Marx, Gandhi and Primitive Accumulation: A Response to Akeel Bilgrami

Akeel Bilgrami’s article “Gandhi and Liberal Modernity: The Vexed Question of Caste” undertakes a materialist interpretation of Gandhi’s thought against the background of capitalism and the agrarian question. Gandhi’s idealization of precapitalist communities is given “descriptive” dignity as an implicit grasp of the inapplicability of the Marxist notion of “primitive accumulation” to India. While those dispossessed by primitive accumulation in England could move to other parts of the world as a result of settler colonialism, the impoverished Indian peasantry finds itself without such avenues for migration. This historical difference creates a divergence in the process of class formation. In the metropole, the decline in the capitalist reserve army owing to massive out-migration of surplus labor improved the bargaining strength of those left behind, allowing the metropolitan working class to struggle for better living standards and improve political representation. In the periphery, on the other hand, capitalism is unable to absorb the huge reserve army of labor that has been produced due to colonial pauperization. This gives rise to a fragmented, intermittently employed working class whose ability to wage class struggle is undercut by its vast size. Through these historical facts, Bilgrami attempts to show that there is no necessary linkage between capitalist development and the establishment of a socially and politically unified space – the expansion of welfarist statism and liberal democracy in the North is a historically unique trajectory founded upon widespread destruction in the South.

The Contingency of the Encounter

The refutation of the supposedly linear temporality of primitive accumulation enables Bilgrami to posit Gandhi as a “social philosopher” whose normative valorization of pre-capitalist structures serves as a method of exploring alternatives to the ultimately futile dynamics of capitalist modernity. More particularly, the conception of caste as non-hierarchical heterogeneity constructs a conjectural past from which to articulate an internal moral response to monetary homogeneity. This stands in contrast to primitive accumulation, whose teleological faith in the external destruction of precapitalist structures and the subsequent dynamics of class formation (the working class acting as the “gravediggers” of capitalism) is undermined by the specificities of colonized society. Gandhi’s stance is encapsulated in the economic notion of trust, which, Bilgrami says, is aimed at maintaining responsibility within social relations. The objective is to pit the internal vitality of society against the extraneous dominance of the economy. Here, we encounter an ontological dualism in the form of the difference between society and economy. The relation between the two terms is one of hierarchical externality: it is either the harmonic stability of society subsuming the economy or the self-standing independence of economy dislocating society.

Gandhi’s particular conception of totality transforms a particular instance of the mode of production into the fundamental essence of other instances, which are then perceived as phenomenal manifestations of a more profound content. Insofar as totality continues to be thought of in terms of a deeper structure, the mode of production becomes an invariant structure wherein there is no concrete possibility of transformation. Change can only be thought of in terms of a complete systemic collapse of the totality, evident in Gandhi’s sharp juxtaposition of precapitalist heterogeneity and capitalist homogeneity. Such a dichotomy is averted by the very concept of primitive accumulation that Bilgrami repudiates. The assumption that primitive accumulation is irreparably connected to teleological prognostication about the future cohesiveness of the working class is an illegitimate extrapolation of Marx’s writings. Instead of positing a latent structure as the essence of a totality, primitive accumulation allows us to decompose it into the complexity of a mode of production, “understood in terms of difference rather than continuity, as one social formation appropriates and abruptly reconfigures an older institution or revives various features of extant social organization by selectively recombining them to suit its own purposes.” Whereas Gandhi pictures a self-sufficient totality with an internal unfolding and resolution of all contradictions, primitive accumulation disrupts those boundaries: it can either be situated within the precapitalist mode of production, whose destruction it represents, or within the capitalist mode of production, whose emergence it brings forth. Thus, primitive accumulation is both internal and external to a specific social formation: “[i]t is…a point of passage and transition.”

