The Network Project: OWNERSHIP

Introduction

One of the most frequently recurring themes in our discussions has been that of ownership. Roger Warren Evans has asked for our support for a campaign to change the legal status of corporations, particularly where they are owned by other corporations. Essentially he is saying that they are fundamentally different from personal private property or possessions and should be treated as such by the law and not given the privileges of individual persons.

We have discussed how the structure of company law, the issuing of share options to directors have produced an incentive structure which stands in the way of adapting to serious resource challenges (e.g. Will Hutton’s work to name but one), let alone the public good. Chris Cook (Partnerships Consulting) has demonstrated the very different, cooperative structure of the limited liability partnership.

The structure of the company and its consequences for corporate social responsibility (CSR) have also been a focus. We have followed the CORE campaign with interest as well as the way CSR has been warped, hijacked and misrepresented by the corporate sector. Corporate Watch have talked to us about TRIPS and have ourselves opposed within the Labour Party, the wholesale move to PFI/PPP and the introduction of private suppliers and market mechanisms in the NHS.

At every turn there is the problem of absolute unfettered private ownership rights, the incentives they create and the way it makes people think.


Holding a conference

But we have also come across plenty of people “doing alternatives", and plenty of people thinking about alternative forms of ownership.

There has been a real resurgence in the co-operative movement (both the Co-op itself and the growth of firms like the Phone Co-op and Ealing Community Transport – now far more than just transport) and a new self-confidence in cooperative ideas. The Co-operative Advantage is recognised more and more.

There has also been a growth in other forms of social enterprise, social firms, where the organisation aims for a trading surplus (not a profit) but is also committed to social goals. This sector is now knocking on the door of public service provision and has the potential to offer local authorities a chance to employ firms more in keeping with a public service ethos.

Similarly Fair Trade is now become a local authority procurement issue and has also changed mainstream consumer ideas. The Fair Trade sector has also given rise both to the lending company Shared Interest, based explicitly on a practice of ownership which does not merely seek personal returns and has taken on a role in CSR through the “Just Pensions” campaign. One of our own members has also put forward ideas about Citizen’s Ownership whereby any individual member of a co-operative, or sharehold is automatically, by virtue of their ownership, accountable to a particular stakeholder group, at the least consumers, the workforce and environmental concerns.

Our involvement with the European Social Forum introduced to those of us who were not already involved/ aware the principles behind creating a commons through open source software and the principles it embodies.

With all this activity and all these fascinating ideas and from so many different people, holding a conference was the obvious thing to do.


The conference: From Ownership into Stewardship
Saturday 19th November 2005 at: London School of Economics

On useful role that we feel our project could fulfil, and something it has done all along in its workshops, is to bring together people who, working in different spheres, would not otherwise meet or realise they had so much in common.

In particular we wanted to persuade political activists that not only was there an enormous number of innovative and exciting projects around, but that these were politically relevant. And conversely, persuade some of the “alternatives” people that taking a political perspective was both timely and appropriate.

One of the strongest themes of our discussions has been that of “stewardship”. Not only does it oppose the absolute and asocial nature of private property, it creates a different sort of citizen: one aware of their place within a complex society and environment.

Our keynote speaker, Prem Sikka, well known to many as a scourge of the accountancy profession spoke about his campaign: Tame the Corporations. While the profession as presently constituted may be in a parlous state, he has drawn intention to the importance of making organisations accountable. This is a key function in the institutions of ownership.


Outcomes

1) Simply getting people together to talk and spark off each other was a worthwhile end in itself.

2) We aim to publish a set of papers to be part of the dialogue which has been started by people like our keynote speaker Prem Sikka.

3) We shall be promoting company law reform mentioned above; and we will launch a project to investigate how individual shareholders/ members really can be a source of accountability.

 

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