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Crises of Capitalism

Twentieth-century interpretations of Marx’s theory of capital have sought to account for the social and economic crises that have accompanied the geographical expansion of capitalist production.

With her book The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Rosa Luxemburg was among the first to point out capitalism’s reliance on the penetration of non-capitalist geographies (e.g., colonies, unconquered territories, etc.) to create new markets necessary for the system’s perpetuation. Technological innovations such as the modern steam engine – fuelled, of course, by coal – have been critical factors in the continuous quest to realize the value of capital invested in commodities by exchanging them in an ever wider sphere. Luxemburg also identified capitalism’s recourse to imperialism, militarism and the war machine as necessary consequences of its internal drive toward expansion and global consolidation. She criticized Marx’s failure to find a solution to counter the accumulation of capital, an impasse with which we are now faced today, for environmental as well as social and economic reasons.

As the intervening century has revealed, however, the inexorable advance of capitalism across the face of the planet does not occur in a homogeneous fashion. It has resulted in uneven rates of development within the world market (Lenin 1963), transforming peripheral, non-capitalist societies into veritable laboratories wherein to experiment with different strategies for alleviating the pressures of over-accumulation. This has led to a variety of different forms of relations between centre and periphery (see for example Frank 1969). More recent theories of capitalist accumulation thus conceive of periodic crises of over-accumulation as necessary to the survival of the system: “Since there are no other equilibrating forces at work within the competitive anarchy of the capitalist economic system, crises have an important function – they enforce some kind of order and rationality onto capitalist economic development” (Harvey 1975: 10). KG & CMF