How Common Ownership is One Route to Social Transformation

Yves here. Can changes in ownership rules tame the bad features of capitalism? The success of Mondragon and smaller cooperatives says yes. But in the midst of a large-scale assault upon the commons, is this battle being engaged too late?

By George Monbiot, the author of the bestselling books The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain, as well as the investigative travel booksPoisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. His latest book is Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the ­Frontiers of Rewilding (being published in paperback as Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life). Originally published at the Guardian; cross posted from Evonomics 

With one breath, the friends of power told us that global capitalism was a dynamic, disruptive force, the source of constant innovation and change. With the next, they told us it had brought about the end of history: permanent stability and peace. There was no attempt to resolve this contradiction. Or any other.

We were promised unending growth on a finite planet. We were told that a vastly unequal system would remove all differences. Social peace would be delivered by a system based on competition and envy. Democracy would be secured by the power of money. The contradictions were crashingly obvious. The whole package relied on magic.

Because none of it works, there is no normal to which to return. The Keynesian measures espoused by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders – in a world crashing into environmental limits and the mass destruction of jobs – are as irrelevant in the 21st Century as the neoliberal prescriptions that caused the financial crisis.

In his brilliant, incendiary new book Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra explains the current crises as new manifestations of one long disruption, that has been ripping up society for 200 years or more. Our sanitised histories of Europe and America allow us to forget that bedlam and carnage, civil and international war, colonialism and overseas slaughter, racism and genocide were norms of this period, not exceptions.

Now the rest of the world is confronting the same disruptive forces, as industrial capitalism is globalised. It destroys old forms of authority while promising universal freedom, autonomy and prosperity. Those promises collide with massive disparities of power, status and property ownership. The result is the global spread of the 19th-century European diseases of humiliation, envy and a sense of impotence. Frustrated expectations, rage and self-disgust have driven support for movements as diverse as Isis, resurgent Hindu nationalism and stomping demagoguery in Britain, the US, France and Hungary.

How do we respond to these crises? Raymond Williams said “to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”. I know I have made despair pretty convincing over the past few weeks. So this column is the first in an occasional series whose purpose is to champion new approaches to politics, economics and social change. There is no going back, no comfort in old certainties. We must rethink the world from first principles.

There are many points at which I could begin, but it seems to me that an obvious one is this. The market alone cannot meet our needs, nor can the state. Both, by rooting out attachment, help fuel the alienation, rage and anomie that breeds extremism. Over the past 200 years, one element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.

A commons is an asset over which a community has shared and equal rights. This could, in principle, include land, water, minerals, knowledge, scientific research and software. But at the moment most of these assets have been enclosed: seized by either the state or private interests and treated as any other form of capital. Through this enclosure, we have been deprived of our common wealth.

Some commons still exist. They range from community-owned forests in Nepal and Romania to lobster fisheries in Maine, pastures in East Africa and Switzerland, the Internet, Wikipedia, Linux, journals published by the Public Library of Science, the timebank in Helsinki, local currencies and open-source microscopy. But these are exceptions to the general rule of private and exclusive ownership.

In his book Land, the community organiser Martin Adams urges us to see the land as something that once belonged to everyone and no one, yet has been acquired by a minority, that excludes other people from its enjoyment. He proposes that those who use the land exclusively should pay a “community land contribution” as compensation. This could partly replace income and sales tax, prevent land hoarding and bring down land prices. The revenue could help to fund a universal basic income. Eventually we might move to a system in which land is owned by the local community and leased to those who use it.

Similar principles could apply to energy. The right to produce carbon by burning fossil fuels could be auctioned (a smaller pool would be available every year). The proceeds could fund public services and a transition to clean energy. Those who wish to use the wind or sunlight to generate power should be asked to pay a community contribution. Or the generators could be owned by communities – there are already plenty of examples.

Rather than allowing corporations to use intellectual property rights to create an artificial scarcity of knowledge, or (like Google and Facebook) to capture the value generated by other people, we could move towards a “social knowledge economy” of the kind promoted by the government of Ecuador. A share of profits could (with the help of blockchain technology) be exchanged for helping to build online platforms and providing the content they host.

The restoration of the commons has great potential not only to distribute wealth but also to change society. As the writer David Bollier points out, a commons is not just a resource (land or trees or software) but also the community of people managing and protecting it. The members of the commons develop much deeper connections with each other and their assets than we do as passive consumers of corporate products.

Managing common resources means developing rules, values and traditions. It means, in some cases, re-embedding ourselves in the places in which we live. It means reshaping government to meet the needs of communities, not corporations. In other words, reviving the commons can act as a counterweight to the atomising, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic reaction.

This is not the whole answer. My hope is that, after exploring a wide range of potential solutions, with the help of your comments and suggestions I can start to develop a synthesis: a new political, economic and social story, that might be matched to the demands of the 21st Century. Realising it is a further challenge, on which we also need to work. But first we must decide what we want. Then we decide how to get it.

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  1. Left in Wisconsin

    I have nothing against this post, and we certainly need good new ideas, but I find proposals like these containing no agent to take on global (and national, for that matter) capitalists, who will fight with everything they have to retain everything they have, to be lacking. The notion that, with the proper evidence, we would all (or even a majority would) agree to make deep societal changes seems a bit pie in the sky.

    In central Wisconsin right now, streams and lakes are literally running dry because potato farms are drawing down the water table in a region where the sandy soil “connects” ground water to the aquifer underneath it. The gov’t response? The granting of perpetual water rights to high capacity well water users, including the right to replace wells that run dry, regardless of future water levels.

    1. Uahsenaa

      It’s the standard response you see from journalists and opinion writers, who literally cannot see past the limits of their chosen platform.

