Accumulation by dispossession

A critical assessment

An estimated 400,000 workers cycle every day through the mammoth Foxconn factory complex in Shenzhen, China. The average worker passing through those gates is a twenty-three-year-old young woman who has only recently left behind rural life for the city. She is part of an estimated 10 million young migrants who work in China’s factories, who themselves are just a small part of what is the largest human migration in world history: an estimated 130 million migrants who supply the labor for China’s booming economy.1 Inside the factories they often work 13-hour shifts, seven-days-a-week. They are docked pay for showing up late, being sick, talking, or going to the bathroom. They are subject to harassment, intimidation, and sexual violence. Inside the factory, the conditions would be recognizable to any mill-hand who had worked in William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” of nineteenth-century Manchester, London, or Lowell. Outside, the modern stands uneasily side-by-side with the past:

The innards of a mountain spill out, red-earthed and raw, where its face was blasted away; exit ramps off the highway disappear in fields of marshy weeds. A brand-new corporate headquarters looks out on rice paddies, fishponds, and duck farms; miraculously, people are still farming here.2

From the warehouses of these immense factories emerge $47 billion worth of iPhones and iPads each year, manufactured by young women often making less than $300 a month.

We live in a world of jarring juxtapositions between future and past: a world symbolized at once by iPhones and collateralized debt obligations, while at the same time Africa is being (re)divided in a repeat of an imperial land grab (although this time it is China and the United States that have replaced the Europeans) and in Latin America there is wholesale dispossession of indigenous communities and the privatization of basic elements like water and fuel. We seem to be moving simultaneously into a new era of capital even as older, more naked displays of class power have reemerged from the past. It is the age of the transnational robber baron. 

One of the challenges for Marxists is to separate what is distinct about this moment in time from what remains consistent with earlier eras of capitalism. David Harvey is probably the most widely read Marxist scholar to contribute to that goal, analyzing a dizzying array of topics from the structure of Marx’s Capital,3 to the theorization and history of neoliberalism,4 to the changing nature of imperialism,5 to a theory of Marxist urbanism,6 all while continuing to defend the relevance and necessity of Marx’s revolutionary method to both understand and, ultimately, transform the world we live in.

One of his most influential recent contributions has been the theory of “accumulation by dispossession,” in which he describes the ways capitalism uses force and theft to rob the world of value—both human beings and nature—in its insatiable quest for profit. As Harvey writes in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, the theory is a critical extension of Marx’s writings on primitive accumulation: 

By this I mean the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices which Marx had treated of as “primitive” or “original” during the rise of capitalism. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations (compare the cases, described above, of Mexico and of China, where 70 million peasants are thought to have been displaced in recent times); conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights (most spectacularly represented by China); suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession.7

He goes on to explore the ways in which these practices have been integrated into the ongoing evolution of capitalism and argues that alongside the exploitation of workers and the extraction of surplus value, there is simple plunder: the naked transfer of wealth from the world’s working class and poor to the ruling class. Additionally, this alternate mechanism of accumulation has become increasingly central to the functioning of capitalism under neoliberalism.

It is a sweeping theory that aims to give coherence to a wide range of predatory policies with the intent of showing the ways they are rooted in the fundamental dynamics of capitalism—in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, to separate from “within the tangle of violence and contests of power, the stern laws of the economic process.”8 And perhaps just as importantly, to show that, “The struggles [against exploitation] . . . have to be seen in a dialectical relation with the struggles against accumulation by dispossession that the social movements coalescing within the anti- and alternative globalization movements are primarily focusing upon.”9

The speed at which the theory has become part of the accepted framework of large parts of the Left says something about its descriptive power. The theory captures an important facet of the way we experience capitalism today: it does feel as if there something more primitive—more brutish and violent—to the way capitalism is stripping the world of resources and turning everything, including the very air and water themselves, into commodities. The theory has deepened our understanding of the uneven ways capitalism has evolved over time and geographically across the globe and highlighted ways in which neoliberalism represents an important break from the earlier period of state-dominated capital that held from the end of the Great Depression until the early 1970s. In doing so, Harvey has focused the attention of radicals and revolutionaries on the sites of key battles against neoliberal capitalism and directs our attention to the struggles of non-proletarian, oppressed classes and peoples, and attempts to find ways to link them to the power of the organized working class.

However, the overly expansive way that Harvey frames the theory weakens his stated goal of showing how they are ultimately connected. A more precise exploration of the ways in which capitalist expansion and dispossession are intertwined can strengthen the argument that dispossession cannot be separated from the overall dynamics of capitalist society and provide insights into ways in which struggles against dispossession can be connected to struggles against exploitation.

Growth by theft
Harvey draws heavily (though critically) on Rosa Luxemburg’s work The Accumulation of Capital, in which she criticized Marx’s treatment of the circulation of commodities and (implicitly) his analysis of “primitive accumulation.” Throughout Volume 2 of Capital, Marx explores what he calls “expanded reproduction,” in which he presents, in very abstract terms, the way in which a portion of realized surplus value (a portion of the value that is realized once a commodity is sold in the marketplace) could be reinvested back into the expansion of further production (new factories and more workers) in an ever-expanding cycle. The schema was not meant to be an accurate representation of the real world—most of Volume 3 of Capital would be devoted to showing the myriad ways that cycle could and would break down—but rather to show that ongoing expansion was possible and coupled with competition between rival capitals that accumulation would become the driving force in capitalist society. For Marx, it was the essential difference between “hoarding,” which had been common to all class societies, and capitalism’s relentless drive to accumulate.

