If there is one word that, when its concept is seriously considered, can take us to the root of all systems of exploitation and oppression – that word is ‘dispossession’! And this concept covers the most recent form of large-scale dispossession – the capitalist mode of production. The dispossession of any independent means of production and the constant dispossession of surplus-value, from working populations lies at the historical origin of the accumulation of capital and continues at the heart of the capitalist mode of production down to the present day. The capitalistic forms will be dealt with in a later section, but meanwhile there are pre-capitalist forms to consider. For wealth accumulation by dispossession goes well back into historical times and was already evident from the onset of ancient civilisations.
The conquest and control of large areas of land and sea resources, by the leaders of ancient empires such as Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, etc., required to a greater or lesser degree, dispossessing the original users (hunter-gatherers, pastoralists or agriculturalists) of the full use and benefit of these resources. The tributes and quotas extracted from the productive activities of conquered peoples, along with elite directives on when, where and what kind of production should take place, required varying levels of control. Varying levels of dispossession of the basic human rights for working populations over their means of production and their surpluses therefore occurred. But even before such ancient forms of ‘imperial’ dispossession, the previous onset of patriarchy, had already dispossessed women from control of their own lives.
1. Patriarchy. (the dispossession of female productive and re-productive rights.)
By the time the so-called civilisations of the ancient world had developed and spread, the dispossession of a woman’s right to choose her own partner, the dispossession of a females right to produce and retain (or dispose) of her own surplus-product, had already taken place. This historic dispossession committed against the female half of the species, included the dispossession of the human product of her own pro-creational labour – the child – in name and ownership. In the ‘civilised’ world of antiquity, women along with children became the almost total possessions of men to do with as they sought fit – and they did. Regarded as property, women and children were (and often still are) treated as carefully or as brutally as the male owner’s mood dictated.
This ‘original’ dispossession of female rights (along with children, land and the rights of pagans) required an appropriate systematic ideology to justify it. Conveniently, three dominant forms of this patriarchal ideology emerged in the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That these three religions are based upon this dispossession of women’s (and others) basic human rights is exemplified not only by their respective scriptural texts which justify it, but by the practices of the 21st century religious adherents who still implement them, either non-violently with civility or violently with acrimony. The refusal to implement equal pay, conditions and representation for women being an example of the former and shootings, acid attacks, and hacking limbs off women, being examples of the latter.
2. Slavery. (the dispossession of all rights.)
Before, or around the same historical period as the dispossession of women‘s basic human rights, ancient forms of slavery emerged. Human beings rounded up and processed as slaves were dispossessed of practically every human entitlement to which they were accustomed within their previous forms of production. Once captured and taken into slavery, how a person lived, where they lived, where they worked, how they worked was determined not by negotiating with other community or tribal members but by the dictat of the slave owner. It was a process which frequently resulted in them being worked to death.
In part 2 of this article dispossession of colonial lands and colonial peoples by the European capitalist powers will be considered but here it can be noted that slavery played an important part in the accumulation of wealth under the capitalist mode of production as it did under the more ancient modes of production. The whole motive of ancient slavery and semi-slavery – as with modern – was to dispossess human beings of their basic human rights to produce and reproduce for themselves and their families. Control of their productive capacity was forcibly taken away from them in order to dispossess them of as much surplus-product or surplus-value as could be wrung out of them.
Despite 19th century campaigns against slavery under the capitalist mode of production, slavery and semi-slavery still occurs in the 21st century. Campaigns in the UK and elsewhere have indicated slave and near slave conditions exist for adults and children in India and other parts of Asia. The Australian and Scottish Governments have been prompted to criminalise modern forms of slavery, presumably for good reason. Trafficking of women into forms of sexual and domestic slavery exists in Europe, the UK and in the United States of America. In 2013, the world football Association (FIFA) has had to be shamed into looking into slave labour conscripted in constructing buildings for the 2022 World Cup.
Wealth accumulation by utilising slave-labour pre-dated capital-accumulation by wage-labour, but capitalists in the 21st century still like to take advantage of it when and where they can. This form of dispossession of economic and social rights has lasted as long as the dispossession of women of their right to all forms of self-determination within whatever stage the modes of production have reached. Such ancient inhuman dispossessions have been, and where they still exist, continue to be, cast a dark shadow on the development of the human species. The full repossession of human rights and the permanent ending of such ancient dispossessions remains a task facing humanity. However, these two forms of dispossession – patriarchy and slavery – are not the only ones in the historical record.
