Friday, December 19, 2008

Poultry and primitive accumulation

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

It's an easy question: the egg. Eggs were being laid by distant ancestors of chickens, hundreds of millions of years before our feathery buddies ever evolved. Shelled (amniotic) eggs developed gradually before any creatures began to live on land. They were a prerequisite for this and might also have helped draw animals out of the sea. It's safer to lay your eggs on land, fewer get eaten by predators, and there's some evidence that excursions by early amphibians onto the land just to lay eggs preceded true land dwelling by some tens of millions of years.

It would be harder to say exactly when some of the things laying eggs became chickens instead of whatever they were before. It would also be rather meaningless. Evolution doesn't consist of lurches between discrete units called species, it's rather that species is the word we use to describe snapshots of a process of change, under some circumstances (when different snapshots can't interbreed, for example).

So, what does all this have to do with primitive accumulation?

In his introduction to Book II of An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote this:

IN that rude state of society in which there is no division of labour, in which exchanges are seldom made, and in which every man provides everything for himself, it is not necessary that any stock should be accumulated or stored up beforehand in order to carry on the business of the society. Every man endeavours to supply by his own industry his own occasional wants as they occur. When he is hungry, he goes to the forest to hunt; when his coat is worn out, he clothes himself with the skin of the first large animal he kills: and when his hut begins to go to ruin, he repairs it, as well as he can, with the trees and the turf that are nearest it.

But when the division of labour has once been thoroughly introduced, the produce of a man's own labour can supply but a very small part of his occasional wants. The far greater part of them are supplied by the produce of other men's labour, which he purchases with the produce, or, what is the same thing, with the price of the produce of his own.
To what extent there was a division of labour in the society that produced this tool is hard to say:

That's because we know almost exactly nothing about the society in which such tools were made. Flints like this are hard to make (I've tried) and I think there must have been some specialisation by the time that flint working was producing such consistently useful artefacts as this. The earliest stone tool use presumably consisted of picking up a handy rock and hitting something with it. This chap used simple stone tools, more than two million years ago:

After two and a half million years of stone tool use, and hundreds of thousands of years of cleverly worked flint tool use, neatly made and consistently shaped scrapers must surely have been made by flint workers who specialised.

That is, of course, semi-informed speculation. This isn't: the scraper in the image above was not made by a modern human. It was made by a Neanderthal. I'm suggesting that the division of labour pre-dates the arrival of truly modern humans.

Adam Smith knew nothing of Neanderthals. In fact, he knew nothing of the evolution of species. Smith published his most famous work in 1776, Neanderthals were discovered in 1829, the theory of evolution by natural selection followed a few decades later. The "rude state of society" of which Smith wrote, one in which there was no division of labour, was not a state of human society at any time - not, that is, of any society modern humans ever lived in.

Rather like the development of eggs and of chickens, the development of specialisation in individuals must have been a very gradual process. It must also have been almost imperceptible. Someone who made a particularly good flint flake rode the wave and made another one. Maybe individuals here and there played around with the old banging-the-rocks-together game after supper. It would have been a slow start and at first no preparation would have been necessary for someone to make three flakes instead of one.

But by the time flint knapping had become an industry there would have been a need for all kinds of ancillary specialisations - workings on the scale of Grime's Graves would have needed ladder makers, miners, knappers, and merchants to get value from all this labour, to convert flint tools into clothing and food and luxury goods.

The point Smith was driving at was this, still in the Introduction mentioned above:
But when the division of labour has once been thoroughly introduced, the produce of a man's own labour can supply but a very small part of his occasional wants. The far greater part of them are supplied by the produce of other men's labour, which he purchases with the produce, or, what is the same thing, with the price of the produce of his own. But this purchase cannot be made till such time as the produce of his own labour has not only been completed, but sold. A stock of goods of different kinds, therefore, must be stored up somewhere sufficient to maintain him, and to supply him with the materials and tools of his work till such time, at least, as both these events can be brought about. A weaver cannot apply himself entirely to his peculiar business, unless there is beforehand stored up somewhere, either in his own possession or in that of some other person, a stock sufficient to maintain him, and to supply him with the materials and tools of his work, till he has not only completed, but sold his web. This accumulation must, evidently, be previous to his applying his industry for so long a time to such a peculiar business.
Someone making a carpet must begin with enough "stock" to be able to eat, be clothed, stay warm and dry, have tools and yarn and to labour, making a carpet. The weaver must also be able to keep body and soul together while the carpet is sold. Only then will they be able to buy more eggs, chicken, clothes and yarn to carry them through the task of making the next carpet.

