Tragedy of the commons

Marxist Dictionary

Neo-Malthusian argument arguing the alleged unsustainable nature of communal property and in general the non-market organization of production.

The “tragedy of the commons” is an argument developed by Garrett Hardin, one of the most influential neo-Malthusians of the second half of the 20th century. He was not an economist, but an ecologist, and it is from this discipline and his deep love for Malthus that he published the famous article “The tragedy of the commons” in Science magazine:

The tragedy of the commons unfolds as follows. Imagine a meadow open to all. Each herdsman is expected to try to keep as many cattle as possible in the common pasture. Such a plan could work reasonably well because tribal wars, poaching, and disease kept the population of animals and people well below the carrying capacity of the land. […] The day finally comes when social peace becomes a reality. […] At this point, the inherent logic of the commons causes a tragedy.

As a rational being, every herdsman seeks to maximize his profit. […] The rational herdsman concludes that the only rational strategy he can follow is to add another animal to the herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each rational shepherd sharing a communal pasture. Here lies the tragedy. Each man is trapped in a system that pushes him to increase his herd without limit… in a limited world.

“The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin, 1968

This is one of the arguments most used by environmentalism today. Following pure “economic rationality”, human beings would be unable to collectively exploit the planet’s resources without acting as a predatory species wiping out everything like a plague of locusts. The tragedy of the commons appears in countless ecology textbooks and has influenced many economic and political discussions. But, as expected, a mere review of the historical and social record of humanity is enough to reject such claims. And that was the criticism that in 2009 earned Elinor Ostrom a Nobel Prize. However, although the historical falsehood of the alleged dilemma was patently obvious, the proposed solutions did not go beyond the capitalist horizon by any means. To be able to square the circle of a traditional management of communal goods without going beyond the same capitalist economy that had destroyed them, Ostrom and her school could only suggest heavy bureaucratic apparatuses. All this with a sauce of commercial exchanges with pollution clauses, as well as various tax and financial mechanisms against climate change.

The reality of communal goods

In agrarian societies around the world, local mechanisms have existed for centuries and even millennia in order to prevent over-exploitation and to share common lands and resources among the community. The peasant world has always been extremely variable in terms of ownership and mechanisms, even between neighboring provinces. In the lands that were recently conquered en bloc, there are generally large estates and settlers, whether in southern Europe, South America or eastern Africa. However, on lands that have been steadily cultivated (even taking into account migrations) for centuries throughout the world, a very similar local mechanism is generally found, that of community cultivation with cyclical redistribution of arable land. The model can be found in 19th century India:

The areas to be cultivated were distributed at random […] If the land to be distributed was variable in quality, the clan authorities would prepare a number of circles or series, consisting of good, regular or bad land, or otherwise distinguishable. Then the farmers’ groups had to take their lot in a balanced way in each quality group. […] But in any case, even taking into account the classification of the land, inequality in ownership could not be excluded, so a periodic system of exchange or redistribution was practiced over a long period.

The principle of land being farmed in common and combined with plots allocated at random and redistributed cyclically among the different members of the community could also be found in 19th century Scotland and much of Europe before the great enclosures:

Instead of each tenant owning a house on a different farm, a group of small huts are crammed together into a Township, as in a rustic village. This is where tenants and small farmers live. The land around the village belongs to all of them in common. The meadows are the common field where all their cattle graze. The arable land is sometimes cultivated and harvested in common as well, dividing the results of the harvest among them.

This is one of the oldest customs of our country. It is a relic of the pastoral age, or feudal system. But it is ruinous to the interest of the landowner, the tenant and the public, according to our enlightened agriculture of today. Where the land is not owned by Townships, it is usually owned by Run-rigs.

This way of occupying land originated from the same source. It is the natural result of Township, and was no doubt created as an improvement on the previous plan. Instead of the arable land being owned, cultivated and harvested in common, each individual has an assigned plot. Sometimes, instead of one, he has two or more, especially if the arable land is of unequal quality. In this case the farmers have one plot at best and one at worst.

