Settler Colonial Studies and Political Economy

Jack Davies
race and capital Davies

This article criticises the political economic analysis of settler colonial studies, which it draws out through an immanent critique of its most famous practitioners. It then offers a critical genealogy of the wider theoretical trend that secures it: the post-Cold War vogue of asserting the ever-increasing centrality of primitive accumulation in global capitalism – what we might term a mode of predation. Finally, it teases out the tensions and confusions in the reliance of settler colonial studies upon Marx’s concept of surplus populations, as well as problems abounding in Patrick Wolfe’s “logic of elimination.” Overall, it argues that the frequent claim that we inhabit a global settler modernity cannot be sustained through these notions, and that this claim is profoundly moral and academic, lacking political and analytical value. The insistence on the durability of settler colonialism amounts, in this literature, to a claim on behalf of settler colonial studies itself.

This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.

Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital

Outside and inside form a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains.

                          –  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

The study of settler colonies has in recent decades consolidated into a discrete academic inquiry calling itself “settler colonial studies.” This is the most sustained, though not the only, academic attempt to consider the settler colony. Beginning life in the Australian academy, it finds its classic introduction in Patrick Wolfe’s 1999 monograph, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology. Today the project is carried forward by an eponymous journal, and cemented by academic touchstones like a Routledge Handbook.[1] Settler colonial studies argues for the analytical distinction of the settler colony from other colonial formations, premised upon its drive to secure land rather than labour, and its consequent organisation around the elimination of native societies rather than their enslavement or exploitation.[2] The settler colony, moreover, and unlike other genocidal events, persists. It is, in Wolfe’s phrasing, a ‘complex social formation’ and a ‘continuity through time.’[3] In the settler colony, ‘the colonisers come to stay – invasion is a structure not an event.’[4]

These formulations take Australia and Australian scholarship as their ‘key paradigm’ or ‘premier exemplar.’[5] That continent’s history, according to this literature, crystallises these core dynamics of settler colonialism and exemplifies their persistence into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – an ‘endless cycling of attempts to eliminate or absorb the Indigenous population.’[6] Unalloyed by elements like chattel slavery, Australia held the keys that unlocked the peculiar racialisation of settler colonialism in the Anglo settlements of the Americas and Australasia. In quick time, the paradigms of settler colonial studies extended beyond these continents, with its scholars developing a particularly enduring interest in Palestine.[7] In Lorenzo Veracini’s symptomatic phrasing, ‘As a scholarly field and as paradigm for analysis, settler colonial studies has gone global.’ It has ‘no geographical, cultural or chronological bounds.’[8]

This article, to an important extent, is about the globalisation (or universalisation) of this paradigm as a bad abstraction from an Australian model, which was itself inadequate to the Australian case, and particularly the Marxian concepts used to achieve this. In this regard, Wolfe’s final monograph, Traces of History, is a synecdoche. It begins, appropriately enough, with Wolfe himself, writing history on his verandah looking out over Healesville, Victoria. The local history – indeed, what transpired on the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station visible from Wolfe’s perch – permits him to establish the eliminatory logic of settler colonialism. From here, Wolfe fans out comparatively to variously racialised and subjugated populations in North and South America, Central Europe, and Palestine, where this logic reappears, or asserts itself in attenuated or alloyed forms, or is absent.[9] Nineteenth-century Australia, or the Coranderrk Station, duly abstracted, is adequate to index much of the world. This motion models the deeper way in which settler colonial studies conceives the history and present of its object, the settler colony. The formerly peripheral and exceptional moment becomes constitutive and central in every sense. The world was turned inside out in the process of colonisation, as surplus populations in Europe were displaced outwards; now it is folded back in, on the level of theory, and is suddenly adequate to account for the entire world.[10]

Settler colonial studies comes to rely, for its claims, almost singularly upon an expansive notion of primitive accumulation. This, in turn, leans on a prolific post-Cold War trend of Marxist thought in which “primitive accumulation” is, at once, unmoored from the transition debates and endogenous developments in the history of global capitalism – its crises, imperialism, financialisation, and myriad restructurings – and also taken to explain all of it. From here, the theorist may claim that primitive accumulation is exceptional to capitalism and capitalist accumulation not in a weak sense, but in a constitutive sense. All accumulation, we eventually learn, is deeply and secretly an ongoing form of primitive accumulation or dispossession, and this is the deep problem with capitalism – that it is a mode of predation. This, in a word, is the critique of capitalism from the standpoint of the commons.

On this basis, Veracini may declare that settler colonialism is ‘perpetual primitive accumulation.’ The two theoretical paradigms are more or less identified; settler colonialism and ongoing primitive accumulation are ‘essentially alike.’[11] Ongoing primitive accumulation, or one of its cognate concepts (most famously, David Harvey's “accumulation by dispossession”) is taken to define the neoliberal present. The settler colony may then be said to ‘fundamentally define present dispensations.’[12] More specifically, the re-emergence of surplus populations around the world evinces, in this argument, the ongoing centrality of the “logics” of settler colonialism in global capitalism.

Capitalism today, and especially financialised capitalism, we should believe, is a settler colonial present, a rapacious global mode of predation.[13] Under the laws of universal settler colonialism, dispossession occurring before capitalism is functionally equivalent to dispossession during imperialist expansion and to dispossession under contemporary finance. The enclosure of the English commons, the incorporation of the New World and Antipodes into capitalist circuits, and mechanisms of financial accumulation today are essentially alike. The critique of capitalism and financialisation becomes self-explanatory. The problem with capitalism is, as it has always been, that it is predatory; and predation, on capitalism’s own ideology of justice and fairness, is immoral. This moralism evaporates the analytic distinctions that would specify the settler colony and acquits its theorist of historical study. Even the firm and gritty matter of land, settler colonialism’s ‘irreducible element,’ is airily abstracted into phenomenological standpoint theories and metaphysical assertions about the “logic of elimination.” Such theory can only endlessly rediscover its own premises in new phenomena across all history: an interminable enclosure of infinite commons, a universal settler colony.

This is not, it should be stated clearly, to argue that land dispossession and spoliation in historical settler colonies no longer occurs or has no political relevance today; this would be absurd. It is to dispute, however, that this fact contains a shortcut to an analysis of global capitalism and racialisation, or that it offers an adequate metaphor for the contemporary moment of outsourced production and financialisation. Against all the impulses and intuitions of settler colonial studies, we require a historical and materialist account of the settler colony capable of seeing in the dramatic restructuring of the settler economies and global capitalism something other than the universalisation of its own original “logics” and “structures.” It is one thing to argue that the evils of settler colonialism are not, or not only, past; it is quite another to see the world as a settler colony.[14]

The following pages develop these arguments through an immanent critique of settler colonial studies’ most famous practitioners and a critical genealogy of the recent deployment of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation.

1. Turning the world outside in

Patrick Wolfe’s formulation of settler colonialism – in his monograph of 1999 – staked the analytic distinction of the settler colony and the settler colonial relation on the fact that settler societies did not make regular use of the labour of indigenous peoples, but instead sought to access and secure land. The settler colony was thus organised around an imperative to eliminate rather than exploit indigenous peoples, where “elimination” concentrates a diverse strategic arsenal, from outright genocide to cunning policies of recognition and assimilation. Wolfe first articulated this “logic of elimination” – which Lorenzo Veracini considers a “discovery” analogous to that of the difference between bacteria and viruses – in 1994 in the context of Australia.[15] It is unlikely that Wolfe, in the 1990s, envisaged the development of “settler colonial studies” as an academic paradigm. But he remains undoubtedly its most famous practitioner and he participated avidly in its subsequent growth, including its application to twentieth-century Palestine.[16]

The settler colony’s unique immunity to the withdrawal of indigenous labour upsets the Hegelian machinations of French anti-colonial and critical theory, as well as the myriad formulations of postcolonial theory. In Wolfe’s hands, the settler is, by and large, independent of the native, standing in an unanalysed form of contiguity or co-presence, and characterised by a one-sided will to eliminate.[17] Native and settler are, strictly, in a relation of neither domination or exploitation, and all clever dialectical reversals are thus blocked in advance.[18] This fundamental and material feature of the settler colony – its structuring around indigenous land rather than indigenous labour – pushed Wolfe in 1999 to elevate the significance of ideology in struggles across the settler colonial relation.

In the settler-colonial economy, it is not the colonist but the native who is superfluous. This means that the sanctions practically available to the native are ideological ones. In settler-colonial formations, in other words, ideology has a higher systemic weighting – it looms larger, as it were – than in other colonial formations.[19]

Hence the remainder of this book: largely a critique of anthropological studies of Indigenous Australians.

