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What about the "Tragedy of the Commons"?

By "Anarchist Writers" - November 11, 2008

The term "Tragedy of the Commons" is a phrase which is used to describe why, according to some, commonly owned resources will be destructively overused. The term was first coined by Garret Hardin in December 1968. ["The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859, pp. 1243-1248] It quickly became popular with those arguing against any form of collective ownership or socialism and would be the basis for many arguments for privatisation.

Unsurprisingly, given its popularity with defenders of capitalism and neo-classical economists, Hardin's argument was a pure thought experiment with absolutely no empirical evidence to support it. He suggested a scenario in which commonly owned pasture was open to all local herdsmen to feed their cattle on. Hardin complemented this assumption with the standard ones of neo-classical economics, arguing that each herdsman would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons to maximise their income. This would result in overgrazing and environmental destruction as the cost of each feeding additional animals is shouldered by all who use the commons while the benefits accrue to the individual herdsman. However, what is individually rational becomes collectively irrational when each herdsman, acting in isolation, does the same thing. The net result of the individual's actions is the ending of the livelihood of every herdsman as the land becomes overused.

His article was used to justify both nationalisation and privatisation of communal resources (the former often a precursor for the latter). As state ownership fell out of favour, the lesson of this experiment in logic was as uniform as it was simple: only privatisation of common resources could ensure their efficient use and stop them being overused and destroyed. Coming as it did before the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1970s, Hardin's essay was much referenced by those seeking to privatise nationalised industries and eliminate communal institutions in tribal societies in the Third World. That these resulted in wealth being concentrated in a few hands should come as no surprise.

Needless to say, there are numerous problems with Hardin's analysis. Most fundamentally, it was a pure thought experiment and, as such, was not informed by historical or current practice. In other words, it did not reflect the reality of the commons as a social institution. The so-called "Tragedy of the Commons" was no such thing. It is actually an imposition of the "tragedy of the free-for-all" to communally owned resources (in this case, land). In reality, commons were never "free for all" resources and while the latter may see overuse and destruction the former managed to survive thousands of years. So, unfortunately for the supporters of private property who so regularly invoke the "Tragedy of the Commons", they simply show their ignorance of what true commons are. As socialist Allan Engler points out:

"Supporters of capitalism cite what they call the tragedy of the commons to explain the wanton plundering of forests, fish and waterways, but common property is not the problem. When property was held in common by tribes, clans and villages, people took no more than their share and respected the rights of others. They cared for common property and when necessary acted together to protect it against those who would damage it. Under capitalism, there is no common property. (Public property is a form of private property, property owned by the government as a corporate person.) Capitalism recognises only private property and free-for-all property. Nobody is responsible for free-for-all property until someone claims it as his own. He then has a right to do as he pleases with it, a right that is uniquely capitalist. Unlike common or personal property, capitalist property is not valued for itself or for its utility. It is valued for the revenue it produces for its owner. If the capitalist owner can maximise his revenue by liquidating it, he has the right to do that." [Apostles of Greed, pp. 58-59]

Therefore, as Colin Ward argues, "[l]ocal, popular, control is the surest way of avoiding the tragedy of the commons." [Reflected in Water, p. 20] Given that a social anarchist society is a communal, decentralised one, it will have little to fear from irrational overuse or abuse of communally owned and used resources.

Greening of the IWW: What Happens When We Win?

By Jess Grant - Industrial Worker (August 1989)

The time has come for the IWW to tackle head-on the question of post-industrial production, better known as “What do we do now that we won the General Strike?” We can no longer duck the issue by saying that workers’ committees will decide all that when the time comes. We must firmly put to rest the misconception that Wobblies are factory fetishists by taking a clear stand against the kinds of work that harm our planet or alienate us from our labor. Let us envision a world where the earth and our labor are honored equally.

Assuming that people are naturally inventive and enjoy contributing to their communities, and that people displaced from harmful industries will want to be retrained rather than put out to pasture, then we must find an answer to those who ask, “What will I do if my factory is shut down?” If millions of jobs are lost as the result of decommissioning harmful and unnecessary industries, then conversion to an ecological, self-managed economy will demand an imaginative program of apprenticeship and education.

