From Entrepreneurship to Rentiership in Technoscientific Capitalism

The DBP Blog is running a short series of contributions from our visiting scholars. This week, Kean Birch blogs on Entrepreneurship and Rentiership in Technoscientific Capitalism. Kean Birch is Associate Professor, Department of Geography, York University, Canada. He has recently visited DBP, working on a paper on “Technoscience rent: Towards a theory of rentiership for technoscientific capitalism”.

By Kean Birch

I want to start this blog by writing about tractors.

Writing on the Motherboard website, Jason Koebler argues that American farmers are buying black-market software from Ukraine in order to hack their John Deere – and other manufacturer – tractors because those manufacturers have made it increasingly legally difficult to do “unauthorized repairs” on those tractors. This is because, as part of their license agreements with tractor manufacturers, farmers are forbidden from “tampering” with their tractor’s software. It all sounds like the plot of a William Gibson novel.

According to Koebler – and others like Kyle Wiens, writing in Wired – tractor manufacturers are engaged in a process of reconfiguring the very nature of ownership and, by extension, of capitalism itself. According to the like of Wiens, for example, manufacturers like John Deer are ‘destroying the very idea of ownership’ by telling farmers that they “don’t own their tractors”. At the heart of the issue is whether consumers own the electronic software that now underpins most physical hardware – including in tractors, cars, mobile phones, computers, and a range of so-called “smart” home products. All of this is rather amusingly deconstructed by the popular Twitter account, Internet of Shit, but it has real political-economic repercussions that are worth thinking about and theorizing.

As I see it, these are examples of what I am calling rentiership, which I have been writing about over the last year or so – see here, here and here – as have others like Steve Fuller, Peter Frase, and Andrew Sayer. Through this concept, I am trying to get a handle on the transformation of contemporary capitalism engendered by its increasingly technoscientific underpinnings, as evidenced by the tractor example. Simply, rentiership involves the extraction of value from economic activity – very broadly conceived – as the result of the ownership and control of a particular resource (or asset), primarily because of that resource’s inherent or constructed productivity, scarcity, or qualities.

Rentiership necessitates an examination of how a diverse array of things (e.g. infrastructure, data, knowledge, bodies, personalities, climate, etc., etc.) are being turned into assets – that is, a resource that accrues revenue over time. According to people like Eve Chiapello and others, this assetization process involves the definition of an asset’s boundaries, its measurement, and then its valuation in monetary terms. Turning something into an asset reflects the notion that markets are instituted by a range of knowledges, practices, and actors, including, in this context, accounting rules (e.g. Systems of National Accounts and the identification of assets versus expenditures), the re-categorization of things like personal data as a ‘new asset class’, and an array of experts and policy-makers needed to ‘establish’ value and validate these changes (e.g. economists, lawyers, consultants, etc.).

Rentiership represents the accumulation strategy, process, and priority that enables the capture of value from of these increasingly diverse assets. While economic rent theory has a long history, stretching back to Adam Smith and, especially, David Ricardo in the 19th century, much of the analytical thinking has focused on the implications of land ownership for entrepreneurial activities. Since then, rent theory has been extended to other resources and assets, such as knowledge and intellectual property – an area of research pursued by business school heavyweights like David Teece at Berkeley as well as their opposites like the Autonomist Marxist Yann Moulier Boutang. Even The Economist is now happy to declare that the “world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”. As more and more things are turned into assets – essentially tradable and capitalized property – then more and more things end up enclosed by the extension of property rights, thereby limiting access to them.

It is possible to unpack rentiership and think about different forms of rentiership, which can obviously overlap with another, based on different forms of ownership and control, including:

• Government fiat: for example, Romain Felli argues that emissions trading represents a form of ‘climate rent’ in which governments create an entitlement (to emit) and then simply grant that entitlement to firms who can then capture value from it.
• Monopoly: for example, Christian Zeller has written about the monopoly rights engendered by intellectual property rights (IPRs) because they usually cover unique assets that are hard to replicate or substitute (e.g. there is only one copyright for music by Metallica).
• Reconfiguration of markets and technoscience: for example, I am interested in how social actors configure markets and technoscience in order to extract value from research and innovation financing.

In order to give some meat to the skeleton of these more analytical arguments, I want to finish off with a couple of examples. The first is a more traditional example of rent-seeking – as defined by neoclassical economists – while the second is meant to illustrate how rentiership can be applied in other settings.

First, Turing Pharmaceuticals represents an example of rent-seeking, although with a twist. Back in 2015, Turing bought the marketing rights to a generic drug called Daraprim and raised its price 5000% – from US$13.50 to US$750 per pill. It seemed like a clear case of rent-seeking as Turing obtained market exclusivity – monopoly basically – from the FDA as the result of agreeing to test whether Daraprim is compliant with current regulations. However, other firms could also undertake this testing, but Turing convinced the previous rights holder to starve the market before they bought Daraprim’s rights so that other firms could not get hold of the drug in order to do said testing themselves. They then changed the distribution channels in order to limit access. I see this as more complicated than simple rent-seeking. It is, in my view, a form of rentiership involving the creation of monopoly through regulations, as well as reconfiguration of markets by Turing.

Second, I have to make a confession first: I like watching YouTube videos of people playing computer games, so-called ‘LetsPlay’ videos. I have basically replaced my terrestrial TV watching with these YouTube videos. These LetsPlay videos are a really interesting phenomenon, with some LetsPlayers becoming social media superstars (e.g. PewDiePie has over 55 million YouTube followers and is the most followed person on the platform). It is interesting to analyze how they turn playing computer games into something they can extract value from. At base, it is about extracting value from their personality (e.g. humour, zaniness, skill, etc.) by monetizing it (e.g. through ads). I see it as another example of rentiership in which the ‘ownership’ of an asset enables the extraction of value from it. However, unlike the above example, it’s probably less socially egregious.

Over the next few years I am going to try and puzzle my way through rentiership in all its shapes and sizes, and will hopefully be able to say something interesting, maybe even insightful, about contemporary capitalism as I do so.

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