On rent

I love you

You pay my rent

Pet Shop Boys, “Rent”

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in rented accommodation. Why is this?

The relationship between landlord and tenant goes back at least to the feudal period, as does much of the legislation governing it, at least in Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions. Now the feudal period gets a lot of bad press, to the point where there is a school of historians who want to deny that “feudalism” was ever a thing. but without getting into all that there is one characteristic of feudalism that I want to stress: economic (and political and military) arrangements were based above all on personal relationships.

This is so utterly alien to the way we do things in modern industrial society that I want to explore it a little. Your typical mediaeval peasant would have a landlord. In all likelihood, he would know his landlord personally. Indeed, quite often the landlord wouldn’t be all that much richer than some of his tenants. The rent would not however be paid in money but in kind (so many bushels of wheat, say), in service (so many days a year of labour), or in some combination of the two, to an amount that tended not to change much over time. The peasant’s family would live in the same village for many generations, and the landlord’s family would stay in the same manor-house for many generations. This makes for dull history, but remember what the Chinese are supposed to say about interesting times.

The landlord himself was in turn probably the tenant of someone else higher up the food-chain, right up to the tenants-in-chief, who were technically tenants of the king. We don’t tend to think of, say, Warwick the Kingmaker as a tenant, but legally he was. Only the king really owned the land, at least in theory, and Warwick the Kingmaker had a personal relationship with the king – in his case, with several of them. At the Warwick the Kingmaker level, rent would usually take the form of military service. This is how mediaeval kings raised their armies, and also why their armies tended to disintegrate once they had better things to do, like get in the harvest. This obligation to military service went all the way down to the peasant level, which is where foot-soldiers came from, and also why mediaeval foot-soldiers were generally seen as a bit rubbish.

Now I am not arguing that this was some ideal form of society, although it lasted for enough centuries that we can assume that it had its points. But where it differs most dramatically from our current arrangements is that it was a set of personal relationships, and that there were obligations in both directions. A good lord would look after his tenants, and his tenants would look after him. Of course in practice there were plenty of bad lords and for that matter bad tenants, but that was how it was supposed to work, and on the whole it seems to have worked well enough most of the time.

None of this obtains nowadays. I spent many years in rented accommodation, and I only knew two of my landlords personally. (One of them, indeed, was an insurance company, and not knowable personally at all.). My rent consisted of a monetary payment, which was subject to review (read: increase) every year. Usually I dealt with a management company or some other intermediary, paid by my landlord and therefore acting in his/her/its interests. And the arrangement was always assumed to be temporary. Indeed, it was defined as such.

These are not conditions which encourage good relations. In fact, they almost prohibit such relations. They are also not conducive to stability, either at the individual level or at the social level. The mediaeval peasant may not have owned his tenancy, but neither was there any serious danger that his family would be thrown out of it when he died. The modern tenant may have some legal protections, but once the person whose name is on the lease hops the twig, it’s game over.

Now this is part of a wider trend, in which people become increasingly isolated and atomised and the cash-relationship is substituted for every other kind of relationship. In such an environment, stability is an impossible dream – rather, it becomes a nightmare, since in a static world there is no scope for arbitrage. The fantasy of those who promote and profit from this world has been nicely articulated by an acolyte of the delightful Klaus Schwab and his World Economic Forum:

Welcome to the year 2030. Welcome to my city – or should I say, “our city.” I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes.

Ida Auken

If you follow the link to that article – go on, I dare you – everything is described as being free. But I can’t imagine anyone who has ever paid rent could really believe that, because the one unquestioned fact about our world is that, if money can be made from a thing, someone is making money from that thing.

And I would wager, dear reader, that you have paid and are paying rent. Even if you “own” your house, if you have a mortgage then you are paying rent on the money you used to buy it – and the bank still has the deeds. The same goes for your car, or for anything else you “bought” with borrowed money. For many people, this goes for the fuel they use, the water they drink and the food they eat. We already live in a world in which ownership is concentrated in very few hands; as few as in mediaeval Europe. What we don’t have is the slightest reciprocity from the owners.

Because housing has ceased to be something that exists primarily for people to live in. It has become an investment vehicle, a cow to be milked by those who own it. And it isn’t just housing that is going this way. There are very few enterprises you can make money from these days, and so the wealthy are increasingly becoming what economists call rentiers. A rentier is someone who does absolutely nothing productive, but owns an asset – an apartment block, a patent, a copyright, a tract of land, a monopoly – from which money can be extracted, because other people need it to use it.

Entire books have been written on this phenomenon – recently, for example, Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It? by Brett Christophers (Verso, 2020). The reason it has become so prevalent is not, I think, simply the fact that rich people want to get even richer; that was the case well before even the days of Warwick the Kingmaker. The reason is that you can no longer make money they way you used to, by having some kind of productive enterprise like a farm or an iron-foundry or even a software house. There are no good investments, as we used to understand the term. On the contrary, real wealth is contracting already, and I don’t see it expanding any time soon.

So I don’t happen to think that 2030 will look the way Ms Auken invites us to imagine. Dr Schwab and his merry pranksters have a little over eight years from the time of writing to bring that scenario about, and the omens are not propitious. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if global property markets – and stock markets – were to experience what is euphemistically known as a “correction” between now and 2030. Frankly, I would be more surprised if that didn’t happen.

You may see this as good news, or bad news, or not news at all. Like most news, I expect it to be mixed. But to paraphrase Michael Hudson, rent that can’t be paid, won’t be paid. What that means for you, dear reader, depends on whether you are a landlord or a tenant. Prepare accordingly.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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