Labor unions are simply the social manifestation of an instinctive solidarity found among working class people, and the IWW is no exception. Unions were born out of conflict and designed as instruments of class struggle, and from this clash they draw their meaning. But in the absence of struggle, when the boss class has been evicted and the workers are busy redesigning society, unionism becomes irrelevant. As “work” is replaced with “play”, the shell of unionism will wither away and leave in its place an intricate network of freely associating cooperatives. 

That venerable Wobbly institution called Father Hagerty’s Wheel of Fortune, in which the various branches of industry are laid out in diagrammatic detail like a pizza with too many extras, was never meant to describe post-revolutionary society.  It’s a handy guide for understanding how industry (as we know it under capitalism) is organized, and thus how to coordinate our own struggle, but it’s a lousy model for the future. Let’s try to imagine what the wheel would look like if we could depose the boss class and put our lives back in balance with nature.

Every person has a calling, some talent or passion for a particular activity that best expreses that individual. People seem happiest when they have the freedom to pursue that calling. A primary goal of self-managed production, then, is to create this freedom of action. Most callings fit into one of several basic archetypes. It’s these Jungian archetypes, weighted with the power of myth, which will form the basis of our new Wheel of De-Industry.

The Ecology of Freedom (Murray Bookchin)

From Murray Bookchin's introduction:

This book was written to satisfy the need for a consistently radical social ecology: an ecology of freedom. It had been maturing in my mind since 1952 when I first became acutely conscious of the growing environmental crisis that was to assume such monumental proportions a generation later. In that year, I published a volume-sized article, "The Problems of Chemicals in Food" (later be republished in book form in Germany as Lebensgefiihrliche Lebensmittel). Owing to my early Marxian intellectual training, the article examined not merely environmental pollution but also its deep-seated social origins. Environmental issues had developed in my mind as social issues, and problems of natural ecology had become problems of "social ecology"--an expression hardly in use at the time.

The subject was never to leave me. In fact, its dimensions were to widen and deepen immensely. By the early sixties, my views could be summarized in a fairly crisp formulation: the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human. For me, this was a far-reaching reversal of concepts. The many articles and books I published in the years after 1952, beginning with Our Synthetic Environment (1963) and continuing with Toward an Ecological Society (1980), were largely explorations of this fundamental theme. As one premise led to another, it became clear that a highly coherent project was forming in my work: the need to explain the emergence of social hierarchy and domination and to elucidate the means, sensibility, and practice that could yield a truly harmonious ecological society. My book Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971) pioneered this vision. Composed of essays dating from 1964, it addressed itself more to hierarchy than class, to domination rather than exploitation, to liberatory institutions rather than the mere abolition of the State, to freedom rather than justice, and pleasure rather than happiness. For me, these changing emphases were not mere countercultural rhetoric; they marked a sweeping departure from my earlier commitment to socialist orthodoxies of all forms. I visualized instead a new form of libertarian social ecology-or what Victor Ferkiss, in discussing my social views, so appropriately called "eco-anarchism."

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Post Scarcity Anarchism (Murray Bookchin)

By Murray Bookchin - Ramparts Press, 1971

This book is a collection of essays by Murray Bookchin, first published in 1971 by Ramparts Press. Bookchin outlines the possible form anarchism might take under conditions of post-scarcity. It is one of Bookchin's major works, and its radical thesis provoked controversy for being utopian in its faith in the liberatory potential of technology.

Bookchin's "post-scarcity anarchism" is an economic system based on social ecology, libertarian municipalism, and an abundance of fundamental resources. Bookchin argues that post-industrial societies are also post-scarcity societies, and can thus imagine "the fulfillment of the social and cultural potentialities latent in a technology of abundance". The self-administration of society is now made possible by technological advancement and, when technology is used in an ecologically sensitive manner, the revolutionary potential of society will be much changed.

Bookchin claims that the expanded production made possible by the technological advances of the twentieth century were in the pursuit of market profit and at the expense of the needs of humans and of ecological sustainability. The accumulation of capital can no longer be considered a prerequisite for liberation, and the notion that obstructions such as the state, social hierarchy, and vanguard political parties are necessary in the struggle for freedom of the working classes can be dispelled as a myth.

