An Anarchist FAQ - I.6 What about the "Tragedy of the Commons"?

An Anarchist FAQ
Index | What's New | Links | Introduction | Bibliography

LINKPDF version of Section I.

I.6 What about the "Tragedy of the Commons"? Surely communal ownership will lead to overuse and environmental destruction?

It should first be noted that the paradox of the "Tragedy of the Commons" is actually an application of the "tragedy of the free-for-all" to the issue of the "commons" (communally owned land). Resources that are "free for all" have all the problems associated with what is called the "Tragedy of the Commons," namely the overuse and destruction of such resources; but unfortunately for the capitalists who refer to such examples, they do not involve true "commons."

The "free-for-all" land in such examples becomes depleted (the "tragedy") because hypothetical shepherds each pursue their maximum individual gain without regard for their peers or the land. What is individually rational (e.g., grazing the most sheep for profit), when multiplied by each shepherd acting in isolation, ends up grossly irrational (e.g., ending the livelihood of every shepherd). What works for one cannot work as well for everyone in a given area. But, as discussed below, because such land is not communally managed (as true commons are), the so-called Tragedy of the Commons is actually an indictment of what is, essentially, laissez-faire capitalist economic practices!

As Allan Engler points out, "[s]upporters 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.

So, the real problem is that a lot of economists and sociologists conflate this scenario, in which unmanaged resources are free for all, with the situation that prevailed in the use of "commons," which were communally managed resources in village and tribal communities. E.P. Thompson, for example, notes that Garret Hardin (who coined the phrase "Tragedy of the Commons") was "historically uninformed" when he assumed that commons were "pastures open to all. It is expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons." ["Custom, Law and Common Right", Customs in Common, p. 108f] The commons, in fact, were managed by common agreements between those who used them. Similarly, those who argue that the experience of the Soviet Union and Eastern Block shows that "common" property leads to pollution and destruction of the resources also show a lack of awareness of what common property actually is (it is no co-incidence that libertarian capitalists use such an argument). This is because the resources in question were not owned or managed in common -- the fact that these countries were dictatorships excludes popular control of resources. Thus the Soviet Union does not, in fact, show the dangers of having "commons." Rather it shows the danger of not subjecting those who control a resource to public control (and it is no co-incidence that the USA is far more polluted than Western Europe -- in the USA, like in the USSR, the controllers of resources are not subject to popular control and so pass pollution on to the public). The Eastern block shows the danger of state owned resource use rather than commonly owned resource use, particularly when the state in question is not under even the limited control of its subjects implied in representative democracy.

This confusion has, of course, been used to justify the stealing of communal property by the rich and the state. The continued acceptance of this "confusion" in political debate is due to the utility of the theory for the rich and powerful, who have a vested interest in undermining pre-capitalist social forms and stealing communal resources. Therefore, most examples used to justify the "tragedy of the commons" are false examples, based on situations in which the underlying social context is radically different from that involved in using true commons.

In reality, the "tragedy of the commons" comes about only after wealth and private property, backed by the state, starts to eat into and destroy communal life. This is well indicated by the fact that commons existed for thousands of years and only disappeared after the rise of capitalism -- and the powerful central state it requires -- had eroded communal values and traditions. Without the influence of wealth concentrations and the state, people get together and come to agreements over how to use communal resources, and have been doing so for millennia. That was how the commons were managed, so "the tragedy of the commons" would be better called the "tragedy of private property." Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger (and proto-anarchist), was only expressing a widespread popular sentiment when he complained that "in Parishes where Commons lie the rich Norman Freeholders, or the new (more covetous) Gentry overstock the Commons with sheep and cattle, so that the inferior Tenants and poor labourers can hardly keep a cow but half starve her." [quoted by Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, p. 173] Colin Ward points to a more recent example, that of Spain after the victory of Franco:

 

"The water history of Spain demonstrates that the tragedy of the commons is not the one identified by Garrett Hardin. Communal control developed an elaborate and sophisticated system of fair shares for all. The private property recommended by Hardin resulted in the selfish individualism that he thought was inevitable with common access, or in the lofty indifference of the big landowners." [Colin Ward, Op. Cit., p. 27]

