By Christine Berry
July 14 2021
In my last piece, we explored how a focus on asset ownership might add to our understanding of class and exploitation under modern capitalism. In this piece, we’ll ask what this means for the kind of politics and economy we need to build a more equal, less exploitative society.
Beyond the fixation with production
As we saw in my previous piece, there are opposing narratives about rent and financialisation which can be misleading in important ways. The ‘mainstream’ narrative tends to position these things as relatively new phenomena, fundamentally aberrations from the norm of productive, efficient market capitalism. The problem may be located in various places: the rise of ‘shareholder value mentality’ in contrast to a romanticised past where companies focused on long-term ‘fundamental value’; the ‘Big Bang’ and the rise of financialisation in contrast to a previous era where capitalism was concerned with ‘productive’ activity and banks behaved like the film It’s A Wonderful Life; the rise of monopolies and oligopolies in contrast to an imagined past when markets were truly competitive.
Of course, all these trends – shareholder value dogma, financialisation, monopolisation – are real. These narratives put their finger on something true and important about how neoliberalism has reshaped our economy since the 1980s. But they misdiagnose the root cause of the problem. By positioning these phenomena as deviations from the good functioning of market capitalism, they imply that the solution is to return to a more perfect version of this model: for instance, through more muscular competition policy. This misses the degree to which these trends are in fact the inevitable result of marketisation and privatisation. For instance, the natural result of unfettered market competition tends to be that successful firms consolidate their market power. Trying to hold back this process through competition policy alone is like trying to push water up a hill.
Moreover, the mythical past these narratives seek to revive never really existed. As we saw last time, capitalism has always been an intertwining of ‘productive’ and ‘rentier’ activity: it’s just that during the industrial era, the rent was largely being extracted from colonies, and was invisibilised in imperial centres. Keynes, too, positioned rentier activity as an aberration to be ‘euthanised’ in response to the excesses of the roaring ‘20s and the Wall Street Crash. But Lisa Adkins and her co-authors suggest that he made a mistake in clinging onto the idea that markets could be reshaped around the “true” long-term value of things, as opposed to a speculative “beauty contest”. He was “reluctant to accept” that this speculative game was “not a troubling divergence from foundational economic values but in fact the core logic of economic life” – at least under capitalism.
It is this mainstream narrative that orthodox Marxists are generally responding to when they argue that rent and financialisation are a distraction from the true problem – the exploitation of wage-labour – and the true solution, which is to democratise the means of production. They fear, correctly, that naming parasitical rentier activity as the problem risks implying that the profit extracted from workers by company owners in the ‘normal’ course of capitalist business is somehow not parasitical. But in doing so, they overplay the distinction between ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ or ‘rentier’ activity – mirroring their opponents by insisting that the productive sphere is the real source of exploitation, and everything else is secondary. This also leads them to dismiss heterodox stories about inequality, rent and financialisation – such as those told by thinkers like Thomas Piketty and, more recently, Brett Christophers – which are rooted in a very different understanding of the economy from the mainstream narrative, and which have more radical implications.
When mainstream commentators talk about ‘rent’, they are often using the orthodox definition of ‘income in excess of opportunity cost’. To simplify, this implies that there is a ‘natural’ or ‘fair’ rate of profit that accrues when markets are working properly, but that rentiers can extract ‘excess’ profit on top of this when markets become monopolised, or when they have information advantages over others. But as heterodox analyses have helpfully demonstrated, there is an older, more intuitive definition of ‘rent’ as income arising from the control of assets which are scarce or monopolised: in other words, from ownership. Although this originally referred mainly to ownership of land and natural resources (for Marx as well as for other classical economists), today we can extend the argument to ownership of the money supply by banks, of intellectual property by big pharma companies, and of platforms by the likes of Uber and Amazon. This perspective does not conflict with an insistence on democratising ownership of productive capital; it is complementary to it. Indeed, it arguably includes it. But it encourages us to take a wider perspective on what we need to democratise and who should own it.
Who are the citizens of the democratic economy?
If exploitation is plural, then democratisation must be plural as well. In particular, traditional left solutions focusing on state or worker ownership need to be augmented by ideas around wider ‘commoning’: the ownership and governance of shared resources by those with a stake in them. Moving in this direction helps to fine tune our political activity according to the real state of things, giving us a clear view of the playing field, and who our allies and opponents are.
Such ‘commoning’ will often include worker control, but is not necessarily synonymous with it. In highly rentierised sectors with a small number of highly paid knowledge workers – such as banking, pharma or tech – the customer relationship is the key site of exploitation and value extraction: employee ownership in these sectors probably wouldn’t get us very far. The recent fall-out from the European Super League debacle is another obvious case in point: nobody seriously suggests that football clubs should be owned solely by the players, because we intuitively understand that the people with the greatest and most enduring stake in football are the fans. Nor is democratic ownership synonymous with state ownership. Some things will be best dealt with through large-scale public ownership, especially capital-intensive systems that the entire public depends on – say, offshore wind or pharmaceuticals – but others will not. Nonetheless, building the commons will usually require some kind of state intervention or involvement, whether through regulation, tax and subsidies, or co-ownership and investment – as proposed by the pioneers of ‘public-common partnerships’.
