Wednesday, 26 October 2011

If not capitalism, then what?

I passed the Occupy London protesters at St Pauls on the bus yesterday. On the street was a board reading, 'If not capitalism, then what?'

For me, a central question in post-capitalist thinking is: which models of business ownership are most conducive to social flourishing? I put the question to Simon Zadek when he was a fellow of the Harvard Centre for Business and Government. He replied that it was a "really leading edge question/issue... worthy of a major conference."

My central observation is fairly obvious. PLCs - publicly limited companies, which are owned by shareholders who buy and sell their ownership shares on the stock market, are, to put it simply, bad. Other ways of owning and financing companies are better.

The problem with PLCs
PLCs are a really great mechanism for taking wealth from the many and amassing it with the few.

They receive money from the consumer and time from the employee - the many, the 99% perhaps.

From that income, they maximise surplus (profit) as much as possible.

Then they give that surplus to shareholders - the few. The more shares you have (ie, the richer you are), the more you receive - the richer you get.

It's just fantastic. I really couldn't think of a better way of taking a little bit from everybody, systematically, every day, piling it up, and giving it to wealthier people.

Let's compare, for example, the plc Thames Water with the 'no-shareholder' Welsh Water. In 2007-8 (sorry, did this research a while ago but it's still relevant), Thames' profits of £419 million (overcharging?) were taxed and distributed among shareholders -  a mixture of European pension funds and private equity firms in Australia and Canada. (1)

In the same year, Welsh Water's profits of £41 million were taxed, some were re-invested in the company, and the remaining £27 million was sent back to customers who each got a £21 deduction on their next bill.

£21 isn't a lot, but if we were to combine the impacts on wealth distribution of plcs providing water, gas, electricity, housing, insurance, banking, food, clothing, sport, leisure and so on, we would start to see vast, consistent swathes of wealth moving daily from the '99%' to the '1%'. And I haven't even started on banking. Where do you think the interest on your mortgage, if you have one, goes? (3)

To be fair, it's not entirely one way. The authors of The New Capitalists argue that more than 75% of the shares in the UK stock market are held through collective investment vehicles like pension funds. So we are all owners and potential beneficiaries of stock market gains, they say.

The problem is, the more you invest in your pension, the more shares you own, and the greater slice of the pie you usually get back (unless the value falls.) The overall effect remains: the rich get richer and the poor stay poor through our current pension and stock market systems.

Personally, I have a pension with The Co-op bank which is "ethical," which means they invest in pharmaceuticals instead of arms. I set it up when I was 26 because my Dad told me it was time to get one. But I'm not happy about my future security being entirely reliant on a volatile, unjust and unsustainable stock market. I'm thinking about stopping payments and perhaps trying to buy land instead. It feels more... grounded.


What's better than a plc?

Lots of things.

Waitrose, part of the John Lewis partnership, is a great example. It's entirely employee owned. That means you don't get this problematic distribution of wealth effect that plcs create. There's also another important benefit: the localisation of power - ie, employees make the decisions - leads to more ethical company behaviour. Waitrose for example frequently takes a chunk out of profits and does something cool with it, like creating the Leaf scheme that supports farmers in the transition to organic.

The employee-owners have an enduring relationship with the company they own, so they take pride in using its power for good. It's very different when a company is owned by shareholders who have no connection with the company, and will sell shares in an instant if they lose a little value. It puts all the focus on a single bottom line. And we know clearly that single bottom lines don't serve present or future generations. Tomorrow's Company also argues that they don't serve the employees of single bottom line focused companies, who tend to have a bit of a horrible time at work.

Some also argue the plc model is also a nightmare for leaders. It's a nightmare for everyone! Let's leave it behind!

“How can anyone run a business when hedge funds trade big chunks of their equity every day?” asked C4s then Chief Executive Luke Johnson in 2008. “There is another victim of the credit crunch: the publicly traded model of ownership. The near-collapse of many of the large banks in perhaps a dozen countries shows that such corporate structures do not work.” (4) 

So. Employee ownership is one great model that, I think, has a place in a post-capitalist economy.

The second is the co-operative model. This is where employees and customers own the company. That's good too for similar reasons.

