Rentism

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Bibliography

  • Žižek, Slavoj. The revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie. London Review of Books. 2012 Jan 26; 34(2):9–10.

Available from: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n02/slavoj-zizek/the-revolt-of-the-salaried-bourgeoisie. Žižek begins with the thesis that post-industrial capitalism no longer derives surplus value primarily from exploitation of wage labor, but rather from economic rents on privatized public goods, especially natural resources and (above all) intellectual property. Peter Frase, making a similar point in “Four futures”, refers to the resulting system not as capitalism but as rentism (although Žižek himself does not use this term). The shift from capitalism to rentism invalidates classical Marxist analyses of the inevitability of capitalist self-destruction, but leaves open the possibility that rentism may collapse for broadly analogous reasons. Žižek argues that since rentism does not require a substantial bourgeoisie, the former bourgeoisie are transformed into an essentially superfluous class of middle managers, who are paid a “surplus wage” not for services rendered but for the maintenance of social stability. Nevertheless, the lower levels of this “salaried bourgeoisie” are continually at risk of being pushed down into the proletariat, since there is a tendency for the very small rentist elite to concentrate wealth and power in their own hands by withdrawing the surplus wage. And since the rentist elite really has little use for the proletariat either, they tend to be reduced in turn to a nonproductive, marginalized Lumpenproletariat or underclass. The fear of losing the surplus wage and being reduced to the underclass can motivate a “revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie”, which is Žižek’s characterization of at least some of the popular revolts of 2011. But Žižek leaves open the possibility that an alliance among all of the increasingly dispossessed classes (salaried bourgeoisie, proletariat, and underclass) may lead to the final downfall of rentism.


  • Frase, Peter. Four futures. Jacobin. 2012 Winter; 5:27–34.

Available from: http://jacobinmag.com/winter-2012/four-futures/. [anchor]

Frase considers the endgame of our current political struggles, locating future scenarios along two axes: scarcity versus abundance, and social hierarchy versus equality. This yields four possibilities: communism (abundance with equality), rentism (abundance with hierarchy), socialism (scarcity with equality), and exterminism (scarcity with hierarchy). The rentist scenario reveals economic rents (return on use of owned property), rather than labor, as the dominant source of surplus value — especially rents on intellectual property. This analysis of rentism dovetails with similar insights in Žižek’s “The revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie”, and is applicable in the present, since the relevant economic changes are already occurring. In the most dystopian scenario, exterminism, the ruling class kills off the vast majority of the population in order to secure its continued enjoyment of privilege under conditions of global scarcity, a scenario chillingly anticipated by Hannah Arendt near the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem.