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The Tragedy of Misunderstanding the Commons

Twelfth-century peasants developed commons practices to survive domination. We could use them to reclaim our lives from capitalism.

As recently as the nineteenth century, North America included many examples of commons customs. Indigenous nations hunted and gardened in spaces reserved for all their members, often extending rights to other communities by diplomacy and hospitality. White agrarians shared meadow and wetlands in Massachusetts, cooperated in management of lobster fisheries in Maine, and communicated over the ​“law of the woods” in the Adirondacks. But, as private property and state ownership pushed out every other form of possession, practices of collective ownership fell into neglect and are poorly understood today.

In the twentieth century, anti-communist ideologues attacked the entire idea. A single essay, ​“The Tragedy of the Commons,” written in 1968 by the biologist Garret Hardin, did more damage to our understanding than anything written by an English lord circa 1668. Hardin’s parable of greedy shepherds deploying their livestock to nibble up every last blade of grass in a universalized common meadow assumes that the commoners couldn’t get together to make decisions about how best to use the space. Lacking history, anthropology, or any evidence, Hardin’s essay amounts to little more than his own dismal view of human nature. Thinkers on the Left, meanwhile, have tended to project their own assumptions onto commons customs without understanding how or why they came to be.

A commons is not a tragedy of resource depletion, not a collective farm, not a relic of a savage past, and not proof of ancient communism. As a form of land, it is neither res nullis (owned by no one, like wild animals or schools of fish) nor res communis (owned by everyone, like Antarctica or the Moon). ​“The word ​‘common’ means ​‘together with others,’” wrote the thirteenth-century legal scholar Henry de Bracton. In his world, a commons was an agricultural village in which each household tended its own fields and pasture and made collective decisions about the whole settlement, but commons have taken many other forms as well. At base, it’s a social relationship of the useable Earth that is neither private nor state property but owned and governed by its constituents to meet their specific needs.

This relationship originated in specific circumstances. After the implosion of the Western Roman Empire around A.D. 500, peasants in Europe enjoyed great freedom from centralized authority. By about the year 900, however, the thuggish war lords who developed political power in the vacuum began attacking them, capturing them on little kingdoms called manors. These new lords demanded from peasants the various products of their labor, like flour, butter, beer and lambs, which meant the peasants all had the same problem: how to endure lordly appropriation while thriving themselves. As a way of smoothing out conflict and building efficiency, village councils began to decide where cattle should graze, where wheat should be planted, and which fields should lie fallow.