The Five Lies of Global Capitalism

A photo shows euro coins at the security and protection company Brink's in Rennes, western France. AFP/Getty Images/DAMIEN MEYER

This is an edited extract of The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay by Guy Standing (Biteback, 2016).

Today we have the most unfree market system ever created. It is a corruption much deeper than corruption by individuals or companies; it is the uncharted corruption of an ideal, of free markets, as economies are being rigged to favor owners of assets—the 'rentiers'—while depressing incomes from labor.

Politicians and financiers and bureaucrats have subverted the claims made on behalf of capitalism in the construction of a system that is radically different. They assert a belief in 'free markets' and want us to believe that economic policies are extending them. That is untrue.

How can politicians look into TV cameras and say we have a free market system when patents guarantee monopoly incomes for twenty years, preventing anyone from competing? How can they claim there are free markets when copyright rules give a guaranteed income for seventy years after a person's death? How can they claim free markets exist when one person or company is given a subsidy and not others'—or when they sell off the commons that belong to all of us, at a discount, to a favoured individual or company? Or when Uber, TaskRabbit and their ilk act as unregulated labor brokers, profiting from the labor of others?

Far from trying to stop these negations of free markets, governments are creating rules that allow and encourage them…

The 20th-century income distribution system has irretrievably broken down. Since the 1980s, the share of income going to labor has shrunk, globally and in most countries of economic significance. Real wages on average have stagnated or fallen. Today, a tiny minority of people and corporate interests across the world are accumulating vast wealth and power, not from 'hard work' or from productive activity, but from rental income.

'Rentiers' derive income from ownership, possession or control of assets that are scarce or artificially made scarce. Most familiar is rental income from land, property, mineral exploitation or financial investments, but other sources have grown too. They include the income lenders make from debt interest; income from ownership of 'intellectual property' (such as patents, copyright, brands and trademarks); capital gains on investments; 'above normal' company profits (when a firm has a dominant market position that allows it to charge high prices or dictate terms); income from government subsidies; and income of financial and other intermediaries derived from third-party transactions.

John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the mid-twentieth century,

famously dismissed the rentier as "the functionless investor" who gained income solely from ownership of capital, exploiting its "scarcity value." He concluded in his epochal General Theory that, as capitalism spread, "it would mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital."

Eighty years on, the rentier is anything but dead; rentiers have become the main beneficiaries of capitalism's emerging income distribution system…

As neo-liberalism took shape in the 1980s, the concept of 'competitiveness' became almost an obsession. A country could only develop or grow fast if it were more competitive than others, which to a large extent meant having lower costs of production and greater profitability than competitors, as well as lower taxes on potential investors.

Classical political economy had focused on trade, driven by a theory of "comparative advantage"; countries should specialize in the goods and services that they were more efficient at producing relative to others. Suddenly, the message seemed to be that all countries had to be better at the same things.

The main economic game became finding ways to attract and retain foreign investment, to boost exports and to limit imports. This led to the political justification for cutting direct taxes, particularly on capital, and providing subsidies to investors. But corporations and financiers have used their new power to induce governments and supranational financial institutions to build an infrastructure that favors their interests.

They have constructed a global framework of institutions and regulations that enable elites to maximise their rental income. The claim that global capitalism is based on free markets is the first lie of rentier capitalism. Particularly since 1995, intellectual property has become a prime source of rental income, through market power created by the spread of trademarks (crucial for branding), copyright, design rights, geographical indications, trade secrets and, above all, patents. Knowledge and technology-intensive industries, which now account for over 30 per cent of global output, are gaining as much or more in rental income from intellectual property rights as from the production of goods or services. This represents a political choice by governments around the world to grant monopolies over knowledge to private interests, allowing them to restrict public access to knowledge and to raise the price of obtaining it or of products and services embodying it.

The claim that intellectual property rights encourage and reward risk takers is the second lie of rentier capitalism. Many patented inventions are based on publicly subsidised research, in public institutions. It is the global public that pays, through taxes that finance the research, higher prices for patented products and, in the process, loss of the intellectual commons. Moreover, most innovations that yield large returns in rental income through patents and so on are actually the result of a series of ideas and experiments attributable to many individuals or groups. As Gar Alperovitz has said, Bill Gates made a pebble of a contribution to a Gibraltar of technological advances. There is no moral reason for him to receive the whole Gibraltar of reward for the endeavours of those who went before him. One could repeat this metaphor for many breakthroughs that have yielded a few individuals billions of dollars.

The third lie of rentier capitalism is that the institutional structure of global capitalism built in the globalization era is "good for growth." It has actually hindered growth and made the growth that has occurred less sustainable, with rising ecological costs that are partly the outcome of rentier mechanisms put in place, notably through trade and investment accords. There is no evidence that investment accords promote foreign investment, their ostensible purpose. Most studies have found weak or non-existent correlations between investment treaties and investment flows, which have unsurprisingly gravitated towards the most promising markets such as China and Brazil. Nor is there much correlation between opening up to foreign investment and economic growth. Instead, the correlation is with financial instability.

A fourth lie of rentier capitalism is the claim that profits reflect managerial efficiency and returns to risk-taking. In reality, the increased profit share has gone mainly to those receiving rental income, much of it linked to financial assets. There has been no increase in managerial efficiency and no increased risks to investment.

The platform capitalism taking shape, exemplified by the likes of Uber and TaskRabbit, is not a "sharing economy." But it is transforming the labor market, directly, by generating labor for millions of 'taskers', and indirectly, through its impact on traditional suppliers of invaded services.

The platforms maximise profits through ownership and control of the technological apparatus, protected by patents and other forms of intellectual property rights, and by the exploitation of labour, taking 20% or more of earnings. They are rentiers, earning a lot for doing little, if we accept their claim that they are just providing technology to put clients in touch with 'independent contractors' of services.

The systemic point is that incomes from labor and work are dropping for most people in and around the precariat, while rental income is mounting fast. And so we come to the fifth lie of rentier capitalism: the claim that work is the best route out of poverty. The army of taskers and the precariat in general stand testament to that lie.

Achieving Keynes' euthanasia of the rentier will be a struggle but it is eminently feasible. It requires a new income distribution system, one element of which would be a basic income paid from a levy on rental income. Politics will grow uglier, unless rent seeking can be curbed and unless the desperate need for basic economic security for all is recognised and met. Without a new system, a dark age threatens.

Guy Standing will be in conversation with Naina Bajekal, executive editor of Newsweek Europe, on the Publishing Perspectives Stage at Frankfurt Book Fair on October 20.