As E.P. Thompson notes in an extensive investigation on this subject, the tragedy "argument [is] that since resources held in common are not owned and protected by anyone, there is an inexorable economic logic that dooms them to over-exploitation. . . . Despite its common sense air, what it overlooks is that commoners themselves were not without common sense. Over time and over space the users of commons have developed a rich variety of institutions and community sanctions which have effected restraints and stints upon use. . . . As the old . . . institutions lapsed, so they fed into a vacuum in which political influence, market forces, and popular assertion contested with each other without common rules." [Op. Cit., p. 107]

In practice, of course, both political influence and market forces are dominated by wealth -- "There were two occasions that dictated absolute precision: a trial at law and a process of enclosure. And both occasions favoured those with power and purses against the little users." Popular assertion means little when the state enforces property rights in the interests of the wealthy. Ultimately, "Parliament and law imposed capitalist definitions to exclusive property in land." [E.P. Thompson, Op. Cit., p. 134 and p. 163]

The working class is only "left alone" to starve. In practice, the privatisation of communal land has led to massive ecological destruction, while the possibilities of free discussion and agreement are destroyed in the name of "absolute" property rights and the power and authority which goes with them.

For more on this subject, try The Question of the Commons, Bonnie M. McCoy and James M. Acheson (ed.), Tucson, 1987 and The Evolution of Co-operation by Robert Axelrod, Basic Books, 1984.

I.6.1 How can anarchists explain how the use of property "owned by everyone in the world" will be decided?

First, we need to point out the fallacy normally lying behind this objection. It is assumed that because everyone owns something, that everyone has to be consulted in what it is used for. This, however, applies the logic of private property to non-capitalist social forms. While it is true that everyone owns collective "property" in an anarchist society, it does not mean that everyone uses it. Carlo Cafiero, one of the founders of communist-anarchism, states the obvious:

 

"The common wealth being scattered right across the planet, while belonging by right to the whole of humanity, those who happen to be within reach of that wealth and in a position to make use of it will utilise it in common. The folk from a given country will use the land, the machines, the workshops, the houses, etc., of that country and they will all make common use of them. As part of humanity, they will exercise here, in fact and directly, their rights over a portion of mankind's wealth. But should an inhabitant of Peking visit this country, he [or she] would enjoy the same rights as the rest: in common with the others, he would enjoy all the wealth of the country, just as he [or she] would have in Peking." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 250]

Anarchists, therefore, think that those who use a part of society's wealth have the most say in what happens to it (e.g. workers control the means of production they use and the work they do when using it). This does not mean that those using it can do what they like to it. Users would be subject to recall by local communities if they are abusing their position (for example, if a workplace was polluting the environment, then the local community could act to stop, or if need be, close down the workplace). Thus use rights (or usufruct) replace property rights in a free society, combined with a strong dose of "think globally, act locally."

It is no coincidence that societies that are stateless are also without private property. As Murray Bookchin points out "an individual appropriation of goods, a personal claim to tools, land, and other resources . . . is fairly common in organic [i.e. aboriginal] societies. . . By the same token, co-operative work and the sharing of resources on a scale that could be called communistic is also fairly common. . . But primary to both of these seemingly contrasting relationships is the practice of usufruct." [The Ecology of Freedom, p. 50]

Such stateless societies are based upon "the principle of usufruct, the freedom of individuals in a community to appropriate resources merely by the virtue of the fact they are using them. . . Such resources belong to the user as long as they are being used. Function, in effect, replaces our hallowed concept of possession." [Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 50] The future stateless society anarchists hope for would also be based upon such a principle. In effect, critics of social anarchism confuse property with possession and think that abolishing property automatically abolishes possession and use rights. However, as argued in section B.3, property and possession are distinctly different. In the words of Charlotte Wilson:

 

"Property is the domination of an individual, or a coalition of individuals, over things; it is not the claim of any person or persons to the use of things -- this is usufruct [or possession], a very different matter. Property means the monopoly of wealth, the right to prevent others using it, whether the owner needs it or not. Usufruct implies the claim to the use of such wealth as supplies the user's needs. If any individual shuts off a portion of it (which he is not using, and does not need for his own use) from his fellows, he is defrauding the whole community." [Three Essays on Anarchism, p. 17]

Thus an anarchist society has a simple and effective means of deciding how communally owned resources are used, one based on possession and usufruct.