As an example, let’s think about the digital economy. In an ideal world, democratic ownership of Facebook would probably be best achieved through some kind of user-owned co-operative. Few would want to put this massive surveillance infrastructure in the hands of the state, but worker ownership would not do much to resolve the biggest inequity in Facebook’s business model – its ‘assetisation’ of our attention and our data. Commons-based approaches such as ‘data trusts’ are also emerging as the preferred way of owning and governing data itself, balancing our interests in protecting our identity with society’s interests in harnessing big data’s potential. Meanwhile, access to the internet itself is increasingly recognised as an essential good, and should arguably be reimagined as a publicly-owned utility. These new forms of ownership would almost certainly still need to go alongside more muscular state intervention to protect our privacy and limit the power of platforms to extract rent from data – for instance, by curbing surveillance advertising.
Democratising the means to a good life
Does it make sense to think of all this as ‘democratising the means of production’? Maybe. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here. But somehow I don’t think so. Let’s take care as an example. The whole language of production and productivity is fundamentally inappropriate to the care sector – implying as it does that ‘value’ is created by more efficiently transforming labour into output. But you can’t care ‘faster’: the only way to improve labour productivity in the care sector is to bear down on time, relationships and therefore quality. And when Facebook sells an advertiser access to your timeline, what is really being ‘produced, and by whom? We need a feminist political economy perspective that is not just about production but about provisioning: how we provide each other with the things we need to live a good life. And it’s the means of provisioning, not just the means of production, that we need to democratise.
This is all the more important in the context of recent contributions from ecological economics about growth dependency. Often on the left, we implicitly carry in our heads a model of the economy as essentially a system of factories connected by markets. In this model, ‘democratising the means of production’ would enable everyone to benefit from the expansion of society’s productive forces – in other words, to be materially richer and more free at work. But if we have already expanded those productive forces beyond what the Earth can sustain, then increasing the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ that we have, and accelerating the rate at which we produce it, ought not to be the goal of a post-capitalist society. Rather, the aim is to get within what Kate Raworth calls the ‘doughnut’, or Tim Jackson’s idea of the “post-growth society” – where everyone can enjoy the means of a good life within ecological limits.
But let’s be under no illusions: there is simply no way we can do this without taking on the corporate owners who currently act as gatekeepers to the means of a good life – be that care, a decent home, clean energy, medicines, transport or digital connectivity. This also matters because we want to be free not just in our capacity as workers, but in all the other many and varied identities we occupy throughout our lives: as carers and people needing care, as inhabitants of our homes, our communities and our planet. And the business models of the ownership economy currently drastically curtail this freedom. The owners of our imaginary co-operative Facebook, for instance, might not decide to share amongst themselves the vast returns of being tracked around the internet and bombarded with adverts, but to eliminate these practices altogether.
For these reasons, the project of democratising asset ownership needs to be meshed with the idea of ‘universal basic services’ (UBS), or basic economic rights. Trying to implement UBS without tackling extractive ownership would be inordinately expensive – probably unsustainably so – to the public purse and would do nothing to address concentrations of wealth and power or the growth dependency that goes with them. Conversely, democratising ownership without providing an expanded range of utilities free at the point of use will not alone be enough to ensure everyone the means of a good life and redress inequalities. We would risk ending up with either a highly unequal patchwork of community-led provision, or a kind of ‘state rentier capitalism’ which reinforces the logic of the existing system rather than dismantling it. We don’t just want the state (or workers, or anyone else) to capture the rents that currently flow to the private actors who control life’s essentials: in many cases, we want to eliminate those rents altogether, changing the very circuitry of our economy. Public and common ownership in pharmaceuticals, for instance, would not aim to socialise the wildly excessive profits of big pharma, but to reduce them by challenging patent monopolies and bringing down the cost of medicines.
Of course, all this is rather abstract and utopian – deliberately so, because I am trying to help us think more systematically about the world we want to see. In my next piece, I’ll be asking what this might mean for us right now, and what kinds of political practice could help us build this democratic future. To explore this, we’ll focus more specifically on an area exposed by the pandemic as both vitally important and deeply broken: the UK care sector.
Christine Berry is an Autonomy Writer in Residence. She is incoming Director of IPPR North, and is based in Manchester. She is a Trustee of Rethinking Economics, a Fellow of the Democracy Collaborative and a Contributing Editor of Renewal journal. Previously she was Director of Policy and Government at the New Economics Foundation. She is currently writing a book on democratic ownership as part of the answer to rentier capitalism (Verso, 2022).