His wealth has nothing to do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors, or ‘exploiting’ its workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). Millions of people still buy Microsoft software because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolizing the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatized part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed.
Zizek, and others, in particular Hardt and Negri, see the global economy in a post-industrial stage. The dynamic leading sectors are not necessarily those most effectively generating profit by exploitation of labor but those accumulating wealth far beyond that accounted for by the labor value of commodities. Intellectual property and natural resources can be analyzed in this way.
“The privatization of knowledge… is at the core of today’s struggles over intellectual property: as the role of the general intellect – based on collective knowledge and social co-operation allows a form of rent to be appropriated.”
The same is true of natural resources, the exploitation of which is one of the world’s main sources of rent. There is a permanent struggle over who gets this rent: citizens of the Third World or Western corporations.
Here is the kicker:
Any attempt now to link the rise and fall in the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of exploited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportion of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resource’s owners can command thanks to its limited supply.