Democratic ownership: a primer

Who owns and controls the wealth of nations is fundamental to how an economic system functions, and in whose interests .

Andy Cumbers Thomas Hanna
11 March 2019, 12.53pm
Image: The Democracy Collaborative, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Societies are to a large extent defined by their dominant property relations. Who owns and controls key resources, from land to finance, gets to exercise power and agency in both the present and the future. Ownership of the “means of production” therefore underpins all other societal values and interactions, including our relationships to each other, to work, to the rest of the world, and to nature. Under global capitalism, private forms of ownership are both predominant and driven by the profit motive such that the accumulation of capital on behalf of private individuals works against any semblance of the common good. Moreover, within this system of private ownership a particular form has come to dominate in recent decades – the large international corporation with shares traded on stock markets or closely held by a small group of individuals (and, specifically, large corporations that are financial in nature).

This particular form of ownership is riddled with problematic and destructive behaviour that is at the root of some of our most pressing economic, social, and ecological challenges. This includes prioritising short-term profits over longer-term investments; a relentless drive to reduce labour costs (through offshoring, internal relocation, and hostility to unions); efforts to externalise social and environmental costs as much as possible; the enshrinement of shareholder value and returns above all other considerations; accelerating inequality through both exorbitant salaries for executives and the funnelling of profits to a small group of elite shareholders; the decimation of local economies and small businesses; the use of off-shore tax havens and other tax avoidance mechanisms; and the establishment of an incentive structure that promotes financial speculation over productive investment. Large corporations are even beginning to threaten traditional measures of economic performance. For instance, recent studies have linked increased market concentration to slowing economic growth, reductions in business investment, and price rises accompanied by stagnant productivity.

This form of ownership represents one of the three pillars of the neoliberal version of capitalism that has, until recently, seemed so dominant and unassailable around the world (the others being deregulated/unregulated markets and increasingly exploitative/precarious employment relations). However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this system is failing; that we are reaching the point at which the unsustainable social and ecological impacts of neoliberalism push the system up against its limits, and a backlash sets in.

The ubiquity and dominance of the corporate for-profit form of ownership in the first decades of the twenty-first century makes it difficult for many people to even conceive of an alternative and more socially equitable ways of running the economy. Yet, neoliberalism generally, and the corporate form of ownership specifically, are relatively new phenomena. For most of human existence ownership of the economy was organised along very different (although often no less problematic) lines. In the twentieth century the primary alternative was the traditional top down (often large, centralised, and bureaucratic) state owned enterprise. This form, with variants and embedded in different macro-economic structures and relationships, has been utilised by everyone from social democrats in Western Europe to state capitalists in East Asia to communists in the Soviet Bloc.

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It has also been used for a wide range of reasons. From a purely economic perspective, one of the most enduring and important reasons societies have repeatedly turned to public ownership over the years is market failure – broadly defined as the inability of markets (within a market-based economic system) to allocate goods or services effectively, or at all, or to provide collective provision for essential services and social needs. From a societal perspective, improving distributional outcomes (and lessening inequality) has been a predominant goal. Other purposes for state ownership suggested over the years include: industrialisation, planning, regional development, technology transfer, national security, employment maximisation, addressing natural monopoly, innovation, environmental sustainability, and accountability.

Contrary to the dominant narrative that emerged during the rise of neoliberalism, and the collapse of state communism, in the latter quarter of the twentieth century, state ownership was often as successful and as efficient as private enterprise. Decades of studies have yielded no consensus about the relative merits of private over public ownership, while there are many cases that demonstrate the effectiveness of the latter for economic development. Countries as diverse as Austria, Norway, South Korea, and Singapore have experienced tremendous economic success with high levels of public ownership. Furthermore, recent studies of the British experience with public ownership offer a much more nuanced picture than the accepted view espoused by Margaret Thatcher and her successors. Productivity growth in nationalised British mining, utility, transportation, and communication sectors, for instance, consistently outpaced similar privately-owned industries in the United States.