In the feudal era, this type of ownership prevailed over Britain and perhaps over the whole of Europe. Caesar mentions that it was the traditional practice among the Gauls.

“General report of the agricultural state of Scotland”, Sir John Sinclair, 1816

The nineteenth-century examples might give the impression that these systems disappeared by some inexorable “force”, but this kind of redistribution system not only persists if it is not actively destroyed but reappears in the countryside when state domination weakens or disappears. This was the case in 18th century Japan, when the weakening of central power allowed the reappearance of the Iriaichi (入会地), the common lands whose exploitation was assigned by random lots and regularly reassigned. Something similar happens today in southern India, where the weakness of the state allows for the existence of villages with elected councils that decide on the periodic redistribution of land and the common maintenance of irrigation.

However, if something characterizes the countryside is its heterogeneity. The villages in India which have elected councils are surrounded by villages with small private property without cyclical reallocation or communal. The local scale of the institutions makes them disjointed and fragile to the attacks of a ruling class. In France, although the feudal lords allowed the existence of more or less independent peasant “communities” and did not until very late expropriate them, something different happened with the medieval bourgeoisie. The commercial cities had a great effect on the surrounding countryside; merchants bought and expropriated the surrounding fields to graze their livestock. This livestock served not only to feed the city, it served above all to supply local manufacturing with the wool for the main luxury industry of the Middle Ages, cloth making. This brought the peasants into direct conflict with the bourgeoisie in the cities.

French peasants used an ingenious system for keeping their fields in common: The small plots of land (usually that rectangular area that could be ploughed in a day with an ox-drawn plow) that were redistributed among the peasants in the community were interspersed with each other and cultivated in common. These were cultivated in the series summer wheat, winter wheat and fallow (uncultivated land) with one stage per year and were distributed so that there were fields in each stage in a given year. The fallow was used to restore nutrients to the soil with the help of weeds and excrements of the common herd. The common herd could go to any uncultivated field, thus fertilizing everyone’s fields and ensuring that everyone’s animals had enough to eat. No one had any incentive to increase the number of their animals and to enter into conflict with the rest of the community to sell in a non-existent market far from the cities.

With the rise of cloth manufacturing, the bourgeoisie began to buy and enclose the fields adjoining the Norman cities from the 14th century onwards to graze ever larger flocks of sheep. The situation was much worse in Provence, where the great transhumances (sheep migrations) took advantage of the open fields of the peasants to graze (with the permission of the great lords) along their route. The ravages of transhumance forced the Provençal peasants to enclose their fields in order to defend them from the attacks of the sheep that propelled the trade of the cities. Neither the common meadows nor the fallow lands were safe. However, the vast majority of the population of France continued to live in the countryside and hold fields and property in common, as texts from the time of Louis XIV indicate:

Each owner of a plot of land in a ” neighborhood ” of equally oriented plots of land cultivates – and cannot be otherwise – on the same dates as his neighbors, and practices the same rotation cycle. When the field was fallow or full of stubble, it was – and still is today [1931] – open to all the livestock of the village without distinction, as the jurisconsult Laurière said under Louis XIV: “when the harvest has been gathered, the land, by a kind of right of the people, becomes common to all men, whether rich or poor”.

“Les caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française”, Marc Bloch, 1931

The situation was much worse in Flanders, where the enclosure of fields around commercial cities was much more extensive and farmers were often reduced to participating in the domestic textile industry to supply the cities. And it is from here to the end of the 17th century that one of the main sources of what later developed into capitalist ideology will emerge.

The Malthusian origin of the “tragedy of the commons”

It is no coincidence that Hardin used as his inspiration the essay of an English economist published in 1833, in the midst of an ideological campaign to finish driving the peasants out of the countryside and to pass on the new “Poor Laws” by forcing the new British proletariat into manufacturing.

After the economic shock caused by the influx of huge quantities of precious metals from America, price inflation caused a drop in the income of the nobility, because the rents to be paid by the peasantry were established by agreement and not by the market. Many aristocrats and quite a few bourgeois began to devote themselves to agricultural improvement and land acquisition from the 17th century onwards.