As for deciding what a given area of commons is used for, that falls to the local communities who live next to them. If, for example, a local self-managed factory wants to expand and eat into the commons, then the local community who uses (and so controls) the local commons would discuss it and come to an agreement concerning it. If a minority really objects, they can use direct action to put their point across. But anarchists argue that rational debate among equals will not result in too much of that. Or suppose an individual wanted to set up an allotment in a given area, which had not been allocated as a park. Then he or she would notify the community assembly by appropriate means (e.g. on a notice board or newspaper), and if no one objected at the next assembly or in a set time-span, the allotment would go ahead, as no one else desired to use the resource in question.

Other communities would be confederated with this one, and joint activity would also be discussed by debate, with a community (like an individual) being free not to associate if they so desire. Other communities could and would object to ecologically and individually destructive practices. The interrelationships of both ecosystems and freedom is well known, and its doubtful that free individuals would sit back and let some amongst them destroy their planet.

Therefore, those who use something control it. This means that "users groups" would be created to manage resources used by more than one person. For workplaces this would (essentially) be those who worked there (with, possibly, the input of consumer groups and co-operatives). Housing associations made up of tenants would manage housing and repairs. Resources that are used by associations within society, such as communally owned schools, workshops, computer networks, and so forth, would be managed on a day-to-day basis by those who use them. User groups would decide access rules (for example, time-tables and booking rules) and how they are used, making repairs and improvements. Such groups would be accountable to their local community. Hence, if that community thought that any activities by a group within it was destroying communal resources or restricting access to them, the matter would be discussed at the relevant assembly. In this way, interested parties manage their own activities and the resources they use (and so would be very likely to have an interest in ensuring their proper and effective use), but without private property and its resulting hierarchies and restrictions on freedom.

Lastly, let us examine clashes of use rights, i.e. cases where two or more people or communities/collectives desire to use the same resource. In general, such problems can be resolved by discussion and decision making by those involved. This process would be roughly as follows: if the contesting parties are reasonable, they would probably mutually agree to allow their dispute to be settled by some mutual friend whose judgement they could trust, or they would place it in the hands of a jury, randomly selected from the community or communities in question. This would take place if they could not come to an agreement between themselves to share the resource in question.

On thing is certain, however, such disputes are much better settled without the interference of authority or the re-creation of private property. If those involved do not take the sane course described above and instead decide to set up a fixed authority, disaster will be the inevitable result. In the first place, this authority will have to be given power to enforce its judgement in such matters. If this happens, the new authority will undoubtedly keep for itself the best of what is disputed, and allot the rest to its friends! By re-introducing private property, such authoritarian bodies would develop sooner, rather than later, with two new classes of oppressors being created -- the property owners and the enforcers of "justice."

It is a strange fallacy to suppose that two people who meet on terms of equality and disagree could not be reasonable or just, or that a third party with power backed up by violence will be the incarnation of justice itself. Common sense should certainly warn us against such an illusion. Historical "counterexamples" to the claim that people meeting on terms of equality cannot be reasonable or just are suspect, since the history of disagreements with unjust or unreasonable outcomes (e.g. resulting in war) generally involve conflicts between groups with unequal power and within the context of private property and hierarchical institutions.

And, we should note, it is equally as fallacious, as Leninists claim, that only centralisation can ensure common access and common use. Centralisation, by removing control from the users into a body claiming to represent "society", replaces the dangers of abuse by a group of workers with the dangers of abuse by a bureaucracy invested with power and authority over all workers. If rank and file workers can abuse their position and restrict access for their own benefit, so can the individuals gathered round a centralised body (whether that body is, in theory, accountable by election or not). Indeed, it is far more likely to occur. Thus decentralisation is the key to common ownership and access, not centralisation.

Communal "property" needs communal structures in order to function. Use rights, and discussion among equals, replace property rights in a free society. Freedom cannot survive if it is caged behind laws enforced by public or private states.

I.6.2 Doesn't any form of communal ownership involve restricting individual liberty?

