5. Colonialism/Imperialism. (Dispossession spreads across the planet.)
The colonialist and imperialist stages of capital accumulation merely extended the theatre of operations for the dispossession of people from their lands and means of subsistence and/or production. Building upon the previous merchant-capitalist networks, the development of navigation and in particular the opening up of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean, sea lanes in the 14th and 15th centuries, introduced new lands and new resources to the dubious embraces of the capitalist classes throughout Europe. Traditional merchant trading was soon supplemented or accompanied by armed invasion and theft of resources, from Africa, North and South America, and Asia. Naval sorties of this kind were followed by ‘planted’ colonies in many resource-rich parts of the world thus ensuring new markets and supplies.
Much of the dispossession taking place at this time was masked or mediated by religious pretensions and hypocrisy. Religious missionaries and religious-minded entrepreneurs were often at the forefront of colonial dispossession and oppression. They and religious-minded investors frequently helped to rationalise European dispossessions of foreign peoples by claiming to be motivated by ‘saving’ the miss-named ‘heathens’ for god and educating away their alleged ignorance. In this way indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their tribal lands, their means of production, the results of their own labour and – as in ancient times – frequently dispossessed of their lives.
In this colonialist expansion phase of European dispossession, the capitalist classes were still divided along city and nationalist lines. Each national aggregate of capital sought to expand its sphere of influence by trading monopolies and/or armed wars against rival groups of capitalists. Conflicts of interest, primarily among European capitals, took the form of skirmishes and battles both on sea and land. In the early period, the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French and English aggregate capitals battled as each sought to expand its control and dispossession of colonial resources. Importantly, since labour is necessary to create wealth, where wage-labour could not be obtained the previously noted slave-labour was introduced.
Much later this constantly simmering war of competing capitalist inspired dispossessions – and colonialist/anti-imperialist uprisings against them – was elevated to world shattering levels as two world wars for economic and financial domination took place. The first and second world wars of the 20th century took place between two groups of capitalist nations over which group would be able to overwhelmingly dominate the world’s resources and markets. Using the ideology of nationalism, the bourgeois and petite-bourgeois elites of all sides were able to persuade or compel the dispossessed workers of their own countries to join armies, navies and air-forces in order dispossess the other sides capitalists of their markets and the other sides workers of their labour and their lives. [See ‘Humanity, Class and Nation’]
6. Compensatory reforms. (Voting rights, trade union rights and welfare benefits.)
After the Second World War, working populations in the advanced countries, were able to obtain some forms of compensation for their continued dispossession of independent means of subsistence. In addition to the previously won right to form trade unions and the right to vote, these compensations took the form of obtaining above average wages, welfare benefits such as improved pensions, sick pay, unemployment benefits and non-profit-making services. These compensatory reforms for a time ameliorated the worst of the earlier savage exploitation at the hands of their respective capitalist classes.
Unemployment became an integral part of the capitalist mode of production as it cycled through its boom and bust periods. However, as capitalism further developed its efficiency and technological proficiency, unemployment for large numbers of workers became a permanent condition of their lives. The result was indeed, a ‘reserve army of labour’ as Marx characterised it. For this reason in the late 20th century whole generations became dependent upon unemployment, housing and other benefits for long periods of time. Time enough for some of them to adjust – however reluctantly – to the organised charity of life on the dole.
Dispossessed of independent means of subsistence and with no places at the capitalist work-benches, offices or fields these unfortunate members of the working classes first became an object of pity and numerous state educational interventions. Later, they were perceived as, and transformed into, an unwelcome burden upon the state. Like the ancient ‘sturdy beggars’ before them, these modern victims of the earlier capitalist inspired dispossession of independent means of existence and now the long-term victims of capitalisms reduced need for labour were (and still are) being blamed for their own hopeless and helpless condition.
When a victim of the capitalist system is successfully blamed for their own situation and the wider and longer picture of historical dispossessions remains unknown, then further dispossession cannot be far away and it wasn’t. It came in the form of neo-liberalism.
7. Neo-Liberalism. (The dispossession of working class benefits and reforms.)
For a brief period in Europe and America, after the second-world-war, wages increased, welfare benefits were sufficient to survive and profits for capital reasonably high. However, it was not long before the system, from the capitalist point of view, was not functioning well enough. In some industries, profits began falling, company taxation and individual wealth taxation had increased and they became dissatisfied with their levels of surplus-value dispossession and accumulation. After many incoherent attempts to curb wages and increase productivity (both being attempts to increase the level of dispossession of surplus-labour/value from working people) a new elite policy emerged which has become known as neo-liberalism.
One barrier to increased working class dispossession in the 20th century was the organised labour movement. Once neo-liberal representatives gained sufficient power, organised labour was attacked by the neo-liberals both frontally, by industrial confrontation and by legislation using the state. Trade union resistance was further weakened by capital exporting jobs and importing cheap labour. Neo-liberal political representatives also passed legislation to lessen the tax burden upon the capitalists and the most wealthy, whilst increasing it for the working population by additional means such as value-added tax. But that was not the end of it!
Other neo-liberal targets for dispossession were the accumulated resources of the various nation-states. In many parts of the world, advanced and less advanced, nation-states had provided certain infrastructures and resources out of general taxation. Water, electricity, gas, transport, postal services, telephone communications, roads, bridges, tourist sites and certain industries, had became large-scale important resources. For the neo-liberals, these public service industries offered the tantalising potential of a further period dispossession. Dispossession of the state – via the state – became the project for the financial elite! A case of the bond-holders seeking to inherit the earth.
