The Sins Brewing in The Crucible: Rethinking the Communist Hypothesisand Liberation

In Azınlıklar, Çeviri, Devrim, Ermeni Sorunu, İç Savaş, İdeoloji, Kadın, Komünist Özne, Lümpen Proleterya, Proleterya, Sömürgecilik, Tarih

Capitalism was a counter revolution, which destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of the lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This much must be stressed, for the belief that “capitalism” evolved from the feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled.
-Silvia Federici

The sentences above are taken from the book Caliban and the Witch written by Silvia Federici and recently published [in Turkish] by the Otonom Publishing with the translation of dear Öznur Karataş. Federici traces the process leading to the witch hunts in Europe, and examines how capitalism emerged in Europe by degrading women. What a coincidence that the the oft-quoted book by Federici, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour by Maria Mies, was published by Dipnot Publishing almost in the same time. Federici’s work is neither simply a discussion of ‘gender’ nor a narrow reading of ‘capitalism’. In fact, underlying the text is a method for analyzing history and social relations. One sees the dominance of a theoretical ground inaugurated by Althusser and a perspective fueled by autonomist Marxism. Federici reads the genesis of capitalism not as a linear development but rather an encounter of the effects of various social relations and struggles in a way that this encounter acquires a certain functionality in the capitalism’s coming to being. The important point here is that all these processes and encounters had not been preset from the beginning to constitute capitalism. That is to say, capitalism emerged in the encounter between (coinciding of) a complex of relations/effects and struggles. Federici reads the genesis of capitalism in terms of power relations and subjectivities, and from this point of view (especially in the context of the relations between women and men) she demonstrates how the processes that formed the foundations of capitalism destroyed other forms of sociality and built new ones instead. It can be said, that is, that humanity/civilization (insanlik) emerged as the result of a world-wide and millennia-long civil war. In this context, she particularly looks at how populations emerged unemployed and living from hand to mouth; in brief she traces the proletariat.

From this point of view, we can argue that the categorical distinction between economy and politics is less explanatory in reading the development of capitalism than a reading through power relations and subjectivities. Federici is not content with looking at women and also looks at colonialism and analyzes capitalism through these two rings. This is not the place to critique Federici’s work at length: it is a very serious study and a thought provoking one. Especially for those still concerned with ‘liberation’ or the actualization of the communist idea/hypothesis beyond everyday protestism and day-trip leftism, it is a book we have to discuss day and night. And this without mentioning the intellectual/theoretical background from which she comes out, and over which I cannot claim mastery.

Well then, what might such a text make those living in Turkey in 2012 think beyond offering an interesting historical narrative or merely a different perspective? Federici’s book combined with conversations with a few friends lead to a flow of thought that could be interesting for the wider leftwing community. Firstly, I will introduce these flows and then try to touch on the importance of the theoretical base on which Federici constructs her discussions.

Sabiha Gökçen and Her Flying Broom

Seden Gürel in her album Bir Kadın Şarkı Söylüyor [A Woman is Singing] released in 2004 performs a song called Sebebim Aşk [Love is My Reason]. The lyrics belong to Sibel Alas and is usually known for the part ‘dön gel affettim’ [come back, I forgive you]. What is really ironic about the song is that the melody is stolen from an Armenian elegy about the Adana Massacre of 1909.  As if it was not enough to appropriate their goods, properties and dignity! Through the song itself it is possible to observe how violence deconstructs meaning and re-constitutes it within the formation of the Turkish Republic and the capitalist music market. Federici makes us think that the transformation of this elegy is not the same as victimhood. Let’s shortly look at the context in which the elegy emerged:

Adana massacre, which took place following the 31 March events that emerged as the result of a conflict between power centers and the increasing discontent against Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) that was becoming ever more violent, is thought provoking if we are to understand which possibilities open and which ones get closed by revolutionary transformations. Masses who were becoming discontent with the CUP were mobilizing with demands of sharia and Armenians were massacred in the process in Adana. But why?

