I.6 What about the "Tragedy of the Commons"?

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

I.6 What about the "Tragedy of the Commons"?

The term "Tragedy of the Commons" is a phrase which is used to describe why, according to some, commonly owned resources will be destructively overused. The term was first coined by Garret Hardin in December 1968. ["The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859, pp. 1243-1248] It quickly became popular with those arguing against any form of collective ownership or socialism and would be the basis for many arguments for privatisation.

Unsurprisingly, given its popularity with defenders of capitalism and neo-classical economists, Hardin's argument was a pure thought experiment with absolutely no empirical evidence to support it. He suggested a scenario in which commonly owned pasture was open to all local herdsmen to feed their cattle on. Hardin complemented this assumption with the standard ones of neo-classical economics, arguing that each herdsman would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons to maximise their income. This would result in overgrazing and environmental destruction as the cost of each feeding additional animals is shouldered by all who use the commons while the benefits accrue to the individual herdsman. However, what is individually rational becomes collectively irrational when each herdsman, acting in isolation, does the same thing. The net result of the individual's actions is the ending of the livelihood of every herdsman as the land becomes overused.

His article was used to justify both nationalisation and privatisation of communal resources (the former often a precursor for the latter). As state ownership fell out of favour, the lesson of this experiment in logic was as uniform as it was simple: only privatisation of common resources could ensure their efficient use and stop them being overused and destroyed. Coming as it did before the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1970s, Hardin's essay was much referenced by those seeking to privatise nationalised industries and eliminate communal institutions in tribal societies in the Third World. That these resulted in wealth being concentrated in a few hands should come as no surprise.

Needless to say, there are numerous problems with Hardin's analysis. Most fundamentally, it was a pure thought experiment and, as such, was not informed by historical or current practice. In other words, it did not reflect the reality of the commons as a social institution. The so-called "Tragedy of the Commons" was no such thing. It is actually an imposition of the "tragedy of the free-for-all" to communally owned resources (in this case, land). In reality, commons were never "free for all" resources and while the latter may see overuse and destruction the former managed to survive thousands of years. So, unfortunately for the supporters of private property who so regularly invoke the "Tragedy of the Commons", they simply show their ignorance of what true commons are. As socialist Allan Engler points out:

"Supporters 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 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]

Therefore, as Colin Ward argues, "[l]ocal, popular, control is the surest way of avoiding the tragedy of the commons." [Reflected in Water, p. 20] Given that a social anarchist society is a communal, decentralised one, it will have little to fear from irrational overuse or abuse of communally owned and used resources.

So, the real problem is that a lot of economists and sociologists conflate Hardin's 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. Historian E.P. Thompson, for example, noted that Hardin was "historically uninformed" when he assumed that commons were pastures open to all. The commons, in reality, were managed by common agreements between those who used them. In an extensive investigation on this subject, Thompson showed that the "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. 108fn and p. 107] Colin Ward points to a more recent example, that of Spain after the victory of Franco:

"The water history of Spain demonstrates that the tragedy of the commons is not the one identified by Garrett Hardin. Communal control developed an elaborate and sophisticated system of fair shares for all. The private property recommended by Hardin resulted in the selfish individualism that he thought was inevitable with common access, or in the lofty indifference of the big landowners." [Op. Cit., p. 27]

So, for a while, Hardin's essay "was taken to provide an argument for the privatisation of the commons. It is now a well-developed point that Hardin's argument is not a tragedy of common ownership at all . . . Hardin's argument is a problem not of common ownership, but of open access in a context of private ownership of particular assets." [John O'Neill, Markets, Deliberation and Environment, p. 54] Significantly, Hardin later admitted his mistake and noted that "it is clear to me that the title of my original contribution should have been The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons . . . I can understand how I might have misled others." [quoted by O'Neill, Op. Cit., p. 199] But, of course, by then the damage had been done.

There is something quite arrogant about Hardin's assertions, as he basically assumed that peasant farmers are unable to recognise certain disaster and change their behaviour accordingly. This, apparently, is where enlightened elites (governmental and economic) step in. However, in the real world, small farmers (and others) have created their own institutions and rules for preserving resources and ensuring that their community has the resources it needed to survive. Hardin, in other words, ignored what actually happens in a real commons, namely communal control and self-regulation by the communities involved who develop the appropriate communal institutions to do so.

