How Britain’s biggest privatisation went unnoticed, why the heart of the national economy is rent, and what it means to live in asset-manager society.

“It’s OK,” the title of Bernie Sanders’ new book informs us, “to be angry about capitalism.” But of course, we already knew that. The background noise of our time is of resentment toward the neoliberal order—the insecurity it has foisted on the poor and increasingly on the middle class, the destruction it has wreaked on the environment, its hollowing-out of families, communities, and traditions. What we need isn’t permission to be angry, but a better comprehension of a system so complex that both admirers and critics struggle to get their heads around it.

That, I think, is why more and more readers—from big-name academics like Adam Tooze and Mariana Mazzucato to ordinary citizens trying to make sense of the world—are enthralled by the work of the economic geographer Brett Christophers, a professor at the University of Uppsala. Nobody could accuse Christophers of ignorantly ranting against a half-understood enemy: His books resemble vast excavation projects, in which the author drills through mile after mile of granite-like material—balance sheets, annual reports, parliamentary-committee minutes, documents from the National Infrastructure Commission, and at one point (he writes with a self-deprecating twinkle) a “fascinating if dry 2016 review of taxation of the UK water companies.”

From these subterranean expeditions, Christophers usually emerges with some outrageous claim that seems both shocking and appropriate to our disorienting era. In 2018, he published a book explaining that the largest privatization in modern British history had gone unnoticed. (See if you can guess: The answer is below.) Then, in 2020, Christophers’s Rentier Capitalismargued that the heart of the British economy wasn’t entrepreneurship or innovation or anything like that, but rent: that is, the ability to make money by controlling assets such as land or intellectual property in an uncompetitive environment. Christophers’ new book, meanwhile, states its audacious thesis in the title, Our Lives in Their Portfolios: Why Asset Managers Own the World.

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