This point is expressed in many different forms. John Henry MacKay (an individualist anarchist) puts the point as follows:

 

"'Would you [the social anarchist], in the system of society which you call 'free Communism' prevent individuals from exchanging their labour among themselves by means of their own medium of exchange? And further: Would you prevent them from occupying land for the purpose of personal use?' . . . [The] question was not to be escaped. If he answered 'Yes!' he admitted that society had the right of control over the individual and threw overboard the autonomy of the individual which he had always zealously defended; if on the other hand he answered 'No!' he admitted the right of private property which he had just denied so emphatically." [Patterns of Anarchy, p. 31]

However, as is clearly explained above and in sections B.3 and I.5.7, anarchist theory has a simple and clear answer to this question. To see what this answer is it simply a case of remembering that use rights replace property rights in an anarchist society. In other words, individuals can exchange their labour as they see fit and occupy land for their own use. This in no way contradicts the abolition of private property, because occupancy and use is directly opposed to private property. Therefore, in a free communist society individuals can use land and such tools and equipment as they personally "use and occupancy" as they wish -- they do not have to join the free communist society. If they do not, however, they cannot place claims on the benefits others receive from co-operation and their communal life.

This can be seen from Charlotte Wilson's discussions on anarchism written a few years before MacKay published his "inescapable" question. Wilson argues that anarchism "proposes . . . [t]hat usufruct of instruments of production -- land included -- should be free to all workers, or groups of workers" and that "the necessary connections between the various industries . . . should be managed on the . . . voluntary principle." She asks the question: "Does Anarchism . . . then . . . acknowledge . . . no personal property?" She answers by noting that "every man [or woman] is free to take what he [or she] requires" and so "it is hardly conceivable that personal necessaries and conveniences will not be appropriated." For "[w]hen property is protected by no legal enactments, backed by armed force, and is unable to buy personal service, its resuscitation on such a scale as to be dangerous to society is little to be dreaded. The amount appropriated by each individual . . . must be left to his [or her] own conscience, and the pressure exercised upon him [or her] by the moral sense and distinct interests of his [or her] neighbours." This is because:

 

"Property is the domination of an individual, or a coalition of individuals, over things; it is not the claim of any person or persons to the use of things -- this is, usufruct, a very different matter. Property means the monopoly of wealth, the right to prevent others using it, whether the owner needs it or not. Usufruct implies the claim to the use of such wealth as supplies the users needs. If any individual shuts of a portion of it (which he is not using, and does not need for his own use) from his fellows, he is defrauding the whole community." [Anarchist Essays, pp. 22-23 and p. 40]

In other words, possession replaces private property in a free society. This applies to those who decide to join a free communist society and those who desire to remain outside. This is clear from Kropotkin's argument that an communist-anarchist revolution would leave self-employed artisans and peasants alone if they did not desire to join the free commune (see Act for Yourselves, pp. 104-5 and The Conquest of Bread, p. 61 and pp. 95-6). Thus the leading theorist of free communism did not think the occupying of land for personal use (or a house or the means of production) entailed the "right of private property." Obviously John Henry MacKay had not read his Proudhon!

This can be seen even clearer when Kropotkin argued that "[a]ll things belong to all, and provided that men and women contribute their share of labour for the production of necessary objects, they are entitled to their share of all that is produced by the community at large." [The Place of Anarchism in Socialistic Evolution, p. 6] He goes on to state that "free Communism . . . places the products reaped or manufactured in common at the disposal of all, leaving to each the liberty to consume them as he [or she] pleases in his [or her] own home." [Op. Cit., p. 7] This obviously implies a situation of "occupancy and use" (with those who are actually using a resource controlling it).

This clearly means, as the biographers of Kropotkin noted, that an Individualist Anarchist like Tucker (or MacKay) "partly misinterprets" Kropotkin when he "suggests that [Kropotkin's] idea of communal organisation would prevent the individual from working on his [or her] own if he wished (a fact which Kropotkin always explicitly denied, since the basis of his theory was the voluntary principle)." [G. Woodcock and I. Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince, p. 280]

Thus the case of the non-member of free communism is clear -- they would also consume what they have produced or exchanged with others in their own home (i.e. land used for their own "personal use"). The land and resources do not, however, become private property simply because they revert back into common ownership once they are no longer "occupied and used." In other words, possession replaces property. Thus communist-anarchists agree with Individualist Anarchist John Beverley Robinson when he wrote:

 

"There are two kinds of land ownership, proprietorship or property, by which the owner is absolute lord of the land to use it or hold it out of use, as it may please him; and possession, by which he is secure in the tenure of land which he uses and occupies, but has no claim on it at all if he ceases to use it. For the secure possession of his crops or buildings or other products, he needs nothing but the possession of the land he uses." [Patterns of Anarchy, p. 273]

This system, we must note, was used in the rural collectives during the Spanish Revolution, with people free to remain outside the collective working only as much land and equipment as they could "occupy and use" by their own labour. Similarly, the individuals within the collective worked in common and took what they needed from the communal stores. See Gaston Leval's Collectives in the Spanish Revolution for details (and section I.8).

