“It’s OK,” the title of Bernie Sanders’ new book informs us, “to be angry about capitalism.” But of course, we already knew that. The background noise of our time is of resentment toward the neoliberal order—the insecurity it has foisted on the poor and increasingly on the middle class, the destruction it has wreaked on the environment, its hollowing-out of families, communities, and traditions. What we need isn’t permission to be angry, but a better comprehension of a system so complex that both admirers and critics struggle to get their heads around it.

That, I think, is why more and more readers—from big-name academics like Adam Tooze and Mariana Mazzucato to ordinary citizens trying to make sense of the world—are enthralled by the work of the economic geographer Brett Christophers, a professor at the University of Uppsala. Nobody could accuse Christophers of ignorantly ranting against a half-understood enemy: His books resemble vast excavation projects, in which the author drills through mile after mile of granite-like material—balance sheets, annual reports, parliamentary-committee minutes, documents from the National Infrastructure Commission, and at one point (he writes with a self-deprecating twinkle) a “fascinating if dry 2016 review of taxation of the UK water companies.”

“Christophers usually emerges with some outrageous claim.”

From these subterranean expeditions, Christophers usually emerges with some outrageous claim that seems both shocking and appropriate to our disorienting era. In 2018, he published a book explaining that the largest privatization in modern British history had gone unnoticed. (See if you can guess: The answer is below.) Then, in 2020, Christophers’s Rentier Capitalism argued that the heart of the British economy wasn’t entrepreneurship or innovation or anything like that, but rent: that is, the ability to make money by controlling assets such as land or intellectual property in an uncompetitive environment. Christophers’ new book, meanwhile, states its audacious thesis in the title, Our Lives in Their Portfolios: Why Asset Managers Own the World.

From these three books a story emerges: of a great disempowerment, a steady transfer of ownership and control away from the citizen, the consumer, the employee, the community, and the democratically elected government, toward institutions whose workings are often invisible to public view. Or as Christophers put it when we spoke over the phone last month: “arguably the main narrative” suggested by his recent work “is the disempowerment of all major constituencies in contemporary capitalism, apart from big rentier capital.”

Like Christophers’s previous work, Our Lives in Their Portfolios functions first of all as an intriguing explanation of a mostly hidden part of the economy. The averagely curious reader may have heard of asset-management firms such as, say, Blackstone, and may even be able to distinguish it from BlackRock. He may have noted that Blackstone’s founder, Stephen Schwarzman, is worth $30 billion—enough to bankroll the sprawling new Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities at Oxford University—and idly wondered where all that cash came from. The average reader, moreover, may have already noted such major projects as the $5.5 billion Thames “super sewer,” presently under construction by a company with four shareholders—all of them asset managers.

“Every gas pipe that goes into a Kentish home belongs to Canadian and US asset managers.”

Not many, though, will have realized the scale of the industry and how deeply it reaches into everyday life. The sector manages an estimated $100 trillion or so, about two-fifths of the world’s wealth. Already at least $4 trillion of that is in housing and infrastructure; and the CEO of Brookfield, one of the biggest asset managers, predicts that over the next 40 years, the share of infrastructure in private hands will increase tenfold. In a bravura passage, Christophers takes us through a single English county, Kent. The entire water supply is controlled by Australian asset managers. So is the sewage system. Every gas pipe that goes into a Kentish home belongs to Canadian and US asset managers. And that’s before you get to their presence in hospitals, schools, rental properties, student housing, solar farms, parking spaces, electric-car charging ports, trains, and broadband cables. Yes, Christophers tells me, “asset-manager society” is an emerging phenomenon more than an established one. But “the trend is only in one direction.”

Essentially, asset managers set up investment funds—individual projects, often with a time limit—and seek money from institutions that have piles of cash lying around, like pension funds and insurance companies. The fund invests that money, sometimes in equities, bonds, and so on, and sometimes—here is Christophers’s main focus—in housing and infrastructure. The “super sewer” gets built, the gas pipelines keep running, the apartment block gets a new landlord. The profits go to the pension funds or insurance companies, with a healthy performance-related fee for the asset manager. Who could object to so efficient an arrangement?

One answer is the tenants of Invitation Homes, a property company owned by Blackstone. Between 2014 and 2016, rents rose while the amount spent on maintenance fell; Reuters reported widespread allegations (disputed by Blackstone) of “slumlord-like” conditions. But thanks to the cost-cutting, the profit margin jumped 61 percent, up from 52 percent, and when Blackstone sold the company, it had made a total profit of $3.5 billion.