Capitalism is not equivalent with the structural regularity of an all-powerful economy. On the contrary, it is an unstable product of a contingent encounter between elements that have their own divergent histories. While Gandhi conceives of capitalism as the imposition of a series of “distorting abstractions” upon the qualitative richness of precapitalist society, Marxism understands the economic cause to exist only through the relationality of class struggle. The cause is not a stable structure underlying the effects, but is nothing other than the encounter, or relation of those effects. Instead of the eternity of a mode of production as a deeper structure, “we have the durability of social relations as reproduced social practices, always open to transformation…Structure is a relation that exists because it lasts, and lasts because it is reproduced through the material effectivity of a system of material apparatuses that guarantees this reproduction, a system that is itself conditioned by social practices and antagonistic social relations and strategies”. There is no teleology or fundamental causality that is responsible for the maintenance of structures; their persistence depends upon the balances of forces found in the antagonistic relations of the encounter, which provide the constitutive elements for the mode of production.

With regards to India, primitive accumulation belongs to the global history of colonization, which involves the articulation of power relations in the historically plural space of concrete social formations. As the becoming-necessary of contingent encounters, capital has to confront the “counter-forces rooted in non-capitalist practices and values that resists or subvert the attempts to subordinate life, ecology, and work to the imperatives of profit and accumulation. Primitive accumulation and resistance to it form a force field, an indeterminate though not arbitrary space of antagonism and struggle, within which capitalist transformation takes on an open-ended, relational, variegated, and reversible character.” The coexistence of the abstract, structural laws of capital with the concrete density of multiform conjunctures underscores the spuriousness of the Gandhian distinction between the internality of precapitalist society and the externality of capitalist economy. Such a topological distinction as part of the “theoretical deployment of mythos” à la political philosophy is always-already effaced by the global reach of capital, which, as Bilgrami showed, externalizes its internal contradictions in the form of settler-colonialism. The error consists in regarding this externalization as a mere intrusion in the stable totality of precapitalist society, instead of seeing it as an encounter of an ensemble of relations that do not have as their final cause some abstract essence but “other relations: relations which coexist with and precede this particular ensemble of relations”. This is a relational conception of cause, in which it “is always at work on the other scene – that is, it intervenes through the mediation of its opposite. Such is the general form of the ‘ruse of reason’ (which is every bit as much the ruse of unreason): economic effects never themselves have economic causes, no more than symbolic effects have symbolic or ideological causes.”

The worldwide operations of capitalist subsumption delineate an international valorization space that incorporates labor and land into the networks of abstract social labor and abstract social nature. The universality of this process is paralleled by the discrete historical configurations of violence and heterogeneous social forms through which primitive accumulation operates. While talking about the “local, diverse, and disconnected articulations of land and labor” that comprise the commodity and capital networks of colonial empires, Onur Ulas Ince notes: “Slave labor commanded by Atlantic plantocracies, peasant family labor commandeered by the militarized trading companies in South and Southeast Asia, industrial wage labor in Europe, and white colonial emigrant labor in Australasia coalesce into a global archipelago of accumulation. We can grasp these forms as properly belonging to the internal variegation of global capitalism, which no longer remains confined to metropolitan industrial and agrarian capitalism, but encompasses slave-plantation capitalism, company capitalism, and settler capitalism.”

The Materiality of State Power

By enacting policies of primitive accumulation throughout the globe, colonial empires force the subjugated people to deal with the materiality of state power. According to William Clare Roberts, Marx’s narrative of primitive accumulation is primarily concerned with explaining the unviability of the working-class separatism practiced by cooperative and mutualist movements. These movements are driven by the ideals of small-scale production, self-subsistence and familial independence, which makes it seem that “virtue, conviction, and hard work are sufficient to establish the colonies, associations, and communities out of which the new world will grow.” Marx subverts this faith by showing how primitive accumulation is based on the concentration of force in the hands of the state, which consistently combats any small-scale or decentralized petty production project. By thinking under the pressure of the capitalist conjuncture, Marx is able to extract a strategic orientation for the communist movement. The Left, instead of trying to escape from the reality of state power, has to sap it through a concrete movement of contradictions that identifies the vulnerabilities of the state. In the words of Roberts: “The magnitude of the state’s power, and the reliability with which that power is utilized to foster the conditions of capital accumulation, indicate to Marx that the workers must unite in large numbers and carry out a political struggle to dismantle the state and expropriate the capitalist class.”

