Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Meaningful Work"
An exchange on the viewpoint The Struggle for Meaningful Work

Marjorie Kelly

The topic that Klitgaard tackles is a vital one, too often neglected, and critical to the building of the next system. Because our current extractive economic system is designed to produce maximum gains for capital owners, it systematically extracts from workers wherever and however it can (in addition to extracting from the environment and the community). To counter this, meaningful work provides one of the foundational principles guiding us toward a profoundly different kind of economy.

The issue of ownership of enterprise is critical to whose interests the system serves. Property ownership has always been a defining characteristic of every economic system: aristocratic ownership of land under the monarchy, state ownership of property under communism, ownership of corporations by the robber barons and railroad kings in early stage capitalism, and ownership by a financial elite in today's financialized version of capitalism. Ownership and control of property is a crucial dimension of the future of work. Worker ownership of enterprise is one aspect of this. Ownership of the commons by community is another aspect. Municipal or state ownership of electricity infrastructure, or other sectoral forms, is yet another form of democratized ownership. Nonprofit ownership and social enterprises are still another type. All of these, as a whole, represent “democratized property ownership,” which we might place alongside “meaningful work” as foundational principles that work together toward a healthy economy.

A key reason these two principles work together is that ownership/control determines whose viewpoint will be represented. If capital is in control, it tends to view enterprise solely as a piece of property. The real life of such a system is external to enterprise; the capital owners are the ones who matter, because they are the only ones with voice and with legal rights of extraction. Convenience of investment, including selling and liquidating enterprises themselves, takes precedence over the daily life of the firm. By contrast, worker ownership/control allows an enterprise—and its workers—to have control over their own destiny. Ownership and control in the economy is similar to having a vote in the polity. It is a form of economic sovereignty, a form of basic power. Without it, one is subject to the whims of others.

When an enterprise is controlled by the humans who constitute its daily life, it becomes a living system—not a dead piece of property whose only life is the numbers that can be extracted from it. A living system—in this case, a community—is a far more enlivening place to work. Designed well, run well, an enterprise can take as one of its purposes the full flourishing of its members, workers. To reimagine the workplace as a place not only for creating goods and services, but as a place for helping people toward fulfillment of their full selves—that is a key piece of the emerging vision of a next economy.

Marjorie Kelly
Marjorie Kelly is a Senior Fellow and Executive Vice President at the Democracy Collaborative and an Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute. She is the author of Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution.

Cite as Marjorie Kelly, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Meaningful Work," Great Transition Initiative (February 2017),

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