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Think Like A Commoner

Crown Heights community garden

It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible in the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

-Garrett Hardin. Tragedy of the Commons, Science Magazine, 1968

The Tyranny of the “Tragedy” Myth

The tragedy of the commons is one of those basic concepts that is drilled into the minds of every undergraduate, at least in economics courses. The idea is considered a basic principle of economics—a cautionary lesson about the impossibility of collective action. Once the class has been escorted through a ritual shudder, the professor whisks them along to the main attraction, the virtues of private property and free markets. Here, finally, economists reveal, we may surmount the dismal tragedy of a commons. The catechism is hammered home: individual freedom to own and trade private property in open markets is the only way to produce enduring personal satisfaction and social prosperity.

Hardin explains the logic this way: we can overcome the tragedy of the commons through a system of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.” For him, the best approach is “the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance.” He concedes that this is not a perfectly just alternative, but he asserts that Darwinian natural selection is ultimately the best available option, saying:

“...those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more.”

We put up with this imperfect legal order, he adds, “because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.”

Such musings by a libertarian-minded scientist have been catnip to conservative ideologues and economists (who are so often one and the same). They see Hardin’s essay as a gospel parable that affirms some core principles of neoliberal economic ideology. It affirms the importance of “free markets” and justifies the property rights of the wealthy. It bolsters a commitment to individual rights and private property as the cornerstone of economic thought and policy.

People will supposedly have the motivation to take responsibility for resources if they are guaranteed private ownership and access to free markets.

Tragic outcomes—“total ruin”—can thereby be avoided. The failure of the commons, in this telling, is conflated with government itself, if only to suggest that one of the few recognized vehicles for advancing collective interests, government, will also succumb to the “tragedy” paradigm.

Over the past several decades, the tragedy of the commons has taken root as an economic truism. The Hardin essay has become a staple of undergraduate education in the US, taught not just in economics courses but in political science, sociology and other fields. It is no wonder that so many people consider the commons with such glib condescension. The commons = chaos, ruin and failure.

Think Like a Commoner

There is just one significant flaw in the tragedy parable. It does not accurately describe a commons. Hardin’s fictional scenario sets forth a system that has no boundaries around the pasture, no rules for managing it, no punishments for over-use and no distinct community of users. But that is not a commons. It is an open-access regime, or a free-for-all. A commons has boundaries, rules, social norms and sanctions against free riders. A commons requires that there be a community willing to act as a conscientious steward of a resource. Hardin was confusing a commons with“no-man’s-land”—and in the process, he smeared the commons as a failed paradigm for managing resources.

To be fair, Hardin was following a long line of polemicists who projected their unexamined commitments to market individualism onto the world. As we will see later, the theories of philosopher John Locke have been widely used to justify treating the New World as terra nullius—open, unowned land—even though it was populated by millions of Native Americans who managed their natural resources as beloved commons with unwritten but highly sophisticated rules....

This absurdity, unfortunately, is the basis for a large literature of “prisoner’s dilemma” experiments that purport to show how “rational individuals” behave when confronted with “social dilemmas,” such as how to allocate a limited resource. Should the “prisoner” cooperate with other potential claimants and share the limited rewards? Or should he or she defect by grabbing as much for himself as possible?

…The dirty little secret of many prisoner’s dilemma experiments is that they subtly presuppose a market culture of “rational” individuals. Most give little consideration to the real-life ways in which people come to cooperate and share in managing resources. That is changing now that more game theory experiments are incorporating the ideas of behavioral economics, complexity theory and evolutionary sciences into their design.

….Paradoxically enough, the heedless quest for selfish gain— “rationally” pursued, of course, yet indifferent toward the collective good—is a better description of the conventional market economy than a commons. In the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, such a mindset propelled the wizards of Wall Street to maximize private gains without regard for the systemic risks or local impacts. The real tragedy precipitated by “rational” indi- vidualism is not the tragedy of the commons, but the tragedy of the market....

Lewis Hyde puckishly suggested that the “tragedy” thesis be called, instead, “The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Common-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Noncommunicating, Self-Interested Individuals.”

….History has shown that the forces of market enclosure are cruel and relentless in deconstructing and destroying commons; they don’t like the competition. A successful commons is a “bad example” because it bears witness to better practical alternatives. Sharing is also objectionable because it is an affront to the ideology of private property rights (with the exception of tech companies like Google and Facebook, whose business model relies upon monetizing social sharing). For their part, governments and bureaucracies are often wary of the commons as an independent, potentially threatening power base, preferring the certainties and rewards of market-based allies. Governments generally prefer to manage resources through strict standardized systems of control. To them, commoning appears to be altogether too informal, irregular and unreliable—even if the actual successes of commons refute that prejudice.

