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Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution

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Building an Economy That Works for All

As long as businesses are set up to focus exclusively on maximizing financial income for the few, our economy will be locked into endless growth and widening inequality. But now people are experimenting with new forms of ownership, which Marjorie Kelly calls generative: aimed at creating the conditions for life for many generations to come. These designs may hold the key to the deep transformation our civilization needs.

To understand these emerging alternatives, Kelly reports from all over the world, visiting a community-owned wind facility in Massachusetts, a lobster cooperative in Maine, a multibillion-dollar employee-owned department-store chain in London, a foundation-owned pharmaceutical company in Denmark, a farmer-owned dairy in Wisconsin, and other places where a hopeful new economy is being built. Along the way, she finds the five essential patterns of ownership design that make these models work.

Winner of the 2013 Nautilus Silver Award in the category of Business/Leadership.

288 pages, Paperback

First published June 4, 2012

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Marjorie Kelly

10 books17 followers

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Displaying 1 - 24 of 24 reviews
Profile Image for Rob Kall.
Author 4 books12 followers
September 6, 2015
Brilliant book. inspired me to interview the author
She's a deep bottom-up systems thinker who has a vision of a world that is very different.
Profile Image for Michael Layden.
91 reviews8 followers
January 2, 2018
I enjoyed this book and looking at the colourful mess of stick it tags sticking out of it, it is a book with a lot of quotes and information that I will return to. Indeed I have ordered three books mentioned in it.
It covers a lot of ground I have been watching over the last two decades. She visits many projects in the third sector. Some I was familiar with but many I had not heard about. What is useful is her deep knowledge of business ethics which she is able to bring to focus on company structures. Her familiarity with companies means she has a good inbuilt BS. detector and this makes the book a lot less gushing than other books of it's type. She does not get carried away with excitement and keeps on getting back to the core problem of the financial system and companies need to satisfy shareholders and financial institutions.

I think she is correct in identifying ownership structures as a key problem. She gives many good quotes and comments from many different people to build this case.

In terms of how I categorise books I would see this as
1 Defining the problem-Good- It is straighforward and doesn't over do it.
2. Tactical- Excellent-It discusses solutions and pilot projects well. It gets one to really think about company, financing and ownership.
3. Strategic-Poor- It is light on how to implement the changes needed.
4. Evolutionary-Poor- Some comments on the ways we have to change the ways we think. She is wise enough to understand the contradiction that while the structure of John lewis is excellent in terms of its worker ownership that it is still entirely dependent on consumerism. In ways this highlights the need for major changes in how we behave as a society better than anything else. i.e even if we get the financial system and businesses to behave we still have to face our own lack of cultural development
30 reviews1 follower
April 12, 2019
Extremely thought-provoking. This book looks at the interaction between the way that corporations are structured (e.g. designed for continuous growth + profit to shareholders) and their subsequent behavior and interactions with the community. Importantly, it doesn't just break down why the "typical" financial structure tends to lead to negative outcomes for the environment and workers. It also provides a lot of interesting positive examples and sets out some ideas for ways that company ownership structure can be instantiated to encourage positive outcomes. From an employee-owned department store in the UK, to lobster fishing in Maine, to an organic farming co-op, this book looks at many different sizes and shapes of companies that have a good track record of serving their workers and their communities.

I found this book especially interesting as it set up an alternate path between unfettered, capitalist approaches, and state-run communist or socialist economic structures, showing how you can have self-organized, economically motivated companies that serve their communities and the environment instead of operating in an "extractive" regime.

Very, very good read.
Profile Image for Patrick Tsai.
13 reviews1 follower
June 25, 2013
I read a lot of books that make me angry, well this book made me hopeful. Of course there was the angry part about the extractive culture of corporate ownership, but it was balanced with stories of companies following, what Marjorie Kelly calls, the generative economic model of ownership. This involves enterprises with community focused missions and more democratic internal structures. There is a detachment intrinsic in Wall Street's world of casino finance. A generative economic model seeks to reattach stakeholders with companies and to distribute wealth more equitably. Kelly promotes the cooperative model, community development financial institutions and community development corporations throughout the book. She gives working examples that exist throughout the country. At the moment we live in a corporate compliant culture, however, there will be a slow shift in the economic model of ownership. In part do to the unsustainable volatility created by the current most prevalent model of ownership (the publicly traded corporation). Stakeholder financed companies and cooperatives have a more resilient, slower growth, structure. But it were these institutions that weathered the 2007-2008 financial crisis the best. Kelly does not say thee institutions should be the only kind. For all you ag-heads out there Kelly uses an analogy I will try to paraphrase, the publicly traded corporation is so common in business it can be equated to a monoculture, in order to have healthy economic growth there needs to be diversity in the economic models of ownership, only then will we have a flourishing resilient economy.

