Globalisation and Primitive Capital Accumulation

Pranab Kanti Basu

The Myth

There is a wonderful sentiment warming the hearts of global intelligentsia. It is the glorious feeling that we have attained the age of the empire without an emperor, that it is truly the age of globalisation where empire does not imply the exercise of the sovereignty of one state over another. With the triumph of globalised capital the whole world has accepted the economic, moral and ethical supremacy of a homogeneous world order based prominently on individualism and the ethics of the market. The days of fighting the imperialist centre and its camp followers are over. So the proper strategy of the down and out should be to accept the empire and seek to end the discriminatory practices of empire operating to their disadvantage. The workers, for example, who are confined by various laws and regulations within the bounds of a nation state, should demand global citizenship.

This feeling of international fraternity persists among the intellectuals in spite of the genocide being perpetrated by the defenders of the faith, in spite of terrible racial and religious killings all around the world. This faith is understandable. The global intellectuals, the diaspora or the semi diasporic elements have never been so globally mobile before – the third world intellectuals peddling their differences from the first world and the first world intellectuals peddling their sympathy and patronage are having it good like never before. Perhaps another reason for their rhapsodies about the world order is that with the ascendancy of global capital there has been a homogenisation of ruling cultures like never before. This in turn has led to the homogenisation of curriculum across nations, particularly in the field of higher education. This has opened up the accessibility of the global educator’s market – with the attendant magical amounts of forex earnings for the savvy intellectuals.

The Reality

Just a little cautious look at what is happening around shows up the claims of a global order for what it is – a part of the ideological apparatus of global capital. The various versions of this vision reinforce the feeling of inevitability of the order of global capital that has percolated all the capillaries of our existence. Let us note in passing that one of the co-authors of the book that really sold this idea globally (becoming a global best seller in the process) has long been an icon of anti-capitalist militancy and radicalism in many circles (Negri and Hardt, 2000). This is not to ridicule the integrity of the man, but to highlight the fact that the leftists have also quietly conceded the inevitability of the triumph of global capital and hence of the need to think of strategies of coexistence and compromise rather than of counter hegemonic practice and confrontation.

The focus of this article is on thinking counter hegemonic practices/strategies and also simultaneously thinking of the reasons for the failure of the Marxist parties to think of alternatives.

The Theory

Marx’s story of the rise of capitalism belongs to the pantheon of modernist teleological constructs of history. At the end of the route we are left with two fundamental contending classes – the working class and the capitalist class. So either we sign off and say ‘this is the end of history’, or we construct a vision of the future based on the aspirations of the constructed working class. The problem with the revolutionary vision of the future society (i.e. the latter vision) is that it can only grow out of the capitalist order. Apart from the fact that this entails the espousal of the cause of imposing capitalist development in less developed areas (which is the crux of the problem relating to seizure of agricultural land for the capitalists by the leftist state government in West Bengal) this vision is necessarily based on the acceptance of the self centred modernity of the capitalist order out of which, only, it can grow through a process of dialectical supercession. Hence it necessarily denigrates community and locality, which, to my mind, must be the fundamental pillars of any future society that can overcome the horrors of the current era of global capitalist domination.

This is not any original idea (even if one has the audacity of subscribing to the notion of originality in this post modern age). Revolutionaries like Mao, Gramsci, and nearer home Shankar Guha Neogi have propounded this. Clearly their communitarian and locality based visions conflicted with the ‘pure’ Marxist vision. But they never spelt out their theoretical differences with the Marxist vision of counter hegemonic practice. Perhaps, among other reasons, the need for maintaining class solidarity by leaving the iconic value of Marx undisturbed was an important reason. India also has a rich tradition of rural communitarians like Gandhi and Tagore. I do believe that we should seriously evaluate Gandhi’s vision of Swaraj and Tagore’s vision of Swadesh andSamabay. Their seminal contributions raise two problems, which require independent evaluation not possible within the span of this enquiry. Gandhi’s blindness to the social inequity in the caste system is a fundamental lacuna of his thought that has to be properly evaluated, digging out the limitations that it causes in other areas of his vision. Besides, both Gandhi and Tagore’s silence or utopian thought about the relation of the community to the state has to be properly problematised. Though we recognise the significance of the views of the rural communitarians, our entry point is Marx’s discussion of capitalism, particularly of primitive capital accumulation (PCA).

