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"Like a fire? Rosa Luxemburg and primitive accumulation" by Carl Cassegard, Monday, 4 April 2011

Monday, 4 April 2011

Like a fire? Rosa Luxemburg and primitive accumulation

 The idea of primitive accumulation is having a renaissance. Here I will sketch how the idea develops from Rosa Luxemburg to contemporary thinkers like David Harvey, Saskia Sassen, Giovanni Arrighi, and Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri. By right, I suppose I should have started these notes with Marx, but that will have to wait. After all this is only a blog. Suffice it to say that to Marx, primitive accumulation - the appropriation of wealth derived from non-capitalist modes of production, often through means such as fraud, looting, conquest or oppression - played a crucial part in the origin of capitalism.


The first important step in the development of the idea after Marx is taken by Luxemburg. She criticizes Marx for viewing primitive accumulation as merely "incidental" to the functioning of capitalism or as "illustrating merely the genesis of capital" (Luxemburg 1951: 364). She stresses that capitalist accumulation proceeds on two tracks: both through the exploitation of wage labour emphasized by Marx and through ongoing processes of primitive accumulation (ibid. 452). Capitalism's inability to survive without primitive accumulation is part of her explanation of imperialism. Capitalism needs a non-capitalist environment into which to expand and which functions as a safety-valve that saves it from its overaccumulation crises. But this will prove to be its undoing:
Capitalism is the first mode of economy [...] which tends to engulf the entire globe and to stamp out all other economies, tolerating no rival at its side. Yet at the same time it is also the first mode of economy which is unable to exist by itself, which needs other economic systems as a medium and soil. [...] In its living history it is a contradiction in itself, and its movement of accumulation provides a solution to the conflict and aggravates it at the same time. (ibid 467)
Luxemburg conjures up the image of capitalism spreading like a fire, consuming itself: “thus capitalism prepares its own downfall under ever more violent contortions and convulsions” (ibid 453).

Harvey, Arrighi, Sassen

Contemporary authors like Harvey, Sassen or Arrighi have learnt much from Luxemburg. Like her, they stress that capital in today's world is accumulated both through the exploitation of labour and through primitive accumulation, and that spatial expansion plays an important role in maintaining capitalism. What they add is the acknowledgement that: 1) spatial expansion is sometimes a much more subtle process than the image of colonial conquest suggests, and that 2) the "non-capitalist" environment from which capitalism can draw its profits is more diversified.

Harvey develops the first of these realizations into his idea of the "spatial fix" and the second into the idea of "accumulation by dispossession" - his term for primitive accumulation. Let me start with the spatial fix. Luxemburg identified spatial expansion with imperialism, implying that capitalism’s possibilities of expansion were very nearly exhausted by the time she was writing. The “spatial fix” is something much more flexible, consisting in geographical expansions and restructurings that are used as temporary solutions to the overaccumulation crises that are inherent in capitalism. As Harvey points out, spatial fixes are available even in a world that is already more or less fully incorporated in capitalism. Spatial fixes make use of geographical unevenness, but uneveness is not simply a product of "underdevelopment". Capitalism produces its own unevenness, often plunging already “developed” regions into destructive devaluations (a central point in Neil Smith's Uneven Development). The idea implied here is that processes of primitive accumulation are turned not only against the remaining few non-capitalist formations but also against parts of capitalism itself.

Since such processes of primitive accumulation are part and parcel of today's capitalist world, Harvey prefers to term them "accumulation by dispossession". Under this rubric he includes a wide variety of phenomena which have in common the appropriation of wealth that has been formed outside the production processes of capitalism proper, i.e. not through “the expansion of wage labour” (Harvey 2005:178). It includes things like the privatization or commodification of resources like water, land or public services; intellectual copyright; "biopiracy" (”pillaging the world’s stockpile of genetic resources”); or the use of the credit system to redistribute wealth ("reducing whole populations to debt peonage" by rescue packages or managing crises in order to be able to use bailouts as an excuse for pillaging). Things like using traditional songs for making profit in the music industry or the medical knowhow of indigenous peoples in the pharmaceutical industry would be examples of accumulation by dispossession.

Arrighi's and Sassen's analyses of primitive accumulation are inspired by Harvey's and differ only in emphasis. In line with his own theory of accumulation cycles and moving hegemonies, Arrighi (2004) puts particular stress on the tendency for the core of capitalism to move geographically with the search for profitable investment through spatial fixes. Using structural adjustment programmes and the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 as examples, Sassen is even more emphatic than Harvey that today's processes of primitive accumulation are not about the incorporation into capitalist relations of pre-capitalist modes of production but ”the destruction of traditional capitalism in order to extract what can be extracted for the further deepening of advanced capitalism” (Sassen 2010:24).

