Rethinking Primitive Accumulation: Theoretical Tensions and Rural Southeast Asian Complexities



Abstract:  This paper poses theoretical and empirical questions to the resurgent litera-ture on primitive accumulation in critical political economy. The first section outlines the different understandings of capitalism, and of its relationship to primitive accumulation, in the literature, and argues that they complicate efforts to identify instances of primitive accumulation. The second section examines the history of frontier agricultural expansion in Southeast Asia to critique the literature's assumptions about who carries out, and who resists, primitive accumulation. The third section draws on work on Southeast Asian political economy to show that the literature pays insufficient attention to the institutions that govern capitalist social relations. The paper argues that these questions of agency, governance, and the nature of capitalism need to be answered in order to make effective use of the concept of primitive accumulation and to distinguish it from cognate concepts like enclosure and commodification.