- Capitalism and Alternatives -

The Myth of the Commons and Other Tragedies

Posted by: Joel Jacobson ( none, USA ) on March 30, 1999 at 12:20:13:

When one makes a statement regarding courses of action there, implicitly, exists much beyond the mere words they speak. For instance, if I'm dicussing dinner with a group of friends and propose going to McDonald's for a yummy value-meal is that all I'm really saying? No. Unspoken, but acknowledged by all involved is the assumption that by going to McDonald's we are giving up all the other possible courses of action we could take for the evening.

Any statement or proposal we make probably has more meaning in what it doesn't say that what it actually does say. When Lark, Deathy, et al, refer to common ownership they are engaging in a neat little intellectual sleight-of-hand, unintentionally I presume. They talk about the past history of the commons and then fast-forward to the present and advocate a world of universal ownership throughout the world.

But, they are comparing apples and oranges. While we might, indeed, refer to property in bygone centuries and millenia as "commons" we are simply imposing our particular vantage upon history. Yes, compared to current conventions, where single individuals or small groups own property, the past might look from our particular viewpoint as "commons". What that idealized view simply ignores is that, while one person did not own property, regardless of the label we use, one hundred specific people (or whatever the size of the particular tribe) still owned any property we might examine. And so, given the particular "commons" references made by the self-titled "socialists" here simply bear no relation to anything in history. Specific people have always owned property; yes, the numbers and structures have changed, but there has never been any such idea of universal ownership. Such tribal units, additionally, jealously guarded their property with spears, swords, and bow and arrows and contstantly engaged in conflict with each other.

Whatever you want to call your future dream of "common ownership" is irrelevant. This dream bears no relation to any situation in the history of mankind and any claims of such is not only idealist, in my opinion it is intellectually dishonest, given the evidence.

Which brings us to the idea of "compromise". An idea that Deathy has proclaimed is the answer to the "crises" of the human race; "crises", of course being a value judgement origninating in the particular opinions of Deathy, himself. Since, no one in this particular debate seems to know what a dictionary is, I'll have to do the legwork:

1. settlement of differences by arbitration or consent reached by mutual concessions (mutual promise to abide by an arbiter's decision).

and from that, Mutual:
directed by each othter towards the other; having same feelings toward one another; characterized by intimacy.

Okay, now we've found a huge flaw in this sort of "democratic" mutualism. How can I have intimately-held settlements involving all members of the human race, simultaneiously? I can't. It's not a matter of wanting the best for the human race and my fellow human beings but, rather, not even possessing the ability for such. Two things come to mind: centralized planning ala USSR (which you have already rejected); dividing the human race into smaller democratic units with the individuals in each unit collectively owning their particluar allotment. Make no mistake, the second option is not the placid panacea that we might think. There is no possible way to impartially and completely distribute such properties in an equal manner. Indeed, the very process of doing this will lend itself to the politics of the sort found in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (I love that name) of Mexico.

Congradulations, Deathy, you've just recreated ancient tribalism. Where do you want to go next? And, make no mistake, ancient tribalism was not this idealized panacea some, especially Rousseau, have pictured them as. They were horrid and nasty, by our standards, where the sole purpose of the individual was of a utilitarian survival and propagation of the group. (A utilitarianism which was alleviated by the advent of generalized sets of rules and customs that allowed individual to separate themselves form the tribe and its customs.) Babies with small "defects" or even bearing a superficial mark considered "unlucky" were cast out to die. If a person was considered to have broken some tribal taboo, no matter how minor, their life was often considered forfeit.
Property and the means of production were communal precisely because there was solidarity and a cohesive concrete set of rules and customs taht defined the in-group. This same solidarity was undermined and eventually destroyed by the generalization of rules and customs across a broad scope of people and geography. But at the same time such break down of communalism ended the reppressive and grotesque practices of the ancient tribe. Generalization of custom and acknowledgement of individual spheres of influence, such as personal property, provided those with massive different value systems and beliefs to interact without resorting to violence and force.

Regardless of any intellectual machinations we only compromise with those whom we are capable of compromising with (duh). And these are people with whom we have personal knowledge and share values and social interaction. Such people can only comprise a minute fraction of the human race. I cannot compromise with someone when I do not know what they want. There is no possible way to do this; it is not a matter of desire to do so but ability. The only possible way to do this is to divide, arbitrarily, society into small tribal units and give them specific lots. But all you've done is re-invent ancient tribalism and you still have private ownership as those outside these units expressly do not have ownership of property within the tribe

In summary, you have only three possibilities:

a) a world of hierarchical tribalism with its communal form of private property (the true and, in my opinion, awful manifestation of anarchism and mutualism).

b) a world where there is absolutely no way of interacting with our fellow human beings as we can only compromise with those whom we have intimate knowledge of (i.e. pure chaos, which is not anarchy).

c) Stalinist Sovietism in all its radiant glory (ha ha ha).

The very term "commons" is a verbal sleight-of-hand that says one thing and then very smoothly slips the phrase over to an entirely and completely unrelated situation. No, Deathy, et al, if you wish to have universal common ownership then you'll have to demonstrate how such can be had across the myriad of cultures containing individuals who do not know each other and haven't the faintesst conception how the other lives, thinks, or feels (i.e. you'll have to become a wizard of immense powers over us all).

Finally, you'll have to confront taht in the end all values are governed by opinion and cannot be derived from mere observation of facts. Your advocation of the changes you describe are impositions of your particular mind's value systems upon the rest of us. What's sad is that I'm quite certain as individuals you all really do care about people.

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