Accumulation and Jurisdiction

by | 23 Nov 2022

One of Rosa Luxemburg’s great contributions was her insistence that capitalism, even beyond its prehistory, remains far from the realm of peaceful competition. In fact she famously argued the contrary; that violence only grows with the development of global capitalism.[1] By recovering primitive accumulation as an ongoing process (whether or not one thinks it was lost in Capital in the first place), Luxemburg reveals how elements of force and coercion are structural components of capitalist reproduction, a point that has been deployed by numerous scholars interested in the continuities in capitalist violence across time. Some, like Étienne Balibar, have gone so far as to treat Luxemburg as a theorist of the nature of violence, alongside thinkers like Benjamin.[2]Luxemburg certainly paid sharp attention to capitalism’s need to reconstitute its conditions for accumulation ‘in blood and mud’, but her theory of accumulation is equally unique for its attention to the ways imperialist states produce legal and political frameworks to delimit and even restrain violence.[3] Capital certainly arrives dripping from head to toe in blood and filth, but at every turn requires new means to sanction its terror.

Luxemburg did not live to see many of the humanitarian transformations in the international laws of war, propelled in large part by the very war she so opposed. Still, she observed quite clearly the historical tendency for political and legal reforms to blunt the sharper edges of imperialism in order to sustain its endless drive. In Algeria for instance, ‘where it had been impossible to institute private property by force,’ new legal experiments were necessary to enable French and native capitalists to ‘further disrupt and exploit the hereditary and clan lands’.[4] In other words, primitive accumulation is not solely the process by which extra-economic force secures new territory for exploitation, but a process by which states capture political crises to expand and reproduce capitalist order. As a ‘relation between capital and a non-capitalist environment’, accumulation relies on but is theoretically and practically distinct from what Luxemburg described as the ‘method of violence’ of colonial regimes.[5]

This is not to say that the arc of capitalist development bends toward peace, but neither should the violence of imperialism be treated solely in terms of its persistence and continuity at every historical stage (Luxemburg was, in any case, a ‘stagist’, for whom imperialism was not the general expression of capitalism, but the death knell of its historical career).[6] Rather, accumulation always relies on the political coordination and displacement of violence in order to reinforce the political authority of the state. By examining the ‘jurisdictional’ dimensions of capitalism’s confrontation with the non-capitalist world, Luxemburg’s work signals the importance of reconciling patterns of violence with the consolidation and development of the rule of law.


Jurisdiction (literally, to speak the law) can be understood as the authority required for legal decision-making and judicial review.[7] As both a measure of legal right and a means of inhibiting private and state action, jurisdiction plays a special role in the distribution and consolidation of state power. Borrowing Maïa Pal’s terminology, we might call the historical development of this judicial function ‘jurisdictional accumulation’ – indicating an internal dependence of states on legal progress for the accumulation of capital. Pal defines jurisdictional accumulation as ‘[a] set of practices in which sub-sovereign actors in the history of international relations and international law were engaged in different means of claiming and establishing authority and defining class struggles and geopolitical dynamics of class

Reproduction’.[8]  While Pal develops this concept to describe emergent social property relations in the early modern Mediterranean region, Luxemburg helps to explain the persistence of these historical practices and their relationship to recurrent capitalist crises. Though Luxemburg was not so concerned with the development of legal orders per se, her historical accounts of primitive accumulation attest to the need to politically and juridically institute capitalist relations in the colonial world to enable the reproduction of certain classes, property rights, and mechanisms of enforcement. That this process of imperialism proceeds through violence is not in itself what characterises the colonial encounter, but the manner in which the imposition of bourgeois social relations onto the colonies is simultaneous with political efforts to sequester illegitimate violence to some realm outside of official statecraft, making ‘capital’s blustering violence […] more or less incidental to foreign policy and quite independent of the economic sphere’.[9] This is not merely a matter of sustaining the legitimacy of capitalism by packaging it as the peaceful market competition between individuals and states. Rather, jurisdiction, as an inhibition on state power, serves as a political resolution to the conflicting exigencies of capitalist expansion.

These exigencies are more easily illustrated when Luxemburg is read alongside Machiavelli, one of the early theorists of the foundational violence of the law. Machiavelli casts history as a series of ruptures in political and legal authority that allow for the establishment of new political orders. For conquest to precipitate order, the conqueror must tie the ‘empirical fact of military defeat […] [to] a legal and moral claim, to a legal title to rule’.[10] This process is beset by the internal contradictions of deriving political authority from the act of military subjection. Yves Winter describes this as ‘the paradox of conquest [which] concerns the tendency of conquest to negate its own principle’.[11] Conquerors face a strategic, political paradox: though aimed at establishing political continuity, conquest is antithetical to it. Conquerors must suspend political legitimacy based on custom and tradition, while relying on it just the same. It is for this reason that successful conquest depends on a precious mixture of force and myth, on the conqueror’s military victory and his ability to substantiate a lack of lineage by ‘appearing ancient’.[12] In order to deauthorize future conquests, the prince cultivates political authority in the symbolic realm, helping to negate the very basis of his new princedom – the principle of violent overthrow as a legitimate mechanism of political change.