The Marxist perspective envisions a “republic without independence,” where the capitalist dissolution of the fragmented reciprocity inherent in pre-capitalist relationships is acknowledged. This acknowledgment aims to foster what Marx referred to as “world-historical, empirically universal individuals,” whose material interdependencies preempt any possibility of reverting to local autonomy. Crucially, the interdependencies being talked about here don’t refer to the progressivist linearity of the production process, whose socializing and unifying tendencies are supposed to give rise to a homogenous proletariat. Rather, interdependency refers to the contradictory and complex manner in which capitalism intertwines the world through circuits of valorization. Lenin mentioned this perverse universality of capital through his conception of imperialism, which denotes the “highest stage of capitalism” in the precise sense “that it extends the contradictions of capitalism to the furthest reaches of the world and pushes them, in the form of imperialist war, to their highest intensity”. The focus on the material interlinkages of the capital world allows us to avoid anti-modernist fantasies that pursue a precapitalist agenda of proletarian separatism. Large-scale modern economic activities – collectivization, massification, industrialization, planning etc. – are valued not because they are the automatic culmination of the capitalist dynamic but because they are superior to petty production and communitarianism. This superiority is manifest in their coordinated national and international strategies, which respond to the materiality of state power contained in primitive accumulation.

While expanding on Ambedkar’s critique of Gandhism, Soumyabrata Choudhury remarks that Gandhi merely labels caste as an “anachronism,” as “a ‘part’ of the totality that has fallen into obsolescence and degenerated into a kind of temporal appendage of another consistent time of society”. This totality, as we have seen, is what Bilgrami christens as a “normative model” that ostensibly gives a method of mustering the internal moral resources of society against capitalist modernity. For Ambedkar, however, this precapitalist conjectural past is an “anathema”; i.e., a “wound of inconsistency at the heart of the logical object that is caste (anti)society”. The movement from “anachronism” to “anathema” indicates the annihilation of the immemorial spiritual totality that Gandhi presupposes. Why is this necessary? If Dalit suffering relates only to an “anachronistic” but deeply dehumanizing part of the totality, “then that part can be purified, or the totality can be purified of that part. This is precisely the logic which is built on the silent assumption—axiom—of the immemorial ‘true reality’ of the totality, and any change of heart must already be coded by the demands of this axiom.” This a-historical outlook is also evident in Gandhi’s idea of trust, which embeds corporations in an unchanging spiritual whole, thus replacing the militant rhythm of class struggle with the coherence of a generalized religious economy. In the caustic words of Ambedkar:

The idea of trusteeship which Gandhism proposes as a panacea by which the moneyed classes will hold their properties in trust for the poor is the most ridiculous part of it. All that one can say about it is that if anybody else had propounded it the author would have been laughed at as a silly fool who had not known the hard realities of life and was deceiving the servile classes by telling them that a little dose of moral rearmament to the propertied classes—those who by their insatiable cupidity and indomitable arrogance have made and will always make this world a vale of tears for the toiling millions—will recondition them to such an extent that they will be able to withstand the temptation to misuse the tremendous powers which the class structure gives them over servile classes.

To conclude, Bilgrami’s assessment of Gandhi as a philosopher-activist endowed with a perceptive “descriptive instinct” falls short in comprehending the efficacy of the concept of primitive accumulation. This concept supplants the speculative idealizations of Gandhism with the immanent tendencies of the constitutive encounter of the capitalist mode of production. While the former’s inability to comprehend the becoming-necessary of social formations leads it into the arbitrary construction of transcendental causes and abstract utopias, the latter’s appreciation of the contingent constitution of modes of production generates a revolutionary politics of the conjuncture.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India. Read other articles by Yanis.