Any basic understanding of the commons must inevitably take account of the dynamics and meaning of enclosure. I turn now to that topic.

Enclosures of Nature

What happens when markets become so powerful that they disrupt natural ecosystems, reorder how people conduct their lives and claim ownership of life-forms? It is sometimes difficult to step outside of our culture to take stock of the actual power and far-reaching effects of markets. But once you learn to identify the commons and understand its dynamics, it becomes quite clear that the privatization and commodification of our shared wealth is one of the great unacknowledged scandals of our time. Its pernicious effects are everywhere.

This process is often called the enclosure of the commons. It’s a process by which corporations pluck valuable resources from their natural contexts, often with government support and sanc- tion, and declare that they be valued through market prices. The point is to convert resources that are shared and used by many to ones that are privately owned and controlled, and treat them as tradeable commodities.

To talk about enclosure is to open up a conversation that standard economics rarely entertains—the dispossession of commoners as market forces seize control of common resources, often with the active collusion of government. The familiar debate of “privatization versus government ownership” does not really do justice to this process because government ownership, the supposed antidote to privatization, is not really a solution. In many instances, the state is only too eager to conspire with industries to seize control of common resources for “private” (i.e., corporate) exploitation. Regulation is too often a charade that does more to legalize than eradicate market abuses.

To talk about enclosure, then, is a way to point to the commons and reframe the discussion. The language of enclosure makes visible the antisocial, anti-environmental effects of “free markets” and validates commoning as an appropriate, often- effective alternative.....

Enclosures are a special form of theft that attract little notice, in part because governments often play a key role in legitimizing them....

It is important to note that enclosures are not just appropriations of resources. They are also attacks on communities and their practices of commoning. Their primary goal may be the seizure of resources, but they also seek to impose a “regime change” on people. Enclosures convert a system of collective management and social mutuality into a market order that privileges private ownership, prices, market relationships and consumerism. The goal is to treat people as individuals and consumers, not as communities with shared, long-term, nonmarket interests.

The ultimate result of so many enclosures is a desperate dependency on business outsiders whose only loyalty is to the global marketplace.

Users of Microsoft products must constantly buy the next software upgrade to keep their computers running properly. Farmers who rely upon genetically modified crops must buy new seeds every year and abide by contractual restrictions. Defenders of traditional ways of life are thrust into struggles with those who want to get rich and pursue the Western ideal of “development.” “The more we depend on money and markets to satisfy our needs and follow our desire,” writes commons scholar Massimo De Angelis,“the more we are exposed to a vicious circle of dependency that pits livelihoods against each other.”

Not surprisingly, enclosures tend to interfere with the ability of people to self-organize and control their own governance, meet their own needs and protect their culture and way of life. A town that becomes beholden to an absentee investor or corporation quickly loses its civic sovereignty and becomes a “company town.”

Enclosures also undermine traditions and identities that are intertwined with a beloved landscape, historic building or cul- tural work. When treasures—the designs of Australian Aborigines, the special plants cultivated by Madagascans—are shorn from their historic or natural context and reduced to a price, it is an assault on the commoners who had acted as their consci- entious stewards and instilled meaning and purpose in them. Through enclosure, treasures are stripped of the qualities that make them locally distinctive and emotionally significant. They become, for better or worse, little more than inert commodities.

A Brief History of the English Enclosure Movement

The term “enclosure” is generally associated with the English enclosure movement, which occurred at various times in medieval history and through the nineteenth century. To put it plainly, the king, aristocracy and/or landed gentry stole the pastures, forests, wild game and water used by commoners, and declared them private property. Sometimes the enclosers seized lands with the formal sanction of Parliament, and sometimes they just took them by force. To keep commoners out, it was customary to evict them from the land and erect fences or hedges. Sheriffs and gangs of thugs made sure that no commoner would poach game from the king’s land.

Enclosure was irresistible to the 1 percent of medieval England because it was an easy way to grab more wealth and power with the full sanction of the law. It could help struggling barons and upwardly mobile gentry consolidate their political power and increase their holdings of land, water and game. An anonymous protest poem from the eighteenth century put it well:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone

When we take things we do not own

But leaves the lords and ladies fine

Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape If they conspire the law to break; This must be so but they endure Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common And geese will still a common lack

Till they go and steal it back.

As enclosures swept the villages of England, commoners suf- fered serious hardships. They depended upon the forest for their firewood and roof thatches, and on acorns to feed their pigs. They relied on shared fields to grow vegetables, and on open meadows for wild fruits and berries. An entire rural economy was based upon access to the commons. Barred from using their commons, villagers migrated to cities, where the emerging industrial revolution turned them into wage slaves, if they were lucky, and beggars and paupers if they weren’t. Charles Dickens drew upon the social disruptions and injustices of enclosures in writing Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and his other novels about London’s troubled underclass.