In fact, the fact the Armenian Genocide acquires a sense of contemporariness today is the product of a very similar landscape. Masses who were made to feel discontent after the February 28 [1997] (the postmodern coup)*, earthquake [1999] and economic crisis [2001] were in conflict with the traditional power bloc, which was expressed through the Justice and Development Party (AKP). During this conflict between the AKP and the traditional power bloc the country was on the verge of chaos.

Discussions about the historical fate of Armenians resurfaced with the enactment of a law in France that prohibits the denial of Armenian Genocide, as it previously did with the murder of Hrant Dink*. Cases like the 2006 Serhildan (Rebellion) in Amed*, the murder of Father Santoro*, and the massacre in Malatya* and the murder of Hrant Dink coincided with a period when the political regime was changing hands, a period of Sunni-based passive revolution that stretches back to the February 28. Meanwhile in Boğaziçi University (most probably as a pro-EU foreign policy attempt) there was attempted to hold an Armenian Conference but the conference had to be moved to Bilgi University due to the reactions of Kemal Kerinçsiz and his crew*. During the EU process, which helped minority problems and questions of difference gain weight amongst the left, created a leftwing which one can label as ‘liberal’ but which also included revolutionary/left circles that by necessity could not split off from this ‘liberal’ left. What’s more, the revolutionary circles did not mention the fact that the discussions actually started with ASALA’s actions*.

It is known that shortly before being murdered Hrant Dink was thinking of the possibility that Sabiha Gokcen* could be an Armenian girl, and it is crystal clear that Dink was receiving threats over this. Rakel Dink was talking about “questioning the darkness which creates a murderer out of a baby.” Seen from today’s perspective, these two approaches cannot be simply imprisoned within naïve words like ‘historical research’ or being ‘humane.’

Actually both of those two approaches point to the fact that the two subjectivities emerged from within the same process: that is, to the fact that the questions are not singular but structural. Ogün Samast and Sabiha Gökçen: the former has roots in Trebizond, which had been Islamized by force during 1400s and then had recurring cases of conversion afterwards, and the latter is the honorary daughter of the ‘Ancestor’ [*Ata, referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk]. The former was a youngster who found his meaning-world in patriarchal nationalism in this peripheral city of unemployment during a time in which the founding myths of the Turkish Republic was being shaken and the country going through a neoliberal transformation; the latter was a woman who joined the ranks of the Army of the Turkish Republic, the essential component the construction of Turkishness, and of patriarchy by bombing Dersim.* What, then, could the left say in these discussions? What else did we say apart from uttering the fact that Armenian Genocide and Dersim Massacre did happen, highlighting how horrible the events were, and talking about ‘the fraternity of peoples?’

It is precisely here that Federici impels us to a profound thinking. What if these bloody events that took place from mid-19th century onwards in our geography really had a purpose: what if the slaughtered actually did something to ‘deserve’ to be exterminated? If so, then perhaps what ought to be embraced is not their ‘victimhood’ but the movements that paved the way for their slaughters. These massacres might have not only annihilated these sections of the population but also foreclosed the alternative political approaches to shaping the country, the possibility of forming a different society. Perhaps these really exterminated populations were not ‘victims’ but the actors themselves, and with this activity did something to ‘invoke’ extermination. Federici, that is, tells us to take seriously those nationalists who blame the exterminated/slaughtered for being perpetrators. Paradoxically, to declare those subjected to genocide and the slaughtered to be victims and to defend them only through such a position is meaningful for interpreting the workings of power. In fact, by seeing these sections as perpetrators, the nationalists/fascists defend a more advanced position than the leftists/liberals. Perhaps, what is to be done is not to defend the innocence of these minorities, but to take part in their ‘crime.’

