Current Affairs

A Convenient Way To Promote Happiness

Rethinking “Ownership”

Mat Lawrence of Common Wealth on what new economic structures could look like…

Mathew Lawrence is the director of Common Wealth, a London-based think tank working on new models of ownership for a sustainable future. Read a recent Guardian piece from Mat on inclusive ownership here, and Common Wealth’s report on it here. Current Affairs contributing editor and podmaster Aisling McCrea recently spoke to Mat about Common Wealth’s work. The interview was transcribed by Addison Kane.

CURRENT AFFAIRS

First of all, I’d just like to hear you talk a little bit about Common Wealth, and what place you see it taking in British politics.

MAT LAWRENCE

Common Wealth is about the ownership model—it’s about “commoning,” about new forms of common control of assets, of resources, of power. And I suppose it came about because I worked in think tank land, connected to public policy development, research, et cetera, for a while…and you know, unless you’re willfully blind, it’s very obvious that there is a series of very interconnected crises: environmental, social, economic, political, both in the U.K. and globally, and Anglo-American capitalism is at the very center of that. And the sense was that the system’s crisis demands a systemic response, and if we want a systemic response, we have to go to the node of power, the core organizing frame of our economy, which is property relations—how our economy is owned, by whom, for what purpose, which then fundamentally shapes distributions of power, income, wealth, control, agency of the economy. And so…if we are going to tackle, or move beyond neoliberalism, but then begin to build an economy that operates very differently—on different rhythms and different interests, that will fundamentally have to happen on a news of structure of ownership that is more common—with more commons, literally, in terms of expansion of the commons, but also a more pluralistic ecology of ownership, both of enterprise, but also all fundamental institutions of our economy, whether it is data, whether it is land, whether it’s institutions of care. So that was the starting point. 

CA

What I find quite interesting about this is that think tanks, even some of the more progressive think tanks, tend to focus on incremental and more specific changes. So, they tend to aim for… “okay, we think we can add this policy and it will help education” or what have you. And they tend to aim for these one-issue things, and they might have a broader vision, but they tend to sort of…go for the margins, and see what they can change there. Whereas what I noticed about Common Wealth is that it is explicitly…not even radical, but what a lot of people would term radical, and aiming for these more ambitious changes. So, what I was wondering, is how do you see that coming about, and what is Common Wealth’s strategy for implementing its ideas?

LAWRENCE

The first part of this is, can we get into the lifeblood of social movements of the left, in our framing, in our analysis, in our institutional solutions, and in our demands. The second is, what we’re trying to do—and we’re still quite young, in terms of public life, but what we’re going to try to do, is act as a sort of conduit for more traditional think tanks, between activists, practitioners, academics, radical lawyers, economists, and the policy world. And then trying to bring in all of this deep well of expertise, out there in the wider movement, you begin hopefully to create a deepening of the potential sort of policies that that common sense can then kind of instantiate itself through, and build all those ideas among political actors, whether they’re political parties, economic actors, trade unions, whatever it might be. I think it’s sort of a multi-step process. But I think part of the reason, to go back to your point, some would say it’s quite big and radical…I think that’s true, but I think sort of given the scale of crisis confronting us, it’s frankly too late to not sort of go for scale, go for radical ambition, go for a deep institutional turn in how we organize society.

CA

You said “creating a new common sense.” What do you mean by that?

LAWRENCE

I suppose what I mean by that is a sort of slight, kind of deliberate echo in some ways of Stuart Hall—of the “common sense” of Thatcherism. Because in some ways, what Common Wealth is trying to think about, and popularize, is a new common sense around governance, control and ownership of resources, in the way that Thatcherism did—not necessarily directly in reverse, but certainly at the same scale, and ambition. In the U.K. certainly—and to some degree, there are similarities in the U.S.—there’s been two big shifts in how we organize our economy in the U.K.. There was the post-1945 moment, in which there was an extension of public ownership of important parts of the economy, and also, the National Health Service, which is a public form of ownership of health; there’s the central banking system, there’s a big extension of public ownership and control, and that anchored the post-war Keynesian consensus. And then obviously, there was the neoliberal turn, so the Thatcherite “common sense” was anchored in privatization and shareholder primacy as the key fundamentals of the political economy. 

