We live in times of high political turbulence. Surveying flailing governments from Spain to the United States, it seems a good moment to face up to the evidence of system failures that face us. Millions going to food banks or unable to afford decent housing in the richest countries in the world reveals a systems failure. An epidemic of mental health problems reveals a systems failure. An inability to deal with climate change reveals a systems failure. A constant anger at government and at the institutions of government, channelled – largely ineffectually – through ballot boxes, reveals a systems failure.
Why systems are failing
What is visibly failing is management of large scale societies, management of us, by those who seldom fully understand our problems, management regimes too big to adapt as needed. It is not stated often enough that we live in a heavily managed society. Yet people instantly understand what is meant by this: they have experience of being managed. Sometimes we are managed well, sometimes badly, but at some point in a large system, the former state will always give way to the latter. Eventually a sense of lost control comes over us all. We must take back control, we feel. It is hard to know how, hard to know who to target, for no leaders or parties seem to return power to us.
Many see that capital has become a dominant force in these large systems, re-shaping our cities, our very lives, flinging aside humans as detritus of the development process. As a solution we are constantly offered better management. We can keep casting around for better managers, but as the ‘Accidental Anarchist’ Carne Ross has been arguing, we live in complex systems that cannot successfully be controlled from the top down. The point is not to simply be angry with the managers for doing the wrong things, or for being the wrong managers, or for not advantaging us rather than others in these huge dynamic networks around us. Intention anyway becomes lost in such large systems. It’s true that some managers do transfer wealth from poor to rich, and others attempt to do the opposite. But each of the managers fails at some point, often fatally undermining any good work they have done. Perhaps it’s time to start entertaining a new line of thought: perhaps we should stop asking to be managed.
This requires a deep shift in thinking and a new set of institutions. Almost all previous political claims, from both left and right, assumed that people must be managed. Elections every four or five years do not undo management: elections are a method by which we find the correct managers, not a form of self-rule. Those who think that a single decision every four or five years means we are in control are invited to reflect on the absurdity of the proposition: mere ownership of your house or car involves dozens, even hundreds of decisions in a year. How then can ownership of your government require fewer decisions?
Why have I begun talking about ownership? It isn’t the usual language of making democracies work, except in that vague and dishonest usage where we are encouraged to ‘feel ownership’ of decisions made by others. Socialism and communism did once talk about ownership, but created a dichotomy between private ownership and central state ownership. Neo-liberalism bought into the same dichotomy and propagandised private ownership, or sometimes mixed forms of the two in unwieldy pseudo-free markets. It feels like we have not had a thorough, open-minded discussion about ownership for a long time. Doing so might begin to reveal how new institutions can move us beyond the current system failures.
Ownership, stripped back to its real meaning, is about control, and control is what we lack. The point of owning something is that we can do as we wish with it. To be made to feel ownership is a con, but to have ownership is to have control. The logical conclusion is that we should have ownership of as much of the world we inhabit as possible, and since we do not inhabit the world alone, we must own together with others. Others have reached this conclusion before: digging at the practicalities of Lefebvre and Harvey’s ‘right to the city’, which sounds a little ambiguous in its meaning, it emerges as something like a ‘right to own the city’. We should have control, says Harvey, not just of public space, but of our housing, our energy sources, our data infrastructure, our food supplies and of course our workplaces.
A culture of owning together
This sounds difficult, and it is. Owning our world would share some of the problems of managing it: our world is so big, there is too much of it and too many of us. Yet what an ownership framework offers that management does not is that it works at multiple scales rather than being always top down and so concerned with controlling entire systems. Where an overview is required – owning our atmosphere for example – we can construct decision-making systems that allow all to take part, but where detail is required we can conceive of much more localised forms of ownership, in which those most affected have the most say. This leaves plenty of room too for those things we should own individually: those things that mostly effect ourselves can be ours entirely.
One starting point is to look at digital commons which have arisen out of both the collaboration that the internet enables and the almost zero marginal cost of replication online. What the genuine digital commons distribute is control; what they have in common is mechanisms in place to de-centre individual or corporate ownership. The Wikimedia foundation opens up editing control as well as literal ownership rights; that it does both is key to understanding why it works, and why we can justly talk of a Wikipedia community. This can offer us clues about how future institutions might look.
