Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Owning the Future

Common Wealth, a new left-wing think tank launched this week, is guided by a mission: to overcome neoliberalism by democratising ownership.

In the face of crisis, we cannot afford smallness of ambition. The institutions, infrastructure, and ways of life of the carbon age must be rapidly and radically transformed in little more than a decade to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. This is a daunting political project, one of deep, radical creation, that must be negotiated together with great care. Yet given the scale of violent disruption hurtling toward us, we cannot avoid radical change. It is inevitable; the key question is in which direction, at what pace, cost, and to whose benefit. 

Across the world, an ethno-nationalist Right is mobilising for their vision of climate eschatology: a potent mix of denialism, the reckless defence of the commanding heights of the carbon economy, the aggressive maintenance of the inequalities of global capitalism, and the ever-more violent policing of borders and bodies, where those with the least responsibility for the gathering crisis bear the highest cost. In the face of this, a politics of incrementalism is worse than complacent; it is dangerous. 

Tinkering at the margins cannot address the challenges we face or build a broad enough political coalition to drive change. Nor can a reliance on the same old tools and approaches that got us here. Our response instead must be a collective and democratic project to build a net zero-carbon society, justly and swiftly; one that centres the needs and voices of those who have borne the brunt of economic and environmental extractivism, that reimagines public affluence, the commons, the household economy and the market for the 21st century, and which sustainably meets the needs of human and non-human life alike. There really is no alternative.

As efforts intensify to build a net zero-carbon society and move beyond neoliberalism – its inequalities and crises, its neutering of democratic power, its privileging of finance over the real economy – we should learn from past movements that drove systemic changes. In particular, in the UK we have twice before transformed how our economy operates and for whom. Both times, shifts in ownership and property relations were fundamental to change. The extension and consolidation of public ownership was critical to embedding the post-war consensus. Privatisation was at the heart of organised capital’s revolt from the late 1970s onwards, enshrining the world of shareholder primacy, financialisation, and inequality we still labour under.

Any transformation of our economy in the decades ahead is therefore likely to depend on similarly deep shifts in property relations and ownership. It will also require the creation of durable coalitions capable of demanding and embedding change, something that new ownership models – by expanding the constituencies that have a stake and a say in a transformed economic model – can help create. 

This might appear obvious. Property relations and the distribution of property has after all always vitally determined how a society operates and in whose interest. Ownership matters. By shaping flows of income, stocks of wealth, concentrations of economic control, and by consolidating into political power, it is the forcefield that locks much of the rest of economic and social life into place, structuring the nature and operation of political-economic systems. Given the scale of shifts required to rapidly and justly decarbonise society, reverse the collapse of natural systems, and build a post-neoliberal economics, the broadening of democratic forms of ownership must be central to any political project that seeks to remake the economic and political common sense.

Democratic ownership means a radical expansion of ownership rights to ensure we all share in the wealth we create, the pluralisation of ownership models in place of today’s monoculturalism, and a rewiring of enterprise and institutions so we all have a stake and a say in the decision-making that shapes our workplaces, communities, and society. The ambition for a democratic economy is simple but systemic: the steady, irreversible replacement of today’s unequal and extractive economy with institutions that share the wealth we create in common, where deep freedom, solidarity, and capability are a universal inheritance, and which respects environmental limits and social rights.

Common Wealth, launching this week, is a new think tank seeking to further those ends. We reach back into the radical and centuries-old tradition of the commonwealth, a commitment to the deep democratisation of economic and social life and the health of the commons. And we reach forward, seeking to design ownership models for a democratic and sustainable economy, rethinking our fundamental institutions so we can chart alternative futures.