And so, looking to the third sort of systemic change that we think is needed. We think that change in ownership will be fundamental, just like it was in the last two. And so that new common sense is about articulating a sense of no, we should own the wealth we create in common. We should have a collective stake, a say, a share, and then actually, when we look at how capitalism extracts from nature, from cheap labor—there is a common sense now actually getting through, for ameliorating the worst of the crises coming down the track, the environment in particular and a whole manner of other crises. We will need new stewardship, new forms of ownership.

CA

And why do you think this hasn’t already happened, so far? Because it has felt a little bit like the left has been somewhat in the wilderness for the past 30-odd years. Why do you think that that ambition hasn’t been present, or at least hasn’t been visible in the mainstream? And why do you think the moment is now?

LAWRENCE

I guess the sort of “long ‘90s” as Jeremy Gilbert calls it…was much more focused on using public spending, regulatory interventions, et cetera, many of which achieved good outcomes. But it wasn’t necessarily going after the deep institutional structure of the economy, partly because I think there was a sense before the financial crisis, that actually, the economic model basically worked, and would last forever. It was all about distributing the proceeds. It wasn’t about power. 

And then post financial crisis, I think both in the U.S. and the U.K., there’s been a rising ambition. And I think certainly in the U.K., with John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, and the 2017 manifesto, there has been a return to questions of ownership…whether it’s reclaiming privatized utilities, back into public control, but also much more pluralistic and democratic forms of ownership around co-operatives, national investment banks, public banking, et cetera. 

CA

You have a report out soon about the U.K. Green New Deal. 

LAWRENCE

Yes, and that’s bringing together this broad range of activists, economists, lawyers, and transport planners, from a radical perspective, and basically setting out a roadmap for a very ambitious and transformative Green New Deal, which is centered on this premise that crisis is driven by extractivism, whether it’s environmental, social, or economic, that private power, private ownership, and that concentrated form of ownership allows that extraction. A Green New Deal, to be transformative, has to challenge that sort of model of extraction, and that way of economic thinking, and has to be about new forms of stewardship, new forms of democratic control, new forms of democratic power, and it has to be about not just decarbonizing the economy, and restoring fraying natural systems, but actually transforming and democratizing the economy as a whole, and extending and universalizing new forms of freedoms, new forms of collective and social power.

CA

What I find interesting about this is that in the U.S., where you have the movement towards the Green New Deal, it tends to be very focused on traditional political concerns—moving away from non-renewable energy sources towards renewable sources, but also employment in those new sectors, innovation in tech, and so on. Compared to a lot of ambitious political plans that tend to use a lot of futuristic political language—talking about things like apps, and tech, and you know, innovative solutions—your work is innovative, but it’s talking about a lot of stuff that doesn’t get talked about a lot, going back to this idea of stewardship, and the commons. Because if you go back a couple of hundred years ago, a big part of capitalism growing, or being created, was enclosing the commons. So previously, you would have had common land that sort of belonged to everyone, or at least was able to be used by everyone, and then a lot of this became private land, that was exclusive to the use of one person. And a lot of the language you use is of the “commons,” whether that’s the commons of actual, physical land, or you also have ideas about a digital commons. So why is it that you want to focus on these areas that you don’t tend to see as much discussion about?

LAWRENCE

Partly, because as you say, it’s been one of the fundamental driving dynamics of capitalism—enclosure and extraction—and I think any serious attempt to grapple with that has to take seriously the point that enclosure and extraction is a fundamental part of that dynamic. To take one practical example, it seems to me very clear that one of the things that the left ought to resurrect from its genealogy, its history, that have gotten shut off in the late ‘90s and 2000s is this idea of conscious democratic planning, and of the economy being an object for intervention, and then how are we going to do that successfully. Well, we’re going to need effective data and information. How are we going to do that if data is enclosed? And so, therefore, one of the core elements of this Green New Deal has to be about thinking about how can we prise open and create pools of data—obviously being attendant to concerns around privacy, around concerns from marginalized communities around who holds and accesses and uses data. But nonetheless, a data commons seems as fundamentally important in terms of the planning, as sort of talking about apps for decarbonizing energy, or whatever. You know, different forms of world-making, rather than just sort of accumulations. So obviously, it has to be about a just transition, so labor’s interest has to be fundamental to that, but I think we can also then bring in these old trajectories, I think, which still have deep resonance in terms of why we’re driving into climate crisis, and how we can institutionalize the Green New Deal in a way that doesn’t just sort of decarbonize neoliberalism, but actually can put us on a new trajectory. 

CA

And how do you see us balancing having this transition period with the urgency of the situation? Because it’s what, 11, 12 years, that we’ve got? So, how do you see us transitioning in a way that is rapid enough, but also realistic or pragmatic. How do you balance those things? 

LAWRENCE

For me, the climate crisis is an overwhelmingly political crisis, rather than a crisis of our technical capacity or our abilities to mobilize resources. There was a report out in the U.K. by the Committee on Climate Change, about how the U.K. could get to net zero [carbon emissions] by 2050. And what it made very clear was that the U.K. could do it at roughly just 1-2% of GDP extra investment, up to 2050, and basically all of the technologies, if you deploy them at scale, already exist. We can do this, and we have expansive capacity in terms of financing new forms of tax revenue, mobilizing private investment, and channeling it towards low-carbon sources. So we could definitely finance it much, much more quickly, I think. The question is the political challenge. And I think there is no way around that there is a difficult balancing act, politically, to both mobilize, and push through very significant change through democratic processes, within a short period of time, when inertia, or fear of big change, or rightful skepticism about claims from policy people are political challenges. I would say that doubling down on ambition seems to be the safest way forwards, because the alternative is either an ethno-nationalist right, which has its kind of climate eschatology, or you get maybe sort of anti-democratic managerialist politics, which can perhaps decarbonize, but doesn’t really address some of the inequalities of class, of race, of gender, that sit at the heart of the economic model driving the climate crisis in the first place. And so, I think, actually, the best hope is to say yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s a collective project— it’s a world-making, a collective project. But I think, actually, the left has always been strongest when it can mobilize around collective hope and resources, to channel towards new world making. 

CA

I think that’s quite a positive note, because it’s very easy to become apathetic and just say oh, there’s nothing you can do at this point— which is almost more dangerous, because, as you say, it is possible but you just have to work towards it, and mobilize it. 

So, how do you see this working out from an internationalist perspective? Because obviously, apart from the climate crisis, by necessity of it has to be a kind of international effort, right? 

LAWRENCE

I think national Green New Deals have to also be internationalist in orientation. For the U.K. and the U.S., at least, we are really at the heart of very extractive, in some ways colonial circuits of accumulation and financing that we need to challenge directly, and so, I think there’s an element around challenging how finance operates: challenging modes of investment, of the economy, looking at how the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, how do they act to inhibit or promote the forms of fair financing for a green transition that are needed, et cetera, et cetera. There’s a lot that can be done, and I think clearly, another thing would be much more humane politics of migration that will have to be fundamental to a world of mass movement due to climate displacement. I think there will be a politics of reparation as well, because clearly, those who are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis are those who obviously bear the least responsibility, if no responsibility at all, quite frankly, for the crisis we’re in. And, actually, a large part of this crisis, remaining, is just this sort of simple inequality: those who are very wealthiest consume far, far more than the rest.