Wolfe does not adopt an Althusserian, or similar, notion of ideology, which would seek to alert us to the “imaginary relation” we have to our “real conditions of existence.” The “level of ideology” (Wolfe’s phrase) seems to indicate instead forms of discursive struggle above or distinct from an economic or material level, if such levels could be said to bear any determinate relation to one another in his work.[20] One has the sense that Wolfe’s reversion to ideology as the level of struggle in the settler colony is a desperate move, betrayed in the confession that ‘for the native, ideology is all there is.’[21] This would appear to suggest that what we might call “real conditions” in the settler colony do not admit the possibility of other forms of struggle for the native. But the lack of a dependent labour relation, in and of itself, does not imply (and much less necessitates) an exemplary role for ideology. This overhasty conclusion points to an original gap in the theory, a problem with the paradigm. And it requires a richer and more historical political economy to fill – specifically, one that is capable of entertaining determinants beyond the form of exploitation in the immediate production process.[22] Indeed, the immediate process of production between exploiter and exploited is here a façade for an undeveloped phenomenological (non-) encounter between settler and native, one with properly ethical rather than political or economic dimensions.

In a later article for the Journal of Genocide Research, Wolfe sutures the material gap in his theory with the fantastic concept, primitive accumulation. This article, distinguishing between genocidal events and the eliminatory logic of settler colonialism, became the most influential statement of the major coordinates of settler colonial studies and by far its most cited work. Here, Wolfe maintains the missing dependent relation between settlers and indigenous peoples as the foundational distinction of the settler colony from other colonial formations. However, this time he does not therefore locate struggle fundamentally on the level of ideology. Instead, Wolfe substitutes notions of primitive accumulation and dispossession for the absent relation of labour and capital to characterise the situation of the settler colony. The logic of the settler colony, as before, is ‘premised on the securing – the obtaining and the maintaining – of territory.’ Now, a structural notion of dispossession – specifically, ongoing primitive accumulation – is required for its analysis.[23]

The problem thus substantively shifts from the level of ideology to the material fact of dispossession, understood, once again, as structure rather than event. This move foregrounds the historical processes that drove the colonisation across the frontiers of the New World – what Wolfe calls, ‘a primitive accumulation’ – while maintaining the ‘sustained duration’ of settler colonialism as one of its defining features.[24] The problem, now, is to bring the analysis forward to the present configuration: how to argue for the ongoing significance of this inside-outside dialectic as a structuring feature in a much-changed world, one without a territorial “outside” to capitalism. Wolfe, and settler colonial studies more broadly, sidesteps this central and historical question by inverting, on the level of theory, the historical processes of settlement. Colonisation, according to settler colonial studies, resolved intractable problems in the metropole by turning the world inside out, deferring internal contradictions and class conflict by displacing them abroad, to the outside. (This is, of course, the rudimentary Marxian theory of imperialism.) The critical move in the literature is then to present the contemporary world as now folded back in, a world permeated and structured by the “logics” of settler colonialism.[25]

On this account, the deeper dynamics that drove the colonisation of the New World still obtain; they are, on the authority of Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, permanent features of capitalism. (Indeed, we should observe the publication of Harvey’s influential book, The New Imperialism, between these two works by Patrick Wolfe.) Capitalism, we read, perpetually requires an “outside” for its expanded reproduction. The incorporation of this manifold outside into capital’s interior is the purview of primitive accumulation, or as Harvey rechristens it, accumulation by dispossession.[26] Ben Fine demonstrated years ago in this journal that the theory of crisis propelling the “new” imperialism – what Harvey calls, “overaccumulation” – amounts ultimately to a generalisation of Luxemburg’s widely rebuked underconsumptionist crisis theory. Accumulation by dispossession is the corresponding generalisation of primitive accumulation.[27] Harvey’s argument in The New Imperialism for capital’s permanent reliance on an “outside,” and his commitment to ‘take this ‘inside-outside’ dialectic seriously,’ does not engage the many refutations of Luxemburg’s revisions of Marx’s reproduction schemas.[28] Nor, certainly, does settler colonial studies, for whom this is an unquestioned, even dogmatic, point of departure.

Settler colonial studies, accepting as true this image of capitalist crisis and reproduction, teaches that the processes that unfolded on the frontier and in the settler colony – so many instances of “primitive accumulation” – are now permeating the whole world. Capitalism’s ongoing dependence on an “outside” apparently bespeaks its ongoing need for settler colonialism, which, now mediated by “accumulation by dispossession,” can stand in for such loose abstractions as financialisation and privatisation. Lorenzo Veracini thus argues that settler colonialism ‘has gone global,’ that we inhabit a worldwide ‘settler-colonial present.’[29] This is the settler colonial studies version of the “colonial laboratory” or “boomerang effect,” beloved of twentieth-century European critical theory.[30]

The global claims of settler colonial studies thus stand upon an uncritical incorporation of David Harvey’s analysis of contemporary global capitalism and the prevailing role of “accumulation by dispossession” therein. Next, settler colonial studies recognises the structures of its own object mirrored in those of the “new imperialism” or “neoliberal regime,” as laid out in Harvey’s account. This is sometimes as facile as the presence, in each, of the word, “dispossession,” and the claim that both processes are “structural” (not evental) or “ongoing” (not past). The crudest versions of this, such as those of Nicholas Brown and Veracini, proceed along arguments of formal analogy situated on the level of the theory itself, making at best weak gestures towards underlying material conditions or historical causation.

Brown, for instance, seeking to advance a notion of “settler accumulation,” begins with a survey of existing literature on settler colonialism and primitive accumulation. For the journal, Settler Colonial Studies, he writes: ‘Like settler colonialism, today primitive accumulation, more often than not, is theorised as a structure, not an event.’[31] The analogy rises to a higher level as Brown addresses the relationship between these two concepts: they are, we read, ‘dialectically intertwined.’ The argument for this assertion seems to be simply that David Harvey connects accumulation by dispossession and expanded reproduction in these terms. Brown, once more:

David Harvey insists that…‘the two aspects of expanded reproduction and accumulation by dispossession are organically linked, dialectically intertwined.’ Arguably, the same could be said of primitive accumulation and settler colonialism. The similar manner in which the two processes have been theorized in recent decades may just be a coincidence. More likely, it reflects the extent to which the ongoing processes are ‘dialectically intertwined.’[32]

It is enough, then, that certain tendencies exist in the literature to justify tendencies in the literature.

Veracini, with Gabriel Piterberg, endorses this argument by theoretical analogy, agreeing with Brown that settler colonialism and primitive accumulation are ‘essentially alike,’ and share an ‘organic bond.’[33] Four years later, in the pages of Rethinking Marxism, Veracini suggests that the global “settler-colonial present” is anchored by what he calls ‘accumulation without reproduction.’ This spin-off from Harvey, we learn, is a ‘mode of domination that resembles settler colonialism.’[34] Beneath the dizzying conceptual proliferation, Veracini’s basic move, like Brown, is to approximate dispossession and elimination, where the first corresponds to Harvey’s overcapacious notion and the second to Wolfe’s term of art for the specific logic of the settler colony.[35] This approximation of dispossession and elimination is established principally by their shared opposition to exploitation – or, their shared position outside exploitation in the labour process.[36]

A type of dispossession that is fundamentally informed by a ‘logic of elimination’ or containment rather than exploitation is analogous to what indigenous peoples up against expanding settler-colonial regimes have faced and are facing.[37]

This, for Veracini, would secure the logic of settler colonialism as the predominant global mode of domination. However, and even on the evidence of his own article, these concepts do far more work to subsume the specificities of the settler colony, historical and present. The colonization and settlement of indigenous lands suddenly ‘resembles’ financialisation and privatisation: ‘The current ‘abdication’ of the state in order to pursue and defend private property begs the question [sic] of a possible return to ‘frontier’ arrangements.’[38] Begging the question, indeed.

This theoretical move to generalise settler colonial phenomena in the present, even when its claims are not quite so sensational, would hope to achieve a dialectical inversion whereby the erstwhile particular, marginal, or exceptional moment becomes the universal mode that it always already was.[39] However, the net effect is a feedback to the settler colony that dilutes its analytic specificity, especially the much-touted primacy of land. This projection of a particular Australian paradigm onto world history is not only self-evidently inadequate to the latter, but compromises study of the former as well, emptying it of all but a metaphysical settler will, an indomitable logic of elimination. The principal concept mediating this theoretical pivot between the Australian settler colony and global capitalism, as we have seen, is Marx’s notion of so-called primitive accumulation, as renovated by Luxemburg and particularly by Harvey. The critique of settler colonial studies requires, therefore, a critique of this theoretical trend.

2. Mode of Predation: Primitive accumulation, external universal

The final section of the first volume of Marx’s Capital, “So-Called Primitive Accumulation,” follows seven sections that theorise the specifically capitalist mode of production, culminating in “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.” Primitive accumulation has an uncertain status in Marx’s Capital, caught between the history and prehistory of capitalism, and containing a series of historical processes and observations, none of which have the clarity, formulation, or elaboration of other concepts and categories in Capital.[40] This has not, of course, prevented it from becoming a prominent concept in Marxist literature.

