From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

= unearned income—the excess of market price over intrinsic cost. Economic rent taken by landlords, monopolists, and financial institutions has no counterpart in the technological requirements of production, but stems from legal and historical privileges that privatize the free gifts of nature or permit monopolistic power to charge access fees over cost for the use of basic infrastructure [1]


Michael Hudson:

"Patten retained the classical definition of rent as unearned income—the excess of market price over intrinsic cost. Economic rent taken by landlords, monopolists, and financial institutions has no counterpart in the technological requirements of production, but stems from legal and historical privileges that privatize the free gifts of nature or permit monopolistic power to charge access fees over cost for the use of basic infrastructure. Patten believed that economies should minimize the cost of living and doing business by becoming as rent-free as possible, socializing monopolies outright, or at least taxing land, mining, and other natural resources, and regulating prices to minimize unnecessary rentier charges." (


David Harvey

"All rent is based on the monopoly power of private owners of certain portions of the globe. Monopoly rent arises because social actors can realize an enhanced income stream over an extended time by virtue of their exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradable item which is in some crucial respects unique and non-replicable. There are two situations in which the category of monopoly rent comes to the fore. The first arises because social actors control some special quality resource, commodity or location which, in relation to a certain kind of activity, enables them to extract monopoly rents from those desiring to use it. In the realm of production, Marx argues, the most obvious example is the vineyard producing wine of extraordinary quality that can be sold at a monopoly price. In this circumstance ‘the monopoly price creates the rent'.3 The locational version would be centrality (for the commercial capitalist) relative to, say, the transport and communications network or proximity (for the hotel chain) to some highly concentrated activity (such as a financial centre). The commercial capitalist and the hotelier are willing to pay a premium for the land because of accessibility. These are the indirect cases of monopoly rent. It is not the land, resource or location of unique qualities which is traded but the commodity or service produced through their use. In the second case, the land or resource is directly traded upon (as when vineyards or prime real estate sites are sold to multinational capitalists and financiers for speculative purposes). Scarcity can be created by withholding the land or resource from current uses and speculating on future values. Monopoly rent of this sort can be extended to ownership of works of art (such as a Rodin or a Picasso) which can be (and increasingly are) bought and sold as investments. It is the uniqueness of the Picasso or the site which here forms the basis for the monopoly price.

The two forms of monopoly rent often intersect. A vineyard (with its unique Chateau and beautiful physical setting) renowned for its wines can be traded at a monopoly price directly as can the uniquely flavoured wines produced on that land. A Picasso can be purchased for capital gain and then leased to someone else who puts it on view for a monopoly price. The proximity to a financial centre can be traded directly as well as indirectly to, say, the hotel chain that uses it for its own purposes. But the difference between the two rental forms is important. It is unlikely (though not impossible), for example, that Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace will be traded directly (even the most ardent privatizers might balk at that). But they can be and plainly are traded upon through the marketing practices of the tourist industry (or in the case of Buckingham Palace, by the Queen).

Two contradictions attach to the category of monopoly rent. Both of them are important to the argument that follows.

First, while uniqueness and particularity are crucial to the definition of ‘special qualities', the requirement of tradability means that no item can be so unique or so special as to be entirely outside the monetary calculus. The Picasso has to have a money value as does the Monet, the Manet, the aboriginal art, the archaeological artefacts, the historic buildings, the ancient monuments, the Buddhist temples, and the experience of rafting down the Colorado, being in Istanbul or on top of Everest. There is, as is evident from such a list, a certain difficulty of ‘market formation' here. For while markets have formed around works of art and, to some degree around archaeological artefacts (there are some well-documented cases, as with Australian Aboriginal art, of what happens when some art form gets drawn into the market sphere) there are plainly several items on this list that are hard to incorporate directly into a market (this is the problem with Westminster Abbey). Many items may not even be easy to trade upon indirectly. The contradiction here is that the more easily marketable such items become the less unique and special they appear. In some instances the marketing itself tends to destroy the unique qualities (particularly if these depend on qualities such as wilderness, remoteness, the purity of some aesthetic experience, and the like). More generally, to the degree that such items or events are easily marketable (and subject to replication by forgeries, fakes, imitations or simulacra) the less they provide a basis for monopoly rent. I am put in mind here of the student who complained about how inferior her experience of Europe was compared to Disney World:

