Back to the commons!

FOR more than 50 years the idea of commonly owned land has been blighted by Garret Hardin in his hugely influential article The Tragedy of the Commons. Hardin claimed that environmental disaster would ensue if land was in common ownership as the the population grew because he assumed that individuals would only think of their short-term gain rather than the long-term collective benefits.

But what if he was wrong? There are two fundamental assumptions that Hardin makes which skew his conclusion. The first is that the most fundamental starting point is the individual; and the second is that altruism forms no part of our genetic make-up. As a result, as Tine De Moor makes clear in her book The Dilemma of the Commoners, he ‘assumed that individuals would be unable to communicate and organize to prevent over-harvesting of the resources’. As she also points out he also assumes that ‘human nature is such that greed and selfishness will always lead to free-riding and, subsequently, excessive exploitation’. And she adds: “Although since its publication the metaphor ‘the tragedy of the commons’ has been extremely popular in various scientific disciplines and with policy-makers, many researchers have given proof of the opposite: individuals, commoners, and others are capable of preventing free-riding by institution building.”

Like many others De Moor paddles her canoe against a torrent of individualistic neoliberal ideology. It could be argued, in contrast, that we are actually social beings – indeed some argue that our sociability was Homo Sapiens’s big advantage over the Neanderthals, who were probably more intelligent than us but less social and, therefore, less able to spread innovations. If this is true then neoliberalism has got it the wrong way round. The problem is not how a fully formed individuated consciousness becomes a social being – if that is indeed an aim of neoliberalism – but how social beings become a fully formed individuated consciousness. As De Moor says individualism and collectivism are not incompatible – ‘both are part of the emancipation of the individual: first from family ties and later from other collectivities’ she writes, tellingly starting with the collective and, crucially, not abandoning that collective in the forging of the individual. De Moor outlines a brief history of the rise of the commons and guilds from 1000AD. Interestingly, although the commons sought to protect itself against the vagaries of the market, that does not mean that they were against the market itself – indeed, many also engaged with the market. Of course, common land continued up until the infamous enclosures began during the 16th century and it is estimated by J. L. and Barbara Hammond in The Village Labourer that even by 1685 three fifths of all cultivated land in England was still ‘farmed on the old common-field system’.

To make her case more fully De Moor spends a considerable amount of time analysing the history of the commons in Florence between 1500 and 1850 and concludes that collectively-owned commons could and should play a role in modern society alongside the Market and the State. “It is peculiar,” she writes “that people believe the market can solve all kinds of problems, and that citizens cannot and do not deserve the same level of trust given to market institutions.” As part of this diversification, writes De Moor, the ‘biggest challenge, and the greatest potential, lies in the dialogue that needs to be developed between government and civil institutions’. And of course the co-operation in the sense that she means it can work equally well with modern day service and industrial economies as well as common ownership of land for cultivation. As Joshua Greene writes in Moral Tribes our natural tendency towards co-operation ‘evolved for the amoral purpose of successful competition’. He continues: “And yet somehow we, with our overgrown primate brains, can grasp the abstract principles behind nature’s machines and make them our own.”

It can seem hopelessly idealistic in today’s attenuated social and political life to call for something different, either in the form of De Moor’s collectives or the communities of resistance that featured in a previous blog. But we should remember that things can change very quickly. The founders of neoliberalism like Hayek and Mises were outriders for years until the political door was pushed open with the emergence of Thatcher and Reagan. Salisbury Democracy Alliance can’t do much at a regional or national level to effect change, but it can exert influence on the local political scene. Deliberative Democracy can work well in conjunction with local collectives in a way that rebalances the relationship between the individual and the community while lessening the stranglehold of the ‘elective dictatorship’ of representative government.

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