Primitive accumulation is a powerful idea and undoubtedly captures something crucial about the functioning of global capitalism. However, it has also limitations in the contemporary context. It implies that there is an “external nature”, an outside to the circuits of capitalist valorization that can be discovered, plundered and expropriated for free. Whereas in the early phases of capitalism such virgin territories still existed for venture capitalists to discover and plunder, such outsides are hard to find today. Venture capitalism has been forced to take new forms.
In 1980, in a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court allowed the granting of a patent for a genetically engineered bacterium. Since then intellectual property rights have been established in multicellular entities like mice, in immortalized cell lines based on adult human tissue, in embryonic stem cell lines, and in genetic sequences. Biological entities have come be conceived as intellectual property and this has transformed biomedical research into a lucrative area of investment for the increasingly mobile forms of finance and venture capital (Waldby and Mitchell 2007, 24). In other words, life itself has become an accumulation strategy.