One important goal of the English enclosures was to trans- form commoners with collective interests into individual consumers and employees. Which is to say: creatures of the market- place. The satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution needed obedient and desperate wage slaves. One of the lesser-noticed aspects of enclosures was the separation of production and gov- ernance. In a commons, both were part of the same process, and all commoners could participate in both. After enclosures, markets took charge of production and the state took charge of gov- ernance. The modern liberal state was born. And while the new order brought about vast improvements in material production, those gains came at a terrible cost: dissolution of communities, deep economic inequality, an erosion of self-governance and a loss of social solidarity and identity. Governance became a matter of government, the province of professional politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats and monied special interest lobbies. Demo- cratic participation became mostly a matter of voting, a right limited to men (and at first, property owners). Enclosure also isolated people from direct encounters with the natural world and marginalized social and spiritual life.

During the course of a hundred and fifty years, from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s, about one-seventh of all English common land was carved up and privatized. As a result, deep inequalities took root in society and urban poverty soared. The foundations of the modern market order were being laid, and the masters of this new world had no need for the commons. The hallmarks of the new order would be individualism, private property and “free markets.”

Karl Polanyi was an economic historian who studied this unique transition in human history—the end of the commons and the rise of markets and enclosures. In his underappreciated 1944 classic, The Great Transformation, Polanyi noted that for millennia, people had been bound together through community, religion, kinship and various other social or moral ties. All economic systems had been based on systems of reciprocity, redistribution or householding, and people were induced to produce things by way of “custom and law, magic and religion.”

Then, as enclosures proceeded in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, production and profit became the central organizing principles for society. Instead of focusing on house- hold use within a stable social context, production became reoriented toward private gain and accumulation. This required that numerous resources—especially land, labor and money—be redefined as commodities. Polanyi called these “fictional commodities” because human life and natural ecosystems cannot really be broken into fungible, substitutable units. But markets require that nature’s gifts, labor and money be treated as commodities if they are to be assigned prices and made suitable for trade and speculation.

These commodity fictions quickly expanded to other realms, making virtually everything subject to purchase and sale.

Food, water, fuel, firewood and other necessities of life—once available as a matter of right through the commons—could now only be acquired through the market, at a price.

Polanyi characterized the history of enclosure as “a revolution of the rich against the poor.” “The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order,” he wrote,“breaking down the ancient laws and customs, sometimes by means of violence, and often by pressure and intimidation.” As the market economy gained the upper hand, it imposed its commodity logic on everything—nature, labor, social life—and gave everything a price.....

The Massive International Land Grab

Many people believe that enclosures are a relic of the past— something that happened in medieval times, but not now. Not so. Vast portions of Africa, Asia and Latin America are currently reeling from a fierce international land grab. Investors and national governments are snapping up millions of acres of land that traditional peoples have used for generations. These commoners rarely have formal property deeds; as lawyers might put it, they have only “customary usage rights.” The enforceable property rights belong to the government, which in theory acts as a trustee for the people. But in reality, most autocratic and troubled states find it quite profitable to ignore their public trust duties and sell off vast swatches of “unowned” lands to foreigners. By brokering deals and legalizing title to the land, governments can reap new tax revenues. Well-connected officials can quietly pocket handsome bribes. In theory, “development” and prosperity will follow.

In practice, not so much. Some investors use the land to pro- duce biofuels or commercial crops that are exported to world markets. Others are speculators who leave the land idle, hoping to cash in as land prices rise. Saudi Arabia has spent a billion dollars to buy seven hundred thousand hectares in Africa. India is assembling investment pools to buy up farmlands. South Korea and China are also active players.

The scale of enclosure of customary lands is massive—and so is the displacement of commoners. An estimated 90 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa, or some five hundred million people, do not have statutory title to their lands and are at risk of eviction. Citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Northern Sudan, Ethiopia and Madagascar are espe- cially vulnerable. Worldwide, some two billion people have only customary usage rights to their lands—some 8.54 billion hectares (or 21.1 billion acres). Once their lands are seized, common- ers can no longer grow and harvest their own food, draw water or hunt wild game. Enclosures are shattering their communities and cultures.

By the light of free-market economics, turning land into pri- vate property and trading it in the market will enhance its pro- ductivity. This process is said to encourage owners to produce more food and develop the land so that it will be more valuable. Collectively used lands without property titles, by contrast, have historically been called “wastelands.” That’s because, in the eyes of the law, no one owns the land or takes care of it.

....At one time, imperial nations asserted direct military control over people and resources in order to exploit them. The neocolonial process has become more refined. With the sanction of law, foreign investors and speculators simply negotiate deals with friendly, self-dealing governments that welcome the plunder of native lands. What could be more lucrative than the private sale of the public’s equity assets at bargain prices?

