What is the Commons, and How does it Work?

In a strange 1984 kind of way, most people know the term through the phrase ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.

(i) Neo-liberalism’s mistake: The so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

The so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is a term used to argue that left to ourselves (without the market and government to control our behaviour) we would each choose to exploit our ecological context for our own individual benefit even though this would inevitably lead to the destruction of the ecosystems (the Commons) on which we all depend. In fact, the opposite is the case. Garrett Hardin, the inventor of the term, later admitted that the phrase describes, not a Tragedy of ‘Commons regimes’ but a Tragedy of ‘Open Access regimes’.

An excellent example of an ‘Open Access regime’ is that of capitalism, where the only understanding of being ‘rational’ is of acting in one’s own immediate, narrow self-interest. ‘Open Access regimes’ describe situations where people are persuaded to act in a way that has no consideration for the longer term of themselves, their children or others. In Commons regimes, in sharp contrast, local people decide on the best shared use of local resources through dialogue and with an eye to the long term viability and well-being of their communities and the ecology on which they depend.

Commons systems persist across the Global South. Commons regimes recognise the rich resources available to us by starting from ensuring the well-being of locality, and the well-being of others in their localities, rather than from a system of competition over resources made scarce by that very competition.

So, for example, indigenous people have moved to take control of national governments in places like Bolivia, to secure degrees of autonomy through legal means in places like Canada, or through creative modes of resistance in places like Mexico. In the UK, it is evident in crofting communities’ along the west coast of Scotland whose successful campaigns brought their land back under community ownership, which led to the Scottish Land Reform Act securing that right for a whole range of rural communities. It is also evident in the Transition Town movement in which local people seek to establish sustainable local food, energy and production systems that can reduce their need for fossil fuels and diminish their carbon emissions, a movement in which people seek to rebuild their local economy and local decision-making to ensure sufficiency for all.

(ii) Socialism’s Mistake: The Commons in Marx’s thinking

Both the classic Marxist and Neoliberal traditions paint a picture of humanity as moving away from scarcity and towards abundance – whether through supposedly freeing the market from the state in the Neoliberal version, or through the seizing of the state by the producers of wealth as a consequence of ever-increasing exploitation in the Marxist tradition.

For Marx, what makes capitalism unique is that it is a system in which human labour, our capacity to transform the world, can be bought and sold (Graeber 2001: 55), and the money through which this process occurs measures and mediates the importance of certain forms of human action. It integrates us into the total market system, because it is the reason we are working.

Erik Olin Wright summarises the Marxist anti-capitalist thesis, as resting on the belief that, although capitalism “creates institutions and power relations that block the actual achievement of egalitarianism”, “one of the great achievements of capitalism is to develop human productive capacity to such an extent that it makes the radical egalitarianism needed for human flourishing materially feasible”.

But where this Marxist analysis see capitalism as the route to emancipation, Christine Gailey forcefully points out (2006) that later in life Marx changed his understanding and instead saw the real possibility for emancipation as being in communities protecting their rights rather than becoming absorbed solely by the class struggle. In 1881 Marx wrote:

“What threatens the life of the Russian commune is neither a historical inevitability nor a theory; it is state oppression, and exploitation by capitalist intruders whom the state has made powerful at the peasants expense” (in Gailey 2006: 41).

In his later writings Marx argues that the capitalist state of periodic disasters and “state of crisis . . . will end only when the social system is eliminated through the return of modern societies to the ‘Archaic’ type of communal property” (in Gailey 2006: 41).

Just as Hardin’s later reflections on the Commons point out that there is not a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, rather it is systems in which people do not collectively decide on their use of resources that are the ‘Tragedy’, so at the end of his life Marx’s analysis became one that advocated, not a march of modernising progress through capitalism to socialism, but that we protect commons regimes where they exist and restore them where they do not.

Comments (0)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Ruaraidh Macdiarmid says:

    Justin, I am afraid your argument is fundamentally flawed as far as our fisheries are concerned. The obvious case in point is what has happened to our ‘inexhaustable’ seas. This is not a situation which has developed since the imposition of the the Common Fisheries Policy. It has being going on since the beam trawl was invented and given greater force by the increasing sophistication of catching gear, ie about 150 years. But you can say the same for our land. The ecosystems have been degrading for at least 1,000 years. What happened to all the trees? I am not saying that private ownership overcomes these problems. It patently doesn’t if you have landowners whose overriding concern is to make profit beyond the capacity of the resource to sustain it. That is why we need good governance with strategies to produce the best public good in all cases.

  2. Steve Arnott says:

    Matt Ridley – who has done inestimable work in promoting the idea of an evolutionary explanation for human virtue and in dissolving the old nature/nurture dichotmomy – has written a new book called ‘The Rational Optimist’ in which he defends the market. This is an extension of the weakest chapter in his otherwise excellent ‘The Origins of Virtue which is entitled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ – a chapter that makes precisely the right wing ideological errors that Justin outlines in this article.

    When thousands are freezing this winter because they cannot afford their energy bills and Fergus Ewing says in the papers that the market in energy has failed the people, is that not an instance of the tragedy of private ownership of the means of production? How much better of would we be if we publicly owned our energy companies. Shareholder dividends could instead be used to reduce bills and invest in the renewable revolution.

    Justin, Id like to reproduce this material in the Democratic Green Socialist online magazine – if that’s OK with you. I can be contacted at [email protected]

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Hi Steve – feel free to reproduce the article – if you can give Justin and Bella credit that would be great too.


      1. Steve Arnott says:

        Thanks Mike – sources will of course be credited.


  3. Justin Kenrick says:

    Sorry for the slow response, I’m on Eigg and about to vanish for a few days.

    Steve, please go ahead – publicly owning the energy companies and an ever-expanding role for community owned energy are key moves. There are interesting new ways of publicly owning the energy companies that will be on the table soon. These involve energy users (that’s us) switching from paying for energy the way we pay rent, to paying for energy in the way you pay for a mortgage – in the latter system you end up owning the energy company. The key is to find ways to make that process equitable so that we each end up owning a fair share.

    Ruaraidh, I think fisheries is exactly where you see the commons working and the destruction of the commons leading to the destruction of the life of the ocean. There’s a really interesting study of Maine fisheries (I don’t have the reference here but it is in Kirby’s chapter – ‘The Commons: where the community has authority’ – in the ‘Earthscan reader in sustainable development) showing that where the government tries to regulate fishing through permits there is overfishing, but where the community regulates it (and has the power to exclude those who overfish) the fish stocks remain stable. This reminds me of Jonathan Dawson’s point about Senegal, where the fisheries were sustainable until the huge Russian and European fleets came and hoovered up the ocean. The ability to exclude those who come to an area simply to exploit it is key; and connected to this is the need to be able to differentiate between those with long terms interests in a fishery or an area of land, and those who only have a short term extractive interest. This is something I am exploring in my work in Central Africa.

    1. Steve Arnott says:

      Thanks, Justin – will republish both articles in the Democratic Green Socialist over the next week.

  4. carandol says:

    I like synergies so purely in response to the point about fisheries I’d like to note that an offshore windfarm can be an immediate reason to ban fishing from a specific locale and therefore create a nursery space to reinvigorate the local fish stocks…..I’m still struggling to find a way to express this but my instincts are that the rationale of exploitation (the numbers that are produced as economic proofs) are somehow 2 dimensional – product per unit area – whereas what I would find to be a sensible mind when approaching the usage of any given area would weigh the various opportunities and benifits and make informed decisions from such…….. (prob. all old hat but ‘needed to say it)

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.