Property Values

Creating more owners doesn’t make for collective ownership

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In a June 17, 2004, address to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, U.S. President George W. Bush laid out the economic vision for his second term: “You and I know this, that if you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of our country. The more ownership there is in America, the more vitality there is in America, and the more people have a vital stake in the future of this country.”

These words summed up the slogan that was supposed to define his legacy: “the ownership society.” With a range of policies across housing, health care, welfare, and finance, the goal was to increase the proportion of asset holders in the U.S. population, with a particular emphasis on homeownership. This scheme, as Naomi Klein argues in this 2008 essay, was straight out of the conservative politico-economic playbook. By encouraging private asset ownership, Bush and his allies hoped to promote a model of the citizen as self-reliant speculator, taking charge of their future by optimizing risk and reward across a personal asset portfolio. This, they believed, would not only result in a smaller state and a more dynamic private sector but also create a new generation of Republican voters, just as Margaret Thatcher had grown her electoral base by privatizing large swathes of the UK’s public housing stock in the 1980s.

Ownership ideology frames a citizen’s rights as realized not in relation to the state or their community, but through the market

Bush’s stated aim was to raise American homeownership to unprecedented heights, including the creation of 5.5 million new minority proprietors. Since he was obviously not about to countenance any kind of redistributive state intervention, this ambition was only ever going to be achieved through debt. From early in his first term, Bush exhorted builders, real estate agents, and mortgage lenders to “dismantle barriers and create greater opportunities for homeownership.” Simultaneously, lenders began to accelerate the practice of offering low-rate teaser mortgages to high-risk borrowers. These “subprime” mortgages were bundled into complex financial instruments, which became the object of highly leveraged speculation among investment banks, setting the fuse for the global financial crisis of 2008.

In Anglo-American society, the homeowner has long been presented as an ideal capitalist subject, equally a dutiful provider and a prudent investor. Owning your home promises security, autonomy and prosperity; the availability of these qualities on the housing market compensates for their lack elsewhere. Instead of economic redistribution, everyone who can afford the initial stake can try to build wealth by owning property; in lieu of an authentically democratic polity, we can express our social and economic preferences through investment decisions. Ownership ideology frames a world in which the rights of the citizen are realized not in relation to the state or their community, but through the market.

For the Bush administration, this ideology was not merely an end in itself, but a way to incentivize consumers to engage with a predatory financial system, presenting adjustable-rate mortgages not just as leg-up onto the property ladder but a way to rapidly build household wealth. Buyers were lured into a labyrinth of financialized debt, yielding a constant stream of junk assets to feed Wall Street’s desire for ever more extravagant margins. For the millions who faced foreclosure in the aftermath of the crash, proprietorship turned out not to mean stability and independence, but penury and dispossession.

Thirteen years on from the end of the Bush regime, the “ownership society” feels more than ever like a sick joke. A significant portion of U.S. housing stock is currently owned by institutional investors, whilst for minorities and millennials of all ethnic backgrounds, homeownership remains a pipe dream. Meanwhile, the effects of long-term housing inequality have been aggravated by the pandemic, leading to a new wave of evictions. Asset ownership in the U.S. is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 10 percent; globally the picture is even more grim. The “ownership society” leveraged a popular desire for economic independence into a confidence scam carried out on behalf of the financial elite.

This is essential context for understanding the emergence of Bitcoin and the expanded universe of crypto-schemes. As political theorist Stefan Eich, among others, has argued, Bitcoin is explicitly a post-crash phenomenon, animated by the fantasy of a digital money whose value would be insulated from the state and financial institutions that so catastrophically mismanaged the 2008 crisis. Notoriously, Satoshi Nakamoto’s inaugural entry on the Bitcoin blockchain contains a reference to the January 3, 2009, headline of the Times newspaper, which announced that the UK Chancellor was considering a second bailout of the nation’s ailing banks. This crypto Easter egg signals the core preoccupations of Bitcoin’s mysterious founder and its libertarian early adopters — finding a way of protecting their money from the inflationary activities of government and developing a system of digital property rights that exists outside institutional systems of authority and trust.

More recently, this cyber-Hayekian vision has been displaced by alternative blockchain futurisms designed to appeal to a less fanatical constituency. Currently, the most hyped of these is “Web3,” which promises to replace the rentier monopolies of Amazon and Facebook with decentralized networks of open-source applications, built on a foundation of blockchain and crypto. This is a timely proposition. Pandemic conditions have only re-emphasized the baleful grip these corporations hold over our lives. The desire for a more egalitarian alternative to Web 2.0 chimes with the growing prominence of platform cooperativism as well as with the wider movement for workplace democracy and worker ownership.