The first agricultural treatises came from the great trading cities, first from Venice and then from Flanders and later spread from England to France. The lords started rental markets to increase the productivity of their tenants and the discoveries of the new science were applied. It was possible to increase the productivity of the plots by making rotations with clover (a nitrogen-fixing pulse) and turnips, which could also be sold on the nascent market as fodder for money. The new crops broke the cycle of communal agriculture and fields were no longer left fallow, but had to be enclosed so that communal herds would be prevented from eating the fodder from the fields. In the eighteenth century, the new movement of the physiocrats in France would do as much as possible to proselytize so that everyone, from gentleemen to the priests of each rural parish would announce the benefits of agricultural improvement and enclosure. But the investments to acquire more acres and employ laborers did not come for free, so the physiocrats promoted borrowing in much of the countryside. All this while the same physiocrats and economists were attempting to unify the national market to allow for the circulation and accumulation of capital on a national level.

However, there were still tenant farmers who defended and used the communal lands, as the above text on the “run-rigs” from 1816 indicates. The final wave of expulsion from the countryside in Great Britain coincided not by chance with the definitive triumph of “political economy” (= economic theory). In order to be able to pay off its debts and rents, a large part of the countryside had been converted to single-crop farming of wheat. As a result, poor harvests and price volatility during the war against Napoleon ruined millions of small farmers who were forced to sell their fields to the big landowners once the Speenhamland poor relief system was cancelled. Something similar would happen in the south of France later on, when vineyard single-crop farming was wiped out by phylloxera. But the Malthusian economists had plans, big plans. They finally succeeded in abolishing aid to the peasantry in 1834 in order to openly provide a circulating workforce for industry. All in the name of reducing friction and improving the functioning of the “great social machine”:

Pure theory inculcates in us the natural and necessary tendency to make a fair adjustment [of prices], ignores the intermediate difficulties out of question, like friction a mechanical problem; and rightly condemns the folly of trying to rectify inequality by law. But laws, even if they cannot rectify the problem, can make it worse. Those same frictions can be solved with care and art. […] Therefore the work of a manufacturing worker is a transmissible good compared to that of a laborer. Competition instructs the owner about its value and circulates freely in those districts where it is needed.

Edward Copleston, 1819

Although the bourgeoisie, after its victory, would go on to claim that the tendency toward enclosure, privatization and over-exploitation is part of human nature, what became naturalized was a crushing victory of the ruling class over the exploited.

The Tragedy of the Commons, “Human Nature” and Capitalism

What bourgeois morality pretends to call “human nature” is nothing but capitalist rationality. In reality, the problem of the bourgeoisie was never abut shepherds or farmers over-exploiting the communal and bringing the whole system down, it was the opposite: the system was too stable to allow commodification to proceed. Peasants had no desire or need to become day laborers, journeymen, or industrial workers. And without absorbing their labor under the direction of capital it was impossible to improve agricultural productivity by increasing exploitation in absolute terms. Without cheap food, turning the peasants themselves into industrial workers would make the cost structure of new manufacturing unfeasible.

When the bourgeoisie succeeded in destroying the land communities in sufficient numbers to force this double movement of peasant over-exploitation and mass migration, it also needed to break down the state’s protections against starvation… because even living off the meager public benefits was more attractive than becoming an industrial proletarian. The bourgeoisie then needed to advance a new morality that asserted that the hunger and misery it was causing was in fact an “incentive” for progress, while laying responsibility on the shoulders of the worker. Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham will be the theorists of that new capitalist morality which asserts a new kind of “rationality” and with it a new “human nature”.

When almost a century and a half later Hardin seeks arguments against communal property, he will only have to assume that “human nature” has always reflected capitalist rationality to prove… that the historical reality of the commons was “impossible”. A cheap post-hoc self-justification of economics. That’s the whole play under the “tragedy of the commons.” And what is worse, it also underlies Ostrom’s criticism which, incapable of thinking the communal in another framework of social relations, tries to match the historical institutions of communal production with the capitalism that destroyed them, on the basis of justifying bureaucracies, experts and complex systems that would require a specialized management layer.

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