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October 6, 2020

The end of ownership

Occasionally a new model pops up that looks like it might challenge the primacy of ownership in our society – the sharing economy showed early promise but with the rise of the world’s largest hotel chain that didn’t own a hotel (airbnb), the largest retailer but without any shops or goods (Amazon) or largest world’s transport company without vehicles (Uber), initial enthusiasm soon faltered. Nonetheless, as Kelly Bewers at Pioneers Post argues, if the new systems we need are to be genuinely more participatory, inclusive and democratised, our understanding of ownership probably needs to evolve from where it is just now.


Karen Bewers, Pioneers Post

As we try to move towards a more inclusive and democratic system, what role does ownership play in the new economy? Is it even a useful principle nowadays – and does something have to be owned to have value? Our columnist picks the brains of two women who are challenging conventional thinking, and finds potential answers in employee-owned firms, earth stewardship, storytelling and activism.

Ownership has uncomfortable connotations. Less than 200 years ago only men who owned land could vote in Britain. In the early 20th century, men still legally ‘owned’ their wives and it was the 1960s before full equal rights within marriage were enshrined in law. Colonialism created slave ‘owners’ and a legacy system of racial oppression that continues to this day.

Yet ownership is still central to our social, economic and cultural life. Owning a property is an aspiration for many; “owning up to something” a sign of leadership and responsibility; “being your own man” implies confidence and independent thought. At the same time, our young people are growing up in a world where the largest retailer doesn’t own any items (Amazon), the biggest transport service doesn’t own any vehicles (Uber), and the most popular hotel chain doesn’t own any hotels (AirBnB).

In this context, as we hope to transition to a more generative, inclusive and democratic system, what role does ownership play in the new economy? Is it still a useful principle? Does something have to be owned to have value? Earlier this month I attended Stir to Action’s (virtual) festival, “A Playground for the New Economy”, to explore these questions and spoke to two influential thinkers and doers in alternative models of ownership.

It’s about access, not ownership

Josina Calliste“We don’t want to own land in order to be more wealthy,” Josina Calliste tells me. “It’s about looking at a different model of wealth: having nutritious food; not living in overcrowded spaces; enjoying a relationship with land that our ancestors had; improved mental health.” Josina (pictured) is the co-founder of Land In Our Names (or LION), a Black-led, grassroots collective committed to reparative justice in Britain by securing land for BPOC (Black people and people of colour) communities. She uses the term ownership because “it reflects the language of the current land system,” but for Josina, LION’s mission is more about “land use and land access.”

Little research exists on the racial demographics of land ownership in the UK, but according to Who Owns England?, 1% of the population own more than 50% of the land in England alone, with 30% of land in the hands of the aristocracy and gentry. BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities are 60% less likely to be able to access green space and natural environments than their white counterparts.

“Ownership kills ecologies,” Josina tells me, quoting social justice activist Aurora Levins Morales. For instance, a farmer using pesticides will pollute not just the river on their land, but the ecosystem for miles around. Josina advocates instead for a holistic approach to land use that benefits more people, specifically “the most marginalised, deprived and underheard.”

1% of the population own more than 50% of the land in England. BAME communities are 60% less likely to be able to access green space

Deb Oxley is CEO of the Employee Ownership Association. With over 25 years’ experience in the public and private sectors, she came to the role eight years ago with a desire to “get under the skin of new business structures”. Before employee ownership was an option, the typical route for a business leader considering succession planning or exit was a trade sale or a management buyout – both scenarios, says Deb, where the value of the business is transferred from one small group of people to another. Employee ownership democratises that transfer – ownership of the business and its value is shared with a much wider group. This “helps to root business in the locality and its community, instead of being sold to a competitor, which usually hits jobs,” Deb affirms.

Employee owned businesses give workers “a stake and a say” – access to a share of financial reward and participation in business decisions. Employees also report high levels of engagement, satisfaction and positive mental health. Although some privately-owned businesses have profit share arrangements, they rarely include everyone, Deb argues, so they lack the equality of access that’s “structurally engineered” into employee owned businesses.

Equality access is “structurally engineered” into employee owned businesses

Stewardship: a viable alternative?

Josina describes the members of LION as “earth stewards” and she is inspired by the story of Sinead Fenton, recently featured in The Observer in an article about the rise of female farmers. Sinead is mixed race and her edible flower farm, part of the Ecological Land Co-op, is in an area that needs land regeneration. She advocates for a new style of farming, because “things have been done the same way by the same people for a long time.” Josina explains that the term ‘new entrants’ into farming doesn’t recognise the deep connection many LION members feel to the land through their ancestry: “We carry knowledge, often embodied knowledge, about the land. Stories that have been passed down. So many people came from farming backgrounds before they arrived in Britain.” For her it’s about increasing pathways into farming and land access and she’s proud of LION’s record in getting these conversations going.

Josina’s team of organisers are all feminists, mostly queer and advocating for trans-rights and trans-liberation, with Black women’s needs at the core. Previously, Josina worked in sexual health and she draws links between reproductive justice, land justice, food justice and racial justice. Black people and people of colour are at greater risk of experiencing food inequality and food insecurity, which was exacerbated during the Covid-19 lockdown. “You need to take a systems approach – women are very prominent and present in those spaces. We want to build a movement of Black people, Black women and non-binary people who are advocating for safe land use.”