Luxemburg, however, contended that there was a fundamental flaw in his model. She noted that capitalists always produced more than they paid out for raw materials and workers’ wages. Surplus value existed precisely because they forced workers to produce more than they were paid in wages. So, she asks: “who purchases the surplus?” In the model presented in Capital, which assumed an economy of only workers and capitalists, workers can’t purchase it; they have already spent their wages on their own reproduction (food, shelter, etc.). The capitalists can’t purchase it all for their own consumption or we’re simply back to hoarding instead of ever-expanding capitalist accumulation. According to Luxemburg, within the bounds set by Marx’s model, there is no one to purchase the surplus and therefore no way for the capitalists to convert that surplus back into new machinery and more workers. The continued expansion of the system, she argued, is impossible unless capitalism can conquer something outside itself. “Capitalism needs non-capitalist strata as a market for its surplus value,” she argued, “as a source of supply for its means of production and as a reservoir of labor power for its wage system.10

However, precisely because such strata exist outside the system, capitalism has few means of market coercion with which to force entrance:

In all social organizations where natural economy, common ownership of the land, a feudal system of bondage or anything of this nature, economic organization is essentially in response to the internal demand; and therefore there is no demand, or very little, for foreign goods, and also, as a rule, no surplus production, or at least no urgent need to dispose of surplus products.11

And so capitalism must resort to force and conquest to open up these “outside spheres.” Here she criticizes Marx for treating this process as something limited to the dawn of capitalism:

Admittedly, Marx dealt in detail with the process of appropriating non-capitalist means of production as well as with the transformation of the peasants into a capitalist proletariat . . . Yet . . . for Marx, these processes are incidental, illustrating merely the genesis of capital, its first appearance in the world . . . As soon as he comes to analyze the capitalist process of production and circulation, he reaffirms the universal and exclusive domination of capitalist production.12

In his discussion of “primitive accumulation,” Marx had argued that force and theft had been necessary to establish the conditions for capital accumulation. When peasants had access to their own means of production, there was little compulsion to work for wages for a capitalist, and the capitalists had little economic leverage to force them to do so. Instead, the forceful expropriation of land was required to separate peasants from their land and create the economic compulsion for them to work as proletarians for the capitalists. Contrary to earlier writers like Adam Smith who had stressed a peaceful process by which some people saved their pennies in order to invest their savings in production, Marx argued that:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.13

It was not their savings but their savagery that allowed the early capitalists to create the conditions for the expansion and reproduction of capitalist accumulation.

Marx outlined a number of different practices at work in this process, including the separation of peasants from their land, the suppression of the commons, usury, the credit system, the national debt, the slave trade, and early colonialism, but they all had in common the use of extra-economic coercion (often in the form of state power) to create the necessary conditions for the reproduction of capitalist relations. Once established, however, the capitalist economy created its own set of compulsions. Capitalists were locked into competition with one another that compelled them to expand production and escalate the exploitation of their workers in search of larger and large profits. And once workers had no other means of subsistence, they were compelled to sell their labor power in return for a wage; they were “free to work or to starve.”

But for Luxemburg this “process of appropriating non-capitalist means of production” was the key to solving what she saw as the inability of capitalism to reproduce itself. By forcibly opening up new markets, capitalism could find outlets for surplus it would otherwise be unable to realize. Theft and predation couldn’t be relegated into the past of capitalism’s history, but were an ongoing part of it. 

Harvey, like writers such as Nikolai Bukharin and Henryk Grossman before him, rejects a number of key points in Luxemburg’s arguments.14 He points out that capitalism can, at least at the abstract level that Marx is describing, provide a market for the additional surplus through its own expansion (although at a more concrete level of functioning there will be many things that prevent it from doing so and lead to economic crisis).15 As Roman Rosdolsky writes: “Marx’s model was simply a tool for showing the conditions for equilibrium in an expanding capitalist economy in their pure form.”16 The goal of the model was to show that if “certain conditions . . . are observed, all commodities are sold at their value and no over-production of commodities would occur. That is, the general cause of the capitalist crisis does not lie in the circulation process.”17 The schema wasn’t a description of capitalist crisis, but a proof that at this level of abstraction, the origins of that crisis had to be found elsewhere.18 Marx would lay out his theory of crisis only in Volume 3 of Capital.

Additionally, it can be clearly shown that the main flows of capital even in Luxemburg’s time were not between the imperial centers and their colonies, but within the imperial north.19 To be sure, capitalism (then, as now) was not above plundering entire continents, but the source of the bulk of profit remained exploitation of workers at home. And finally, whatever might have been true in Luxemburg’s time, today there are very few places on the planet that could be said to be “outside” the system. If Luxemburg was right, capitalism should have long ago ceased to operate.

Harvey thus rejects Luxemburg’s insistence that expanded reproduction is not possible and that primitive accumulation is necessary for the system to work at all, instead seeing a dialectical relationship between expanded reproduction on one side and plunder and theft on the other—on one side capitalist expansion and on the other dispossession. However, he argues that she was right to stress the ways in which force and predation continue and complement the process of expanded reproduction even in a fully developed capitalist economy. “The idea that some sort of ‘outside’ is necessary for the stabilization of capitalism therefore has relevance,” he writes. “But capitalism can either make use of some pre-existing outside (non-capitalist social formations or some sector within capitalism—such as education—that has not yet been proletarianized) or it can actively manufacture it.”20 But as he points out, recognizing the ongoing role of force and theft doesn’t require a reworking of Capital. Marx was not unaware that fraud and plunder continued under capitalism,21 but the structure of Capital largely precludes it from his discussion. As Harvey notes, a number of assumptions made by Marx in his analysis of capital force him to “relegate accumulation based upon predation, fraud, and violence to an ‘original stage’ that is considered no longer relevant or, as with Luxemburg, as being somehow ‘outside of’ capitalism as a closed system.22

A discussion of the ongoing fraud and theft that goes on persistently under capitalism is largely missing from Capital because, as Harvey has written himself, Capital is not a complete portrait of the capitalist system; it is a critique of political economy—an attempt to show that even if we accept a number of conditions demanded by liberal economists—namely free markets, a pure system of only workers and capitalists, and most importantly for our purposes, the assumption that all commodities are purchased at their full value—the result is not trickle-down economics or the invisible hand gently leading us to a more equal future, but greater inequality, poverty, and misery for the majority, while a tiny minority reap billions.23 Marx is trying to show that even if you could get rid of theft and corruption (which he believes capitalism is incapable of doing), you would still be left with a system based on exploitation and class struggle. Capitalism may produce the Bernie Madoffs of our world, but it can’t be reduced to them.

