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The Concept of Accumulation by Dispossession and its Critique
Introduction David Harvey’s conception of ‘Accumulation by Dispossession’, which he advances in his book New Imperialism is an immensely valuable contribution to the understanding of capitalism in the age of contemporary globalisation and for understanding the specificity of its operation. Process of accumulation i.e. the reinvestment of surplus (profit earned in production) is the differentia specifica of the capitalist mode of production. The process of the accumulation of capital imparts the characteristic dynamism to the capitalist mode of production (and likewise the contradictions generated by the process of accumulation lead to periodic crises with the system coming to the standstill). Basically it is the process whereby capitalist reinvests a part of profit (instead of consuming it entirely) which leads to more profit (expanded reproduction). Expanded reproduction is the recursive process under capitalism which gives it the dynamic character. Thus to understand how the capitalism operates in our times i.e. the era of globalisation, it becomes crucial to understand the process of accumulation of capital in our times. Hence the importance of Harvey’s work to bring this question to centre-stage through the deployment of the concept of ‘Accumulation by Dispossession’. As a brief overview of Harvey’s conception of AbD this note tries to answer three questions1. What is Accumulation by Dispossession (henceforth AbD)? 2. Why the process of AbD is necessary for the working of Capitalism? 3. How the process of AbD has been predominant (relative to expanded reproduction) in our times of globalisation? In the later part of this note takes an overview of the major critiques of Harvey’s conception of AbD (namely by Robert Brenner and Ben Fine) and also attempts to touch upon the question of the political problems raised by the deployment of this concept.
1 (free from the means of production and free to sell their labour power). Basically AbD entails a process whereby the sectors of economy or the factors of production which thus far have not been in the fold of capitalist logic of profit making are subjected to it and this process entails dispossessing the previous owners of these means of production. However David Harvey argues that the process of the expropriation of means of production is not only the starting point but accompanies the capitalist accumulation throughout the history of capitalism.) . which thus by definition precedes capital accumulation and clears the way for capitalist system to stand on its own legs. Harvey expands the scope of the concept of primitive accumulation to include a vast number of processes (discussed in this note briefly) which Marx had not included under the rubric of the concept of primitive accumulation.. Primitive accumulation is the starting point of the capitalist mode of production. the telling case of which is the ‘enclosure movement’ in 18th century Britain whereby the land was expropriated from the peasantry and they were ‘freed’ in the famous double sense of which Marx talks of in Capital Vol. privatisation of common property resources. privatisation of previously nationalised industries.What is Accumulation by Dispossession? AbD is a theoretical and analytical expansion of the concept of ‘Primitive Accumulation’ deployed by Karl Marx in Capital Vol. Substitute these terms by the concept of accumulation by dispossession'. Transformation of the socialistic economies such as USSR and China in capitalist direction (Shock Therapy in Russia and Dengist reforms in China) is also sought to be explained through the concept of AbD. AbD includes processes such as ‘acquisition of agricultural land for non- agricultural purposes or displacement of peasant-cultivators for corporate farming. In what sense is the concept of AbD is the expansion of the concept of the Primitive Accumulation? Marx had deployed the concept of primitive accumulation in a strict sense of being the ‘starting point’ of capitalistic mode of production and not (its) ‘result’.1 to explain the genesis of capitalist accumulation. Thus Harvey says that. Basically it involves the separation of the labourer from the means of production.. ‘Since it seems peculiar to call an ongoing process 'primitive' or 'original' I shall. processes of asset-stripping-devaluation-structured asset destruction through the process of finncialisation. (Either it can be the shift from ‘community ownership’ in pre-capitalist formations or from ‘public ownership’ in dirigiste type or socialistic economies to private ownership.
