Skull Crushing for Great Justice

I realise that the penultimate paragraph of my last post was rather heavily encumbered with densely packed theoretical baggage. It had certainly reached the point of ‘you are encumbered’, though not quite the point of ‘you cannot move due to being encumbered’, and thus managed to trudge back to town with its filthy lucre but had to forego any further exploration. So let me expand on ‘primitive accumulation’, ‘Others’ and ‘legible’ landscapes, and how they relate to one another.

There is nothing novel about the idea that games, particularly RPGs, are often built around violence and looting. For example: Tim Welsh apparently wrote an article comparing GTA to primitive accumulation , while Paul Mason has written perceptively about Skyrim‘s similarities to early capitalism. This is a start. At heart, primitive accumulation means taking other people’s stuff. This is clearly not unique to capitalism: warfare, pillage and general unpleasantness have a long history (though it might be worth considering the different ways in which the spoils of war have been divided in different societies, and the relationship between private property and chattel slavery — but I digress). However, pace the likes of Tim Worstall (actually, no, sod the miserable cretins), primitive accumulation is not merely primitive. Worstall takes Paul Mason to task for misunderstanding Marx: markets, says Worstall, are based on peace and legal ownership, while primitive accumulation is violent plunder.

This is half true. By way of analogy, let’s use the example of Skyrim. The province of Skyrim is divided into an ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’. Geographically, these spheres actually interpentrate one another, with islands of one dotting the other like a set of yin/yang symbols, but legally they are absolutely distinct. ‘Inside’ are the towns, villages, mines, farms and manors that constitute civilisation. To harm or rob the inhabitants of the interior is against the law. You can do it, but breaking the law marks you as a rogue, a member of the underworld. ‘Outside’ is wilderness, bandit camps, smuggler’s dens, traitor’s forts, caves riddled with Falmer troglodytes, and underground crypts and cities guarded by the undead or ancient automata. The denizens of these places are outside the law, and can be killed and robbed with legal impunity. Exploration and dungeon delving, which are core activities of the game, thus tend to involve an awful lot of primitive accumulation as you invade (or blunder into) the wilderness and its guarded treasures. Having ‘cleared’ a few areas, players will typically return to civilisation to unload their ill-gotten gains and buy newer, better tools of destruction, or invest in property. In other words: capital is accumulated from the frontier by violence, and is then fed into the peaceful, legal trade that occurs within civilisation.

Historically, there has been a geographical component to primitive accumulation, hence my remark in the original piece about enclosures and colonial conquest. It’s not just that there was a temptation to rob from the socially or militarily weaker party (though this is always an issue): the patterns of landholding used by indigenous peoples, like the European commons, were incompatible with private property, creating a constant source of friction between traditional owners and capitalist states. Ownership that was collective and inalienable could not simply be bought and sold, especially if it was not recognised by European law (Australian Aborigines, for example, lacked legal ‘rights’ to their land even when the colonial authorities were sympathetic to their plight). Or, for a contemporary instance: resource companies stymied by indigenous peoples’ reluctance to see their traditional lands reduced to moonscapes have sometimes made recourse to force rather than negotiation, leading to situations like that of the Niger Delta. Thus, the extension of the market’s pax over the ‘outside’ has involved a series of foundational processes of robbery and killing. The ‘waste’ first had to be ‘cleared’ before it could become peaceful capitalism, just as villages were cleared to make way for those monstrous aristocratic estates that dot the English countryside.

Again, as I noted previously, there is an ideological component to this. Depicting one’s enemies as ‘savages’ is an old trope, no more or less capitalist than primitive accumulation. This ties in with the ‘reading’ of the landscape. Implicit in my previous post was the idea that RPG/survival game was an antagonistic way of making the landscape legible. In his book about the early American frontier, Regeneration Through Violence, Richard Slotkin goes so far as to say that the Indian, from the perspective of white colonists, was no more than a ‘mask’ for an alien environment. White civilisation was defined in opposition to the ‘wasteland’ and its human wildlife. The mythical hero of the frontier, on the other hand, had a foot in each camp: he was both a violent explorer of the wilderness, and thus unlike the colonists, and eminently capitalist. As Slotkin later put it in The Fatal Environment: ‘The Virtues of the hunter/Indian fighter are primarily those of the entrepreneur, the man on the make. He is self-willed and self-motivated, and — if controlled at all — self-controlled.’

And oh look, we’re back at videogames. The particular wilderness of Skyrim — which, at its best, is a kind of fantasy hiking simulator — is in one sense a stage for recreating heroic frontiersmen (I say this as someone who loves both hiking and Skyrim). While it would be quite a stretch to imagine that there is any capitalist ‘interior’ to the sociopathic DayZ , this line in misanthropic fantasy definitely retains a frontier; one whose surface has metastasised to consume the entire world. Likewise, postapocalyptic games like the Fallout series are a case of the external ‘frontier’ invading internal ‘civilisation’. Among the ashes of modernity, the end of civilisation allows (and forces) us all to be frontiersmen — that is, to embody a permanent, ubiquitous and impossible frontier of capitalism, populated by a species of scavenging, aggressive entrepreneur — which is what we’re all supposed to be anyway, right?