For Christophers, this story represents more than an unfortunate series of events: It is the essence of a system which takes the familiar downsides of privatization to another level. First, because asset managers depend on performance fees—which rise if the fund makes a speedy profit—the incentives encourage them to pay workers less and treat customers worse. Second, because the investment funds for infrastructure and housing tend to have a time limit, their focus will usually be on selling the asset for the best price—so short-termism takes precedence over long-term stewardship.

Third, because asset managers are wary of risk, that risk ends up being transferred to the state and to taxpayers. In 2016, the people of Bayonne, NJ, found that their water bills had gone up 13 percent—making a splendid windfall for the private-equity fund KKR, to whom the contract had been sold in 2011. The increase, it turned out, was because Bayonne’s residents weren’t using enough water: As part of the deal, Bayonne’s city officials had promised a guaranteed level of income, so less water usage meant higher charges.

No brief summary can do justice to the detail and precision of Christophers’ account, or the tenacity with which he debunks the asset managers’ defense that the real beneficiaries are the teachers and firefighters whose pensions are ultimately being invested. Like all of Christophers’ books, Our Lives raises several questions, the most immediate of which is: How on earth does he know all this stuff? As it turns out, there is a straightforward biographical answer.

Born in Croydon, south London, in 1971, Christophers studied geography at Oxford and the University of British Columbia: his master’s thesis (later turned into a book) was on Protestant missionaries in 1860s Canada, a topic remote from his current interests. After that, he went into consultancy, at PricewaterhouseCoopers and then Mercer, and the inner workings of the economy opened up to him. “Pretty much anything I’ve learnt of any long-term value about capitalism, I learnt while working in that world, rather than since then,” Christophers recalls. “I learnt how to read balance sheets, I learnt how to understand company strategy.”

He returned to academia in part because the next step up the consulting ladder would have been partnership, when the job changes from doing to selling. At that, Christophers balked: It would have meant telling companies “why they should be spending $1 million or whatever on hiring you. And I knew all along that I would never be able to do that. At the end of the day, I didn’t really believe it was in their best interests.” Still, he wouldn’t change his experience for the world. “In the academy, and in life in general, you try and figure out, what are you good at? To the extent that I’m good at anything, it’s taking sets of issues that are forbidding to a lot of people, and explaining what’s interesting and important about them. Without losing the attention to detail, but also without making it sleep-inducing.”

There was, he says, no decisive moment that turned him toward the questions of ownership that have recently preoccupied him; rather a succession of interests—books on media, banking and law, and then the work that brought his name into the mainstream, The New Enclosure. “Serendipity” played a part in it, he says: “Sometime around 2013 [or] 2014, I read some newspaper article about a local council in the UK selling a piece of land to the private sector—some developer or property company or something like that. I thought, ‘This is interesting,’ and I realized that there wasn’t much of an academic literature on land privatization.”

“Since 1979, 10 percent of the entire British landmass … has been sold off.”

He started digging. “It didn’t take long before I realized that this is a hugely significant phenomenon, both in terms of scale and—at least I argued—in terms of its implications, socially and economically.” Since 1979, 10 percent of the entire British landmass—public housing, farmland, school playing fields, leisure centers—has been sold off by national and local governments, on the basis that private ownership would be more efficient. But as Christophers tells the story, it starts to look more like a blunder. Such was the haste to sell off land that property companies and others knew they could get it cheap. Often, they have then failed to develop the land, instead treating it as a lucrative financial asset. By 2016, a list of the 100 richest people in Britain found that more than a quarter could list property as a major source of wealth. Such unequal distribution, as Britain’s renting precariat knows especially well, tends toward exploitation—and toward that sense, so often reported by contemporary Brits, of being a stranger in one’s own land. The national malaise makes a lot more sense in the light of this $510 billion privatization.

Why, I wonder, had nobody spotted it before? “This might be unfair,” Christophers says, “but significant parts of the economics profession don’t seem that interested in what’s happening in the economy in terms of its actual substance. A lot of it is about measuring trends in inflation and employment and growth, without looking at the material substance of all the things that add up to those headline trends and metrics.” Land, which had been a central political and social question “since forever,” had disappeared from the conversation.