If you always believed in the cooperative model but couldn't quite put into words why it's so great, this book is for you. If you love walmart and nike you should probably leave this book alone and go to mcdonalds for a big mac and watch the sports game on tv.
15 reviews
March 7, 2021
Marjorie Kelly’s Owning our future was a breath of fresh, honest air after Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. What worries me is that the two will be lumped together because both come vaguely under the heading of “green economics”. Raworth clearly thinks her book is in some way based on Kelly’s work. It worries me that Kelly might think the same.

Kelly’s book has smaller ambitions, but delivers them with honesty and authority. The book makes the case for different forms of ownership by starting with the impact of the finance industry on one family. This family bought a house using a mortgage, as many do. Their bank targeted the poor and uneducated with practices that milk the debt to maximise income and gain ownership of the asset. Those familiar with the film The Big Short will find none of this surprising. In the film this is treated with humour when a party of Wall Street analysts learn from self deluded estate agents and strippers how corrupt the mortgage market has become. In Kelly’s book the subject is an ordinary, low income family who just want a decent house to retire with. There is little humour.

Kelly posits an alternative way of organising markets based on a better understanding of ownership. This book is at its most honest when it looks at the models she likes, even as she recognises their limitations. The examples she details include lobster fishing in Maine, the department store John Lewis in the UK and a community bank. As real world organisations they are messy, practical, imperfect but, above all, they work. John Lewis has substantial disparities in pay, the lobster co-operatives sacked people and the bank could not accept all comers for its finance. These are problematic if you want a fair world, but the world is still fairer with these organisations.

The form of ownership matters, but is not prescriptive. There are many models and that number is likely to expand. For Kelly, what makes this family of models better is the difference between generative and extractive ownership. The firms she wants to see have a living purpose, so are in for the long term; rooted membership, so are owned by the community they are part of; have mission controlled governance so have a social mission; stakeholder finance so capital is working for them; and ethical networks to support them.

The book concludes somewhat optimistically that a large change is in progress. SInce this was written in 2012 we can reasonably assume the changes are not as fast as she had hoped.

I like much in this book. Economists familiar with the work of Elinor Ostrom will have a sense of where this book is coming from. Fundamentally, what matters is ownership and given the opportunity people find ways to generate solutions to the kind of problems that economists and policy experts instinctively assume require government. As the upholder of that complex social phenomenon called “property rights” government has a role, but only a role. What matters is that people own their economy, not investors or the state.

Her understanding of incentives and the need for trade offs make her a natural economist far superior to Raworth. Kelly recognises the problems, sees the imperfections, goes beyond simple rhetorical gestures. Raworth avoids issues, pretends links that do not exist and does not distinguish presentation from substance.

There are three ways the book could do more.

First the sheer richness and diversity of the examples she produces create a question she makes no attempt to answer. Why are private shareholder firms the norm? This is clearest in the UK building society example she discusses. These were British community savings organisations that originated in industrial England in the nineteenth century. In the 1970s and 80s all of the bigger ones “de-mutualised”, that is went from being saver owned to being traditional banks. One of them, Northern Rock became a major cause of the banking collapse in the UK in 2007. Others ultimately merged with traditional, shareholder owned, banks.

What she does not address is the clear weakness of this model when faced with market incentives. These organisations demutualised because their customers, owners, were persuaded to vote for demutualisation by the people running the organisations. There is no doubt she is right to point to their mutual form as a great example of community banking, but if it is so weak what does that tell us about community ownership as a model. She does not explore this.

Second she does not discuss the relationship of her preferred model to either the state or organisations like universities. She cannot avoid this because no feasible system can ignore the need for some form of state, or at least an organisation doing some of the tasks done by the state. Further the property rights she thinks we need must have a state to develop and implement them. If all non-state activity were in these community organisations, what about those workin for the state? Cleaners in universities, civil servants, teachers, etc. What about the welfare and health systems that most western countries have developed? There is an answer of sorts when considering countries like Sweden, but she does not explore this.

The third sounds like it might not be important, and in some way might not be, but is a barrier to wider use of Kelly’s ideas. She is wedded to a language that is inherently alienating for many potential readers. I would not use this language because from me it would sound, and be, false and contrived. I would be acting the role of slightly hippyish liberal. When she describes communities working out with government ways to protect the lobster catch, this book works for me. When she talks of the “ownership revolution begins in the human heart” and uses terms like “generative” to describe a department store like John Lewis, it feels like I am being asked to accept an alien culture I associate with San Fransisco.

