Letters: The Tragedy of the Commons

Dear Editors.


Congratulations on the article “The Tragedy of the Commons” (February). I am not aware that it has been dealt with before in the Socialist Standard yet it was a frontal assault on the whole idea of a propertyless society.  As Robin Cox points out, the argument was an anachronistic howler. It tried to examine hypothetical medieval situations in bourgeois terms.


Hardin’s viewpoint comes straight out of the 18th century Utilitarian theory of society as a rabble, a collection of individuals. While society itself is today under attack from capitalism, it certainly meant something in the Middle Ages as it still means something in surviving pre-capitalist communities.


The Tragedy of the Commons can be faulted on three grounds. leaving out econobabble:


  1. Medieval society was structured—everybody knew their place in the village, there was no free-for-all.
  2. The idea of producing a surplus for its own sake, beyond that to cover bad harvests and to exchange for iron ploughshares and blue ribbons, did not occur to anybody, as Werner Sombart pointed out.
  3. Even if it had, there were no means of storing it, i.e. money, and market to dispose of it in the form of cattle or corn.


Medieval life was integrated, even if it did include the pimp in the Manor House. Co-operation ran from barn-raising to clubbing together to make a plough-team of oxen. If Little Boy Blue and The Boy Who Looks After The Sheep were falling down on the job, there was more than one villager to kick their arse.


References to American rangeland, Argentine pampas or Siberian steppe are unhelpful. The American Indians and Mongol herders never had any problem. There is even talk of handing back the West to the buffalo because of problems with soil and water.


Ken Smith 


May Hill, Glos


Dear Editors,


I did not state in my letter in the March issue that overpopulation is the cause of pollution, resource depletion and environmental degradation. I agree with you that the capitalist system with its profit motive is the main culprit. I mentioned the probable doubling of population as something that a socialist society would have to take into account when planning production.


J. Wood


London E1


Sorry to have misrepresented your views. We will return to the subject of cars and pollution in the special issue we will be bringing out in June to co-incide with the so-called Earth Summit in Brazil that month.