In highlighting the ways force and plunder have complemented and amplified the expansion of capitalism, Harvey and Luxemburg focus our attention on the complex and ruthless ways capitalism has interacted with the periphery. And they highlight the role of the state in bolstering capitalism’s conquest of the globe in a way that complements the works of others in the Marxist transition, like V. I. Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin, M. N. Roy, and others.24 It is when Harvey applies these insights to the neoliberal period that questions arise about the way in which he has framed the theory.

A brave new world
While accumulation by dispossession has always been a feature of capitalism, Harvey argues, it became increasingly significant during the long period of economic crisis beginning in the 1970s that continues to this day. Faced with a crisis of profitability—a crisis in its ability to generate profit through the exploitation of labor—capital has tried to solve the crisis by increasingly turning to fraud, plunder, and predation. “What accumulation by dispossession does is to release a set of assets (including labour power) at very low (and in some instances zero) cost,” he writes. “Overaccumulated capital can seize hold of such assets and immediately turn them to profitable use.”25

Harvey lists a dizzying array of contemporary examples of what he sees as this alternate process of accumulation. He describes the privatization of what used to be public services into profit-making enterprises: water, education, health care, and in Eastern Europe the selling off of entire national economies, the use of the international credit system (especially the IMF/World Bank) as a means of forcibly transferring wealth from the Global South to the economies of the North, and the use of intellectual property rights to commodify what was once knowledge held in common (for instance, terminator seeds26). He includes the displacement of peasants from their land, and places an emphasis on the theft and transfer of value from one class to another:

Displacement of peasant populations and the formation of a landless proletariat has accelerated in countries such as Mexico and India in the last three decades, many formerly common property resources, such as water, have been privatized (often at World Bank insistence) and brought within the capitalist logic of accumulation, alternative (indigenous and even, in the case of the United States, petty commodity) forms of production and consumption have been suppressed. Nationalized industries have been privatized. Family farming has been taken over by agribusiness. And slavery has not disappeared (particularly in the sex trade).27

However, the way Harvey frames the argument also has its weaknesses. As Robert Brenner noted in a symposium in Historical Materialism devoted to Harvey’s work, Harvey includes in his concept of accumulation by dispossession “a virtual grab bag of processes—by which claims to assets are transferred from one section of capital to another, exploitation of the working class is made worse, or the state moves to privilege its own capitalists at the expense of others—that are quite normal aspects or by-products of the already well-established sway of capital.”28

By expanding the boundaries of the concept so widely as to include such things as “[throwing] workers out of the system at one point in time in order to have them to hand for purposes of accumulation at a later point in time,” the theory risks undermining Marx’s central argument that these things were fundamental consequences of the functioning of a capitalist economy.29 

For instance, Harvey points to Enron and its liquidation of its employees’ pensions and closing of unprofitable factories as examples of accumulation by dispossession; but the closure of unprofitable business as a means of restoring profitability is a central part of Marx’s crisis theory. It’s not separate from the creation of surplus value, but a central way capital reestablishes profitability and opens up the possibility for continued expansion.

Even when we seem to be closest to what Marx was describing in his critique of primitive accumulation—the forcing of peasants off their land—we should separate out what is the forcible, extra-economic transfer of wealth and what is the result of small producers being bought out or driven-out of business by larger producers—what Marx described as the concentration and centralization of capital. There are certainly places where force is being used to displace formerly self-sufficient peasants, but in many instances the peasants were producing, at least in part, for the market. As Robert Brenner has written, “The beating out by agribusiness of individual farmers—who have already been living and dying by the whims of the market—is an all-too-familiar aspect of capitalist competition.”30 It leads to social misery of course, but it is very much a part of capitalist expansion. Harvey himself has written in a response to Brenner of the need to further differentiate the practices involved:

Brenner is probably right to complain that I inflate the idea [of accumulation by dispossession] somewhat . . . The dispossession of family farms in the US may be better understood in terms of the normal transfers of wealth and power that occur through the concentration and centralization of capital. I am not so sure, however, when it comes to the use of eminent domain to take over housing in high-value locations for the benefit of developers and the big chain stores.31

What is crucial is the distinction between the workings of the capitalist economy in its quest for profit and the numerous ways in which the state uses extra-economic compulsion to augment and accelerate that process. We should be careful to not blur the two even if both are often at work.

In southeast China, for instance, where the most compelling case can be made for a process that seems to mirror what Marx described in his treatment of primitive accumulation, there are numerous instances where large numbers of peasants are being forcibly dispossessed (the displacement of 1.2 million people by the construction of the Three Rivers Gorge dam project is the most well-known). However, the vast majority of migrants are the children of peasants who move (often in what is initially seen as a temporary move) to the city to augment the family income of small producers back home.32 While the use of force is sometimes an accompanying factor (and in some areas may be the dominant factor), the majority of migrants are also responding to market pressures, albeit ones heavily managed by the Chinese state. By eliding different practices and combining it all under the rubric of “accumulation by dispossession,” we ignore some of the real challenges and (as will be seen in the next section) risk overlooking some of the real possibilities that confront us in this moment.