A democratic and sustainable economy will require new forms of stewardship of nature, labour, and capital. In place of extractive, concentrated, and footloose forms of property, a zero-carbon society that sustains a good quality of life for all must be anchored in ownership models that are sustainable, democratic and purposeful by design. The alternative will drive accelerating climate breakdown and continue to generate stark inequalities. The dominance of global production by giant corporations, whose ownership is intermediated by a financial system that too often acts as an extractive rentier instead of an effective steward, will reinforce sharp divides in power, status and reward. Economic and ecological extractivism as the watchword of unsustainable ‘value creation’, over purposeful, innovative, sustainable forms of enterprise, will drive us deeper into environmental deficit. And a relentless cannibalisation of nature and human labour to drive GDP growth will exhaust the very natural and social systems upon which we all depend. Without reform, in other words, the status quo guarantees mounting crisis.

Our focus is on six systemically vital areas, whose ownership and governance critically structure how the economy operates. 

  1. Democratising ownership of business, to give us all a stake and say, whether that is building up co-operatives, local wealth building strategies, or democratising capital at scale.  
  2. Transforming ownership of land, the original enclosure, to challenge inequalities in wealth, housing, and environmental misuse. 
  3. Rewiring finance to serve the real economy and urgent social needs, by levelling down extractive practices and levelling up democratic finance, from public banking to a social wealth fund, to new forms of macroprudential control that can rein in the baronial power of the largest financial institutions.
  4. Building the social commons – through new models of ownership of foundational goods and services like housing, transport, and care – to decommodify the building blocks of life, tackle the mounting and gendered crisis of care, and provide the basis for collective flourishing. 
  5. Creating a digital commons by extending new collective rights to data and reimagining ownership of the technological infrastructures, from broadband to cloud computing, that shape much of modern life. 
  6. And creating institutions to steward nature in an age of environmental collapse, from democratic management of an expanded natural commons, to new forms of ownership to scale up renewable energy and rapidly and justly scale down the fossil fuel industry.

Taken together, democratising the economy is an agenda that can transform us from economic subjects into active citizens, breaking an economic model that is increasingly neo-feudal in character, where those who own – or are the managerial agents or gatekeepers of capital – dominate those that work, not just materially but in terms of power. Alternative models of ownership can reshape income and control rights in society, pushing back against the inequalities that scar our society and deny freedom to many. And by allowing for new forms of purpose and use to flourish, a more pluralistic and inventive ownership landscape can provide the forms of stewardship – of nature, labour, capital, and time – that can allow societies to thrive within our limits.

Democratising ownership is therefore a vital precondition for moving beyond neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is many things: a mode of governance and rationality, an often-contradictory strategy for regulating capitalism, a reshaping of the state to enforce market-based forms of measurement and evaluation into ever-more domains of life, an ideology and class project that has extracted wealth and power upwards. At its core though, it is an effort to insulate capitalism from democracy, to transform the economy into an object beyond the realm of politics, making the ‘market’ and unequal forms of economic power safe from democratic intervention. By helping re-domesticate capital and democratise both its distribution and use, new models of ownership and control extend the scope for collective decision-making in the economy, acting as a counter to the neoliberal excavation of sites of democratic power. 

Building a democratic economy, rooted in new models of ownership, cannot simply be an agenda for the nation-state, or its towns, cities and regions. A new progressive internationalism needs to build solidaristic ownership models that can share wealth across geographies, paying heed to and helping repair the deep inequalities generated by the global economy. Such institutions will be required at both regional and global levels if we hope to inhibit private economic power escaping to the de-democratised realm of contemporary globalisation.  

Of course, alternative models of ownership are not the only things required to drive the changes we need at the speed required. More ambition and balance between fiscal and monetary policy, a modern industrial strategy that centres the everyday economy and social and ecological reproduction as much as frontier technologies and firms, a radically democratic state that gives proper powers to towns and cities, a more progressive taxation system, the re-regulation of work in all its forms to ensure dignity and security, a universal and ambitious 21st century welfare state that expands our capacity to live well and free outside the marketplace, new forms of internationalism that challenge the hierarchies and failures of real existing multilateralism: all these are needed and more. 

It is an ambitious agenda, but necessarily so, and one that will only succeed with deep collaboration across and between us all. We don’t have time to fail. We’ve got a whole world to own.