We Can Reimagine Our Systems of Ownership and Control

The Left’s agenda has to include three basic commitments: democratize production, decommodify life’s essentials, and defend the public goods we all hold in common. To do that, we have to transform the very idea of ownership.

Freedom is incompatible with the private regimes of power that capitalist property relations generate. (Gonz DDL / Unsplash)

Throughout the pandemic and the period of economic pain it brought, the news cycle has been gripped by a series of mounting disasters. Global vaccine apartheid, the result of the Global North’s refusal to allow nonproprietary sharing of vaccine technology, meant that, by late 2021, 80 percent of adults in the EU were fully vaccinated, but only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries had received a single dose. As housing wealth surged to record highs, renters have endured ongoing insecurity. As up to 500 million people were thrown into extreme poverty, with the incomes of 99 percent of the world’s population falling between March 2020 and October 2021, the wealth of the world’s ten richest men doubled to $1.5 trillion, and a new billionaire was minted every seventeen hours.

Since then, spiraling energy prices have driven acutely painful inflation across much of the world, with projections suggesting an astonishing two-thirds of UK households could be in fuel poverty by next year, even as energy producers and suppliers maintain enormous profits and payouts. And beneath it all, the climate and ecological emergencies have continued to unfurl at astonishing pace: unprecedented droughts grip the agricultural regions of Europe; temperatures in parts of England surpass 40 degrees Celsius; and fires tear through “carbon offset” sites across the world, sending the promise of carbon sequestration up in smoke.

None of these events are isolated. Rather, they are the fruits of a particular social and economic arrangement. The crises we face today are both overlapping and unevenly felt, and running through each is an essential thread: the way ownership is currently organized. The pandemic set alight the mass of dry tinder piled up over decades in which the rights of property have been prioritized over collective well-being.

Power is determined by the distribution and nature of property rights. Thus, how our economy is owned, and in whose interest this power is exercised, decisively shapes our societies and our lives.

This may seem like an obvious point — property relations and the distribution of property have always been vital in determining how an economy is structured and whose interests it serves. Baronial possession of land shaped feudalism, colonial dispossession underpinned the accumulation of empire, slave ownership enabled phenomenal wealth and violence in slaver societies, and, still today, it is the interests of asset owners that largely dictate how our economies are run and our resources organized. These structures evolved over time; they are neither neutral nor fixed. The rules governing property rights reflect the ebb and flow of power within a society.

This insight actually should offer some hope. Ownership is not the sole determinant of social and economic outcomes, but it is a thread that connects the immense challenges we face, as well as the many ways in which we might strive to overcome them by reimagining and transforming it.

An Ownership System That Serves the Owners

The UK is presently gripped by a cost-of-living crisis, marked by surging inflation driven largely by commodities fundamental to life — fuel, energy, food. At the same time, shareholders of the major utility companies, alongside the fossil fuel producers providing the gas they distribute, continue to benefit from enormous dividends and share buybacks.

Ownership here is doubly pivotal. First, it undergirds an inflationary environment in which the poorest households could see an 18 percent rise in their costs due to their greater relative spending on the essentials — food, energy, and rent — most gripped by soaring prices. Second, a particular regime of ownership serves to justify enormous payouts to shareholders amid this suffering, including through its role in enmeshing pensioners within the financial system, allowing record dividends and buybacks to be excused by policymakers and commentators based on the (false) supposition that they pay pensioners’ incomes.

Or take the energy crisis. While the immediate cause is the explosion in wholesale oil and gas prices, the way this has been refracted through society — making a few winners and many losers — is inseparable from how our energy system is owned and the logics the for-profit corporate ownership model imparts.

For example, this year BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Total made underlying profits of nearly $100 billion in the first half of 2022 — three times their earnings of the same period in 2021. In some senses, distributing gains to shareholders could be better from a climatic perspective than additional capital expenditure on new fossil fuel infrastructure. But this implies an imagined future in which the fossil fuel giants simply wind themselves down — something directly contradicted by their published plans and ongoing investment in both extraction and exploration.

ExxonMobil spent more than double in 2020 on executive pay than it did on low-carbon capital expenditures in the past year. At a time when energy bills are eye-watering, they could be squeezing their margins to ease the pressure on households and business. Instead, the energy giants are using the crisis to transfer vast wealth from households and businesses to shareholders.