      Contrast that with, say, Amy Goodman, who actually bothers to go places and show what’s happening, and you can see the paucity of such an approach. The environmental disasters devastating the Midwest; farm run-off, over-pumping, lead in the drinking water, factory farming, etc.; could unite an entire region, but instead, what we get is the same old disconnected utopianism. I want a better world as well, but I think the path toward that world has to wind through the problems that exist on the ground now.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        If you read a little about George Monbiots past, you will see he is the exact opposite of a blinkered journalist or opinion writer. I believe he at one time held the world record for being expelled from countries due to his investigative journalism, and I can personally vouch for his ‘on the ground’ activism as in my more activist past he was a regular sight at environmental protests in the 1990’s.

        1. Uahsenaa

          Then I’m straight up confused as to why he would write this or why he would need to take a swipe at politicians who are actually doing the work of bringing that vision to fruition.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            I think his swipe at Corbyn is well deserved – I’ve seen little evidence that Corbyn’s views are anything but 1970’s issue leftism. Its still better than most politicians, but it hasn’t truly grasped the challenges of climate change. Sanders I think is a much more advanced thinker in terms of economics, but I’ve noticed from Monbiots writings that he doesn’t really follow US politics much, so I suspect he’s been spending too much time around his fellow Guardian journalists (although he’s still by a long distance the best regular Guardian contributor).

            1. Carla

              You say Sanders is a more advanced thinker in terms of economics, yet he never challenges the basic assumptions of capital. Yves asks if it’s too late to re-claim and revive the commons. I wonder if it’s too late for Bernie–or anyone else–to save capitalism from itself, and the world from capitalism.

            2. witters

              My right wing friends blamed the 60’s. Do progressives now blame the 70’s? “…little evidence that Corbyn’s views are anything but 1970’s issue leftism.”

        2. TheCatSaid

          I’ve learned a lot from things Monbiot’s written in the past.
          As I read more, I increasingly found articles I found troubling, for example, his blinkered approach to natural medicines, and his surprisingly friendly approach to nuclear energy.

          Eventually I felt sufficiently disturbed that I stopped reading him. Something felt “off”, as if his persona was now being used to support other agendas. (It reminds me of how I feel about Juan Cole in relation to ME reporting–he used to be excellent, then at some point he was “captured” by the political system–Democratic party specifically–and his writing was no longer as valuable; it was clearly serving certain political masters.)

          1. PlutoniumKun

            Monbiot has long challenged what he sees as a strong strain of anti-scientism within the Green/left movement, and I think he’s right to do that. He has spoken in support of nuclear power, and I believe he is wrong, but for the right reasons.

            He is correct to say that many of the arguments for renewables don’t stack up economically and technically, and that the arguments against nuclear power are overblown, in particular when you compare nuclear risks to the incomparably greater risk of climate change and ecosystem collapse. But I think he was too strongly influenced by the arguments of people like the late David McKay, who like a lot of physicists grossly under-estimated the economic and technical issues involved in a major expansion of nuclear power. Quite simply, safe and economic nuclear power is a lot further away than Monbiot thinks, and he has hugely underestimated the power of Moores Law when it comes to solar and storage technology.

            While I don’t agree with everything Monbiot writes, he is one of the very few writers out there I’d put as an equal with our hosts here in presenting left/green views, but with a rigorously analytical and self critical approach to the evidence.

            1. TheCatSaid

              His excellent writing about GMOs reveals an understanding of the weaknesses of the scientific establishment, the crookedness of R&D and trials, the limitations of what questions are and are not asked, and the financial interests controlling both the science and the political aspects.

              The same issues exist in relation to natural medicines–far more, actually. The understanding and evaluation of many of them cannot be done ethically or meaningfully using a Western medical research paradigm. His limited personal experience in this domain shows, and his strong Western science/medicine bias.

              In relation to energy/nuclear, some of his reasons make sense (such as a lot of the problems with renewable technologies as currently understood). Again, though, he reveals the limits of the mindsets and thinking to which he has been exposed.

              Open-minded and well-informed in some ways, close-minded and poorly informed in others–and without realizing the extent to which he’d drunk the Kool-aid (like the Uber PR machine on steroids for many decades–so that society as a whole has lost the ability to recognize the memes, misinformation and controls for what they are).

            2. Rosario

              Monbiot’s understanding of nuclear energy is very poor if he thinks it is anywhere close to quasi-renewable or a better replacement to fossil fuels. It is the most expensive source of energy, by a mile, and it is massively carbon intensive (mining, refinement, cleanup, etc.). Of course that carbon is not tabulated when it is discussed by nuclear advocates. Nuclear power proves the “there is no free lunch” in the energy world. If it seems to good to be true, it is.

              As far as safety, where to begin, not including the amount of carbon required to mine and refine the stuff which tosses out the low-carbon argument, imagine a world where all biological life is potentially degraded. There is no “safe” reactor anymore than there is a safe hydro facility, coal plant, etc. Everything degrades, breaks down, falls apart. It is a matter of when, not if. I would rather rely on energy sources that will only kill hundreds or thousands upon failure, rather than millions (including cancers) with a landscape irradiated for hundreds of years. Life on this planet can squeak by an existence with climate change, however miserable it may be. What complex life cannot survive are high levels of radiation, anywhere.

              All the negatives are a non-issue anyway. The only reason nuclear is pushed so hard is that it is the only source seen that may be able to maintain current consumption levels, and this is the wrong discussion. We have to learn to prioritize energy consumption not maintain our sloppy consumption. His pessimism about renewables is off base. They will work fine if we optimize how we use energy (i.e. we don’t use as much or use it for BS like the Superbowl, Vegas, endless servers supporting social media).

