Ownership & Business Models as Social & Ideological Battlefields

February 24, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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The creation of what we now call capitalism, with its deification of private property and free (if “free” simply means free of democratic oversight) markets, has been a conscious project spanning a number of centuries. Central to that project has been the eradication, and marginalization, of competing ownership and business models.

The Conversion of the Earth Into Private Property

The Earth as a whole can be viewed as a single commons, shared by myriads of species that vary over time. Only with the advent of settled human populations, around 10,000 years ago, did one species define itself as preeminent and worthy of turning the Earth into its’ own property. Prior to this period, and for the vast majority of human existence, humans lived in small, generally mobile, hunter-gatherer groups that saw themselves as part of nature. Although they could use such things as fire and selective plant removal to alter nature’s path, they mostly reacted to and fitted within whatever it provided. Other sentient creatures were not viewed as either “wild animals” or property, but as non-human persons that deserved respect and could make things difficult for humans if they were not respected. Even inanimate objects, such as a specific place, or rock, could be viewed as being “alive” in some way. Animism, the belief that non-human entities have souls, even inanimate ones, was the basis of spiritual life. Such beliefs are representative of the remaining hunter-gatherer groups that have not been thoroughly acculturated by modern society[i] [ii].

With agriculture and animal husbandry came the beliefs that the land, and other species, could be considered to be human property. This was the first theft of the commons: by the human species, at the cost and in many cases enslavement, of the other species. Ideological support was provided by religious beliefs that placed humanity above the other species, with the right of dominion over the Earth. Within the increasingly complex human civilizations, elites sprang up to take control of much of this new property. This was either directly through ownership, or indirectly, through taxation and debt instruments with compounding interest. In these societies, the human population became divided into a small group of elites, a cadre of specialists who aided and serviced those elites, and the vast majority of the population who farmed the land. These could be serfs, who had limited rights, or slaves that had no rights. The latter were treated as “furniture that breathed”[iii] to be used and abused at the will of their masters and owners. Human beings themselves had been turned into property. As civilizations collapsed, such as the Roman, the Earth was released from its human ownership and mistreatment, allowing it to regenerate. The vast majority of the human population that survived the collapse were also released from servitude. The periods that historians refer to as “Dark Ages”, after the collapse of a given human civilization, were not so dark for the non-human species and the non-elite human population.

The cycles of growth, conquest, collapse and recovery continued on a regional basis for thousands of years, until the fateful year of 1492. The “discovery” of the American continents marked the conversion of much of the Earth into European property through conquest, subjugation and genocide. In the Americas, an incredibly rich and diverse set of human communities was replaced with European settlers or societies controlled by Eurocentric elites and worldviews. For example, what is now the United States “is a state based on … a policy of genocide and land theft.”[iv]

The settler colonialist model used in North America was also utilized for Australia and New Zealand, while the local quisling elite model was used in Africa, India and the Far East.

“The European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite. They picked out promising adolescents they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture, they stuffed their mouths full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing left to say to their brothers; they only echoed.”[v]

As Hall notes, “Again and again the treatment of Indigenous peoples gave expression to a range of colonial ideas about how to best privatize, register, and protect private property and how to organize commercial transactions among individuals, corporations, and governments.”[vi] The conversion of the defeated and depopulated people’s property into private European and quisling holdings was institutionalized. Theft through genocide and subjugation was legitimized.

There were alternatives to this drive toward turning the whole earth into the property of the crown and the few, where land and other species were treated as a common resource to be utilized and managed jointly by a group. Many of these common resources provided significant support to the poorer members of society, allowing them to subsist and in many cases sustainably utilize the Earth[vii]. Even in the United Kingdom, the vanguard of private property, there were over 10 million acres of common land in 1710[viii]. The removal of community rights to land had continued throughout the Middle Ages. For example, from the 14th to 17th century the Statute of Merton of 1235 allowed English landowners to convert community-accessible arable land over to fully privatized and exclusive sheep grazing[ix]. The multi-century process of transforming the United Kingdom into primarily state, church, and private property culminated in the Parliamentary Enclosures. These lead to the enclosure of about 7 million acres of common land (about one sixth of the area of England), between 1760 and 1870, through about 4,000 acts of parliament[x]. Given that the parliament of the day represented a tiny minority of the population, in present day terms it had no democratic legitimacy. Therefore the very basis of the property rights that resulted can be said to be null and void. The same could be said for any non-democratic conversion of the commons into private property, which may well constitute the vast majority of current private land holdings.

The primacy of private land ownership over common ownership has been ideologically embedded by mainstream economics, and the “Tragedy of The Commons” model proposed by Garrett Hardin[xi] has constrained much of the debate about common property since it was published in 1968. His model is fundamentally flawed as it envisioned a pasture “open to all”, not one of a community-managed commons with processes, rules and sanctions to stop misuse. This renders Hardin’s conclusions irrelevant as a critique of community-managed commons, but has not reduced its ideological power in supporting the primacy of private property.

“Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons”[xii]

This is a perfect critique of an unmanaged commons, such as the chemical content of the Earth’s atmosphere, but not of managed commons. Even Hardin later admitted to the shortcomings of his model, eventually rephrasing his entire theory,[xiii] and stating that, “The title of my 1968 paper should have been ‘The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons’.”[xiv]

The Threat of The Cooperative Movements

The cooperative movements represent large, diverse alternatives to the dominant private-ownership model and the cooperative ideal has resurfaced many times during the history of modern industrial development. The over-riding driver was for a community to work cooperatively together to gain some control over their living conditions and wellbeing. In many cases, if not all, the different strategies of labour unions, working class and nationalist political movements, and cooperative movements etc. were symbiotic and inter-twined forms of protective and mutual-aid organizations. As Fairbairn notes “The Rochdale Pioneers did not rise spontaneously from need, but were organized consciously by thinkers, activists, and leaders who functioned within a network of ideas and institutions. The same can probably be said of all successful co-operatives in all times and places: they arise from need–when some activists, institutions, or agencies consciously promote and organize them.”[xv] Develtere also proposes that “co-operatives cannot be analyzed as distinct social movements … it is <their> relationship with other social movements which to a great extent accounts for the diversity and scale of cooperative activity”.[xvi] Ownership structures are not things that arise independently of the power relationships within society, but in reality represent the interplay and resolution of those relationships.

Within the United States throughout the 19th century there were extensive and repeated attempts at establishing cooperatives as an alternative ownership structure, with many explicit proposals to replace the capitalist economic system with a cooperative one. Curl[xvii] details the wide range and diversity of cooperative, and related social, movements throughout this period. There was a natural linkage with trades unions, and farmers unions, many of which looked to larger social change through cooperative enterprises. Voss notes that union leaders and labour journalists began to seek an alternative solution to strikes, “a more permanent solution” with cooperatives advocated as a way to “give workers absolute control over the disposal of … <their> labor”4. The private sector worked hard to negate what they saw as a directly competitive sector, through such things as supplier and merchant blacklisting, unwillingness to provide financing, the absorption of losses over long periods to force the cooperatives out of business, legislative restrictions, and labelling cooperatives as the start of socialism. These activities paralleled ongoing anti-union activities, and were facilitated by the growth in the size and political organization of private sector organizations, together with the active support of the state[xviii]. The peak of the U.S. worker cooperative movement was in the post Civil-War period, heavily sponsored by labour unions such as the Knights of Labor with visions of such cooperatives growing to become the dominant model within society, “to establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system”[xix]. Curl proposes that the very success of the cooperatives during this period, together with the explicit visions of them as an alternative economic system, laid them open to attack[xx]. In the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair of 1886, a “violent anti-labor campaign followed … The courts began to convict union members … Employers, taking advantage of the situation, instituted widespread anti-union campaigns.”[xxi] This extended to the cooperatives sponsored by the Knights of Labor, and by 1888 “none of the order’s cooperatives were in existence”[xxii].

With extensive state and business repression against the institutional framework that supported alternative business models, such as the trades unions, the possibility of them as an alternative to capitalistic business models was undercut. As Archer puts it with respect to the United States “the extensive use of state repression … judicial rulings, and police and military repression made it difficult or impossible for some groups to maintain organizations that could pursue their interests”[xxiii]. The result is an institutional setting which is much less promising for changes to the status quo than others, and where the status of cooperatives meet the limited survival possibility proposed by Zamagni, as “an alternative form of enterprise, but one that operates in restricted sectors or pockets of the market, resembling an archipelago of co-operative islands set in a sea of capitalism”[xxiv]. Curl notes that the consumer cooperatives that sold at close to cost, such as the Protective Union’s of the mid 19th century, were a threat to private profit-seeking enterprises as they undercut the market price, and were met with extensive resistance and attempts to undermine them. The “Rochdale Model” of consumer cooperatives, which sold at close to market price and paid a dividend to its members, fitted within the market constraints and thus was less of a threat to competing private enterprises[xxv]. They were owned by their customers, and not by the workers who were just as much wage-labourers as those in private enterprises.

The same issues as those in the United States were being worked out in England, for example with respect to the challenges to the weavers in Lancashire, “One was the rising swell of industrial laissez faire capitalism … The other was the disappearance of an ancient way of life that was characterized by the artisan tradition and the weaver communities this tradition had woven”[xxvi]. As with their U.S. counterparts they, “envisioned a mutually supportive community of independent small producers, exchanging their products without the manipulation of middlemen, free of the control of masters”[xxvii]. The resulting predominantly consumer cooperatives, by charging market prices and hiring wage-labourers, did not fundamentally challenge the capitalist system. These characteristics allowed the cooperative movement in the UK, and those using this model in other countries, to survive and thrive.

