Are you feeling dispossessed? I know I am. We often think that capitalism’s “primitive accumulation” ended with the Highland Clearances. Far from it. Capitalism has always gained by others’ loss. That’s the way it works and today is no different. Such dispossession, such accumulation is at the very heart of capitalism’s modus operandi. There wouldn’t be a United States without the continental theft and the theft of a continent’s labor. And we aren’t alone.
In the previous decade, those booming 90’s, growth was built in large part on “accumulation by dispossession”. Whether the dispossessed were the state economies of the East or the rights and gains of workers “guaranteed” in the West by Social Democracy. The privatization craze of the 80’s and 90’s as well as this decade is just such a dispossession.
It takes many forms; it is legal and it is illegal. It is violent and it is done with a smile. It is done by legistlature far more often than by army. Though force is often the only tool available and the ruling class is not hesitant to avail themselves of it. After all, free people do not willingly submit to being robbed. Alas, we are slaves. But a slave that knows they are a slave ceases to be a slave in the same way and takes the first, giant, step to freedom.
And they don’t just dispossess the poorest and the weakest; the peasant and the wage slave. On occasion they have sought to dispossess their strongest rivals. Bad things happen when this goes on. While the Cold War might have put a damper, out of class necessity, on the competition and conflict between imperial powers the “natural” state of affairs is the kind of bloody conflict of the first half of the previous century. (How quickly the ruling classes ran to their own national institutions and banks once the crisis came upon them!) This crisis may very well usher in new blocs of powers and fiercer competition among them.
This is especially true if US capitalism comes out of the crisis noticeably damaged. There are emerging powers, there are contenders to the throne. There is waiting in the wings. There are competing (and entwined) interests between nations and national blocs whose very entanglement may well heighten competition in other areas adding even more instability to the situation. O’Casey’s “chasis” may not be upon us, but who would say with a straight face that we, that capitalism, has moved so far forward that a repeat of the horrors of the previous century be impossible? Not I.
Today other dispossessions are taking place. Home after home thought to be “owned” by workers, in the millions now, are being taken back by the banks, by the capitalists. And not just in this country, but in many of the wealthiest countries workers are finding themselves, once again, propertyless. And only with property, with capital, comes political power. This is especially true when our real social power, our labor, remains not our own and yet our own. The less we flex our power, the less powerful we are. Alienation the devil be.
Marxist economist David Harvey is fond of saying that if neo-liberalism meant, in the end, a consolidation of class power by the capitalists then in no way does this crisis signify the end of neo-liberalism, for class power and capital are being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands by way of the crisis. How many big banks existed in the US just a year ago? And today?
Here Harvey briefly talks a little about accumulation by dispossession; its history, its current reality and what it might mean for the class struggle.