Somewhere is an uncomfortable conversation about language that appeals to people who think nurturing is the right language for all contexts. Unfortunately Nurse Ratched and the many manipulators of this language I have met in government is as much a nurturer as those who are more benign. Gender lurks here somewhere, but it is not “he” and “she” etc, but the language women and men feel more comfortable using. It matters because I suspect many who might accept the core these about local and community ownership would smirk and roll their eyes, be alienated, when presented with the language in which the ideas are presented. Recognising this is possibly more men than women, does not solve the alienattion.
Profile Image for Mark Sarney.
Author 12 books3 followers
July 9, 2016
I've been a fan of Marjorie Kelly since I read The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy. This book, Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution, takes you on her mental journey from her thinking in Divine Right (reforming capitalism before it destroys itself) to highlighting emerging changes that could be capitalized on to stop capitalism from destroying the planet as well as society. (And no, she's not advocating socialism, communism, or nationalization of the banks. Her ideas are all aimed at building successful, for-profit businesses.)

The bottom line is that extractive finance is dangerously unstable and unsustainable, to capitalism, to the market-based economy, and to the entire planet. Rather than solely maximizing financial profits, at which Wall Street has become destructively too efficient, businesses can become for-profit businesses that do more than simply boost short-term shareholder equity.

This is the book to read after Michael Lewis' The Big Short, when you're wondering, okay, what the hell do we do now? I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Sudheer Madhava.
24 reviews4 followers
October 28, 2012
Marjorie Kelly first shows us how the current capitalistic business model is unfair and unsustainable and shows how modern business practices and laws favouring the "one percent" contributed to the current financial mess the world is in.

She then takes us on a ride into an unexplored (by mainstream media) but surprisingly large world of democratically run successful business entities like cooperatives, financial instituions (which actually serve local communities) and other such organizations which she calls "generative" versus the "extractive" nature of modern corporations where the priorities of a few shareholders are much more important than the lives of countless workers, communities and the environment.

She uses Systems Thinking as a justificaton to coin terms like "mission controlled governance", "stakeholder finance", "ethical networks", etc., but I felt she generalized too many discrete phenomenon under each of these headings. The research feels pancake-ish (broad but superficial), the focus and insight into the developing world is limited, and the style of narration is not to my liking. But then, this book is more about getting the general direction right of what will proabably be the only economic model to survive the inevitable continued financial turmoil arising out of the obviously short-sighted and self-destructive current economic model.

I think that is one of the most important books I have ever read and recommend this to everybody.
Profile Image for Shante' Zenith.
14 reviews
February 16, 2017
Kelly describes the difference between ownership that is extractive versus ownership that is generative in a very similar manner to the way that Hyde describes the difference between the gift and the commodity. Kelly’s book starts in very concrete terms as she describes the events that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis and she includes several illuminating graphics illustrating the way our economy operates. In the second section of the book Kelly describes examples of companies and individuals who are creating “generative” businesses that address the question, “what kind of economy is consistent with living inside a living being?” Kelly also describes a philosophy of emergence as opposed to control, which also intensely echoes with the gift/commodity binary. In Kelly’s description of emergence, which is a concept from systems theory, she invokes architect Christopher Alexander’s description of the “quality without a name,” which deeply resonated with Hyde’s description of the gift and McGilchrist’s description of the world of the right hemisphere.
14 reviews
March 10, 2021
Very pleasantly surprised! This is not some stupid virtue-signaling authoritative book. Kelly challenges us the rethink the financial system whereby capital employs labor. Why can't labor employ capital? She walks through lots of businesses that have already structured themselves in ways different than the traditional public firm structure. Supplier-owned, employee-owned, and community-owned firms. They are profitable, and after reading this, you might believe they are inevitable.
Profile Image for Alex.
133 reviews
August 7, 2019
Kelly proposes an interesting take on the future of the world economy and gives us glimpses into how these systems of economics work today in the real world. If you're interested in seeing the world post or mid-capitalism, this is definitely a must-read.
Profile Image for Ietrio.
6,597 reviews25 followers
May 31, 2022
Kelly has a simple mind, generating simple thoughts. Hence, the herd seems to be the best option, leading to an enticing all-powerful hive. Hence there is ”our future”, because if I am hungry, and you get to eat, I will most certainly feel full.
March 26, 2023
Fantastic book…deserves 6 stars!