Hardt & Negri

Hardt & Negri refer to Harvey's idea of "accumulation by dispossession" several times in their 2009 book Commonwealth, but give the idea their own peculiar twist. The "non-capitalist" environment on which capitalism feeds is here designated as the "common". The “common” is defined as consisting both of the wealth of the material world – air, water, fruits, nature – and of those social products that need to be shared in order to for social interaction and further production to take place. The latter make up an “artificial common” consisting in language, images, knowledges, affects, codes, habits, practices, and relations (Hardt & Negri 2009:viii, 139, 171). Their central claim is that capitalism increasingly tends towards a “biopolitical” stage in which it increasingly relies on the common for production, meaning that capital can only parasitize on the resources of the common without being able to create them by itself. In particular, they emphasize the urban environment as a resource for free production and creativity that is central to capitalism. The city “is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class” (ibid. 250).  

Commonwealth is perhaps the book by Hardt & Negri that I like most. It has, however, its weaknesses. Some derive from their neglect of some of the factors in contemporary capitalism that Harvey and the other contemporary authors highlight. In their insistence that the new "non-capitalist" frontier is right here among "us" in the developed world, in the midst of the metropole, they tend to disregard the continuing exploitation of wage labour and the role of spatial fixes in the international division of labor - the fact, to put it bluntly, that next to post-industrial “immaterial labor” there are sweatshops too. This problem is not solved by their insertion of a rather incongruous chapter (chapter 2.1) which is full of praise for anti-colonial struggles and calls for solidarity with the south. This chapter feels too much as an ad hoc reply to certain critics (such as Caffentzis or Dyer-Witheford) and is not theoretically integrated with the rest of the work.  

The fire is still raging

To Marx, primitive accumulation was part of the origin of capitalism, but not an organic component of capitalism itself. Luxemburg took the next step, arguing that capitalism needed constant access to non-capitalist areas into which to expand. With the onset of neoliberalism, the idea of primitive accumulation gained prominence again. Authors like Harvey, Arrighi or Sassen argued that the appropriation of "non-capitalist" wealth could also take the form of predatory attacks on wealth formed within capitalist societies themselves. This transformation of the idea reaches an apogee with Hardt & Negri, for whom the "non-capitalist" environment consists of language and other common resources that make creativity possible and on which capitalism is increasingly dependent. The common denominator of the contemporary authors is that they make primitive accumulation a central feature of contemporary capitalism. Capitalism, they suggest, is losing its capacity to regenerate itself through the surplus value generated by the employment of labour-power and has to rely on appropriating wealth created elsewhere.

For some reason, neither Luxemburg nor any of the theorists of primitive accumulation today point out that their observation that capital accumulation can be driven by other sources than labour power appears to make Marx' so-called value law less relevant to understanding contemporary capitalism. As much as labour remains crucial as a source of "value" in the theoretical sense intended by Marx, I think we need to pay more attention than we have until now to the fact that capital accumulation doesn't depend on the generation of such value alone. Capital can be created through a variety of means, many of them involving the use of state power (so called free trade treaties would be a prime example) or other forms of coercion that enable profits that by far may surpass what would have been possible through the mere exploitation of wage labour.

Many Marxists hold that exploiting wage labour is the only way to generate surplus value in a systematic and long-term fashion. Thus the merchant capital of premodern societies, for instance, is said to have been unable to generate a stable process of capital accumulation since it remained almost entirely within the "sphere of circulation" rather than producing any value itself (except for transportation). Although the profits obtained by merchant capital were sometimes spectacular, it obtained them erratically, depending on the vagaries of power and luck. What is missed in this argument, however, is that power relations aren't necessarily erractic. They too can be systematic, and hence systematic capital accumulation can be based on any kind of capital - even mere merchant capital - to the extent that it can rely on a stable and predictable alliance with political power. As Luxemburg points out, this is exactly what happens with imperialism. Customs, patents, trade monopolies, administrative guidance, lobbying and trade wars are, of course, other ways in which the alliance between capital and state manifests itself.

So, capitalism cannot be understood adequately by focusing only on the extraction of surplus value through wage labour. The political conclusions from this should be clear. As Harvey points out, just as today's neoliberal capitalism is relying not only on exploiting wage labour but also on the plunder of non-capitalist formations, resistance to capitalism likewise must have a dual character. The struggle of wage laborers must be complemented by the struggle to defend things owned by the public or possessed by us in common against expropriation.


Arrighi, G. (2004) “Spatial and Other ‘Fixes’ of Historical Capitalism”, Journal of World-Systems Research, X:2 (Summer):527-539.

Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2009) Commonwealth, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Harvey, D. (2003) The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, D. (2006) The Limits to Capital (new edition), London & New York: Verso.

Luxemburg, R. (1951) The Accumulation of Capital (tr. Agnes Schwarzchild), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sassen, S. (2010) ”A Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers: Contemporary Versions of Primitive Accumulation”, Globalizations 7(1-2)(March-June):23-50.

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