Yet, this model is not without its limitations. In the UK, for instance, the post-World War Two Labour government of Clement Atlee embraced the so-called “Morrisonian” form of top-down, centralised, and bureaucratic public organisation, run by an autonomous, arms-length, appointed board. This form proved overly managerial with little participation by the public itself, whether workers, users, or the broader citizenry. It also proved difficult to defend and easy to privatize when political winds changed and Thatcher rose to power in the 1980s. Elsewhere, many state-owned enterprises (especially those in the extractive sector) had poor ecological records, and in some places were agents of cronyism and corruption.

A new vision

One result of the epic ideological, political, and military struggle between capitalism and communism throughout the twentieth century has been to reduce much popular understanding of ownership in the economy to simple binary choices: a completely privatised market economy on the one hand or full state ownership on the other. This conceptualisation, however, can obscure as much as it reveals. Economies, especially in the modern era, are (and will be into the foreseeable future) far more complex with a diversity of actually existing ownership forms. The challenge for those seeking a more just, equitable, and sustainable political economic system, however, is how to articulate an alternative vision of ownership for the common good – one that displaces and supersedes the current, dominant extractive corporate model. The change involves two aspects:

1) Transitioning ownership from the hands of the few to the many.

2) Transforming the internal structure of enterprises to enhance genuine democratic participation and control.

This new vision of ownership has many names; public ownership (in its widest sense), economic democracy, collective ownership, generative ownership, etc. However, the term democratic ownership is perhaps the most appropriate to indicate the need for a mix of models where ownership is broadly held, and/or is controlled by democratic means. The best models include both forms of democratisation – ownership and participation – because they combine positive distributional outcomes (such as decreased inequality) with the individual and societal benefits associated with increased agency and empowerment (discussed further below).

Democratic enterprises

Even though democratic ownership as a whole seeks to supplant the extractive (and exploitative) corporate model, it does not suggest that just one alternative will take its place. The importance of tolerance, pluralism, historical and geographical contingency, culture, and the environment suggests that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Similarly, while democratic theory and experience suggests that dispersing (rather than centralising) ownership and decision-making is optimal, modern economies are global in scale and increasingly complex, thus necessitating certain economic activities that need larger scale and central coordination. Therefore, the principle of subsidiarity – generally, that decision-making should be devolved to the lowest level possible – should guide democratic ownership. In other words, we should aspire towards examples of democratic ownership that are technically necessary at higher levels while devolving control of other activities as far as possible to the local level.

Moreover, while a more democratic and egalitarian economy should be largely comprised of democratically owned enterprises, some limited forms of small-scale individual private ownership should likely continue to exist to promote creativity, entrepreneurialism, and dynamism. The extent to which this is the case will vary from sector to sector and economy to economy (small retail and farms, for instance). Additionally, there should always be latitude for communities to experiment with different ownership forms and combinations in line with both local needs and desires as well as larger imperatives (such as the effects of climate change and global trade). Therefore, what follows is merely an illustrative sketch of what the mix of democratic enterprises might be:

  • Full state ownership: This form most closely approximates the traditional, large state-owned enterprise, although, as will be discussed further below in conjunction with all of these models, it should be subject to new efforts at internal democratisation. Fully state-owned companies will likely be larger and more centralised than other forms, allowing the public to influence key sectors and undertake longer-term strategic planning to secure important goals, such as dealing with climate change, building and maintaining modern electricity or transport systems, etc.

  • Partial state ownership: This form resembles many modern state-owned companies in which the state (sometimes through quasi-independent investment vehicles) owns shares alongside private investors. For the purposes of this sketch, partial state ownership refers to a structure in which the state owns at least a controlling interest. In other words, enough shares that it can prevail in any shareholder vote, but not necessarily a majority. If organised along similar lines as in contemporary economies (where such enterprises are given complete autonomy and charged primarily with commercial purposes), partially state-owned enterprises could provide some public influence on different parts of the economy, but would primarily serve to return profits and dividends to the public. The extent to which partial state ownership can be democratic will depend in large part on how the state’s ownership share is structured and operationalised.