The third is small businesses. Again, these avoid the wealth distribution problems that big plcs create.
It was, famously, part of Adam Smith's vision of capitalism - a nation of shopkeepers, an abundance of small businesses trading with each other, competition between them keeping prices low and quality high for the customer.

Further reading about good company ownership models:

What this means for us
Most people have three obvious roles in relation to plcs.

1) we are customers - eg of Boots, Sainsbury's, HSBC etc (all plcs)

2) we might be employees

3) we are investors, perhaps. Often through pension funds, sometimes more directly.

What we can do as customers
Don't buy things from plcs.

Where's good:

Waitrose, The Co-operative, local shops and markets. I'm not sure about food box schemes. I think Abel and Cole, eg, was recently bought out by a bigger company and I don't know how they're owned. You could enquire if you have a veg box.

The Co-op, Building Societies like Nationwide and Cheltenham & Gloucester, Credit Unions

I don't really know! Let's find out. I know that about half of British pubs are owned by very big pub companies. I guess it's nice to try to drink at independent pubs. We can find out by asking. I think I'm going to become more vigilant about this.

What we can do as employees
If you work for a plc, quit! If you're looking for a job, don't get a job with a plc!

What we can do as investors and pension holders
Really tough one. Requires some good social innovation I think. My gut feeling is that investing in land is better than investing in the stock market. 70% of Britain is owned by less than 1% of the population. We could probably address that alongside addressing the pension reliance on a stock market that doesn't serve us, if we developed land-based pension schemes. Let's think about that one.


(1) Thames Water Utilities Limited, Annual Report and Financial Statements for the year ended 31 March 2008. 
(2) Welsh Water gives £27m back to customers. The Guardian, 12th June 2008 
(3) A few years ago I considered doing a PhD on sustainable models of business ownership and finance. I spent a few days in the British Library to see if anyone had calculated in any kind of mathematical way the impact of plcs on the distribution of wealth. The closest thing I found was an article identifying the dynamic and describing the insight I was looking for as "a major challenge for future research." Perotti, E and von Thadden, E.L (2006). Corporate Governance and the Distribution of Wealth: A Political Economy Perspective. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, Vol 162, No.1, p217
(4) Johnson, Luke. Why public ownership is a failed model. The Financial Times, 14th October 2008

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


"In the late 1940s, there were 1.4 million allotments, falling to around 500,000 in the 1970s. Today there are 300,000 plots." The Independent 19.2.2009

Thanks to Millfields Allotment Association for the pic

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Can the UK feed itself on ecological agriculture?

No-one really knows. That's why the Ecological Land Cooperative is commissioning research to find out, so that campaigners can have crisp, rigorously produced facts to hand when they go for it.

They're crowd fundraising for it and I've just chipped in. You could too! Go on. What else have you done this week to help transform our little island? I haven't done much, this particular week :) You've probably done much more. Chip in nevertheless! As little as £10 would really help I'm told:

The ELC's MD, Zoe Wangler (a gem of a lady), writes:

Our first piece of research Small is Successful: Creating Sustainable Livelihoods on Ten Acres or Less was done on just £1,300 and yet was selected for the Research Council UK’s report Big Ideas for the Future: UK research that will have a profound effect on our future. Our report was endorsed by organisations representing thousands of members such as the Soil Association and Sustain.  I know that with £5,600 we will produce something of even better quality and relevance.

Open Hardware Technology

It's easy to think about a household or community being self-sufficient in food, and perhaps some aspects of clothing and building - but what about hardware?

is this the answer?

Though I'm not sure we need tractors. I helped out with the annual garlic pull (lots of nice people + 1 field of garlie + 1 day = a barn full of garlic that will supply the farmers market for a year) at CSA farm Earthly Mirth in New York a few weeks ago.

Here are the tractors they used:

thanks Ryan for the picture

Honestly, this picture doesn't really capture how awe-inspiring Sara and her horses were, and the implications of her use of them.

It was easy to find horse-farming machinery - different things to attach to the horses to do different aspects of farming - because of the significant mormon and amonite farming communities nearby, all of whom use horse-drawn farming techniques, I am told.

Sara had a really beautiful relationship with the horses - she was a kind of a horse whisperer I guess. Which is simply to mean that she found a way to connect with the animals in a way that was not about domination but connection and cooperation.

