Four Enclosures Since the Industrial Revolution

An extract from the book “Catastrophe and Reconstruction: human future under the impact of ChatGPT”, published six months ago. Translated by ChatGPT.

Accumulated capital can be obtained through “legal” free market transactions or through “illegal” means such as theft and fraud. Nevertheless, critical geographer David Harvey, in his book “Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism” (2014), tells us that the “universal” laws of market operation are nothing but constructed myths! Unethical activities in contemporary capitalism always present themselves as “legal” and “normal” with the backing of state power!

The above is the introductory story I used in my book “Flows, Plunder, and Resistance: David Harvey’s Geographical Critique of Capitalism” (2015). In fact, “accumulation by dispossession” or “primitive accumulation” is a concept Harvey has most frequently employed in the past 20 years, pointing out that plunder is not the exclusive domain of pirates, adventurers, and early colonists but a consistent rule of capitalism. Over the years, numerous related studies have emerged like mushrooms, making it more suitable for understanding the essence of the current digital revolution.

From a macro-historical perspective, accumulation by dispossession can be divided into four main stages. First, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution 200 to 300 years ago, the “enclosure movement” in England reached its peak. Farmers were expelled from the land and forced to migrate to cities to become workers, which Marx referred to as the stage of “primitive accumulation.” Ironically, just as the farmers were losing their land, the so-called legal system of “private property rights” was declared to be established.

Second, during the first and second industrial revolutions, traditional workshops and craftsmen faced elimination due to the pressure of large-scale factory production. Traditional skills were taken over by mechanized and automated processes, and de-skilled workers could no longer control the labor process. As described in my book “Dystopia”, this was also the period when the patent system matured.

Third, in the third industrial revolution half a century ago, rapid developments in information, communication technology, and global supply chains created the new trend of “globalization.” However, avoid to think that this significantly boosted productivity; it mainly achieved enclosure through financialization, privatization, and monopolization of traditional assets. This is why Harvey calls it “accumulation by dispossession.” During this period, the groundwork for the WTO international market framework was also laid.

Fourth, in the current fourth industrial revolution, it goes without saying that this is the process of enclosing human shared knowledge, information, and data through digitization, virtualization, and smart applications. Ironically, as knowledge becomes less and less a human asset, the intellectual property rights system takes a dominant position.

As American technology researcher Kate Crawford points out in “Atlas of AI” (2021), when we talk about artificial intelligence, it is portrayed as if it is a self-contained, independent agent with its own will, and it is depicted as a mysterious magical force. Needless to say, these descriptions strip away the development context of artificial intelligence, deliberately downplay the political-economic struggles behind it, not to mention its specific role in capitalist society.

Crawford redraws the “map” of artificial intelligence in her book to unveil its abstract and mysterious veil, debunk the superstitions constructed by tech giants, and reveal its true nature in practical operation, especially the power relations among different stakeholders. Only in this way can we better understand the root causes of the problem and find effective solutions.

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