The Tragedy of the Commons and Alienated Knowledge: Reading Hardin with Braverman

A curious feature of the tragedy of the commons as an argument for privatization is its persistence in the face of historical evidence. For most of human history, it’s safe to assume that commons have succeeded as modes of economic and social organization. We have written records that verify the existence (and destruction through privatization) of agricultural commons throughout Europe, successfully managed by an aggregate of actors (of course, they lacked the capitalistic impulses that drove them towards rapaciousness). The continued existence of commons in indigenous communities (and, arguably, within capitalism itself) strongly suggests that commons are a persistent feature of human socioeconomic arrangements. Even Hardin himself briefly acknowledges that his fable doesn’t correspond with historical reality, before quickly reverting to a pat ahistorical explanation of why we might have forgotten that history:

Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial.

That the tragedy of the commons persists as a way of thinking about common goods speaks to the degree to which it corresponds to both capitalist society and our understanding of that society. This worldview – that society is composed of rational, self-interested actors and that their aggregate behavior destroys common goods – far precedes Hardin’s essay, because it accurately speaks to the social conditions that are specific to capitalism itself. But it was in Hardin’s essay that it’s received its latest, strongest poetic form. In just over 300 words, Hardin gave a voice to capitalism’s innate conviction that it’s better to trust goods to the private (but rational!) tyranny of Homo economicus.

So if the success of the commons was something we learned so long ago, and retained for so long, why is it only today that the “forces of psychological denial” are taking hold? Why is it that, in the face of history, the commons can be conceived of as a site of inevitable tragedy? Hardin unwittingly points us towards a solution in his suggestion that the antidote to this – again ahistorical – tendency is education:

Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

This raises the question as to why, in the presence of a vast educational apparatus, we aren’t more “refreshed” today than we were in the past when commons relatively flourished? We can turn to Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital to clear the air.

The first step is to determine where this knowledge of the commons comes from. Hardin is correct that it is “education,” but it isn’t education in the common-sense meaning of the term, moral or didactic education. Rather, as Braverman describes here, it’s the education that comes from the practice of a craft:

From earliest times to the Industrial Revolution the craft or skilled trade was the basic unit, the elementary cell of the labor process. In each craft, the worker was presumed to be the master of a body of traditional knowledge, and methods and procedures were left to his or her discretion. In each such worker reposed the accumulated knowledge of materials and processes by which production was accomplished in the craft. The potter, tanner, smith, weaver, carpenter, baker, miller, glassmaker, cobbler, etc., each representing a branch of the social division of labor, was a repository of human technique for the labor processes of that branch. [74-75]

For the farming peasants of medieval Europe, commons management was part of this repository of traditional knowledge, acquired through the agricultural practices of the community. The individual’s knowledge was “refreshed” by virtue of their inhabiting a particular social role that entails a particular kind of labor. Part of that labor is the management of the commons.

If this answers the questions as to how the commons was maintained across time, it also points towards how that knowledge was ultimately lost.

One mechanism of loss is the loss of the commons itself. Without the commons as an object of labor, there can’t be the labor of commons management, and thus nothing to refresh the memory of the worker. And as Marx thoroughly documented, the enclosure of the commons was one of the early engines of capitalism. This mechanism, then, is the alienation that capitalism creates between the worker and the object of labor, the latter considered as the means of production.

The other mechanism is another mode of alienation – this time between the worker and the process of labor. Central to Braveman’s thesis is that capital has an innate tendency to divest the worker of both knowledge of and control of the labor process. So while traditional modes of work are knowledge repositories, work in capitalism consists of that knowledge being removed from the site of the worker and placed in another, specialized worker who doesn’t participate in the labor process itself, but merely plans it:

[Taylor] candidly admits that not only *could* the “science of bricklaying” be developed by workers, but that it undoubtedly *had been*… But because knowledge possessed by workers is not useful to capital, Taylor begins his list of the desiderata of scientific management: “First. The development-by the management, not the workmen-of the science of bricklaying.” [81]

[B]oth in order to ensure management control and to cheapen the worker, conception and execution must be rendered separate spheres of work. [81]

The commons, then, is abolished in a double-sense – in a strict literal sense, and in a conceptual sense, from the collective memory of the working community. Having forgotten the way commons function in non-capitalist society, in capitalism it becomes a site of fragmentation, competition, and private dominion. Hardin’s understanding of the commons, then, is the result of historical process that has been hostile to the commons.

All this might seem like a roundabout way of answering the original question – how it was that the commons came to be understood as a site of inevitable tragedy. But we are now also able to see how the understanding that created the tragedy is not only particular to capitalism, not only pointing towards arrangements particular to capitalism, but is in fact a reflection and reenactment of the very conditions that define human social existence in capitalism.

Because as the alienation of knowledge becomes the rule rather than the exception, this process extends beyond the specific forms of work (e.g. agriculture), and out to knowledge about social reproduction in general. Whereas people formerly consisted of a community working in common, now individuals are conceived as atomized entities with atomized capacities, both in how they relate to one another and how they are brought into a relationship with capital and inserted into the labor process. Basic notions of commonality are destroyed and replaced with this fragmented view, while knowledge of society taken as a whole is relegated to specialist workers. Moreover, these knowledges fetishize the conditions out of which they arise.

Which is to say, this process of labor fragmentation and knowledge alienation not only affects agricultural workers, not only workers in general, but Hardin himself, as an ecologist. His profession is a product of alienation of ecological knowledge from workers such as those who would have managed the commons. His way of thinking about human ecology is characterized, at a fundamental level, by its alienated origin – he could only imagine the commons through his alienated knowledge, and that knowledge is in turn predicated on the general alienation of knowledge that characterizes capitalist society. His belief that the commons is a site of tragedy, then, becomes evidence of his own alienation and the alienation that defines his intellectual mileu.


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