In other regions, where the institutional setting was supportive of alternative business models, cooperatives (including worker based cooperatives) have managed to develop and thrive. These regions include Emilia-Romagna in Italy[xxviii], Quebec in Canada[xxix], and the Basque region of Spain[xxx]. They all share both supportive political environments and extensive worker-based organizations.

The Constraint Of Future Choices Through Ideology and Lost History

The current societal status quo is the result of historical struggles between competing forces, with the victors being able to shape the ruling ideology and resulting societal discourse to provide legitimacy to that status quo. Every possible tool was utilized to alienate populations from their historical beliefs and practices, facilitating the removal of competing ownership and business models, including Christianity.

“But triumphant reports by the missions in fact tell us how deep the seeds of alienation have been sown among the colonized. I am talking of Christianity and this should come as no surprise to anybody. The Church in the colonies is a white man’s Church, a foreigners’ Church. It does not call the colonized to the ways of God, but to the ways of the master, the ways of the oppressor.”[xxxi]

The history of alternative ownership and business models and the power struggles that lead to the current reality have been mostly forgotten, as they do not fit the current ruling discourse. Instead, the current ahistorical ideology takes the status quo as a starting point. The modern vanguard of cultural and ideological imperialism is that of neoclassical economics, and its emissaries such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which treat private property with a near-religious reverence. It is left to a few writers, such as Zinn[xxxii] and Chomsky[xxxiii], to contradict such beliefs through the provision of a more factual historical perspective.

The result is that decisions pertaining to ownership structures and business models are constrained by the conceptual frameworks embedded in the ruling discourse, respective power relationships (e.g. the owners of property and current business models have the ability to greatly affect the political process), and even legal structures (e.g. the legal sanctity of private property). The neo-liberal revolution of the past few decades[xxxiv] has exacerbated this situation, through such things as reducing the power and coverage of labour unions, consolidating media organizations within private corporations that support the status quo, and greatly reducing the legitimacy of communitarian discourse within society. The incredible concentration of power within a very small number of property owners has resulted in only 85 individuals owning as much as the poorest half of the world’s population[xxxv]. The concept of private property has also been extended to facilitate the privatization of the intellectual and cultural commons, and even the right to use and create life forms.

In such an environment, alternative models such as Community Land Trusts, Worker Coops and Community Seed Banks, find themselves within incredibly infertile ground. Without fundamental changes to the ruling ideology, and the power structures that it supports, they will tend to only have an offsetting impact to the onward march of the privatization of the commons. The fact that all property was based upon theft at some point in history, whether it was from the non-human species, or from other humans (both their land and their labour[xxxvi]), must be acknowledged. As Eisenstein has proposed[xxxvii], individuals should be allowed to gain from the usage of the property, but not from simply owning that property. Through the provision of such things as patents, mineral rights, rights to the airwaves, and even rights to pollute, the commons that should be used for the benefit of humanity and the ecologies, within which it lives, become removed from any form of democratic control.

“Polarization of wealth is inevitable when people are allowed to profit from merely owning a thing, without producing or contributing to society. These profits, known as economic rents, accrue to the holders of land, the electromagnetic spectrum, mineral rights, oil reserves, patents, and many other forms of property. Because these forms of property either were prior to any human being or are a collective product of human culture, they should not belong to any private individual who does not use them for the benefit of the public or the planet”[xxxviii]

Winston Churchill explained the issue of private landowners who benefitted from the simple fact of ownership in more graphic terms:

“It does not matter where you look or what examples you select, you will see that every form of enterprise, every step in material progress, is only undertaken after the land monopolist has skimmed the cream off for himself … the man or the public body that wishes to put land to its highest use is forced to pay a preliminary fine in land values to the man who is putting it to an inferior use, and in some cases to no use at all”[xxxix]

The views of Churchill, a conservative politician, at the start of the twentieth century show how far the neoliberal revolution has changed the nature and content of public debate. The Unearned Income stemming from increases in property prices has been reclassified as the much more positive Capital Gains, and the taxes on it have been radically reduced in many countries. In the case of primary residences, there are no taxes on capital gains in many countries. Eisenstein proposes that increasing the levels of taxation on property should be used to negate the economic rents pertaining to the holding of property, together with the restriction of intellectual property rights in favour the public domain, and democratic control over the depletion of natural resources[xl]. Such changes would be superficial ones though, trying to ameliorate the effects of the concentration of property ownership rather than removing the underlying inequality.