CA

Yeah, I think it’s a genuinely tricky thing, because part of the global north’s development involved this massive industrialization, which we are now starting to see in places like India and China, and that is something that, of course, contributes hugely to carbon emissions, and all the various aspects of climate change. But also, it feels difficult, as countries that benefited hugely from that, to then turn around to India, and say, “No, you’re not allowed to do that.” 

LAWRENCE

I think the answer would be—though of course, the answer is not for me to say—neither the U.K., the U.S., et cetera, nor any of the global south, can basically live how we are living now, and just keep expanding and be fine. Take something like transport. For me, transitioning will not just be a question of: well it will be like today, but it will be zero carbon emissions. I think you’ll have to involve things like publicly owned transport modes that are electrified, there are far less cars on the road, and far more buses, and cycling, and solar-powered trains, and multi-model forms…big-ticket items like cars, like electrified cars, will probably be owned by municipalities and you can hire them, like Zipcar, but they’ll be communally owned. So for India and China, I think one part would be to say actually, there are ways of skipping parts of the inequality and unhealthiness of the carbon civilization that the U.K. and the U.S. has, and actually move towards a world of communally owned public transport, and decentralized low-carbon energy production at scale quite quickly. So that’s the positive story, that actually it is quite hard to just imagine having an industrialized model like what we went through, but what you could imagine is investment at scale for renewables, for new models of transport, for new forms of working that aren’t based around wage relationships that the Industrial Revolution meant for the U.K. and elsewhere. So, I think, maybe there is some hope in the fact that, actually a new path will probably have to be charted.

CA

One thing that Common Wealth really focuses on is the idea of new models of ownership. So, why is that the key area? What is it about ownership, specifically, that is so key to the process?

LAWRENCE

Ownership is a bundle of property rights— income rights, control rights, use rights, et cetera, et cetera. How companies are owned, then, fundamentally shapes how they operate, and today, we have an economy in which owners of capital are privileged, and have rights to use, shape, and extract labor. So, for example, companies put incredible concentration of ownership and voting power amongst institutional investors, like BlackRock, like Mainstreet, like Vanguard. BlackRock controls $6 trillion worth of assets, immense voting power, and it’s growing all the time. So, is that model of ownership where you have this class of institutional investors that are not that interested in the particular companies that they’re invested in…is that actually good for companies? Is it good for workers? Is it good for the environment? Well, the evidence suggest that no, this is not the optimal way of owning things. And the evidence also suggests, if you create any sort of businesses that tend to be much more pluralistically owned, so community enterprise, cooperatives, socially-owned businesses—conventional businesses, but companies which employees often have significant stakes, often in collectives and trusts, so it’s locked and can’t be sold—they produce much better outcomes, not just in terms of traditional metrics around productivity, returns, et cetera, but also, job quality, more enjoyment, more security. So, ownership can fundamentally structure how an enterprise operates, and in whose interest. If we are interested in challenging these patterns of inequality, environmental externalities devastating the planet, the problems around short-termism, around investment—around a lot of the things that are holding back far too many lives and communities…we have to look at how is capital owned, and how has that shaped incentives and behaviors. 

So I think, really, one of the reasons we care about new models of ownership,  or alternative models of ownership, is because if we want to redesign and repurpose the company, and make it more sort of a commons-based institution, in which there is overlap in constituencies of  labor, of the community, of the environment, investors, in which the resources are democratically managed, I think then you have to go to that root question of well, how are things owned? How are they governed? How are they controlled? 

CA

One phrase from your website that got stuck in my head was talking about the “naturalization” of the firm…the idea that anything that a firm does, or a corporation does, as we currently understand it now, is automatically taken to be natural— just the way things are. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read The People’s Republic of Walmart, which came out just quite recently, but it’s interesting how it’s not even necessarily the case that firms are acting according to these perfect capitalist models…they act in more centralized or planned ways than you would necessarily expect. So I think it’s interesting how your work is sort of centered around imagining a new way, so we don’t necessarily have to accept that our firms act in the way that they’re acting now. You can use policy to shape the way that firms are shaped. So, what sort of different models do you expect to see, or prefer to see, from firms in the future? 

