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 livilehood 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 a 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]

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.

The 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 of 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."

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" [Customs in Common, p. 107].

In practice, of course, both political influence and market forces are dominated by wealth. Popular assertion means little when the state enforces property rights in the interests of the wealthy. "Parliament and law imposed capitalist definitions to exclusive property in land" [Ibid., 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 Cooperation 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. 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 in using it). This does not mean that those using it can do what they like to it. Users are 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 close down the workplace). Thus use rights (or usufruct) replace property rights in a free society.

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, cooperative 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." [Op. Cit., p. 50] The future stateless society anarchists hope for would also be based upon such a principle.

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, an anarchosyndicalist 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 a some 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 cooperatives). Housing associations made up of tenents 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 relevent 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 judgment 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 judgment 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.

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 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 labor 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."

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. This is to to recognise that use rights replace property rights. 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 as they personally wish. If they do so, however, they cannot place claims on the benefits others receive from cooperation and their communal life.

John 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," which is a strange statement, as individualist anarchists like Ben Tucker considered themselves socialists and opposed private property. 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 individual and so denying them liberty (see section B.4). Neither does he 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.

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 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. 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 defense.