At Disney World all the countries are much closer together, and they show you the best of each country. Europe is boring. People talk strange languages and things are dirty. Sometimes you don't see anything interesting in Europe for days, but at Disney World something different happens all the time and people are happy. It's much more fun. It's well designed.4

While this sounds a laughable judgement it is sobering to reflect on how much Europe is attempting to redesign itself to Disney standards (and not only for the benefit of American tourists). But, and here is the heart of the contradiction, the more Europe becomes Disneyfied, the less unique and special it becomes. The bland homogeneity that goes with pure commodification erases monopoly advantages. Cultural products become no different from commodities in general. ‘The advanced transformation of consumer goods into corporate products or “trade mark articles” that hold a monopoly on aesthetic value', writes Wolfgang Haug, ‘has by and large replaced the elementary or “generic” products', so that ‘commodity aesthetics' extends its border ‘further and further into the realm of cultural industries'.5 Conversely, every capitalist seeks to persuade consumers of the unique and non-replicable qualities of their commodities (hence name-brands, advertising, and the like). Pressures from both sides threaten to squeeze out the unique qualities that underlie monopoly rents. If the latter are to be sustained and realized, therefore, some way has to be found to keep some commodities or places unique and particular enough (and I will later reflect on what this might mean) to maintain a monopolistic edge in an otherwise commodified and often fiercely competitive economy.

But why, in a neoliberal world where competitive markets are supposedly dominant, would monopoly of any sort be tolerated let alone be seen as desirable? We here encounter the second contradiction which, at root, turns out to be a mirror image of the first. Competition, as Marx long ago observed, always tends towards monopoly (or oligopoly) simply because the survival of the fittest in the war of all against all eliminates the weaker firms.6 The fiercer the competition the faster the trend towards oligopoly if not monopoly. It is therefore no accident that the liberalization of markets and the celebration of market competition in recent years has produced incredible centralization of capital (Microsoft, Rupert Murdoch, Bertelsmann, financial services, and a wave of takeovers, mergers and consolidations in airlines, retailing and even in older industries like automobiles, petroleum, and the like). This tendency has long been recognized as a troublesome feature of capitalist dynamics, hence the anti-trust legislation in the United States and the work of the monopolies and mergers commissions in Europe. But these are weak defences against an overwhelming force.

This structural dynamic would not have the importance it does were it not for the fact that capitalists actively cultivate monopoly powers. They thereby realize far-reaching control over production and marketing and hence stabilize their business environment to allow of rational calculation and long-term planning, the reduction of risk and uncertainty, and more generally guarantee themselves a relatively peaceful and untroubled existence. The visible hand of the corporation, as Alfred Chandler terms it, has consequently been of far greater importance to capitalist historical geography than the invisible hand of the market made so much of by Adam Smith and paraded ad nauseam before us in recent years as the guiding power in the neoliberal ideology of contemporary globalization.7

But it is here that the mirror image of the first contradiction comes most clearly into view: market processes crucially depend upon the individual monopoly of capitalists (of all sorts) over ownership of the means of production including finance and land. All rent, recall, is a return to the monopoly power of private ownership of any portion of the globe. The monopoly power of private property is, therefore, both the beginning point and the end point of all capitalist activity. A non-tradable juridical right exists at the very foundation of all capitalist trade, making the option of non-trading (hoarding, withholding, miserly behaviour) an important problem in capitalist markets. Pure market competition, free commodity exchange and perfect market rationality are, therefore, rather rare and chronically unstable devices for coordinating production and consumption decisions. The problem is to keep economic relations competitive enough while sustaining the individual and class monopoly privileges of private property that are the foundation of capitalism as a political-economic system.