Take again the issue of privatization: perhaps the most famous fight against privatization in recent years is the struggle against the privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia. At one level, it appears as a textbook case of dispossession: a foreign multinational (Bechtel) attempts to use its imperial weight backed by the American state to take control of public water resources and convert water into a for-profit commodity. However, it is not the case that Cochabamba’s water had ever existed completely outside the market. Prior to the arrival of Bechtel, water resources in Cochabamba had been managed by the local state water utility (SEMAPA). Nationally, investment in water resources had for decades been concentrated in the more economically developed regions of the country, leaving SEMAPA nearly $30 million in debt and able to service only about half of the city’s residents. Beyond the reach of the utility, water needs were met by a patchwork of local and communal water resources and private water traders who sold water at exorbitantly high rates (though not nearly what Bechtel would try to charge).33 

In the attempted privatization of SEMAPA by Bechtel and the Bolivian state, then, there are several interrelated things happening: both the dispossession and commodification of communal water resources, the concentration and centralization of capital through the displacement of petty commodity traders by a larger capitalist, and the transfer of value from one section of the ruling class (in the form of the Bolivian state) to another (in the form of the ownership of Bechtel).34 The U.S. state, of course, uses its powers of coercion to facilitate such deals, but the Bolivian ruling class also has its own reasons for favoring them that have much to do with the economic imperative of securing access to foreign capital and servicing internal and foreign debts. Thus there are aspects of extra-economic coercion and outright dispossession, as well as the types of economic competition and reorganization that are the typical workings of the capitalist economy.

Cochabamba also illustrates the need to be specific about the relationship between private capital and capital that is state-owned or organized around state-directed social services. There are many cases where state-owned industries are simply large capitalist units complete with “managerial hierarchies, multi-branch structures, and workforces largely composed of subordinate wage-laborers, despite being publicly owned.”35 The privatization of these industries doesn’t in any way represent a transfer of value from “outside” the system to “inside.” At best, we are witnessing the transfer of value from one section of the ruling class to another (although in many cases it is the same people who end up with the resources having traded their “public” uniforms for “private” ones). 

Then there are services that are administered by the state as part of the process of social reproduction (health care, education, some public utilities). To the degree that public administration removes the burden of paying for these socially necessary functions and instead provides them collectively through the state, they can represent a degree of “de-commodification,” but we shouldn’t exaggerate the degree to which these services are “outside” the system. As Alex Callinicos and Sam Ashman note: 

The limitation thus imposed on the logic of the market, and the fact that it was frequently introduced under pressure from below explains the immense political investment made in the welfare state by the labor movement—for example, the National Health Service in Britain, and the bitter resistance that attempts to reduce its scope tend to evoke. This does not, however, alter the fact that collective provision still reproduced labor-power in the form of the commodity wage-labor, providing capital with a relatively healthy and educated workforce and financed out of taxation that, as various studies have shown, fell largely on earnings. The extent of “decommodification” should therefore not be exaggerated: it is typically closely interwoven with commodification.36

An unfortunate legacy of both Social Democracy and Stalinism is the all-too-easy identification of state ownership with an end to market compulsion. Though the state may mitigate against aspects of the market, even in the Stalinist states where the fusion between state and capital was most complete, it is never fully able to remove itself.

So while Harvey is no doubt right that dispossession is an ongoing feature of capitalism and that it has taken a more prominent role under neoliberalism, it seems productive to try to separate out which practices are aimed at the forcible transfer of wealth from one class to another or from “outside” the system, and which practices are the logical outgrowth of capitalism’s relentless expansionary drive.

Dispossession and decline
Perhaps one reason that Harvey casts such a wide net around what constitutes accumulation by dispossession is his argument that neoliberal capitalism is no longer able to expand in the same way as it once did—that with the start of neoliberalism, “accumulation by dispossession became the dominant form of accumulation.”37 He holds that capitalism entered a profound crisis beginning in the 1970s from which it has failed to recover. It was a crisis in which expanded reproduction (or the expansion of the system through the exploitation of labor and reinvestment of surplus value) became increasingly difficult. What growth has taken place since then, Harvey maintains, is the result not of generalized expansion, but a beggar-thy-neighbor approach whereby one section of the ruling class appropriates the surplus value previously held by other classes or other sections of the ruling class. This reappropriation required new means of accumulation. “If the main achievements of neo-liberalism have been redistributive rather than generative,” he writes, “then ways had to be found to transfer assets and redistributive wealth and income either from the mass of the population towards the upper classes or from vulnerable to richer countries.”38 The mechanisms of accumulation by dispossession provided the vehicle for that transfer. Thus, Harvey argues, the increasing dominance of accumulation by dispossession can be seen as one expression of the long crisis of the world capitalist economy.

However, today it seems hard to maintain the argument that the last forty years can simply be characterized as a period of crisis and stagnation. Beginning with the onset of crisis in 1973 there was a protracted and brutal restructuring of the world economy. Britain, for example, saw its manufacturing industry decline by 25 percent in just four years from 1980–84.39 In the United States, employment in integrated steel mills dropped by almost 70 percent from 1974 to 1990.40 Capital, especially in manufacturing, pursued a two-pronged assault: both a ruthless reorganization of the production process, with “lean production” and “downsizing” becoming buzzwords in the business press, and in some cases the relocation of production away from its traditional strongholds to areas with cheaper costs and weaker resistance. And of course the two strategies could be used to bolster one-another: sometimes just the threat of relocation could be used to force massive concessions from the existing workforce. As David McNally argues, it is important to see both sides of this strategy. “It is not simply that jobs went to the South, though in some industries this clearly happened. It is more that a severe process of restructuring occurred that involved an enormous downsizing of workforces and ‘leaning’ of production systems everywhere.”41

