From primitive accumulation to accumulation by disposession

Author: Marina Mironica

In order to keep itself alive, capitalism always needs to enclose new goods and properties. Because of a moment of crisis or due to the urge to expand – two of the inevitable capitalism features – new territories have to be constantly conquered. By territories, I mean not only land, but also human labour products, cultural heritage or whatever else could be potentially put under enclosure and transformed from public to private property. The enclosures, which occurred in England, are referred to as a decisive step toward the concentration of land in the landlord’s hands. Also, the English economy’s change of direction, from agriculture to intensive sheep herding is set to be related to enclosures. Since after this switch a lot of peasants were forced to seek a living in cities, they became the poor workers involved in the emerging fabric industry. Meanwhile, the wool from sheep which “ate the man’’ (Moore, 1869) was used to manufacture fabric in the new big factories spread among the island and became a considerable part of the local economy. From now on, the British Empire economical and not only hegemony started to expand.

The paradigm of historical progress is one of the basic directions of thought in Europe. There is a whole philosophical interpretation of how society, economy, culture and others are progressing throughout the history. In the ’70 the United States launched a global programme which was aimed at developing so-called “under-developed states”. By now this is the purpose of most of the agencies and governments in the world, even if there is no obvious proof that this is working well. Anyway, development and progress should not be considered to be the same, even if there is a clear temptation in this direction. The utility and necessity of development should be questioned since effects are inglorious in a lot of contexts. Beside this, the problematic aspect is how countries are divided in categories and those which are considered under-developed are the target of the “already developed” states and their often inadequate policy.

Having said this, I would refer now to three pylons of political economy: Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi and David Harvey. Polanyi and Harvey agree to what Marx said first about enclosures in his analysis of labour and capital where he regards enclosures as having a pivotal role in the development of capitalism in Europe. His perspective is marked by the idea that progress is unstoppable, so what happened was necessary, somehow, at that moment, in order to create the chance for advancement. The point Marx is making is that, for example, when the Crown tried to legally regulate the enclosures conducted by nobility, it was an effect of the already existing economic structure. The power which lords gathered by taking lands and being providers of wool wasn’t desirable for the king. This economic standpoint and also the rise of number of people deprived from any means for living and producing motivated the crown to intervene and unsuccessfully regulate the enclosures. These methods and a long line of others were used, for what Marx calls primitive accumulation when “They conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital, and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and untitled proletarians” (Marx, 1976). This process of primitive accumulation transformed the common and clan property into modern private property which put the base for what is considered now the inalienable right.

The perspective of Karl Polanyi (2001) is defined by compliance with enclosures. Since this kind of economic process is impossible to be avoided, all that can be done is to control them. In that particular situation they should had been slowed down. By this interference, fabric industry would have progressed and peasants would have time to integrate themselves into a new kind of labor and life style. The utility of enclosing land is underlined by Polanyi because it doubled the productivity of the land and the advantages were net superior to the disadvantages, which is also stated by Marx. However, Polanyi is more circumspect to the habitation condition of those peasants which were forced to leave their houses and change their lives without any agency from their side. Additional to Marx’s analyses about repercussions of enclosures, namely the exploitation to which the peasants were put, Polanyi is also presenting the improvements which followed enclosures. They are about life condition of the peasants, but also about the development of English economy in the direction of fishing and all other branches of the economy.

In continuation of Marx’s writings about accumulation of capital which was at the basis of the turning point about property comes David Harvey with a framing valid for nowadays. As he affirms that “the continuous role and persistence of the predatory practices of ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ accumulation within the long historical geography of capital accumulation” it’s perfectly suited to call it accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2003). By this conceptualization it’s possible to capture the essence of how more and more public goods as water, parks, city alleys are privatized in order to organize profit extraction from something that should be free for everyone. Also, by incorporating all kinds of property in some circuits of capital accessible only to those with most of the resources, those who have less are dispossessed from even a chance.

In conclusion, I would dare to say that I don’t find productive this idea of continuously economic growth, so I don’t support the utility of the enclosures, at least not of those happening nowadays. Maybe there is another way to sustain our lives, which doesn’t imply exploitation and dispossession of public resources – be that water, music or a city sidewalk. The actual situation is that we observe a continuous accumulation by dispossession of different kinds of goods, rights to public spaces, even immaterial goods. I find myself in the approach of David Harvey (2013) regarding the way our right to the city is injured by endless privatization and restrain of public access to spaces. There is enough capital already circulating in order to let people to “work” with it. The fact that it doesn’t work should make us think about some other ways or organizing our society, not privatizing constantly all that’s left of us.


Harvey, David. (2003). The New Imperialism, New York, Oxford University Press

Harvey, David. (2013). Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London. Verso

Marx, Karl. (1976). The Capital, Volume 1, London, Penguin

Moore, Thomas. (2016) Utopia, London, Verso

Polanyi, Karl. (2001). The great transformation: the political and economic origins of our time, Boston, Beacon


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