I started reading about this subject because I followed a link on Chris Dillow's blog that led me to this explanation of the theory of primitive accumulation. And here's the best thing about it: it's a mis-translation:
The seemingly Marxian expression, "primitive accumulation," originally began with Adam Smith's assertion that "the accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour" (Smith 1776, II.3, p. 277). Marx translated Smith's word, "previous," as "ursprunglich" (Marx and Engels 1973; 33: 741), which Marx's English translators, in turn, rendered as "primitive."
That's from the first paragraph, and unfortunately things go downhill from there:
Smith's approach to original accumulation is odd, to say the least. Certainly, the division of labor is to be found throughout history. It exists even in insect societies (see Morely 1954). Yet Smith would have us believe that the division of labor had to wait for the accumulation of stock, Smith's code word for capital in the previous citation. Such an idea is patently false. How could we interpret the division of labor in an anthill or a beehive as a consequence of the accumulation of stock?
Well, yes we could "interpret the division of labor in an anthill or a beehive as a consequence of the accumulation of stock". There are still solitary bees. Bee cooperation must have begun as imperceptibly as the development of hard shells in eggs. Every small change would have served a purpose unrelated to the final result, rather like eggs being laid on land as a protection mechanism leading to greater facility to move on land and the means necessary to procreate once there. By the time communal living and a division of labour had developed, stocks had been built up in the ancestor bee societies, just as they had in the flint workings that preceded Grime's Graves.

The suggestion that Smith used the word "stock" as a codeword for "capital" is especially odd. Smith used both words, and was clear about the difference. This, from the second paragraph of the very first page of the first chapter of Book II:
But when he possesses stock sufficient to maintain him for months or years, he naturally endeavours to derive a revenue from the greater part of it; reserving only so much for his immediate consumption as may maintain him till this revenue begins to come in. His whole stock, therefore, is distinguished into two parts. That part which, he expects, is to afford him this revenue, is called his capital. The other is that which supplies his immediate consumption...
That's exactly what we mean by "capital" today.

Primitive accumulation is important to Marxists because it's a form of original sin - as Marx put it. The essay I found via Dillow states the case as follows:
The contrast between Smith's scanty treatment of previous accumulation and Marx's extensive documentation of the subject is striking. Marx's survey of primitive accumulation carries us through a process lasting several centuries. It was a brutal process in which a small group of people forcefully expropriated the means of production from the people of precapitalist society in every corner of the world:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. [Marx 1977, p. 915]

Marx's did not limit his interpretation of primitive accumulation to isolated pockets of the world. The fruits of primitive accumulation are fungible. For example, he insisted that "A great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without any birth-certificate, was yesterday, in England, the capitalized blood of children (Ibid., p. 920).
What on earth does "the capitalized blood of children" mean? The greatest proof that the world is balanced and just is that Marxists have to read this bilge.

But compare the quote about the exploitation of the Americas with this:
The savage injustice of the Europeans rendered [contact with the Americas], which ought to have been beneficial to all, ruinous and destructive to several of those unfortunate countries.
That's Adam Smith. Is there really such a difference between his moral judgement of European exploitation of other countries and that of Marx?

In tracing the development of Capitalism, Marx relies on more than just the idea of the injustice of primitive accumulation. For example, the development of wage labour is important. I don't intend to get drawn into those other areas. Marx wanted to trace the development of capitalism to the dying throes of feudalism. He tried to show that the original accumulation of capital was rooted in the inhumanity, slaughter and looting of other societies in the early colonial age.

But these colonial ventures were themselves capitalist; expeditions that sailed to the Indies or the Americas were financed, often by royalty, often by shareholders.

These capitalists had gained their capital in various ways that included trade and some of them could perhaps have traced their lineage back to the flint knappers of Grime's Graves and the capitalists who financed that major industrial complex. Other fortunes would have been gained more recently.

The biggest difference between Marx and Smith, so far as I can see, is one of intention. Smith wasn't trying to make any particular point. He made lots of small ones, as asides, but he didn't really have any overarching theory. His was an Inquiry, not a hypothesis. Marx, on the other had, was hammering all kinds of differently shaped pegs into the single, convoluted hole of his Grand Idea. Smith mentioned the idea of primary accumulation simply to point out that a weaver needs yarn before he or she can start work. Marx wanted to root the acquisition of capital in horror and injustice.

Neither was right, but Smith was far less wrong than Marx. Smith's limitations were merely those of the age in which he lived. His point was true but it is possible that he might have phrased it differently had he known about the long history of the world and the timescales of human evolution and tool use.

But Marx's limitations were those of a religious fanatic.


Anonymous said...

Ah, I remember a discussion with a self-proclaimed Marxist back in student days. He started by saying that somewhere - as might be, Brazil - had recently developed an Iron and Steel industry. I agreed that this might well be a Good Thing. But, he enquired in evident disappointment, did I know what they were doing with all the steel? No. Well, he complained, they were making motor cars. Bastards, I said, they really should just let it all rust.

God, student Marxists were not just unpleasant, but preposterously thick. Quite needlessly, superabundantly thick. Thick beyond the call of duty.

Laban said...

Have you read Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" - an IMHO quite successful attempt to explain why the dominant world cultures have all been from Europe or Asia. Another form of primitive accumulation - of domesticated herds and crops - is involved.

Peter Risdon said...

Diamond - No, I've been meaning to. I've enjoyed what I've read by him so far.

Maybe a Christmas present for self there.