Brazil and the New Primitive Accumulation

When traveling from Vitória Brazil to its neighboring city to the South, Vila Velha, you will cross over Vitória Bay by an impressive two mile long beam bridge known colloquially by the locals as the Terceira Ponte or Third Bridge. Though the bridge towers 82 yards above the bay, it still passes under the shadow of Vila Velha’s most famous landmark, the Convento da Penha, a 16th-century convent clinging like a barnacle to the granite cliffs of a steep bluff at the foot of the bay. 


Nearly as striking as the convent is the dense forest that surrounds it—a stark contrast to the urban landscape surrounding it for miles on all sides. The forest is a tiny patch of what was once a vast belt of rainforest extending some 3,000 miles along the Atlantic coast from Northern Brazil into Paraguay and Argentina in the South. Though not as large as its Amazonian neighbor to the North and West, the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest) was nearly twice the size of Texas in total area. Now, roughly 10-15 percent of the forest remains and that number continues to shrink as it succumbs to further development and the commodification of its resources.


This tiny patch of a once-great forest is spared because of its proximity to a place of devotion. Pilgrims, some of whom have traveled hundreds of miles on foot, process up the rough hewn steps of the sacred hill each year on the feast of Our Lady of Penha to pray and pay their respects at the shrine. Outside the shrine, people feed pieces of fruit to white-headed Marmosets who  play in the nearby trees, one of the thousands of species endemic to the Atlantic Forest. Those who are attentive may also see Brown Throated Sloths traversing the forest canopy, lizards sunning themselves on the cliffs below the convent’s white walls, and Black Vultures circling far overhead on currents of cool air blowing in from the Atlantic. 


If you could drown out the sounds of the surrounding city, this scene would give you an approximate sense of what this region was like prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. Conspicuously absent from the Morro da Penha, however, are the native people who once lived in homeostatic balance with the surrounding forest. Those who have not assimilated into the larger population and have managed to sustain their traditional way of life are now largely confined to indigenous reserves, such as those near Aracruz, about 50 miles North of Vila Velha and its dazzling white convent. 


The area around Aracruz has managed to preserve comparatively large sections of Mata Atlântica, thanks to the Guarani and Tupinikim people that inhabit a handful of indigenous reserves in the municipality and their decades-long struggle against Aracruz Celulose, the world’s largest producer wood pulp derived from eucalyptus. Aracruz Celulose has repeatedly tried to claim the forested area around the indigenous reserves with the aim of clearing the forest for eucalyptus plantations. In 2006 company tractors even attacked and damaged the Guarani-Tupinikim village of Olho d´Água in an attempted eviction of its native inhabitants.


This scene plays itself out repeatedly throughout Brazil and its roughly 300 remaining tribal groupings. Because the preservation of their mode of life depends on the integrity of the natural environment, indigenous people have become a first line of defense against deforestation throughout Brazil. And every tribe seemingly has its own Aracruz Celulose, its own powerful capitalist enterprise trying to destroy its way of life and seize the land that makes its way of life possible. The destruction of Brazil’s traditional people and the theft of their land for private profit is part of a very old story of exploitation and extraction. Before it was wood pulp and hydroelectric power, it was coffee and sugarcane plantations, stretching back to the colonization of the Portuguese in the 16th century.



A History of Violence


This process of stealing communal land and stripping people of their means of production was called by Karl Marx and later Marxists ‘primitive accumulation.’ The word ‘primitive’ simply means that the motive force to get capitalism off the ground could not come from the profits generated by capitalism itself, but by something prior to it.


In Marx’s account of capitalism’s rise, the notion of primitive accumulation dispels the myths of capitalism’s “natural” origins by showing how its emergence involved constant violence, dispossession, illegality, and state-business collusion.  Primitive accumulation has been the subject of many works of theory and history since Marx’s Capital, from the theoretical elaborations of Rosa Luxemburg, to more recent studies of the phenomenon by David Harvey and Michael Perelman.  


