We Can Reimagine Our Systems of Ownership and Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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