The trajectory of a great many NFT projects suggests that cryptoeconomics is better at incentivizing boosterism than long-term work

In terms of rhetoric and branding, the ceaselessly upbeat, community-focused Web3 discourse couldn’t be more different from the right-wing accelerationism that underpinned the original Bitcoin movement. Venture capitalists Jesse Walden and Li Jin have touted an “ownership economy” that uses the affordances of blockchain technologies — decentralization, composability, permissionless-ness and so on — to reorganize the digital economy away from centralized platforms and toward quasi co-ops run by users, creators and developers, who share both decision-making responsibility and profits. In this new world, creators will be empowered to “own the means of production and distribution,” producing a new politico-economic settlement in which capital and labor are “one and the same.”

From the “ownership society” to the “ownership economy” — the echo is suggestive. To its advocates, Web3 is the solution to rentier monopolies, mass precarity and the whole necrotic legacy of the Bush years. And yet, at the heart of both visions is the same belief that “democratized” access to financialized asset markets will make for a fairer economic order. Is it really true that this time we’ll be able to own our way to utopia?

The Web3 pitch demands that we accept a transformed understanding of how ownership works in conjunction with digital spaces, at the levels of what kinds of digital objects can be owned, who can own them and how ownership can be organized. The discourse around NFTs focuses primarily on the first of these three questions. The biggest NFT projects — profile-pic collections like Bored Ape Yacht Club — assert that an otherwise extremely fungible object like a cartoon of a stoned ape is in fact an item of personal property, recorded on an “immutable” public database and stored in its owner’s digital “wallet.” Where previously there was an undifferentiated stream of content, now there is a universe of discrete objects that can be held, bought, and sold.

The model of ownership articulated by NFTs is, however, extremely minimalist. The tokens do not in themselves confer any legal rights to the item they reference, as some hasty buyers have found out to their cost. Without supplementary agreements to transfer copyright or other privileges, all that an NFT guarantees is tradability on an online marketplace. In this sense they are objects that exist entirely on and for the market, voided of all other qualities except the financial.

It is therefore no coincidence that the most popular NFTs are so visually banal. They are intended in part to instruct their buyers in the pleasures of property in the raw, unencumbered by use, beauty, or any of the other messy particularities that tend to adhere to actual things. With Pavlovian economy, the experience of ownership is pared back to the fetishistic pleasure of calling a thing “mine” and the gut-churning thrill of watching the market value and revalue it.

Crypto boosters thus claim to have invented a new form of property, one that, unlike conventional assets and securities, is available to anybody with an internet connection, a crypto wallet, and a small amount of startup capital. As Ali Breland explains in a recent article for Mother Jones, in a world where “most of us do not own shit,” this accessibility is fundamental to crypto’s wider appeal. For people used to being trapped in the vicious circle of work, rent, and debt, hodl-ing cryptocoins or trading NFTs can seem like a good bet, offering the opportunity to play a game where — if your wits are sharp and you hustle hard — you may get to take control of your own financial destiny. This is a new model of ownership ideology, fitted to the times we’re living in. Doing away with the mediating symbolism of home and family, it promises wealth and independence to those with the nerve to jack directly in to the market.

At scale, this new financial inclusion scheme appears to be reproducing many of the inequities of the old. According to a 2021 Financial Times report, while 75 percent of trades on the Ethereum NFT market are small transactions under $10,000, 80 percent of the overall wealth is controlled by 9 percent of wallets. So far, most buyers are down on their initial investment, while the real money is being made by the “whales” whose portfolios contain a diversified spread of NFTs on top of large reserves of cryptocurrency, granting them extensive power over the shape of the market as well as greater leeway to engage in fraudulent practices like wash trading. Just like the run-up to 2008, the stakes of small players are fuel for the accumulation strategies of an elite cartel.

This system of speculative mayhem may not seem like a promising ground on which to build a new user-owned internet, but according to its advocates, Web3 is currently inventing the cure for its own maladies. This is, at any rate, the idealist’s rationale for DAOs, online organizations that use cryptotech to help their members create, acquire, and manage shared digital assets. One of the proposed virtues of DAOs is to ameliorate the structural inequalities of markets by allowing small investors to pool their resources and compete with the whales on an even footing — a theory whose most prominent public test case was an ill-fated attempt to buy an early copy of the U.S. Constitution. On a deeper level, however, DAOs are supposed to offer a new model for collective ownership that will allow user-owned enterprises to flourish on an unprecedented scale.

