Going Beyond the Tragedy of the Commmons
"Tragedy of the Commons: Two World Views in Conflict Competition v. Cooperation
"As Adam Smith put it, “We are not ready to suspect any person of being defective in selfishness.” To put is quite simply, this is the central assumption underpinning Hardin’s analysis. Only the crude application of the model of homo oeconomicus , an individual maximizer of short-time utility, explains the results (and academic success) of the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” In fact, the well known parable of the microbiologist Garrett Hardin, presented to the public in a famous essay in 1968, now “refuted” by Nobel laureate in economics (2009) Elinor Ostrom, has perverted the ordinary wisdom to see the commons as a place of no law. According to Hardin, a common resource, as freely appropriable stimulates the opportunistic behavior of accumulation and ultimately destructive and “inefficient” consumption. This reasoning conjures up the image of a person invited to a buffet where food is freely accessible, and rather than sharing the bounty with others, rushes to try to maximize the amount of calories that can be stored at the expense of others, efficiently consuming the largest possible amount of food in the least possible time.' Hardin & Olsen (free rider theory) in their models assume a) that humans are “rational actors” in the sense that they are wealth maximizers b) that self interest has nothing to do with community interest c) communication and its role in trust building are not considerations d) all commons are open access regimes rather than common property regimes which have established rules of benefits and responsibility. The sense of limits set naturally within a community of respect towards others and nature is excluded from their model, failing to consider the qualitative relationships essential to an analysis of a community resource management based on participation of a (still) civilized human being.
The “Tragedy of the Commons” highlights two worldviews in conflict. The dominant worldview being substantially based on the Darwinian idea, which makes “competition,” “struggle,” and “emulation” between physical and legal persons the essence of reality. The other is a recessive view, which vanished from practice in the West long ago (and is under attack in places such as the African or Andean village community where it is still partially resistant); this view is instead based on an ecological and holistic view of the world and displays relationship, cooperation and community as its typical pattern. The dominant model is constantly proposed in the rhetoric of growth, progress and development (synonymous with one another as ways “up” and “out” of poverty) used by government, non- governmental organizations, and the media, despite the current catastrophic ecological and economic situation in which we find ourselves. This dominant model considers the alternative one as the legacy of a medieval political-legal experience, where feudal fragmentation of power is maintained, paternalism dominates in a view of society at odds with the modern liberal conception of governance. To be sure, at a purely analytical level, in the recessive model we find at the center of social life the pre-state guild community.  There are a number of possible narratives capable of explaining the abandonment of this community based model in the West, the most relevant for our purposes is a economic historical narrative which views its demise as the product of “progressive” modernizing market forces relying on state-wide political institutions. It is a fact that the alliance between state institutions and private property interests has been the force behind the race for colonial plunder and increased concentration of capital (the original accumulation of Marxian memory). The recessive model, still present in the organization of communities in the “periphery” (the West being the center) suffered and continues to suffer a merciless assault by the structural adjustment and comprehensive development plans of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, protracting the model of the early enclosures to the very present. Such mechanisms have encouraged and resulted in the “commodification” of land, and of local knowledge, supported by a process of cultural adjustment (human rights, rule of law, gender equality etc. ) that serves as justifying rhetoric for continuity in plunder.
Going Beyond the Tragedy
Elinor Ostrom and her team of social scientists successfully dispelled the myth, established as truth by Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” of the superiority of private property rights in resource management. She demonstrated through an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence that cooperative property arrangements are in fact successful, and that Hardin’s case rather than been the rule, as previously believed, is in fact an exception and only apply to a minority of situations. While Ostrom’s work undeniably marks a critical turning point in economic theory, it still remains trapped between the state v. private dichotomy. Without consideration of the historical, political, and legal context of the fierce public and private debate, Ostrom’s findings remains limited in their applicability. Property law from its early development in the West (Rome & English Feudalism) acted to justify the power of dominant sovereigns over weaker subjects in the effort to secure resources. Property law continued to persist in this direction by “terra nullus” doctrines during the period of Colonialism. In more recent times, such domination has taken on a more subtle and hegemonic form. When viewed in context, Hardin was far from the naïve microbiologist who happened to find applicability for evolutionary theory in the realm of political economy, rather he contributed to a long lineage of economists and lawyers, securing a place for radical individualism and eventual dismantlement of the public domain in favor of private interests. Hardin’s work contributes to the work done in the 50s and 60s by Freidman, Buchanan, Tollock, and Olsen of the radical individualist school and early neo classical economics that eventually led in the 70s and 80s to the Chicago school, and the Law and Econ movement with its primary purpose of dismantling the public in favor of private interests.
Given the pervasiveness of the false opposition of: state v. market/private property and competition v. cooperation, individual v. community, one should be suspicious of taxonomies trying to make order out of many types of commons (natural commons – environment, water, etc.. – vs. social commons – culture, knowledge, historical remembrances) that do not fully embrace the needed shift to a more phenomenological understanding of our current historical moment. These suggestions (and much of the Nobel prized liberal literature on the commons) should be thoroughly examined critically so as to avoid reproducing again the traditional mechanistic view, the separation between object and subject and resulting commodification. Alongside the empirical data now available, we must critically assess our current institutions and reclaim our common sense about the issue of resource distribution, perverted too long by the neo liberal agenda. The commons project must be as much about a new framework for participatory government as alternative property arrangements. In Notebooks Gramsci explains his notion of common sense, which refers to ” the philosophy of the non-philosophers.” In other words when a certain ideology filters into the mass consciousness and is naturalized into the “common sense.” Gramsci explains that the task of renewing the common sense depends upon the articulation by intellectuals of a counterhegemonic narrative capable of challenging the status quo. The holistic revolution, or ecological view of the world may present exactly the narrative capable of renewing the common sense and paving the way for the commons.' (http://www.uninomade.org/preliminary-question-about-the-commons/)