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Charter of the Forest

By King Henry III - 1217

Henry, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, reeves, ministers, and all his faithful men, greeting. Know that ... we have granted and by this present charter have confirmed, for us and our heirs forever, these liberties hereinunder written, to be held in our kingdom of England forever: —

1. In the first place, all the forests which Henry, our grandfather, afforested shall be visited by good and lawful men; and if he afforested any woodland other than that of his own demesne to the damage of him to whom the woodland belonged, let it be disafforested. And if he afforested his own proper woodland, let it remain forest, saving common of herbage and other things in the same forest to those who were accustomed to have them before.

2. Men dwelling outside the forest shall no longer, in consequence of a general summons, come before our justices of the forest, unless they are [involved] in a plea [of the forest] or are sureties of some person or persons who have been arrested for [offences against] the forest.

3. All forests, however, which were afforested by King Richard, our uncle, or by King John, our father, down to the time of our first coronation, shall at once be disafforested, excepting our own demesne woodland.

4. Archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, knights, and [other] freeholders, who have woodlands of theirs in the forests, shall have their woodlands as they had them at the time of the first coronation of the aforesaid King Henry, our grandfather; so that they shall forever be quit of all purprestures, wastes, and assarts made in those woodlands from that time down to the beginning of the second year of our coronation. And whoever henceforth makes any waste, purpresture, or assart in those [woods] without our licence shall be responsible for such wastes and assarts.

5. Our regardors shall go through the forests for making their regard as was customarily done in the time of the first coronation of the said Henry, our grandfather, and not otherwise.

6. The investigation or view of the lawing of dogs living within the forest shall henceforth be carried out whenever the regard should be made, namely, every three years; and then it should be made by the view and testimony of lawful men and not otherwise. And he whose dog is then found not to be lawed shall give as amercement 3s., and henceforth no ox shall be taken for [default of such] lawing. Moreover, the lawing shall be carried out by common assize as follows: three toes shall be cut off a forefoot without [injuring] the ball [of the foot]; nor shall dogs henceforth be lawed except in the places where they were customarily lawed at the time of the first coronation of King Henry, our grandfather.

7. No forester or beadle shall henceforth levy scotale, or collect sheaves or oats or any grain or lambs or pigs; nor shall he take up any kind of collection. And by the view and oath of twelve regardors, when they make their regard, as many foresters shall be appointed to keep the forests as reasonably appear sufficient for keeping them.

8. No swainmote shall henceforth be held in our kingdom oftener than three times a year: namely, at the beginning of the fortnight before the feast of St. Michael, when the agistors meet for the agistment of our demesne woodlands; and about the feast of St. Martin, when our agistors ought to receive our pannage — at which two swainmotes are to assemble the foresters, verderers, and agistors, but no one else by compulsion. And the third swainmote shall be held at the beginning of the fortnight before the feast of St. John the Baptist, for the fawning of our beasts; and for holding that swainmote the foresters and verderers shall assemble, but no others by compulsion. And the verderers and foresters shall also meet every forty days throughout the year to inspect attachments for [offences in] the forest concerning both vert and venison, through presentment by the same foresters and in the presence of those attached. The aforesaid swainmotes, however, are to be held only in the counties where they have been customarily held.

9. Every freeman shall at his own pleasure provide agistment for his woodland in the forest and have his pannage. We also grant that every freeman may freely and without interference drive his swine through our demesne woodland in order to agist them in his own woods or wherever else he pleases. And if the swine of any freeman spend one night in our forest, that shall not be made the excuse for taking anything of his away from him.

10. Henceforth no one shall lose life or limbs on account of our hunting rights; but if any one is arrested and convicted of taking our venison, let him redeem himself by a heavy payment, if he has anything with which to redeem himself. And if he has nothing with which to redeem himself, let him lie in our prison for a year and a day. And if, after the year and the day, he can find sureties, let him be freed from prison; but if he cannot, let him abjure the realm of England.


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