Oligarchy rules the United States: the republic has been ransacked, its commonwealth privatised, and rentierism runs amok. The richest 10% of Americans capture an estimated 97% of all capital income – including capital gains, corporate dividends and interest payments. Since the financial crisis of 2008, almost half of all new income generated in the US has gone to the top 1%. The three wealthiest people in the US now own more wealth than the bottom 160 million Americans. And the richest family in America – the Walton family, which inherited about half of Walmart’s stock – owns more wealth than the bottom 42% of the American people.
The case for bold action is clear and overwhelming. Only a deep reconstruction of economic and political rights can challenge oligarchic power and halt runaway environmental breakdown. Fortunately, Bernie Sanders has just announced a new plan that matches the scale of the crisis.
His announcement on Monday of the corporate accountability and democracy plan is the latest and boldest proposal for economic democracy in America to emerge from the Democratic presidential race. At its core, it seeks to democratise the company by redistributing economic and political rights within the firm away from external shareholders and executive management toward the workforce as a collective. This is about redistributing wealth and income, but critically, it is also about redistributing power and control. Democratising the company would transform it from an engine of wealth extraction and oligarchic power toward a genuinely purposeful, egalitarian institution, one where workers would have a collective stake and say in how their company operates, and would share in the wealth they create together.
The Sanders plan would transform and democratise economic and political rights by fundamentally rewiring ownership and control of corporate America. Companies would be required to share corporate wealth with their workers, transferring up to 20% of total stock over a decade to democratic employee ownership funds. The monopoly on voting rights that private external shareholders and their financial intermediaries have benefited from would be ended; employees would be guaranteed the right to vote on corporate decision-making at work, and have a voice in setting their pay, regardless of the kind or size of company or firm they work for. Corporate boards would be democratised, with at least 45% of the board of directors in any large corporation directly elected by the firm’s workers. And the outrageous power of asset management – whose actions have done so much to accelerate the climate crisis by continuing to invest heavily in fossil fuel companies – would be ended. Asset managers would be banned from voting on other people’s money – the collective savings of millions of ordinary workers – unless following clear instructions from the savers.
Taken as a whole, Sanders’s plan would radically re-engineer how the company is controlled and for whom. The echoes with Labour’s agenda for democratising economic power is obvious, particularly John McDonnell’s inclusive ownership fund proposal, and further evidence of an increasingly fertile transatlantic pollination of ideas and practice, from the Green New Deal to movement building. Common Wealth, the thinktank that I am the director of, is another example of this, committed to designing ownership models for the democratic economy on both sides of the Atlantic. In this, at least, there is much to learn from the right; Anglo-American conservatism and the new right have long shared intellectual and organisational resources and common aims, from the incubation of neoliberalism, to current salivations over a disaster capitalism-style US-UK trade deal. It is time progressives did the same.
An emphasis on reimagining ownership and governance is a vital step forward. We face two deep crises – environmental breakdown and stark inequalities of status and reward – both sharing a common cause: the deep, undemocratic concentration of power in our economy. Working people lack a meaningful stake and a say in their firm. Corporate voting rights are near-monopolised by a web of extractive financial institutions. The needs of finance are privileged over the interests of labour and nature. Tinkering won’t address this deep imbalance in power. To build an economy that is democratic and sustainable by design, we need to transform how the company operates and for whom.
For the left, remaking corporations must be at the heart of a radical agenda. The company is an extraordinary social institution, an immense engine for coordinating production based on a complex web of relationships. The critical question is who controls how it operates and who has a claim on its surplus. Today, the answer is a combination of shareholders, institutional investors and executive management; the company has been captured by finance and extractive economic practices, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The company – and the distribution of rights within it – are neither natural nor unchangeable. There is nothing inevitable about the existing, sharply unequal distributions of power and reward within them. The company is a social institution, its rights and privileges publicly defined. We can organise it differently: through social control, not private dominion, via democracy, not oligarchy. Sanders’s announcement is an important step toward that democratisation, and the deeper economic reconstruction that both people and planet deserve.
• Mathew Lawrence is director of the thinktank Common Wealth