At the end of the Cold War, a tendency emerged to reinterpret Marx’s notion of so-called primitive accumulation as an increasingly central feature of capitalist social relations and capitalist accumulation. The subsequent explosion of academic deployments of primitive accumulation has already attracted several surveys. These typically bemoan the lack of conceptual clarity and attempt correctives, usually by restricting the definition of primitive accumulation, returning to Marx to “reread” Part VIII and distil a tighter definition of the process, or by breaking it down into component parts (disaggregation).[41] In this section, rather than partake in the hermeneutics of Part VIII, I intend to forward an argument about this post-Cold War trend itself, one that I have not encountered elsewhere. In a word, this trend achieves the subsumption of the remainder of Marxist theory by primitive accumulation, with effects flowing into the study of settler colonialism.

It must be stressed that I do not claim, here, to survey the entire gamut of recent work on primitive accumulation. I intend a particular literature, largely Anglo and emergent since 1990, that sought a “return” to the chapters on primitive accumulation and which now forms a citational ecosystem.[42] This literature unfolds in and across various subfields from Marxian geography, history, and political economy to various “studies,” such as settler colonial studies, critical race and ethnic studies, etc. Despite its disciplinary diversity, the literature shares a few basic convictions. In addition to diagnosing the growing importance of primitive accumulation since the 1970s, it agrees that primitive accumulation is not a phase but a constant and necessary feature of accumulation under capitalism, and that it includes a highly diverse range of extra-economic compulsions. No longer merely temporally before capitalism, it has come to denote, in the literature, that which occurs spatially beyond the frontier of capitalist relations, and those processes within capitalism’s spatio-temporal reach that do not qualify as capitalist accumulation proper. In the latter case, primitive accumulation stands for extractive processes that are conceptually outside of capitalist accumulation, the latter therefore figured narrowly in an ideal-typical form.

This analytic tendency typically traces its insights back to Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital (1913) and less often Samir Amin’s Accumulation on a World Scale (1974). We should, however, take Midnight Notes Collective’s 1990 issue, “The New Enclosures,” as its true point of origin. To be sure, the trend has a significant forerunner in European feminist Marxists of the 1970s and 80s, who studied Luxemburg’s work on the reproduction schemes and mobilised primitive accumulation to account, at once, for domestic and colonial processes of accumulation, each occurring “outside” the ideal-typical exploitation of the male wage.[43] These texts, however, have largely dropped out of the literature on primitive accumulation, notwithstanding Silvia Federici’s ongoing prominence, such that Kalyan Sanyal could observe in 1993 for Rethinking Marxism, ‘The last section of Capital, volume 1, is rarely read and almost never discussed.’[44]

It was, thus, more properly the Midnight Notes issue of 1990 that brought, as Sandro Mezzadra observes, Marx’s chapters on primitive accumulation into the present, meaning both that it animated new discussion of these chapters and also projected their contents onto contemporary phenomena.[45] The political impulse of the Midnight Notes issue is to assert ground for common struggle in an increasingly stratified world, and after the failure of “actually existing socialism.” The underlying theoretical move is to metamorphise Marx’s account of the “old enclosures” of the English wastelands, enabling today’s theorists to class apparently diverse phenomena – from the debt crisis to homelessness and the collapse of socialism – within ‘a single unified process: the New Enclosures.’[46]

The risks of collapsing analytic integrity and nuance, and of basing political struggle on unsound analysis, are quickly obvious. For one, the historical account, in Marx, of the enclosure of the English commons transforms quietly into a concept, one capable of extremely diverse repetition. The concept itself has also multiplied, spawning a parody of imitation concepts, usually spinning off Harvey’s famous formulation, “accumulation by dispossession.”[47] Indeed, there is a way that primitive accumulation, one part of Capital, has been burdened with the weight of explaining every form of oppression or domination that is not an immaculate and straightforward exploitation of waged labour – including, as we saw, settler colonialism. The political consequence, as Mezzadra notes in critique of Federici, is to imagine the commons as something that we lost and must nostalgically recuperate, rather than something to produce.[48] I would add that whatever ‘came before’ or ‘lay outside’ has its own, and highly consequential, historicity.[49]

The uptake of this analysis in the past three decades has proceeded by rarefying the abstractions already present in Midnight Notes. The second issue of The Commoner, “Enclosures: The Mirror of Alternatives,” released a decade after the Midnight Notes issue, is a case in point. The articles comprising this issue became, in turn, a frequent reference for subsequent scholarship. In addition to reprinting the editorial introduction to Midnight Notes’ “New Enclosures” and Federici’s contribution to it, The Commoner excerpted a chapter from Michael Perelman’s book on primitive accumulation, published one year earlier, and also ran influential papers by Massimo De Angelis and Werner Bonefeld, who later developed their contributions into monographs.[50]

De Angelis’ article is exemplary for its simplification of existing Marxian theory, necessary, I believe, for the simplifications and confusions that abound in later primitive accumulation literature and onward to the study of the settler colony. He divides the reception of the primitive accumulation section of Capital neatly: those who follow Lenin and those who follow Luxemburg. Two respective interpretative traditions: ‘historical primitive accumulation’ and ‘inherent-continuous primitive accumulation.’ The difference turns on whether one thinks primitive accumulation is a historical phase or an ongoing feature of capitalist social relations, where the historical phase implicitly forms part of a teleological, developmentalist saga. This categorical distinction permits De Angelis to place, explicitly, the entire corpus of the transition debates, and the Brenner debate in particular, into the Leninist tradition, and proceed unencumbered by its controversies and intricacies.[51]

Freed of the transition question, De Angelis isolates what he considers the singular principle (the “secret”) at the heart of Marx’s theory: accumulation, whether primitive or capitalist, is predicated upon establishing and maintaining a ‘forced separation between people and the social means of production,’ or between labour and the conditions of labour. Licensed by fragmentary quotations from Marx’s unpublished writings, this principle of separation ends up establishing an identity between primitive and capitalist accumulation.[52] ‘Accumulation proper is nothing else than primitive accumulation.’ The differences between the establishment of this “separation” and its maintenance, which De Angelis distinguishes as the becoming and being of capitalism, and then the differences between its simple and expanded reproduction, reduce to a simple magnitude. ‘Accumulation is equal to primitive accumulation ‘to a higher degree’.’[53]

Bonefeld’s contribution to The Commoner advances this secret notion of separation in a more philosophical register.[54] He figures primitive accumulation as suspended (aufgehoben) in the commodity form. As the constitutive pre-positing action of the capital relation, ‘primitive accumulation, then, persists within the capital relation.’ It is both the presupposition of capitalist social relations and the realisation of these relations. It is a ‘constantly reproduced accumulation,’ whether through the separation of new populations from their means of production and subsistence, or through the reproduction of the wage relation in established capitalist economies.[55] As in De Angelis, the secret is that primitive accumulation encompasses both itself and capitalist accumulation.

These texts pose for us the relation of “ongoing primitive accumulation” to the capitalist mode of production: whether, and in what way, it is an outside or exception to capitalism, theoretically and historically. The settler colonial uptake of this literature, typical in this regard, sees in primitive accumulation the constitutive outside to capitalism, that which founds and guarantees capitalist relations in a relation of exception (Ausnahme): included in capitalism because taken out. In De Angelis and Bonefeld, however, primitive accumulation is not only the oceanic outside to the capitalist mode of production, whether as what came before, what happens “beyond the line,” or what exceptional mechanisms are required to sustain it – already an immense burden for a single concept. Nor is it inside capitalism in the sense of merely continuing alongside it temporally, “dialectically intertwined” with expanded reproduction and sometimes predominant, as Harvey would have it. It has become identical and primary to all of capitalism, its whole spatio-temporal history and its entire theory. Here, primitive accumulation stands in for something fundamentally and secretly internal to capitalism, a simple truth suspended in all the formulas and schemas of Parts I through VII of Volume I of Capital.

The Commoner is the extreme expression of the primitive accumulation vogue, in certain ways departing from its typical formulations. It provides, nonetheless, a fitting description of this literature considered as a whole. Whether primitive accumulation functions as an increasingly important outside to capitalism or as its deepest and truest kernel, this literature brackets and ultimately dissolves, in the name of primitive accumulation, the theoretical nuance and specificity of Capital, the many concepts of Marxian theory, and the voluminous tradition of historical materialism.

