The Art of Rent

David Harvey
Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

That culture has become a commodity of some sort is undeniable. Yet there is also a widespread belief that there is something so special about certain cultural products and events (be they in the arts, theatre, music, cinema, architecture or more broadly in localized ways of life, heritage, collective memories and affective communities) as to set them apart from ordinary commodities like shirts and shoes. While the boundary between the two sorts of commodities is highly porous (perhaps increasingly so) there are still grounds for maintaining an analytic separation. It may be, of course, that we distinguish cultural artefacts and events because we cannot bear to think of them as anything other than authentically different, existing on some higher plane of human creativity and meaning than that located in the factories of mass production and consumption. But even when we strip away all residues of wishful thinking (often backed by powerful ideologies) we are still left with something very special about those products designated as ‘cultural’. How, then, can the commodity status of so many of these phenomena be reconciled with their special character?

Furthermore, the conditions of labour and the class positionality of the increasing number of workers engaged in cultural activities and production (more than 150,000 ‘artists’ were registered in the New York metropolitan region in the early 1980s and that number may well have risen to more than 250,000 by now) is worthy of consideration. They form the creative core of what Daniel Bell calls ‘the cultural mass’ (defined as not the creators but the transmitters of culture in the media and elsewhere).1 The political stance of this creative core as well as of the cultural mass is not inconsequential. In the 1960s, recall, the art colleges were hot-beds of radical discussion. Their subsequent pacification and professionalization has seriously diminished agitational politics. Revitalizing such institutions as centres of political engagement and mobilizing the political and agitational powers of cultural producers is surely a worthwhile objective for the left even if it takes some special adjustments in socialist strategy and thinking to do so. A critical examination of the relations between culture, capital and socialist alternatives can here be helpful as a prelude to mobilizing what has always been a powerful voice in revolutionary politics.

All rent is based on the monopoly power of private owners of certain portions of the globe. Monopoly rent arises because social actors can realize an enhanced income stream over an extended time by virtue of their exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradable item which is in some crucial respects unique and non-replicable. There are two situations in which the category of monopoly rent comes to the fore. The first arises because social actors control some special quality resource, commodity or location which, in relation to a certain kind of activity, enables them to extract monopoly rents from those desiring to use it. In the realm of production, Marx argues, the most obvious example is the vineyard producing wine of extraordinary quality that can be sold at a monopoly price. In this circumstance ‘the monopoly price creates the rent’.3 The locational version would be centrality (for the commercial capitalist) relative to, say, the transport and communications network or proximity (for the hotel chain) to some highly concentrated activity (such as a financial centre). The commercial capitalist and the hotelier are willing to pay a premium for the land because of accessibility. These are the indirect cases of monopoly rent. It is not the land, resource or location of unique qualities which is traded but the commodity or service produced through their use. In the second case, the land or resource is directly traded upon (as when vineyards or prime real estate sites are sold to multinational capitalists and financiers for speculative purposes). Scarcity can be created by withholding the land or resource from current uses and speculating on future values. Monopoly rent of this sort can be extended to ownership of works of art (such as a Rodin or a Picasso) which can be (and increasingly are) bought and sold as investments. It is the uniqueness of the Picasso or the site which here forms the basis for the monopoly price.

The two forms of monopoly rent often intersect. A vineyard (with its unique Chateau and beautiful physical setting) renowned for its wines can be traded at a monopoly price directly as can the uniquely flavoured wines produced on that land. A Picasso can be purchased for capital gain and then leased to someone else who puts it on view for a monopoly price. The proximity to a financial centre can be traded directly as well as indirectly to, say, the hotel chain that uses it for its own purposes. But the difference between the two rental forms is important. It is unlikely (though not impossible), for example, that Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace will be traded directly (even the most ardent privatizers might balk at that). But they can be and plainly are traded upon through the marketing practices of the tourist industry (or in the case of Buckingham Palace, by the Queen).

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