If it has now reappeared, it is thanks to Britain’s housing crisis—which to many commentators looks, above all, like a crisis of supply, compounded by boomer nimbyism and an obstructive planning system. Christophers doesn’t really dispute that analysis, but he offers a significant caution: “It’s very important to understand that a lot of the major actors who politicians are looking to to increase housing supply, like asset managers, have no interest in doing that. As they readily concede in certain contexts, where they don’t necessarily think they’re being listened to by the likes of me, when they do invest in housing, one of the main things they look for is that there won’t be any new supply. They want supply shortages, because it keeps rents up.”

The better answer, he says, is public housing. “It’s kind of boring,” he concedes. “But I’ve been looking at these issues for a long time now, and I just can’t see any significant amelioration of housing crisis conditions, anywhere in the world, unless you have a significant return to the role of the state.”

Christophers is unsentimental about the public sector and dislikes the “Manichean” attitudes of some on the left. “I sometimes worry about calls for renationalization that ignore the fact that the state was often a terrible custodian of these kinds of assets.” But there is, he believes, no evidence that the private sector has a superior record. Indeed, Christophers’ most significant book, Rentier Capitalism, is a groundbreaking study of private-sector failure. It argues that a socially corrosive economic model has become the norm, especially, though not only, in Britain.

Christophers’s technical definition of “rent” is “income derived from the ownership, possession, or control of scarce assets under conditions of limited or no competition.” But the phenomenon is most easily demonstrated through examples. A landlord can charge eye-watering rents, because he controls an asset (the house), and the market is sufficiently uncompetitive that there is no better option. Amazon and Deliveroo can take a big cut from sellers or restaurants, because they control the marketplace, and there aren’t the alternative platforms to outcompete them. And the same goes for five other heavyweight sectors—financial assets, outsourcing contracts, intellectual property, natural resources, and infrastructure.

The winners in this kind of economy have little reason to innovate: Why bother when you could just be squeezing even more profit from your scarce asset? Such a system also fosters inequality: huge gains for those at the top, small wages for the workers with weak bargaining power against a giant employer. The British left is disturbed by falling living standards, the right by stagnant productivity; Christophers’s analysis points to a major cause of both.

And if Britons feel powerless in the face of national decline, that may have something to do with rentierism too. As Christophers puts it to me: “Big rentier capital institutions, including but not limited to asset managers, are where power in contemporary capitalist society lies.”

Christophers concludes Rentier Capitalism with four policy recommendations: a reform of tax incentives, stronger competition regulation, an “entrepreneurial state” willing to direct investment in a healthier direction, and active support for different kinds of ownership: not just public ownership, but also co-ops, mutuals, and employee trusts.

“There is a longstanding liberal critique of rentierism.”

Strikingly, for all its radicalism, Rentier Capitalism was praised to the skies by the most established of economics commentators, like Martin Wolf of the Financial Times and Ed Conway of The Times. It’s rather odd that a writer strongly influenced by the Marxist tradition, who occasionally likes to quote Lenin, should receive this kind of acclaim. But as Christophers points out, there is a longstanding liberal critique of rentierism. “My work is more acceptable to the mainstream than if I was looking at certain other aspects of capitalism.”

No doubt the book’s thoroughness helped, as well. Christophers writes, he says, with “the Financial Times reader and the Financial Times writer in mind”: They are “the audience I want to satisfy that I have got the technical details right. I think my books are a lot harder to dismiss out of hand, because I do a reasonable job, at least, of understanding the technical aspects.”

Yet Christophers’s new book has run into one hostile review, from The Economist, which accused him of offering a standard-issue critique of privatization. “That review was both dumb and dishonest,” Christophers says when I bring it up. Dishonest, he argues, because the book explicitly leaves aside the usual anti-privatization arguments. “And dumb in the sense that it said asset managers are generating really good returns. Well, yeah, I say that they’re generating a lot of money, but the whole point of the book is: How are they doing that? By being extractive and ratcheting up rents.”

Christophers foresees that a similarly lopsided model will dominate the current transition to green energy—the subject of his next book—with potentially disastrous results for the planet.

Despite his increasing prominence, Christophers enjoys being on the academic “periphery” in Sweden. He lives there partly for family reasons, but it suits him, too. “I like it when people engage with my work, of course I do. But I don’t pine for prestige, I have no desire to be at an Ivy League university or Oxbridge.”

“I kind of like being on the outside,” he says, “lobbing missiles in.”

Dan Hitchens is a senior editor of First Things.


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