This extraction of wealth has also extended ever more towards the rise of the rentier class. If we accept that there are two main ways of legally making money, one is through work – using our skills, strength, knowledge etc to make things, provide services, etc in return for which we earn money. The second way is that of the rentier. Here, individuals gain income and profit by leveraging things which already exist, such as land, knowledge or money. In the past, the superrich of the 17th – 19th century inherited land and simply charged others to use it or allowed others to work for them as long as they got a share of the profit. Here, no real effort was required, money was simply leveraged from a resource they already had. And the size and opulence of the stately homes of Great Britain demonstrate how good they were at it.
In the modern economy the rentier class has emerged in both finance and hi-tech industries. Rutger Bregman writing for the Guardian argue that tech firms such as Amazon, Facebook and Google all owe their businesses to government funded innovation which they took up and used, whilst ensuring they don’t pay very much in the way of tax. They also grow through other people populating their platforms with content, so that they don’t even have to bother with producing very much themselves. Tom Goodwin goes on to highlight that Uber owns no cars, Facebook creates no content and Airbnb owns no properties.
In the natural world, an important characteristic of many parasites is that they don’t actually kill their host. They will cause harm, but can potentially feed for prolonged periods of time, often for years without killing their host. Likewise, parasitic capitalism has been successful in extracting the wealth form its host, the wider human population, without killing it – but sections of this form of capitalism is now showing worrying signs of moving towards a position where it will progressively kill the host it is reliant on.
One stark illustration of the impact of parasitic capitalism is the estimated 120,000 deaths in the UK as a result of austerity. This suggests that whilst the richest in the UK have expanded their wealth significantly since the financial crash of 2008, extracting value from the economy, there has been a mirrored collapse in the support for others – and this has led to deaths. David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu have identified other results of austerity such as increased suicide and a ballooning in the amount of depression across Europe and North America. This would suggest that rather than being parasitic, capitalism is moving into a process of killing and harming people on a large scale.
The near future would also suggest that this may get worse. The impending deadline for a Brexit deal shows the potential for further parasitic activity leading to harsh, and possibly catastrophic, results. Whilst some very rich people move their wealth abroad to ensure it is not impacted by a financial crash they are attempting to trigger in their own country, others, as they did during the 2016 referendum, have already bet against the pound. If it collapses, whilst the general population suffers, perhaps without medicines which support life, the rentiers will be able to use their recent boost in wealth to spend in the subsequent fire sale of British assets. Letting in the large pharmaceutical companies from the USA to charge exorbitant prices for near free-to-produce drugs will just be the icing on the cake. But this may lead to further death, and certainly to greater poverty. The parasitic capitalism of the last decade will be overstepping its boundaries and will be starting to kill off the host.
But this process is not confined to the USA and UK. The rentiers have been busy over the past 30 years. They have not only become parasitic to the economic system, but to the political system as well. Here, they have done an equal, if not more acute, level of damage. They have used their wealth to manipulate global narratives and concerns. There are many examples which could be given here, from the manipulation of national votes, to the use of social media to create climates of confusion and a collapse of trust. But climate change is the most obvious, with wealth making sure that early attempts to deal with climate shifts were never allowed to happen. As a result we are now in the position of having to call for climate emergencies, to take radical steps to avert a catastrophic impact – and still some of the rentiers attempt to stop us form taking action. The Amazon is set alight, fracking is seen as the solution in some cases, and some countries continue to mine coal as if it wasn’t an issue. Here, we are no longer talking about the national disgrace of capitalism killing individuals, we are talking about the continued desire to extract ever more wealth and power potentially leading to the death of not only much of the human species, but much of the biodiversity of the planet as well. Capitalism may well lead to the 6th extinction – its made a good start.
The above suggests that we have crossed a line – parasitic capitalism is ethically abhorrent, but it at least tended to make the host ill, finding it useful to keep it alive to aid in the continued extraction of wealth. But now, there are signs that parts of the capitalist system are actually beginning to kill off localised areas of the host on which it feeds; a form of necrosis. Necrosis can be caused by a number of processes. But I suggest that the most useful analogy here is necrotising fasciitis. It can start from a minor injury but once it has taken hold it can spread rapidly and is life threatening. The only way to stop its spread is to cut out all of the infected areas – otherwise it will continue to kill off the host. Necrotic capitalism has life threatening impacts on the wider population of the world, and ultimately, the wider biodiversity of the planet, and all so that it can continue to extract a wealth that itself will begin to be meaningless and ever less valuable. Not only will it kill its wider planetary host – in the end it will also end up killing itself! But for many of the rentiers, perhaps that will happen far enough in the future that they don't care.