Globalisation, Primitive Capital Accumulation and Marxism

I had suggested elsewhere (Basu, 2007) that globalisation can be analytically viewed as the era when rent extraction, inevitably relying on PCA, has become the predominant means of extraction of surplus by large capital, which is global. I had suggested that global capital not only extracts rent through acquisition of property rights over land and other natural resources, but it also extracts rent on the basis of acquisition of sole rights to knowledge and markets, and through the imposition of immobility on labour. All these it manages through various international laws and regulations. One could club all these uses of the discriminatory powers derived from the same legal framework that is deemed by the faithful to be non-discriminatory, and so impersonal, under the common theoretical rubric of PCA without violence to the fundamental theoretical propositions of Marx.

This homogeneous treatment of various aspects of surplus extraction by global capital is important because it revalues the role of the state, which had been totally stripped of significance by the myth of empire without emperor. The state is necessary for creating and enforcing the system of laws and regulations that are proper to the extraction of surplus by these means. A hierarchy of states, with the north-south division intact, is also necessary to cook up and impose worldwide the discriminatory systems of property rights and immobilities that are constantly evolving to suit the needs of global capital in the changing social and technological environment. At the same time this homogeneous treatment reduces the significance of space, of territory, and of communities based on these localities. I will here attempt to deconstruct an elementary aspect of PCA – use value – and in the process to explore the specificity of spaces. This will reiterate some of the aspects of the counter hegemonic practices that I had mentioned in my earlier paper and also give it some more depth.

Capital is the agency of transformation of direct heterogeneous social relations between humans into homogeneous relations mediated through commodity exchange. But at the core of the homogenisation/alienation lies the process of commoditisation. Failure to give proper thought to the process of commoditisation closes many counter hegemonic options that are of particular value particularly in the age of globalisation. Though this is not a necessary assumption, the process of PCA as narrated in Capital starts from the petty production economic. This comes through clearly in the course of the discussions on the relation between use value and exchange value. There is a very interesting discussion of this issue by Spivak (Spivak, 1987). There she comments that Marx does not apparently realise that the category of use value, which he treats as an originary, natural category, is actually shot through with the unnaturalness of exchange values. This of course conforms to the general tenure of the postmodern critique, whish firmly refuses to admit any pure or natural, precultural category. To us this critique is not important as a species of postmodern themes. Its importance lies in the fact that it indicates, though it does not elaborate, the possibility of locating a lacuna of alienation in the category of use value as it is explicated in Capital, rather than limiting the analytical/rhetorical force of alienation to the category of exchange value.

Let us elaborate this position with a textual example. Consider the discussion on the commodity circuits. Before the intervention of money we have the circuit C-C.  Let us assume that before exchange takes place the owners of C-C are, respectively, X and Y. As the discussion in Capital (Marx, 1954) goes, to X the first C is exchange value while the second is use value. Conversely to Y the first C is use value while the last C is exchange value. The implication that is of fundamental importance is that use value is understood as purely personal or subjective. It has not the burden of cultural or social values. In fact the standard critique of neoclassical theory used to harp on the fact that while the classical economists explained prices in terms of the material, socially determined cost factors, the neoclassical theorists explained prices purely in terms of subjective ahistorical utility. (Dobb, 1973). The question of social determination of use values has sometimes crept in as an eclectic criticism but in a purely negative sense: it has been pointed out, and quite correctly, that utility is not a matter of individual preferences but is managed through propaganda for the benefit of capitalist sales. Our concern is with the positive or unmanageable sense of depending on some common non-individualistic ground. The intervention of capital in this narrative of the circuits of commodities follows only after the introduction of money. Let us briefly trace the sequence.

