In a set of four books published in just six years, the English geographer Brett Christophers has developed a rigorous empirical-historical critique of contemporary capitalism. Few today will need convincing that the neoliberal offensive, launched in the late 1970s to resolve a global profitability crisis and beat back an insurgent labour movement, has resulted in surging inequality, declining real wages, soaring asset prices, financial instability and ecological devastation. But by analysing the activities of powerful corporations—their investment decisions, asset portfolios, business models—Christophers sets out to show precisely how this transformation has played out. What are its concrete ramifications? How does it affect both everyday lives and broader social relations?

Christophers first posed such questions in The New Enclosure (2018), which examined land privatization in Britain, followed by Rentier Capitalism (2020), which considered how the country has been reshaped by the monopolization of other scarce resources. The scope of subsequent works was broader, though still largely confined to the Western world, with Our Lives in Their Portfolios (2023) charting the rise of asset management firms and The Price Is Wrong (2024) assessing the obstacles to the green energy transition. Together, these studies represent an impressive attempt to dissect the capitalist beast and understand its inner workings. The author describes his method as ‘political-economic, not ideational’. His focus is on ‘actions taken and their impact’, as opposed to theories or ideologies.footnote1 He takes neoliberal policies on their own terms—the assumption that ‘profit-maximizing private enterprise would always be leaner, more competitive and more efficient, and would generate better outcomes for consumers’—and exposes their failure with ample quantitative data.footnote2 Offering a detailed analysis of market logics and corporate rationales, his oeuvre might be situated somewhere in the genre of ‘critical business studies’, which is partly what explains its positive reception in outlets like the New York Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times and Bloomberg.

Despite these establishment laurels, Christophers’s work stands in a tradition that runs back through David Harvey and Lefebvre to Polanyi and Marx. His criticisms of each sector of the rentier economy—land, finance, infrastructure, platforms, public services, outsourcing, utilities—are trenchant enough in themselves; together they add up to a comprehensive indictment of the current mode of accumulation. By documenting the social impact of everyday business practice, they not only undermine the mythology of neoliberalism but call into question the more fundamental institutions of private ownership and market coordination. Readers cannot help but conclude that, in the words of the great ecological economist William Kapp, ‘The more reliance an economic system places on private incentives and the pursuit of private gain the greater the danger that it will give rise to external “unpaid” social costs.’footnote3

Christophers’s unusually broad formation helps to explain the originality of his work. Born in Croydon, he read Geography at Oxford, then enrolled at the University of British Columbia in the early 1990s, to write his master’s thesis on John Booth Good’s Anglican Mission to the Nlakaʼpamux people of the Fraser Canyon. Later published as Positioning the Missionary (1998), it explored the reasons why the Nlakaʼpamux adopted Christianity and the contradictory role that missionaries played in the British colonial project.footnote4 Returning to the uk at the turn of the millennium, he worked as an analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers and began advising private-equity clients on acquisition strategy, performing financial modelling for major European corporations and instructing businesses on advertising campaigns, commercial partnerships and technological innovation. He was on the cusp of becoming a partner at Mercer when he decided to return to academia in 2005. His doctorate, at Auckland University, was a comparative study of television markets in the uk and New Zealand and their mutual imbrication with the American economy.footnote5 In 2008 he was hired by Uppsala University, where he now teaches in the Geography Department.

This globe-circling cursus equipped Christophers with the tools of a historical geographer as well as the technical expertise of a private-equity insider. His work is laser-focused on the bottom line, heeding Mary O’Sullivan’s advice that the task of the economic historian is ‘digging deeply into the character of profits’—the processes by which they were made, how businesspeople understood them, and how both of these have changed over time. Doreen Massey has been a significant influence as well as Harvey, whose work taught Christophers that ‘until capitalism has been demystified it cannot be supplanted’, and that the best means to do so is to interrogate its spatial and temporal dimensions.footnote6 Yet Christophers has also tried to build bridges between Marxian political economy and other contemporary heterodox approaches—such as Piketty on inequality or Callon on market performativity—arguing that the former cannot survive unless it connects with literature that has a ‘broader scholarly appeal’.footnote7 Judging by its reception, this attempt to bring a Marx-informed critique into mainstream debates has been remarkably successful. How should it be assessed, politically and intellectually?

The New Enclosure, the first book in Christophers’s informal series, reflects on the extraordinary and scarcely acknowledged fact that since Thatcher’s election in 1979, two million hectares of British land—10 per cent of the country’s total surface area—has been sold off by public entities, in what amounts to the largest privatization in national history. Land, Christophers observes, is the ‘ideal vehicle for both the storage and distribution of value’ given its simultaneous ‘finitude and ubiquity’. The market price of these assets is estimated to exceed £400 billion, but they have often been sold at bargain rates, depriving public bodies of vital income and constraining their capacity to invest. Their new owners have meanwhile made handsome returns. Real estate is now twice as large as any other sector, making it the uk’s primary source of economic growth, and property wealth has soared to some £8.1 trillion. Thatcher’s ministers promised that this fire-sale would lead to more housing, greater efficiency and community regeneration—none of which has come to pass. Instead, the poorest section of the population has seen the cost of rent as a share of income increase dramatically, from around 25 per cent in 1985 to nearly 45 per cent in 2015.

How have elites gained consent for this disastrous policy? First, by shrouding it in obscurity; as late as 2005, ownership of less than half the landmass of England and Wales was officially registered. Second, by presenting the privatization agenda—most notably Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy, which allowed council housing tenants to purchase their homes—as the basis for an affluent ‘property-owning democracy’. Yet as Christophers shows, individual ownership has significantly receded since the turn of the millennium. More than 40 per cent of all council flats sold under Right to Buy in England are now rented privately. Most newly enclosed land has been captured by developers, whose aim is to sustain housing prices—protecting the value of their assets and the financial profits they generate—by perpetuating scarcity. They are aided by a lax regulatory regime that places scant social obligations on speculators.