Mackay's comments raise another interesting point. Given that Individualist Anarchists oppose the current system of private property in land, their system entails that "society ha[s] the right of control over the individual." If we look at the "occupancy and use" land system favoured by the likes of Tucker, we discover that it is based on restricting property in land (and so the owners of land). Tucker argued that if "the Anarchistic view" of "occupancy and use" would prevail then any defence associations would not protect anyone in the possession of more than they could personally use, nor would they force tenants to pay rent to landlords of housing. [The Individualist Anarchists, pp. 159-62] Thus the "prevailing view", i.e. society, would limit the amount of land which individuals could acquire, controlling their actions and violating their autonomy. Which, we must say, is not surprising as individualism requires the supremacy of the rest of society over the individual in terms of rules relating to the ownership and use of possessions (or "property") -- as the Individualist Anarchists themselves implicitly acknowledge, as can be seen.

John Henry MacKay goes on to state that "every serious man must declare himself: for Socialism, and thereby for force and against liberty, or for Anarchism, and thereby for liberty and against force." [Op. Cit., p. 32] Which, we must note, is a strange statement, as individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker considered themselves socialists and opposed capitalist private property (while, confusingly, many of them calling their system of possession "property" -- see section G.2.2).

However, MacKay's statement begs the question, does private property support liberty? He does not address or even acknowledge the fact that private property will inevitably lead to the owners of such property gaining control over the individuals who use, but do not own, that property and so denying them liberty (see section B.4). As Proudhon argued:

 

"The purchaser draws boundaries, fences himself in, and says, 'This is mine; each one by himself, each one for himself.' Here, then, is a piece of land upon which, henceforth, no one has right to step, save the proprietor and his friends; which can benefit nobody, save the proprietor and his servants. Let these multiply, and soon the people . . . will have nowhere to rest, no place of shelter, no ground to till. They will die of hunger at the proprietor's door, on the edge of that property which was their birth-right; and the proprietor, watching them die, will exclaim, 'So perish idlers and vagrants.'" [What is Property?, p. 118]

Of course, the non-owner can gain access to the property by selling their liberty to the property-owner, by agreeing to submit to the owners authority. Little wonder that Proudhon argued that the "second effect of property is despotism." [Op. Cit., p. 259] Moreover, given that Tucker argued that the state was "the assumption of sole authority over a given area and all within it" we can see that MacKay's argument ignores the negative aspects of property and its similarity with the state [The Individualist Anarchists, p. 24]. After all, MacKay would be the first to argue that the property owner must be sovereign of their property (and not subject to any form of control). In other words, the property owner must assume sole authority over the given area they own and all within it. Little wonder Emile Pouget, echoing Proudhon, argued that:

 

"Property and authority are merely differing manifestations and expressions of one and the same 'principle' which boils down to the enforcement and enshrinement of the servitude of man. Consequently, the only difference between them is one of vantage point: viewed from one angle, slavery appears as a property crime, whereas, viewed from a different angle, it constitutes an authority crime." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, p. 66]

Neither does MacKay address the fact that private property requires extensive force (i.e. a state) to protect it against those who use it or could use it but do not own it.

In other words, MacKay ignores two important aspects of private property. Firstly, that private property is based upon force, which must be used to ensure the owner's right to exclude others (the main reason for the existence of the state). And secondly, he ignores the anti-libertarian nature of "property" when it creates wage labour -- the other side of "private property" -- in which the liberty of employees is obviously restricted by the owners whose property they are hired to use. Unlike in a free communist society, in which members of a commune have equal rights, power and say within a self-managed association, under "private property" the owner of the property governs those who use it. When the owner and the user is identical, this is not a problem (i.e. when possession replaces property) but once possession becomes property then despotism, as Proudhon noted, is created.

Therefore, it seems that in the name of "liberty" John MacKay and a host of other "individualists" end up supporting authority and (effectively) some kind of state. This is hardly surprising as private property is the opposite of personal possession, not its base.

Therefore, far from communal property restricting individual liberty (or even personal use of resources) it is in fact its only defence.