Sabotage and Ownership

Last week we considered how the capital as power framework seeks to conceptualize two different forms of sabotage: a general sabotage that limits the potential of humanity in which all business participates and; 2) a particular or differential form of sabotage that is relatively unique to each individual firm.  It should also be noted here that we are primarily concerned with what Nitzan and Bichler call ‘dominant capital’ or those firms with the highest levels of capitalization and the government organs that facilitate their profitability in one manner or another (for example, protecting patents).  In other words, while certain small business owners may have some power to sabotage the potential of human creativity, this power is likely minimal in comparison to the giant saboteurs like Microsoft, Apple, Exxon Mobil and other highly capitalized companies.

This week we take a closer look at the relationship between sabotage and ownership and to do so we must briefly address the transition to capitalism debates.  Mainstream theorists or liberals typically read capitalism back into history and argue that capitalist tendencies are more or less hard-wired into the human species.  Capitalism is in our genes so to speak.  In this way, capitalism is read as a transhistorical phenomenon.  It was always with us, but its true flourishing only occurred once barriers to private property and individual ownership were removed through the struggle against kingly and religious authority.  More radical scholars of a Marxian or institutionalist variety argue that this view is ahistorical; that capitalism was a radical break with past practices of human economy and social reproduction and that its origins can be found in one of two places: 1) the changing social property relations of the English agrarian country-side or 2) in merchant trade which allowed commercial agents to accumulate a stock of wealth.  They could then plough this additional capital or stock into new production facilities, risking their profit from one trade by investing it in industrial manufacture – the ‘real’ capitalism for Marx and his followers.  Oddly, rather than form somewhat of a synthesis of the two views, most scholars have tended to keep these two approaches conceptually distinct: it’s either one or the other.  Moreover, these approaches tend to offer interior explanations that focus on England in particular and Europe more widely, forgetting or ignoring how far broader international relations impacted upon the development of capitalism in Europe.  But since these are mainly Marxist accounts, there is a focus on social property relations and the development of industrial production – which, not to put too fine a point on it, Marx identified as the one ‘true’ capitalism.

But in the capital as power approach, capital is understood as the commodification of differential power rooted in ownership.  So instead of looking for a ‘true’ capitalism in the industrial revolution, we should be more concerned with social property relations in general and the creation of private property or ownership in particular. Where does ownership come from and how did it develop historically?  Here both Marx and Veblen are helpful and we will consult them both below.   But before we do, let me stress that the main point this week is that we can conceive of private property ownership as the first sabotage that laid the basis for the emergence of the capitalist mode of power.  To be sure, a mode of power that has produced tremendous goods and services and made many advances since the time of organic economies tied the rhythms of photosynthesis. But to only recognize its many achievements is to miss how capitalists are in fact capitalizing the sabotage of human potential – what we could do and be versus what we have become and where we are headed.  And if present trends are any indication, we ought to be very worried about which path we are being lead down.  From a certain perspective, industrial civilization may be assessed as a giant human catastrophe.

There are no definitive historical records on the origins of ownership.  Its origins remain obscure.  However, in the capital as power framework, our most promising hypothesis is that ownership must have something to do with the exercise of power.   Veblen suggested as much in his essay on the beginnings of ownership.  Veblen argued that the mere possession of goods by our ancient human ancestors is an unsatisfactory response to the origins of ownership.  Why?  The primary reason given is that whatever meagre possessions primitive people may have had, they considered them to be part of their persons – not alienable possessions.  This might seem an odd claim to make but it makes much more sense when contrasted against modern absentee ownership.  Modern capitalists do not physically own what they have – for example Bill Gates does not have Microsoft software packages hanging in his home office, the railway cars of the Canadian National Railway in his garage (his second largest public asset) or Deere tractors and engines parked on the lawn of his Seattle mansion (his third largest public asset).   What Bill Gates owns is legal claims on the expected future profit of these firms – not their physical goods.  So, Veblen says, the origins of ownership cannot be found in the mere possession of certain artefacts – particularly in a time of dearth when hoarding goods may have been more likely than trading them or giving them as gifts.  To quote him directly: ‘…in an earlier, non-commercial phase of culture there is less occasion for and greater difficulty in applying the concept of ownership to anything but obviously durable articles’  (Essays p. 46).