  • Local/municipal ownership: This form is similar to the types of publicly owned enterprises that are numerically dominant in many countries with more decentralised political systems (such as the United States and Germany). Enterprises that are owned by governments or public bodies at the local or regional level are more closely connected to local democratic structures, individuals, and community-based groups and are, therefore, potentially more accessible, participatory, and democratically accountable. Local and municipal ownership provides better opportunities for the economic benefits of public ownership to be felt locally, often contributing to a multiplier effect that strengthens local economies and supports vital social services and environmental initiatives.

  • Multi-stakeholder ownership: While all forms of democratic ownership can and should have multi-stakeholder internal management processes (discussed further below), multi-stakeholder ownership refers to a form in which various groups and organisations own shares of an enterprise. This can include government, workers (through a trade union or a trust), public and worker pension funds, resident associations, environmental (and other) non-profits, etc. Multi-stakeholder ownership ensures both broader representation in ownership decisions and the distribution of profits. One example is Aguas Argentinas SA in the Buenos Aires region, which was founded following a failed water privatisation, and whose shares are divided between the local government and the water and sanitation worker’s trade union.

  • Worker ownership: Broadly, workers can own their workplaces in one of two ways: 1) either directly on the basis of one worker, one vote as in a traditional worker cooperative; or 2) through some representative structure, such as the retirement trusts known as Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs). Generally, individual worker cooperatives are smaller (although they can network together into bigger groupings as is the case with the large-scale Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in the Basque region of Spain) but tend to be more democratic and participatory. While representative structures such as trusts allow worker ownership to thrive at a larger scale and in bigger individual enterprises, this is offset by the likelihood of more passive and less participatory organisations. The John Lewis Partnership in the UK would be an example of the latter, commercially successful but criticised recently for losing some of its alternative ethos and values.

  • Consumer cooperative ownership: Enterprises that are owned by consumer-members are one of the most common forms of democratic ownership in contemporary modern economies. These include credit unions, grocery and retail stores, housing, schools, etc. These operate on a one-member, one-vote basis and are usually smaller and geographically anchored, however larger scale enterprises can and do exist (especially in the retail sector).

  • Producer cooperative ownership: Producer cooperatives are organisations that are owned by other enterprises and organisations (including, but not limited to, other cooperatives). They exist to support their members with marketing, purchasing, and other functions so that they can operate at scale while retaining their individual local ownership structures and (in the case of cooperatives) democratic and participatory governance mechanisms. In many countries, the farming sector is dominated by such cooperatives that help to protect members from destructive competition while also generating greater market power in their supply relations with retailers.

  • Community ownership: Another way in which communities can participate in enterprise ownership is through a local non-profit organisation. Community-based non-profits can and should include direct community representation on their governing boards. The broader and more reflective this representation is of community dynamics, the more democratic and accountable it is. Moreover, these non-profits can also operate for-profit subsidiaries (called social enterprises) that both return revenues to the non-profit to support its social betterment mission and employ local residents.

  • Sustainable local private ownership: While not necessarily democratic in their ownership structure (although some have degrees of worker ownership), sustainable locally owned businesses prioritise community, the environment, and workers alongside profits (sometimes called a “triple bottom line”). They are usually small businesses operating in a variety of fields (but especially food, retail, and design). If some degree of private, for-profit ownership is retained in a democratic economy (as we believe it must), then as much as possible it should take the form of sustainable locally owned enterprises that take a triple bottom line approach.

Between these different categories, there are numerous hybrid forms of democratic ownership that could be developed to meet specific needs in particular situations. For instance, there are emerging experiments around the world with so-called “public-public partnerships” whereby governments (at varying levels), consumers, trade unions, and or other stakeholders come together to form and reform enterprises and networks. In the United States, for instance, this occurs in the water and electrical sectors with regards to municipal utilities joining in networks with other municipal utilities and national entities to achieve the benefits of scale while retaining a decentralised system with local control. Similarly, varying jurisdictions often come together around the ownership and control of transit systems and infrastructure.

Each form of democratic enterprise has its advantages and disadvantages, and the right form (or mix of forms) will depend on a variety of factors, the most important of which is the objective. As the economist E. F. Schumacher wrote: “Public ownership gives complete freedom in the choice of objectives and can therefore be used for any purpose that may be chosen. While private ownership is an instrument that by itself largely determines the ends for which it can be employed, public ownership is an instrument the ends of which are undetermined and need to be consciously chosen.” The statement holds for most, if not all, forms of democratic ownership. Even those cooperatives that are for-profit businesses have the freedom to democratically determine how those profits are used (they can be reinvested in the business, distributed to workers/members as dividends, donated to charity, etc.).

Broadly, in addition to the general goal of economic viability (note, that this is a very different objective than traditional conceptions of “efficiency”, focused purely on financial measures that fail to properly account for additional economic, social, and environmental values and outcomes), some broad objectives for democratic ownership are as follows:

  • Securing public control of the economy’s strategic sectors (“commanding heights”): To secure the objectives of being able to establish democratic control over key sectors and undertake longer-term strategic planning around issues of large-scale, national or international importance, traditional public ownership strategies such as full state ownership and local/municipal ownership are likely most optimal. Depending on factors such as degree of public control and accountability/transparency, partial state ownership and multi-stakeholder ownership could also play a prominent role in this regard.

  • Dealing with issues of market failure: Arguably, all forms of democratic ownership can address issues of market failure. However, those enterprises that are more reliant on markets (such as worker owned companies and consumer and producer cooperatives) may have more difficulty and need certain public supports. For instance, cooperatives or community owned enterprises located in or serving severely disenfranchised communities may need help in the form of public contracts, grants and loans, and training and development assistance to become profitable and fulfil their mission.

  • Achieving greater economic decentralisation and local community control over decision-making: While local and municipal public ownership is theoretically the optimal form for this objective (due to its potential to incorporate all members of a local community into the ownership and management of the enterprise), in contemporary practice multi-stakeholder ownership, worker ownership, consumer cooperative ownership, producer cooperative ownership, and community ownership can be as good, if not better.

  • Achieving distributional justice (equal and fair provision across a national/regional territory) and reducing inequality: Full state ownership and local municipal ownership are best suited for distributing the material benefits of democratic ownership as broadly as possible at various scales. In such forms, all residents within a specific geography benefit from the enterprise in the form of services or revenues (and the ancillary benefits of lower tax rates to fund services). Depending on how they are set up, partial state ownership and multi-stakeholder ownership can also be deployed to meet this objective. By giving ownership rights to a smaller group of individuals (even if that group is broader than in the economy as a whole), worker ownership, consumer cooperative ownership, and producer cooperative ownership is less beneficial. To the extent that such ownership builds wealth for specific groups of owners, it could actually exacerbate inequality and create new forms of vested interest that work against the common good. It would also have different effects depending on the particular sector. For instance, worker ownership in, say, custodial services will have different wealth and income opportunities than one in financial consulting services.

  • Achieving environmental sustainability and tackling climate change: Full state ownership and local/municipal ownership has the greatest freedom of choice of all the forms presented. Just as how, traditionally, they have played a prominent role in the extractive energy sector (mining and burning fossil fuels), they can – and increasingly are –being deployed to achieve environmental sustainability and facilitate both the renewable energy transition necessary to tackle climate change and the changes required in other key infrastructure sectors such as water and transport. Moreover, due to their size (and because many are vertically integrated) these enterprises can bring significant resources and affect large-scale change when oriented in a more ecologically conscious direction. While many worker, consumer, producer, and locally owned enterprises are ecologically sustainable and can play a role, they tend to be smaller (and thus their impact is less). Moreover, to an extent they all face market pressures that could cause them to externalise environmental costs in certain circumstances. Ultimately, local and national state forms of ownership are imperative to ensure a coherent integrated strategy and regulatory framework for addressing climate change.