This most regularly plays out through the conviction that finance capital is one of the crucial modes of primitive accumulation today. Midnight Notes, firstly, emphasises the function of debt in the “New Enclosures.”[56] David Harvey implores, ‘above all we have to look at the speculative raiding carried out by hedge funds and other major institutions of finance capital as the cutting edge of accumulation by dispossession in recent times.’[57] More recently, Nancy Fraser identified debt and ‘highly inventive but dicey ‘financial products’’ as characteristic of her capacious notion of ‘expropriation,’ itself an elaboration of primitive accumulation and crudely opposed to exploitation in the familiar way.[58] Mezzadra, too, sees primitive accumulation as precisely detectable in the operation of global financial markets, an example of the “extractive” core of contemporary capitalism.[59] In this way, the undeniable rise of finance capital since 1973 meekly accommodates the further extension of primitive accumulation through political economic theory. There is, it seems, no need to theorise the novel effects of contemporary finance on global production, the history of global production that facilitated the rise of finance capital, the intricate problems that this raises for value theory and exploitation, the specificities of derivative capital assets, or, indeed, the kinds of crises to which all this is liable.[60]

In a word, this is the subsumption of Capital by primitive accumulation – subsumption in the Kantian sense of abstracting the particulars of the manifold beneath an external universal. As “mammal” may subsume bear, human, and dolphin, so “primitive accumulation” subsumes all that is entailed in the motion of the production and appropriation of absolute and relative surplus value, and the reproduction of capitalist relations. There is no longer any need to debate the transition or to concern oneself with the tendential laws of capitalist accumulation and its crises. Primitive accumulation, the external universal, has subsumed both theory and history – a theoretical trend that takes hold, fittingly, in the same moment that ideologues celebrated the end of history in the immediate post-Cold War years. Marxism thus spawned a corresponding theoretical tendency that obliterated the historicity of Capital, reducing everything to a repetition of so-called primitive accumulation: interminable “enclosures” of infinite “commons.”

Through this prolific literature, the critique of capitalism on the academic left reduces to a critique of predation. What is wrong with capitalism and surplus value is that it is essentially predatory, and specifically that this predation is uneven, disproportionally affecting indigenous peoples and other non-white non-men. One thus finds, for example, an influential issue of Social Text from 2018 entitled, “Predatory Value,” and committed to a study of the ‘contemporary moment of predatory accumulation through the deeper temporalizations of colonization, settlement, and racialization.’[61]

Once again, David Harvey is at the root of things, starting with his liberal denunciations in the early 2000s of the “predatory” quality of the resurgent function of “accumulation by dispossession” in global capitalism.[62] Three years before the Social Text issue, one of its editors, Jodi Melamed, outlined the prevailing political economic angle of this literature. This is Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession with the admixture of “race” or “racial violence,” usually on the authority of Cedric Robinson. This analysis is encapsulated, almost parodically, when Melamed characterises her innovation in the shift from Harvey’s notion of a ‘state-finance nexus’ to her own ‘state-finance-racial violence nexus.’[63]

By the time of the Social Text issue, there is an explicit effort to move away from Harvey by substituting “economies of dispossession” for “accumulation by dispossession.”[64] Yet, in practice, his analysis still provides the major infrastructure of the theory and one may quite simply substitute these terms and add the modifier, “racial,” to the same nouns, and proceed as before.[65] The analysis, that is, remains familiar beneath the morphing terminology: the ongoing and intensifying role of “economies of dispossession” under the present reign of finance capital is grounds to affirm settler colonialism as a ‘determinate condition of capitalism.’[66] What matters here, and throughout the Social Text issue, is that capitalism dispossesses people; that it is, at its origins and to its core, “settler colonial.” Predation, or the accumulation of “predatory value,” slippery and resistant to rigorous definition, approximates, once again, “dispossession.”[67] And as we see in the editorial introduction and in contributions like Jodi Kim’s, finance is the big lever in the “economies of dispossession.”[68] Finance, one supposes, is today’s global mode of racial predation.

This demonstrates a major problem with the materialist analysis of the settler colony common even to opponents engaged in heated dispute, one that runs deeper than terminological or conceptual refinement, or adjustments in perspective. For instance, one of the editors of the Social Text issue on “predatory value,” Alyosha Goldstein, had already participated in a robust critique of Patrick Wolfe’s theory for its tendencies to ahistoricity and academic schematisation, accusing it of a form of “colonial unknowing,” and meanwhile calling for a “refocus” on the question of imperialism.[69] Yet nothing in that issue, or in Social Text two years later, delivers on this promising critique as it concerns political economy, notwithstanding refreshing contributions, such as Justin Leroy’s appeal that black studies and settler colonial studies each drop their competing claims to exceptionalism.[70] Glen Coulthard, in much the same way, reprimands commons-longing politics in his influential, Red Skin, White Masks, only to build his analysis fundamentally on Silvia Federici and David Harvey, foregrounding the general and contemporary role of primitive accumulation in capitalism.[71] Or witness Nandita Sharma’s venomous critique of settler colonial and critical indigenous studies nonetheless valorise the counter-ideal of enclosure and primitive accumulation – namely, the “global commons” – as the salient and urgent political task today. In this last example, the basic dialectic of enclosure and commoning proves more resilient even than the settler-native binary.[72] In all the above, disagreements are waged, terminology is shifted, but the analysis remains fundamentally the same. These academics, unencumbered by history, believe themselves, in their turn, to have discovered the secret of capitalism. It is dispossession all the way down. The world is a settler colony.

One must consider how distinct this objection – to the predatory qualities of capitalism – is from the liberal-bourgeois campaign against the predators and parasites of an earlier time: those landlords and bankers sitting atop their monopolies of enclosed land and hoards of interest-bearing capital, idly charging rents and clipping coupons; or the despotic sovereign that fines and taxes too much.[73] It seems true that the claim against predation remains profoundly moral – that it is unfair or unjust according to capitalism’s own ideology of political and juridical equality. The critique, in this way, boils down to a condemnation of the gaps between the ideals of capitalist society (reason, justice, universality) and its outcomes, the critique with which Moishe Postone famously denounced “traditional Marxism.” It is worth observing, here, another critical shortcoming shared by Postone’s traditional Marxists and settler colonial studies: namely, their attempt to ground a critical consciousness in a position ontologically or transcendentally outside of capitalism.[74] It is surely time to move beyond the banal insight that primitive accumulation is not only what occurred in capitalism’s prehistory, and beyond repetitive claims about the global “settler modernity.” Global capitalism is not a “settler colonial present.” Such a claim has neither political nor analytic value; its value is academic and moral.

The final section of this paper returns to settler colonial studies for a review of its heavy reliance on the concept of surplus populations in contemporary capitalism, and the implications of my critique for the “logic of elimination,” so central to Wolfe’s theory. Here we see the theoretical claims about the global settler colonial present break down on their own terms. The claim to a global settler present simply cannot be sustained through these concepts.

3. Superfluous populations and the logic of preservation

In 2016, Patrick Wolfe and David Lloyd admirably crystallised the dynamics I have sought to outline as the “collective project” before settler colonial studies, miniaturised in the journal issue they were introducing.

We hope that the gathering of these essays will help to advance and stimulate the larger collective project of researching the lines of continuity that link together the contested enterprise of ‘primitive’ accumulation that is inseparable from the inception of settler colonialism with the no-less contested current phase of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ that has seen the refunctioning of settler colonial logics of law and violence as the means to furthering and safeguarding the neoliberal economic regime.[75]

This passage follows a speedy review of Luxemburg – that capitalism ‘needs other races’ – and declares that although capital may no longer find a ‘geographic outside,’ it is ‘no less productive of forms of racialisation.’[76] On this basis, Wolfe and Lloyd declare a ‘new mode of accumulation’ (shorthanded “neoliberalism”) and a ‘renewed movement of enclosure,’ in which the logics of settler colonialism become, in every sense, central.[77]

The dynamic behind this dramatic re-emergence of the techniques of settler colonialism, we read, is the re-emergence of surplus populations in contemporary capitalism. Surplus populations and the problems they pose for state and capital emerge as the throughline between the settlement of the New World and the putative centrality of the “logic” of settler colonialism in global capitalism today. During the nineteenth century, they argue, the settler colonies provided an outlet for surplus populations generated as a matter of course by capitalist production. This enabled the metropole to avoid the dangerous grumblings of a ‘Malthusian excess,’ deferring crisis by displacing it outwards. Presently, and consequence of ‘capitalist automation,’ Wolfe and Lloyd claim that we may witness the same phenomena, only now without the possibility of an expansive movement outwards that might absorb the surplus. On today’s surplus population, they write:

As distinct from resistant Natives, this human surplus is produced within capitalism rather than external to it. In common with Natives, however, it obstructs rather than enables capitalist expansion. It is in relation to this community of redundancy, we believe, that settler colonialism’s inventory of local strategies is becoming increasingly congenial to neoliberalism’s emergent world order.[78]

This passage staggers a blurry line between identifying the globally dispossessed with indigenous peoples and meanwhile maintaining the uniqueness of the latter’s experience as the basis for a distinct theory of the settler colony. Perhaps most counter-intuitively, we remember that it was the settlers, and not the natives, who were the original surplus population in this story: settlement was a way to manage surplus population in the industrial core of England, an alternative, indeed, to eliminating this immiserated excess.[79] Wolfe and Lloyd suspend this tension in the generic category of “surplus populations” by obfuscating important nuances among the kinds of surplus populations generated as a matter of course in capitalist motion.[80]