This last point demands one further elaboration to bring us closer to the topic at hand. It is widely but erroneously assumed that monopoly power of the grand and culminating sort is most clearly signalled by the centralization and concentration of capital in mega-corporations. Conversely, small firm size is widely assumed, again erroneously, to be a sign of a competitive market situation. By this measure, a once competitive capitalism has become increasingly monopolized over time. The error arises in part because of a rather too facile application of Marx's arguments concerning the ‘law of the tendency for the centralization of capital', ignoring his counter-argument that centralization ‘would soon bring about the collapse of capitalist production if it were not for counteracting tendencies, which have a continuous decentralizing effect'.8 But it is also supported by an economic theory of the firm that generally ignores its spatial and locational context, even though it does accept (on those rare occasions where it deigns to consider the matt er) that locational advantage involves ‘monopolistic competition'. In the nineteenth century, for example, the brewer, the baker and the candlestick maker were all protected to considerable degree from competition in local markets by the high cost of transportation. Local monopoly powers were omnipresent (even though firms were small in size), and very hard to break, in everything from energy to food supply. By this measure nineteenth century capitalism was far less competitive than now.

It is at this point that the changing conditions of transport and communications enter in as crucial determining variables. As spatial barriers diminished through the capitalist penchant for ‘the annihilation of space through time', many local industries and services lost their local protections and monopoly privileges.9 They were forced into competition with producers in other locations, at first relatively close by, but then with producers much further away. The historical geography of the brewing trade is very instructive in this regard. In the nineteenth century most people drank local brew because they had no choice. By the end of the nineteenth century beer production and consumption in Britain had been regionalized to a considerable degree and remained so until the 1960s (foreign imports, with the exception of Guinness, were unheard of). But then the market became national (Newcastle Brown and Scottish Youngers appeared in London and the south) before becoming international (imports suddenly became all the rage). If one drinks local brew now it is by choice, usually out of some mix of principled attachment to locality or because of some special quality of the beer (based on the technique, the water, or whatever) that differentiates it from others. Plainly, the economic space of competition has changed in both form and scale over time.

The recent bout of globalization has significantly diminished the monopoly protections given historically by high transport and communications costs while the removal of institutional barriers to trade (protectionism) has likewise diminished the monopoly rents to be procured by that means. But capitalism cannot do without monopoly powers and craves means to assemble them. So the question upon the agenda is how to assemble monopoly powers in a situation where the protections afforded by the so-called ‘natural monopolies' of space and location, and the political protections of national boundaries and tariffs, have been seriously diminished if not eliminated.

The obvious answer is to centralize capital in mega-corporations or to set up looser alliances (as in airlines and automobiles) that dominate markets. And we have seen plenty of that. The second path is to secure ever more firmly the monopoly rights of private property through international commercial laws that regulate all global trade. Patents and so-called ‘intellectual property rights' have consequently become a major field of struggle through which monopoly powers more generally get asserted. The pharmaceutical industry, to take a paradigmatic example, has acquired extraordinary monopoly powers in part through massive centralizations of capital and in part through the protection of patents and licensing agreements. And it is hungrily pursuing even more monopoly powers as it seeks to establish property rights over genetic materials of all sorts (including those of rare plants in tropical rain forests traditionally collected by indigenous inhabitants). As monopoly privileges from one source diminish so we witness a variety of attempts to preserve and assemble them by other means." (

Rent and Class

Michael Hudson:

"Patten wrote about economic rent in his critique of Ricardo in his 1890 Economic Basis of Protection, and provided a critique of Clark and George the following year. The thrust of his analysis was that minimizing economic rent would benefit labor, farmers, and small business as well as capitalists. Rather than each type of income being associated with a distinct political class as in Britain (groundrent with a hereditary aristocracy), property ownership was becoming so widespread a phenomenon that most Americans received the economic rental value of their homes or farms, and most received interest as savers, as well as profits made by the emerging middle class of businessmen.

The older thought assumed that for each kind of income there was a social class which was interested in its defense. The social condition of England at the time economic theory was formulated favored this concept. The aristocracy held the land, the so-called middle or industrial class owned the capital, while the great mass of unskilled and politically unprotected laborers did the work. The essence of the Ricardian economics was an opposition to the aristocratic landlords, and it succeeded so well that an imputation of being unearned was put up on their income. In America, however, while we have rent, we have no landlord class. The income from rent and interest is so diffused that all income-receivers form one class. . . . Profit holders blend with the holders of rent and interest and think of themselves as a social unit. All get profits, rent and interest in their income . . . . (Patten 1908a, in 1924: 219) Industrial protectionism, trade unionism, and bank credit enabled families to obtain farms or homes in cities with good public school systems. This led to a growing economy in which, “when families get $1,000 a year their income is derived more from monopoly, rent and interest than from mere wage-earning power. They own houses, they receive special rents from the position of local advantage they hold, they enjoy monopolies through their trade unions, and they derive great advantage from the municipal expenditures that give them water, health, sanitation and education. Their income is thus not pure wages, but a diffused income derived from many sources” (Patten 1908a, in 1924: 221).

