Rentism – a new mode of production?

Image: Vasconario KG


Considerations from an article by Ladislau Dowbor


Ladislau Dowbor, through an article he called “Society in the digital age: a new mode of production”, proposed that rent-seeking, supposedly enabled by the new technologies of the so-called “industry 4.0” and leveraged by financialization, is at the foundation of a new mode of production.

While industrial capitalism had the appropriation of surplus and generation of more productive capacity through investment, in the new emergency production mode there is, according to him, appropriation of surplus through rentierism without an expansion of this capacity, corresponding to accumulation. .

This is what he says: “This is another mode of production under construction, in which financialization surpasses the productive accumulation of capital, exploitation through rentierism surpasses exploitation through low wages (surplus value), also because the very concept of employment shifts”. (Dowbor, 2014).

“Those in charge are no longer the captains of industry, but rather those who control the algorithms, and the immaterial money itself, within the framework of financialization. In terms of scientific analysis, it is now more productive to think about the new system, the rent-seeking that results from the digital revolution, than to add adjectives to the traditional concept of capitalism”. (Dowbor, 2014).

Mode of production is being defined here based on production technology in a phenomenal way. Yes, we can observe a major change in the forms of social interaction – and, therefore, economic interaction – in contemporary society and the economy. And this transformation is coming through new information and communication technologies. According to Ladislau Dowbor, by providing new ways of appropriating income, it is giving enormous support to financialization and rent-seeking, configuring processes that seem to oppose industrial accumulation and profit. It will be?

Now, as the notion of mode of production comes from Marx and Marxism, it is necessary to first ask how the notion of rentierism is usually thought of in this tradition, which sees itself above all as a critique of political economy. This way we can take a step in the process of verifying whether Ladislau Dowbor's theoretical claim makes sense.

Rentism in Marxism

Em Imperialism – superior phase of capitalism (2002), Vladimir Lenin, based on Rudolf Hilferding's classic book, once again presented the link between banking capital and industrial capital as financial capital: the concentration of production produces monopolies, “the merger or joining of banks with industry: this is the story of the emergence of financial capital, as well as what this concept entails” (Lenin, 2002, p. 36). And this advent takes capitalism to a higher phase in which relations between nations are marked by imperialism.

It is characteristic of capitalism in general to separate the ownership of capital from its application to production, to separate money capital from industrial or productive capital, to separate the rentier, who lives only on the income coming from money capital, from the entrepreneur and from all people who participate directly in capital management. Imperialism, or the dominance of financial capital, is capitalism at its highest level, in which this separation acquires immense proportions. The predominance of financial capital over all other forms of capital implies the predominance of the rentier and the financial oligarchy, the prominent situation of a few States with financial “power” in relation to all the rest. (Lenin, p. 176)

Em Financial capitalism today (2016), François Chesnais once again consecrates the term rentier, naming with this term not only the owner of capital who is absent from production, but capital itself as rentier.[I]

The term “rentier capital” is considered by many to be politically charged and therefore to be avoided. However, from a classical (non-vulgar) and Kaleckian Marxist theoretical perspective, no analysis of the foundations of the social and political domination of capital, at a national or international level, can simply leave the term aside. The notion is central to the economic, political and social dimensions specific to the Hobsonian and Marxist theory of imperialism. (Chesnais, 2016, p. 8).

It may seem strange, but this term is occasionally used in The capital in books II and III just to indicate the capitalist who is not involved in the production of common, non-financial goods. Here is how the term appears in chapter 32 of Book III: “As material wealth grows, the class of monetary capitalists grows; increase, on the one hand, the number and wealth of capitalists who withdraw, of rentiers [rentiers]; on the other hand, the credit system is encouraged and, as a result, the number of bankers, moneylenders, financiers, etc., increases. As we have already explained, the development of available monetary capital is accompanied by an increase in the mass of interest-bearing papers, public bonds, shares, etc.” (Marx, 2017, p. 568-9).

In all three authors consulted, who form a small but well-representative sample of Marx's or Marx's critical thinking, rentierism appears as an inherent consequence of the development of capitalism itself - not as a failure of this development process, without also engender any tendency towards overcoming capitalism.

Lenin especially explicitly associates rentierism not just with a class fraction, but with a source of national and international political power that sustains imperialism. At the same time, he takes it as a symptom of a supposed decomposition of capitalism that was already underway at the beginning of the 20th century.

From this perspective presented above, rentierism configures a living condition for part or a large part of the owning class, but which can go beyond it. In particular, it appears to have grown greatly with the expansion of what, since Rudolf Hilferding at the beginning of the 20th century, has been called finance capital. In any case, rentierism appears here only as a result of the process of differentiation of the capitalist class: rentiers are those owners of capital who can spend (consume or invest) without functioning as an administrator in the sphere of commodity production. Your income can come from profit, rent, interest, dividends, etc.