Surplus populations, of course, are not necessarily or always economically superfluous, which is how Wolfe always understood natives in the settler colony.[81] Wolfe and Lloyd, in this piece, surely intend permanently superfluous populations, rather than the reserve army of labour, which may, among other things, help maintain profitability by applying downward pressure on wages. The superfluous native should instead remind us of Mike Davis’ description, a decade earlier, of the ‘permanently redundant mass’ of people unemployed by capital today, or of Kalyan Sanyal’s extensive work on the informal economy of postcolonial capitalism.[82] Yet neither of these scholars study the settler colony, and there is no genuine case here for why the same strategic “inventory” should be conducive to the fundamentally different moments of expansive colonisation and settlement and today’s “neoliberal regime” (to borrow their then-and-now periodisation). Indeed, the glimpses we catch are more suggestive of the biopolitical management of internal enemies subject to gridded spatial confinement, which, for Foucault and others, have their origins more properly in the franchise or dependent colonies than the settler colonies, and much less the Anglo settlements. This is a curious irony from the pen of Wolfe, who once complained caustically of the indistinct use of “colonialism” in postcolonial theory.[83]

But more pressing even than colonial differentiation, perhaps, is the superficiality of the argument itself. Closer attention to the devastating economy of today’s surplus humanity suggests stark differences, rather than continuity, with the history of settler colonies – especially on the fundamental question of land or territory, settler colonialism’s ‘irreducible element.’[84] In settler colonies, where land is relatively abundant, Wakefield advised that colonial governments impose an artificial price on land to discipline working-class settlers to the wage and establish the social relations proper to capitalism by forcing them to save before purchasing land (the fundamental curse upon the settler colony, for Wakefield, was high wages). Indeed, for him, colonisation meant ‘the creation and increase of everything but land, where there is nothing except land.’[85] Yet we encounter a very different situation in Davis’ Planet of Slums. There, Davis shows that today’s surplus humanity pays premium rents on the tiniest, most cramped, and squalid snatches of land, which therefore become valuable investments for speculative capital, certainly in no need of a state-imposed ‘sufficient price.’[86]

The difference is even more stark if we follow Aaron Benanav’s recent work on “demographic dispossession.” This shows that the principal mode of dispossession today does not even occur through land enclosure and migration, but rather population increase among the urban poor. In this way, the largest surplus populations in the world are increasingly a consequence of the inability of dispossessed workers to migrate, or settle, elsewhere. Whereas the population of Europe could remain stable during industrialisation, precisely because of the settler colonies, surplus populations today swell in the absence of the techniques and regimes of settler colonialism.[87] One of the most salient consequences – one that Arghiri Emmanuel elaborated most clearly in his polemics with Charles Bettelheim – is that surplus Anglo settlers earned the world’s highest wages, while surplus populations today earn wages below even the cost of subsistence.[88]

The comparison could take us far, and risk taking us adrift. The major point is that the “neoliberal regime” must manage today’s crisis of surplus populations precisely without settler colonialism and in radically different circumstances to the nineteenth-century settler colony, rather than with straightforward recourse to its strategic inventory.[89] The contemporary crisis of surplus populations is a dubious place to stake the globality of settler colonialism in contemporary capitalism, and likely draws us toward the opposite conclusion altogether.

The surplus population thesis, badly incoherent for analysing the present of the settler colony, is, moreover, only a partial explanation of the migration dynamics central to the history of various settler colonies.[90] Settler colonial studies, characteristically, highlights the significance of migration while deflecting serious study of it. Wolfe, in his major essay on Palestine, attributes overwhelming importance to migration sources in explaining dynamics in the settler colony. The demographic imbalance – caused by the nearly inexhaustible augmentation of settlers against the fixity of the ‘Native stock’ – constituted the decisive settler advantage.[91] Clearly, this is curious in the case of Zionism, where early settlement attempts were thwarted in large measure by what Zachary Lockman describes as ‘a virtually unlimited supply of cheap Arab labour.’[92] But there are, moreover, severe analytic limitations in simply positing a surplus population, whether settler or native, as “preaccumulated,” without accounting for the historical dynamics that produce it and facilitate their migration and reproduction in different lands.[93]

Wolfe might object that such an analysis would adopt the “perspective” of the settlers. ‘Scholarly resistance to the priority of the logic of elimination,’ he writes, ‘represents a settler perspective.’[94] This objection rehearses a characteristic sleight-of-hand in settler colonial studies whereby the “logic of elimination,” which initially followed from the territorial drive of settler colonialism, becomes primary. This logic, we recall, was proposed in opposition to the logic of exploitation prevailing in other colonial formations. Settler colonialism, as structure, obeys an eliminatory logic because the settler project does not depend upon the reproduction of colonised workers but the securing of territory. It tends therefore to eliminate indigenous peoples, along with any claims they may make to the land. This eliminatory logic realises a diverse strategy, from outright genocide to the assimilation of indigenous cultures into the settler state, or even the “legal” purchase of land from imperial authorities, as in the case of Zionism. There is, however, a tendency to forget that the “logic of elimination,” on its own terms, is not in fact fundamental or prior to all else, but a consequence of the settler power’s drive to secure territory, which must surely originate inside of capitalist history and its dynamics.[95] It is common for recapitulations of Wolfe’s theory to invert this relation in the sequence, or on the logic, of individual sentences.[96] Instead of a system or structure that seeks primarily to secure land, and which therefore requires, at different times and in very different forms, the elimination of indigenous populations, the “logic” of the “structure” becomes elimination as such.

The difference is therefore not mere sequence, but analytic primacy. When access to land is primary, one may pursue a materialist analysis of the interacting local and global forces that drove the historical pursuit of land and resources, as well as complex social relations of production, reproduction, imperialism, finance, and ground-rent. Upon these, one might achieve structural insights and relate them to historical and present waves of accumulation and struggle endogenous to capitalism’s history. This is, of course, methodological and highly abstract. Yet even at this level, we may perceive a dramatic difference to analyses that posit the “logic of elimination” as the structure of the settler colony, and on this basis, with all the analytic purity of theoretical schemata, unfold binaries of elimination and exploitation, violent dispossession and dull market compulsion, primitive and capitalist accumulation, outside and inside. The latter approach, uprooted and untethered, quietly leaves behind the materialist considerations of the earth and fascinates itself with the phenomenological density of the moment that Settler met Native, and merely implores us to take a side.

The “logic of elimination,” so untethered, permits cycles of academic pondering about the applicability of this theory to new cases: is South Africa, in fact, a case of settler colonialism?[97] Such banal musings even come to reverse their assessment and begin judging the adequacy of the history to the theory. Witness Veracini argue that Israeli settlers are erring in their brutal occupation of the West Bank. Because military occupation, he tells us more than once, reproduces the Palestinian national collective, it would be wiser to assimilate this sentiment by extending citizenship to the natives, like those canny settlers in Australia who must have read their theory.[98] Or we may read scholars like Omar Jabary Salamanca attribute failures in the Palestinian struggle to the ‘absence of a settler colonial analysis,’ the lack of which leads anti-Zionists to ‘accommodate settler colonial outcomes.’[99] (I suppose we can only hope that the Palestinians manage to read Salamanca before the Israelis discover Veracini’s advice and universalise citizenship.) And when Palestinians and Zionists depart from the script, these academics seem quicker to criticise the actors than the playwrights. Needless to say, this is a complex history of struggle, not an academic drama culminating in publication.

The logic of elimination, in this way, finally comes to resemble a new kind of master-slave relation, even though the formulation of settler colonial theory always intended precisely to distinguish it from such dialectics of dependency. From Saree Makdisi’s review of Wolfe’s Traces of History, quite perfectly titled, “Elimination as Structure,” we read: ‘The eliminationist structure renders the native necessary; with nothing to eliminate – no common other against which to align the state project – the structure would collapse.’[100] The possibility for materialist analysis of the settler colony in Palestine evaporates into a schematic theoretical structure, seemingly modelled on the political theory of Carl Schmitt: settler and native as friend and foe, dependent on one another for internal coherence. The logic of elimination, meanwhile, suddenly reveals itself as a logic of preservation, a reversal worthy of Hegel, except that the point was to theorise a relation in which the putative master does not depend on the slave. ‘It is not the colonist but the native who is superfluous.’[101]

It becomes clear, at this point, that words like “logics” and “structure” in settler colonial studies have intuitive rather than rigorous meanings. The levels and elemental relations of the “structure” – and the “logics” that govern it – lack methodological precision and genuine content. The confusions in the case of Palestine furnish evidence of this. This is a theory that promises only self-renewal and self-rediscovery, its own perpetuation. The insistence, in this theory, on the structural integrity and durability of the settler colony amounts, ultimately, to a claim on behalf of settler colonial studies itself.