The Sabiha Gökçen incident makes us to think about a connection between Dersim and the Armenian Genocide. The Communists of Turkey date their history back to either Sheikh Bedrettin or maybe to the Ottoman Socialist Party, but mainly to the establishment of the Communist Party of Turkey (Türkiye Komünist Partisi, TKP). The Balkans and the Arab countries aside, we can say that modern ideologies in Anatolia and Thrace, Thessaloniki included, spread through port cities; and in these cities, the elements that had connections to the world were non-Muslim merchants, and even more, non-Muslim craftsmen who stood at a more important position with regard to libertarian ideas.

Modern ideologies (anarchism, narodnicism, socialism, different interpretations of nationalism and self-determination) were not uncommon among these people; spread throughout Anatolia, non-Muslims could have been the agents of a very different social transformation. 1908* can be regarded as the date when this potential was untethered and tried to be annihilated. Thus, movements far more revolutionary than the TKP by the end of 1800s both in Anatolia thanks to Armenians and Greeks, and in Istanbul under specifically organizational forms. When seen from this perspective, a paradoxical relationship exists between the Armenians and the Committee of Union and Progress. A section of the population carrying very different dispositions toward realizing the ideas of modernity are slain for the sake of a project of modernity. The first genocide of modern history, then, starts with the Great Confinement of Anatolia.

The Armenian Genocide, therefore, cannot be regarded simply an ethnic cleansing or an attempt at nation-state building. Federici shows that one can read the Armenian Genocide and the subsequent incidents of deportation/massacre as the extermination of the alternatives to the existing political agenda. Therefore, these were not incidents of ‘ethnic cleansing’ but were functional precisely in the construction of the political. Seen from this perspective, the Armenian Genocide was the construction of the future of the Turk and our contemporary at least as much as of Armenians: these events can be interpreted as the deprivation of Anatolia from liberally inclined ideologies. Perhaps, it is not the victimhood of Armenians that should be embraced but their potential to challenge the contemporary construction of Turkey via different ideological dispositions.

The Dersim Question can also be dealt within the same framework. Different from Armenians, what is at play here is less the potential for modern ideologies to disseminate but the reorganization, by means of violence, of non-modern power relations carried by Alevism as something definable by  modern power, and the annihilation of communalist dispositions/practices. This latter is valid for all massacres towards the Kurdish people, as also indicated by the Kurdish Liberation Movement.

Why, then, is this historical work – to which we are introduced through a comparative reading of the two moments of Sabiha Gokcen and Ogun Samast – is significant for today?

It is not meaningless that these sections of society, preferably named ‘the oppressed’ by those with a more leftwing jargon and ‘the others’ by more liberal ones, are named as such. These two adjectives carry out the greatest violence by contributing to the act of depriving of memory. Being oppressed or being ‘the other’ do not rely on the abilities of those qualified by such adjectives. The construction of the political field has been successful in this sense: it renders possible to embrace the agents by abstracting the agent from his/her historical deed which made him/her into an oppressed. However, and quite interestingly, the neo-nationalists (ulusalcı) and nationalists (milliyetçi) are more consistent here than the leftists. This is because they at least say that these groups did indeed do something and that they therefore suffer the consequences. While the oppressors/fascists claim that these groups threatened the society, the leftists claim that these groups would not threaten the continuity of a society which had been constituted by violence. That is, the left does not oppose society, instead embraces it. It is here that there is a paradox!
Today, what Federici makes us think of might be significant in a totally different context. To begin with, what is discussed in Turkey in the context of the KCK (Union of Kurdistan Communities*) is the question whether Kurdishness signifies an ethnic definition or a political vision. In fact, one can say that the state and the PKK negotiate mostly on the question of the meaning of being ‘Kurdish.’ In this context, the fact that the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (Halkların Demokratik Kongresi-HDK*) – under which ‘socialists’ are situated – accepts maxims such as ‘siblinghood of peoples’ and ‘peace’ without questioning serves only to demonstrate the degree to which the political defeat of the left lead to an intellectual poverty. Or maybe boosts our morale, and that’s it. However, it seems impossible to attempt at an anti-systemic movement without questioning how the ground that separated ‘peoples’* from one another was historically redefined as a ‘difference.’