  • Developing greater participation in decision-making and strengthening democracy: To the extent that they are organised along the principle of one person, one vote, worker owned firms and consumer cooperatives score highest in terms of internal democratic participation and engagement. Moreover, there is substantial research on the societal and economic benefits of increasing participation and democracy (discussed further below). When it comes to the public ownership forms, evidence suggests that the closer those enterprises are to community members (i.e. local/municipal ownership) the greater the possibilities for participation in internal decision making. As the scale of such enterprises increases, so too does the difficulty of maintaining and encouraging genuine participation and democracy.

Democratising ownership

As previously mentioned, the second – and critical – aspect of democratic ownership is internal democratisation. All of the forms of democratic ownership previously described are based on real world examples, and in contemporary practice have varying degrees of democratic participation and control. Confronted with the rise of a particularly vile form of right-wing populism in recent years, many defenders of the established order, often professing to be liberals or “centrists,” have rejected economic democracy when it does not deliver their preferred market-based outcomes in favour of rule by an international technocratic elite. Like the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey 100 years ago, we reject this approach. The flames of right-wing extremism masquerading as populism simply cannot be defeated in this way and are only more likely to be fanned by the increased sense of alienation and loss of control. Instead, the answer must include a process of genuine democratic engagement and participation, especially in the economic sphere. What we need, in short, is more democracy, not less. There are at least four fundamental and interconnected reasons why broader and more robust forms of internal participation and democratic governance are desirable:

  • Democratisation can have wider social and economic effects and benefits: The theory that deeper and more direct forms of democratic practice have distinct social advantages has been widely studied, especially since the 1960s and 70s. These include the individual psychological benefits of empowerment and self-development, social benefits such increased community cohesiveness and dialogue, increased civic participation and engagement, reduced inequality, and greater productivity.

  • Democratisation can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the enterprise: Active and broad-based participation of workers, community members, and other stakeholders can deliver better outcomes by tapping into the practical knowledge of those groups regarding operating conditions on the ground. In the US, the UK, and elsewhere, there are examples where enterprises have achieved significant cost savings (and avoided layoffs) by partnering with their workers and other stakeholders to improve effectiveness and stimulate innovation.

  • Democratisation of work is a fundamental component and pre-requisite of genuine political democracy: Often referred to as economic democracy, there is an understanding among some political theorists (especially the prominent US political theorist Robert Dahl) that political democracy cannot truly flourish in a society in which wealth, power, and decision-making is concentrated in a small elite group of private owners who appropriate the labour of the mass of the population for their own ends. What starts off as an individual right to ownership of one’s labour leads to a fundamental democratic need to have voice in the decision-making process in the economy as a whole. In 1937, for instance, John Dewey wrote that “unless democratic habits of thought and action are part of the fiber of a people, political democracy is insecure. It cannot stand in isolation. It must be buttressed by the presence of democratic methods in all social relationships.

  • Democratisation empowers and builds the capacity of groups and individuals that have traditionally been excluded: This includes, but is not limited to, workers in particular enterprises. In the UK, the US, and other advanced economies, the employed make up less than half of the total population. While workers may have some minimal participatory rights (through trade unions or employee ownership schemes), retirees, students, the disabled, and the unemployed are all excluded from direct participation. Moreover, racial minorities and women are often under-represented in workplace, especially at managerial and decision-making levels. And, of course, the natural world – from which so much is extracted and to which so much harm is done – has no representation at all.