Conclusion: The standpoint of the “commons”

In 2007, Peter Beilharz and Lloyd Cox lamented the ‘quiet shelving’ of a Marxist literature they dubbed, following the title of Donald Denoon’s 1983 monograph, “settler capitalism.” The most prominent representatives of this literature are Denoon and Philip McMichael. Beilharz and Cox consider settler colonialism (intending the concept cohering in Patrick Wolfe’s 1999 book) a cognate of settler capitalism. One could, with equal justice, locate a major discontinuity between the two, and consider settler colonial studies among the most avid participants in this quiet shelving. Certainly, they appear kindred when considered against a more conservative historiographical tradition in Australia, as in Beilharz and Cox’s review. Taken instead within a more critical or leftist corpus, settler colonial studies represents a dramatic departure, both self-conscious and not, from the analytic methods of the settler capitalism literature. In this way, Beilharz and Cox’s assessment of the disappearance of settler capitalism in Australian historiography, although not at all aimed at settler colonial studies, remains apt for the latter:

It was not so much that the concept of settler capitalism had been subject to vigorous intellectual scrutiny and been found wanting, as that it had been quietly shelved and substituted for by other concepts. These new concepts supposedly were and are more attuned to describing and explaining the dialectic between Australia’s past and its neoliberal restructuring from the 1980s until the present.[102]

With few exceptions, the works of settler capitalism tend to drop out of the repetitive and formulaic accounts of ongoing primitive accumulation in the settler colony and its supposed global significance under “neoliberalism.” In the absence of an analysis and critique of its own, this leaves settler colonial studies basically without an account of the political economy of the settler colony for the past century of its existence (only the ineliminable will to eliminate). This habit is not confined to settler capitalism. Several traditions of analytical and historical study on the settler colony from the 1970s and 80s are ‘quietly shelved’ in the post-Cold War accounts of settler colonial studies.[103] Indeed, settler colonial studies tends to consider settler capitalism, when it does not overlook it entirely, a sublated moment in the “career” of its own concept, a step on the path towards its triumphant consolidation into a discrete academic field, and then its subsequent blossoming in Australia, North America, and in relation to Palestine.[104] However, this final synthesis – the settler colonial studies moment – entails a symptomatic inattention towards the economic history and analysis prevailing at earlier stages of its conceptual “career.” We should, then, regard this final moment less as a crowning development and more as a departure.[105]

These overlooked works, meanwhile, suggest the need for a very different account of the political economy of the contemporary settler colony than the globalisation and perpetuation of its originary process, a so-called primitive accumulation to manage surplus populations. The failure to engage McMichael’s extensive theoretical and historical work on Australia, in particular, is a curious omission, given his explicity attention to the question of primitive accumulation.[106] One wonders whether it is because his work, rigorously historical, would not permit an easy description of post-1980s as a new enclosure. Beyond a mere insistence on the typological difference of the settler colony, this literature positions it dynamically in a world system, thus attempting to explain the outcomes of settler societies, rather than merely point out their difference from other colonial forms. These histories, perhaps tellingly, tend to break off some time in the early or mid-twentieth century, shifting towards new accounts of imperialism in the present that bear little or no relation to the history of the settlements.[107] The challenge to bring the account forward to the present is profound, and cannot be treated within the confines of the present work, although we would do well to begin with a return to economic histories and, with the guest editors of Theory & Event, refocus the question of imperialism beyond the schematic typologies of settler colonial studies.[108] At a minimum, theoretical and political linkages among settler colonies need to be historically grounded; our concept of it, as a process, needs determinants beyond the settler will to eliminate, or a misunderstanding of the category of surplus populations.

For its part, settler colonial studies, and as we have seen, presents a two-part history. In the first phase, settler colonialism was the crucial technique for resolving the contradiction of surplus populations in the industrial centre. Founded upon the old nomos of the earth, a world structured by a geographic outside, settler colonialism was the violent colonisation of the lands that lay beyond the line, via processes of primitive accumulation, to relieve the contradictions on the inside. The second phase, following the World Wars, properly begins with the “neoliberal regime,” presumably around 1973. In episode two, the erstwhile outside of capitalism reveals itself as capitalism’s innermost kernel; the world is turned outside in. This inside-outside dialectic proves itself a permanent and structural feature of capitalism, evinced in the ongoing production of surplus populations and the recurrence today of the processes of primitive accumulation proper to settler colonialism’s history, or at least metaphors of them.

Gaston Bachelard once quipped, ‘Outside and inside form a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains.’[109] Such a problematic dynamic may be said to apply beyond settler colonial studies to several fashionable literatures that take, as their premise, the conviction that primitive accumulation, or a cognate concept, is the major lever of contemporary capitalist accumulation as manifest by “finance” – the global mode of predation – in a world governed by the struggle between enclosure and resistance. This tendency treats everything from various environmental and anti-privatisation efforts to assertions of ancient rights to land and resources, human rights to migration and refuge, and to autonomy over the “digital commons,” the “general intellect,” and over bodies and social reproduction. This, it must be stressed, is only to name a few expressions; and this remarkable heterogeneity is sometimes celebrated as reflecting the diverse, plural, or non-monolithic imperatives of this politics of the commons.[110] Settler colonialism, figured as a predatory sequence that incorporates an “outside” through diverse processes of dispossession, is nonetheless paradigmatic of this imaginary: something natural or ancient or communal was taken or alienated, and must be recuperated; something both infinitely plural and irreducibly singular was coded and impoverished, and must be restored to its former plenitude.[111]

To paraphrase Moishe Postone’s critique of traditional Marxism, this is a condemnation of capitalism from the standpoint of the commons, a notion no less transhistorical than “labour” in certain traditions of twentieth-century Marxism.[112] For Postone, immanent social critique cannot proceed from a standpoint that purports to lie outside of its own social universe.[113] To do so leads to mere denunciations of the gap between the ideals of capitalism and its outcomes. One corollary of this analysis is a naked disinterest in the exploitation of workers, except where they are legally “unfree” – an analysis of global capitalism that returns to the origins of the New and Old Worlds and need not address the rise of global production in the Third World. Indeed, it seems plausible that the replacement of “labour” by “commons,” and “exploitation” by “elimination,” is not purely casual. We might consider it, rather, a symptom of the dramatic economic upheaval since the 1970s, where the traditional critical standpoint of the industrial worker all but vanishes from the Global North amid technological developments, outsourcing, and financialisation. In this context, the schematic opposition of a logic of exploitation and a logic of elimination becomes a viable analysis, at least when viewed from the standpoint of Patrick Wolfe’s verandah in Healesville. All this ultimately achieves, however, is a simple reversal of the formerly positive valence, such that the “worker,” automatic hero of a vulgar traditional Marxism, becomes a backward worker, a “settler” almost in J. Sakai’s meaning, thus displacing a thin notion of the “revolutionary subject” from the “worker” to the “native.”[114] These, however, are opposite sides of the same coin, which spins in a void and never quite hits the ground. 


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[1] See Cavanagh and Veracini (eds.) 2017. These two also maintain the blog,

In the Handbook, Veracini describes settler colonial studies various as a ‘distinct subfield’ and a ‘scholarly field.’ See Veracini 2017, pp. 2–4.

[2] ‘The primary motive for elimination is not race (or religion, ethnicity, grade of civilization, etc.) but access to territory. Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.’ Wolfe 2006, p. 388.

[3] ibid., p. 390.

[4] Wolfe 1999, p. 2.

[5] ‘The Australian example – and Australian scholarship – has offered a key paradigm for the field of settler colonial studies.’ Edmonds and Carey 2017, p. 371.

[6] Maddison 2017, p. 425.

[7] The interest in Palestine among the Australian practitioners of settler colonial studies has been warmly reciprocated by Palestine studies scholars. See, for only one example, Makdisi 2017. For a review of this “turn” in Palestine studies, see Busbridge 2017. Its relationship to the North American academy is much less straightforward. For a generous treatment of this, see Kauanui 2016.

Other theorists have expanded and adapted this model for the study of Algeria and certain territories subject to Japanese imperial rule. For an overview of this latter trend, see Uchida 2011, pp. 18–25.

Literatures on settler economies (or “settler capitalism”) often extend their comparative studies – although not Wolfe’s formulations – to Southern Africa and certain states of South America. See, for instance, various contributions to Lloyd, Metzer, and Sutch (eds.) 2013; see also Denoon 1983.

[8] Veracini 2017, p. 4.

[9] Wolfe 2016.

[10] The title of my article is a play on Piterberg and Veracini 2015, rather than its elaboration in the latter's book, out from Verso in 2021, The World Turned Inside Out. (The present article was written before the appearance of this book.) Nothing in this book, however, invalidates my claims or criticisms. On the contrary, one finds there further and increasingly absurd examples of the tendencies to weak analogy and unmoored comparison. See Veracini 2021.

[11] Piterberg and Veracini 2015, p. 469.

[12] Veracini 2019, p. 118.

[13] ibid.; see also Veracini 2015.

[14] ‘The new dispensation, accumulation by dispossession in the “creditocracy” age, ‘indigenises’ us all because it does not recognise, or suppresses, our sovereign collective capabilities as it appropriates whatever secondary ‘commons’ we may still hold.’ Veracini 2015, p 93.

[15] Wolfe 1994; Veracini 2015.

[16] Wolfe 2012.

[17] ‘If I were analysing the settler-colonial relationship or (heaven forbid) the practice of Aboriginality…my analysis would be guilty of constructing Aboriginal people…“in their absence.” But I am not analysing such things. Rather, in the logic of elimination, I am analysing what might be called the settler-colonial will, a historical force which ultimately derives from the primal drive to expansion which is generally glossed as capitalism. Though capitalism has energetically constructed and thrived upon a host of alterities, it is not ultimately dependent upon them.’ Wolfe 1994, p. 97.