From C-C we go to C-M-C. Money enters as a repository of exchange value, but only as a vanishing moment. But money does not simply drop out of the circuit. So someone holds it purely as a repository of exchange value. But why should anyone want to hold exchange value? That is C-M-C leads to C-M-C-M…. So we have both C-M-C and M-C-M. What is the objective of the second type of circuit? See when X gives up a ‘C’ to get another ‘C’, the act is understandable because what one gives up is qualitatively different from what one acquires. But what about the circuit M-C-M? The ‘M’ at the beginning and the ‘M’ at the end are not qualitatively different. So what is the point of this exchange? The answer that Marx provides is that the two Ms are quantitatively different and hence the exchange. So we have the motive of accumulation. M-C-M to M-C-M. And M>M. But how does that happen in a world where all commodities sell at their values? Where does the excess come from? This brings in capitalist class process with labour power commodity. This is the only part of the inputs purchased by the capitalist that adds more value to the produced goods than its own value. Value of a commodity is the abstract labour required for the production of that commodity. The inputs like raw materials, fuel etc. have already been produced. So an invariant quantity of abstract or undifferentiated labour has already been embodied in them, which they add to the value of the commodity in whose production they are used. Live or direct labour that is employed, on the other hand, adds more value in the course of its consumption in the process of production than what is required for its own reproduction. In plain terms this means that if a worker works for 8 hours in the factory than the commodities that the worker requires for sustaining this effort require less than 8 hours of labour for their production. This is surplus value, which sources the quantitative addition that leads to M being more than M. so the circuit is represented a M-C-C-M. C is the value of the inputs purchased including labour power, M is its monetary value, C is the expanded value including surplus value, M is the monetary value of C. The intervention of money capital, the birth of the labour power commodity leading to the genesis of surplus value that is appropriated as profit (M-M), generates another level of alienation. Let us see the difference in the two levels of differentiation and their implication for our vision of possible counter hegemonic strategies.

The two stages of alienation, as I see it (and which is also implicit in the deconstruction of the category of use value by Spivak) are, first, the stage of commoditisation of product and, second, the stage of alienation of labour power as commodity. Commoditisation necessarily involves the insertion of the category of subjective use value. In plain language this means that commodity exchange implies and is implied by release of production from social or community control on what should be produced and on the distribution of social production. It is only then that the product can appear as a use value to the buyer as an individual. So, in the initial commodity circuit that we have discussed the first ‘C’ is a use value to Y, not to X; and the second ‘C’ is a use value to X but not to Y. This is the birth of individuality as opposed to community, which must inevitably, i.e. logically lead to the capitalist mode of production. This would be inconceivable in a social system in which both X and Y are mutually concerned about each other because of a certain social bindings. In this sense Spivak deconstructs the category of use value to show that it too is shot through and through with the guilt of exchange value.

The second stage of alienation has received a lot of attention in Marxist literature. The labourer who has lost possession of all alienable means of production (i.e. all means of production that can be taken away from the labouring person without causing loss of life) is left with the possession of the only inalienable means of production – the power to labour, which is reproduced with each reproduction of the life force of the worker. The labourer is forced to sell labour power for a livelihood. Unlike other commodities the seller of this commodity has to enter the work place to supply labour power as required by the owner of the factory – the capitalist. So the buyer of labour power commands and the seller obeys. This robs the labourer of the means of realising selfhood in work, which is the differentia of human labour. So the labourer is alienated from his labour.

In my previous treatment of PCA, to which I have already referred, I had not looked critically at the first moment of capital formation, viz. the process of commoditisation. The violation of the community is an essential moment in the development of the capitalist mode of production. Its significance is blurred if one concentrates only on the second moment of PCA, which is highlighted in Capital. Once we appreciate the significance of the destruction of community modes of existence for the development of capital a possible counter hegemonic strategy suggests itself. Thinking, producing, living in a community mode can evolve an effective opposition to global capital. This also points to a specificity of space that becomes blurred when one extends the theoretical scope of PCA to understand the entirety of rent extraction by global capital. Space is the field in which the locality is embedded. We are not going into the question of how far it is possible to treat spaces just as geographical territories.

How Things Hang Together

One can try to see how the events that are currently of great concern to all ‘liberal and/or left’ thinking individuals fit into the scheme of analysis that we have outlined. We will try to build upon that analysis to show that the oppositional forces have to be much more discriminatory in their approach to both the question of who are the friends as well as to the question of what should be a meaningful oppositional strategy. Let us specifically concentrate on what has become the focal point of protest against global capital in India – the seizure of agricultural and forest land for alternate use. This would include all kinds of alternative uses like land for building large dams, SEZs, ‘chemical hubs’, for realty business and so on.