Surely, the very obvious fact that humans have lived in societies with commons for centuries and did not overuse them disproves Hardin's most fundamental assumptions. "If we misunderstand the true nature of the commons," argues scientist Susan Jane Buck Cox "we also misunderstand the implications of the demise of the traditional, commons system. Perhaps what existed in fact was not a 'tragedy of the commons' but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years -- and perhaps thousands, although written records do not exist to prove the longer era -- land was managed successfully by communities." This suggests that it is a case of "the myth of the tragedy of the commons", rooted in an argument which is "historically false" as the "commons were carefully and painstakingly regulated." She points to a wider issue, namely whether "our perceptions of the nature of humankind are awry" for "it seems quite likely if 'economic man' had been managing the commons that tragedy really would have occurred," so "perhaps someone else was running the common." ["No Tragedy on the Commons", pp. 49-61, Environmental Ethics, vol. 7, p. 60, p. 53, p. 56 and p. 61]

One economist has noted that the "tragedy of the commons" only makes sense once the assumption of neo-classical economics are taken for granted. If we assume atomised individuals accessing unmanaged lands then Hardin's conclusions automatically flow. However, "if the property were really common, this would imply the necessary existence of institutional agreements . . . between the co-owners to establish the rules for decisions governing the management of the resource. To put it more clearly, for common property to be truly common property implies its existence as an institution." It is precisely these kinds of human institutions which neo-classical economics ignores and so "the so-called 'tragedy of the commons' is more accurately considered 'the tragedy of a methodological individualism'". As many critics note, there are numerous "conceptual errors" contained in the article and these "have been repeated systematically by economists." In summary, "the so-called tragedy of the commons has nothing to do with common property, but with unrestricted and unregulated access." [F. Aguilera-Klink, "Some Notes on the Misuse of Classic Writings in Economics on the Subject of Common Property", pp. 221-8, Ecological Economics, No. 9, p. 223, p. 221, p. 224 and p. 226]

Much the same can be said against those who argue that the experience of Stalinism in the Eastern Block and elsewhere shows that public property leads to pollution and destruction of natural resources. Such arguments also show a lack of awareness of what common property actually is (it is no co-incidence that the propertarian-right use such an argument). This is because the resources in question, as we discussed in section B.3.5, were not owned or managed in common -- the fact that these countries were dictatorships excluded popular control of resources. Thus Stalinism does not, in fact, show the dangers of having commons or public ownership. Rather it shows the danger of not subjecting those who manage a resource to public control (and it is no co-incidence that the USA is far more polluted than Western Europe -- in the USA, like in the USSR, the controllers of resources are not subject to popular control and so pass pollution on to the public). Stalinism shows the danger of state owned resource use (nationalisation) rather than commonly owned resource use (socialisation), particularly when the state in question is not under even the limited control of its subjects implied in representative democracy.

This confusion of public and state owned resources 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, like the continued use of Hardin's original and flawed "Tragedy of the Commons", is due to 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. Most examples used to justify the "tragedy of the commons" are false examples, based on situations in which the underlying social context is assumed to be 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 successfully managed before the wealthy sought to increase their holdings and deny the poor access to land in order to make them fully dependent on the power and whims of the owning class.

Thus, as Kropotkin stressed, the state "systematically weeded out all institutions in which the mutual-aid tendency had formerly found its expression. The village communities were bereft of their folkmotes, their courts and independent administration; their lands were confiscated." [Mutual Aid, p. 182] The possibilities of free discussion and agreement were destroyed in the name of "absolute" property rights and the power and authority which goes with them. Both political influence and market forces were, and are, dominated by wealth: "There were two occasions that dictated absolute precision: a trial at law and a process of enclosure. And both occasions favoured those with power and purses against the little users." Popular assertion meant little when the state enforces property rights in the interests of the wealthy. Ultimately, "Parliament and law imposed capitalist definitions to exclusive property in land." [Thompson, Op. Cit., p. 134 and p. 163] As Cox suggested, many tenants were "denied [their] remedy at law for the illegal abuses of the more powerful landowners" and "[s]ponsored by wealthy landowners, the land reform was frequently no more than a sophisticated land-grab." [Op. Cit., p. 58 and p. 59] Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger (and proto-anarchist), was only expressing a widespread popular sentiment when he complained that "in Parishes where Commons lie the rich Norman Freeholders, or the new (more covetous) Gentry overstock the Commons with sheep and cattle, so that the inferior Tenants and poor labourers can hardly keep a cow but half starve her." [quoted by Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, p. 173] The working class is only "left alone" to starve.