[18] Although Veracini describes settler colonialism as a ‘mode of domination,’ Wolfe is clear that he does not intend to generate a socio-ontological relation of dominator and dominated. See ibid.; Veracini 2017.

[19] Wolfe 1999, pp. 2–3.

[20] ‘Where survival is a matter of not being assimilated, positionality is not just central to the issue – it is the issue. In a settler-colonial context, the question of who speaks goes far beyond liberal concerns with equity, dialogue or access to the academy. Claims to authority over indigenous discourse made from within the settler-colonial academy necessarily participate in the continuing usurpation of indigenous space.’ ibid., p. 3. Wolfe invokes Talal Asad’s 1979 lecture on ideology to stress the historicity and non-universal quality of the ‘level of ideology’ in any social formation. He opposes it to Fanon’s master-slave schema, in which colonists owe their existence to the colonial system. None of this, however, clarifies what precisely it means for Indigenous Australians to have only ‘ideology,’ except that it is different from the Algerian case. See Asad 1979.

[21] Wolfe 1999.

[22] ‘Relations of production are simply not reducible to forms of exploitation.’ Banaji 2010, p. 41. This to say nothing of the various forms of labour that Indigenous Australians performed historically for settlers. See Meredith 2013, pp. 335–37. Naturally, Wolfe’s scheme does not intend to deny that “exploitation” never occurred in settler colonies. It does, however, encourage the removal of strike waves by, for instance, indigenous Australians and Palestinians from the research agenda.

[23] Wolfe 2006, p. 402. Wolfe, at times, flirts with a concept of his own devising, “preaccumulation,” which vaguely describes the ‘aggregate historical endowment’ that settlers brought with them to the colony and the independently accumulated ‘Indigenous plenitude’ they confronted. See Wolfe 2012, p. 137; Wolfe 2016, pp. 19–24. However, primitive accumulation remains the explanatory concept or mechanism of settler colonialism. “Preaccumulation” is mostly descriptive, and in any case would require significant disaggregation if it were to explain anything rigorously.

[24] Wolfe 2006, pp. 395, 400.

[25] Gabriel Piterberg and Lorenzo Veracini show that E. G. Wakefield’s theory of systematic colonisation intended to stabilise contradictions in the British core, which would otherwise lead to a revolutionary dissolution. See Piterberg and Veracini 2015. The metropolitan contradictions here, as I will show later, are crises caused by surplus populations and capital overaccumulation.

[26] Harvey 2003, pp. 140–43.

[27] Fine 2006, pp. 143–44. For further critiques of Harvey’s book, see, from the same issue, Brenner 2006; and Sutcliffe 2006. See also Smith 2016, pp. 199–203.

[28] For a succinct critique of Luxemburg relevant to the theory of imperialism, see Day and Gaido 2012.

On the other hand, for Max Henninger, Luxemburg’s failure to reinterpret rigorously Marx’s reproduction schemes is irrelevant to the fact that Luxemburg, more than Marx, saw the persistence of epochal destruction beyond the formative period of capitalism. Henninger 2014, p. 299.

[29] Veracini 2019, p. 118.

[30] This refers to the notion, appearing in Aimé Césaire, Hannah Arendt, and Michel Foucault among others, of the racist management of populations in the colonies returning the European core, particularly in reference to Nazism. See Foucault 2003, p. 103; Césaire 2001, pp. 36–41; Arendt 1973, p. 155.

It is worth pointing out that this is in no way a notion specific to the settler colony and usually refers explicitly to other colonial formations. As a figure, its inadequacy to a settler colony like Australia is perhaps best expressed by the fact that many literal boomerangs were not designed to return, but to fly straight and kill.

[31] Brown 2014, pp. 3–4..

[32] ibid., p. 9.

[33] Piterberg and Veracini 2015, p. 469.

[34] Veracini 2019, p. 120. [My emphasis.]

[35] I describe dispossession and elimination in Veracini’s text as ‘approximating’ one another because a more precise relation is indiscernible.

[36] Presumably, exploitation means here the creation and eventual accumulation of surplus value through the employment of wage labour by capital in the immediate production process.

[37] Veracini 2019, p. 121. [My emphasis.]

[38] ibid., pp. 123, 129.

[39] On the centrality of the settler colony to the project of modernity, see Wolfe and Lloyd 2016, p. 394.

[40] For Marx, primitive accumulation refers minimally to a set of historical “presuppositions.” Whatever else it might be, “so-called primitive accumulation” intends historical processes that made possible, in the first place, surplus-value, capitalist production, and the ready availability of masses of capital and labour-power, each of which circularly presuppose the other in Marx’s theoretical presentation of the specifically capitalist mode of production. See Marx 1976, pp. 775, 873.

[41] See, for representative examples, Ince 2014; Nichols 2015; Tomba 2012. (The appendix of Tomba’s monograph is titled, “Layered Historiography: rereading so-called Primitive Accumulation.”) For an excellent article on primitive accumulation, see Roberts 2017.

There is not scope in this article to make an intervention on the level of these surveys. Suffice, for now, to say that the task, I believe, is not to stage yet another rereading of Part VIII of Capital or to achieve finally the authoritative reading, but to lighten the load on this concept and turn elsewhere.

[42] I am not, therefore, undertaking to study all interpretations of Part VIII of Capital. My point is not to attempt a correction or alternative reading (many such attempts already exist), but rather to explore critically the effects of this very influential interpretation, upon which settler colonial studies depends for its analysis of political economy, and many of its grander claims.

[43] For an overview of this literature, see Mies 2014.

[44] Sanyal 1993, p. 117.

[45] Mezzadra 2011, p. 303. Silvia Federici, more recently, confirmed this view on the origins of this primitive accumulation analysis in Federici 2019, p. 3.

[46] Midnight Notes Collective 1990, p. 2.

[47] Already in 2013, Derek Hall was able to identify ‘accumulation by displacement’ and ‘dispossession by displacement’, ‘accumulation by encroachment’, ‘accumulation by denial’, ‘primitive accumulation by dispossession’, and ‘dispossession by accumulation’. Hall 2013, p. 1584. We have already seen Lorenzo Veracini attempt ‘accumulation without reproduction.’ Nicholas Brown, in the article discussed above, also hazards ‘accumulation by possession.’ Brown 2014, p. 6.

[48] Mezzadra 2011, pp. 317–18. This is to say nothing of the way that the establishment of commons in North America was a crucial process of indigenous dispossession. See Greer 2012.

[49] Glen Coulthard makes this point precisely in relation to commons-longing politics in the settler colony. See Coulthard 2014, p. 12.

[50] It is worth noting that Federici’s paper for Midnight Notes, notwithstanding its title, does not use the enclosure metaphor or make a case for ongoing primitive accumulation, and instead provides a thoughtful analysis of Third World structural adjustments. Federici 1990. Her best-known work, however, is a crystalline example of this unfortunate theoretical trend. There, primitive accumulation is at one point a process of large-scale colonisation and enslavement, and elsewhere reduces to the production of absolute surplus value (the male wage included female reproductive labour, extending the unpaid part of the working day). For Federici, the enclosure of the commons, described by Marx, pales by comparison to the ‘expropriation’ of women through the witch-hunts; and the witch-hunts are in turn analogous to the colonisation of the New World. See Federici 2004, pp. 103–4, 115, 184, 198. For Perelman, see Perelman 2000.

[51] De Angelis would reaffirm this position in his later monograph. See De Angelis 2007, p. 230. For an approving remark on this precise move in settler colonial studies, see Piterberg and Veracini 2015, p. 474.

[52] It is worth noting, in passing, the tendency to authorise claims in this literature with isolated moments from Marx’s unpublished writings, from which it would be just as easy to mount the opposite argument. For instance: ‘The conditions which form [capital’s] point of departure…belong to its historic presuppositions, which precisely as historic presuppositions, are past and gone and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it…The conditions and presuppositions of the becoming, or the arising, of capital presuppose precisely that it is not yet in being but merely in becoming; they therefore disappear as real capital arises, capital which itself, on the basis of its own reality, posits the conditions for its realization.’ Marx 1973, pp. 459–60.

[53] De Angelis 2001. This analysis is recapitulated in De Angelis 2007, pp. 137–41. Onur Ulas Ince also objects to De Angelis rendering primitive accumulation merely quantitatively different from capitalist accumulation. Ince 2014, pp. 107–8.

[54] He maintains this analysis in Bonefeld 2014.

[55] Bonefeld 2001.

[56] Midnight Notes Collective 1990.

[57] Harvey 2004

[58] Fraser 2016, 168–69, 176.

[59] Mezzadra 2011, p. 306; Mezzadra 2015, p. 221.