What internal democratisation could look like will vary based on the type of ownership form and, likely, from enterprise to enterprise. Given that they are responsible to the community as a whole, traditional publicly owned enterprises (full state ownership, partial state ownership, and local/municipal ownership) should embrace a multi-stakeholder structure whereby workers, users and/or residents, and other groups (including NGOs and other levels of government) come together to set the goals and objectives of the enterprise (and to hire or fire management) alongside robust worker participation in the form of work councils and trade unions. Multi-stakeholder ownership should incorporate more groups in the management and decision-making structure –particularly groups representing the environment and historically marginalised populations. Worker owned enterprises should find ways to incorporate the wider community, especially consumers of their products or services, into their decision-making structure. Beyond this, they should embrace methods and structures that incentivise and promote the active participation of workers in decision making and avoid as much as possible relying on non-cooperative labour. Conversely, consumer cooperatives should find ways to incorporate workers into their governance structure, through co-determinationist models or trade unions (or both). Producer cooperatives should, on the one hand encourage their member organisations to adopt more participatory internal governance structures, and on the other hand, include consumers and other groups into their associations. Community ownership should ensure that the community served is accurately and equitably represented in governance structures (especially with regards to race, class, and geography). When such non-profits own and operate social enterprises, these should include robust worker participation mechanisms and incentives. Sustainable locally owned businesses should, like many have in the United States, consider converting to worker ownership through an ESOP. This gives workers ownership rights (with limited decision-making powers). However, even if some degree of worker ownership is established, more robust forms of worker (and community) participation can and should also be implemented.

In every enterprise robust and comprehensive management and participation training programs should be established in order to prepare workers, community representatives, and other stakeholders for active engagement. Moreover, in the traditional publicly owned enterprises (as well as community ownership) democratisation should include increased transparency and accountability. This goes beyond the simple call for better oversight and reporting standards (and rejects efforts to corporatise public enterprises and run them purely on commercial lines). It involves the use of not only public meetings and records requirements, but also new online and digital tools to ensure the widest access and accessibility (including ways to make complex documents and processes understandable to the average resident).

From here to there: strategy and implementation

As previously mentioned, all of the different forms of democratic ownership articulated in this model exist in the contemporary economic system in one form or another. The key question is how, collectively, they displace, over time, the extractive corporate model. Based on historical and contemporary experience, we know some of the possible ways of scaling up through state action (while not discounting the imperative to also organise from the bottom up in support of expanding such institutions, which is briefly discussed below).

A national or powerful regional government has broad powers available to it to both compel and incentivise changes in ownership. Through traditional, top-down nationalisations the central government, using its supreme legal authority, can bring key sectors into full-state ownership (as happens regularly around the world, including in the US and the UK during the financial crisis ten years ago). Through various investment vehicles (agencies or funds), the central government can also purchase ownership shares in enterprises, thus converting them to partial state ownership. Local/municipal ownership can be expanded through (re)-municipalisation campaigns – often involving coalitions of community groups, workers (and their unions), and local civic leaders – that reverse the tide of privatisation and break new ground for public ownership at the local level.

Multi-stakeholder ownership can be scaled up through a variety of ways; for instance, governments could give ownership stakes in publicly owned enterprises to workers and other stakeholders on the one hand, and take ownership stakes in cooperatives and other enterprises in return for investment on the other. Government could also pass legislation that provides preferential tax treatment and other incentives to enterprises that have multi-stakeholder ownership structures. Similarly, worker ownership can be enabled through supportive legislation at various levels of government. This can include a “right to buy” for workers when an owner is contemplating selling the enterprise, tax incentives to sell to a workers’ retirement trust, public funding (in the form of grants and loans) for setting up or expanding worker cooperatives, investment in technical and training capacity (such as state-funded worker ownership centres), or allocating public procurement contracts to worker owned companies. For community ownership, consumer cooperative ownership, and sustainable local private ownership, many of the above public supports also apply (especially tax status, public contracts, and technical assistance). However, here one of the primary needs is financing. Governments can create revolving loan funds, banks, and other investment vehicles to lend to such entities (perhaps though a private, non-profit intermediary and perhaps with preferential rates).