Without analyzing the elements that hold together the society of Turkey and the crisis thereof, one could do no more than to defend this society: which leaves untouched the essential components making up the society. However, no one today has the right to claim to be anti-systemic without questioning the components that hold this society together and probing their crises. One should perhaps refresh the ‘old’ division between reformist and revolutionary!
To give an example, the conflict(s) along the gender axis, becoming especially grave with murdering of women, seem to be symptomatic with regard to the crisis of societal organization in Turkey rather than being an auxiliary issue. Those women exposed to violence are probably not that ‘innocent’: they might well be acting in a way that unsettles patriarchy. It is worth reflecting upon this, for if we analyze the subjectivity [at work] here we could perhaps see that there is an ongoing civil war/massacre at this very moment within households and on the streets in Turkey, and the possibility that this civil war could be ‘revolutionary’ in the sense that it might harbor certain dynamics that would solve the tension between the claims of written law and the concrete, and perhaps dissolve the social as a whole [Negri calls this ‘one divides into two’] [*Translator’s note: The author probably was thinking of Badiou rather than Negri]. Seen from this perspective, it is quite interesting to examine the formation of the political sphere in Turkey by observing how Baskin Oran, Dogan Erbas, Fusun Bandir, and Sungur Savran stood for candidacy in the same region where Sefkat-Der nominated Ayse Tukurukcu*. It is again paradoxical that the same organization [Sefkat-Der] holds that women should defend themselves and even bear arms if necessary, while the feminist circles point towards nothing else than protestism. In his work On Populist Reason, Ernesto Laclau shows, by way of the discussion on the lumpenproletariat, how the political actors defend against those trying to permeate their spaces. Ayşe Tükürükçü simply reminds us this discussion! The problems in the introductory chapter of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy still endure of course! How can the gap between different ways of experiencing society be bridged? What could Ayşe Tükürükçü have meant, and what kind of a space of intervention into society could it have opened? Once again, one must refresh the associations of the reformist/revolutionary divide in order to pose a new division!
In this respect, holding together of this society as a political construct is way more dynamic than could be taken up within the simple framework of a conscious aim to construct a ‘national market’ or ‘dispossessing minorities’: in fact, when patriarchy is also added to the mix, one could simply argue that it is only possible to tackle this question in the context of a problematique of subject and power.

Federici shows us that opportunities come up only to be missed, and that society defers the problems it cannot deal with and tends to manage by displacing and refunctionalizing them. If we analyze the surfacing contradictions and subjectivities, interpret the symptoms of society, then we could maybe also see its crises.

Back in the day, anybody in Turkey who attempted to do a revolution would undertake a socioeconomic analysis of Turkey without questioning the social order they wanted to reach at [back then, this was unnecessary since existing models were still standing], and would decide on their strategy for revolution. So much so that back then, you could find statistical data about Turkey’s economy in the pleas by different revolutionary organizations. Although there were many reasons for schisms and segmentations between organizations, the debates about revolutionary strategy played not insignificant roles.

Time went by, however, and the things became complicated, those old ‘communists’, those distinguished between revolution and reform all turned into a ‘socialist movement.’ Just as the concept of communism, debates on revolutionary strategy also melted into thin air. Perhaps today’s the time to define new axes, redebate the communist idea, and search for its possibilities within the world and the unfortunate country we live in. Here, Federici reminds us of a key concept which could help the intricate articulation multiple relations of power and to interpret them alongside the everyday working of capitalism in Turkey – this concept paves the way for a very productive debate about the relationship between capitalism and subjectivity/power. This concept could be a central one in rethinking what Negri calls the ‘exodus’ (I am not sure whether the concept of revolution is strong enough, in terms of its references, to emphasize such a rupture) and cracking open the possibilities of intervention into the reality we inhabit. This concept is ‘primitive or original accumulation.’