It was Cool.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Beth Tilston is my new hero

Can non-friends on Facebook view her mouthwatering 'Mobile Uploads' album?
And I think this wins the prize for the most interesting facebook conversation I've ever read. 

June 21 at 2:16pm ·  · 

    • Christiane Lechner what happend?
      June 21 at 3:45pm · 

    • Beth Tilston Things are not happening fast enough...
      June 21 at 4:15pm · 

    • Christiane Lechner i know what you mean. a friend of mine texted me the other day "hast du es eilig, gehe langsam" - "are you in a hurry, walk slowly" (kind of :)
      June 21 at 8:09pm · 

    • Paul Kingsnorth When Greece collapses in a few weeks, things will start happening pretty fast ;-)
      June 21 at 9:35pm · 

    • Beth Tilston Just watching that on the news. They're going to take everyone with them, aren't they. If they don't collapse, the alternative is to sell all their public services and basically be sucked into a black hole of (even more) debt. Learnt the word peonage the other day, seems appropriate.
      June 21 at 10:31pm · 

    • Paul Kingsnorth This is the north being structurally adjusted, the way the south has been for decades. The people of greece have to pay for decades for the fuck-ups of bankers and for the obsession with the Euro that the EU's leader's have. It's a fantasy coming up against the buffers of reality. They have to default, because their people refuse to become peons. The century is just starting to get interesting!
      June 21 at 10:51pm · 

    • Paul Kingsnorth Good links. I wonder what the possibilities are for a new ruralism? When the banks collapse again this question may become more urgent:

      June 22 at 9:50am · 

    • Beth Tilston It'll be interesting to find out... My feeling is that we are more fucked than most in this respect given that we're an extremely populous country, we have little left of rural skills and culture, the land is owned by toffs who have had it since Biblical times and it is largely occupied by the people who caused the crisis in the first place (at least it is down here).
      June 22 at 8:47pm · 

    • Paul Kingsnorth Yes, quite agree - and we also have far less contact with the land than others, given that we were torn from it first. We were the first modern landless nation. Also, I just found out that England has 9% tree cover, while the EU average is 44%! Christ.
      June 22 at 10:09pm · 

    • Ian Lawton we're also more fucked than most because what little revolutionary spirit we have has been asleep for longer than everybody else's ... gonna have to learn to farm again very fast i guess - we will have to run to the country when the state finances collapse along with a couple of 'too big to fail' banks ... this is all quite mad isn't it!?
      June 22 at 11:27pm · 

    • Beth Tilston 
      I think people will just starve in the cities for a bit as they're starting to now. Or perhaps they'll move out of the big cities to smaller ones where it's cheaper. I don't think people will get 'back to the land' until we see the end of industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture doesn't need people. I reckon there will be a growth in people working in woodlands before there is in people working in fields. Wood is a fuel, after all. Though if we only have 9% tree cover left - maybe not...

      June 22 at 11:49pm · 

    • Paul Kingsnorth 
      I think land prices are the biggest issue actually. I think there would be a flood of back to the landers if it were affordable. the internet has put info about how to work land and grow food at all our fingertips - we're all started from nothing, after all. The demand for allotments would have been unthinkable ten years ago. If the land were not all locked up by landowners and yuppies - which is an issue of population density, history and economics - things would be different. But also, yes, I think the cities may start starving first. Must go and buy that farm ...

      June 23 at 9:28am · 

    • Ian Lawton 
      nevertheless i'm hoping we get desperate enough that the landgrabs start. I've always thought that the thirst for allotments is probably driven by a half conscious intuition that we are likely to starve to death in the near future ... landrights are going to become a major issue that's for sure ... i recently bought 'this land is our land' by marion shoard, not read it yet, have you read alastair macintosh's 'soil and soul' beth? ... anyway here's hopin for some Diggers radicalism... ""The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land." Gerrard Winstanley

      June 23 at 9:57am · 

      Friday, 18 March 2011

      Joanna Macy workshop 3 April

      doing some promo for the fella...

      The Work That Reconnects
      What’s Possible?

      When:        Sunday 3rd April 1-6pm
      Where:       Angel, Islington   

      A series of interactive activities, meditations, rituals and practical tools inspired and developed by visionary deep ecologist Joanna Macy, encouraging us to express our feelings and find new ways of seeing our place and purpose on this planet.

