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Spaces of Capital and Rosa Luxemburg

by Adam David Morton on September 22, 2014


The article mentioned in this post ‘The Enduring Relevance of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, is finally confirmed for publication in hard copy in the Journal of International Relations and Development, Vol.19, No.3 (2016), pp. 420-47 and is available HERE.


During my time at the University of Nottingham, Andreas Bieler and I collaborated in forming the Marxism Reading Group within the School of Politics and International Relations, which started in 2006. The group has retained a continued presence ever since, made up of staff and postgraduate research students, meeting each Wednesday afternoon in term time to discuss collectively chosen texts. As a result, some 25 texts have been read to date covering a range of Marxist classics, past and present. The group has been a key collective project shaping spaces of self-development within an ever more market-driven higher education sector. Most recently, the collective enterprise of the reading group has been successful in realising a co-authored journal article stemming from our reading of The Accumulation of Capital by Rosa Luxemburg, which celebrated its centenary publication in 2013. The article is entitled ‘The Enduring Relevance of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital’ and is now available as an advanced online publication in the Journal of International Relations and Development, available for download HERE. How did we go about realising this publication between eight co-authors including ourselves and our PhD students Sümercan Bozkurt, Max Crook, Peter Cruttenden, Ertan Erol, Cemal Burak Tansel, and Elif Uzgören?

First up, perhaps we were influenced by an earlier initiative from some time ago led by Randall Germain and Barry Gills. Those important scholars were instrumental in leading a group of four PhD students, including Louise Amoore, Richard Dodgson, Paul Langley, and Iain Watson to realise an article as political economists in a peer reviewed journal. The article, entitled ‘Paths to a historicised international political economy’, was published in the Review of International Political Economy and asserted the need to historicise IPE in order to question what constitutes the subject under study we call political economy. We always found the leadership that Randall Germain and Barry Gills gave to that endeavour an inspiration and the way they forged such a project to realise a significant journal publication.

With that early example in the back of our minds, we completed the reading of The Accumulation of Capital with a clear set of theoretical and empirical reflections that overlapped and stretched our interest in capitalist expansion with reference to the transformation of peripheral spaces. On that basis each of the eight members of the group were charged with writing 500 words on a different theme arising out of the text. From that draft a clear analytical argument emerged out of our reading The Accumulation of Capital and then the article went through a series of revisions, including embedding it within the secondary literature and contemporary debates. Thereafter the article went from author-to-author until we were all collectively happy with the final draft prior to journal submission and the journey through the peer review process, which was handled similarly.

rosa_luxemburg-555pxIn the article, we start from the basis that The Accumulation of Capital holds a clear legacy in terms of debating not only the emergence and expansion of capitalism but also the imperative to open non-capitalist strata to capitalist mechanisms. Indeed, Luxemburg’s analysis focuses on what she refers to as ‘new frontiers of capitalist advance’ and the spatial conditions of integrating peripheral economies into the global expansion of capitalism. As David Harvey posits in The New Imperialism ‘capitalism must perpetually have something “outside of itself” in order to stabilise itself’, thus emphasising the notion of a spatial-temporal fix in overcoming crisis conditions. Importantly, Luxemburg identifies the internal/external distinction in terms of ‘social economy rather than of political geography’. In short, Luxemburg does not confine capitalism’s ‘outside’ to a territorial phenomenon.

In our engagement with Luxemburg’s work we move from conceptual considerations to the analysis of empirical problems in treating the production of territory and political spaces. The first section establishes the conceptual argument that starts with a closer look at Luxemburg’s understanding of the expansion of the capitalist mode of production and the way peripheral spaces have been transformed through 1) the introduction of commodity economy; 2) the intervention of foreign capital, notably through the annihilation of space by large-scale physical infrastructures in the built environment; and 3) through the struggle against peasant economy in terms of proletarianisation, or how subsistence producers are forcibly converted into wage-slaves. We also explore here Luxemburg’s conceptual link between the place where surplus value is produced and the geopolitics of violent capitalist expansion in order to ensure the continuation of surplus accumulation. The uneven geographical development of geopolitics and the ‘new’ imperialism are at the centre of this analysis. Our conceptual section is concluded with a discussion of Luxemburg’s account of capitalist expansion in relation to criticisms of Eurocentric scholarship. We argue that while Luxemburg operates within a diffusionist paradigm of capitalist expansion, her focus on the reciprocally determining role played by ‘core’ and ‘peripheral’ spaces opens up a resourceful route for studying the development of global capitalism without subscribing to Eurocentric pre-suppositions.