Really inspiring but also well grounded. A fine balance of aspiration with pragmatism. A worth reading for those interested in sustainability and alternative solutions for our common future.
Profile Image for A t y s.
5 reviews
August 18, 2020
4.5 stars if it weren't so repetitive. 5 stars if it were better organised and the theory properly developed with graphs and such.
Profile Image for Jeffrey.
197 reviews8 followers
June 6, 2021
Marjorie is such a gifted writer and storyteller. Even though the stories in here are close to a decade old now, the message, and lessons are just as predominant in our time.
Profile Image for Seerat Toor.
2 reviews2 followers
June 21, 2013
Owning our future is a very absorbing piece of work, a prototype book on the subject which has intrigued human civilizations across the globe since time beyond history and record. Marjorie Kelly the beautiful and insightful author has cleverly decoded the highly encrypted principles of the present-day economic models and has opened the public-eye to the juggernaut of their exploitative fundamentals. Kelly has wonderfully interweaved the latter most leveraged system design with the one just emerging over the horizons which will bear coming generations and grant them access to the basics of living at the rate and price they will self-determine.
The author has used one of the most interesting expressions of literature and woven the threads of the new economic revolution through a travelogue. The focus of her journeys which she practically undertook is to bring to life the novel architectural design of economy which she calls “the generative model”, which has already hatched in many places around the world. The profiles highlighted in the text are business models which have shifted the ownership from the hands of few who used them as profit-making engines to the hands of individuals/ families/ societies who are directly involved. These have turned around their livelihoods and have more the firms nearly immune to fluctuating markets and economic crashes and given them sustainability to bank on for generations. The aim of these new-born models is to pay the suppliers maximally and creating hope that a change can take shape depending on collective emergence of communities sharing a common vision.
December 13, 2014
This book, published in 2012, fills in the outline of what it takes to confront the reality of our current economy which is based on taking resources from our world – "extractive" ownership. Kelly counters this economic reality with the idea of "generative" ownership – "self-organized around the needs of life," an economic structure that has a "living purpose."

She offers concrete examples of alternative ownership structures like the employee-owned and governed Island Cohousing created by South Mountain Company on the island of Martha's Vineyard. Instead of advocating unsustainable growth, Island Cohousing emphasizes "sufficiency"; they were "allowing ourselves to slow down and just live." It "decommodified the land, by putting it under the control of the community."

A generative economy will not spring from the extractive practices of our present system. Building it will require many of us to depart from what we've known and move toward something truly new. Owning Our Future gives us the outline of what that possibility can be.

This is a book that should be a companion to Gar Alperovitz’s What Then Shall We Do?, which together give a foundation for creating an economy that puts people alongside profit.
Profile Image for Jess.
182 reviews19 followers
July 11, 2012
Wow. Marjorie Kelly bowled me over. So much wisdom packed into such an enjoyable book.

Based on dozens of describes the reality of our current "extractive" economy and presents the opportunity to transition to a "generative" economy. Specifically, according to Kelly, "ownership is the gravitational field that holds our economy in its orbit, locking us all into behaviors that lead to financial excess and ecological overshoot." A new model of "generative ownership" on the other hand, can be the foundation for an economy that values life over the accumulation of capital.

I'm butchering the clarity of Kelly's writing with my long-winded description -- better really to just read the book yourself :)

2 reviews
December 31, 2012
Kelly takes us on a journey to first discover what went wrong with our current "growth" economic model. But she doen't leave us there. This is a hopeful book that then presents several examples of businesses that take different approaches. All of them enhance and value their communities, workers, and members. This book is life-affirming and a must read for all citizens who long for real change.
286 reviews
May 7, 2013
This book was a fun read because it talked about a lot of people I'm friends with and organizations that I know. Interesting examples of ownership structures that are a lot more beneficial to society and the environment. I had never heard of John Lewis Partnership before, and it's a huge company in England that is employee owned, so that was interesting. Didn't find the book to be particularly well written or anything.
88 reviews
February 16, 2015
This is one of the most hopeful books I have read in years. We always like to read about ideas that agree with our world view and this is one. I have always felt the idea of BIG CONTINUOUS growth that the stock market prices depend on was unrealistic and she makes that point over and over again. She gives some great examples of successful companies and organizations that are not exploitative and successful.
Profile Image for Miriam Holsinger.
367 reviews3 followers
August 25, 2013
A wowing book - must read for anyone who is an ardent capitalist or anti-capitalist. Kelly spells out complicated financial concepts in a humanizing way and shows the road to a brighter future without demonizing anyone but empowering us all.
1,219 reviews6 followers
February 24, 2014
An economics/business book postulating a new form of corporation, a public benefit corporation, run for the benefit of everyone, not to maximize shareholder profits.
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