As a framework for the collective ownership and governance of productive enterprises, cooperativism has a long and distinguished global history. By adhering to a clear and simple set of principles, co-ops have provided public goods where private enterprise and the state have failed, delivered services to marginalized communities, upheld workers’ rights and protected the environment. The movement for platform cooperativism has sought to apply these methods within the digital economy, an effort that has been spearheaded by delivery riders and taxi drivers setting up worker-owned apps to rival corporate gig economy giants like Uber or Deliveroo. It’s increasingly common for advocates to pitch Web3 as a complement to the co-op movement, arguing that the former can provide a degree of scalability and quick access to capital that co-ops have traditionally struggle to achieve.

It may be that the DAO model has something to offer the movement for platform cooperativism, providing a space for testing new tools for mobilizing group action in digital spaces. However, crypto and blockchain tech also pose a profound risk for anyone hoping to construct genuinely egalitarian digital communities. These dangers are baked into the organizational ideology which underpins the Web3 vision: “cryptoeconomics,” an emerging interdisciplinary field that proposes that crypto and blockchain technologies can coordinate the self-interested behavior of individual investors through systems of economic incentives. In practice, this amounts to the issuance of “governance tokens” that signify membership in a DAO, as well as conferring entitlements like access to private discussion groups, voting rights, and a share of any revenue. In many cases, these tokens are also tradeable on the open market. The more successful the DAO is at its stated goal, the logic goes, the greater the market value of the token, the more potential gains for the token holder — an “alignment of incentives” that supposedly encourages token holders to commit themselves to the long-term flourishing of their decentralized community.

In the decade preceding 2008, democratized access to asset ownership proved to be a sham, used to lure people into predatory debt markets

But the big lie of capitalism’s propertarian ideology has always been that it is possible to democratize the privileges of ownership without addressing the politico-economic structures through which social inequality is reproduced. Cryptoeconomics claims to solve this dilemma by offering a new set of tools for coordinating our enlightened self-interest (that old familiar capitalist saw), allowing us to create shared wealth and provide public goods simply by pursuing the imperative of private accumulation. However, it only accomplishes this wonder by subsuming all motivations and interests to a purely economic calculus and depoliticizing the problem of ownership by disassociating it from the questions of justice, violence, and inequality that ultimately dictate who gets to own what in capitalist society.

In practice, the construction of a DAO inevitably requires balancing cryptoeconomic incentive structures with a dose of good-old-fashioned centralized governance. This is necessary both for practical (market-based consensus being not in fact a very efficient way to run a startup) and idealistic reasons. Ultimately, if you want your DAO to serve a non-economic goal such as fighting climate change or supporting the work of an artistic collective, cryptoeconomic mechanisms would have to be (to quote an influential paper by the theorist Nathan Schneider) “enveloped … within a logic of politics capable of seeing beyond economic metrics for human flourishing and the common good.” This might mean establishing a governing board with veto powers, or ensuring that tokens remain exclusively in the hands of a trusted core.

To some degree, all Web3 projects exist in this gray zone between cryptoeconomics and more traditional forms of organization. This may prove to be an interesting design space for designing cooperative ownership models which resist the exploitative hierarchies of Web 2.0. Web3 discourse is rife with experimental proposals for protocol design, which could theoretically be used to automatically ensure that tokens are distributed evenly within a community, or to impose transparent governance standards on accredited DAOs. However, while this state of ambiguity may be productive for communities of ambitious programmers, it’s also fertile ground for cynics and grifters. At the heart of cryptoeconomics is the promise to resolve the tension between two distinct models of ownership — on the one hand, as the privilege of the self-interested individual, and on the other, as a model for the communal governance of shared goods. In practice, an ambiguous mishmash of cryptoeconomic and “off-chain” governance strategies can result in these two ownership models being conflated, creating systems which promise to create communal wealth while delivering hierarchies as cruel and exploitative as anything you’ll find on Web 2.0 or in general.

