Primitive Capitalism and Chaotic Transition
“Forget austerity, here’s who is to blame for your empty pockets” is an article by The Guardian’s finance editor, Patrick Collinson, in today’s Guardian. Collinson blames the financial squeeze many are going through not so much on government austerity policies as on corporate profiteering.
Although the article is quite good, I had to post an objection in the comments to this either/or kind of thinking in regards to austerity or profiteering/privateering. Austerity and excessive profiteering (extractivism by another name) work hand-in-hand. Collinson’s article seems like a good opportunity to delve a little deeper into the problems of “chaotic transition”, unequal distribution of prosperity, and the rape of the commonwealth that we call “neo-liberalism”.
Government imposed austerity along with private profiteering (deregulation and privatisation), which has resulted in the problem of inequality, seems quite extraordinary these days. But it’s fairly typical of what is called “primitive capital accumulation”, which we’ll call “primitive capitalism” for short. It’s pretty typical of transitional ages when we witness big changes in the means and mode of economic production and its ideological rationales and justifications. “Primitive capitalism” or “primitive capital accumulation”, which is almost always criminal or quasi-criminal in nature (and yes indeed, almost always conspiratorial) isn’t about the early stages of historical capitalism, but the initial stage of a certain era of capitalism. The term “primitive” refers to this first or initial stage of a new phase of capitalist accumulation brought about by significant changes (or a “revolution”) in the means and mode of production. They are usually pretty ugly periods. The Industrial Revolution had its phase of “primitive capital accumulation” and so does the present “Tech Revolution” in the means of production; that is to say, the transition from Industrial to Post-Industrial, or from mechanics to electronics.
Basically, in a sense, present society is being subjected to something the equivalent of “electro-shock therapy” with the onset of the Tech Revolution, and this is very much connected with Naomi Klein’s ideas about The Shock Doctrine and “disaster capitalism”. This is also the meaning of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, ie, neo-liberalism. It was also quite characteristic of Blairite “New Labour”.
The politicians and governments, you may have noticed, really don’t know how to manage, regulate, or navigate the socially disruptive effects brought about by radical changes in the means and mode of production — principally robotics and automation. They have more or less surrendered all that to the “Invisible Hand” and the “magic of the marketplace” to sort out. But in the name of “productivity” and “competitiveness”, governments have imposed austerity policies on the public and the commonwealth as a way to facilitate “profiteering”, ie, primitive capital accumulation on the assumption that the excess profits will be re-invested in the new means of production. But, in fact, a lot of it is being re-invested in things like superyachts and tax-free offshore bank accounts.
This might also be said to be the meaning of “Trump” — facilitating primitive capital accumulation. It is certainly the intention of Trump’s close technology adviser, Peter Thiel who certainly believes that the “unthinking herd” is only good for wealth extraction via taxation or other forms of extraction to finance elite technological megaprojects (apparently, like reviving Woolly Mammoths). Peter Thiel might even be the poster-body for the twin evils of austerity with profiteering.
A large part of what Algis Mikunas calls “technocratic shamanism” is the attempt, really, to either disguise this process of primitive capital accumulation and the actual collaboration of governments with this process of profiteering, or to sugar-coat it as ultimately being good for you, good for society, good for the Earth, etc, etc. It’s pretty clear, though, that governments don’t have a sniff of a clue how to manage the tech revolution and the radical changes in the means of production in a way that doesn’t harm the public interest. In fact, the public interest (the “commonwealth” in all its forms) is seen as an impediment and hindrance to the efficient transition to changes in the means and mode of production. And this attitude to the public, the public interest, and the commonwealth very much underlies Thatcher’s TINA principle and her belief “there is no such thing as society”. Ergo, one doesn’t have any responsibility or obligation towards that which does not exist. One is free to plunder the commonwealth with a good conscience and without the burden of something called “social obligation” or “social responsibility”.
It must come as a bit of a shock to those who believed the propaganda that it was the function of capitalism to provide “jobs! jobs! jobs!” only to now find that its the function of capitalism to do exactly the opposite — get rid of “jobs! jobs! jobs!” by the boatload.
One of the reasons that the “Left” has been left in disarray and like a voice crying in the wilderness is because the Left doesn’t have any better idea of how to navigate the “chaotic transition”, and has been left largely bereft by the discrediting of the Labour Theory of Value. The traditional or conventional Left was as economistic in that respect as the Right. It didn’t have a good understanding of “value”, and that’s where Nietzsche got a toe up on Marx. I’m still not sure whether the Left has actually absorbed Nietzsche’s lessons on the meaning of “value” yet (although it’s pretty interesting when an old Marxist like Slavoj Zizek complains about leftists turning towards Buddhism!)
It’s pretty much self-evident that most of our “modern institutions”, supposedly public, are collaborating in this process of primitive capital accumulation, which is why so many feel alienated and estranged from them now, without really understanding why they feel that way. It’s quite possible that even most of our politicians don’t understand it either. And thought they might speak the right words about “public service” and so on and so forth, nonetheless they are aiders and abetters of this process of primitive capital accumulation, which is what people refer to as “trickle up”.
The self-negating, self-contradictions of contemporary “turbo-capitalism” have become rather severe and very difficult to overlook without self-deception about this. Whether this phase of primitive capital accumulation ends up being capitalism’s swan song is an open question (some seem to think it is the end of capitalism and that there’s nothing Trump or his followers do can avert that fate — “hoist on its own petard”, as it were).
At least, we should have a clear idea of what’s going down in this period of “chaotic transition” as being also a period of “primitive capital accumulation” aided and abetted by governments through austerity, deregulation and privatisation policies to facilitate that capital accumulation on the presumption that it will be invested in the “tech revolution” and to finance the radical changes in the means and mode of production. Re-tooling an economy (or “infrastructure”) is very expensive, and its the public that has to foot the bill for it in various ways. Not much of it is being re-invested in that, but a lot is going into big vanity techno-projects or into superyachts, amongst other similar indulgences and extravagances, with such vanities being held up as promise of the fruits of the coming “leisure society” — a superyacht in everyone’s backyard, much like Boris Yeltsin, during Russia’s own chaotic transition, promised a chicken in every pot and a Mercedes in every garage.
Let me guess…. I bet it doesn’t turn out that way at all. But the contemporary fact that most people seem to be unconsciously collaborating in their own disenfranchisement — this is, for me, the most astonishing fact about the present situation.