Within all of these ownership forms, there are also examples of pathways towards internal democratisation. Some of these include: multi-stakeholder processes in North America (and elsewhere), the multi-level democratic processes of the Mondragón cooperatives, experiments at worker self-management in Yugoslavia (and elsewhere) during the twentieth century, democratic processes in reclaimed factories in Argentina, Greece, and other countries that have experienced neoliberal-driven economic crises, and the participatory budgeting movement that has spread from Brazil to the rest of the world.

There are of course, a variety of challenges to activating these pathways. Many require enabling legislation at various levels of government. In many countries, this is a daunting prospect, given the political and economic power of large corporations and their entrenched beneficiaries. There is also the challenge of the constraints placed upon such activities by the international institutions and agreements of the neoliberal era (the World Trade Organization and the European Union, for instance). In order to actively pursue some of these policies (especially around procurement, state aid, and public ownership) in any substantial way (other than at the margins), governments will have to find ways to either renegotiate their involvement in, or extract themselves from, such institutions. On the other hand, given the guiding principle of subsidiarity that underpins the democratic ownership model, there will need to be greater processes of political decentralisation in the more centralised and unitary states such as the UK in order to operationalise some of these pathways (especially with regards to local/municipal ownership and public contracts to local and cooperative enterprises).

Next steps

Fortunately, because the forms of democratic ownership articulated here, as well as the means of scaling up, are based on real-world precedents, there is much that can be accomplished now to lay the groundwork for what could and should be done if and when a national government committed to these ideas comes to power. These can roughly be divided into three, overlapping themes.

  • Organising: In order to take on deeply entrenched vested interests and ultimately displace some of the most powerful economic actors in human history (large international corporations), popular mobilisation will be crucial. Organising for democratic ownership at various levels and across multiple sectors is already occurring – for instance with re-municipalisation campaigns and worker cooperatives – but much more can be done to build strong and sustainable coalitions of workers, residents, consumers, trade unionists, policy makers, environmentalists, and others.

  • Theoretical development: What forms of democratic ownership are most appropriate for particular sectors and industries in a modern economy is, at best, understudied. So too is how best to democratise enterprises internally. Much still needs to be learned – including with regards to trade-offs that will need to be made, pitfalls that will need to be avoided, and challenges that will need to be overcome – in order to provide an incoming government with the tools it needs to effectively move in the direction of democratic ownership. This includes the detailed legal analysis and policy development that will enable a government to quickly implement wide ranging reform.

  • Experimentation: Both the theoretical development and organising work should not occur in a vacuum. They should be consciously linked to each other and to an ongoing process of real, on-the-ground experimentation. Ultimately, such experimentation not only provides critical information into what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved, but it also materially impacts (and benefits) the lives of people living in the current system and builds a constituency of support for further development.

The model presented here envisages a mixed economy populated primarily by a diversity of forms of democratic ownership. It is in opposition to the increasingly corporatised and financialised system of private, elite ownership and control that currently exists. A key principle is that of “decentring” the economy by encouraging a diffusion of economic decision making both across the economy through a variety of different democratic forms of ownership (ranging from national and local public ownership to cooperative and worker-ownership, to multi-stakeholder and hybrid forms) and within enterprises at all levels. There is no one model of democratic ownership applicable in all contexts, but distinctive forms will be appropriate in different economic sectors. At the model’s core is the belief that the concept of ownership and control in the economy needs to be radically rethought to be relevant to the rapidly changing world around us. The gap between positive theoretical visions of future alterative institutional arrangements and our terrifying contemporary reality of rising right-wing populism on the one hand and impending climate catastrophe on the other must now be closed – and quickly. Now more than ever it is critical that we develop viable and practical expansion and transition strategies for a plausible vision of a more democratic economy capable of attracting real support.

This essay originally appeared as a chapter in the eBook 'New Thinking for the British Economy' which can be downloaded for free here. Printed versions of each chapter are also available via Commonwealth Publishing .

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