Another starting point is the very common-sense idea that if it affects your life, you should be able to have a say in it. This isn’t a particularly radical idea – even private ownership of property in our current capitalist system is compromised by the imposition of planning laws. ‘Compromise’ sounds like a bad word, but here it is a recognition that what people do to their properties has a public impact, so there should be some level of public control over this most private of ownership forms. Where the planning rules fall down in the UK, and in most countries, is that local authorities and the planning systems are astonishingly undemocratic. Yet the underlying principle is established: in this most capitalist of societies we already recognise that we need some sort of collective, democratic control of our environment, and that it can take mixed individual/democratic forms. Ownership and democracy are closely overlapping ideas. What owning together means is that we decide. What democracy means is that where we must make decisions together, there is a process in place for that to happen. A call to own everything is a call for a democratic society.
To address the complex ownership claims, we must develop ideas of blended ownership, different types of ownership, overlapping ownership rights for different scale collectivities, all imagined beyond the private-state dichotomy. The recent UK Labour Party-commissioned paper Alternative Models of Ownership proposed three forms of ownership: worker co-ops, municipal and community ownership, and forms of state ownership with increased democratic accountability, but the commons of old that are inspiring many to establish new commons today often had very complex ownership and usage structures that endured over centuries. We should aim to construct what we might call full spectrum ownership, that is to say, an infinite variety of ownership types and overlapping ownership forms designed to give us control over our own lives.
The link to new digital commons is not merely an inspirational one. Emerging technologies are making it easier for more people to be involved in discussion and decision-making. Taiwan and radical Spanish cities are currently experimenting with intense public participation in creating legislation, and it’s only a matter of time until other countries follow suit. The ability to rapidly process data may also turn out to be key to working out who should have a say in what, and keeping ownership clusters up to date, so that we know who is actually affected by a particular issue.
Towards owning everything
I will return to housing for a practical example of how the right to own the city (and everything else) could work. We could escape from the dichotomy of privately owned homes versus publicly owned homes, and instead establish systems in which the individual would have ownership rights, yet the surrounding community would also have rights, perhaps to regulate the re-sale price or rents, as though the entire city or country were a network of community land trusts. In order to prevent islands of privilege developing, regional and national ownership bodies would also exercise some rights within a neighbourhood. Again, this isn’t a million miles from how the planning system works now, but this would need deeply democratic bodies at every level, starting from the street or neighbourhood up, to regulate the system, rather than a central government prodding bureaucratic local authorities to try to get the results they want.
I’m under no illusions that creating a culture of owning together is an easy thing to do, for we must all learn how to work with each other, undoing what we have been taught at school and at work. This requires a shift not just in institutions but in our own thinking and acting. But think of the prize: to own together is to live together, to undo the atomised society that management has given us, to create a more caring and less isolating society. A more convivial world could be seen as a by-product of taking back control, but it could be seen as potentially the best outcome of a culture of owning together.
Such a culture is already beginning to form offline as well as online. Thankfully we embark on this vast project without having to start entirely from scratch. The world of cooperatives has always been the ideal training ground for those who want to run the world together. Co-ops’ radical potential is not that they eliminate the dominance of capital in themselves, but that they prepare us for a world that we control. They teach us what a liveable system might look like, tied together by ownership that relies on relationships.
Radical campaigners have also begun asserting a culture of owning together in campaigning work. I am involved with a new organising fighting for renters’ rights in London. What excites me is that we have begun to embed a culture of owning together in our campaigning in two different ways. Firstly we are ensuring that the planned renters union itself will be owned by those it aims to help. This will be guaranteed by a truly grassroots democratic structure to the union, meaning the members will be able to launch their own fights within a mutual support network. Secondly we are not shying away from the key issue of who controls property: renters, we assert, should have more control, landlords should have less. This amounts to a transfer of ownership rights over the properties we inhabit. Thus a renters union owned by renters can be envisaged as a way to collectively achieve a re-distribution of control, a re-distribution of ownership rights.
In the same way we can try to weave owning-together into all our projects, from campaigns, to local economy work, to political party building. At the governmental level we have the example of a few radical cities, but progress towards a government we can call our own seems painfully slow. What would the world look like if we started acting as though we owned everything? What if we identified as owners-together in our workplaces, our tech projects, our food growing projects, our campaign platforms, and began to assert full spectrum ownership of our world? We could begin to challenge those who think they own everything now, and at the same time gain practice in working together. Intertwining a culture of owning together into our everyday work would mean we spend more time interacting with our neighbours, and with those who share our interests, more time learning to interact as equals rather than as bosses and subordinates. The journey towards a world we truly own is bound to be a long one, but we needn’t await arrival at the destination to begin living in a more controllable and more convivial world.