Date of Degree

9-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Earth & Environmental Sciences

Advisor

David Harvey

Committee Members

Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Marianna Pavlovskaya

Gary Dymski

Subject Categories

Economic Theory | Geography | Human Geography | Philosophy | Political Economy | Political Theory | Urban Studies and Planning

Keywords

ground rent, urban, financialization, capital, interest, speculation

Abstract

Why are the rents so high? Who is responsible for homelessness, for urban and rural displacement? How can these problems be combatted?

Recent literature addressing these questions has pointed to gentrification and the financialization of land and housing, faulted financialized landlords, hedge funds, and the irredeemable logic of finance, and pointed to the importance of land and housing regulation to prevent displacement.

However, theories of displacement—in both land and housing, on both urban and rural terrain—suffer from a lack of an underlying theory of the logic, tendencies, and limits of ground rent extraction in capitalism.

This dissertation develops a theory of capitalist ground rent that is applicable across the rural/urban divide. I outline the necessary social forms which arise from capitalist private property in land, and point to essential tendencies and limits to ground rent extraction. In so doing I offer the beginning of a general structure which underlies struggles over land and housing.

My arguments involve an explication and advancement of Marxian ground rent theory, and draw extensively on Marx’s own writings as well as classical economists on ground rent. I analyze mainstream economic research on real estate markets and critical literature on the financialization of land and housing. I mobilize data from the Bureau of Economic Research, the Federal Reserve, and the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as some private companies aggregating data on land, rent, and housing. I draw from personal and published accounts of struggles by working and poor people for land control.

I situate my arguments in a position on capitalism developed, but not exhausted, by Value-Form Theorists and Marxian critiques of political economy–which view capitalism as a system governed in part by specific abstract logics such as that of value production—and by theorists of racial capitalism, primarily within the Black Radical Tradition, who suggest an endogenous account of race within the capitalist mode of production and emphasize the importance of refusal.

Chapter 1, The Landowning Class, presents a defense of the concept of the landowning class as third class of the capitalist mode of production—a theory which has been widely abandoned over the last century.

Chapter 2, Ground Rent, revisits Marx’s theory of ground rent by contrasting it with interest (in opposition to contemporary scholarship which often collapses rent and interest) and argues that the categories of absolute rent and differential rent each reveal an essential aspect of the capitalist mode of production: absolute rent highlights the power of the landowner to withdraw land from the market, and differential rent reveals the fact that land (or space) is the singular value-less, monopolizable resource.

Chapter 3, Land and “Finance,” defines and categorizes the different forms of speculative and securitized ground rent, including mortgages, sale price of land, and land-based securities such as REIT stock and Mortgage-backed securities. I analyze mainstream economic approaches to land-based revenue streams and investment vehicles, and suggest that land-based markets and land-based securities diverge from other financial investments because they remain tethered to actual ground rent extraction.

Chapter 4, Landed Class Struggle, analyzes the strategies available to the landowning class which they may use to increase their power to extract ground rent. These include withholding land from the market, soliciting favorable government policy, and inducing a rise in the price of what I call “high-rent commodities.” I advance a novel theory of urban residential ground rent, locating capitalist production in the reproduction of “home” for monthly sale. I also suggest a different answer to the question “Why are the rents so damn high?” in urban residential rentals by applying the same methods Marx used in analyzing agricultural rents.

Chapter 5, Financialization, criticizes what I call the epochal theory of the “financialization of land and housing,” on the basis that the rise in “finance” and its imbrication with ground rent is not new, and that the quantitative shifts over the last half century do not indicate a qualitative, epochal break. Also, while this literature argues that finance is taking over land and housing, I argue the opposite: a larger and larger portion of global “financial” revenue is being extracted in the form of ground rent, indicating a process of the “housingification of finance.”

Through this dissertation I attempt to systematize a theory of ground rent and private landownership that builds from Marx’s preliminary drafts on the topic. I intervene in several long-standing debates in Marxian political economy, critical geography, and social theory around urban ground rent, the status of the landowning class in capitalism, and the stakes of land-based struggles. I suggest that the structural analysis of land relations in capitalism can improve the concept of class struggle by including within it a broader range of struggles, and also refine our notions of what it means to struggle against capitalism. Further inquiry into capitalist landed property along these lines should also advance our understanding of the nature of the capitalist state form. I also suggest that the “housingification of finance” (or, more accurate but even less pronounceable, the “ground-rentification of finance”) and the behavior of landowners in “High-Rent” sectors are important avenues for future research.

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