              1. JohnnyGL

                Good string of comments here.

                I like Monbiot, but he’s definitely a mixed bag. He’s got some fantastic stuff.

                But, he can get things really wrong, like the column he wrote criticizing rotational grazing and Alan Savory’s Holistic Management approach, but on the whole, he’s a net positive.

                1. TheCatSaid

                  He criticized Savory and rotational grazing? Wow.

                  Monbiot’s definitely a mixed bag. While he is or was good on some issues, he’s no longer where I go to learn more.

                2. Rosario

                  Thanks, I should be clear. When I say it is the most expensive by a mile I am talking about what is unaccounted for in addition to the life cycle costs of the plant that are accounted for. On the bonkers end you’ll read numbers like 2.1 cents per kwh (from Institute for Energy Research a biased organization with a quick site perusal), but the “realistic” numbers are not much better somewhere between 0.10 to 0.25 cents per kwh.

                  These numbers still do not account for the government subsidies, federal loan guarantees for projects that consistently go over budget by at least 50%, insurance, decommissioning, waste disposal, externalities, etc. Decommissioning often gets dumped on the consumers through rate increases. Waste disposal, who the hell knows, somewhere between the federal government and municipalities foot the bill, it depends, ultimately the tax payer pays if it is state or municipal. Other externalities include radiation leakage (something happening at around 3/4 of nuclear sites) and water usage.

                  A good case study, France has seen an increase in the price of nuclear as the years have gone on. Things were great out of the gate with all the government support, but now the plants are old and it is showing in the cost that they didn’t account for in the beginning and the government is no longer willing to help. Scary to think that as they get more expensive to maintain people are less willing to spend money to maintain them. A time bomb if there ever was one. Across the border, Germany is decommissioning all of their nuke plants. I wonder why?

                  Yeah, all around it is nuts that it is still kicked around as viable particularly after two major nuclear incidents within 30 years of each other that pretty much made 1000s of square km unlivable for the foreseeable future. Sure climate change is scary, but I’m far more terrified of a world full of nuclear plants operated by glorified apes that are unwilling to spend the money when it is needed the most (end life cycle). Anyway, I’m would be okay with a nuke technology if it is low impact upon failure and actually viable economically front to back. It just isn’t there and I don’t think we have the time to wait for it.

    2. Schofield

      What you are talking about is the complacency of the masses who do not as a matter of course examine in any detail the ideologies of the politicians they vote for if they bother voting at all. Only extreme poverty it would seem will lift this complacency.

  2. Adamski

    To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service. — original Clause IV, Labour Party Constitution

    1. John A

      The famous/infamous Clause IV that Tony Blair got deleted from the Labour party constitution in favour of the fabled ‘third way’ that merely accelerated the neoliberalism started by Thatcher.

      1. Adamski

        The new Clause IV says democratic socialism but doesn’t really define it to mean anything. I would blame Blair and co for the direction of the party rather than blaming the change they made to Clause IV

  3. Arilando

    >Over the past 200 years, one element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons

    What is this nonsense? Communism was all about common ownership.

    1. PKMKII

      Not as it developed in the wake of the Soviet revolution. The Marxist-Leninist application thereof ended up being one-party state capitalism, paying lip service to the idea of common ownership.

      1. Sufferin' Succotash

        The best description of the USSR came from I.F. Stone: “the world’s biggest company town.”

      1. akaPaul LaFargue

        The tyranny of the sentence structure…. one could make a valid argument that communism and the commons, in the most generic sense, have more than a common root.

        1. jefe

          “Elinor C. Ostrom, the first female Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, believed that people are perfectly capable of taking control of decisions that affect their lives, without external authorities imposing rules. Her extensive fieldwork focused on how people interact with ecosystems, such as forests, fisheries and irrigation systems, while maintaining the long-term sustainability of these resources.

          Her findings proved how societies develop diverse management systems. Rather than imposing a singular ‘panacea’ to manage these multi-faceted interactions, she identified eight ‘design principles’ for stable, common pool resource management. She outlined these principles in her 1990 book, Governing the Commons : The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, which showed how shared resources can be managed by local people.”

          She’s a winner in my mind, whether it was in the ‘dismal’ science or not. She certainly took a head on-rejection of Friedman and the Chicago-school, Von Mises, Hayek (pronounced Hack) et al… .

          Here’s a link to a short article in YES!! Magazine, on The Commons:

          Paradoxically, that quote about her background came from a big bank, UBS. Bet they LOVE her work… hypothecate THAT commons? HA!!

          1. subgenius

            One cannot be a Nobel laureate in economics. There is no Nobel prize in economics. Hence category fail…

            There is a fake Nobel in a sad attempt to place the dismal science on a par with the actual Nobel prizes.

            Then again, the whole thing should be called into question since the decision to award the biggest killers the Peace prize..

  4. Cripes

    Once we thought of the American government as the guardian of the common welfare, before welfare became an epithet. Native Americans and others still retained the memory of a world as the commons, where the idea of owning land was seen as delusional.
    It was the theft of the commons that drove millions from self sufficient communities into the factories, a crime which echoes to the present day in alienation, greed, violence and fills Ohio morgues with fentanyl deaths..

    We need to find out way back to a commons, a shared world where people belong, have value and contribute.

    Good start, Yves, a lot to think about.