To state very simply, this concept [primitive accumulation], which was taken up by Marx towards the end of Volume One of Capital, posits two necessities for the emergence of capitalism. Some will have an accumulation at hand for use as capital, and some will have nothing other than labor at their disposal. The appearance of the latter is understood as the separation of producers from the means of production. This is an act of violence in the widest sense. Marx criticizes classical political economists’ understanding of the source of wealth in reference to the industriousness of the entrepreneur and the laziness of the others, supposedly the ‘original accumulation’ that leads to the formation of capital. He further writes about the similarity between the role of this narrative in classical political economy and the narrative of the original sin. It is precisely here that Marx seems to engage in a discussion of subjectivity: perhaps, his discussion around ‘primitive/original accumulation’ will provide us entirely different horizons. The concept [of primitive accumulation] paves the way for a rereading of Marx’s texts within the framework of subject and power problematique. A trajectory which once took as its point of departure Althusser and Balibar’s concept of ‘mode of production’ is now disinterred by this debate which Federici is part of.

Original Sin: The Exegesis From Across the Ocean

A tendency which follows Althusser’s footsteps and tries to read Marx’s texts with the theoretical debates usually named with the prefix ‘post’ has been taking an increasingly neat and satiated form in a number of academic publications in English such as The Commoner and especially Rethinking Marxism. Unlike New Left Review and Monthly Review, however, an anthology of these journals unfortunately do not exist in Turkish. Two debates play a central role in these journals’ pages: Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation and the question of communism/commons. In fact, engaging with the concept of primitive accumulation within the framework of subject and power is already present in some of Negri’s texts but especially in Jason Read’s The Micropolitics of Capital, which is yet to be translated into Turkish.* In this work, Read deals with two of Marx’s texts ‘Pre-Capitalist Formations’ and ‘So-Called Primitive Accumulation,’ and attempts to establish a link between modes of subjection and the capitalist mode of production. He reads Marx with Foucault. This seems to present quite a fertile framework to come up with a political reading with regard to capitalism. Read, however, does not go into an in-depth discussion of the state when analyzing capitalism through the relationship between subject and power. It is precisely why Gavin Walker’s essay ‘Primitive Accumulation and the Formation of Difference: On Marx and Schmitt’ stands at a quite interesting junction. Walker summarizes his problem in the following way:

What Marx referred to as the “so-called primitive accumulation” has been frequently revisited in contemporary theoretical writing, but has often been read simply as a unilateral process of destruction of the supposedly holistic community that preceded it. More broadly, this illogical or irrational moment of beginning, the origin of the historical presuppositions for capital’s development, is a general problem of power, the problem of how an order that appears as a perfect circle, a closed circuit with no outside that nevertheless paradoxically requires something outside it, can be generated and maintained. Schmitt’s discussion of the formation of the modern order of nation-states, the enclosure of territory, the maintenance of their borders, and the acts that sustain this order itself can be effectively cross-read with Marx’s discussion. The moment of primitive accumulation is not so much a force of destruction or elimination of difference as it is an even greater violence of creation—the creation of the owner of labor power and the formation of a system of difference that will furnish the basis for capital’s full deployment.

Through Gavin Walker, we find prepared for us a theoretical ground for mutually reading into one another the complex processes of capitalist and nation-state construction. Hence is opened a space for constituting the systematic link between different subjectivities such as ‘workers, laborers, and the oppressed’ – which the Left only serially enumerates – and debating the potentials and dispositions that both hold society together and could crack it up. In short, we must turn to the question of ‘primitive accumulation’ as a key concept that will allow us to establish an immanent connection between millions of workers who toil day in day out trying to survive, changing forms of labor, and the most extreme forms of ‘oppression’ and help us see the fault lines of this society. In addition, almost all these debates highlight the fact that primitive accumulation is not an event that happened and ended in the past. Jason Read emphasizes that [primitive accumulation] involves violence but that violence itself assumes a new meaning within the development of capitalism. Seen from this perspective, we can think that everyday life in capitalism is organized in the form of a civil war, and contrary to rendering the state futile, it calls for a sovereign in a way reminiscent of Hobbes. But this curiosity is precisely capitalism’s paradox. Organizing an everyday civil war while at the same time assigning an imaginary monopoly of violence to the state amounts, in fact, to the destruction of constantly emerging opportunities against this system. It is worth thinking on this question!