The combined effect of this restructuring was the reestablishment of profitability for the firms that remained. As Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch have written, “The profitability crisis into which US capitalism had fallen between 1968 and 1982 came to an end. Although profits did not return to the stratospheric levels they had reached during the 1940s—their growth had steadily slowed down in the 1950s, before the brief spike of the mid 1960s—after 1982 both the rate of profit and the share of profits in GDP moved on an upward trend.”42 

As profits rose, so did investment, and the system began a prolonged period of expansion. Between 1982 and 2007, the global economy grew threefold.43 And contrary to many widely held arguments on the Left, the majority of that expansion happened not overseas, but within the advanced industrial economies. Overall, the vast majority of investment remained within the industrial north, with fully three-quarters of all foreign direct investment taking place between the advanced industrial economies.44 In the United States, real investment grew at an average of 6 percent from 1983 to 1999.45 But the most dramatic increase in foreign investment was in Southeast Asia. In just six years between 1990 and 1996 total capital formation in East Asia (excluding Japan) rose by nearly 300 percent.46 Taken as a whole, there should be little doubt today that while it may have been augmented by other factors, the boom was real. Beginning in the early 1980s and continuing until the 2008 financial crisis, there was real and profound expansion of the system—both within the United States and internationally—not just in terms of profit, but also reinvestment in new means of production and labor. As David McNally has written:

It is unhelpful to try to capture [the] dynamic transformations [of the global economy of the last 30 years] through the lens of a “long-term crisis” or “long downturn” thesis. For a quarter-century (1982 to 2007) world capitalism underwent a period of sustained accumulation (as always, punctuated by recessions) and an upward trend in the rate of return. The current [2007] crisis, as Marx’s analysis would suggest, is a result of precisely this dynamism of capitalism across the neoliberal expansion; the recent downturn is not the result of a long downturn.47

At least from the early 1980s until 2007, dispossession did not become dominant over expanded reproduction, but proceeded alongside it. A more specific definition of dispossession is better understood as the particular use of extra-economic coercion in ways that are shaped by and used in the service of capitalism’s attempts at restructuring, the aim of which is a new cycle of expanded production. As Callinicos and Ashman have noted:

None of the foregoing in any sense diminishes the significance of accumulation by dispossession. It does, however, highlight the complexity of the processes involved, which cannot be seen as simply a means of devaluing capital, or the plunder of the commons, but, rather, as facets of the much larger scale reorganization of capitalism over the past generation, which has involved a shift from the predominantly nationally-organized, and heavily state-directed capitalism that prevailed in the mid-twentieth century, to a form of capitalism that, though still, as Harvey emphasizes, massively regionalized and interwoven with the nation-state, is nevertheless far more reliant on transnational production networks than in the past.48

Our understanding of this reorganization is strengthened if we separate out the different processes, some of which hark back to the violence and force used by all class oppressors to secure their aims, and some that are in fact the fundamental workings of the capitalist economy and not “outside” its central economic mechanisms. That these two things are often intertwined in real life is all the more reason to be clear in theory. 

Accumulation and agency
If Harvey paints too broad a picture of dispossession, then he also paints too narrow a picture of the struggle against expanded production. By theorizing dispossession and expanded reproduction as two separate (though related) forms of accumulation, Harvey unnecessarily restricts his picture of working class struggle as being limited to the struggle against expanded reproduction, by which I take him to mean struggles for wages, benefits, working conditions, or in more radical moments for workers’ control of production. It is then all too easy to see them as the product of a bygone era. Harvey writes:

[The] intense difficulty of sustaining expanded reproduction was also generating a much greater emphasis upon a politics of accumulation by dispossession. The forms of organization developed to combat the former did not translate well when it came to confronting the latter. Generalizing crudely, the forms of left-wing political organization established in the period 1945-73, when expanded reproduction was in the ascendant, were inappropriate to the post-1973 world, where accumulation by dispossession moved to the fore as the primary contradiction within the imperialist organization of capital accumulation.49

Harvey, to his credit, continues to defend the role played by workers at the point of production, insisting that struggles against dispossession need to be tied to the struggles of workers at the point of production. But in the way he’s framed the theory, it appears that you have fights against dispossession on one side and fights at the point of production on the other. It is unclear how that chasm can be bridged beyond moral or intellectual appeals to solidarity and the abstract ways in which both struggles are the product of the same system.

One of the challenges facing Marxists today is to understand in concrete terms the ways in which expansion and underdevelopment, exploitation, and dispossession not only coexist but also combine with one another. It is a curious omission that Leon Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development doesn’t appear in Harvey’s treatment of accumulation by dispossession, although Trotsky presents a largely complementary, but distinct, way of examining the questions of capitalism’s uneven evolution. Trotsky focuses both on the uneven ways in which capitalism spreads geographically across the globe and ways that the combined nature of the international system impacts that spread: the ways in which latecomers to the world capitalist economy found themselves both spurred on and blocked by the preexisting capitalist powers. On the one hand late-developing powers can take advantage of the methods and technologies previously developed by others: “The privilege of historic backwardness—and such a privilege exists—permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages.”50 And at the same time, these same powers are blocked by the more established positions of their older rivals. Thus as Neil Davidson writes, in addition to unevenness, Trotsky also “highlighted . . . the ‘unity’ of the world economy and the ‘interdependence’ of the imperial powers and the colonial and semi-colonial world.”51 Davidson continues: “Historical backwardness does not imply a simple reproduction of the development of advanced countries, England or France, with a delay of one, two, or three centuries. It engenders an entirely new ‘combined’ social formation in which the latest conquests of capitalist technique and structure root themselves into relations of feudal or pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and subjecting them and creating peculiar relations of classes.”52