raw materials. The theory of over accumulation identifies the lack of opportunities for profitable investment as the fundamental problem. Neoliberal Globalisation as Accumulation by Dispossession In Harvey’s schema two inter-related processes form the core of the contemporary neoliberal globalisation that is ‘Privatisation’ and ‘Financialisation of Accumulation or Flexible Accumulation’. thus bringing precapitalist formation in the fold of capitalist accumulation. These processes can be explained in terms of AbD and as a response to the . Thus non-capitalist ‘external’ sectors or territories need be opened up not only for trade (as Luxemburg’s argument posits) but also to permit capital to invest in profitable ventures using cheaper labour power. Rosa Luxemburg however deployed the framework of ‘Crises Generated by Under-consumption’ which necessitates the capture of external markets in the form of colonies. however this necessity is not explained in terms of ‘under-consumption’ but ‘over-accumulation’. This argument entails that capitalism has always been imperialist (contrary to Lenin’s argument of Imperialism being the highest stage of capitalism) and the existence of pre-capitalist markets is necessary for the sustenance of capitalism. However Harvey is not the first to argue on these lines as Harvey himself acknowledges ( as he begins his whole argument regarding AbD with a long quotation from Rosa Luxemburg) the contribution of Rosa Luxemburg in this regard. and the like.Expansion of the Concept of Primitive Accumlation Why does then Harvey deem it necessary to expand the concept of primitive accumulation from being a starting point of capitalist accumulation to the process which is ever present in the history of capitalist mode of production? The answer is sought in the framework of ‘Over-Accumulation of Capital’. Harvey takes forward Luxemburg’s understanding in another way by expanding the scope of the ‘external sources’ or the ‘outside’ as it is not only the pre-capitalist formations which constitute this ‘outside’ but also the non-capitalist sectors and capitalism can also ‘actively manufacture’ the outside. This position is the theoretical foundation of the deployment of the concept of AbD and explanation of contemporary globalisation through this concept. Harvey agrees in principle with the core of this argument which posits the necessity of ‘external’ sources for sustaining capitalist accumulation. Thus Harvey states that ‘Capitalism necessarily and always creates its own other’. low-cost land.
The process of disinvestment of PSUs in India since the advent of neoliberal economic reform which involves selling off public assets at throw-away prices to big corporates is a case in point in this regard. Role of the state in facilitating these processes is crucial in Harvey’s understanding of contemporary globalisation.crisis of over-accumulation. a drive of privatisation of public goods has been launched worldwide (with differences in the extent of the process owing to the specific co-relation of class-forces in different countries affecting the government policies. which displaces peasant-cultivators or family farming is visible worldwide. public goods such as transport-housing-water supply etc.paving way for the ascendance of neoliberal economic policies being followed by ( and enforced upon) one nation-state after the other. according to Harvey typifies AbD. State actively works at the behest of the finance capital to dispossess people of their rights and facilitate AbD. . which also. Harvey argues that neoliberal globalisation shows how the process of AbD has become the dominant form of accumulation. Capitalism could come out of the crisis of over-accumulation though opening up and subjecting new sectors of economy or hitherto non-capitalist economies) to the logic of profit-making. Harvey also includes in the mechanisms of protecting intellectual property rights as a process of AbD which also involves the control of the capital over common property resources. The emergence of the AbD as the dominant form is the response to the crisis of over-accumulation which had started appearing in the capitalist system in the late 60s and exacerbated in the early 70s. However a generalised shift in the balance of forces towards capital and more specifically globalised finance capital has been discernible throughout the world). with the ascendance of the ‘free market’ ideology assigning a minimalist role to the state. The issue of inability of the nation-states to chart out an alternative economic trajectory and being subordinated to finance capital is related to the changes in the co-relation of class forces in last four decades and thus the question of flexiblisaton of accumulation process under the sway of finance capital. This involves privatisation of nationalised industries. withdrawal of social security benefits is also indicative of this process. The process of corporatisation of agriculture and ascendance of global agri-business. Further investment of pension funds in stock markets. Privatisation as Dispossession In the period of contemporary neoliberal globalisation. Privatisation constitutes a major component of this drive.
