Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Civic Ownership ????

Posted Jun 30, 2012 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

So you get on a bus and it takes you into the city.  You get off the bus and look around.  A question comes to mind:  “Who owns this place?”

What kind of mind would entertain such a question?  It must be one that is embedded in a language of ownership and property relations.  You can assume it is an Anglo-American mind, shaped by the long legacy of John Locke and Adam Smith that placed the ownership of property, even one’s self as property, as the foundation of freedom. 

There are other minds, of course, that would ask other questions, or at least would never ask the question about who owns a city.  It just would not come to mind.

If you look at the buildings on the streets, they are probably owned by “landlords.”  These are people who are lords over the land.  It turns out that this name from the middle ages causes more confusion than enlightenment.  The ownership of these buildings depends on possession of a title issued by a legal entity.  These are civic titles, but feudal entitlements.  So you can find out who owns any building by visiting city hall and checking it out.  Still, buildings do not make a city, so reviewing city documents will not answer our question.

The fact is that the question is not a good question.  A city is not for sale.  No one owns it.  It is not founded on property relations, but on civic relations.  That means that the city belongs to its members, or we could also say that civic members belong to the city.

Here is another question one can ask after getting off the bus:  “How can I participate in this city?’  This question also depends on a certain kind of mind.  A mind that assumes a world of communities with interesting patterns of interaction, and that participation in these communities can be fascinating.  Such a person finds meaning in experiencing the unfamiliar.

Both minds, in a sense, seek security through belonging.  The ownership mind wonders about what belongs to whom.  The participant mind wonders about who belongs to what.

There are some things that belong to me, and I have a legal title to own them.  One could see this as a form of “civic ownership.” The city itself, however, does not belong to this list.  The city belongs to its members, because they are members of the civic.  This is something the ownership mind may find baffling, but the participant mind finds quite understandable.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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