Practically, this means that the connections between struggles against dispossession and exploitation are potentially closer than many would assume. Take the quintessential symbol of dispossession: the modern mega-slums. The standard assumption on much of the Left is that the slums are inhabited by a vast population of dispossessed, itinerant, or declassed families, largely removed from the struggles of the organized working class. But the picture is complex. As South African socialists Leo Zeilig and Claire Ceruti have written: 

Africa is not, uniquely or universally, a space of undifferentiated deindustrialisation where the working class has been uprooted from formal employment. . . . Soweto is South Africa’s largest township, home to an estimated two million residents, twice the number of those recorded in a survey eight years ago. It is a place of phenomenal diversity, including wealthy suburbs serviced by modern shopping malls and a golf course, as well as “respectable” working class communities in modest apartheid-era housing. These areas sit cheek by jowl with squatter camps and informal settlements.53

Zelig and Ceruti go on to show that while the impact of neoliberalism has devastated the lives of many of the working class and poor inhabitants of Soweto, it has done so in some counter-intuitive ways. While nearly 50 percent of inhabitants are believed to be “not in formal employment,” on a household level the picture is more complicated. Almost a quarter of the population is employed full-time, with another 15 percent either self-employed or partially employed. In 85 percent of households, at least one member of the family is employed. As they conclude, there is “no impenetrable wall between work and unemployment, as the ‘poor’ and ‘middle class’ live side by side, as family members and friends. Poverty and relative prosperity are connected in the household.”54 The result is that struggles of the urban poor can have (at least potentially) a radicalizing impact of the consciousness of the working class, while working class struggles can serve as a rallying point for the demands of the wider poor.

Paul Mason in his book Live Working or Die Fighting talks about the Nigerian slum of Amukoko, one of Lagos’s larger slums. Lagos has a population of 5 million people with an unemployment rate that tops 50 percent. Yet two miles out of Amukoko is the industrial heart of Lagos, with brand new factories owned by Guinness, Dunlop, and Nigerian Steel and Wire.55 The lives of employed, semi-employed, and unemployed workers blended together in the swirling maze of Lagos’s back alleys and twisting streets. When a mass protest movement broke out in Nigeria in 2012, the mass movement of the urban poor organized around the strikes and workers’ organizations of the Nigerian working class.56 The position of the employed working class in the economy (especially in the public sector and the oil industry) gave the movement critical strength against the power of the state, while the numerical size and vast anger of the wider masses had a radicalizing impact on the overall movement. A similar dynamic has been repeated in the revolutionary movements in Tunisia and Egypt.57

A universal class?
In the last forty years we have witnessed one of the most profound restructurings of the global working class in history. The most obvious example of this is the massive explosion of the working class in Southeast Asia and in coastal China, in particular. You only need contrast the massive Foxconn factories with the shell of what used to be Detroit to get a sense of the magnitude of change. However even in the United States, as former working class cities like Detroit, Rochester, Flint, and Allentown were slowly being suffocated, new factories were being opened in towns like Smyrna, Tennessee, and Spartanburg, South Carolina. 

This drive for structural and geographic restructuring, as Harvey has written, is not new to neoliberalism, but a recurring feature of capitalism. Even at the dawn of capitalism in Britain, capital fled the powerful guilds of Norwich and Bristol and set up shop in small villages that were to become the industrial centers of capitalist England: Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham.58 However, it is also true that neoliberal expansion is not the same as previous periods of economic expansion. The rise of productivity means that even where capital expands with new production, it often employs a much smaller percentage of workers than in the past (although this does not preclude the massive factories mentioned in Southeast Asia). 

The effect of this is two-sided: on the one hand, it often means that even in areas where production is expanding, the working class can remain a numerical minority; however, it also means that those workers have a strength disproportionate to their numbers. The period has been one both of fragmentation and reconstitution of the global working class. However, the two sides are not exactly equivalent. The working class has been weakened where it was once strongest and growing where it is weakest. Objectively the working class today is both larger and more interconnected. Chris Harman has estimated the world working class to contain “a core of perhaps 2 billion people, around which there are another 2 billion or so people with lives which are ‘subject in important ways to the same logic as this core.’”59 That is larger that at any time in human history. Yet the working class is much weaker in terms of organization and consciousness that it was a generation ago.60

As a result, the exact balance of forces within popular struggles then necessarily vary from country to country. In Bolivia and Nigeria, it was the political legacy of much weakened workers’ movements that played a fundamental role within wider movements of exploited classes until the movements began to radicalize broader sections of the working class. In Egypt and South Africa, where the working class is much larger and more concentrated, the unions and workers’ organizations played a more decisive role. See, for instance, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s (NUMSA) call for a united front with the social movements of the country against the African National Congress’s neoliberal policies.61 The changes that have taken place over the past forty years have been tremendous, but have not led to the much-heralded disappearance of the working class. Instead, there remains tremendous potential and immense challenges to the rebuilding of an international workers’ movement.

The point is that the struggles of the working class and other exploited and oppressed peoples are dialectically intertwined. Their relationship needs to been viewed dynamically and as something that can change based on the balance of class forces, the strength of popular movements, and the organization and consciousness of the various groups represented in those movements. Of course, this is exactly the point Harvey is attempting to make in his discussions of accumulation by dispossession. But by circumscribing the discussion of working class struggles to those that take place at the point of production, he presents the gap between working class struggles and popular movements as wider than it needs to be.