Placed in the context of the processes which can be broadly categorised under privatisation and flexiblisation. Informalisation of the production process is concomitant with this process which involves contractualisation of labour.AbD in the sense of dispossession of rights is also visible which eventually leads to the decline or absence of the entitlements ( wages. AbD is seen as the dominant process or regime of accumulation in the period of neoliberal globalisation. In the case of informalisationdeunionisation of the labour. NationStates in the third world under the sway of the finance capital (with the imminent threat of capital flight) are forced to follow these set of policies. Similarly the process of privatisation also entails such a release of assets at low or in some cases zero cost and its capture by (over-accumulated capital). It is necessary to point out at the outset itself that as harvey’s understanding has historical precedence within the Marxist tradition.Flexible Accumulation and Informalisation Harvey explains the transition from Fordist production to what he calls ‘flexible accumulation’ in his book ‘The Condition of Post-Modernity’. Basically spatial restructuring of the production process entails shifting the production units from advanced capitalist countries to third world countries to access the cheap labour. This transition entailing flexiblistion of the accumulation involves spatial restructuring of production processes and tendency towards informalisation of the production process. for the realisation of absolute surplus value. likewise the critiques of . These processes can be explained in the framework of AbD and over-accumulation. pensions. But how this twin process of spatial restructuring and informalisation is related to the crisis of over-accumulation? Basically operation of AbD through these processes releases a set of assets (in this case labour power) at very low cost and thus over-accumulated capital can seize hold of it and immediately turn it to profitable use. ‘reforms’ in labour laws and de-unionisation. These processes in Harvey’s schema are inextricably linked to AbD as it is the displaced peasantry through the expropriation of their land largely constitutes the global reserve army of labour. Major Criticisms of Accumulation by Dispossession However Harvey’s concept of AbD has come under critique in the discussion of imperialism within Marxist academia. social security benefits etc) as well.
Brenner argues that the processes clubbed under AbD such as ‘mergers and acquisition’ (which basically correspond to the process of centralisation of capital which is a product of the normal expanded reproduction itself). 1. To argue that privatisation constitutes AbD is correct in the case of erstwhile noncapitalist economies such as Russia or China. where these processes actually serve as the ‘starting point’ of capitalistic accumulation but then how does one look at the Privatisation of the PSUs in a country like India where these were definitely run on capitalist lines and the only difference after privatisation or disinvestment is in terms of ownership? One can provocatively ask whether the acquisition of Chorus or Jaguar by Tatas constitute AbD. . having taken loans at ‘usurious’ rates from financial institutions which is a direct expression of their propertylessness are also included under its rubric. leading to huge redistributions of income away from labour also needs to be seen as a consequence of the contradictions generated through the working of expanded reproduction and their resolution leading to the ascendance of finance capital. Both Fine and Brenner raise the issue of the concept of AbD being too expansive and an unduly diverse factors being collected under this umbrella-concept. 2. These processes may not necessarily involve the subjection of hitherto non-capitalist sectors of economy to the logic of capitalist profit making as they are part of this very logic itself. actions of the state to privilege one section of the capital over the other. 3. Fine questions Harvey understands whereby AbD is seen as the precondition for the sustenance of the capital accumulation and argues that the case is actually otherwise. worsening of the condition of working classes (through decline in wages or withdrawal of social security) are quite normal aspects or byproducts of the process of expanded reproduction itself.AbD have also a strong resonance in the Marxist tradition. Linking flexiblisation of the accumulation process under the sway of finance capital. The concept of AbD according Brenner is ‘inflated out of existence’ as the processes that are quite normal to the capitalist exploitation such as dispossession of the default debtors .G. Some of the major criticisms of Harvey’s schema by Robert Brenner and Ben Fine are discussed below. The luxemburgite position of positi the necessity of non/pre-capitalist formations for the sustenance of capitalism has come under severe critique and so has its extension in the ‘Transition Debate’ by Paul Sweezy(and in a different way by dependency theorists such as A.Frank).