Fundamentally, the trajectory of a great many NFT projects suggests that, since the quickest and easiest way to raise the value of your token will always be to convince new investors to buy in, cryptoeconomics is better at incentivizing boosterism than the long-term work of building an app, still less a community. This is precisely what we’ve seen in the case of SpiceDAO’s recent acquisition of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s treatment for his unrealized Dune movie. This episode is indicative, not because it demonstrates that SpiceDAO “doesn’t understand copyright” but because it shows that attempting to purchase a set of legal rights that might actually allow you to do something is far less appealing than a flashy publicity stunt that will attract a new wave of investors.

Thirteen years on from the end of the Bush regime, the “ownership society” feels even more like a sick joke

Contrast this with the activities of established IP holders, who are moving into the NFT space, drawn by the possibility of turning old images and logos into a low-effort profit. The most egregious examples of such projects are app-based marketplaces where popular brands partner with startups to sell digital collectibles, like the NBA’s Top Shots (which sells basketball highlights) or VeVe (indescribably crappy digital figurines of characters from the likes of Marvel, Disney, and DC). Top Shots and VeVe have exploited the ownership expectations created by NFT culture to impose extremely restrictive terms and conditions on their users, violation of which can result in their license being revoked without compensation. Buyers’ rights are limited to displaying and reselling their purchases, while the platform and IP holders take a cut of every transaction. Both apps launched without users having the ability to cash out, effectively trapping their money in the marketplace while the apps’ features were built up around them. Here, the rhetoric and technology of Web3 have been redeployed to reinscribe capitalist property relations in the most literal form imaginable.

On VeVe, the sometimes restive community of buyers is kept in line with extravagant promises, ranging from new licensing deals to the creation of the “VeVeverse,” often envisioned as a Ready Player One–style metaverse populated with all your favorite corporate IP. For the VeVe hardcore, this promised future is not just one in which the value of their assets will finally go to the moon; it’s where they themselves will finally become proprietors and rentiers, charging others to view or borrow their properties. Driven by their desperate attachment to this fantasy, these investors undertake all the work of hype generation we see in other NFT communities, except in this case on behalf of corporate IP monopolists rather than a crypto startup. Essentially, VeVe users are paying Disney for the privilege of being their digital-marketing flash mob.

In the VeVe vision of Web3, we see what happens when cryptoeconomic ideology intersects with the legal structures that actually determine who owns what in our cultural economy. The fact that Top Shots and VeVe so cheerfully dispense with many of crypto’s technical trappings is itself proof of how easy it is to detach the rhetoric from its ostensible basis in cryptographic technology. In this version of our digital future, we’re all paying rents to gain access to a speculator’s sandbox, filling our wallets with “property” that confers no real rights but functions as free ad space for its true owners. Our sole entitlement — to buy and sell — is policed by punitive terms and conditions and platform lock-in. Startups and IP holders squat atop this pyramid, squeezing users for their cash while whipping up their enthusiasm for the next tranche of zombie content ready to roll onto the blockchain.

The 2008 crash was a crisis for the concept of ownership in capitalist society. In the preceding decade, democratized access to asset ownership was supposed to offer security and independence to lower-income citizens but proved instead to be a sham, used to lure them into predatory debt markets. As economist Adam Tooze has argued in a slightly different context, crypto has prospered over the past 10 years as a “morbid symptom” of neoliberalism’s failure to reckon with the legacies of this calamity.

It’s clear that part of the answer to our current crisis must be the development of forms of collective governance and worker ownership. Indeed, the developing tradition of platform cooperativism provides many examples as to how these structures may be organized. Web3 is being presented in part as a complement to this movement, but whatever promising ideas it may contain are being carried toward us on a wave of hype, speculation, and fraud. We need conceptual frameworks to help orient us in this frenzied environment; taking a critical attitude to the models of ownership being proposed and operationalized in the Web3 space would be a good place to start.

Far from “solving” the ills of the “ownership society,” Bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies recapitulate them in intensified form, doing away with the cumbersome business of homes and mortgages and offering us the chance to roll our own bones in the financial casino rather than having a banker do it on our behalf. Web3 promises to ameliorate the cruelty of the crypto universe by using its tools to create communal forms of digital property, but insofar as its systems depend on crypto’s speculative architecture, it risks peddling the dangerous fantasy of an economy in which we all get to be owners but nobody gets owned. We all know how that worked out last time.

Richard Woodall is a writer and researcher based in Sheffield, England. His interests include the history and politics of visual technologies, as well as the analysis and critique of digital capitalism.