However, rentierism may be being fueled by new ways of obtaining income. Therefore, it is necessary to ask whether new computer technologies would not be creating new relationships and, thus, generating income of a new type and in large volumes, creating an emergency process. Now, what economic activities have become possible with so-called platforms?

Here's what they do: (a) they provide free services, but sell advertising; (b) provide services but charge for them, sometimes or often monopolistically; (c) internalize markets through merchandise sales platforms; (d) enable the development of new industrial processes and the generation of profit; (e) create logistics to organize geographically and/or temporally dispersed work. Now, whatever they may be, these forms do not present, in and of themselves, new ways of making money. They are just ways of generating and/or capturing surplus value in the sphere of circulation through transactions with goods. They do not, therefore, demarcate a new mode of production, even if they need to be better understood (Srnicek, 2017).

A new relationship?

As we know, the mode of production cannot be thought of based on the means of production and technology that are used in it, as it must be defined mainly based on the social relationship that characterizes it – even if it is the unity of the material base and the social form.[ii] In the case of capitalism, the relationship that defines it as such is the capital relationship, that is, the social relationship between capital and the work subsumed under it; the capitalist and the worker are just personifications of one and the other, respectively. The form par excellence of this relationship is wage employment, although in its historical development, capital has also used other forms of subordination of work. Furthermore, it is certain that the relationship presupposes a certain development of productive forces, which – obviously – depends on the technologies incorporated in the means of production, as well as in the structure of organizations.

As a way of interacting – and, in particular, of producing –, new technologies, especially platforms, reconfigure sociability in general and, thus, commercial sociability as well. For this reason, it is necessary to ask: is a new social relationship of production emerging, based on them? Ladislau Dowbor says yes because he claims that a social relationship of finance is now developing and that it is becoming more important than the capital relationship. This is why he says that “financialization surpasses [now] the productive accumulation of capital.” Somehow, which is not yet clear, D – D' accumulation took off and now far surpasses D – M – D' accumulation.

But where does ∆D = D'– D come from in each case? In the second case, it comes from the surplus value produced by wage labor, but where would the surplus value come from in the first case? Now, in general, the financial appreciation D – D' comes through the increased return on a loan. This return may be purely fictitious (the debt is simply rolled over at maturity); it can come from the surplus value obtained in D – M – D' by an industrial or commercial capitalist, or it can come from part of the income of any borrower. However, as Ladislau Dowbor also says that “exploitation through rent-seeking surpasses wage exploitation”, he must be thinking about something else. What thing?

He explains: “What happened to the capitalism of yesteryear? As the new mechanisms do not fit into the traditional concepts of analysis of industrial capitalism, qualifications are added: Robert Reich talks about corporate capitalism, Mariana Mazzucato about extractive capitalism, Grzegorz Konat about real capitalism, Joel Kotkin about neofeudalism (…). But it’s not enough to add qualifications: we need to think about whether it’s still capitalism.”

Ladislau Dowbor does not specify any new social relations of production capable of defining the new mode of production. In any case, it is necessary to examine these “new mechanisms” of extracting value that you speak of. Do they really not fit into traditional concepts? It has already been seen that capitalism cannot be identified with industrial capitalism; behold, there has never been a pure industrial capital that does not use financing capital.

But that is not all. Since its beginning, an endogenous tendency towards capital socialization has existed in this mode of production, which implies the necessary expansion of financial capital, as well as financialization (Prado, 2024). Because, in addition to subsuming work in the spheres of production and circulation, capital positions itself as a commodity, that is, in Marx's terms, it can function as interest-bearing capital.

An old “mechanism”

To examine this point it is necessary to present the forms of the relationship between capital and labor that can occur in capitalism; but not only those that are intrinsic to it, but also the ways it can use to subsist and prosper. As we know, the social wage relationship through which capital subsumes – formally and real, materially and intellectually – work is central to the capitalist mode of production. Even if there are variations in the structure of the employment contract, wage employment always requires the rental (temporary sale) of the workforce so that it is available to the capitalist to carry out certain tasks, under his command.

However, this form does not present itself as exclusive in the history of capitalism because the social relations held there are above all relations of merchandise and money. Therefore, self-employment, a remnant of crafts, may exist there – and even prosper in a limited way – as there are certain services that escape the control of capital because its agents are unable to acquire the means of production that are necessary for them. Either way, it supports capitalism.