LuxemburgIn the second main section, elements of Luxemburg’s work are related to empirical discussions of contemporary aspects of capitalist crisis. First, the expansion of the capitalist mode of production to non-capitalist space is related to discussions of the decommodification-commodification nexus in today’s neoliberal phase of capitalism. Here we assess to what extent decommodified areas are today’s non-capitalist space into which the capitalist mode intends to expand. Then, we investigate to what extent Luxemburg’s analysis of international loans, provided by industrialised countries to non-capitalist states so that the latter can purchase goods from the former, can be used to understand the current sovereign debt crisis within the Eurozone and here in particular the Greek case against the background of uneven development across the European Union. Written just before the time of the First World War, the links between capitalism and militarism were also prominent in Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital. In the final part of this second section, we relate these observations to geopolitics today, flowing from the Iraq War and how at the centre of the capitalist landscape is a form of accumulation based on conflict and reconstruction.

While we assert that conceptually as well as empirically the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital retains contemporary relevance, we nevertheless also raise some critical reflections in order to assess better the possibilities but also the limits to drawing on it for the understanding of current processes of capitalist expansion. Paramount here is the way capitalist expansion into non-capitalist space is represented as an inexorable and structural development and the manner in which Luxemburg sees the imperative of the accumulation of capital solely in terms of the violent subjection of non-capitalist space to imperialist rivalries while ignoring other means whereby capitalism creates fresh room for accumulation.

Clear limits to The Accumulation of Capital exist. Nevertheless, over 100 years after the publication of the book, Luxemburg’s analyses of the creation and expansion of the hothouse conditions for capital accumulation and their expansion in non-capitalist spaces continues to speak to current mechanisms of neoliberal capitalist restructuring to affirm that her past concerns are also very much our concerns in the present.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. He co-edits Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with Gareth Bryant that was the recipient of the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.
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  • September 22, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Thank you Adam, for this article. In particular I am delighted by the parts dealing with the process of multiple authorship, and the collegial/communal production of an academic article in the humanities. Such research/writing is commonplace in the non-humanities, particularly the sciences, but not so in the humanities, and in academia I have encountered objections/criticism, even hostility, towards people who take the joint/multi-authorship path in the humanities. For some, apparently, joint-authorship can be taken as a sign of academic/scholarly weakness, a pointer to one not being able to produce work alone; to others, however, it can be evidence of collegiality, communality, and of value. Your account is therefore valuable, for asserting the value and positives of communal work, for its ‘daring’ in describing a model that involves multiple authors and not just ‘two’, and for your model’s involvement of PhD students as authors, people who tend to find publication difficult at the beginning of their scholarly lives. I salute the sort of generosity, leadership, and scholarly modelling involved here by the senior scholars. In short, a splendid and most welcome initiative, and piece.

  • January 29, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    Thank you Adam for your insights into Rosa Luxemburg and her relevance today. As for “the struggle against peasant economy in terms of proletarianisation, or how subsistence producers are forcibly converted into wage-slaves”, Egypt is a good example where the British Empire rigged whole commodities markets, forcing just about every Egyptian farmer in the 1860s to grow cotton. As Luxemburg describes it, everybody was planting cotton, including the Viceroy of Egypt himself.
    The cotton bubble crashed and then the British Empire turned to sugar cane to once again loot Egypt. “For a second time,” Luxemburg says, “Egyptian agriculture was turned upside-down. The peasants were driven to forced labor on the sugar plantations in the thousands.”
    The sugar venture collapsed and by 1874, Egypt’s total public debt had grown from £3 million to £94 million, and, as Luxemburg says, “collapse was imminent.” But at what cost? Around ten thousand Egyptian peasants starved in one year, as no longer being able to come up with the money for the irrigation tax for their fields, they had killed all of their cattle, to avoid paying it.
    At this same time in history from 1876 to 1878, seven million Indians died of starvation, as the British overlords exported food from the Subcontinent to feed the armies of the Empire.
    This story is more than relevant today as it is the same City of London banking families and institutions behind the current global financial crisis and, to be blunt and truthful, they intend to kill again. See http://www.larouchepub.com/eiw/public/2009/2009_30-39/2009_30-39/2009-32/pdf/26-33_3632.pdf for an interesting article on Rosa Luxemburg.

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