What is violence? What forms does it take and how can the historical conditions of those forms under capitalism and the state be made legible in an attempt to understand the very foundations of capitalism and the state themselves? By looking at Marx’s “origin story” of capitalist modernity, one could argue that bourgeois violence in all its modalities can be traced from the 1500s to the present. This then provides a materialist setting for the next instalment of this essay, which looks at the politics of landscape from the Romantic sublime to the films of Masao Adachi and his theory of landscape, as de facto portraits of objective violence.
What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank? What is the murder of a man to the employment of a man?
Brecht, The Threepenny Opera
At the end of Capital, Volume One, Marx names the origins of the cycle of the reproduction of capitalist relations as “die sogenannte ursprüngliche Akkumulation,” or “so-called primitive accumulation,” which could also be translated as original accumulation, suggesting a temporal quality as well as a spatial and material one. This notion, or rather, arguably, set of disparately recurring instances, is borrowed from 18th century British classical economist Adam Smith, as something “previous” to the “movement” of capital, ‘its point of departure,’ a force of sorts that divides the majority of a population by “divorcing” it from the ownership of the means of production. Primitive accumulation creates a social relation through the alienation of labour by the forceful expropriation of property for the accumulation of profit. Entitled, “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation,” the chapter in question ironically compares these processes of political economy to those of Christian theology’s “original sin,” a comparison that is brutally apposite. Marx writes:
Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past. Long, long ago there were two sorts of people: one the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sorts finally had nothing to sell except their own skins.
As with many origin stories, this bourgeois myth persists and often overrides the facts, in effect becoming reality, or at least, its accepted iteration. With “economic original sin” we have a moral story that presents itself as a rational one, as reason itself, a self-justifying narrative, where a pseudo-cause creates an intentional effect. The myth posits two types of actors—moral and amoral—who inhabit the polarised roles of capitalist (hard-working, abstemious) and worker (feckless, profligate), naturalising and “historicising” the formation of universal subjects and the entrenchment of class composition, mobilised by the ethical imperative to work (e.g., strivers vs. skivers).
On the side of history, however, another narrative still very much persists: that of indefinite violence (Gewalt). This force of violence manifests in different modalities: first, it exists discursively as the narrative itself. The flipside of this self-justifying tale being the ruthless and real ethical divisiveness of the haves and have-nots, and its shared structural logic with the reproduction of capital itself, where appearance masks the realities of brutal intentionality over chance or native context. Second, and as mentioned above, in a temporal register, this process is seen as felicitously subsequent to the ends of feudalism as another mode of production, a transition that “frees” the subject from the yoke of indenture:
Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-labourers appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and it is this aspect of the movement which alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But on the other hand, these newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.
This brings us to a third point, the spatial dimension of the violence of accumulation and the inter-social or geopolitical conditions it foments and endlessly reproduces. As has been well documented, the mechanisms here are the enclosures of land (the Commons) and “systematic colonisation,” a form of expropriation by individuals and sovereign states that begat proletarianisation, exploitation and enslavement. The introduction of markets and “free” labour enabled the global reproduction of capital, but required the internalised violence of private property and the wage relation as well as the externalised violence of the state and its laws to manage it. “Force,” Marx famously asserted, “is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.”
The transition from feudalism to capitalism as distinct modes of production, themselves examples of Marx’s method of historical periodisation, should be understood as a rupture, a break that enabled capitalist relations under differing conditions, over differing times and in different places across Europe, and by extension, because of, with and against, the rest of the world. Indeed, Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu have argued that “non-waged labour regimes” from East Asia to the Americas, “formed the foundational basis on which the (re)production of wage-labour and capital… was built.” They declare:
And at the heart of these non-European processes were histories of violence, terror, subjugation and coercive exploitation meted out by ruling classes to populations across the globe… The very ability of the capitalist mode of production to subsume, exploit and integrate (combine) such an array of spatially differentiated production processes (unevenness) is central to its history and logic. This should alert us to the ways in which capitalism utilises exploitation and oppression—beyond the formally free exchange of labour-power for wages—as (re)sources for its reproduction. The violence that inheres in exploitation such as slavery, debt peonage and domestic labour, practices such as state coercion, “just wars” and territorial divisions, and structures of racism and patriarchy is not external to capitalism as a mode of production, but constitutive of its very ontology.
The emergence of the formation of capitalist modernity according to Marx began in the 16th century according to Marx. But if the secret of so-called primitive accumulation is founded upon the violence of expropriation and systematic colonisation, then following the internal contractions of capitalism itself (the wage–labour relation), the process accordingly must continue over and over again, with new enclosures (markets) and new imperialisms, permanently.
Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, New York: 1977.
Ibid., p. 873
Ibid, p. 875
Ibid, p. 916
Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism, London: 2015, p. 278.