This is why land taxation never was as popular in the United States as in Britain. Land remains the major asset in every economy today, followed by natural monopolies and subsoil minerals and fuels, and property ownership has been the major force shaping fiscal policy as well as politics. There is indeed a power elite composed of what Veblen called vested interests, but land ownership—especially housing—has been democratized. This has enabled absentee owners and speculators to represent their interests as synonymous with that of small homeowners in campaigning for property tax relief. And behind them stand the bankers — some 70 percent of bank loans are mortgages, absorbing a rising share of property’s income via interest charges." (

Rent is the other side of the Commons

From The Ideology of Free Culture and the Grammar of Sabotage.

Matteo Pasquinelli:

"How does cognitive capitalism make money? Where does a digital economy extract surplus? While digerati and activists are stuck to the glorification of peer production, good managers but also good Marxists are aware of the Profits made on the shoulders of the collective intelligence. For instance the school of post-Operaismo has always carried on a dystopian vision of the general intellect produced by workers and digital multitudes: it is potentially liberating but constantly absorbed before turning into a true social autonomy. The cooperation celebrated by freeculturalists is only the last stage of long process of socialisation of knowledge that is not improving the life conditions of the last digital generations: in the end online "free labour" appears to be more dominant than the "wealth of networks." The theory of rent recently advanced by the post-Operaist school can disclose the digital economy more clearly.

Autonomist Marxism has become renown for shaping a new toolbox of political concepts for the late capitalism (such as multitude, immaterial labour, biopolitical production and cognitive capitalism to name only a few). In an article published in 2007 in Posse Negri and Vercellone make a further step: they establish rent as the nodal mechanism of contemporary economy thus opening a new field of antagonism. Until then Autonomist Marxism has been used to focus more on the transformations of the labour conditions than on the new parasitic modes of surplus extraction. In classical theory rent is distinguished from profit. Rent is the parasitic income an owner can earn just by owning an asset and traditionally is referred to land property. Profit on the contrary is meant to be productive and is referred to the power of capital to generate and extract surplus (from commodity value and workforce). Vercellone criticises the idea of a "good productive capitalism" pointing the becoming rent of profit as the driving force of current economy: below the hype of technological innovation and creative economy, the whole of capitalism is breeding a subterranean parasitic nature. So Vercellone's motto goes "rent is the new profit" in cognitive capitalism. Rent is parasitic because it is orthogonal to the line of the classic profit. Parasite means etymologically "eating at another's table," sucking surplus not directly but in a furtive way. If we produce freely in front of our computers, certainly somebody has his hands in our wallet. Rent is the other side of the commons - once it was over the common land, today over the network commons.

Becoming rent of profit means a transformation of management and cognitive workforce too. The autonomisation of capital has grown in parallel with the autonomisation of cooperation. Today managers are dealing more and more often with financial and speculative tasks, while workers are in charge of a distributed management. In this evolution the cognitariat is split into two tendencies. On one side the high-skilled cognitive workers become "functionaries of the capital rent"29 and are co-opted within the rent system through stock options. On the other side the majority of workers faces a declassing (declassement) of life conditions despite skills get more and more rich in knowledge. It is not a mystery that the New Economy has generated more McJobs. This model can be easily applied to the internet economy and its workforce, where users are in charge of content production and web management but do not share any profit. Big corporations like Google for instance make money over the attention economy of the user-generated content with its services Adsense and Adwords. Google provides just a light infrastructure for web advertisement that infiltrates websites as a subtle and mono- dimensional parasite and extracts profit without producing any content. Part of the value is shared of course with users and the Google coders are paid in stock options to develop more sophisticated algorithms." (

Economic Rents should be tackled concurrently through public policy

Michael Hudson:

"Reflecting the Progressive Era’s reform agenda Simon Patten (1852–1922) argued that freeing markets from one source of economic rent (by taxing land rent) would merely leave the surplus to be taken by other monopolists and rent extractors (railroads, Wall Street trusts, and basic privatized utilities). To prevent unearned income (economic rent) from adding to the economy’s cost of living and doing business, potentially rent-yielding infrastructure should be kept in the public domain as a “fourth factor of production.” Instead of rentiers making a profit by charging access fees and user fees, the return to public investment should take the form of reducing the economy’s overall price structure.