Since the speculative finance capital has gained ascendance over the capital in production (this ascendance is again indicative of the tendency of the capital towards centralisation) there is a lack of dynamism in the production sector and the processes which Harvey clubs under AbD are the consequence of this lack of dynamism. Basically the criticisms surround the ‘expansive’ nature of the concept of AbD which make it bereft of its historical specificity and also raise the problems with the position that ‘capitalism creates its own other’ as the sectors which are included in the ‘other’ are actually not part of the other but constitute capitalism itself. Further to argue that the possibilities of internal expansion have been exhausted would not hold true as the possibilities of radical land-redistribution leading to the development of capitalism in agriculture from below (the American path as discussed by lenin) still exist and in many cases have not been explored at all owing to the class alliance of the bourgeoisie with the landed classes. and this boom was also accompanied by decolonisation. Fine critiques Harvey’s conception of AbD in a most fundamental way as he argues that there is confusion between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ in Harvey’s understanding. The assumption that all possibilities of internal expansion of capital have exhausted is itself extremely doubtful. Hence the argument of AbD having become the dominant form relative to expanded reproduction cannot . which involved Keynesian type policies of demand management and interventionist welfare state. 5. Fine questions the very assumption of the necessity of the ‘external sources for the sustenance of accumulation. Fine takes the case of Privatisation of public sector industries in this regard and shows how it is far from sustaining the systemic accumulation (although it promotes the private accumulation of capital and finance capital) and actually leads to deindustrialisation. If this process is to be understood as AbD then the underlying assumption is that the peasant farming or family farming has hitherto been outside the ambit of capitalism which is now been captured by the capital. 4. We can take the case of the displacement of peasantcultivators by the corporatized agriculture and agri-business. This argument as Fine argues cannot explain the ‘PostWar Boom’ which was in fact facilitated by the factors exactly opposite to that described by Harvey under the rubric of AbD. However this assumption itself in most cases would be factually wrong with the trend towards the development of capitalism in agriculture.
With the negation of the progressive role of capitalism there persists an imminent threat of the rejection of ‘modernity’ itself. thus reaffirming the necessity of the militant working class action for transcendence of capitalism. However this assumption is erroneous as what is considered to be constituted the ‘periphery’ ( say unorganised workers) exploited by imperialism has actually become the very core of the capitalist mode of production of itself. The problem in distinguishing those sections exploited by imperialism from those exploited by capitalism ( as done by Harvey) is obvious as the sections exploited by imperialism ( understood as AbD) are not considered to be exploited by capitalism. Towards the end two issues around the concept of AbD which are related to the political praxis seeking to transcend the capitalist mode of production can be highlighted.hold good and the analytical usefulness of the concept of AbD itself comes under doubt for understanding the contemporary neoliberal globalisation. especially in terms of decimating the oppressive feudal relations. Firstly. hence the disjunction between their struggles and outlook. The problem is that analytical possibility of such a progressive role is itself denied in this framework. in the age when ‘retreat of the class’ is announced and advocacy of ‘identity politics’ has become the fashion.e. . Opposition to capitalism or AbD can take retrogressive and even obscurantist forms and what Harvey himself calls the ‘Repressive Intimacy of Traditional Communities’ can pass over. Second point which is a logical corollary of the first is regarding the vision of post-capitalist future entailed in the anti-capitalist struggles over accumulation by dispossession. Such a ‘conservative’ tilt actually poses a threat to the anti-capitalist struggles which necessarily has to be a progressive one-leading to the expansion of human freedom. It is a different question whether in erstwhile colonisedbackward capitalist countries actually existing is able to perform this role or not. the very understanding of the capitalism (where primitive accumulation or AbD is ever present) at the core of this concepts negates any historically positive role of capitalism. i. in the process of expanded reproduction.
Robert (2004). pp. Ben 2004).3-67 Fine. ‘Debating the ‘New Imperialism’. pp241-278 Harvey. Imperialism?’ Historical Materialism. 14 (4). 14 (4). Historical Materialism. ‘The New Imperialism’. ‘The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change’. ‘What Is. Oxford. and What Is Not. Blackwell Publishers. pp-141-188 .Bibliography Brenner. David (2003). David (1990). Oxford University Press. pp127-173 Harvey. Oxford.
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