    1. choephelo

      But can red indians lifestyle guarantee inovation which is must for continuation of life form if earth fails i.e. moving to elsewhere planet

  5. susan the other

    Let us start with dreams. Not snark, really. If we lived in a dreamscape we would feel our way through. All we have to do is acknowledge that bad feeling the instant things turn from pleasant and comfortable to not-so-nice. We all ignore these feelings so we can get along – and we deaden ourselves to our most important sense. It’s a sense of things being right. It’s like porn – we know it when we see it. But we have to constantly be open to it just because everything human is a little corrupt. We could take a page from the Quakers, who weren’t perfect, but sat quietly and communed with themselves just to find that balance. Got to have a certain amount of self-sufficiency (security) to be able to indulge in that spiritual luxury though. Just a thought.

  6. Jef

    Bottom line there is simply no need for every person to have a job. Except we have accepted without question that unless you have a job and make money you must die.

    Until we have a way of supporting a basic existence of food, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare, for everyone no economic system will even begin to address the multiple issues facing humanity.

    This one step alone would cut carbon emissions in half over night. One thing I know for a fact is that just about everyone would love to have more time…more time to read, play, fish, swim, paint, garden, walk instead of drive, visit, etc.

    1. templar555510

      Let’s stop after your second paragraph. You have your everyday reality that you have to live by and your ideal and between those two sits power giving a bit by demand to one side or the other . Right now your everyday reality looks to be ( almost ) the only game in town so the demands have to grow by whatever means is possible to move towards the ideal .

  7. Uahsenaa

    The swipe at Corbyn and Sanders (and Keynesianism) is a bit bewildering. Sure, manufacturing on the scale seen in the UK and US in the 20th century is not coming back, but what exactly are the environmental resource constraints on the services both seek to bolster, such as education, health care, etc.? Also, both Sanders and Corbyn have made clear that a transition away from traditional to sustainable industry (less digging up coal and more energy efficient housing/renewable energy [which have their own problems]) is a high priority. In fact many of the things Monbiot advocates are things Sanders and Corbyn have as well.

    Also, speaking from my own experience trying to put together a writers’ publishing cooperative, it’s very hard to convince educated people–the more educated, the worse it gets–that we’re all in this together and need to contribute to our common welfare. Too many hold out the belief that they’ll be the ones plucked from obscurity to find great success and international recognition. The same holds true for trying to organize adjuncts. Too many, despite the daily humiliations they suffer, believe they will one day find themselves on the tenure-track gravy train and so only ever offer tepid support for union drives.

    If anything, the imperative here is not to make yet another utopian pronouncement: “if we just transform society, everything will be better!” Well, duh. But that isn’t a political platform, that doesn’t explain how you’re actually going to get people on board with your utopian vision. Frankly, Sanders has lately been a model of what we should actually be thinking about: how to go about convincing people of standing up for their own best interests. I was wary of Sanders initially (his unwillingness to criticize the MIC is still a sticking point), but I’ve gained a great deal of respect for him, solely because he seems to be willing to actually do the political work, rather than just carp from on high. In my world, respect is earned by those who stand on the picket line.

    1. diptherio

      Great comment.

      Economic insecurity, I think, should be the focus. On a very practical level, how can we provide the essentials for ourselves, both material (food, shelter) and psychological (self respect, meaning)? We all seem to be blinded by the way of thinking that places access to money between us and all those things, and so we tend to frame our solutions as ways to get more of us more money.

      Common ownership and use of resources is, it seems, an obvious solution, and one that has worked out pretty well for a number of long-lived intentional communities (although they haven’t figured everything out yet and inter-generational continuity seems to be the current big issue at a couple of them). However, getting there from here would seem to require those with the monetary resources to share with those without in a much more radical way than many people (even cooperators) have yet contemplated.

      1. TheCatSaid

        “We all seem to be blinded by the way of thinking that places access to money between us and all those things, and so we tend to frame our solutions as ways to get more of us more money.”

        Well said! David E. Martin ( who developed “Integral Accounting”) in various public talks descries this tendency–so many inventors or entrepreneurs do nothing and blame it on lack of funding, rather than starting to take steps and then things automatically start to happen.

        Here’s another example of someone who’s doing this–FairEx (a new distributed secure barter/payment system) being set up on a communally owned basis. Recent discussion about it with its inventor, Win Keech–“FairEx Barter System; the History and Back-Story of the Babylonian Money System”. He describes it has a “hybrid” trading system as an alternative to the existing debt-based global financial system.

        1. Uahsenaa

          This works well enough when what you do is more or less a closed system, but in the case of publishing, which has to interface with a largely capitalist business world, you can never entirely escape the world of finance. In those situations where a cooperative has to function primarily like a business in order to gain access to markets or specialized resources, the coop works more as compromise with capitalism than anything else. The ultimate goal might be to opt out of that system, but then you have to convince people to put their immediate livelihoods at risk.

          1. TheCatSaid

            What Martin/M-CAM does interfaces completely with the conventional world. How this occurs can be quite creative and wonderful. What it looks like is unique to each situation. Learning about it has helped me loosen up and expand my vision of how things can be in that domain (money, finance, exchange–in any context).

            With FairEx I’ve no idea how that will play out, but it is designed in such a way that it can transact with conventional financial systems, nothing is excluded. Any group of any size can use it in whatever way they like, from what I know about it.

            Much of the challenge about money and finance in general is that we’ve been so brainwashed to believe that TINA, and 99.99% of the information streams (to some extent even NC!) reinforce that set of beliefs.