[60] Primitive accumulation, however, is not the analytic of choice in recent monographs dedicated to financialisation from within the Marxist tradition. See, for only a couple of examples, Chesnais 2017 and Meister 2021. See also Historical Materialism’s symposium on Costas Lapavitsas (in volume 14) or the debate across 2012–13 between Tony Norfield and Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty in the pages of volumes 20 and 21. The sole exception, here, is one moment in Bryan and Rafferty 2012, p 108.

[61] Byrd et al. 2018, p. 1.

[62] See Harvey 2003, pp. 144–48; Harvey 2004, pp. 72–75.

[63] Melamed 2015, p. 78.

[64] ‘The concept of economies of dispossession,’ they write, ‘differs from David Harvey’s notion of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ in a number of important ways, perhaps most significantly because of how this analytic underscores the constitutive and continuing role of both colonization and racialization for capitalism.’ Byrd et al. 2018, p. 2. This shift from primitive accumulation or accumulation by dispossession to dispossession as such follows the move to disaggregate dispossession from other processes described by Marx in the section on primitive accumulation, leading to the concept, ‘structured dispossession.’ See Coulthard 2014, p. 62; Coulthard 2014, p. 7; Simpson 2014, p. 74; Nichols 2015, p. 27.

For the analytic promise of this move, and it does have merits, it does not advance an analysis of the political economy of the settler colony, past or present, whether locally or in relation to the world economy. Land dispossession is shorn of any but the loosest economic determinations, drawing us away from the analysis of accumulation and political economy.

[65] This move is particularly dubious when one considers the excoriation Harvey receives from David Roediger precisely for relegating the function of race in capitalism and its history. See Roediger 2017, pp. 1–3, 25.

[66] Byrd et al. 2018, p. 10.

[67] ‘Dispossession is an insatiable predatory relation…’ ibid., p. 1.

[68] Kim 2018.

[69] Vimalassery et al. 2016. For a response to this issue from an adherent of settler colonial studies, see Young 2017.

[70] Leroy 2016.

[71] Coulthard 2014, pp. 7–12.

[72] Sharma 2020. For the clearest statement on this binary, see Wolfe 2013.

[73] On the connection between fines and predatory racial capitalism, see Kelley 2020, p. 25.

[74] Postone 1993, p. 38, 67; pp. 87–89, 358–59; p. 392

[75] Wolfe and Lloyd 2016, p. 116.

[76] ibid., p. 114.

[77] ibid., p. 109. For ‘enclosure,’ read: privatisation; this is a secondary enclosure of ‘social security, public utilities, education and, in the form of both urban and national parklands, even the remnants of public space.’

[78] ibid., p. 112.

[79] The transport of convict labour to Australia, for instance, was greatly increased by the frequent commutation of capital punishment to exile in the early nineteenth century. See McMichael 1984, p. 72.

[80] Marx 1976, p. 781ff. See also, Benanav and Clegg 2014.

[81] ‘In the settler-colonial economy, it is not the colonist but the native who is superfluous.’ Wolfe 1999, pp. 2–3.

[82] Davis 2006, p. 199; Sanyal 2007.

[83] ‘The specificity is important. For all the homage paid to heterogeneity and difference, the bulk of ‘post’-colonial theorizing is disabled by an oddly monolithic, and surprisingly unexamined, notion of colonialism.’ Wolfe 1999, p. 1; Veracini has also dedicated a book to the analytical distinction of the settler colony among colonial formations. See Veracini 2010. Neither of them, however, articulate the difference of settler colonialism within the history of capitalism, related to other colonial formation, as much as set out a schematic typology.

[84] Wolfe 2006, p. 388.

[85] As quoted in Piterberg and Veracini 2015, p. 463.

[86] Davis 2006, pp. 86–89.

[87] Benanav 2019.

[88] See Emmanuel 1972b. The twenty-first century ‘labor arbitrage,’ meanwhile, is the focus of Smith 2016.

[89] ‘The European urban-industrial revolutions were incapable of absorbing the entire supply of displaced rural labour, especially after continental agriculture was exposed to the devastating competition of the North American prairies and Argentine pampas from the 1870s. But mass emigration to the settler societies of the Americas and Australasia, as well as Siberia, provided a dynamic safety valve that prevented the rise of mega-Dublins and super-Napleses, as well as the spread of the kind of underclass anarchism that had taken root in the most immiserated parts of Southern Europe. Today, by contrast, surplus labour faces unprecedented barriers to emigration to rich countries.’ Davis 2006, p. 183. [Emphasis added.]

[90] See Keeling 2013, p. 274.

[91] Wolfe 2012, pp. 137–38; see also Wolfe 2016, pp. 20–21.

[92] Lockman 2012, p. 21.

[93] On preaccumulation, see note 23.

[94] Wolfe 2012, p. 135.

[95] From Wolfe himself, ‘Whatever settlers may say – and they generally have a lot to say – the primary motive for elimination is not race (or religion, ethnicity, grade of civilization, etc.) but access to territory. Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.’ Wolfe 2006, p. 388.

[96] See, for instance and in relation to Palestine, Busbridge 2017, p. 92; Amoruso, Pappe, and Richter-Devroe 2019, p. 455.

[97] Kauanui and Wolfe 2018; c.f. Cavanagh 2017, pp. 291–92

[98] Veracini 2013, p. 32; Veracini 2019, p. 578.

[99] ‘This lack of rigorous engagement [with settler colonialism] has consequences for movement building. The historic response to settler colonialism has been the struggle for decolonisation; in the absence of a settler colonial analysis, Palestinian strategies have tended to target or accommodate settler colonial outcomes rather than aiming to decolonise the structure itself.’ Salamanca et al. 2012, pp. 4–5. This is not an isolated flight of peer-review hubris. Seven years later, another set of editors introducing an issue of Interventions on Palestine and settler colonial studies cite this approvingly and add, ‘The settler colonial analytical lens thus, we conclude, is needed for genuine decolonization proposals.’ Amoruso, Pappe, and Richter-Devroe 2019, p. 461. Presumably, the other proposals for struggle are something less than “genuine.”

[100] Makdisi 2017, pp. 281–82; see also Wolfe 2016, p. 32.

[101] Wolfe 1999, pp. 2–3.

[102] Beilharz and Cox 2007, p. 113–14.

[103] The dependency school, for instance, is quickly dismissed for its economism or for failing to contain a readymade theory of the settler colony. See, respectively, Wolfe 1997; Veracini 2015, p. 28, pp. 39–40. One never sees, meanwhile, an engagement with Arghiri Emmanuel’s expansive comments on the wages of white settlers in his polemics with Charles Bettelheim (Emmanuel, 1972b), nor S. B. D. de Silva’s extensive typology of investment patterns in settler and non-settler situations (de Silva, 1982).

[104] Veracini 2013, pp. 313–33.

[105] In a searching self-critique from 1995, acknowledging foremostly his tendency to overlook indigenous agency in Settler Capitalism, Denoon also laments the effects, on his field, of the newly dominant neo-classical economic analysis. Is it pushing the matter too far to wonder how significant this context is for the departure from historical and economic analysis in settler colonial studies in the same years? Denoon 1995, pp. 137–38.

[106] McMichael 1977, McMichael 1980, McMichael 1984.

[107] Denoon's account breaks off with World War I, McMichael’s at the turn of the twentieth century. James Belich’s magisterial synthetic history of Anglo settlements extends through to the end of World War II, by which point the “settler revolution” is decidedly at an end (Belich 2009). Rob Steven’s unfortunately overlooked essay distinguishes firmly between the “historical account” and the present social implications (Steven 2000). Economic historians, moreover, generally agree, as Richard Sutch editorialises, that the settler economy today ‘can be supposed at an end’ (Sutch 2013, p. xxii). Tim Rooth marks this with the end of protectionism and opening to free trade in the second half of the twentieth century, as well as the decline in the role of government debt locally and the switch, at least in the cases of Canada and Australia, from importing to exporting capital, as measured by foreign direct investment (Rooth 2013, pp. 447–48, p. 455). Francine McKenzie, for her part, focuses on changes in the international economy conditioned by Britain’s displacement from world economic hegemony, tracking the end of an ‘imperial trade network’ through changing patterns of trade and policy (McKenzie 2013, 486).

[108] See Vimalassery et al. 2016. See, by contrast, Veracini 2015, pp. 93–94.

[109] Bachelard 1964, p. 227.

[110] See the volume, Anomie of the Earth, edited by Luisetti et al in 2015, for a representative example.

[111] C.f. Greer 2012.

[112] See Postone 1993, p. 116. Peter Linebaugh, meanwhile, revels in the task ahead: ‘the vast and exciting project of rewriting history from the standpoint of the commons.’ Linebaugh 2014, p.8.

[113] Postone 1993, 87–88.

[114] The revolutionaries of today, for Silvia Federici, are no longer ‘factory workers,’ but toil in fields, kitchens, and fishing villages, meanwhile leading ‘ecological, indigenous, and feminist movements.’ ‘We see this,’ she writes, ‘in the new interest for the discourse and practice of the “commons” that is already spawning new initiatives, like ‘knowledge commons,’ time-banks, and accountability structures.’ See Federici 2015, pp. 209–10. See also Sakai 2014.