We should, however, expect little different: the alpha and omega of these companies is maximizing returns to their shareholders, extracting wealth from the many for the few. 

Nor is the crisis a particular shift in this pattern of energy companies geared toward the interests of wealthy asset holders over ordinary working people. Between 2010 and 2020, for example, BP and Shell spent over £147.2 billion on stock buybacks and dividends, while the US Big Five oil and gas companies paid out over $200 billion to shareholders between 2015 and 2020.

While the energy companies stand out in scale, the economy as a whole is little different in operation. Wherever we turn — from private equity’s growing grip on adult social care to the financialization of housing to the pressure on real wages even as corporate profits boom — we see the same pattern. Extractive ownership models drive the inequalities of the asset economy, in which those that work produce wealth for those that own.

An Alternative Agenda

In many senses, the contemporary capitalist system is ruthlessly effective, doing precisely what it is designed to do: accumulate, enclose, concentrate, and expand for the benefit of those who own. It has generated extraordinary wealth, but in doing so, has made its hallmark poverty amid unprecedented plenty. Now the same processes of concentration, enclosure, and extraction built into its design are beginning to exhaust the very sources of social and ecological wealth that capitalist economies rely upon to reproduce themselves.

Against this, an alternative agenda that challenges the inequalities of the asset economy must be systemic in orientation: the institutions of the extractive economy must be democratized, from the corporation to capital markets, through new tools of public planning and inclusive ownership; the ubiquitous extraction of rent, from utilities to housing, must be challenged through an expansive wave of decommodification that replaces financialized access to life’s essentials with public provision; and privatized enclosure must be met with a new era of commoning of land, nature, and technologies.

In short, to challenge the primacy of property, we must democratize production, decommodify life’s essentials, and defend the commons.

The primacy of property was established through a state-led political agenda that did not just privatize and outsource but used fiscal and monetary policy to prioritize and inflate the wealth of asset owners. Reversing this will be critical to reshaping the role of ownership in our societies.

If the slogan of capital’s revolt in the 1970s was “Stabilize prices, crush labor, discipline the south,” the (admittedly bulkier) slogan of the politics aiming to end its rule should instead proclaim, “Democratize the economy, decommodify the foundations of life, defend the commons.” We have the resources and capabilities today to guarantee material security and the fundamentals of a good life for everyone on earth. There is no need to wait for some imagined technological liberation nor justification for doing so. Democratizing ownership can redistribute power and the gains of collective enterprise; decommodifying provision of the goods and infrastructures we need can free us from market dependency while ensuring everyone has access to life’s necessities; and defending and expanding the commons can bring assets under shared stewardship for the common good.

This is ultimately a project of democracy: the extension of democratic principles and relationships into spaces currently ruled by private property.

If neoliberalism is a project of state power to defend property against popular demands for more equal reordering, the countermovement insists instead that the economy is a socially made entity that democratic power can restructure. A democratic economy is one in which the principles of democracy we are all familiar with extend beyond the political system and into our workplaces and communities, and where we re-extend common control over how the economy functions to expand human freedom.

The freedom of some cannot be based on the exploitation of others, nor exercised through unjustifiable hierarchies. It is, therefore, incompatible with the private regimes of power that capitalist property relations generate.

Instead, freedom is a shared project: individual liberty is secured through collective emancipation. Fundamental to this must be a politics committed to reimagining our systems of ownership and control.

There is no single party, tradition, or movement that can or should do this alone. We need a mass popular front that spans diverse groups.

The story that needs to be told is clear: the extraordinary potential of the many is held back by the institutions that shape our lives and communities, institutions that consolidate wealth and power while inflicting violence on communities and the natural world by prioritizing property at the expense of urgent needs. The political right defends and reproduces this configuration; to overcome it, a new bloc must contest and reimagine institutions of ownership and control to build an alternative, inclusive, and thoroughly democratic society.

Building agency and democratic control into every sphere of life can help counter the justified disillusionment with the political system and its agents that many across the political spectrum feel. To win, we urgently need to move from a moral critique of the present to standing against the forces and institutions that generate these injustices with a credible plan for dismantling them — and erecting in their place something new. It’s time we owned the future.