The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis

By Roger Berkowitz; Taun N. Toay | Go to book overview

EIGHTEEN
Can There Be a
People’s Commons?
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ROSA LUXEMBURG’S
ACCUMULATION OF CAPITAL

DRUCILLA CORNELL

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that imperialism, as it arose in the late nineteenth century, had its immediate economic origin in the depression of the 1860s and 1870s. As the economic motor of production and accumulation slowed down in Europe, the imperialists realized that the “motor of accumulation” had to be kept in motion. If that accumulation could not come from inside the nation, it had to be sought elsewhere, which led to the imperialist search for new countries with new markets to be opened to capitalist supply and demand. To keep the process of accumulation going, it was necessary to plunder others and extend the capitalist economy to the entirety of the earth. Imperialism, Arendt saw, was no accident, but was an inner law of the capitalist economic system.

In making her observation about the close connection between imperialism and capitalist accumulation, Arendt cites multiple times from Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital. Praising Luxemburg’s “brilliant insight into the political structure of imperialism,” Arendt embraces Luxemburg’s thesis, that capitalism depends on the imperialist domination of a noncapitalist world and “non-capitalist social strata.”1 Building on Luxemburg, Arendt rightly sees that capitalism demands an unlimited course of accumulation that must have or produce an equally unlimited supply of noncapitalist people. It is this instability of capitalism that

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