Along with Edmund James and Richard T. Ely, Simon Patten studied in Germany in the late 1870s. As in America, Germany’s national interest called for an alternative economic policy—and hence, a supportive body of economic theory—from that of British free-trade orthodoxy, which left public-sector investment out of account. “I became imbued with the German view,” he wrote, “and came home hoping to help in the transformation of American civilization from an English to a German basis” (Patten 1912, in 1924: 273).

The German Historical School’s focus on national differences in political and economic institutions reflected its concern with state leadership in protecting industry and pioneering social welfare policy by enacting labor laws such as old-age pensions. Patten saw Germany’s creation of a public railroad network in particular as increasing its competitive industrial power along similar lines to those that protectionists in the United States were following. National price structures were being shaped not merely by wages, profit, and interest rates, but also by public spending and tax policies.


While extending economic analysis along lines that later would be called institutional, Patten retained the classical definition of rent as unearned income—the excess of market price over intrinsic cost. Economic rent taken by landlords, monopolists, and financial institutions has no counterpart in the technological requirements of production, but stems from legal and historical privileges that privatize the free gifts of nature or permit monopolistic power to charge access fees over cost for the use of basic infrastructure. Patten believed that economies should minimize the cost of living and doing business by becoming as rent-free as possible, socializing monopolies outright, or at least taxing land, mining, and other natural resources, and regulating prices to minimize unnecessary rentier charges.


Patten criticized George’s Single Tax for leaving monopolies besides land intact. Unless economic rent were taxed across the board, the rent rescued from one party’s grasp would be taken by others: “a limited application of the [land tax] principle . . . merely lowers the value of one form of monopoly and raises that of some other. Farms go down in value as railroad rates go up. Land values in cities go up as tariffs go down” (Patten 1908b, in 1924: 255). Further, taxing the land’s rental value “would cause the watered costs of the farms and city property to shrink to a lower point than would the values of railroads” (Patten 1908b, in 1924: 254). Patten thought that George was shortsighted by supposing “that we can secure all the surplus if we would only seize the rent of land. We might in this way get only a small portion of it. The rent of farm land seems to decrease, relatively at least, with the advance in civilization, and hence a larger portion of the surplus is absorbed in other ways” (Patten 1891: 362; Patten also made this critique in his “Principles of Rational Taxation”).

Whereas George wanted to tax groundrent at market rates, Patten wanted to minimize economic rent. “We want a low price of food and not a large public revenue from land.” The aim was to minimize rent and prices, not tax the maximum that could be extracted. The government should be a rent minimizer, not a rent maximizer that allows landlords (or itself as infrastructure operator) charging as much as the market would bear. Patten recognized that soil differences would diminish as agriculture became industrialized, and that rising farm productivity would make food prices “so low that the unearned increment will be unworthy of notice, and no one will care to disturb land-tenures to secure so small a sum” (Patten 1891: 369).

Transportation investment would lower the rent-of-location, which was more important than soil fertility, given America’s large land mass. To be sure, taxing the land’s groundrent would leave less for railroads to siphon off. Every trust, or combination, therefore tends to transfer a considerable share of the surplus or unearned increment from the owners of land to the owners of other monopolies.

Patten proposed that the way to prevent rent seeking was to apply “the doctrine of cost prices, the physical valuation of property and the control of prices by the state” across the board, under the principle of eminent domain. Partial cures would be ineffective because to permit the state “to control [only] some prices is to give it the power to favor special interests.” (Patten 1908b, in 1924: 255). Minimizing economic rent by controlling all prices was implicitly socialist, Patten recognized. Progressive reform should start with land and transportation infrastructure, followed by the mining trusts. “The kinds of property that are in the fewest hands will be those to which this principle will be first applied, and each other kind of property will be attacked in turn until the application of the principle is general” (Patten 1908b, in 1924: 255)." (

Rachel O’Dwyer: The Becoming-Rent of Profit

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." (