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In economic terms the phrase “accumulation of capital” refers to the gathering of objects of value and the amassing or creation of wealth. This capital can take different forms, such as production capital (in the form of industrial assets), money capital (in the form of financial assets), and commodity capital (real estate, precious metals, or art, for example).
Accumulation can be seen as a pathology afflicting consumer-driven societies as well as the natural environment. Capitalism both depends on and fosters the drive toward accumulation by creating imaginary promises of happiness and ‘freedom’ through consumption, and by identifying needs we did not know we had. Karl Marx called this “the multiplication of needs” (2005:308); mobile phones would be a good recent example. The logic of accumulation has infected the fundamental experience of contemporary life, influencing our desires and imaginations as well as human relationships, all of which have become ‘new territories’ for capitalist expansion and the accumlulation of wealth. Despite the current crisis of capitalism, its end does not appear to be in immediate sight. And that is because, in the words of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, it has “an inbuilt wondrous capacity of resurrection and regeneration; though this is capacity of a kind shared with parasites [...] After a complete or near-complete exhaustion of one host organism, a parasite tends and manages to find another, that would supply it with life juices for a successive, albeit also limited, stretch of time” (2011). The ‘parasite’ will only die when it has run out of host organisms on which to feed. In the meantime it will proceed apace, unless it is derailed by a political sea change. Incidentally, in her seminal and prophetic book The Accumulation of Captial (1913), Rosa Luxemburg also wrote about the role of state violence in colluding with the expansion of capitalism. With billions of dollars’ worth of natural resources still hidden beneath the earth’s surface (one of the largest mining developments is currently under way in the Gobi desert in Mongolia), capitalism’s viral contagiousness and its production of new territories for itself (the financial products that caused the current crisis, for example) will continue unabated, and so, therefore, will the process of accumulation: of wealth, as well as waste. The latter is a form of ‘toxic’ accumulation: from the wastelands of decommissioned mines and noxious fumes belching out of factory chimneys, to mercury in the oceans, accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and other poisonous elements in the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans. KG