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Development and Dispossession
Economic development is the most wonderful process in the world. It reduces hunger. It reduces starvation. It promotes the development of and access to medical care. It provides the financial basis for the development of science and technology. It reduces crime (at least in the rich countries). It even produces happiness. Survey evidence on the determinants of happiness find that people in rich countries are happier than those in poor countries, and within those countries the rich are happier than the poor. It is not the only determinant of happiness; one needs other things such as social support and a set of ideals to believe in. But more money is generally a good thing.
The process by which economic development is created is not always such a wonderful thing. A substantial amount of wealth simply comes from the strong seizing the possessions of the weak. The earliest empires were raiding empires. Various areas were fertile enough to be able to support a larger population than others, e.g., The Nile Delta, the lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates. They could generate larger armies than their neighbors. They marched into their neighbors’ homeland and stole things. First, they stole livestock (a highly portable asset) and where they could find them, precious goods. Then they would come taking slaves. Then they would come demanding tribute. Tribute turned into taxation. Taxation paid for larger and larger armies. In this way, the neighboring lands were made poorer, while the empire turned fantastically rich.
Raiding evolved into the permanent seizure of land. Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon, the Conquistadores, the British Empire: they were all about taking permanent possession of distant lands, and using them to make the home country richer.
However land seizure is just as fundamental to modern capitalism as it was to ancient emperors. David Harvey, the renowned Marxist geographer, argues that capitalism grows by acquiring capital. However, what is forgotten is that space is capital. The essence of the expansion of capitalism has been the taking of space that was not being used for profit-making purposes and restructuring it to produce economic value (or more economic value). A simple example of this is an expansion of a Sunbelt City. Development consists of taking farmland on the border, and developing it into first an exurb and then a suburb with increasingly dense construction and economic use. What was once a field is now a shopping mall. The shopping mall is capital and capitalism expands.
The most savage and consequential incorporation of land and space into capitalism was the expansion of Europe into non-European territories. Smaller but just as savage versions of this involved the expansion of urban and coastal dwellers into the aboriginal lands around them.
The Spanish and Portuguese conquered Latin America. The English and French conquered North America, much of the Caribbean, much of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Japan got small parts of these places. Within countries, the Muscovites expanded east, putting Central Asia and Siberia under their control. The Americans expanded from the thirteen colonies to the Pacific. Central and South Americans of Spanish origin expanded into the interiors of their countries from the coast.
In all of these cases, the expansionists did not discover empty territory. They discovered aboriginal people engaging in their own local economy and their own way of life. The land was seized, the people were subjugated, economic activity was re-directed from a local economy to a global economy centered in Europe. The economic use value of land was intensified dramatically.
The key point here is that most of the economic value of the world economy today has its origin in land that was seized from aboriginal people.
Not all of the world economy was created this way. The Nile River, the Eastern Heartland of China, Western Europe, Persia, the area around Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Constantinople – all were places whose own people created economies on their own terms and enjoyed periods of prosperity and military dominance on their own terms. Some were conquered during various low points in their history; some were incorporated into the European world-system on disadvantageous terms. But they originally once had robust economies constructed on their own terms; they maintain some of the legacy of those early advantages today.
In contrast, in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in most of Central and South America and all of the Caribbean, everything was seized by a conquering invader. The original occupants of the land never got their land back, their economy back or their dominant position back. 100% of the economy that exists in those countries today is the product of land that was seized in an earlier era. The same argument can be made on a case by case basis for parts of Africa and parts of Asia.
Karl Marx believed that the seizure of land was a key element in the jump-starting of capitalism. He referred to such seizure as “primitive accumulation”. The only example he gave was the enclosure of common lands by Britain in the Late Middle Ages by an aristocracy that created wealth for itself and deprived yeoman farmers of their land rights.
Marx understated his case. Primitive accumulation accounts for an enormous percentage of the wealth that constitutes the world economy. If one stated that all economic growth in the Western Hemisphere came from the seizure of land, and no economic growth in the Eastern Hemisphere had this type of origin – primitive accumulation would be responsible for at least one third of the economic value that exists in the world today.
A large amount of the value of Eastern Hemisphere countries came from the domestic seizure of aboriginal lands, such as the Muscovite expansion to the east of Russia, or Southeast Asian domination of ethnically distinctive hill peoples. Therefore, the contribution of primitive accumulation to economic growth in the Eastern Hemisphere is certainly greater than zero.
Jokesters like to claim that the oldest occupation in the world is prostitution.
That joke is neither funny nor true.
The oldest occupation in the world is theft.
For More Information
For David Harvey’s views on the monetization of space as being the basis of capitalist growth, see the last quarter of his Limits to Capital. (Verso, 1982). For his discussion of accumulation by dispossession – a statement of the logic presented here – see his Brief History of Neoliberalism. (2007, Oxford).
For the role of raiding in ancient economies, see Michael Mann's Sources of Social Power Volume I: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760. (Cambridge, 1986).
Jason Moore makes parallel arguments within a ecological framework. The exhaustion of resources in old spaces requires the expansion of world systems into new spaces. See his History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: a Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet, written with Rajeev Patel. (2018, California.)
Jasmin Hristov makes primitive accumulation and violent seizure the basis of her work on contemporary Latin American growth. See her Paramilitarism and Neoliberalism: Violent Systems of Capital Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond. (2016, Pluto).
For a review of the literature on whether personal or national wealth produce happiness, see Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2002). “Will money increase subjective well-being? A literature review and guide to needed research.” Social Indicators Research, 57, 119-169.
On the role of conquest in the economic growth of the various nations of the world, read either an economic history of those countries, a history of the political expansion of those countries or a history of aboriginal relations in those countries. You can spend a lifetime doing this.