As this story goes, factories did not just spontaneously or naturally appear to pump out cheap commodities in England and the Low Countries in the seventeenth century. Two things were needed for the capitalist mode of production to succeed. The first was a huge population of wage laborers who did not own any means of subsistence or productive property and must therefore sell their labor or starve. The second necessary condition was amounts of resources and capital far beyond what can be accumulated through hard work and thrift—contra the fables of early classical economists. 


The only way to attain these necessary conditions was by destroying rival forms of production and more traditional ways of life through expropriation and privatization; that is, by transforming sources of social wealth into sources of private wealth and self-sufficient producers into dependent wage laborers. This was accomplished in England primarily through legislation, such as the Inclosure Acts. Prior to the establishment of these laws, peasants were able to practice a form of subsistence agriculture. Their subsistence was made possible by commonly held pastures and forests where people could graze their animals, hunt, and gather wood. As feudal property relations were abolished, these common areas became private lands and forests. People no longer possessed the means to directly produce their own livelihoods and eventually became urban wage laborers.


However, the primitive accumulation that rapidly fueled the rise of industrial capitalism did not occur in England. This was the result of the massive ex/appropriation of land and resources made possible by the European discovery and colonization of the Americas, the mass killing or enslavement of its native inhabitants, and the importation of Black slave labor to its shores. The immense amount of wealth created by this brutal exploitation formed the material basis for the booming factory towns of Lancashire that were then filled with wage laborers—the victims of English enclosure policy and their descendants. This brutal process of primitive accumulation was what Marx was referring to when he stated in Capital that “If money comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”


Nor does this process of dispossession come to an end when the gears of industrial capitalism begin to turn. Rosa Luxemburg’s contribution to the theory of primitive accumulation helped to show that theft and violent dispossession both give birth to capitalism and sustain it over time. As if peering through the centuries to the current battles between Aracruz Cellulose and the Guarani-Tupinikim, she states in chapter 27 of her Accumulation of Capital:


“It is an illusion to hope that capitalism will ever be content with the means of production which it can acquire by way of commodity exchange. In this respect already, capital is faced with difficulties because vast tracts of the globe’s surface are in the possession of social organisations that have no desire for commodity exchange or cannot, because of the entire social structure and the forms of ownership, offer for sale the productive forces in which capital is primarily interested.


The most important of these productive forces is of course the land, its hidden mineral treasure, and its meadows, woods and water, and further the flocks of the primitive shepherd tribes. If capital were here to rely on the process of slow internal disintegration, it might take centuries. To wait patiently until the most important means of production could be alienated by trading in consequence of this process were tantamount to renouncing the productive forces of those territories altogether.


Hence derives the vital necessity for capitalism in its relations with colonial countries to appropriate the most important means of production. Since the primitive associations of the natives are the strongest protection for their social organisations and for their material bases of existence, capital must begin by planning for the systematic destruction and annihilation of all the non-capitalist social units which obstruct its development.”  



Primitive Accumulation Redux


While the Mata Atlântica and its native inhabitants have been under constant assault from the forces of primitive accumulation for centuries, leaving the forest decimated and its native people under constant siege, its neighbor to the Northwest, the Amazon, has  been the intensive subject of these forces for the past few decades, due to its greater remoteness.


We can see this process at work in the fires that burn in the Amazon every year during its dry season, fires which have become particularly intense this year, incurring intense media scrutiny over the Summer and Fall of 2019. Because of the sheer size of the Amazon basin (nearly the size of the continental US) and its inaccessibility, one of the only ways to effectively monitor deforestation is through the detection of forest fires using satellite imagery. Using these methods, teams of Brazilian and international researchers began warning of a significant uptick in the number of fires burning in the region in May and June.