Without the removal of the unequal distribution of property in private hands, superficial policies such as increases in property taxes tend to be whittled away over time, as has happened with the neoliberal revolution of the past few decades. In addition, the imbalance in Earned income, stemming from the usage of unequally owned property, will persist. Fundamental land, and other, property reform is required. The benefit of such reforms is shown by the success of the land reform carried out by the occupying forces in Japan, after the Second World War. The Gini Coefficient of income distribution among the population in local towns was lowered from 0.5 to 0.35[xli]. A modern version of such property redistribution, preferably into a new commons managed for the benefit of humanity and other species in general, will both greatly reduce the inequalities within society, and help rebalance humanity’s relationship with the other species.


[i]John Grim (2001), Indigenous Traditions and Ecology, Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions.

[ii]Richard W. Bulliett (2005), Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past And Future of Human-Animal Relationships, Columbia University Press.

[iii]Kyle Harper (2013), From Shame to Sin, The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Harvard University Press.

[iv]Roxanne Dunbar-Orvitz (2014), An Indigenous People’s History Of The United States, Beacon Press

[v]Jean-Paul Sartre (1966), Preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press

[vi]Anthony J. Hall (2010), Earth Into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism, McGill-Queens University Press.

[vii]Elinor Ostrom (1990), Governing The Commons, Cambridge University Press

[viii]Henry George (2006), Progress and Poverty, Schalkenbach Foundation

[ix]Simon Fairlie (2009), A Short History of Enclosure in Britain”, The Land Issue 7, Summer 2009

[x]Fairlie, A Short History of Enclosure in Britain

[xi]Garrett Hardin (1968), The Tragedy of the Commons, Science 162 (3859): 1243-1248. 1968

[xii]Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons

[xiii]Fairlie, A Short History of Enclosure in Britain

[xiv]Garrett Hardin (1991), The Tragedy of the ‘Unmanaged Commons’, in R. V. Andelson, Commons Without Tragedy. Shepherd Walwyn

[xv]Mitch Diamantopoulos (2011), Cooperative Development Gap in Québec and Saskatchewan 1980 to 2010: A Tale of Two Movements, Canadian Journal of Non-Profit and Social Economy Research Volume 2, Number 2, Fall 2011.

[xvi]Diamantopoulos, Cooperative Development Gap in Québec and Saskatchewan 1980 to 2010: A Tale of Two Movements

[xvii]John Curl (2009), For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communism in America, PM Press

[xviii]Howard Zinn (1980), A People’s History of the United States, Harper & Row

[xix]Curl, For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communism in America

[xx]Curl, For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communism in America

[xxi]Joseph Rayback (1966), A History of American Labor, Free Press

[xxii]Rayback, A History of American Labor

[xxiii]Robin Archer (2008), Why is There No Labor Party in the United States?, Princeton University Press

[xxiv]John Restakis (2010), Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, New Society Publishers

[xxv]Curl, For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communism in America

[xxvi]Restakis, Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital

[xxvii]Restakis, Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital

[xxviii]Restakis, Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital

[xxix]Mitch Diamantopoulos (2011), Cooperative Development Gap in Québec and Saskatchewan 1980 to 2010: A Tale of Two Movements, Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research Vol. 2, No 2 Fall / Automne 2011 pp. 6 – 24

[xxx]Michael Lewis & Pat Conaty (2012), The Resilience Imperative, New Society Publishers

[xxxi]Frantz Fanon (1963), The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press

[xxxii]Howard Zinn (1980), A People’s History of the United States, Harper & Row

[xxxiii]Noam Chomsky (1999), Year 501: The Conquest Continues, South End Press

[xxxiv]David Harvey (2007), A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press

[xxxv]Graeme Wearden (2014), Oxfam: 85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world, The Guardian. Accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/20/oxfam-85-richest-people-half-of-the-world

[xxxvi]Edward E. Baptist (2014), The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery And The Making Of American Capitalism, Basic Books

[xxxvii]Charles Eisenstein (2011), Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society In The Age Of Transition, Evolver Editions

[xxxviii]Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society In The Age Of Transition

[xxxix]Winston Churchill (1909), The Mother of All Monopolies, Speech Delivered at King’s Theatre in Edinburgh 17 July 1909. Accessed at www.cooperativeindividualism.org/churchill-winston_mother-of-all-monopolies-1909.html

[xl]Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society In The Age Of Transition

[xli]Toshihiko Kawagoe (1999), Agricultural Land Reform In Postwar Japan: Experiences and Issue, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 2111, May 1999


Image credit: The Land Issue 7, Summer 2009

Roger Boyd

I have a BSc in Information Systems from Kingstom University U.K., an MBA in Finance from Stern School of Business at New York University, USA, and a MA in Integrated Studies from Athabasca University, Canada. I have worked within the financial industry for the past 25 years, and am also a research member of the B.C. Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) looking at the linkages between issues of sustainability and models of ownership and finance. Most recently I have completed a book, to be published shortly by Springer, titled “Energy and the Financial System”.

Tags: Business Models, cooperatives, ideology, the commons