This post originally appeared on thargy.com.
Anyone who has visited me at work has probably had the pleasure of meeting our two favourite volunteers, Bea and Bo. I say “volunteers” as we recently converted to a Living Wage employer, so we no longer consider them part of the staff!
In the UK, dogs are legally considered as property, and as such, I legally own my dogs (see the Theft Act 1968 clause 4 (4) in case you’re wondering).
Ownership is a word that is banded about a lot, it’s all about rights, and in many cases, exclusive rights. It’s about what an owner is allowed to do with their property. It’s not about what rights that property has. As a concept, ownership sits at the very foundation of our capitalist society.
However, if you’re a pet owner like me, you hopefully don’t feel much like an owner, after all owning a pet is a huge responsibility. Walking dogs, feeding them, taking them to the vet, is an exhausting job – particularly when they bark at 2AM to let you know they’re still on watch. As I write, Bo is making it quite clear that she expects to go play in the garden at work. You do such things, and many more, because you care about your pets, they matter, you love them. I’m their steward. Stewardship is “the responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving”.
As I mentioned in my last post, I recently gained 100% ownership of Web Applications UK. Legally, it became my company exclusively. Just like Bea and Bo though, it came with a considerable burden of responsibility (for example, see the Companies Act 2006). It’s a responsibility I carry because I care about it, it matters, I love it. Sadly though, I see too many cases where companies are just a resource to be exploited. Not all dog owners are good dog stewards, but, in my experience, far fewer company owners are good stewards.
Social media and the news outlets rightly explode in anger when they see a dog being mistreated. However, when a business owner rips the heart out of his own business, through greed, that’s expected. After all, are not companies there to serve their masters, isn’t that how to get ahead? Should we care about the impact on the employees, the customers, or the wider community?
There’s an exception to the pervasive nature of ownership – you can’t own people. On 26 July 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act had its third reading in the House of Commons. William Wilberforce died 3 days later, having waged a successful 46-year war against slavery, horrified at the “greed and avarice of the owners”. We should never be surprised when focussing on what we can take, on our exclusive rights, leads to such greed.
For many pet owners, they consider their pets to be like children. As can be seen, the law currently sees it differently. You don’t own your children. Like Wilberforce, I think that’s an excellent thing; and so, just because I legally own Bea and Bo, I don’t consider myself their owner. As far as my company goes, it shouldn’t be surprising I feel precisely the same way. Web Applications UK is not mine, it’s ours. I’m not really giving it away, it was never mine to give – regardless of what the law says on the matter. If you believe, as I do, that a Company is, at its core, a group of people, it begs an important question. Why can we own a Company? After all, has the ownership of Companies really been a net positive for our society?
We can’t all be Wilberforce – I certainly can’t compare my underwhelming achievements to date with his. I’m unlikely to abolish pet ownership and the idea that I could eliminate company ownership appears laughable. People laughed at Wilberforce though, and like him, I am “too young to realize that certain things are impossible… So [I] will do them anyway”. Children prove that ownership is an unnecessary pre-requisite to success. Indeed, ownership is more frequently an obstacle. I believe a focus on Stewardship over Ownership is a good thing, and though it’s not easy, putting Stewardship at the heart of companies is a worthwhile mission.
It’s evident in the creation of Employee Ownership Trusts that the government is starting to grapple with that same avarice and greed that Wilberforce fought. In fact, the structures I’m in the process of creating to gift my company to are based firmly on EOTs as a vital step forward. I’m just not convinced that the solution is more ownership. That’s why I’m fighting to create a new form of EOT called an Employee Stewardship Trust. Maybe, by changing the emphasis, one day, we can abolish corporate slavery too.