As discussed in section F.8, the enclosures were part of a wider state-imposition of capitalism onto society. Of course, enclosure was often justified by supporters of capitalism by the increased productivity which, they claim, resulted from it (in effect, repeating Locke's earlier, and flawed, argument -- see section B.3.4). There are three objections to this. First, it cannot be assumed that increased productivity could not be achieved by keeping the commons and by the commoners applying the improved techniques and technologies that contributed to any post-enclosure increased productivity. Second, it ignores the key issue of liberty and replaces it with property (increases in wealth being considered more important than reducing the freedom of the working class). Third, and more importantly, this paternalistic rationale for coercion and state action does not fit well with such apologist's opposition to (certain forms of) state intervention today (such as taxation or popular land reform). If the "ends justify the means" (which is what their arguments boil down to) when applied to the rural working class, then they have little basis for opposing taxation of the wealthy elite or pro-worker land-reform in a democracy or a popular social revolution.

To conclude. The "tragedy of the commons" argument is conceptually flawed and empirically wrong (unsurprising, given that no actual empirical evidence was presented to support the argument). Sadly, this has not stopped Hardin, or those inspired by his arguments, from suggesting policies based on a somewhat dubious understanding of history and humanity. Perhaps this is not that surprising, given that Hardin's assumptions (which drive his conclusions) are based not on actual people nor historical evidence but rather by fundamental components of capitalist economic theory. While under capitalism, and the short-termism imposed by market forces, you could easily imagine that a desire for profit would outweigh a person's interest in the long-term survival of their community, such a perspective is relatively recent in human history.

In fact, communal ownership produces a strong incentive to protect such resources for people are aware that their offspring will need them and so be inclined to look after them. By having more resources available, they would be able to resist the pressures of short-termism and so resist maximising current production without regard for the future. Capitalist owners have the opposite incentive for, as argued in section E.3, unless they maximise short-term profits then they will not be around in the long-term (so if wood means more profits than centuries-old forests then the trees will be chopped down). By combining common ownership with decentralised and federated communal self-management, anarchism will be more than able to manage resources effectively, avoiding the pitfalls of both privatisation and nationalisation.

I.6.1 How can property "owned by everyone in the world" be used?

First, we need to point out the fallacy normally lying behind this objection. It is assumed that because everyone owns something, then 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. Carlo Cafiero, one of the founders of communist-anarchism, stated the obvious:

"The common wealth being scattered right across the planet, while belonging by right to the whole of humanity, those who happen to be within reach of that wealth and in a position to make use of it will utilise it in common. The folk from a given country will use the land, the machines, the workshops, the houses, etc., of that country and they will all make common use of them. As part of humanity, they will exercise here, in fact and directly, their rights over a portion of mankind's wealth. But should an inhabitant of Peking visit this country, he [or she] would enjoy the same rights as the rest: in common with the others, he would enjoy all the wealth of the country, just as he [or she] would have in Peking." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 250]

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 when using it). This does not mean that those using it can do what they like to it. Users would be subject to recall by local communities if they are abusing their position (for example, if a workplace were polluting the environment, then the local community could act to stop or, if need be, close down the workplace). Thus use rights (or usufruct) replace property rights in a free society, combined with a strong dose of "think globally, act locally."

It is no coincidence that societies that are stateless are also without private property. As Murray Bookchin pointed 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, co-operative 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." 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." [The Ecology of Freedom, p. 116] The future stateless society anarchists hope for would also be based upon such a principle.

In effect, critics of social anarchism confuse property with possession and think that abolishing property automatically abolishes possession and use rights. However, as argued in section B.3, property and possession are distinctly different. In the words of Charlotte Wilson:

"Property is the domination of an individual, or a coalition of individuals, over things; it is not the claim of any person or persons to the use of things -- this is, usufruct, a very different matter. Property means the monopoly of wealth, the right to prevent others using it, whether the owner needs it or not. Usufruct implies the claim to the use of such wealth as supplies the users needs. If any individual shuts of a portion of it (which he is not using, and does not need for his own use) from his fellows, he is defrauding the whole community." [Anarchist Essays, p. 40]

Thus an anarchist society has a simple and effective means of deciding how communally owned resources are used, one based on possession and usufruct. The key thing to remember, as discussed in section I.3.3, is that socialisation means that access is free: users of a resource are not subjected to hierarchical social relationships in order to use it. Socialisation does not mean that people can, say, wander into someone's workplace and simply take away a machine or computer. Rather, it means that when someone joins a workplace they are sharing in the use of a common resource and do so as a free and equal associate rather than as an obedient wage-slave. If a resource is not being used, then they have free access to use it. If it is being used then it will be managed by those who use it, with access granted in agreed ways which ensure egalitarian, and so free, relationships and outcomes.