Luxemburg lends a materialism to Machiavelli’s political theory. In a similar manner that Machiavelli frames the conflicting imperatives of founding a state and maintaining one, Luxemburg’s theory of capitalist accumulation is organised around a corresponding contradiction entailed in expanded reproduction: imperialism’s ‘boundless expansionist drive and the limit capital creates for itself through progressive destruction of all other forms of production’.[13] As much as the prince’s political continuity relies on its historical rupture, capitalism’s persistence is only possible by metabolising the non-capitalist sphere. This is orchestrated not solely through force but through the elimination of political, legal, and social customs to consecrate the rights and authorities enshrined in private property. Whereas ‘appearing ancient’ prevents future conquerors from dethroning the prince by the same means, capitalism must securitise imperialist expansion by embedding its violence in legal process, thereby undermining the principle of violence as a permissible means of transferring political authority.

Luxemburg illustrates the jurisdictional face of primitive accumulation in her analysis of the international loans system in Egypt. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, French and British capital provided immense loans to finance the industrialisation of various Egyptian markets such as sugar. Requiring modern technology to meet the infrastructural needs of mass production and distribution, Egypt uses these loans to purchase commodities of imperial origin. The venture ultimately collapses, as ‘the fellah, accustomed to forced labour on the land, could not be transformed overnight into a modern industrial worker by the lash of the whip’.[14] Interest on the loans must then be paid through taxes on the peasantry who begin to kill their cattle and fell their date palms to avoid oppressive taxation, but are eventually forced to flee their villages entirely. Unable to discipline the peasants, and eventually the army, nor to pay its growing interest, the Egyptian ruling class soon finds regulators landing in Alexandria, commencing British occupation. Ecclesiastical lands and private estates of the Khedive are requisitioned to pay the public debt, and the peasants, having laid waste to their traditional modes of subsistence, are newly available as wage labourers. This is how, as Luxemburg describes it, European capital swallows the peasant economy.[15]

Luxemburg uses this example to demonstrate how, in the province of militarism, expansions in the capitalist market do not seem to rely on the regular historical, social and political factors typically ‘beyond the control of capital’.[16] Rather, new operational bases for capital are established by manufacturing unsustainable legal and economic relations of dependence.[17] What appears as an absurdity of capitalism, that it could somehow realise surplus value by financing the purchase of its own commodities, serves the very rational purpose of suspending political order to make room for imperial manoeuvre. Jurisdictional accumulation, here characterised by the intensification of legal obligations of indebtedness, eventually obliterates other legal conventions such as the Egyptian state’s ‘unrestricted right of disposal’ over the serfs, making way for new juridical relations, such as the wage.

Limiting Luxemburg’s analysis of primitive accumulation to the continuity of violence beyond capitalism’s prehistory ignores her repeated insistence that Marxists treat states not just as ‘mercenaries’ but also as consumers – here, of goods and services that preserve the organs of rule while footing the bill to the working class and peasantry. Central to The Accumulation of Capital is the conclusion that militarism expresses unique contradictions internal to capitalist states during the final historical stage of imperialism. Militarism’s task is to mediate between the depression of wages at home and the tapping of further markets abroad. Fulfilling this dual role within a competitive international political field requires the periodic invention of new legal conventions to institutionalise and regulate the dynamics of militarism for the reproduction of domination.

To say that jurisdiction ‘accumulates’ is not to analogise the proliferation of international legal codes or the acquisition of new legal instruments (such as titles, deeds, or contracts) to the accumulation of capital. Rather, Pal’s notion of jurisdictional accumulation can be thought of as a method of capitalist reproduction alongside others that Luxemburg notes, namely, ‘colonial policy, an international loan system […] and war.’[18] Like these methods, jurisdictional accumulation operates to secure a non-capitalist environment in order to ‘widen the scope for the accumulation of capital’[19]; We might even elaborate from here, that the rule of law would enter into a kind of a crisis without new realms of lawlessness and new spheres of interest for legal regulation and enforcement. Unlike the other methods listed, jurisdictional accumulation is unique in that it operates also as a check on state power and therefore can resolve some of the instabilities of perpetuating the use of force in a competitive international political field. 

[1] “With the high development of the capitalist countries and their increasingly severe competition in acquiring non-capitalist areas, imperialism grows in lawlessness and violence, both in aggression against the non-capitalist world and in ever more serious conflicts among the competing capitalist countries.” Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, Routledge, 2003, p. 426.

[2] Étienne Balibar, Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy, Columbia University Press, 2015, p. 104. 

[3] Id. 87.

[4] Luxemburg, Accumulation of Capital, p. 364-365.

[5] Id., pp. 351, 398.

[6] Id. 398.


[8] Maïa Pal, Jurisdictional Accumulation: An Early Modern History of Law, Empires and Capital.

Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2021, p. 101

[9]  Luxemburg, Accumulation of Capital, p. 433.

[10]  “Conquest,” Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon, 1 2011

[11] Id.

[12]  Machiavelli, The Prince, XXIV, 96

[13] Rosa Luxemburg, Anti-Critique

[14]  Luxemburg, Accumulation of Capital, 413


[16]  Id. 446

[17] Ibid.

[18]  Id. 432

[19]  Id. 401


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