This is the third in a series of ‘Case for the Commons: the kinder Society we want’ posts – the fourth will try to begin answering the question: Why do we knuckle under and accept a system driving us to extinction? (Parts one and two.)

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 sees 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.