There are two major issues that come through in what the protestors are saying: that compensation has not been properly evaluated and that those who will lose their land have not been taken into confidence. This, of course, apart from widespread indignation at the reign of terror that has been unleashed on unwilling refugees and protestors by the ruling parties, their henchmen, and the police in the states where such acquisition has met with resistance. The latter can be understood from a purely bourgeois liberal position also. That is, taking account of bourgeois forgetfulness. The story of dispossession of agricultural and forest dependent communities from land is nothing new. This phase of PCA is well documented in Capital. In fact the more intelligent supporters of the left front government’s policy of land acquisition are delivering learned lectures where they point out the fact that the process of dispossession and consequent impoverishment of the labouring people stretched over a period of more than one and a half centuries in England (and look where England is today!). But once this was completed such obvious state coercion was to be limited to the periphery of capitalist development. So the bourgeois liberal could afford to forget the gory past of capital’s ‘original’ homeland and be critical of the violation of bourgeois rights and legal procedures in the course of land acquisition in India. Violation of the bourgeois legal rights enshrined in law and codes of justice, particularly by the state and those in power, have to be strongly resisted both because they violate the innate right to life and livelihood and also because in the absence of such ‘democratic rights’ it becomes more difficult to organise for an alternative. But though this resistance is of utmost importance, this cannot constitute any counter hegemonic strategy, per se. That is precisely the reason why political parties that subscribe to the strategy of development under the aegis of global capital find no difficulty in joining such protests in regions where they are not in power. Observe for example the CPIM in Orissa or Haryana, as well as the TMC in West Bengal.

From the long-term perspective the questions of ‘proper’ evaluation of compensation and of participation of the possessors of land in the process of reallocation of land to other uses require serious theoretical consideration if any sustained resistance is to evolve. It is in this context that the images of two moments of alienation become important.

It is worthwhile to remember, as I have pointed out earlier, that the process of PCA is not primitive in the sense of prior in time to capitalist accumulation (Basu, 2007). It is always intertwined with capital’s expansion. Capital has to find ways and means of affecting PCA in newer pastures to maintain its capability to expand. For example, it is currently engaged in searching routes to PCA in fields like knowledge, information and even in areas that until recently used to be considered processes that are part and parcel of life process like cultural activities and even the games that people play. Recall that the process of PCA in any new field will involve the two moments of commoditisation and subordination to capital.

The first moment of PCA, viz. commoditisation is also the first moment of alienation in the sense of severance of community linkages. This provides the key to understanding the controversy over what constitutes ‘proper compensation’. When use values are not just subjective but conditioned by community norms, the concept of propriety of compensation itself comes to be questioned. It is not simply a question of calculation (of the proper compensation) but a question of whether and under what circumstances it is ‘proper’ to transfer a resource from one activity to another. This leads to a question that is important from the point of view of governance. This also questions the claim of unquestioned dominance of a single, defined ethics in this Age of Empire. From the community’s perspective, the answer to the question of whether land can at all be reduced to an exchange value (which is always homogeneous, so comparable with other use values) erasing its common use value, can only be sought through a mode of decision making that allows direct participation of the community.

To appreciate the analytical scope of this twist to the concept of PCA let us go to a field far removed from land acquisition. At the time when a furious debate was raging regarding the various issues raised by the Uruguay round of negations of GATT, the Head of the department of mathematics of a leading US university (I have forgotten the name) made a very perceptive comment to the effect that if the proposed patent regime was implemented then the individual scientist would be richer but science would be poorer. In our scheme the reference is to the first alienation in the process of PCA. At this moment knowledge ceases to remain a common property and becomes private property. As common property the use value of knowledge is determined by the ‘needs’ of the community. These needs would include, apart from the requirement of solving the problems emanating from production, the intellectual pleasure of the pursuit of knowledge. Once knowledge becomes a private property it is simply exchange value to the individual who develops it. It is use value to the one who buys it. But what is this use value? Presumably a firm will pay for the patent rights to this knowledge. The firm invests in this acquisition only because it speculates that this is a profitable venture. So use value and exchange value become strangely inseparable, vindicating an inaugural insight of Spivak. Before the enforcement of patent rights knowledge communication and development were linked to, among other things, the common human urge to ‘know’. The easy dissemination of knowledge is a condition for the fulfilment of this urge in society at large. At the same time common participation in the development of knowledge would itself restrain the development of knowledge along lines that are harmful to humanity. At the next stage of PCA, which the professor did not elaborate, the wherewithal to develop this private property – knowledge – would be concentrated in the hands of capital. At this moment the individual scientist would be a paid employee, with no rights to his/her inventions.

