Foreword by David Korten, from Owning Our Future, written by Marjorie Kelly, entrepreneur, writer and Fellow at The Tellus Institute. Truly an incredible assessment of perhaps the most central foundational aspect of capitalism, ownership.
Of all the important elements lacking from much progressive thought and action, the issue of ownership design is perhaps the most foundational. Marjorie Kelly illuminates this crucial topic in a way that can drive it home to everyone. Owning Our Future offers the most thorough and properly nuanced treatment of the subject I’ve seen anywhere.
Most of the great political struggles over the past 5,000 years can be reduced to a simple question: who will own land, water, and the other essentials of living – and to what end? In the earliest human societies, ownership of the essentials of living was held in common by members of a tribe and included responsibilities of sacred stewardship. We might describe this as a form of shared ownership that confers shared responsibility.
As societies transitioned to centralized power structures, ownership of land, water, and other essential means of production was monopolized by the few. Even with the movement toward democracy, ownership of wealth has remained largely in the hands of an elite. Today, debilitating debt, bankruptcies, and foreclosures are a reminder of how little has changed and how many among us – including young people burdened by student loans – live under the power of those who control the issuance of credit.
Behind the workings of our economy lies an invisible issue that few of us focus on – the issue of ownership. During my years working in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, I came to realize that what we call “development” is in fact a process of transferring control over the basic resources essential to daily life from the people who depend on them to foreign corporations, whose primary interest is financial gain. Ownership of corporations is, in large part, in the hands of the wealthiest 10 percent.
Our well-being, indeed our future as a species, depends on restoring our relationships to one another and with the land, the water, the sky, and other generative resources of nature that indigenous people traditionally considered it their obligation to hold and manage in sacred trust. The architecture of ownership is key.
The defining debates of the 20th century were crudely framed as a choice between two simplistically defined economic models: private ownership (capitalism0 and public ownership (socialism/communism). Neither capitalism nor socialism ever achieved its ideal, but each came sufficiently close to reveal that both failed. Both support a concentration of the power of ownership in the hands of an oligarchy.
In Owning Our Future, Marjorie shows that a new model of ownership is arising and spreading in our time, which she calls generative ownership. It’s most often private ownership, but with a purpose of serving the common good. Generative ownership models include cooperatives, employee-owned firms, community land trusts, community banks, credit unions, foundation-owned companies, and many other models that root control in the hands of people who have a natural interest in the health of their communities and local ecosystems. These are in contrast to the dominant ownership models of capitalism, which Marjorie calls extractive.
She offers a simple patter language to describe what makes these two different models of ownership work. Extractive ownership features Absentee Membership and the rapid speculative trading of Casino Finance, built around the purpose of maximizing the extraction of financial wealth. This creates a disconnect between the common good and the global banks, corporations, and financial markets that control the means of living. Extractive ownership is at the root of most of the social and ecological ills we face today.
In Marjorie’s prophetic words: “Ownership is the gravitational field that holds our economy in its orbit, locking us all into behaviors that lead to financial excess and ecological overshoot.”
Generative ownership, by contrast, has the purpose of creating the conditions for the flourishing of life. It features Rooted Membership, in the living hands of employees, families, communities and others connected to the real economy of jobs and homes and human life. It features Mission-Controlled Governance that keeps firms focused on social mission, Stakeholder Finance that allows capital to be a friend, and Ethical Networks that provide collective support for social and ecological norms. Most of these enterprises are profit making, but they’re not profit maximizing.
Since her groundbreaking book The Divine Right of Capital, Marjorie has focused her attention as a writer on how to resolve the foundational issue of ownership, and in Owning Our Future, she shares the story of her personal journey of discovery. The book is written as a travelogue, with detailed accounts of her visits to each of the major initiatives she profiles. Marjorie combines the perspective of a tenacious reporter, the writing skills of an accomplished novelist, and the open and inquiring mind of a thoughtful and critical economic theorist. Her central theme is that the architecture of ownership defines the business purpose of the enterprise and largely determines whether it will operate in a generative or extractive mode. It is the design of ownership that creates the essential framework for the capitalist economy that is beginning to break down – and for a potentially new generative economy that we can bring into being.
This is one of the most important books of our time. I found it so informative and inspiring that reading it literally brought tears of joy to my eyes. It gets my very highest recommendation.