Of course this secondary dispossession of compensatory benefits could not be described as such. Instead it was (and is) packaged and sold to the public as increasing efficiency by privatisation. Privatisation of state assets amounts to the following. Dispossessing white-collar workers of their once relatively secure occupations, salaries and pensions in public services such as health, education, welfare, social and local government services. It involved dispossessing workers of their access to relatively cheap electricity, gas, water, post, phone-calls, train and bus fares. Neo-liberal work is currently under way to dispossess working people of the health and welfare benefits granted as post-war compensations for their historic loss.
Calling these various mechanisms of increased exploitation and oppression by their real names – dispossessions – articulates what everyone who is effected by these measures realises. Today if one or more of the waged or salaried working class are made redundant they have been dispossessed of a job – and all that implies. If anyone is cleared off their land or kicked out of their house they have been dispossessed of means of production and/or shelter. If a communal area has been polluted by capitalist industry or commerce (by oil or chemical spills or fracking for example) that community has been dispossessed of a normal or clean environment. If anyone has had their pension reduced, they have been dispossessed of security in old age.
If anyone through no fault of their own cannot afford enough, heating or food they have been dispossessed of these necessities. If savings from working have been reduced by fraud or inflation some people have been dispossessed of some saved up value. If someone has been discriminated in any way they have been dispossessed of their basic human rights. If students have studied and qualified for a recognised career and there are too few openings they have been effectively dispossessed of their time, energy and commitment. If anyone has been harassed, abused – or worse – they have been dispossessed of their fundamental rights as a human being. If anyone has been tortured or killed by a nations neo-liberal or military elite using extra-judicial means, they have been dispossessed of their human rights.
8. Repossession. (Taking back what was taken from us – all.)
The political classes will undoubtedly point to one compensatory reform which as yet remains intact at least in the west. The right to vote for who will continue to administer the systematic dispossession of humanity is one to which they (left, right and centre) tenaciously cling. This is not surprising. After all, it keeps them in well-paid jobs. But, despite their never-ending ‘pie in the sky’ promises, it has become almost universally clear, that putting a tick on a piece of paper and placing it in a box to be counted every few years has never resulted in ending or reversing the numerous dispossessions which have been perpetrated against humanity.
Indeed, politics itself is a form of dispossession and can be easily be used as such – as is evident in all parts of the world. Politics is an organised way of dispossessing the right for everyone to have an effective and ongoing say in how their communities and resources are organised and utilised. Politics assumes a powerful elite will give the time and resources to govern societies and this ensures they will be able to use their power and influence to manipulate economic and social life as they see fit. Politics, historically and contemporarily is part of the problem of dispossession, not part of the solution for re-possession.
Another form of politics promising a reversal of previous dispossessions, but failing, was the emergence in the 20th century of Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist political parties. In all these cases, where they succeeded in gaining power a ‘left’ political elite merely substituted itself for an aristocratic or capitalist elite and dispossession of working people continued. In Russia, China or the eastern bloc, working people were not allowed to repossess the means of production, the system of wage-labour was continued (administered by the state) and in Russia a system of gulag slavery introduced for those who bothered to complain loud enough. The ‘party’ and its officials dispossessed individual and communal control of all aspects of human life. Their rule was backed up by means of police and military force. [See ‘Marxists versus Marx’]
It should be obvious, that the capitalist mode of production – including the state-capitalist form – has continued nearly all of the historic dispossessions of previous modes of production as well as developing its own unique forms of accelerated globalised dispossession. It is also clear, that in any of its forms, the capitalist mode of production, which is based upon such dispossessions, is simultaneously abusing not only the human populations of the world, but the non-human life of the planet and the environment.
The profit-motive of wealth accumulation – for the benefit and under the control of the minority capitalist classes – drives production to such a competitive frenzy of relative and now approaching absolute over-production, that it causes, economic, financial, moral, ecological and social crises of vast proportions. The 21st century neo-liberal mantra of more competition, more production is a recipe for further wars and ecological disasters. There is a pressing need for the dispossessed – the majority – to not only communally re-possess the means of production but to collectively re-possess their localities along with their full humanity.
The period of elite class-led – so-called – civilisation began with dispossession at their very socio-economic core and they have continued to the present day with this same patriarchal and class corruption. In contrast, real human-led civilisation will need to begin with re-possession of the communal means of production – industrial and agricultural. Repossession of communal and former tribal lands. Repossession of full human and communal rights for women, children, black, white, old, gay, infirm and disabled. Repossession of homes, public spaces, public buildings and public services, turning them all into worker and/or community-led egalitarian co-operatives with no hierarchy and instant re-call for any elected positions. Re-possession – in full – is the historic revolutionary-humanist task facing suffering humanity.
Such universal repossessions will be no easy undertaking, but these full aims need to be articulated for them ever to be discussed and considered. Presentation of the full extent of dispossession and the need for full repossession I suggest is the task of those who consider themselves committed to going beyond capital. The OCCUPY movement was (and is) a step in that direction. It is an embryonic recognition of the extent of dispossession, but future occupations brought about by response to the crisis should be re-defined as revolutionary repossessions, not simply identified as tactical forms of protest within a system of large-scale dispossessions.
Perhaps, the full and more modern implications of the famous call ‘workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’ should be the following – ‘dispossessed of the world unite – there is a world to win and a planet to preserve.
Roy Ratcliffe (January 2014.)