  8. pietro gori

    What the dickens is this Monbiot guy talking about when he talks about “the commons”?
    What are “the commons”? To whom are “the commons” common?
    And, just in case we could agree on an answer to these questions, who is going to manage “the commons”
    Is there anyone who would like to go back to the Middle Ages to steal the goose from off the common
    in the company of Robin Hood and his band of merry men in Lincoln green?
    It seems to me that this kind of discourse is totally flawed, and if we want to start talking meaningfully about change, we should at least agree on fundamentals
    Number one would be: something that is neither public property nor private property always ends up being private property
    If everything belongs to the commons – water, land, air, DNA, the internet, mass transit, work and what have you – then nothing really belongs to the commons, and capitalism cheers
    Got my drift? I am afraid I have to disagree with Cripes.
    We are off to a bad start

    1. mpalomar

      If you are really unfamiliar with the concept, you should take a look at the history of the enclosure of the commons, a fundamental element in the creation of concentrated wealth in England and Europe and probably elsewhere. A series of acts from 12th-13th century through the industrial revolution, raised a bloody minded aristocracy based on land; concentrating wealth, providing an irrefutable principle for the elite to exploit the masses to the present. The modern extension to intellectual property through expanded patent control by way of the WTO and other trade platforms is the latest iteration.

      “The law hangs the man and flogs the woman
      Who steal the goose from off the common,
      But leaves the greater villain loose,
      Who steals the common from the goose.”

  9. Disturbed Voter

    State-owned Bank of North Dakota .. they didn’t suffer much from the 2008 collapse, in North Dakota … why?

    Privatising all the land held in government trust … the opposite direction.

    There are too many people who benefit, of think they do … to change the status quo.

    1. PKMKII

      State-owned Bank of North Dakota

      Despite being a deeply Republican state. Funny how Republicans can enact leftist economic ideas (this, Alaska’s UBI) at the state level and their “conservative” voters don’t have a problem with it.

      1. B1whois

        Makes me wonder how all voters would react if the Democrat Party inacted leftist economic ideas!

      2. JohnnyGL

        Don’t forget the Tennessee Valley Authority, which Obama floated the idea of privatizing and local Repubs said “no way”.

  10. Andrew Watts

    Too late for the good ‘ole USA.

    In 1860 more than half the land area of the nation was held in trust for the people by the government, but by 1900 fully nine-tenths of it had been given away, under the stimulus of corrupt payments, to railroads, mining syndicates, speculative land enterprises, and homesteaders. Whatever of more than average value fell into the hands of the latter innocents was soon taken away by mortgage or by fraud, by force or by wit, by hook or by crook. It is a challenging fact that most of the natural resources owned today by the United States Steel Corporation, the Aluminum Corporation, the Standard Oil Company, the railroads, and, in fact, nearly all private corporations, were in 1860 communally owned under political auspices.

    Every great fortune that rolled out of the nineteenth century was rooted in fraud; and the literature and documentation in proof of this broad statement is voluminous. “In their absorbing passion for the accumulation of wealth,” says David Saville Muzzey, a cool historian, “men were plundering the resources of the country like burglars looting a palace.” -Ferdinand Lundberg, America’s 60 Families (1937)

  11. lyman alpha blob

    Some commons still exist. They range from community-owned forests in Nepal and Romania to lobster fisheries in Maine…

    Not sure that the Maine lobster fishery really meets the definition of ‘commons’. True, anyone can theoretically fish for lobster all along the Maine coast however you must have a license and the number is limited. Also, the lobstermen do have their own territories – you can’t just place traps anywhere you want. The industry is still largely self-policing though. If you put traps where they don’t belong the lobsterman who finds them will probably respond the first time by cutting your buoys.

    The second time they may very well just shoot you.

  12. PhilM

    Okay I’m thinking out loud here, but I have been thinking about exactly this question and talking it over with my friends for a couple of years.

    So I’ll submit a crazy idea: that the author is 100% right that we need to change, and is exactly 180 degrees off in what the change should be. The solution to the problem may actually be to restrict ownership of assets to individuals.

    All of the the problems of “the commons” are seen in corporations, which are unaccountable, super-human, immortal organizations–just like the commons. The way to go is to tear down the commons and recreate individual accountability at every level.

    So, on those lines, if every organization were required to be constituted as a partnership, or a proprietorship, the owners would be personally accountable for their financial practices, as well as the liabilities their policies accrue to their organizations.

    The evidence I adduce for this, other than its theoretical advantages, are its demonstrated historical virtues. Joint stock corporations started as monopolies and have often stayed that way, or striven ceaselessly to become that. Also, anecdotally, and I know I’m really treading on thin ice here, when I have a good experience with a firm, it often turns out to be family-owned or a closely-held company. But after that firm has sold out, and it’s up the executives, the crapification begins.

    So I say, disestablish the corporations, the way the monasteries were dissolved. They are the products of legal privilege, and they are turning our world into a feudal zone. Make the head of Verizon personally liable, and see how long Verizon lasts as a monopolistic overlord. Before you know it, it would be a republic of commercial competitors, and the marketplace, with the advantages that it does occasionally have, would be restored. If nothing else, the laws of partible inheritance would soon fragment the monopolies.

    What do y’all think?

    1. jrs

      it might make them more socially responsible to the outside world (externalities) maybe, but how to make them responsible to their employees? It’s really two *separate* problems. And I think only worker ownership addresses the latter.

    2. Left in Wisconsin

      So I say, disestablish the corporations

      Have you given any thought to strategy?

    3. TedHunter

      You are right in analysing the problem the way you do. But I think you underestimate the reaction corporations would have if anyone would think about disestablishing them; that would cost a lot of time – time we do not have.

      1. PhilM

        I agree–I had the same thoughts when I read the OP. The post is addressing the airy realms of economic justice through microeconomic organization, which naturally leads to abstract speculation on the ideal forms of property ownership. The challenges of communal ownership have long since been addressed: the result, ironically enough, is the modern corporation. If you look at pension funds as major stockholders, the workers actually do control a large part of the means of production. But because it’s all done through the communal mechanisms of joint stock corporations, it does not work out the way Marx had hoped. Not much has, despite the man’s superhuman analytical skills; because predictions are hard.