Before we go on to outline what could be the elements of a counter hegemonic strategy in this context let us try to deal with an of the obvious fallacy of our analysis. Knowledge pursuit that is not ordered by the rules of private property could be differently constrained but could similarly constrict the knowledge horizons of society. This is what the history of science in the West teaches us. We are not talking of such a common property rights to knowledge. So the community that we are talking of is itself an object of struggle, an ideal. Then are we not violating the tenets of the position from which we gained our initial theoretical insight – postmodernism? We plead guilty. Postmodernism can provide the tools for debunking a theory but it cannot provide a basis for counter hegemonic practice. To this manner of argumentation there is no hierarchy. Difference and mutual constitutivity is all. So we have to move out of its constraints – vulgarise it so to say. So the kind of commonality that lies at the base of our concept of common property in knowledge is one without hierarchy and so without power discrimination. This leads directly to the question of counter hegemonic strategy. The development of knowledge and the construction of this knowledge community must proceed simultaneously. Counter hegemonic practice will consist of this simultaneous struggle. It could consist of subversive strategies, but more importantly it will consist of the development of new technologies, of rules of knowledge dissemination that further community rights in knowledge. There are already attempts by concerned seekers to form communities where knowledge and information can be exchanged without the mediation of commodities. We can similarly imagine other communities that will circumvent the commodity nexus in say the field of games, art, etc. These communities will not initially be interlinked. One could be part of a knowledge community and at the same time belong to the capital-commodity order that runs the spectacle called games.

Fundamentally in all spheres one must try to revitalise the community content of use value at the cost of the subjective, individual use values. There must be a simultaneous effort to construct a community within which this sense can be nurtured. There are various examples of efforts in this direction. The ongoing experiments with the Shramajibi haspataals are a step in this direction. These efforts have a lot in common with the attempts of many rural communitarians like Tagore in the pre-independence period. The essence of Tagore’s teachings in this regard was that the most pernicious effect of the coming of the British was that the population became dependent on the benevolence of the state like never before. Before the British invasion Indian rural community was unique in its autonomy from central authority. They managed their productive, social and legal problems on their own. The British changed all that and made the people on the state to tackle their every problem. So the principle requirement for the rejuvenation of the country was to begin its economic revival without the assistance of the state. For this a dedicated cooperative movement (Samabay) had to be built and sustained.

The attitude to the state, what could be the principles of law and property appropriate to such orders, all these and many related questions will have to be solved in the course of the movement to revive or create these cooperatives. There will of course be unavoidable clashes with state power. But the difference with what is taught as an axiom by Marxist parties that have not been subjugated by the ruling commodity culture is clear. The movement must not be organised with the sole objective of capturing state power – rather the objective must be one of construction of state power from the grass root, struggle to construct alternate modes of common property and their utilisation.

Signing off

These are very tentative suggestions so the question of reaching a conclusion does not arise. The principle objective of this piece was to search for the theoretical building blocks that can be used for construction of a counter hegemonic strategy. I believe that unless we can clarify our theoretical perspectives movements like those that are resisting the government’s efforts to grab land are likely to be misappropriated. And I am not talking of conscious subversive take over – that is a simple fact that can be effectively handled. I am talking of an unconscious derailment of such movements faced with the absence of a destination.


Basu, 2007. Basu, P.K. “Political Economy of Land Grab”. Economic and Political Weekly, April 7-13, 2007.

Dobb, 1973. Dobb, M. Theories of Value and Distribution since Adam Smith. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1973.

Marx, 1954. Marx, K. Capital Vol. I. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1954. reprint, 1974.

Negri and Hardt, 2000. Negri, A. and M. Hardt. Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2000.

Spivak, 1987. Spivak, G. “Speculations on reading Marx after Reading Derrida”. In Post Structuralism and the Question of History. Ed. Attridge, Derrick, et. al. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987.

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