Ownership debates usually center on a choice between capitalism (private ownership) and socialism (government ownership). They largely avoid the foundational question: Is power shared and accountable to We the People—all the people? Similarly, discussions of individual rights, including rights of ownership, rarely note that all rights necessarily come with responsibilities.
The African Ubuntu Principle (“I am because we are”) of ecoʹ–nomics reminds us that Our wellbeing depends on life’s wellbeing. We must care for all of life, as life cares for us. We cannot care for ourselves, let alone for one another and Earth, if we lack the agency essential to do so. Capitalism vs. socialism is a false choice. Both public and private institutions must be accountable to We the People who in turn must act with recognition that our individual wellbeing depends on our collective wellbeing.
We might call it democratic capitalism, democratic socialism, or communitarianism, whichever feels most comfortable. What is important is that the system distributes and localizes power and recognizes the essential responsibilities that come with being a member of a choice-making species of unusual talents. Arguing about the name rather than the substance is a diversion. The real choice is between democracy (distributed power) and monopoly (concentrated power) and between individualism (me) and communitarianism (we).
The culture and institutions championed by the cult of ego’-nomics are driving the global economy toward ever greater concentration of power and corresponding dysfunction at a breathtaking rate. We are moving toward a monopoly capitalism so extreme that we can begin to imagine a world in which one person owns everything. Already the individuals who control access to a means of living for most of the world’s people could be seated around a single board room table.
By January 2020, the wealth of just 26 billionaires had grown to exceed that of the poorest half of humanity—3.9 billion people. As ordinary people struggled to survive the COVID-19 economic shutdown, the world’s richest billionaires were enjoying a bonanza so extreme that Bloomberg now publishes daily financial results for the world’s richest people. On November 12, 2020, it reported that the total net worth of Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, stood at $183 billion. He was down $1.45 billion from the day before but was up $68 billion since the beginning of the year. Soon after, he was competing day by day with Elon Musk as the world’s richest person as the fortunes of each fluctuated by a billion dollars or more per day. This is not democracy and it is not a market economy. It is difficult to imagine greater proof of extreme economic dysfunction.
The current global system of monopoly capitalism features four castes competing for access to the products of human labor and the regenerative systems of a finite living Earth.
- The Monopolist Caste. The shrinking caste of people who aspire to own everything.
- The Loyal Servants Caste. The tech and finance workers dedicated to serving the monopolists for generous pay and benefits.
- Essential Workers Caste. Society’s caretakers who struggle daily to pay the rent and put food on the table.
- The Untouchables Caste. The jobless, penniless, homeless whose existence holds the Loyal Servants and Essential Workers in line through their terror of falling into the Untouchables Caste.
Monopoly capitalism progressed through three stages as the few consolidated control of the means of living to control and exploit the many.
- Stage 1: Monopolize Land, the source of the essential means of living on which we all depend through enclosure of the commons, foreclosure on indebtedness, low priced contacts to favored corporations to exploit public lands.
- Stage 2: Monopolize Industry, control of machines that increase the efficiency of labor. Reducing demand for labor reduces the labor price and bargaining power, a boon to the owners of industry. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
- Stage 3: Monopolize Knowledge and Money, control of intellectual property and tokens of exchange. Control of money has been at issue for a long time. But never have so many been so dependent on money to live and never has its control by private bankers and financiers with no sense of responsibility to and for the community been more complete.
The rich get richer. The poor get poorer through no fault of their own. And abuse of the natural commons disrupts Earth’s ability to sustain life. Ultimately, monopoly capitalism makes everyone a loser.
As our current politics make ever more clear, political democracy depends on economic democracy. If private property is a good thing, then the ideal is a society in which everyone has some. Democracy and the wellbeing of life depend on sharing power and responsibility.
Democratic capitalism rests on cooperative worker/community ownership. Facilitating our deepening understanding of how best to define and structure the rights and responsibilities of ownership will be a major challenge of ecoʹ-nomics. Think of it as capitalism’s potential fourth stage potential creation of an awakened people.