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, a local self-managed 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 an 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 interrelationship of ecosystems and freedom is well known, and it is 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 co-operatives). Housing associations made up of tenants 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 relevant 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, communes or syndicates 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 judgement 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 only 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 an authority, disaster will be the inevitable result. In the first place, this authority will have to be given power to enforce its judgement in such matters. If this happens, the new authority will undoubtedly keep for itself the best of what is disputed (as payment for services rendered, of course!). If private property were re-introduced, 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." Ultimately, it is strange to think that two parties who meet on terms of equality and disagree could not be reasonable or just, and that a third party with power backed up by violence will be the incarnation of justice itself. Common sense should warn us against such an illusion and, if common sense is lacking, then history shows that using authority or property to solve disputes is not wise!

And, we should note, it is equally as fallacious, as Leninists suggest, that only centralisation can ensure common access and common use. Centralisation, by removing control from the users into a body claiming to represent "society", replaces the dangers of abuse by a small group of workers with the dangers of abuse by a bureaucracy invested with power and authority over all. If members of a commune or syndicate can abuse their position and restrict access for their own benefit, so can the individuals who make up the bureaucracy gathered round a centralised body (whether that body is, in theory, accountable by election or not). Indeed, it is far more likely to occur as the experience of Leninism shows beyond doubt. Thus decentralisation is the key to common ownership and access, not centralisation.

Communal ownership 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 communal ownership involve restricting individual liberty?

This point is expressed in many different forms. John Henry MacKay (an individualist anarchist) put the point as follows:

"'Would you [the social anarchist], in the system of society which you call 'free Communism' prevent individuals from exchanging their labour 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." [Patterns of Anarchy, p. 31]

However, anarchist theory has a simple and clear answer to this question. To see what this answer is, it simply a case of remembering that use rights replace property rights in an anarchist society. 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 (see section B.3). Socialisation is rooted in this concept of "occupancy and use" and this means that in a free communist society individuals can occupy and use whatever land and such tools and equipment as they need -- they do not have to join the free communist society (see section I.5.7). If they do not, however, they cannot place claims on the benefits others receive from co-operation and communal life.

This can be seen from Charlotte Wilson's discussions on anarchism written a few years before MacKay published his "inescapable" question. She asks the question: "Does Anarchism . . . then . . . acknowledge . . . no personal property?" She answers by noting that "every man [or woman] is free to take what he [or she] requires" and so "it is hardly conceivable that personal necessaries and conveniences will not be appropriated" by individual's for their personal consumption and use. For "[w]hen property is protected by no legal enactments, backed by armed force, and is unable to buy personal service, its resuscitation on such a scale as to be dangerous to society is little to be dreaded. The amount appropriated by each individual . . . must be left to his [or her] own conscience, and the pressure exercised upon him [or her] by the moral sense and distinct interests of his [or her] neighbours." This system of "usufruct" would also apply to the "instruments of production -- land included", being "free to all workers, or groups of workers" for "as long as land and capital are unappropriated, the workers are free, and that, when these have a master, the workers also are slaves." [Anarchist Essays, p. 24 and p. 21] This is because, as with all forms of anarchism, communist-anarchism bases itself on the distinction between property and possession.

In other words, possession replaces private property in a free society. This applies to those who decide to join a free communist society and those who desire to remain outside. This is clear from the works of many leading theorists of free communism (as indicated in section G.2.1), none of whom thought the occupying of land for personal use (or a house or the means of production) entailed the "right of private property." For example, looking at land we find both Kropotkin and Proudhon arguing along the same lines. For the former: "Who, then, can appropriate for himself the tiniest plot of ground . . . without committing a flagrant injustice?" [Conquest of Bread, p. 90] For the latter: "The land cannot be appropriated". Neither denied that individuals could use the land or other resources, simply that it could not be turned into private property. Thus Proudhon: "Every occupant is, then, necessarily a possessor or usufructuary, -- a function that excludes proprietorship." [Property is Theft!, p. 103 and p. 100] Obviously John Henry MacKay, unlike Kropotkin, had not read his Proudhon! As Wilson argued:

"Proudhon's famous dictum, 'Property is theft', is the key to the equally famous enigma . . . 'From each according to his capacities, to each according to his needs'. When the workers clearly understand that in taking possession of railways and ships, mines and fields, farm buildings and factories, raw material and machinery, and all else they need for their labour, they are claiming the right to use freely for the benefit of society, what social labour has created, or utilised in the past, and that, in return for their work, they have a just right to take from the finished product whatever they personally require." [Op. Cit., pp. 20-1]

This can be seen from libertarian communist William Morris and his account of Proudhon. Morris classed the French anarchist as "the most noteworthy figure" of a group of "Socialist thinkers who serve as a kind of link between the Utopians and the school of . . . scientific Socialists." As far as his critique of property went, Morris argued that in What is Property? Proudhon's "position is that of a Communist pure and simple." [Political Writings, p. 569 and p. 570]

Unsurprisingly, then, we find Kropotkin arguing that "[a]ll things belong to all, and provided that men and women contribute their share of labour for the production of necessary objects, they are entitled to their share of all that is produced by the community at large." He went on to state that "free Communism . . . places the products reaped or manufactured in common at the disposal of all, leaving to each the liberty to consume them as he [or she] pleases in his [or her] own home." [The Place of Anarchism in Socialistic Evolution,, p. 6 and p. 7] This obviously implies a situation of "occupancy and use" (with those who are actually using a resource controlling it).

This support for possession does not, of course, imply any contradiction with communism as MacKay suggested. The aim of communism is to place the fruits of society at the disposal of society, to be used and consumed as the members of that society desire. As such, individuals are not stopped from taking and using the goods produced and, obviously, this automatically means "excluding" others from using and consuming them. This in no way implies the recreation of private property in any meaningful sense. Significantly, this perspective has been pretty commonplace in human society and numerous authors have pointed out "how many languages lack any verb for unilateral ownership." [David Graeber, Possibilities, p. 23]

For example, a group of friends go on a picnic and share the food stuffs they bring. If someone takes an apple from the common bounty and eats it, then obviously it is no longer available for others to eat. However, this does not change the common ownership of foodstuffs the picnic is based on. Similarly, in a communist society people would still have their own homes and, of course, would have the right to restrict entry to just those whom they have invited. People would not come in from the street and take up residence in the main bedroom on the dubious rationale that it is not being used as the inhabitant is watching TV in the lounge, is on holiday or visiting friends.

Thus communism is based on the obvious fact that individuals will "appropriate" (use) the products of society to satisfy their own needs (assuming they can find someone who needs to produce it). What it does, though, is to deprive individuals of the ability to turn possession into private property and, as a result, subjugate others to their will by means of wage labour or landlordism.

In other words, possession (personal "property") is not transformed into social property. Hence the communist support for individuals not joining the commune, working their land or tools and living by their own hands. Being based on possession, this is utterly compatible with communist principles and the abolition of private property. This is because people are using the resources in question and for that simple reason are exercising the same rights as the rest of communist society. Thus the case of the non-member of free communism is clear -- they would also have access to what they possessed and used such as the land, housing and means of production. The difference is that the non-communists would have to barter with the rest of society for goods rather than take what they need from the communal stores.

To re-iterate, the resources non-communists use do not become private property because they are being used and they revert back into common ownership once they are no longer occupied and used. In other words, possession replaces property. Thus communist-anarchists agree with Individualist Anarchist John Beverley Robinson when he wrote:

"There are two kinds of land ownership, proprietorship or property, by which the owner is absolute lord of the land to use it or hold it out of use, as it may please him; and possession, by which he is secure in the tenure of land which he uses and occupies, but has no claim on it at all if he ceases to use it. For the secure possession of his crops or buildings or other products, he needs nothing but the possession of the land he uses." [Patterns of Anarchy, p. 273]

This system, we must note, was used in the rural collectives during the Spanish Revolution, with people free to remain outside the collective working only as much land and equipment as they could "occupy and use" by their own labour. Similarly, the individuals within the collective worked in common and took what they needed from the communal stores (see section I.8).