On the other hand, capitalism can make use of past social relations, as occurred in colonial slavery precisely as a form of primary (or primitive) accumulation. In the chapter on “Primitive Accumulation” of Book I of The capital one of these historical combinations is described as follows: “while introducing child slavery in England, the cotton industry provided, at the same time, the impetus for the transformation of the slave economy of the United States, previously more or less patriarchal, into a commercial system of exploitation (Marx, 2013, p. 538). There is no need to go into the question of whether colonial slavery is a distinct mode of production here, as it is enough to see that it establishes a relationship between capital and labor that uses slavery.

However, that's not all. There is the possibility that the subsumption of labor to capital occurs not through wages, but through the rental of a means of production, which is essential for the production of a certain good or service, but is monopolized by a capitalist. Marx, in the chapter on “Machinery and large industry” in Book I, records the case of cottage factories, which, for him, represent an incomplete transition from crafts to manufacturing. In the case he reported, a capitalist has a machine – it is in fact a steam producer – that many workers need, which forces them to subordinate themselves to the capitalist owner and pay rent for its use. This is how, he says, “a single machine (…) can once again serve as the basis for artisanal production”; behold, in this case, “the small company connects to the driving force through steam rental” (Marx, 2013, p. 351).

In this case, workers remain independent of each other, but – it must be seen – they lose part of the independence that those who work on their own have. This is a form of subsumption of labor to capital that is not covered – it must be emphasized – by the category of “salaried employment”.

A return from the past

There are productive workers who produce merchandise and, thus, use value and value, and who depend on markets so that they can realize the value produced, through the metamorphosis of merchandise into money. However, they no longer appropriate all the value they add to the primary costs of production since they have to pay rent to the owner of the machine – a machine that appears as the material support of a capital that is positioned as a capital commodity. Now, this rent is the interest on the borrowed capital, which is implicitly added to the depreciation cost.

Now, what in the reported case appeared only as a past social form gained new life with platforms, which are nothing more than large systems of information processing machines. They are now necessary means of production for the production of many goods or services in contemporary society; behold, they provide “services”, by charging certain amounts, whether from people or organizations in general. As they store, transform and transmit data, platforms become universal means of social interaction, whether in the world of life or in systems, in the economic system in particular.

Work platforms make it possible to subordinate diverse and dispersed work to capital, in addition to wages. Because, with them, work can be subsumed to capital financially; behold, in this case, capital appears not as capital, but as a capital commodity. These are works that individually or collectively produce merchandise, value and use value. They are combined through the platform or remain not directly connected to each other. In the same way as with self-employed workers, those now considered, holders of commodities, have to sell them to obtain income for themselves and to pay the interest on borrowed capital, as well as to replace the costs of production. .

In these cases, workers enter the business with their labor power and with certain means of production that they themselves need to possess – as use values ​​that have value, but not as capital. The platform owner's capital does not act here as industrial capital, it does not organize work through a manufacturing or commercial enterprise, but as commodity capital, that is, as loan capital or, in Marx's terms, as capital bearing capital. fees.

Interest, as we know, is the rental value of capital put into a transaction in which only its use value – but not the property – is actually transacted. This is the form of gain (rental of means of production represented in money) even if the charge reaches amounts above market interest and even abusive amounts.


There is a new productive force: digital information processing and communication technologies. There is an expansion of the function of interest-bearing capital. There is a profound change in the forms of social interaction. However, there is no structurally new rentierism, there is no new social relationship of production, there is no new “mechanism” of value extraction, therefore – a fortiori – there is no new mode of production.

* Eleutério FS Prado He is a full and senior professor in the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of Capitalism in the 21st century: sunset through catastrophic events (CEFA Editorial). []


Chesnais, François – Finance Capital Today – Corporations and banks in the lasting global slump. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016.

Dowbor, Ladislau – Society in the digital age: another mode of production. Portal Other words, 19/04/2024.

Lenin, Vladimir I. – Imperialism – superior phase of capitalism. São Paulo: FE/Unicamp, 20211. Electronic edition.

Marx, Carl – Capital – Critique of Political Economy. Book I. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013.

Marx, Karl – Capital – Critique of Political Economy. Book III. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

Prado, Eleutério FS – “Rentism! and the lexis of Capital. Economy and Complexity Blog:

Prado, Eleutério FS – On the notion of financial capital. the earth is round:

Srnicek, Nick – platform capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.


[I] See about this Prado (2017).

[ii] In a section of your article, A methodological and theoretical challenge, Dowbor seeks to specify the mode of production through the material base (means of production/technology). Thus, feudalism, capitalism and the supposed informational mode of production arise from the use of land, traditional machines and informational machines, respectively. It thus falls into reification; as it does not distinguish the social form from the material base, it reasons based on the form of objectivity characteristic of capitalism.

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