Coercive aggregation vs. primitive accumulation

This post has been more challenging to write than I expected. Developing and articulating even a minimal framework – let alone doing it in a public forum – is an interesting process in its own right, but this is not meant to be a meta-blog, so basta.

The objective here is to articulate my idea of coercive aggregation that I introduced here and here more clearly, and then to show how it differs from the Marxian concept of primitive accumulation (PA), using the food crisis as a test case. Since I’m not a Marxian, I may well get the latter wrong, so I hope anyone reading this who knows that theory will correct me if I do. And since this is extremely long, I’m putting the bulk of it after the jump for those who are interested.


There are two parts to my idea of coercive aggregation, in keeping with its structural nature as the joining of two kinds of system. The coercive part has to do with the binding decisions made by a state to turn to private sector and/or market-based solutions to public or social issues. Aggregation is then the delivery of the aggregated demand of all of the individuals bound by the state’s decision to the private vendor/market. The key ideas here are:

  1. Coercive aggregation is a political phenomenon that involves a specific decision by a specific government.
  2. There is contingency – it is not a given that this will happen, and it is (at least as I think of it today) not structurally a part of capitalism, nor is it part of some world process.
  3. It generally operates within a country, though not always.

By contrast, primitive accumulation is a much grander concept that knits together all such activity within a single world process. PA was originally framed by Marx as the origin of capital, the source of the beginning capital that set the process of accumulation that drives capitalism in motion. PA required the dispossession of those who held the original factors of production, either in the colonies or through events like the enclosures in England preceding the Industrial Revolution. Marx, in Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 31 described it this way:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition.

Marx’s description of PA implies that it is only relevant at the origin of capitalism, though others have since updated the idea. In particular, David Harvey has reformulated PA as an imperative for capital given its constant need to grow through reinvestment. Harvey terms this accumulation by dispossession, though others (particularly Saskia Sassen, in this interesting paper) use the term PA instead.

The core of Harvey’s idea is that capitalism reaches points of crisis that require palliative measures. The most effective of these is a reduction in input costs to keep consumers buying in spite of their reduced purchasing power, which in turn requires the opening of new resource and labor markets. In his most recent book (a good read, btw) he applies this idea to the financialization of the American and European economies, and frames the explosion in lending as well as the shift in economic focus to finance as a response to faltering production in the West (or the North, depending on how you see things).

So to put it more simply – PA is theorized as an inexorable process, while coercive aggregation is a contingent mechanism. The latter is often used in the former, but not always, and can also appear in other contexts.

The food crisis

I think the food crisis is a useful opportunity to apply the two concepts to the same series of events to show where they overlap, and where they differ.

The power of grand structural ideas like PA is conceptual pattern recognition. Sassen, for example, looks at both the mortgage crisis in the U.S. and the land grab occurring in Africa and elsewhere and sees these as components of a broader process of the expulsion of increasing numbers of the global poor from capitalist activity as a result of a shift in the logic of the global system. She frames her analysis around the process, as well as the shift in logic from production to finance that reorients the process from extraction to dispossession, and uses the instances of dispossession as specific cases of that process.

I am paraphrasing here, as the paper is fascinating and well worth the time to read (it’s fairly short), but to isolate her analysis of the agricultural/land component, a sketch might look something like this:

  1. Capital, first in the form of extractive colonialism and later in the form of World Bank structural adjustment lending, blocked African development while extracting mineral wealth.
  2. The IFIs (World Bank, IMF, etc.) imposed what we now call austerity measures in return for lending. These measures weakened local governments and increased poverty, expelling the expanding ranks of the global poor out of the circuits of capital.
  3. These weakened states then presented opportunities for direct investment by capital, with weak and desperate governments as the ideal bargaining opponents.
  4. The imperative to bring every possible resource into the system of capital is resulting in land grabs across the global South.

I would note that Sassen’s paper is explicit in its treatment of all of the above as a macro system effect – contra stereotypes about analysis that use Marxian concepts, the framework does not require some dastardly cabal in the shadows.

By contrast, coercive aggregation focuses on decisions and mechanisms, as well as the networks that result from them, and makes no assumptions about historical processes.

