What we do
Our focus is on six systemically vital areas where democratic ownership can transform how our economy operates and for whom.
- Democratising business
- Rewiring finance
- Building a digital commons
- Stewarding the natural commons
- Building a social commons
- Reclaiming land
The company is the private government of our economic lives. Democratising ownership and control gives us all a stake and a say in the wealth we create in common.
How a company is owned vitally shapes how it operates and in whose interest. Today, most of us lack a powerful stake and a say where we work, and too many businesses are engines of wealth extraction for external shareholders and managerial elites. The consequences are damaging for workers, communities and businesses alike: stagnant wages, stark inequalities, sluggish productivity growth, weak investment rates, but runaway pay at the top and record dividends for shareholders.
The old binaries are a poor guide for the type of change we need. The choice isn’t between hierarchical corporate capitalism or centralised state ownership. Instead, it is between an architecture of ownership that is extractive, short-termist, and unequal, or one that is democratic, purposeful, and sustainable by design.
There is no one solution. Instead, we need a deep and inventive institutional pluralism in how we organise and own enterprise. Common Wealth designs economic institutions where capital is owned and controlled by publics within the company and beyond, at varying scales.
From co-operatives, community enterprise and employee owned firms, to institutions that can transform corporate ownership at scale, from local wealth building strategies, to citizens’ wealth and ownership funds that give everyone a stake and say in the economy, we can democratise the economy, and ensure we all share in our common wealth.
This may appear radical, yet it is no more so than current arrangements. The company is a social institution whose powers and rights are politically defined; we can redesign how it is owned and governed to deepen common solidarity, freedom and capability. If in past centuries democratic struggle involved securing universal political suffrage, then today the next frontier of democracy is the extension of economic suffrage within the firm. Democratising ownership is a crucial step forward in this long revolution.
Finance is a bad master to the economy. Ensuring investment supports the real economy and social needs will require rewiring the ownership and governance of financial institutions.
Finance remains a bad master to society not a useful servant: poorly serving the real economy, too often acting as an extractor of wealth rather than steward of value, and a driver of our lopsided economy.
Yet the financial crisis and its long aftermath revealed an unexpected source of hope: the plasticity of financial institutions. From quantitative easing to new measures such as central bank credit swap-lines, radical if under-recognised shifts have occurred in the financial system. At the same time, the crisis and response revealed the deeply political nature of finance and the extraordinary extent to which public institutions make private power possible.
Yet despite the capacity for institutional change, and the political underpinnings of finance, the task of transformation is as urgent as ever. Common Wealth will design strategies for levelling up democratic forms of finance at differing scales and geographies to ensure it better performs its crucial infrastructural role: directing investment toward the creation of a decent, prosperous and sustainable society, servicing the real economy, and meeting our social and environmental needs.
This will go beyond strategies for the future of a publicly-owned banking, mission-oriented banking network, important though this is. Any serious attempt to democratise our financial system must also be able to transform how existing financial intermediaries operate and for whom. From asset managers to auditors, credit-ratings agencies to shadow banking, to the exercising of monetary power, intermediary institutions play a critical role in shaping how the financial system’s operation. Common Wealth will examine how alternative models can ensure finance serves the needs of people and planet.
Building a digital commons
Building a future of shared plenty will require transforming ownership of data and digital technologies, from private enclosure toward a technological commons.
Technologies of abundance can build a society of shared plenty. Yet there is no guarantee. We are not on the cusp of a post-human economy but without an ambitious politics of ownership, technological change will deepen existing inequalities of power and reward as the gains of automation and datafication flow disproportionately to the owners of capital. Whoever owns the robots – and our data – will increasingly come to dominate the world.
Another future is possible. Technology is not destiny. In place of private enclosure, we can build a digital commons, where data and digital technologies are organised as a common resource and technological development is shaped to meet human needs.
From common ownership models that distribute the gains of technological change to reimagining how we control and use data, from rethinking intellectual property toward open innovation, to rewiring ownership of foundational digital infrastructures, 21st century democratic ownership models can ensure we all shape and share in the fruits of our universal technological inheritance.
The digital age holds many potential futures. Nothing is decided; it will be what we make it. Our challenge - and Common Wealth’s goal - is to design an architecture of ownership that ensures technology deepens democracy and provides for shared and sustainable plenty.
Stewarding the natural commons
In the face of climate crisis, actively dangerously. Transformative ownership models are vital to securing a just and rapid transition.
Time is short and the choice is stark: we either radically decarbonise our society in little more than a decade, or face accelerating climate breakdown, where those with the least responsibility bear the highest costs. This is a daunting political project, one of deep, hopeful creation, that must be negotiated together with great care. Yet given the scale of disruption hurtling toward us, we cannot avoid radical change. It is inevitable; the key question is in which direction, at what pace, cost, and to whose benefit.
The institutions of the carbon age - extractive, short-termist, and unequal - cannot drive change on the speed and scale required. On a burning planet, radicalism of ambition is now the safest option; incrementalism the truly dangerous approach.
Democratic ownership models can provide the hinge to a just and rapid transition. From scaling decentralised and community owned renewable energy, to challenging the power of the carbon barons, to repurposing investment toward sustainability, new institutions of ownership can secure a post-carbon future for all of us.
Yet rapid decarbonisation is not enough. Extractivism is destroying the wider natural systems on which we all depend. A truly sustainable future demands we rethink how we steward nature in its totality, building and protecting a natural commons that can sustain flourishing human and non-human life.
Common Wealth will design ownership models that can create a zero-carbon future and secure natural commons that is democratic and sustainable.
Building public affluence
We need to build a social commons, one that rests on public affluence, not unequal private wealth.
Capitalism does not just create unpaid environmental externalities on a planetary scale. It relies fundamentally on unpaid work and the wealth of the public realm to drive the unequal expansion of private wealth. Challenging these inequalities will require expanding a social commons that decommodifies the building blocks needed for a good life.
From scaling universal public adult and child care systems to help challenge our crisis of care, to building a new generation of zero-carbon public and community housing, to decarbonised, multi-modal public transport networks, new forms of ownership can provide the foundations for a good life. Building public affluence - goods and services that are universal, foundational, decommodified - can reorient the economy toward focusing on the creation of universal forms of security and capability. By doing so, it can help better distribute the most precious commodity of all, our time.
Common Wealth designs ownership strategies for supporting a deep and generous social commons that is the necessary precondition for human flourishing, which too many people are currently structurally denied. Reimagining ownership of such goods and services as a common inheritance is a fundamental step to securing deeper, richer forms of individual and collective freedom for all.
Land is the original enclosure. Transforming ownership of nature’s original gift is fundamental to addressing inequalities of wealth, housing and environmental misuse.
Land is nature’s gift. Yet its enclosure is at the heart of many of the challenges confronting us. From a broken housing system to deep inequalities of wealth, from financial instability to environmental breakdown, unequal patterns of land ownership and use drive the UK’s dysfunctional economic and social model.
Alternatives are emerging though that put the needs of people and communities first. From communal ownership of land in rural communities to land trusts in our cities and towns, to new models of co-operative, shared and social home ownership, to ambitious strategies for public and national land ownership, the contours of transformative change are visible.
The challenge is to develop an agenda for transforming land ownership that is at once transitional and transformative, capable of scaling alternative models of ownership that point the way towards a fundamentally different economic model and land economy: less financialised, more equal, and with land developed for the benefit of people and communities. Common Wealth will be exploring what forms of land ownership – and strategies of transition – can build a society where we all share in the wealth beneath us.