Commoning is one way we can think about energy, that is sharing it locally and regulating it locally, but most of the world now lives in societies in which commons are under threat. Pollution encraoches on commons property which does not appear to be protected.

The non-tragedy of the commons

I assume people know about the so called “tragedy of the commons” which was later retracted by its populariser, Garrett Hardin. The theory is that naturally selfish people will seek to take personal advantage of common land, and this uninhibited usage will eventually destroy the land through over-grazing over-cropping, over-fishing, etc.

This proposal stands in contrast to the empirical fact that there are commons on the Earth, which have survived as commons or shared property for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. What we might call hunter and gather societies generally exist with common ownership of plots of land; the people are connected with the land they roam upon. They may even share the land with other groups.

AS Hardin came to admit, these long lived commons are managed by the users, who also have an interest in the commons being maintained for their own, and other locals’, benefit. So they try to stop people over-exploiting the commons – just as non-commoners might try and stop other forms of theft. You can look up the work of Elinor Ostrom and her followers if you choose to see how this works.

It is relatively unusual in most traditional societies for commons to be destroyed.

However, it does appear that capitalist modes of behaviour, and capitalist ‘common sense’, are likely to destroy the commons.

In capitalism people’s control over non-private property which serves them all, appears to be largely unrecognised by business or State. Capitalists regularly pollute the air, rivers, fields, towns, and so on – because they have ‘defined’ and ‘enforced’, this common space as an ‘externality’ – something which is external to the regime of private property, or economic cost, and which therefore does not count. The air belongs to no one. The power of local people over non-private property, or even their private property that obstructs big business, is often destroyed or marginalised, for ‘development’ or profit. Consequently, we could expect capitalists to behave disastrously towards commons in the way that Hardin described, and indeed many argue that taking away the commons was part of what generated the transition to capitalism. Therefore his article could perhaps better be titled “The Tragedy of all commons and common resources under Capitalism.”

By saying that people cannot naturally own things in common, he also works to discourages people from working together for common production and for shared benefits. The alternative is that one person has to own property, and the others labour for the owner, in return for the common benefits. This helps establishes an authoritarian basis for common work, and gets rid of democratic voices.

AS should be implied already, this hostile attitude to commons, and the declaration that common selfishness will destroy it, is possibly one of the roots of the ecological crisis. Common and private land, and anything else, can be happily ruined by its owners. Any commons, again including the air and the climate, can be ruined if it is not privately or State owned, or if the owners don’t have comparable power to those doing the ruining. Capitalism assumes Common Property is up for defacement and destruction, and that there is no such reality as common benefit without the exchange of money. The regime assures people that state owned property (crown land etc) is always vulnerable to being sold off to people with influence.

Pro-capitalist attack on the commons and defense of the non-commons

I was recommended to read a libertarian article on the impossibility of common property, which is interesting and a bit of an illumination of how neoliberalism works as theory. The argument goes like this:

  • Liberty is bound up in individually, or corporately owned, private property and with capitalism.
  • Hence everything should be made into private property to maximise liberty.
  • Collective property of any type, other than corporately owned, leads to other people telling you what to do (what commoners might call ‘managing shared resources’), which is bad.
  • Liberty appears to be about being able to buy what you can afford and sell what you have. Nothing else.
  • Therefore collective property, or commons, which cannot be sold, should be banned to preserve liberty and taken into private hands. [People with property seem to have the right to tell other people what to do, without it being a violation of liberty]
  • Everyone who believes in the possibility of collective property or public goods, not impinging on your right to do whatever you want, is an idiot who believes in pixie dust and the virtue of officials.
  • Free Markets on the other hand, are absolutely wonderful, and have no problems at all. There are no power imbalances in free markets. Even Mother Teresa would recognise that they are morally superior to systems which have public goods, commons, or collective forms of property. Capitalism is perfect and can only be improved by destroying stupid commons and selling off collective goods to those who can afford them, so they can control them and look after them.
  • Even public institutions should be sold off. Private police, and private courts, will support everyone’s property rights, not just their owner’s interests, or the rich who can pay more for the services. There is apparently no conflict of interest, because there is competition.
  • The idea of collective property and public goods only exists to support non-libertarian state power structures. Collective and shared property does not exist without the State. There has never been collective property without a state.
  • Once you realise all of this you will be like Frodo and chuck the evil ring of collective property into a volcano and let freedom, joy and happiness rule.

If it is not clear, I think this argument is largely glib, contradictory, unconvincing and ignorant of counter-evidence – and most of the statements could easily be reversed (“Liberty is bound with collectively owned and controlled property,” “Accumulation of private property leads to people being able to command others”) – but like most neoliberal or libertarian arguments, it does help boost corporate power and control over people’s lives and freedoms. It justifies business destroying commons or stealing commons and turning them into non-commons in the name of liberty. It acts as a warning of the probable loss, and precariousness, of certain non-capitalist rights.

Tragedy of the non-commons

In some ways the article meshes with another article of Hardin’s, Lifeboat ethics, where he argues against environmentalists who say that “no single person or institution has the right to destroy, waste, or use more than a fair share of [the planet’s] resources” by suggesting we are in a lifeboat and should leave the poor (or the people in less ‘safe’ prosperity) to drown, so we can survive. Helping them simply overloads the lifeboat and we all die…. As there is no commons, and we are all thieves anyway, we don’t need to worry about those who are destroying the planet or how they do it – we just leave the poor to die and celebrate our apparent safety.

He also states: “To be generous with one’s own possessions is quite different from being generous with those of posterity.” However, that is precisely what he is doing, sacrificing posterity’s common good, for the personal present day good of the planet destroyers or the polluter elites.

We also don’t know we are safe from the planet destroyers. Self interested people, accepting this capitalist ethic, should perhaps wonder why they should assume the planet destroyers will let them use the lifeboat and not just push them away?


We should perhaps not assume that privatisation, private business, and private property will solve all problems, and should at least expriement with commonly owned, managed and directed waysof survival.

The energy transition may even work better if it is organised as a form of commons, where local investment goes back to the community, local needs determin production, rather than investment going to a distant corporation, which runs everything according to a non-local rationality/…