Where then, does he locate ownership?  Veblen argues that it first originates with the turn from a relatively peaceful community to one with a predatory habit of life – of which there is considerable historical evidence from crusades to conquests.  But even in the predatory mode where one community may invade another, the seizure of their goods, asserts Veblen, is not enough to explain ownership.  However, the seizure of persons, argues Veblen, does offer a more convincing explanation for the institution of ownership.  In particular, he argues that the taking of women as trophies by early barbarian tribes are the roots of ownership.  First in that these persons are seized as possessions who must obey their master’s command; second in that the fruits of their labor go to comfort their owner-master and; third in that possession of one or many women is evidence to others of superior force. For Veblen this relationship of force is eventually institutionalized in the ownership-marriage – the origins, for him, of patriarchy and private property.  And indeed, where the institution of marriage did take hold, the wife was typically regarded as the property of the husband.  So for Veblen, the birth of ownership results mainly in the sabotage of women or put another way, half the species.

There is some considerable evidence for Veblen’s claims but thinking deep back into a primitive human past also relies on a considerable amount of conjecture and logical reasoning based on present knowledge.  It also largely fails to appreciate historical changes in patterns of ownership and tenure.

What of Marx?

Marx also had some words to say about ancient primitive societies – also largely conjectural.  For Marx, the real historical break comes with the establishment of a simplified class society between workers and capitalists as the means of production are developed and the demographic shift to cities starts to emerge as a key trend.  He is less concerned to trace the idea of ownership as a general category stemming from some primitive human past and wants to explain the origins of capitalist private property in England – his major test case.  So the birth of capitalist private property is one of Marx’s central concerns in both his early and mature political economy.

Consider some representative quotes from as early as 1844 in what has become known as his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

Capital is thus the governing power over labor and its products. The capitalist possesses this power, not on account of his personal or human qualities, but inasmuch as he is an owner of capital. His power is the purchasing power of his capital, which nothing can withstand.

The domination of the land as an alien power over men is already inherent in feudal landed property. The serf is the adjunct of the land. Likewise, the lord of an entailed estate, the first-born son, belongs to the land. It inherits him. Indeed, the dominion of private property begins with property in land – that is its basis.

Political economy starts with the fact of private property; it does not explain it to us. It expresses in general, abstract formulas the material process through which private property actually passes, and these formulas it then takes for laws. It does not comprehend these laws – i.e., it does not demonstrate how they arise from the very nature of private property.

Wages are a direct consequence of estranged labor, and estranged labor is the direct cause of private property. The downfall of the one must therefore involve the downfall of the other.

And from Capital, Volume 1:

Political economy confuses on principle two very different kinds of private property, of which one rests on the producers’ own labor, the other on the employment of the labor of others. It forgets that the latter not only is the direct antithesis of the former, but absolutely grows on its tomb only.

These quotes all point in one direction: expropriation.  In order for some to become the owners of capital – first in land – others have to be completely dispossessed of any access, tenure or relationship they may have had with the land outside of monetary relationships. And indeed, Marx called this process of expropriation primitive accumulation.  Unlike early liberals who viewed primitive accumulation as the accumulation of money for investment, Marx understood it as the forcible movement in late feudal Europe to dispossess peasants of their commons and customary rights to land.  Commonly referred to the enclosure movement or the agricultural revolution, the expropriations contributed to growing pauperism and poverty.  The enclosure movement did not create wage-workers.  It created paupers who could then be employed as wage workers.

Thanks to David Harvey and others, there has been a bit of a revival of the concept of primitive accumulation. It turns out that expropriation did not end with the enclosures of land.  But from the capital as power framework, there is no ‘primitive accumulation’.  There is simply accumulation – the attempt by the few to accumulate monetary wealth regardless of the means employed.  But whether we want to keep or jettison ‘primitive accumulation’, Marx’s focus on social property relations (and their transformations) is important.  For Marx, modern capitalist private property is founded upon the sabotage of the commons and customary right.  In order for the great English landlords to become obscenely wealthy, the majority of peasant workers not only had to be made non-owners but far worse, non-tenured paupers.  As Polanyi suggested in his major work, political economy and pauperism are born together.  But capitalism would require one more thing.  To safeguard private property, royal authority itself would have to be sabotaged.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at how exclusive ownership to private property was born in a struggle against princely power.