LAWRENCE

A political project of the right is to naturalize the economy, is to say the economy at a macro scale is something beyond the realm of democratic convention, and the company, as a legal structure is something that that’s just how it is. Company law, well, we can kind of tinker around with it, but that’s just what the structure is, even though this thing is an invented institution—for good reason: it was invented obviously in the Industrial Revolution to pull capital to scale, to expand the capacity of people to organize production. And, so, obviously there is real strengths in this sort of public company model, albeit we want to disperse ownership, we want to democratize ownership, we want to sort of repurpose government so that it’s not about maximizing profit, it’s about generating shared sustainable value. 

You could then scale community enterprise, which then serves place-based and social needs. You could have cooperatives, serving social needs…an extension of public banking, [you could have] the debate around taking back into public ownership private utilities, in ways that are much more democratic in orientation. I think we don’t want to swap the centralization of the private corporation with the centralization of the state, Whitehall or Washington, dictating things. I think there isn’t one single thing you can pull, and deliver these outcomes, but there are sort of a rich array of things—and frankly, I think we need ceaseless experimentation. We need institutional innovation at scale to try and go beyond the arid landscape which we have today, of very large, publicly-traded corporations dominating global production and distribution at scale. And there’s certainly some seeds of interesting developments, but I think that rocket-boosting these things could make a real difference, and should be a plank of the left.

CA

Common Wealth has six main areas of focus, and you talked a little bit about some of them—democratizing the workplace, which you just laid out for us; building a digital commons, which we talked about a little bit earlier; rewiring finance, I think we talked about. But I’m curious, you’ve got something here about “stewarding nature,” which is something that you don’t hear so much about. So, would you be able to tell us a little bit more about what that means?

LAWRENCE

Yeah, so it goes back to that point about: what has driven the climate crisis? It’s the enclosure and extraction of nature, and the ownership of land, of natural resources, and their use for very particular and often private interests, in place of the common interest. And, so, the idea of stewarding nature in new ways, whether that is extending common land use, whether it’s public ownership, or sort of the stewardship of water tables, ramped up biodiversity, whatever it might be…a new relationship of governance, ownership, and the management around resources, and their use, is fundamental to any attempt to repair natural systems which are damaged structurally, via some form of extraction. 

What we know is that community-led ownership of wind farms, of solar panel farms, et cetera, et cetera, are much more popular and much more durable if communities had a stake and a say in them. You see that in Scotland, where communities control wind farms. So you can use ownerships— community ownership, public ownership, decentralized ownership of the energy grid, whatever it might be, to scale up renewable production, and distribution of energy, and then you can potentially also use ownership stakes to sort of scale down justly, and fairly, the fossil fuel sector.

CA

Is there anything else you want to leave us with? Any final thoughts?

LAWRENCE

I think this transatlantic left—and I think the transatlantic left is late to the party—the transatlantic left does have these sort of interesting complementarities. One of them is obviously the Green New Deal. But the other, I think, is this increasing interest in going to the root of how power flows, and is organized in our economy, and that has always related to property relations, related to ownership. I think what would be exciting would be the continued flourishing of dialogue, and a back-and-forth around how, actually, we can re-conceive how our economy is owned, for whom, for what purpose. I think if we can center that as sort of a broader transformational project, new world-making, I think then, there’s new hope. 

CA

Alright, thank you very much, Mat Lawrence. Where can our readers find you? 

LAWRENCE

You can find us at Common-Wealth.co.uk. I’m at @Dantonshead on Twitter. And our Twitter handle is @Cmmonwealth. And we’re putting a wealth of stuff on our website on the Green New Deal, on new forms of commoning, of ownership funds on both sides of the Atlantic. So, yeah, do check us out.

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