Replacing rentier capitalism is one of the defining challenges of our age

In response, Martin and Quick argue that we need a more expansive concept of trade unionism – one rooted in solidarity with the whole working class, “expanding the bargaining unit” out beyond the workplace to the communities and citizens who are also being exploited by finance capital. Care workers should make common cause with those they care for and their families; railway workers should organise with passengers; energy workers should ally with energy consumers and local residents. They cite inspiring examples of unions and social movements organising around rent and debt – from the Chicago teachers demanding affordable housing to the El Barzón movement, campaigning for debtors in Mexico.

‘Unions Renewed: Building Power in an Age of Finance’ by Alice Martin and Annie Quick (Polity Press, 2020)

Both books highlight economic democracy as the ultimate answer to rentier power. Martin and Quick define this as “moving power for economic decision-making from those who own capital to a much broader group – the workers, renters and carers, from whom capital owners profit.” But – as they do later acknowledge – it’s also about democratising the ownership of capital itself. As Christophers notes, transforming ownership of assets would mean that “society’s economic resources would be subject to much more dispersed and democratic control than they are under capitalism.”

There is much more to be unpacked on what democratising ownership really means. Martin and Quick – understandably, given their focus on trade unions – talk primarily in terms of worker ownership. But, if we accept that the labour relation may not always be the primary site of exploitation under rentier capitalism, are there sectors where worker power just isn’t the answer? If the socialist argument is fundamentally that ownership and control should be in the hands of those who truly create value, has modern capitalism morphed to such an extent that this no longer necessarily means wage-labourers in a given industry?

Perhaps the most obvious example is big tech. Companies like Facebook and Google tend to rely on a relatively small number of highly-paid knowledge workers, while their business model rests on extracting value from the data of millions of users – accruing massive unaccountable power in the process. Worker ownership of these companies might not get us very far towards a more just economy. Co-operative ownership by the platform’s users just might – or, perhaps, public ‘data trusts’, turning this asset into a shared resource rather than a private commodity. Likewise, the best examples of democratic banking tend not to be worker-owned: they are either public banks, or community and consumer-led co-operatives.

Of course, there are plenty of sectors where labour is still the source of value and the key site of exploitation – with care being an obvious example. Even in the tech sector, beneath the shiny apps and platforms, companies like Uber and Amazon still rely to a substantial extent on exploiting the labour of drivers and warehouse workers. Here, worker empowerment is still the right response to the injustice at play.

An understanding of rentier power also raises the question of exactly what we need to democratise. Martin and Quick deploy the traditional socialist language of “the means of production”, while Christophers hints at the need to go beyond this. Many successful rentiers are essentially gatekeepers to the resources we need to live a good life and participate in society – housing, energy, water, broadband access. The fact that they are essential is both what makes them such a reliable source of profit, and what makes this profiteering so morally unacceptable. Accordingly, much new thinking on the left – from energy democracy to universal basic services – is really about democratising the means of subsistence, or perhaps the means of wellbeing.

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» Replacing rentier capitalism is one of the defining challenges of our age | Christine Berry | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/11/06/replacing-rentier-capitalism-is-one-of-the-defining-challenges-of-our-age/ | 2022-01-25T17:50:17+00:00
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