Primitive Accumulation: The Musical

Look at this photo of a model for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic games as envisioned by Danny Boyle, the eccentric film director of many well-known films including Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire. Titled “Isles of Wonder”, Boyle has claimed that his ideas are inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is of course the bard’s late theatrical meditation on colonialism, slavery, magic and family hatred– But we get ahead of ourselves–Isn’t colonialism a result, or continuation of a certain process that has already developed in the countryside itself? Population increases, agricultural struggles, class struggles, militarism, advances in transportation all lead to colonies, yes? But capitalist colonization we can, and should understand as a qualitatively different process from mercantile colonization, as Marx brilliantly and teasingly concludes Volume One of Capital with a chapter on The Modern Theory of Colonization, fittingly the ultimate chapter to the section on Primitive Accumuation.

Primitive Accumulation of course being a variegated process of class struggle (aka stealing, pirating, marauding), but one that eventually takes on a special focus in the countryside, where peasants’ claims to hereditary property and traditional use of the land creates a direct obstacle to capital’s drive towards a specifically waged laboring class and a revolution of the concept of property rights. I have investigated these issues before in my three part series on Robert Brenner’s thesis on the transition out of feudalism into capitalist relations and its importance to the Marxist theory of the origins of capitalism, a still-contentious debate.

SO it should come as no surprise to careful readers of this blog at least that Danny Boyle’s design unconciously recreates a sort of microcosm of the specificity of the agricultural transformation of England (remember England was the first country to see half of its population living in cities well before other industrializing countries). We can call his  ceremony “Primitive Accumulation: The Musical”, or maybe “The Enclosures: A Multimedia Spectacle!!!” For readers of Marx, Boyle’s formulations couldn’t be more apt and perhaps perverse: On this, the supposedly largest set ever constructed, 70 sheep and 12 horses will be grazing, or dragging plows or hay wains? There will be ” a rural mix of meadows, fields and rivers. Families will be taking picnics, farmers will till the soil…” Most amazingly is that Boyle seems somehow unconsciously aware that this countryside is indeed a product of social turmoil which depopulated the countryside in order to turn the land into profitable sheep walks– So each side of the set will contain “mosh pits” (their language) of hundreds of crowded youth–An eerie reflection of the masses of landless flocking to the cities and towns in this long process of primitive accumulation (What David Harvey perhaps more aptly calls “Accumulation by Dispossession”) which Marx of course brilliantly narrates in Capital. Give it a few hundred years and soon enough comes the cesspit of 19th century urban life in cities such as Manchester and London.

Boyle is planning on casting an enormous bell with Caliban’s line fromThe Tempest inscribed in the bronze:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises

Boyle of course means the isle of Great Britain, but Shakespeare and Caliban mean the colony, the foreign, the other. Caliban continues as he speaks to the colonizing foreigners:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

What will the phantasm of the 2012 London Olympics show us? The reality of Capitalist spectacle, inescapable, but strangely in tune with the horrors of history–A dream from which we cannot wake? Or, Calibans in reverse, we cry to wake again?


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