To do this, she wants to change the image that many of us in the UK have when we imagine a farmer – usually a white, older man. “In the Global South most subsistence farmers are women. Women are feeding the world!” Josina exclaims. “We can draw back deep into our history to a long legacy of being earth stewards.”

In the Global South most subsistence farmers are women. Women are feeding the world! – Josina Calliste

Speaking at the Stir to Action festival, Deb said that creating a “culture of ownership” unleashes a certain power and behaviour, because “when someone owns something they act differently, protecting it for the long-term.”

However, ownership doesn’t always equate to protection and I would argue you can still care about something if you don’t own it. I suggest a model that champions collective stewardship might be a more valuable message for the new economy and Deb considers this in the context of gender: “Many of the business founders we engage with and support through the Employee Ownership Association are men. They come from a generation of business owners – the baby boomers. We’re helping a lot of them do the right thing for the future of their own business.”

What’s interesting, Deb tells me, is that as a result of these transitions, many of those businesses end up being led by women. These male founders – rather than go for management buy-outs, mergers or acquisitions – have chosen to “empower women” through this transition. Of course, this isn’t the only way that women can become CEOs, but in a system where thousands of SMEs and family-owned businesses will change hands in the next few years, it’s interesting to consider how women might steer this power shift and become stewards of more democratically owned organisations.

New stories of ownership

Currently alternative business models are in the minority, with just 470 employee owned businesses in the UK. Deb wants to see many more – yet she is also pragmatic: it’s about “plurality” and “more diversity in business structures” rather than discrediting other models.

Different stories are needed to demonstrate the power of employee ownership, Deb believes. “In the mainstream business press there is too much dominance by PLCs, yet the majority of UK workers don’t work in those businesses.” In fact, 99% of UK private businesses are SMEs and family-owned enterprises. As a result, there’s a raft of society’s interests that are not catered for, because attention is focussed on listed companies and public markets. Employee ownership offers a version of stakeholder capitalism that can enable businesses to remain relevant in the future.

Josina reflects that challenging Britain’s land system is tough and at times she doesn’t see encouraging signs that her advocacy and activism will change things soon. She refers to the backlash from National Trust members threatening to cancel their memberships after the conservation organisation acknowledged its links to slavery. Similarly, when the BBC’s Countryfile did a segment that explored why people of colour often feel unwelcome in the countryside, there was outrage on Twitter – with one user accusing the broadcaster of being a “Marxist organisation, shoving Black Lives Matter down Countryfile viewers’ throats.”

Pragmatic or radical change?

I ask Deb about some of the more ‘radical’ language and positions that the New Economy Movement is known for taking, and how she positions herself and employee ownership within that paradigm.

“Whenever someone sets themselves against something you create division. In most parts of life there’s space for lots of different views and opinions. A radical approach – pitching yourself against different parts of the economy – doesn’t work.” For Deb it’s about pluralism, but that doesn’t mean not calling out bad behaviour and unfairness when it happens. Executive pay is an example: “We’re in a ridiculous situation where performance of corporate business is not in line with what leaders are paid. That’s wrong and should be called out.”

Deb’s view is persuasive and I can see how her role leading the Employee Ownership Association has influenced business leaders across the UK. It’s about small, incremental gains, not tearing up the system with revolution. It’s working: over 50% of employee ownership transitions have happened since 2017.

We need radicals inside and outside our systems and institutions to work towards creating a better future

Josina is more outspoken, arguing that we need both pragmatic incrementalism and radical activism in the new economy movement, to fight for justice across the many complex and connected systems of oppression – whether that be race and land, or gender and business. “My ancestors lived under systems of enslavement and colonialism. The reality for them then was that enslavement would never end. You had to have people existing in that system, as well as the people who were ready to raze everything to the ground, in order to overthrow it.” She doesn’t recognise the tension between pragmatism and radicalism posed in my question. “It’s easy to write off completely abolishing private property as something that will never be achieved, but I also admire people who can be incrementalists and make things slightly better tomorrow.”

This duality of activist approaches is unifying and a lesson for social justice leaders – rather than arguing about which method of changemaking is most effective, can we celebrate and champion them all? We need radicals inside and outside our systems and institutions to influence and work towards creating a better future.

Can new models of ownership lead to more distributed power?

Through employee ownership, Deb champions an alternative business model that can more fairly distribute organisational capital and power, while existing within and alongside our current economic system. Ownership is a tool that can enable greater justice in a system of enterprise. Josina questions the very concept of ownership as a hypothesis for organising in the first place, and challenges the orthodoxy that land is a commodity that can be owned, traded and exploited by a privileged, predominantly white elite. Land, unlike business, is not man-made but nature-given.

The reality is that we live in an unequal society. Transitioning to a new economy requires us to build the scaffolding on stable foundations. Can new models of ownership lead to more distributed power? I’m convinced that the right kind of ownership – shared, collective, inclusive, steward-based – can be positive for business, land and the economy, as long as we seek to change and re-balance who owns and how they own.