The Privatization of Water

Water is another resource that has been targeted for enclosure by many transnational corporations. Most people expect their drinking water to be a public service provided by governments or at least managed by communities. But many transnational companies see water as a valuable private commodity that can be a rich source of profits. This has prompted many companies and investors to buy up groundwater aquifers, extract large quan- tities of fresh water from public lands for minimal or no payments and privatize municipal water systems.

Sometimes water enclosures are achieved indirectly. Companies may choose to build expensive water purification, treatment or desalinization systems, for example, even though conserva- tion and preventive regulation are cheaper and could yield more reliable results (but, alas, no return on investment to private investors). The fierce international land grab now underway is often just another name for “water grabbing.”

The opening salvo in an ongoing series of “water wars” began in 2000, when the World Bank, working in cooperation with an international consortium led by the transnational engineer- ing and construction firm Bechtel, pressured Cochabamba, then the third largest city in Bolivia, to privatize its water system. The official policy rationale was to provide incentives to private companies to improve the water infrastructure and so improve people’s access to water. But such “market solutions” are more about boosting profits than providing access. After gaining control of Cochabamba’s water supplies, Bechtel raised prices by 50 percent or more and even prohibited the collection of rain water from roofs. Water in Cochabamba was strictly regarded as private property under the control of Bechtel.

A grassroots protest movement arose overnight. Thousands of ordinary people took to the streets with the battle cry,“Water is life!” The Coordinadora for the Defense of Water and Life called on the government to cancel its forty-year contract with Bechtel and return the water to municipal control. The protests also called for the “social re-appropriation of wealth”—that is, sovereign control of the water system and its collective management by water users. Coming only months after the Seattle anti-globalization protests in 1999, the Cochabamba insurrec- tion vividly confirmed that the globalization of commerce has more to do with stoking corporate profits than with meeting basic human and environmental needs fairly and sustainably.

Protesters ultimately prevailed in Cochabamba, forcing cancellation of the Bechtel contract and galvanizing new calls for self-determination and commons-based control throughout Latin America. More than ten years later, the Cochabamba protests are still remembered as one of the first major triumphs against the privatization of water. It’s a war that will not end any time soon. Billionaire T. Boone Pickens has spent more than a hundred million dollars acquiring groundwater aquifers in the Texas High Plains, which could make it very expensive for many communities there to survive as water becomes a private, proprietary product. Transnational water companies continue to appropriate groundwater supplies throughout the world in order to bottle it—even though public water systems can provide a thousand gallons of tap water for the same price as one bottle of branded water.

* * * * *

Land, water, apples, local foods. These are only a few of the significant enclosures of nature perpetrated over the past several generations. The theft of natural wealth has been little noticed because it has been so incremental—and because it is generally portrayed as a sign of economic and technological progress.

The range of enclosures of nature is vast. They extend from the global (the atmosphere, the oceans, outer space) to the regional (groundwater aquifers, fisheries, forests) to the local (native foods, hometown traditions, independent businesses). Enclosures include living things (cell lines, genes, genetically engineered mammals) and infinitesimally small things (micro-organisms, synthetic substitutes for nano-matter).

One of the most audacious new enclosures of nature involves the financialization of natural resources. Rather than treat land, water and local ecosystems as resources that should abide by the imperatives of nature, hedge funds and other investors are starting to develop clever financial instruments to “securitize” the revenues that can be generated by renewable natural systems, such as flows of water, harvestable timber and fish stocks.

Antonio Tricarico of the Italian group Re:Common reports that the financial industry is now trying to create a futures market and derivative financial instruments for water, similar to those that exist for oil. This would radically increase the pressure on governments at all levels to regard their water, forests and fisheries as financial assets that must be monetized and sold, or used as collateral for loans. By the lights of finance, natural resources that go unexploited are underleveraged assets; the presumption is that everything should produce revenue.

Needless to say, the financialization of nature would heighten pressures to disrupt and deplete many natural flows, intensifying stresses on the carrying capacities of natural systems. If water were to become a commodity traded in an integrated global marketplace, for example, it could devastate local ecosystems and make this vital resource unaffordable for many people.

Tricarico writes that the financialization of nature will only grow in coming years as the financial industry seeks to displace public finance and build its own large infrastructure and extractive projects in order to benefit private investors. The industry wants to develop financial markets that treat more aspects of food, land, electricity, metals, forests and other resources not just as commodities, but as financial assets suitable for global trade and speculation. Considering how little we understand about the macroeconomic and macrofinancial implications of such enclosures—not to mention the ecological disruptions that would ensue—these plans are a recipe for disaster.

The above is a slightly modified version of an excerpt of David Bollier's book, Think Like a Commoner, newly published by New Society Publishers. Think Like a Commoner can be found at Read more of Bollier's work at

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