Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

David Harvey's Theory of Accumulation by Dispossession

Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

David Harvey's Theory of Accumulation by Dispossession

Article excerpt

WRPE Produced and distributed by Pluto Journals

In the last two decades or so, there has been a large body of writing that seeks to re-examine Marx's theory of primitive accumulation, and shed light on the ways in which people are being subjected to dispossession.1 The writings of David Harvey are a very important part of this body of work. Indeed, much of it has been inspired by his thinking on the topic. His ideas have been often accepted and used in a rather uncritical manner, however. To the extent that there has been some evaluation of Harvey's work, this has had three problems: it has more or less focused on his relatively recent writing (especially The New Imperialism), it is partial and not detailed, and it avoids any serious discussion of the political conclusions that Harvey draws from his theory. What is therefore necessary is a critical and extended evaluation of the ways in which he has sought to extend Marx's ideas. I seek to discuss his ideas about dispossession from the early 1980s when he wrote his seminal The Limits to Capital to the most recent times. I also present a critique of the political conclusions he draws from his theory. I present my critique of his ideas from the vantage point of what I consider is a "stronger" version of Marxist theory than his.

The remainder of the article is organized into five sections. Section 2 provides a detailed discussion of Harvey's theory of dispossession. Section 3 presents my critique. The sections 4 and 5 deal, respectively, with the political conclusions Harvey draws from his theory, and my critique of his politics. The last section provides a summary of the discussion.

From Marx's Theory of Primitive Accumulation to Harvey's Theory of Accumulation by Dispossession

As is widely known, according to Karl Marx (1977, 875), primitive (or original) accumulation is "the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production [and subsistence]" and creates the two basic classes of capitalist society (capitalists and workers). In her theory of accumulation and imperialism, Rosa Luxemburg (2003, 350-51) explains the imperative of primitive accumulation, from the standpoint of the global periphery. She says that advanced capitalism is "fully determined to undermine" the independence of non-capitalist formations in the periphery in a coercive manner "in order to gain possession of their means of production and labour power and to convert them into commodity buyers" (Luxemburg 2003, 350).

Harvey's critical appreciation of Marx's and Luxemburg's insights and his realization that in his earlier work (e.g., The Limits to Capital) he had under-stressed capitalism's cannibalism constitute a part of the intellectual context for his own theory of primitive accumulation. According to Harvey (2003, 143), Marx assumes that "primitive" or "original" accumulation has already occurred and that accumulation now proceeds as expanded reproduction under the rules of free, un-coerced commodity exchange. Marx mistakenly relegates, according to Harvey, "accumulation based upon predation, fraud, and violence," that is, accumulation not based on free exchange, "to an 'original stage' that is considered no longer relevant" (Harvey 2003, 144). Luxemburg as well has a problem, according to Harvey: if Marx relegates primitive accumulation to a distant past, she relegates it to a distant territory, one that is outside of imperialist heartlands, associating primitive accumulation "with the imperialist plunder of non-capitalistic social formations" (Harvey 2006a, xvi).

Given these problems in classical Marxism, Harvey (2003, 144) feels it necessary to conduct "A general re-evaluation of the continuous role and persistence of the predatory practices of 'primitive' or 'original' accumulation within the long historical geography of capital accumulation." Such a re-evaluation requires, first of all, a change in terminology. "Since it seems peculiar to call an ongoing process 'primitive' or 'original,'" Harvey (2003, 144; 2006a, xvi) has decided to "substitute these terms by the concept of accumulation by dispossession. …

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