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Accumulation by dispossession

The transition to capitalism has often been preceded by land appropriation by large private landowners and/or by the state, through different kinds of ‘enclosure movements’, physical as well as legal. The English version of this process was defined by Polanyi (1944) as a ‘revolution of the rich’. In Cameroon for example, Western law allowed the colonial administration to secure access to natural resources by transforming customary common pool resources into state property. This phenomenon has led to an unequal repartition of property rights allowing capitalist accumulation through the dispossession of local communities (Harvey, 2003). A Western-type property regime is indeed central in the functioning of capitalism itself by standardising the economic system, by fixing the economic potential of resources in order to allow credit and selling contracts, and by protecting (by armed force if needed) property and transactions (Heinsohn and Steiger, 2003).

Today, the approach of standard economics still emphasizes the necessity to extend a Western-type property system to all kind of goods and services in order to ensure growth and even sustainability. Surprisingly, such policies still frequently refer to Hardin‘s (1968) ‘tragedy of the commons’, which confuses regimes of open access with those of common property. According to Hardin, private/state property would supposedly allow the conservation of natural resources due to the clear definition of rights and duties. However, this theory has been criticized (Ostrom, 1990). The important point is to achieve a correct match between institutions, and the cultural and biophysical environments. Indeed, anthropological studies have shown that societies have often developed institutions regulating access rights to natural resources and duties between the different community members in order to ensure the social functioning of the group and the management of natural resources (Berkes, 1999). Thus, the transformation of common pool resources into state and private property – such as in Cameroon – has often been socially unequal and ecologically unsustainable.

Ecological historian Alf Hornborg (1998: 133) has defined three factors entering into any process of industrial accumulation: (1) the social institutions which regulate exchange; (2) the direction of net flows of energy and materials; and (3) the symbolic systems which ultimately define exchange values and exchange rates. So far, we have discussed the first two factors: first, how a Western-style property regime has become the official set of institutions legitimating and providing the colonial state – and then the independent state – the legal capacity to make claims over other people‘s resources; and secondly, how today‘s control over the flows of timber is carried out by a limited number of economic actors. Later, we shall tackle inter alia the symbolic system – the dominant ‘language of valuation’ – that imposes unjust monetary exchange values to the detriment of other value systems.


Berkes, F. (1999) Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management. Taylor and Francis, Philadelphia, PA, 209 pp.

Hardin, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162:1243-1248 1968.

Harvey, D. (2003) The new imperialism. Oxford University Press. New York.

Heinsohn, G., & Steiger, O. (2003). The European Central Bank and the eurosystem: An analysis of the missing central monetary institution in European Monetary Union (No. B 09-2003). ZEI working paper.

Hornborg, A. (1998) Towards an ecological theory of unequal exchange: articulating world system theory and ecological economics. Ecological Economics, 25(1), 127-136.

Ostrom, E. (1990) Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press.

Polanyi, K. (1944) The great transformation: Economic and political origins of our time. Rinehart, New York.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Julien Francois Gerber

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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