        Where you do have employee-owned companies that are successful, such as King Arthur Flour, it is generally because the mores/customs/values/social attitudes, or whatever you want to call them, root such endeavors more firmly. See, for instance, de Tocqueville’s discussion of why the English colonists, such as the US and Canada, and in particular New England, succeeded in planting democracy in the wilderness of the New World, where it failed so dramatically elsewhere in the western hemisphere.

        Also, I agree, both with you and with Left in Wisconsin, that there is little hope to overturn an established, successful socio-economic structure. Everyone here knows I’m a pessimist about gradual socio-economic improvements; but on the other hand, I don’t think our situation is nearly as bad, comparatively in time or in space, as many commentators here do. Please don’t think that means I do not feel for the sufferings of so many people who could be doing better, who are helpless and are undergoing preventable pain and degradation: I just know that not too far away, in space and in time, things are much, much worse.

        History suggests that there must be a major collapse for things like “the corporation” to be significantly reined in, and existing structures have reached such a degree of exploitative expertise that the Earth will probably implode environmentally before corporately-organized capitalism lets go of its neck.

        Still it’s interesting to think what would happen if these micro-economic structures, which are only a couple of centuries old, and have had many recent enhancements to their privileges, could be even slightly tamed. Political thinkers have long known of the dangers of “corporations,” whether they were the kind as described in the ancien regime, or the “joint stock” type that gained legal freedom of speech, when–only around 1900 or so?

        I’m really just looking for some basic principles. We might find a basic principle in forbidding the divorce of personal, human responsibility from the quest for profit. That is what the corporate form excels at; originally a way to raise capital, it now is a god in human form, and it is, inevitably, a devouring god, because its sole aim is to accumulate wealth at any cost.

        To make sole proprietors or closely-held partnerships better with employees seems to me much easier than to work with corporate boards or transient executives. For one thing, small groups of property owners tend to be stable members of the community, liked or disliked by their localities; their employees know where they live. If the employers meet a bad end, the firm passes through an estate proceeding and is taxed accordingly: it does not have the “immortality” of a huge corporate organization, where violence would have no effect except to replace the man at the top. Only so much capital can be mustered in one place before the natural limitations of such an enterprise structure bring it down.

        What this would do, overwhelmingly, is to equalize the playing field by crippling the efficiency of economic activity. Right now, it is the corporate form that is the demon seed. All the rest follows from its terrible evolution to godlike powers.

        1. Grebo

          There are, it seems to me, some negative feedback loops missing from the system. Processes that ‘naturally’ work to limit the size of corporations, say, or the concentration of capital, or the venality of politicians. Like the governor on an engine, as it speeds up the weights spin further out moderating the throttle and slowing it back down.

          I think Henry George identified one when he said the rental value of land should be returned to the community. That would discourage the hoarding of land for speculation and reduce the power of big finance, amongst other beneficial effects.

          There may be many more, they may be quite subtle, and individually they may be politically achievable. Collectively they could transform society. We just need to identify and implement them.

    4. Downunderer

      I think we need more of that kind of thinking, PhilM, right now.

      I like your goal to reduce corporations’ superhuman advantages, which have made them more powerful than governments.

      Granting corporations all the legal rights of citizens placed teams of gigantic monsters on the same playing field with ordinary people, in a game from which death is the only escape and the referees are all corporate stooges.

      I think everyone who has read a EULA or a credit card “agreement” or compared what happened to banks in the last crash with what happened to us humans is painfully aware of this. But what to do?

      I’d say look for a return to the traditional restrictions on corporations that existed in the days of the Founding Fathers. Returning to basics is a position that many will like, enabling an end-run around today’s extreme polarization.

      Corporations are most emphatically *NOT* citizens, but are granted their existence by the government on a discretionary and conditional basis, as spelled out in laws and in the individual charters that specify their purpose and justify their existence as something good for society.

      Essentially, a corporation is a legal gang, okayed by the government. As such, they need special regulation by agencies more powerful than they themselves are.

      License corporations for specific purposes only, as set out in their proposed charter and request for registration. Not for generalities like making a profit any way they can. License them for limited periods of time, with renewal subject to review of their behavior and their compliance with the terms of their charter.

      I think you have a great idea, but it needs that kind of straightforward simplification to get traction.

      Emphasize the problems and outright injustices that modern corporations have managed to make legal.

      Stress that this campaign isn’t anti-corporation at all.

      Corporations are a truly great way of organizing people for group efforts that can benefit us all.

      The problem is just like a vital organ becoming malignant, which corporations have.

      We still need our liver or kidney or whatever, but the malignancy needs to be addressed or we die.

  13. JEHR

    My idea would be to get rid of every monopoly and break up the TBTF banks. Then go from there.

    About the only place I can think of that would be able to start again from first principles is–uninhabited Syria and that hasn’t worked out too well. Is ISIS trying to recreate the commons?

  14. TedHunter

    I started to collect articles and studies on this topic shortly after 2009.

    Monbiot is right, generally speaking. Employee owned companies (EOCs) are the way to go; the definition thereof being rather simple: 51% of shares are owned by at least 51% of employees. Ideally 100% by 100%, but the latter target will never happen, as employees are allowed to buy/receive shares only after 2-5 years of working in a company. And no, it really does not matter if an EOC is a coop, an ESOP, etc., and yes, these companies have been more successfull than their competition in every single sector of the economy.

