Rentier Capitalism: Who owns the economy and who pays for it?

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Rentier Capitalism is an autopsy report for a decomposing corpse. Christophers clinically dissects a corrupted body, before arriving at a probable cause of death. Of course, capitalism is still with us, but for those wanting to understand the system more, the better and sooner to end it, this book is essential reading.

In the Autumn Statement, chancellor Rishi Sunak made it clear that working-class people will be expected to pay the financial as well as the health price for Covid-19. But, the real money is thriving.

In October, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google posted combined quarterly profits of £29 billion. They’re also thieving £427 billion a year from the UK tax system — worth one nurse’s annual salary every second!

Rentier Capitalism explains that these figures are the product of a fundamental and deliberate restructuring of capitalism to create what economist José Palma described in 2009 as a “rentier delight”.

The book encourages us to expand our understanding of rent, which perhaps we only think of in relation to housing, in order to embrace “income derived from the ownership, possession or control of scarce assets under conditions of limited or no competition”.

In an excellent introduction, Christophers lists seven areas of the UK economy where rentierism has been allowed to run wild: banking and finance; natural resources; intellectual property; employment; outsourcing; infrastructure; real estate. He identifies four conditions for the rise of the rentier: privatisation; a policy-friendly environment; a permissive tax and monetary system; a rise in the market value of rented assets.

One inevitable result of this economic framework is greater social inequality. This structural shift is not confined to the UK, but Christophers argues that the historic dynamics of the UK economy mean “the rivers of rentierism run extremely deep”.

However, he notes the foundation of the welfare state and nationalisation of key industries diluted the power of the UK capitalist class to generate huge private profits by “having, rather than doing”.

This started to change with the advent of neoliberalism that – a process that was more pronounced in the UK than in other capitalist countries.

Christophers also refers to EP Thompson’s prescient analysis of the neoliberal shift and his suggestion that the growing fixation with the financialisation of everything seeped into the upper echelons of the labour and trade union movement.

The book provides many detailed examples. But I would argue the single most significant feature of the rise of UK rentier capitalism is what’s happened to land and housing.

Christophers devotes a chapter to the subject and, building on his 2018 book The New Enclosure, he recounts the shocking statistic that in the last four decades 8 percent (1.6 million hectares) of UK land has been transferred from public to private ownership, while the price of land has risen exponentially.

This, literally, formed the groundwork for restoring private landlords to the virtual monopoly position they enjoyed until council housing offered an alternative. Christophers focuses on ‘right to buy’ (RTB) as the keystone of this movement, with 40 percent of the 1.9 million former council homes sold and now rented privately.

Although some may question the value of creating a theoretical distinction between rentierism and profit, this book has many important insights and is extremely well researched and referenced.

Rentier Capitalism: Who owns the economy and who pays for it?
Brett Christophers