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Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

Democratic Ownership

Why is ownership a key determinant of system structure?

The most basic criteria of how major systems are structured involve how wealth is owned and controlled institutionally. In feudalism, wealth was owned and controlled via land, so power rested with the lords, the king, and the church, who owned the land. In state socialism, capital is owned and controlled by the state; in corporate capitalism, it is owned and controlled by shareholders. Who owns capital is a major determinant of how the power is arranged within the political and economic system. It’s not the only determinant, but obviously it is a major force. Either there is an alternative arrangement of institutional power that decentralizes ownership and democratizes it, or we are stuck with these three traditional models.

Any system in which a mere 400 people at the top own more wealth than the bottom 190 million—and whose wealth is also intimately related to concentrated corporate power—is likely to inherently move in a direction away from genuine democracy.1 Yet this is the inequality that the current American system of corporate capitalism has generated.

How does the Pluralist Commonwealth democratize ownership?

At the very heart of the Pluralist Commonwealth is the principle that ownership of the nation’s wealth must ultimately be shifted, institutionally, to benefit the vast majority—but also done so in a way that decentralizes political and economic power and also achieves economic, ecological, and other goals—including, importantly genuine democracy, equality and liberty. (See EVOLUTIONARY RECONSTRUCTION AND DISPLACEMENT.)

Ownership in a Pluralist Commonwealth is, unsurprisingly, pluralist in nature. At the level of individuals and families, many small firms remain privately owned. Forms of shared equity housing like cooperatives and community land trusts, where ownership is balanced between a private individual or family and a larger community structure, are built upon existing experience and are much more widely used. Many small and medium-sized workplaces can be structured as cooperatives that are directly owned and governed by their workers, potentially with the interest of the community as a whole also expressed through various means. (For instance through community ownership of real assets, which are then leased to worker-owned businesses.) Larger firms, with much larger impacts on public welfare—such as those that, for one reason or another, are “too big to fail”—are publicly owned utilities at the regional and, in limited cases, national level. In some cases, public ownership may be driven by the presence of a natural monopoly. In other, more entrepreneurial cases, public ownership is secured through public provision of, and oversight over, investment capital. Larger enterprise forms also are structured through new combinations of public, worker, and community ownership. (See PLURALISM.)

Where is ownership being transformed in the direction of a Pluralist Commonwealth today?

While ownership of the economy is currently extremely concentrated, alternative ownership forms in the US are much more common than many suspect. A good example is the ESOP—Employee Stock Ownership Plan—a legal mechanism through which more than 13 million American workers today own a share (and in some cases, all) of their workplace.2 Or consider credit unions. There are over 6,000 of these nonprofit financial institutions, cooperatively owned through over a hundred million memberships in the United States.3 Or COOPERATIVES of all types, which number roughly 30,0004 and are collectively responsible for approximately $3 trillion dollars in assets, $650 billion dollars in revenue, and about $25 billion dollars in wages.5

The previously noted Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio, provide an important precedent for structures that blend worker and community ownership. The individual worker cooperatives within the Evergreen network are largely owned by their workers, except for a small “golden” share controlled by the nonprofit. This golden share binds them together, and prevents the “demutualization” of their assets; the workers can’t vote to sell the company assets and pocket the proceeds.6

As a result, while the workers own and control their workplace, the interests of the community are recognized as well. Other community–building models include community development corporations that trace their origins to the Kennedy-Johnson era. New Community Corporation, for instance is a large neighborhood-benefitting non-profit corporation in Newark, New Jersey that employs 1,600, provides affordable housing to over 7,000 residents, and manages a credit union, a workforce training center, youth and adult educational programs, and an extended care and adult day care facility on behalf of the community.7

See also:


Further reading

Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013).

Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism, 2nd ed. (Takoma Park, MD: Democracy Collaborative Press and Dollars & Sense, 2011). See Part II.

Marjorie Kelly, Owning Our Future (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012).

Steve Dubb, Building Wealth: The New Asset-Based Approach to Solving Social and Economic Problems (Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute, May 22, 2005).

Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

More related work

Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth: Introduction

If the design of corporate capitalism is unable to sustain values of equality, genuine democracy, liberty, and ecological sustainability as a matter of inherent systemic architecture, what systemic ‘design’ might ultimately achieve and sustain these values? read more


Why are current approaches to trade problematic? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth approach trade? What existing efforts point toward a sustainable and just trade regime? read more


How do modern researchers understand the deeper sources of economic abundance and technological change? How should the fruits of our common technological inheritance be distributed now and in future? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth deploy management of new technologies in new ways? read more


Why consider long term regional devolution of power? How might long term devolution to regionalist patterns operate in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some on-the-ground developments that suggest possibilities for the future of regionalism? read more


Why must the United States confront its long history of systemic racism? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth begin to promote racial equality? What on-the-ground efforts can be seen working towards our future of collective liberation? read more


Why are new forms of public economic institutions important at certain critical levels of scale in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are the key challenges for public ownership? Where are communities organizing elements of public ownership in the economy? read more


Why is the idea of prehistory important for thinking about systemic change? Are we in the prehistory of genuine systemic change, the prehistory of a Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is pluralism an important value for systemic design? What makes a pluralist commonwealth “pluralist,” and why are more complex forms sometimes important? Where can we see pluralism in action today? read more


What is the role of planning in our present economic system? How would planning function in the Pluralist Commonwealth? Where are new models of decentralized and more participatory planning being explored today? read more


How is money created in the current system? How is money created in the Pluralist Commonwealth? Where can we see key elements of a new approach to monetary policy emerging today? read more


What’s wrong with markets, and why do we still need them? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth use markets to sustain communities? Where are examples of markets that remain subject to democratic control operative today? read more


What is liberty? Why must liberty be a central part of the design for the pluralist commonwealth? Where is a renewed conception of liberty being developed on the ground today? read more


Why is investment in the current system fundamentally undemocratic and unsustainable? How would a Pluralist Commonwealth democratize investment? Where is investment managed in more democratic directions today? read more


Why must we factor gender equity into the institutional design of the next political and economic system? What kinds of structures would a Pluralist Commonwealth use to support true gender equality? Where are important elements of a more gender equitable system being built today? read more

Evolutionary Reconstruction And Displacement

How do evolutionary reconstruction and displacement of corporate power differ from “countervailing” strategies of containment and regulation? Why are evolutionary reconstruction and displacement key strategic approaches in the building of a Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is equality a key part of the Pluralist Commonwealth? How is movement towards equality achieved in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What examples prefigure equality as envisioned in the Pluralist Commonwealth? read more

Economic Growth

Why is growth a challenging problem? How Would the Pluralist Commonwealth Manage Growth? Where can we see on the ground efforts to tackle the growth question today? read more
Economic Change

Economic Change

How does economic change really occur locally and nationally? How, specifically, can we build upon the ways cities and states already foster the local economy to create the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some examples of shifts toward greater democracy? read more

Ecological Sustainability

Why is pluralism necessary to guarantee ecologically sustainable ends? What are the key strategies for environmental protection in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some promising on the ground developments that point toward an ecologically sustainable Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


What is democracy? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth build stronger foundations for democratic life? Where are more participatory systemic directions being prototyped and developed today? read more


Why is decentralization a key principle of system design? What are the limits of decentralization? What are some contemporary developments in the direction of decentralization? read more


Why is culture a key part of the pluralist commonwealth? What are the most important strategies for building such a culture? What are some examples of the development of the cultural transformations toward democratic society at work today? read more


What are cooperatives? What role do cooperatives play in a Pluralist Commonwealth? Where else is this systemic direction for cooperatives being prototyped and explored today? read more


Why is community important to the pluralist commonwealth? What are institutional mechanisms aimed at undergirding rather than undermining community in a Pluralist Commonwealth? What current developments point towards the restoration of community as a central category? read more


What does it mean to hold wealth in common? Why is wealth held in common and democratized at various scales, so important for the design of a next system? What are some examples of how “common wealth” builds a “commonwealth” today? read more

Climate Change

What are the challenges presented by global climate change? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth tackle ecological threats such as climate change? What are some promising on the ground developments that point toward an ecologically sustainable Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is bureaucracy problematic? What can be done in a pluralist commonwealth to minimize necessary bureaucracy? What contemporary interventions or potential interventions illustrate democratic control of large-scale entities? read more


Why is the Pluralist Commonwealth an American system? What resources for a Pluralist Commonwealth can be found in the American tradition? read more