    There is very little to be added to Monbiot’s article. EOCs are not only “a solution”, they are “the solution”, while every other good idea comes a distant second. Numbers on financial capitalism on the one hand and on EOCs on the other hand are very clear, this is a lose-win decision. Take a quick look at the infographs or other numbers published by the National Center for Employee Ownership (and yes, do compare with any other independent source, you will pretty much read the same conclusions).

    If moderators allow it: I would be very glad to hear from anyone interested in supporting this topic.

    1. PhilM

      I’d love to see your bibliography, because your research would expand my perspective. It would help me argue it to my friends. As you see above, my experience with EOC’s is limited but positive, and with more examples, there is more cogency.

      1. Grebo

        I recently came across Sociocracy, which is a governance or management system sometimes used in EOCs and the like. Looks like one answer to a common question about co-ops.

        1. TedHunter

          Interesting, but it does not strike a cord. The pre-reqs for an EOC are brutally simple and hard at the same time, one of the challenges being that an employee has to lose the right to ownership once s/he leaves the company. This might be easy in the US (ESOPs), but requires some legal maneuvering in other countries (Germany, where I could not find one EOC in the industrial sector). Besides: successfull EOCs (Gore) are revolving around unit numbers of 150 FTE. But that is a secondary issue.

  15. RBHoughton

    Henry George, the American economist of the 19th century, had original thoughts. He was struck by the success of the stake-holding basis to land required for gold mining. A prospector registered his stake and it was his so long as he used it. The day it was abandoned he lost it to someone else. That is a useful precedent imo. Martin Adams is quoted in the article “Eventually we might move to a system in which land is owned by the local community and leased to those who use it.” That’s the way to go.

    The intellectual property rights law has been repeatedly abused by beneficiaries. The ideas on which the right rests are ancient, the person creating those ideas is long dead, and yet the restriction remains. That is definitely not the way to encourage creativity in the community. The period of exclusivity should be shortened and ‘use it or lose it’ should be the rule.

    The mention of blockchain technology is intriguing. I myself don’t understand it but people who are more clever than I am say its a way ahead so let’s promote and see how we go. The fiddling we have to do with the means of exchange is a sufficient case to establish that we need to change from the present system.

  16. vegeholic

    Monbiot is correct, of course. But a future generation will have to “discover” these principles, forcibly overthrow the current system, and enforce their own. It will not happen voluntarily. We are all socialized so that we try to achieve security by amassing private fortunes. I spend some time at a local community garden. The common equipment is universally treated badly, returned dirty and broken, with very little effort made to value this common resource. I think you have to learn this kind of behavior as a child and internalize the virtues of caring for common property. Opponents would call this brainwashing, but it is no more brainwashing than what goes on now. And it stands a better chance of being sustainable and consistent with life on a finite planet.

    1. PhilM

      But at what cost, vegeholic? There are many small-scale attempts to do as you have said, which failed, exactly as you have described the community gardens’ failings. The large-scale attempts, which are utopian dreams turned into dystopian hells, slaughtered more people than have died in all the wars of the twentieth century: after which the states that attempted them returned to the basics of private property and private enterprise.

      It’s an ancient goal, a Platonic goal, in origin; but the Platonists never managed to offer a reliable way to find, appoint, and empower the right Philospher-King. I guess there’s always hope that the next guy will be the good one, but I, for one, don’t want to be around for the experiment, selfish old me; just on the basis of what I know about the past attempts.

      1. Watt4Bob

        The large-scale attempts, which are utopian dreams turned into dystopian hells, slaughtered more people than have died in all the wars of the twentieth century: after which the states that attempted them returned to the basics of private property and private enterprise.

        You’re going to have to flesh that statement out a little since, as I recall, the twentieth century was the bloodiest ever?

        Which states exactly, tried and failed, and turned into dystopian hells, and slaughtered etc,…?

  17. Kevin

    This is a beautiful idea. It seems like we have a lot of beautiful ideas around these days. It seems that what’s missing, not only from private and public institutions and their leadership and workers, but also from the general population, is the wisdom to choose, first above all other goals, to live in harmony as much as possible in all things. This is wisdom consisting not only of ethical intuition but that enacts humility and constructive personal sacrifice. A beautiful idea like this can only happen if there is a majority of individuals making it so who have the wisdom to perpetuate it. Many civil systems would actually work fine if those who manage and who work within them actually understood the reality of kindness and cooperation, of modesty and balance, and all those other virtues explained so exhaustively over the ages but now looked on as archaic. It sounds preachy, but it’s true. It’s the missing ingredient that alone will make any system, no matter how well considered, actually work as hoped.

    There are many obstacles to realizing this wisdom as described that are of an external nature (e.g. self-serving “Institutions,” environmental degradation, and the loss of so much hard-won ancient knowledge) but the real obstacle is personal and individual. Virtues have to come back into favor, and those who truly live them should be celebrated without extolling ego, but rather just by simple appreciation.

    1. Karen

      Do individuals shape their systems, or do systems shape their individuals? The comments here lean toward the latter interpretation, but it’s surely bidirectional. We have moved into the vicious circle and can only wonder: where has all the virtue gone?

      The idea of reestablishing personal responsibility through employee-owned corporations seems to be a good first step toward renewed appreciation of community…and arguably the most practical one. That’s what I’m doing with my small firm (now 9 years old) and a cooperative non-profit geared toward basic financial education ( We’ve been successful, but the more I learn, the more I realize how stacked are the odds of success against the small firm…just look at the collapse in new business formation, and the rising share of employment in very large-scale firms. Having worked in all types, I’ve long felt that organizational size is a more critical determinant of firm culture than sector. The big ones, whether public or private, direct most of their attention to accumulating resources and power.

