Graphic Witness: Hugo Gellert
Graphic Witness home page

Hugo Gellert: Karl Marx' 'Capital' in Lithographs

Origin of the industrial capitalist [3/5]

PRIMARY ACCUMULATION: Origin of the industrial capitalist

Under the influence of the colonial system commerce and navigation ripened like hothouse fruit. Chartered companies were powerful instruments in promoting the concentration of capital. The colonies provided a market for the rising manufactures, and the monopoly of this market intensified accumulation. The treasures obtained outside Europe by direct looting, enslavement, and murder, flowed to the motherland in streams, and were there turned into capital. Holland, the first country to develop the colonial system to the full, had attained the climax of its commercial greatness as early as the year 1648. It was "in almost exclusive possession of the East India trade and the commerce between the south-east and the north-west of Europe. Its fisheries, its mercantile marine, and its manufactures, surpassed those of any other country. The total capital of the republic probably exceeded that of all the rest of Europe put together." Gülich forgets to add that by 1648 the common folk of Holland were more overworked, more impoverished, and more brutally oppressed than those of all the rest of Europe put together.

To-day industrial supremacy implies commercial supremacy. In the period of manufacture properly so-called, on the other hand, it was commercial supremacy which implied industrial supremacy. Hence the preponderant role of the colonial system in those days. That system was a "strange god" who had mounted the altar cheek by jowl with the old gods of Europe, and who, one fine day, with a shove and a kick, swept them all into the dustbin.

The new god proclaimed the making of surplus value to be the sole end and aim of mankind.

The system of public credit (this meaning the system of national debts), whose early beginnings can be traced in Genoa and Venice before the close of the Middle Ages, spread all over Europe during the manufacturing period. The colonial system, with its seaborn commerce and its trading wars, served as a forcing house. That is why the credit system first struck firm roots in Holland.

National debt (i.e., the sale of the State, whether despotic, constitutional, or republican) gives the capitalist era its characteristic stamp. The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possession of modern peoples is--their national debt.

Hence, logically enough, the modern doctrine that a nation grows richer the more deeply it is in debt. Public credit becomes the credo of capital. With the rise of the system of national debt, want of faith in this institution comes to be regarded as the unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Ghost.

The public debt becomes one of the most powerful stimuli of primary accumulation. With the wave of an enchanter's wand, "the funds" endow barren money with the power of reproduction, thus transforming it into capital, and this without the risk and the trouble inseparable from its investment in industrial undertakings, and even from putting it out upon usury. The creditors of the State, in actual fact, surrender nothing, for the money that they lend is tranformed into public bonds, easily negotiable, bonds which for practical purposes can serve as so much hard cash.

Furthermore, the system of national debt has not merely produced, by these means, a class of idle bondholders; has not merely brought into being the improvised wealth of financiers who play the part of middlemen between the government and the nation; has not merely originated the tax farmers, the merchants, and the private manufacturers, to whom a goodly share of every national loan accrues as capital fallen from heaven. In addition, it has given rise to joint-stock companies, to dealings in negotiable securities of all kinds, to stock-jobbing--in a word, to gambling on the stock exchange and to the modern bankocracy.

From the first, the great banks, decorated with national titles, were merely associations of private speculators, who took up their stand by the side of goverments, and, thanks to the privileges they received, were in a position to advance money to the State. Hence the accumulation of the national debt has no more infallible index than the successive rises in the stock of these banks, whose full development dates from the foundation of the bank of England in 1694.