By August the fires dominated headlines, op-ed pages, and social media news feeds throughout the world. At one point, Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, was blanketed in so much smoke the sun was blotted out and day became night

The fires are a visible manifestation of the continuing process of primitive accumulation. Unlike the fires that have raged in California in recent years, these fires are not starting spontaneously or accidentally in forests made arid by a warming planet, but are intentionally set during the Amazon’s dry season by people hoping to profit by clearing the dense forest and opening up arable land for exploitation. 


What does not appear in the plumes of smoke visible by satellite is what is happening to the indigenous people on the ground. Like their Guarani-Tupinikim brothers and sisters in Aracruz, indigenous people in the Amazon have become the victims of illegal incursions and violent attacks on their communities and settlements. Such attacks almost  never come to the attention of the wider world, except when forced into public consciousness by protestations and public campaigns of activists (some of whom are missionaries of a liberationist persuasion) and NGOs. So while tribal people have become the principle defenders of the Amazon because of their connection to the land, these networks of activists have become the defenders of the defenders.



The Recent Synod for the Amazon


In light of this situation, one of the main promises of the recent Synod for the Amazon (a gathering of Roman Catholic bishops) was to reinforce the Church’s commitment to all native people,  particularly to those whose presence is a crucial determinant in the preservation of the worlds’ most important ecological region. In the run up to the Synod, the bishops’ working document made the connection between the preservation of the Amazon biome and its indigenous inhabitants explicit. 


In his encyclical Laudato Si, Francis developed the concept of an “integral ecology,” a notion that draws attention to the impossibility of understanding or redressing environmental destruction without acknowledging how physical ecology is integrally bound up with social and cultural factors. As noted in paragraph 49 of the encyclical, “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” In the spirit of Laudato Si, the working document characterizes the purpose of the synod as an attempt to listen attentively to the cry of the indigenous people of the Amazon, to amplify their voices, and to recognize in this cry the cry of the Amazon itself. 


Though pastoral concerns and the controversy (and subsequent crime) involving native images have dominated headlines with regard the synod, the resulting 30-page final document indicates that the synod participants were able to stay true to this intention of listening to native Amazonian people. As the Church formulates its response to this process of listening in future documents and pastoral action, it should take heed of the consequences of not listening, given its complicated history with Brazilian peoples.


The destruction of the Mata Atlântica was preceded by the decimation of its native people, which was only possible because the Church, in its early encounters with Brazilian tribes, viewed them, at best, as potential converts and not as people from whom the Church could learn something. What little of the Atlantic Forest remains does so because of the efforts of these neglected people. Though religious devotion was able to preserve the tiny patch of forest around Convento da Penha, it is not sufficient to halt the dire threat to the world’s largest and most important ecosystem.


Finally, one voice the Church has not heeded is the Marxist tradition. The latter was sensitive to the intimate connection between social life and ecology a century and a half before Pope Francis made integral ecology a facet of Catholic social teaching. This new concept in Church teaching does not yet evince an adequate appreciation of how capitalism, as an organic system, depends for its continuation on the destruction of rival forms of social production and the privatization of the commons. Thus, moral appeals for a “green capitalism” are largely futile, given that capitalists are compelled through the pressures of the market to maintain the system of extractive capitalism.


If we will heed the Amazon Synod’s call to listen deeply to indigenous people, whether of the Atlantic Forest or the Amazon, they will teach us something about the wellsprings of material and ecological abundance, be they forests filled with natural resources or factories producing the necessities of life: the wealth of our hands and of the earth must be consciously directed toward the flourishing of all rather than the enrichment of property owners locked in fierce competition. We must radicalize another mainstay of Catholic social teaching, that of the common good, by seeing the integral connection between social struggle and care for our common home.


Securing the common good of all people and of the earth itself must involve solidarity and struggle against capitalism, and ultimately, an end to capitalism itself. Allowing these precious resources and productive forces to remain in the hands  of a few will eventually leave us all with nothing.  


ML lives in Appalachia with his wife and two sons. He is a Catholic healthcare worker and organizes with the Democratic Socialists of America.



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