      The Work That Reconnects is a framework that helps people connect to ourselves, each other and the natural world. It offers skills and strategies to nurture the emergence of creative responses and transform our concerns and worries into collaborative action.

      For more information visit


      Kevin Frea is a trained and experienced facilitator of the Work that Reconnects. He is an environmental activist, teacher, life coach and vegan with a Masters degree from the Centre for Human Ecology in Glasgow.

      Michael Margolin has worked as a garden educator, organic farmer and facilitator of various fields that are helping to create a more sustainable world. He has trained in Vipassana meditation for five years, is an experienced contact improvisation dancer and is currently training in Action Theatre, an improvisational theatre form.

      Donations are encouraged!

      Reserve your place to receive further details, address and directions:

      Kevin      Kevin@humanecologist.org07716246672

      Tuesday, 8 March 2011

      Natural Rhythms

      thanks to scienceblogs for the pic

      There's a conversation thread meandering around at the moment about 'natural rhythms.'

      My friends and I seem to be talking about rest, seasonal patterns, the rise and fall of energy.

      Last week all I wanted to do was sleep and eat. I wasn't the only one. Did you feel that way?

      This week the low ebb of energy persists and I'm juggling good intentions with the lure of coffee and sugar to prop me up. Struggle.

      This morning I thought of my friend Alastair who worked for a year as a gardener and facilitator at Embercombe, a stay-in-yurts-and-sit-by-fires-and-find-your-purpose kind of place in Devon. Away from the stuff of modern life, he noticed strong differences in his available energy at different times, although his sleep, diet and activities were consistent. After a while he began to notice cycles in his energy, and a correlation with the cycles of the moon: that his energy would rise as the moon waxed towards fullness, and wane when it waned.

      That might sound like something from the wacky bucket but perhaps that feeling is a symptom of the masculine slant in the ideosphere. I bleed each month on the full moon. For women it is obvious that at least one of the natural cycles of our bodies is pitched to the rhythm of the moon.

      So I had a google at breakfast and found this from the very helpful teachers at Woodlands Junior School in Kent.

      So last week, sleep-and-eat-and-drown-in-coffee in an unsuccessful attempt to prop up waning energy week, the moon was waning to a close.

      This week it's beginning to wax so energy should be picking up! I don't see that yet. But I'm starting to feel it writing this :)

      So my question now is, if this is one of the natural rhythms we may experience, what do we do with that?

      An obvious answer would be to just do less when our energy wanes and do more when it waxes. Which is tricky in practice because professional deadlines and social calendars are not pitched to the lunar cycle and sometimes you just have to push on.

      But just maybe they increasingly could be. No-one notices, for example, what time I arrive and leave work; the emphasis is on me meeting my targets not which hours I meet them in, and my irregularity is expected and predictable. So I do have some flexibility to do more when I 'wax' and less when I 'wane.'


      I'm going to keep an eye on this one....

      Friday, 14 January 2011

      The Project


      I like this blog.

      I like all the comments from friends and strangers.

      I haven't written in it for a while.

      I have been Getting Practical.

      A project team has amassed. They are lovely and it feels precious and beautiful.

      We are (probably) going to Buy Land and Do Stuff.

      Every three months or thearabouts we have an open meeting where anyone can come and that's currently the way that new people get involved. I guess the next one would be sometime in February or March.

      Although that might be developing because I think we're going to start a DIY Church

      yes a CHURCH

      where you can be anything from a devout Jew to an athiest

      and still come along and play

      I think we're going to make up our own sermons

      or something.


      About this project.

      We had a couple of days of visioning.

      We came up with these key ideas / principles in popularity order:

      1. A SPIRE! (14)
      2. Personal growth and development (13)
      3. Elemental living and a healthy relationship with nature (13)
      4. Personal autonomy (11)
      5. Creativity / emergence (improvisation / process oriented) (9)
      6. In all our dealings we aim to embody: honesty, tolerance, openness, respect, and something else I can't read (8)
      7. Resilience, self-provision, sustainability (8)
      8. Collective joy (7)
      9. Collaboration and mutual support (7)
      10. Inreach and outreach (6)
      11. Enduring relationship with place (6)
      12. Collective purpose and endeavour (6)
      13. Concentric circles of belonging / variety of relationships (5)
      14. Play (2)

      We don't have a website or anything yet.