soil, unless you want to count the mind-bogglingly lopsided military engagements known as the Indian Wars, which consistently blurred all distinctions between battles and massacres.

There is no question that free (that is, stolen) land, and free (that is, slave) labor were the engines the propelled the U.S. forward in its formative years, that is, these were the primary sources of the Primitive Accumulation in what was to become the greatest Capitalist state of all time. And there is also no question that the Christianization of the Indians and Africans were central not only to the ideological justification of conquest and slavery, but were central to actually carrying out those very profitable enterprises.

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