However, Harvey is right to stress that the ability to join those struggles depends not just on objective conditions and the balance of class forces, but also on the politics of the Left. And in many ways his theory is a challenge to the Left to conceive of the ways that might link working class struggle and popular movements against dispossession. The working class still has a unique power in society based on its ability to disrupt and ultimately take over the process of production. But that power is only potential power. The ability of the working class to play a central role in a wider revolutionary movement ultimately depends on its ability to frame its own class interests as part of the broader interest of all oppressed and exploited classes. In other words, the potential power of the working class is a product of both its objective position in society and its subjective degree of organization and consciousness.

Given the legacy of Stalinist and social-democratic developmentalism, many social movements in the neoliberal era emerged indifferent to, if not directly counterposed to, traditional Left parties. As Harvey writes, “The patchy record of success for the socialist [this journal would argue Stalinist—GB] alternative (the early achievements of Cuba in fields of health care, education, and agronomy initially inspired before later flagging), and the climate of repressive politics largely orchestrated by Cold War politics, made it increasingly difficult for the traditional left to claim a position of leadership rather than of coercive domination in relation to these social movements.”62

And it is true that there has been a legacy, especially among Stalinist and social-democratic parties, of dismissing social movements as either anachronistic or peripheral to workers’ struggles. But it is going too far to argue that Marxism has been traditionally too focused “on class relations and class struggles within the field of capital accumulation understood as expanded reproduction. All other forms of struggle were viewed as subsidiary, secondary, or even dismissed as peripheral or irrelevant.”63

There is also a long history within the revolutionary Marxist tradition of thinking about working class struggle not as something limited to the workplace or counterposed to the wider struggles of oppressed and exploited peoples, but as something central to them, whether it is Marx’s writings on the working class role in the struggle for democracy in the 1848 revolutions, or Lenin’s writings about the relationship between working class struggle and the struggles of the Russian peasantry, Trotsky’s writings on permanent revolution, or Antonio Gramsci’s writings on the “southern question” in Italy.Even in the classical period of imperialism in which Rosa Luxemburg was writing, the thrust of her work was to examine the ways struggles against dispossession (and in particular colonial dispossession) were both connected to and could potentially amplify struggles of workers in the industrial centers of both the colonies themselves and within the imperial powers. The two struggles were fused together most closely in Lenin’s writings on imperialism and self-determination.

Within this tradition, the insistence on the centrality of the working class and its power at the point of production is not to denigrate the struggles against other forms of oppression or to insist that Marxists should not participate in them. It is merely to insist that the working class continues to have a unique power in society. However, the working class must also wield that power understanding that its success depends on its ability to win behind it a wider movement of exploited classes. As Lenin writes in What Is To Be Done?, “Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected.”64

The point of stressing this is not to place requirements on the struggles of the oppressed. Socialists do not require (nor would it make much difference if they did) that oppressed peoples first recognize the position of the working class before moving into struggle against their own oppression. There always have been and always will be independent movements of the oppressed that socialists must support and take active part in developing. The burden of proof is on the working class and the Left itself, to connect struggles against oppression to those against exploitation. 

Only by seeing its struggle as part of a wider struggle against all oppression and exploitation can the working class and its political leadership raise itself into a position of leadership in the wider revolutionary struggle against capitalism. In his brilliant essay “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” Gramsci wrote about the transformation necessary among the working class in the north of Italy that would be necessary to build a successful revolutionary alliance with the peasants of the south without which a movement against Italian capitalism was doomed to failure:

The proletariat, in order to become capable as a class of governing, must . . . overcome the distinctions which exist between one trade and another . . . in order to win the trust and consent of the peasants and of some semi-proletarian urban categories—to overcome certain prejudices and conquer certain forms of egoism which can and do subsist within the working class as such, even when craft particularism has disappeared. The metalworker, the joiner, the building-worker, etc., must not only think as proletarians, and no longer as metal-worker, joiner, building-worker, etc.; they must also take a further step. They must think as workers who are members of a class which aims to lead the peasants and intellectuals. Of a class which can win and build socialism only if it is aided and followed by the great majority of these social strata. If this is not achieved, the proletariat does not become the leading class; and these strata (which in Italy represent the majority of the population), remaining under bourgeois leadership, enable the State to resist the proletarian assault and wear it down.65

The main challenge, then, is to the Left: to those organizations that aspire to help build and organize the political leadership of a revolutionary movement with the working class at its core. Lenin continues:

The Social-Democrat’s [by this Lenin means revolutionary Marxist] ideal [should be] the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.66

If the neoliberal era we are living through contains aspects of the new, as well as the return of aspects of earlier eras, then too will the struggles that challenge it. Dispossession is not something separate from, but part of, the process of expansion and exploitation, and the struggles against them are not separate spheres that need to be bridged but struggles that are deeply interlinked. There is much to be learned from past generations’ attempts at bringing those struggles together, but it is on the streets of Athens, Lagos, Shenzhen, Santiago, and El Alto that a new language will be found to connect the lessons of those earlier generations with the emergence of new struggles today. The challenge of the Left is to learn and assimilate those lessons as a means to rebuilding a new generation of organized militants capable of learning from, linking together, and leading new struggles. That is a goal that both Harvey and readers of this journal share. A continued engagement with and debate of Harvey’s work can only further that process.

