Session 5: Dig Deeper - Ownership, Democracy, Public Enterprise

Workshop Goals

  • To understand the historical role of ownership in the distribution of wealth and how this plays out today where earned income has also had a strong role.
  • To understand how US democracy has been corrupted, especially by big money. Ways to restore democracy.
  • To understand the options, but also limitations, of more distributed and accountable ownership, including cooperatives, non-profits, and public enterprises.


(90 min total)

5 min Welcome and Chalice Lighting

20 min Ownership and Inequality

25 min Democracy for Sale

5 min: Break

30 min Public Enterprise or Accountability

5 min Debrief and Closing

Prior Readings

Have each participant pick out a selection of these readings so that key areas get covered.

  • Historical Ownership, Money, and Inequality:   Barter, pp. 29,37, Money & Taxes, pp. 46-50, Primitive Currencies, p. 60, Money & War & Slaves & Inequality, pp. 85-87, Debt & Middle Class Morality, pp. 120-124, Markets, States, War, & Religion, pp. 248-250, from Debt – The First 5000 Years by David Graeber.
  • Democracy for Sale:  Money vs Money (4-10), Voter Turnout (11-17), Rise of Democratization (23-28), From Democracy to Dollarocracy (29-34), Big Money in 2012 –federal (35-46) - State (47-53) - Other (54-59), Media & Money (129-160), Reform Agenda (271-277), from Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America by John Nichols and Robert McChesney.
  • Cooperatives and Public Enterprise:  Failure of Traditional Politics (17-21), From Shut Down to Worker Ownership  (28-31), From Coops to ESOPs (35-42), Public Investment in Business (52-53), Government Owned Business (58-64), A Checkerboard Strategy (69-71), Take Over Big Banks (80-81), Medicare for All (84-85), Airlines (107), Growth (108), Options for Change (131-136), Radical Change (140-142), from What Then Must We Do – Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution by Gar Alperovitz.
  • Website -The American Anti-Corruption Act
  • Website - Guide to Citizens United
  • Website - Constitutional Amendments to Overturn Citizens United
  • Article - McCutcheon Decision
  • Article - Voter Suppression
  • Article - Gerrymandered Districts
  • The 12 minute video of Hughes on the Sharing Economy
  • The 7 minute video on Growth & Debt vs Sustainability
  • The 18 minute video of Lessig on Election Financing


Welcome and Chalice Lighting (5 min):  

    “The greatest country, the richest country, is not that which has the most capitalists, monopolists, immense grabbings, vast fortunes, with its sad, sad soil of extreme, degrading, damning poverty, but the land in which there are the most homesteads, freeholds — where wealth does not show such contrasts high and low, where all men have enough — a modest living— and no man is made possessor beyond the sane and beautiful necessities.” – Walt Whitman.  Optional in depth participant story.

Ownership and Inequality (20 min): How did ownership of land and other assets first develop in ancient tribes or kingdoms? What kinds of conflicts and inequality emerged and what were the social and economic consequences? As civilization advanced, how was debt used to create and perpetuate inequality, and what have been the religious, social, and political responses? Consider usury, debt forgiveness, bankruptcy, and debt-free relationships and obligations.

    Describe the large variety of ownership situations in modern societies, of both real and financial property. Besides individual ownership of property, consider share ownership of corporations, membership or worker ownership of cooperatives, government enterprises and property, and concepts such as public access with or without fees.

     Is an “ownership society” feasible and what might it look like? How would the poor or disenfranchised also receive some portion of the commonwealth? How could society prevent the loss of basic ownership rights via debts, especially in predatory situations? 

Democracy for Sale (25 min):  What does modern day political corruption look like compared to old fashioned bribery? Consider not just campaign financing and advertising, but lobbying, the revolving door, regulatory capture, speaking fees, and “access”. How have the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions further corrupted democracy?  How do gerrymandering, voter suppression, the disenfranchisement of felons, and mishandling of ballots fit in? What about the decline of professional journalism and the concentration of media ownership?

    How can all these problems be fixed, either by political pressure, legislation, or constitutional amendment? What are the roles of the fictitious legal concepts of corporate personhood and money as speech? How could voter turnout be increased, not decreased? How could we achieve public financing of campaigns? Would different methods of voting such as for multiparty elections help?  How about ideas like “wisdom councils”, or payment for voting or participation in community deliberations, or other innovative methods of participatory democracy?

Break (5 min).  Another optional in depth participant story.

Public Enterprise and Accountability (30 min): How have cooperatives shaped the American economy? Are they inherently limited in what they can do, or are they being artificially limited by a corporate dominated legal and financial system?  Does employee ownership provide sufficient public accountability?

    Do non-profits automatically have sufficient public accountability? Or is this also subject to abuse, such as by the National Football League or certain political groups in disguise? Are there remedies?

    Are “public-private partnerships” a solution or a problem?

     Describe the variety of government enterprises from local to national. How have they been structured to prevent “political influence” such as patronage? Many countries have partial or full public ownership of key industries or entities, such as banks, railroads, airlines. Should the US consider this? Or should employee or public representatives be mandated on the boards of all large corporations, as in Germany? Should there be international accountability of transnational corporations, or other forms of public accountability?

Debrief and Closing (5 min)

     “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.”- Honore de Balzac


Topical Outline

Ownership and Inequality

  • Ownership as the historical origin of wealth. The role of debt in concentrating ownership.
  • Corporate or aristocratic ownership versus various forms of distributed ownership.
  • Is an “ownership society” the solution, or even feasible?

Democracy for Sale

  • Escalating money in politics. Citizens United, McCutcheon. Money as speech, corporate personhood.
  • Gerrymandering, voter suppression and disenfranchisement, and other ways to rig the system.
  • Fixes:  Media & voting & campaign finance legislative and constitutional reform, different voting methods, participatory democracy

Public Enterprise and Accountability

  • Cooperatives
  • Non-profits
  • Government owned enterprises


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