3. Feudalism. (The semi- dispossession of the agricultural populations.)
The feudal system throughout Europe and elsewhere after the fall of the Roman Empire, was based upon an armed elite seizing large tracts of land (the main means of production) and thus dispossessing or continuing the dispossession of the rural population from direct use of these means. This feudal mode of production included forcing agricultural workers to part with a variable percentage of their production (a tithe, or tenth or twentieth) and/or enforcing a number of days/weeks work to be done for the conquering lord or baron. In this way the labouring population were dispossessed of their surplus-labour along with other social freedoms.
A later form of this feudal mode of production – in certain places – transmuted the percentage of product dispossession into a monetary form of payment which became a form of rent. However, these different forms are of less importance here than the fact that dispossession of the means of production and the dispossession of the workers surplus production continued. It continued whether by surplus-product which the feudal landholder obtained directly or indirectly after it being converted to a monetary payment. In many places and during certain stages, the agricultural population were also dispossessed of any freedom to leave the district or the employment category assigned to them.
It is also said that in many places during the feudal period that females were further dispossessed of any local or patriarchal restricted choice of male sexual partner if the lord of the manor wished to possess her this way himself. This dispossession of women’s rights merely being an elite male asserting superior claim against a lower class male. Nevertheless, all these various regional and time differences oscillating around the feudal form of dispossession and appropriation were the basis of wealth accumulation during that long period – often referred to as the dark ages.
Dark or not, this feudal form of dispossession for wealth accumulation by an elite, continued its onward march until after centuries it was fully superseded in Europe by another mode – the capitalist mode of production.
4. Capitalism. (Dispossession of ‘means’ from agricultural and craft workers.)
The full economic dispossession of the agricultural worker in the transformation of wealth from its landed form to its capitalist form in England is briefly covered by Karl Marx in Das Capital, at the end of Volume 1 (ie Part 8). Marx described this dispossession of rural communities as ’so-called primitive accumulation’, meaning it was a primitive stage for the development of the industrial phase of the capitalist mode of production. Marx noted that;
“The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the labourer the possession of his means of production…..men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and ‘unattached’ proletarians on the labour market.” (Capital. Volume 1, chapter 26.)
Clearing the ‘commons’ of people, clearing and demolishing farms, towns and villages was the form such capitalist inspired dispossessions took and they did so at an increasing pace.
“History has drawn a curtain over those days of exile and suffering, when cottages were pulled down as if by an invaders hand and families that had lived for centuries in their dales or on their small farms and commons were driven before the torrent. Ancient possessions and ancient families disappeared.” (JL and B Hammond. ‘The Village Labourer’. Guild Books. Volume 1. page 100. )
Even after this initial dispossession of the bulk of working people from any independent means of subsistence and production, capitalists could only accumulate wealth if they continued the dispossession of surplus-labour and/or surplus-value. However, the capitalist mode of surplus-value extraction was obtained by a completely different means. In short the wages system was fully developed. Capitalist accumulation takes place when the money-value of the wages paid to workers does not equal the money-value of what they produce. The difference, the unpaid surplus-labour created by workers during their employment, is confiscated and later banked by the employers of capital as surplus-value or in accounting terms – gross profit. This new combination of active, dispossessed labour harnessed to the new industrialised means of production created vast monetary and material wealth for the emerging capitalist classes.
Capitalism grew up in similar but not identical fashions throughout Europe, but this growth of capital initially took place within the confines of previously defined national entities. During the early industrial phase, an important fact became abundantly clear. Such was the productivity of this new mode of production, that it not only created vast wealth for the capitalist class, but also massively over-produced goods. Industrialised production methods also needed a constant supply of huge amounts of raw materials. It became obvious to the controllers and beneficiaries of the new mode of production that in order to continue their wealth accumulation they constantly needed new markets and new sources of raw materials. Having exhausted their own and nearby territories, new geographical arenas of dispossession were urgently needed – and in the voyages of discovery of the 14th and 15th centuries many were found.
Roy Ratcliffe (January 2014)
(The Colonial, Imperial and Neo-liberal dispossessions will be dealt with in ‘Dispossessions Part 2, the next posting – in a weeks time. This second part will also consider from a revolutionary-humanist position, the all-round need for the repossession of all that has previously been dispossessed.)