  1. Leslie T. Chang, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008), Kindle edition, 18. 
  2. Ibid., 18.
  3. David Harvey, The Limits of Capital (London: Verso, 2007); David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (London: Profile Book, 2010); David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (London: Verso, 2010).
  4. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Toward a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development (London: Verso, 2007); David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  5. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  6. David Harvey, Social Justice and the City: Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009); David Harvey, The Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985); David Harvey, The Urban Experience (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); David Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2013); David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2013).
  7. Harvey, Neoliberalism, 159.
  8. Quoted in Harvey, New Imperialism, 149.
  9. Ibid., 176.
  10. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (New York: Routledge, 2003), 348-9.
  11. Ibid., 349.
  12. Ibid., 345.
  13. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 (New York: The Modern Library, 1936), 823.
  14. Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Penguin Press, 1972). Henryk Grossman, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System: Being Also a Theory of Crises (London: Pluto Press 1992). For an excellent overview of Grossman’s work see Rick Kuhn, “Henryk Grossman: Capitalist Expansion and Imperialism,” International Socialist Review 56 (Nov–Dec 2007). Available at
  15. Harvey, The New Imperialism, 139.
  16. Roman Rosdolsky, The Making of Marx’s Capital, trans. Pete Burgess (London: Pluto Press, 1977), 494.
  17. David Yaffe, “Review Article: Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital,” Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economists 2 (Feb. 1972), 75.
  18. See Grossman, Accumulation, chap. 2.
  19. Harvey, The New Imperialism, 140. Mike Kidron, “Imperialism—Highest Stage But One,” International Socialism (1st series, Summer 1962). Available at
  20. Harvey, New Imperialism, 142.
  21. Although there are times when Marx does overestimate the degree to which capitalism would supplant earlier forms of theft. See his discussion of usury in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Capital, Vol. 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963), chap. 36.
  22. Harvey, The New Imperialism, 144.
  23. David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (London: Verso, 2010), 7.
  24. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism” in Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963). Nicholai Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973). M. N. Roy, “New Economic Policy of British Imperialism: Its Effects on Indian Nationalism,” Communist International 21, 70-91. Available at
  25. Havey, New Imperialism, 149.
  26. “Terminator seeds” is the popular name for genetically-modified seeds that produce plants that did not themselves generate new seeds. Thus, farmers would be forced to purchase new seed each year, rather than the traditional practice of gathering seed at the end of harvest to be used in next year’s planting.
  27. Harvey, New Imperialism, 145-6.
  28. Robert Brenner, “What Is, and What Is Not, Imperialism?” Historical Materialism 14(4), 100.
  29. Harvey, New Imperialism, 141.
  30. Brenner, “Imperialism,” 100.
  31. David Harvey, “Comment on Commentaries,” Historical Materialism 14(4), 165.
  32. Chang, Factory Girls, 12.
  33. Luis Sánchez Gómez and Philipp Terhorst, “Cochabamba, Bolivia: Public-Collective Partnership After the Water War,” in Reclaiming Public Water: Achievements, Struggles and Visions from Around the World, ed. Brid Brennan, Olivier Hoedeman, Philipp Terhorst, Satoko Kishimoto and Belén Balanyá (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute and Corporate Europe Observatory), 121-123. Available S.K. Sharma and J.J. S. Quintanilla, Sustainability Analysis of Water Supply Systems in Cochabamba, Bolivia (paper presented at 34th WEDC International Conference, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2009). 
  34. For a more in depth treatment of the various dynamics involved in the privatization plan and a detailed account of the resistance that followed see Susan Jane Spronk, “The Politics of Third World Water Privatization: Neoliberal Reform and Popular Resistance in Cochabamba and El Alto, Bolivia” (PhD diss., York University, 2007).
  35. Sam Ashman and Alex Callinicos, “Capital Accumulation and the State System: Assessing David Harvey’s The New Imperialism,” Historical Materialism 14(4), 122.
  36. Ibid., 121-22.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism, 43.
  39. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–91 (London: Abacus, 1994), 304, quoted in David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (New York: PM Press, 2010), Kindle edition, 46.
  40. McNally, Global Slump, 46.
  41. Ibid., 47.
  42. Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy Of American Empire (London: Verso Books, 2012) Kindle edition, chap. 7.
  43. McNally, Global Slump, 39.
  44. Ibid., 52.
  45. Gindin and Panitch, Global Capitalism, chap. 7.
  46. McNally, Global Slump, 54.
  47. David McNally, “Explaining the Crisis or Heresy Hunting,” International Socialism 134. Available at
  48. Ashman and Callinicos, “Capital Accumulation,” 124.
  49. Harvey, The New Imperialism, 172.
  50. Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, trans. Max Eastman (London: Pluto Press, 1977), 26-27.
  51. Neil Davidson, “Trotsky’s Developed Insight,” Socialist Worker, March 24, 2014. Available at See also Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010).
  52. Davidson, “Trotsky’s Insight.”
  53. Leo Zeilig and Claire Ceruti, “Slums, Resistance and the African Working Class,” International Socialism 117. Available at
  54. Ibid.
  55. Paul Mason, Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 50.
  56. Matt Swagler, “General Strike Rocks Nigeria,” Socialist Worker, January 12, 2012. H.T. Soweto, “Nigeria’s General Strike,” Socialist Democracy, April–May 2012. Available at
  57. Sameh Naguib, “Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution: Egypt Since the Fall of Mubarak” International Socialist Review 79. Ahmed Shawki and Mostafa Omar, “Egypt: Chronicle of a Revolution,” International Socialist Review 76. Gilbert Achcar and Anne Alexander, “Egypt, Tunisia and Revolution in the Middle East.” International Socialism Journal video seminar; Available at
  58. Harvey, Companion, 298.
  59. Chris Harman, “The Workers of the World,” International Socialism 96. Available at
  60. This is why theories of “disarticulation” are both inaccurate in their one-sidedness and conflate two related, but distinct, questions: the structural changes of the working class and the subjective state of organization.
  61. “NUMSA Views on the State of Class Struggles in South Africa and the Crisis in Cosatu.” Available at
  62. Harvey, The New Imperialism, 166.
  63. Ibid., 169-70.
  64. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of our Movement,” Collected Works Vol. 5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 412. Available at
  65. Antonio Gramsci, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” in Selections from Political Writings, 1921-1926, trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), 448-9.
  66. Lenin, “What is to be Done?” 420.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story