If modern nation state was the outcome of both a millennia-long civil war and colonialism, the universalization of law has always involved an impossibility. If the written law of nation-states stand in contradiction with the state’s actual operations, this precisely points to the limits of managing this ‘gap.’ The state is party to the civil war. Law can never be constructed on a universal notion of citizenship. Therefore, at present is a civil war to which the state is party and which is organized at multiple fronts of the social: this civil war can even lead to schizophrenia in selfhood. Jason Read highlights the fact that capitalism continuously changes the meaning of violence. The link between everyday fascism in Turkey and the violence that is constitutive of this society – in other words, ‘the banality of evil’ which we inhabit – opens up another space for conflicts that cannot be represented by the modern political sphere. Seen from this perspective, discussions about subalternity and hegemony could play a very important and key role.

A Militant Praxis of Reconnaissance

It may not make sense to enter into a lengthy debate on ‘primitive accumulation,’ at least not in the scope of this text. However, this concept [primitive accumulation] seems to occupy a central place for the analysis of the reality we inhabit, and for the abstract analysis of the concrete situation.
One wing of the 1960s and 1970s debate on the articulation of different modes of production seems to have evolved into the post-colonial school. Here, it might be possible to find the debate on subalternity and hegemony – absent in Gavin Walker and Jason Read – in the works of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chaterjee (Provincializing Europe), and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
Looking at these debates, we could be able to see the immanently plural components of society in Turkey and symptomatic crisis thereof. Then, perhaps, we could discuss how the so-called ‘oppressed’ are positioned against the system in different degrees, and more importantly plural revolutionary subjects. A critical approach to the concept of hegemony could both lead us to a new way to the ‘modern prince’ and help us review Mao’s idea of ‘a principal contradiction and a subordinate contradiction’ (or in other words, symptomatic reading of immanent crises).
What remains is to think the idea of communism as a solution that emerges from within these paradoxes of the political, and to reanimate the communist hypothesis. Let’s not enter into the analysis itself here and confine ourselves to indicating the theoretical ground we can walk on in order to reanimate communism and liberation and that [by this] we can create a consistency. This is a proposal for a militant approach to investigation. The ‘modern prince’ is assumed to have a chronological program. Perhaps, we should no longer use the ‘modern prince’ allegory to construct the proletariat as a position but rather the allegory of a prophet, who makes humility the essential condition for willing. Unlike the modern prince the prophet does not have a program but instead a militant approach to investigation, and is a being that perceives the communist hypothesis as the ground for a metaphysical existence. Where subordination, overcoming and being overcome are the rule, It will solve these games but impose humility: this is the attitude of labor as a collective craft! To use the words of Hikmet Kivilcimli – who was the prophet of humility – in an entirely different context, it will be a reconnaissance squad [*Translator’s Note: The author plays with socialist leader Kivilcimli’s translation and conceptualization of the term vanguard as keşif kolu into Turkish]. Althusser similarly argued that with the concept of a mode of production Marx was reconnoitering a new continent. In their work Commonwealth, Negri and Hardt use the term ‘exodus’ to refer to liberation. The term, originally from Torah, refers to the emigration of Moses to the Promised Land after crossing the parted Red Sea after the Pharaoh was not brought to heel by persuasion or punishment. One needs to think about this allegory in theology. It is a prophet not a prince who can undertake a critique of the political. Prince is all about subduing faith and prostrates to power, while the prophet expects a revelation from living labor as a sublime abstraction: it receives from living labor not power but force! The reconnaissance squad searches for symptomatic crises and the truth of liberation immanent in subjectivities and the everyday. Those who reach the mystery [sırra erenler], those who communion with the common [müşterek olana iştirak edenler] matter not in their facial beauty [cemal] but by the life [can] they contribute to the communion [cem].*

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This article was originally published on the site of  “’.

13 Ara 2014

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