      I agree that, sadly, the current system must break before a new one can emerge, but what a break it would be…large organizations have all the advantages of money and power. They will be as durable as cockroaches in a nuclear winter.

  18. Sy Krass

    Yes it will work but dont waste time on small things , start with a crowd funded national bank where individuals get one voting share in return for an investment of $1,000

  19. Iowan X

    This article, and the great comments under it, are why I like NC so darn much and read it every day. I wish there were a way to “bookmark” links on this site, so I could remember all the great stuff.

    I know this article is about ownership. and the commons, and I take Yves comment seriously–is it too late?…what I’m curious about is the ability of state governments to structure corporate powers by law…. It’s my sense–I’m not a lawyer–that the ‘corporations are speech’ and ‘money is people’ principle *really* cannot withstand legal scrutiny in a time of crisis, when the “standing” concern will get over-ruled by collective suffering. The benefits to various corporate structures seem pretty significant, but the responsibilities of corporations seems pretty diffuse. I can imagine a more localized corporate law, where by corporate benefits align more closely with corporate responsibility.

    I’ll use Newton, Iowa, as an example. I’ve never lived there, but I know people who did. Maytag built washers there ever since Fred started the operation back in the 1890’s. It eventually became a union plant, and while not the largest white-goods manufacturer, a profitable company in a decently profitable small “city” in Iowa. What’s notable is what Fred Maytag (and his heirs) DID for Newton. They funded parks. They built the golf course. They funded the hospital additions. Etc., Etc., Etc. We’ve seen this local, properly responsible “corporate” model succeed all across America, for years and years…until Reagan, when the local companies were gobbled by a corporate raiders back in the day through financial engineering. That’s when the crap started, and suffice to say that “Maytag” is now a brand owned by Whirlpool (and pretty much all of the production is in Mexico). That’s America’s modern “success story”. The factories and the union workers were pawns in financial engineering, as everybody here knows.

    I cannot help but think, and I know I will be corrected–>There must be a legal framework, under state corporate law, to encourage the beneficial work that corporations used to provide, as a matter of course, as a REQUIREMENT for corporate “personhood”. I’ll stop with that, because I DO think that corporate “personhood” needs to be re-litigated 120 years after the Santa Clara RR ruling, given modern circumstances. I think there’s a better, more modern law, waiting to be written, and litigated. My two cents.

    1. Tip Parker

      This may be the time to get those on the Supreme Court who say they believe in original intent to show whether they are guided by by principle or property. A case should come before them that specifically asks them to rule on whether corporations have any more rights than the Constitution grants to them. By not mentioning the corporations, the framers clearly did not intend them to have any specific rights.

  20. Marie Parham

    A segment of the Jewish environmental movement is trying to adapt the biblical laws of the sabbatical year and jubilee as a way of facing the future.

    “As described in Leviticus, the land was returned to its original owners once in the space of every two or three generations. Interim owners profited from its use, but their tenure was limited. The cycle of repatriation provided the offspring of those who had lost their place in the world a chance to reclaim it.

    Despite the increasing concentration of wealth in modern economies, Western societies offer no similar initiatives to refresh economic opportunity from generation to generation. Modern frameworks of wealth-based privilege and old-boy estate transfer laws upend any semblance of a level trans-generational playing field.”

    Another source besides the bible of course:

      1. RBHoughton

        Great idea Marie – it may well come to that if our financial magicians cannot keep all the balls in the air.

        Its my belief that corporate power is a fact because political concessions have made it so.

        Two centuries ago when the present financial / economic system was starting, the stock exchange had government stock to sell and very little else. The idea of investing in a joint-stock company, as they were called, was laughable because the proprietors would only involve the public if they expected to make a loss – i.e. the general rule (and it was repeated illustrated) was caveat emptor.

        There are notes on a book published in 1930s by a Privy Councillor on the British situation through the 19th and early 20th century that reveals the endless frauds of the businessmen and the means they used to emasculate the legislature and bribe the representatives into support. The same frauds were being perpetrated in New England. It also contains original thought on getting out of this mess. See

  21. Justin

    I think you could articulate what links this otherwise grab-bag of suggestions is a critique of value-capture as a managerial or commercial question. I think a direct attack on value capture as an implicit right, or benign technical requirement of profitable business is a really interesting idea.

  22. Iowan X

    Today’s (3-17-17) article by Thomas Frank in the Links is an interesting articulation of this agglomeration of comments, on a really interesting story, focuses on “curation”. NC is a great accidental curator, and Yves and her team are so far ahead of the game, so often, that I think in part because they read and pay attention to comments. This thread is probably tired, but the Thomas Frank article linked today is here.

    @Justin, “value-capture” fits with my thoughts of corporate rights and responsibilities quite well.

  23. Steven Greenberg

    I think the ideas of Franco Modigliani and Arun Muralidhar about Social Security Trust Fund being able to invest in the stock market has great benefits that they didn’t even dare to talk about.

    With the amount of money that Social Security would have invested in stocks, they could have great power over corporations to insist on a little social responsibility to us, the owners of the stock. It wouldn’t just be the 1% being represented in the board rooms of the corporations.

    Here is something I posted before I learned about MMT. This pertains to only another aspect of the idea of government investing in corporations.

    Arun Muralidhar on The Public Option for 401K Plans

  24. Hugo

    some things could be common ownership, tools, books, information, health.

    but it seems it will be impossible to completely eliminate private property, the first problem is private space, priority to use an item and maybe incentives to do a proffession.

    about land, assuming it all continues more or less the same, it will be impossible to own private land (altough by this time this might not conflict with private property). in the future, so something will have be done about it, we could colonize other planets, but until there are other similar to earth planets and its like taking the bus it doesnt really matter.

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