MacKay's comments raise another interesting point. Given that Individualist Anarchists oppose the current system of private property in land, their system entails that "society ha[s] the right of control over the individual." If we look at the "occupancy and use" land system favoured by the likes of Tucker, we discover that it is based on restricting property in land (and so the owners of land). As discussed in section G.1.2, the likes of Tucker looked forward to a time when public opinion (i.e., society) would limit the amount of land which individuals could acquire and so, from MacKay's perspective, controlling their actions and violating their autonomy. Which, we must say, is not surprising as individualism requires the supremacy of the rest of society over the individual in terms of rules relating to the ownership and use of possessions (or "property") -- as the Individualist Anarchists themselves implicitly acknowledge.

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." [Op. Cit., p. 32] Which, we must note, is a strange statement for, as indicated in section G.1, individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker considered themselves socialists and opposed capitalist private property (while, confusingly, many of them calling their system of possession "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 individuals who use, but do not own, it and so denying them liberty (see section B.4). As Proudhon argued:

"The purchaser draws boundaries, fences himself in, and says, 'This is mine; each one by himself, each one for himself.' Here, then, is a piece of land upon which, henceforth, no one has right to step, save the proprietor and his friends; which can benefit nobody, save the proprietor and his servants. Let these multiply, and soon the people . . . will have nowhere to rest, no place of shelter, no ground to till. They will die of hunger at the proprietor's door, on the edge of that property which was their birth-right; and the proprietor, watching them die, will exclaim, 'So perish idlers and vagrants.'" [Op. Cit., p. 111]

Of course, as Proudhon suggested, the non-owner can gain access to the property by becoming a servant, by selling their liberty to the owner and agreeing to submit to the owner's authority. Little wonder that he argued that the "second effect of property is despotism." [Op. Cit., p. 259] As discussed in section G.4.1, this points to a massive contradiction in any form of individualist anarchism which defends private property which goes beyond possession and generates wage-labour. This is because both the state and the property owner both assume sole authority over a given area and all within it. Little wonder Emile Pouget, echoing Proudhon, argued that:

"Property and authority are merely differing manifestations and expressions of one and the same 'principle' which boils down to the enforcement and enshrinement of the servitude of man. Consequently, the only difference between them is one of vantage point: viewed from one angle, slavery appears as a property crime, whereas, viewed from a different angle, it constitutes an authority crime." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, p. 66]

So the issue changes if someone claims more resources than they can use as individuals or as a co-operative group. If they are attempting to restrict access to others of resources they are not using then the others are entitled to simply ignore the pretensions of the would-be monopoliser. Without a state to enforce capitalist property rights, attempts to recreate private property will flounder in the laughter of their neighbours as these free people defend their liberty by ignoring the would-be capitalist's attempts to subjugate the labour of others for their own benefit by monopolising the means of life. Unsurprisingly, MacKay does not 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 but do not own it.

So 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 "property" when it creates 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. Unlike in a free communist society, in which members of a commune have equal rights, power and say within a self-managed association, under "private property" the owner of the property governs those who use it. When the owner and the user is identical, this is not a problem (i.e. when possession replaces property) but once possession becomes property then despotism, as Proudhon noted, is created. As Charlotte Wilson put it:

"Property -- not the claim to use, but to a right to prevent others from using -- enables individuals who have appropriated the means of production, to hold in subjection all those who possess nothing . . . and who must work that they may live. No work is possible without land, materials, and tools or machinery; thus the masters of those things are the masters also of the destitute workers, and can live in idleness upon their labour. . . We look for th[e] socialisation of wealth, not to restraints imposed by authority upon property, but to the removal, by direct personal action of the people themselves, of the restraints which secure property against the claims of popular justice. For authority and property are both manifestations of the egoistical spirit of domination". [Op. Cit., pp. 57-8]

Therefore, it seems that in the name of "liberty" John Henry 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. In summary, then, far from communal property restricting individual liberty (or even personal use of resources) it is in fact its only defence. That is why all anarchists would agree with Emma Goldman that "it is our endeavour to abolish private property, State . . . we aim to free men from tyrants and government." [A Documentary History of the American Years, vol. 1, p. 181]



Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles


Posting comments

 Like most sites we have a major problem with bots trying to post spam into the comments section.  While looking for a better solution we are reduced to only on turning on the ability to anonymously comment for brief periods around the posting of new articles.  But if you are a regular visitor you can comment at any time by creating an account on the site and logging in before posting. But the Spammers also set up accounts so to reduce the workload of deleting those we only turn on the ability to create accounts for brief periods which we announce on our Twitter & Facebook accounts so follow those to hear when we have that turned on.  We do want you to be able to engage with us via the comments and we are very sorry for the fact that we can't find a better way of dealing with spam.