In the case of the food crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), a coercive aggregation analysis that focused on the role of markets would look like this:

  1. The failures of many (though not all) state-centric growth policies and development projects in the 1970s in SSA were compounded by macroeconomic and environmental shocks, leading to increased reliance on external capital.
  2. The change in US politics in the early 1980s made the US a more activist lender to the IFIs, binding their lending policies to US politics, and thus binding SSA borrowers indirectly to US politics. This allowed the US to drive the IFIs to implement the austerity-based lending referred to above (this book is excellent on this topic). These measures emphasized the removal of domestic price supports, fertilizer subsidies, and any other factors that would shield local African producers and consumers from market forces, in the belief that these market forces offered a much better set of incentives and information than any single government could provide.
  3. The result – the binding of millions of disparate consumers and producers to global spot or physical commodity markets (this is one component of coercive aggregation).
  4. In the US, governments responded to intense social pressure in the early part of the 20th century by creating pension funds, which grew in the following decades to become enormous pools of capital, and which were funded in part by tax revenues. The passage of ERISA in 1974 fostered a shift toward more active engagement with markets. This bound taxpayers, workers, governments and the market.
  5. The market volatility of the past decade came at a time of intense aversion to taxes, so that governments were forced to look to further engagement with financial markets to close funding gaps. These pressures, coupled with changes in available instruments, resulted in a shift of pension assets into commodity markets. This evolved quickly into the involvement of ever-greater numbers of financial institutions, changing the logic of the commodity markets from one of agriculture to the increasingly volatile logic of finance (an overly short paraphrase of the argument made here).
  6. The binding of all of these parties to markets resulted in an unintended network across which the resulting changes in commodity market prices diffused, etc.

That’s a very simplified version, but it should be clear that none of the above treats macro processes at all. It may support an analysis of primitive accumulation, but that would be an inductive step rather than a starting point.


To take a much simpler example, local and state governments across the US are currently considering privatizing services ranging from free wifi in Wisconsin to schools in New Jersey. None of these events were inevitable, nor do they seem to involve any possibility for participation in the decisions by the people who will be bound by them.To me, that makes them examples of coercive aggregation.

That said, they are also part of a broader trend toward privatizing the commons in the US, so I suppose your mileage may vary in how you look at it – to the extent you believe such privatization to be an inevitable demand of capital, you will likely see that very differently.

And now this has been long enough – I will end here and get back to work on other projects. If you have read this far, thank you, and please don’t hesitate to let me know if any/all of this is unconvincing. As I said, this is absolutely a work in progress.

With thanks to CSC for helpful edits.

This entry was posted in Coercive aggregation, Food markets & development. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Coercive aggregation vs. primitive accumulation

  1. rogerglewis says:

    Great article, I’ll read the links later. I do find your Coercive Aggregation very compelling it encapsulates what I think we are seeing in Greece and describes quite neatly Thatcherite social upheavals in early 80’s Britain.
    What I have read of Primitive accumulation is so far second hand through Michael Perleman I also like David Harveys analysis so far as I have heard it, his interviews on Hard Talk and Conversations with history are very good, Michael Mann is also interesting although for me with a worrying detatchment bordering on mirth.
    A very interesting read and this reader would like to hear more, tweeting and also sending to an old school friend who is an eminent Economic Geographer and Friend of David Harvey’s, we were chatting yesterday about foreclosures and the money supply strangulation in the UK on the phone yesterday

  2. Anchard says:

    Thank you Roger – I owe this to you, actually, since you were the one who pointed out the parallel with PA. I’m not sure I would have seen that, and I certainly wouldn’t have taken the time to think through the relationship between the two ideas. It’s not in the post but I’m finding that there’s a strong component of economic geography involved (I hope to add more on that next week) so please let me know what your school friend thinks.

  3. Hi Anchard Just re read this as I posted a link here.

    I hope your Thesis writing is going according to Plan. My old school friend Professor Adam Tickell Is Pro Vice Chancellor at Birmingham University and an Economic Geographer he is hard to even get on the telephone these days and as I no longer live in the UK its not so easy as before to arrange dinner Still I am sure your own career will bring you into contact with both Adam and David it seems to me your thinking is of the highest order of clarity and originality,

    • Anchard says:

      Hi Roger,

      Thank you for the kind words – that is a big boost as I’m in the middle of the crunch period. It all ends on Thursday though, and I’m looking forward to normal life again. I hope all is well with you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s