Becoming-Rent of Profit

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Rachel O’Dwyer:

The communism of capital is characterised by a return and proliferation of forms of rent (Vercellone, 2010). Rent is the revenue that can be extracted from exclusive ownership of a resource, where value is contingent on its availability with respect to demand (Harvey, 2001). Industrial capitalism concerned direct intervention in the production process, and subsequently in the generation of profit. In industrial capitalism, therefore, rent is characterised as external to production and distinct from profit. Industrial capitalism constituted a shifting emphasis from immobile to movable property, corresponding to a shift from primitive accumulation towards profit. Rent was largely understood as a pre-capitalist legacy, traditionally associated with immobile forms of property such as land. Where ‘rent’ is the primary locus of value, the rentier is thought to be external to the production of value, merely extracting the economic rent produced by other means. The generation of profit, in contrast, requires the direct intervention of the capitalist in the production and circulation of material commodities. It is associated with the ability to generate and extract surplus (Vercellone, 2008, 2010). This transformation from rent to profit, many theorists argue, is emblematic of a passage from primitive accumulation to capitalist productive power in industrial capitalism (Hardt, 2010). In contrast, capitalist accumulation is today characterised by a shift from the productive forms of capitalism that characterised the industrial era towards new modalities in which rent is no longer cast in opposition to profit. Through the growing role of property in extracting value from a position external to production, and the manipulation of the social and political environment in which economic activities occur, such as the management of scarcity and the increasingly speculative nature of capital itself, the core tenets of ‘rent’ are confused with ‘profit’. This is described in the Post-Operaismo theory of the ‘becoming-rent of profit’, an economic theory specular to the communism of capital.

Rent, as Pasquinelli (2008) maintains, is the flipside of the commons. Through the rent applied over proprietary frameworks that flank the digital commons, the material surplus of immaterial labour is opened to extraction. Spectrum, in this case, like a monopoly over knowledge, decision engines, storage or processing capacities, provides the owner of that informational resource with the opportunity to leverage this property in order to extract value from a position external to its production. Where wireless transmissions are concerned, underpinning this process is the reification and subsequent rarefaction of radio signals – the commodification of electromagnetic transmissions followed by progressive arguments for the necessity of institutional regulation, first through state bodies, and later, increasingly through enterprise.

The becoming-rent of profit: Enclosure

Enclosure of the digital commons operates through the dual processes of dispossession and deregulation of these architectures (Dyer-Witheford, 1999; Hardt and Negri, 2009). To secure cooperation, capital must first appropriate the communicative capacities of the labour force. Common tools are appropriated and filtered through administrative channels, at which point they are once again distributed as part of the services capital must deliver to the labour force in order to ensure its ongoing development. But how does enclosure operate over something as intangible as electromagnetic spectrum? Throughout the history of radio communications, a variety of apparatuses that perform this enclosure can be identified, at turns semantic, technical and juridical.

The becoming-rent of profit: The production of scarcity

Beyond the enclosure of the commons, the survival of exchange value is increasingly contingent on the destruction of non-renewable scarce resources and/or the creation of an artificial scarcity where these goods are by nature non-rival and reproducible. Enclosure and scarcity go hand in hand; there is no chronology as such. The extraction of rent is dynamic and these elements, which are separated for clarity in this paper, are in reality entangled, imbricated and mutually enforcing.

According to Vercellone (2010), resources on which rentier appropriation is based today do not tend to increase with rent; indeed they do exactly the opposite. To quote Napoleoni’s (1956) definition, rent is ‘the revenue that the owner of certain goods receives as a consequence of the fact that these goods, are, or become, available in scarce quantities’ (quoted in Vercellone, 2010: 95). Rent is thus linked to the artificial scarcity of a resource, and to a logic of rarefaction, as in the case of monopolies. Rent, therefore, leverages monopolistic or oligopolistic forms of property, and positions of political power that facilitate the manufacture of scarcity. Scarcity in the digital commons is induced by a variety of juridical artefacts such as intellectual property or digital rights management in the case of digital content, and through a combination of rhetorical devices and technological or juridical regulations in the case of electromagnetic spectrum." (