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.

Not Making the Choice

Mark Zuckerberg’s shirt made its rounds in the tech press recently. Zuckerberg isn’t the only tech mogul to wear the same outfit every day – Steve Jobs holds that title in perpetuity – but the rationale that Zuckerberg gave for why he does so is worth noting. Unlike Jobs, whose turtleneck was a branding symbol, Zuckerberg wears the same thing every day to cut the number of choices he has to make.

Granted, few people are industry magnates, but nonetheless choice-reduction strategies like these are increasingly popular, especially among the minimalist, design-obsessed, lifehacking labor aristocracy of the tech sector. This trend suggests something like “peak choice” – a maximum saturation of choice in people’s day-to-day lives, such that they need to start making choices about what they do and do not choose.

The policy work of Cass Sunstein carries a similar implication. Sunstein has spent several year advocating for a policy he dubs “paternal libertarianism,” “soft paternalism,” or, “nudging.” Rather than the hard paternalism of requirements and bans, nudging attempts to reshape the structure of decisions such that the default or easy choice to make is the best one in terms of welfare for the choice-maker. It’s an attempt to thread the needle between achieving the regulatory goals of the state on the one hand, and, to quote Sunstein, “preserv[ing] freedom of choice, and in that sense both autonomy and dignity” on the other.

Nudging’s libertarian preoccupations bring up some underlying questions: why is it that one must manipulate the architecture of choice in the first place? Why is this the means to better social outcomes? Why do people have so much trouble making decisions?

The way Sunstein, and much of behavioral economics, frames the choice problem implies people struggle with choice because they are bumbling hominids, reflexively reaching for fat and sugar and too distracted or illiterate to understand the implications of complex paperwork. Neoclassical economists talk about these poor choice-making tendencies in terms of time preference and discount function – a revival of the Benthamite notion of man-as-shopkeeper that Marx famously criticized. And while they talk as if they do, behavioral economists don’t reject it, rather, they qualify it. A tendency to make the wrong (economic) choice is simply part of human nature, and not a moral failure as libertarians would have it, but one fails to make the choice nonetheless. It doesn’t make much of a difference to acknowledge that Homo sapiens is not, in fact, Homo economicus when we still hold ourselves to the standards of the imaginary species.

Zuckerberg’s shirt and Sunstein’s nudging both signal that choice-making in contemporary society is not hampered just by human foibles, but by the sheer quantity of choices that people have to make. When the right to choose is sacrosanct, and when the bravest advance that can be made against choice is a Sunsteinian nudge, the choices people must make on a day-to-day basis multiply to the point where none of them get the proper attention. To reverse Corey Robin’s formula, neoliberal capitalism has converted ordinary unhappiness into the hysterical misery of making choices one doesn’t necessarily have to.

The only defense against this continual onslaught of choice-making is not the palliative nudge, but to argue that, in some cases, we shouldn’t have to make the choice. We need to recognize choice as a politically-contested category, one whose meaning changes depending on one’s place in society. In short, an anti-choice politics. Do the uninsured poor need healthcare options, or do they just need healthcare? One of the most exciting prospects of a universal healthcare system is the prospect of not having to worry so much about choosing. But while the benefits of not having to choose are nice for the middle class, they are immeasurably greater the poorer and the more time- and cash-strapped one is. Sufficient wealth, on the other hand, can preempt the choicemaking process entirely – one simply chooses the best (and usually most expensive) option available, or pays someone else to do it for them.

Similar to anti-work politics, an anti-choice politics would seek to break down a little-examined notion that nonetheless serves as a foundation for other political struggles. Choice is not only a capacity or a right, but a field whose boundaries define the struggles taking place on it. From healthcare to soda to prostitution, an anti-choice politics could bring clarity to debates in which the freedom to choose has muddied the waters.

“Gentrification” As Fig Leaf

In a discussion as mystified as the one around gentrification, it can behoove us to break things down into oversimple terms.

I like Matt Bruenig’s take, where he reduces gentrification to three essential facets: inequality, market competition, and property commodification. When framed this way, he points out, solutions to the problem of gentrification quickly become clear – stymie any one of these facets, and gentrification slows or stops.

Moments of analytical clarity like this are useful in a superficial conversation dominated by self-help (at first, “20 Ways Not To Be a Gentrifier”, and then, confronted with reality, “Five Ways To Be a Good Gentrifier”) and consternation (finally, “There’s Basically No Way Not to Be a Gentrifier”) . They remind us of both the breadth of potential solutions, as well as the political conditions that limit us from them. But why are these moments so hard to come by? Why are discussions of gentrification so narrative and confessional? Why is so much ink spilled on the subject while at the same time, so much of it avoids the word “capitalism?”

Gavin Mueller notes that “[Liberal discourse] buries the structural forces at work and choreographs a dance about individual choice to perform on the grave… Gentrification becomes a culture war, a battle over consumer choices.” Discussion about gentrification, along with the term “gentrification” itself, becomes sacked of its structural content. To take things a step further – what is the mechanism by which this happens?

Someone hit the nail on the head at the local Jacobin reading group, where we discussed Mueller’s article – “gentrification” merely points towards the lived experiences of the urban middle class. Your archetypal gentrifier – middle-class, professional or “creative,” probably white, with family depending on age cohort – does not get to decide in a meaningful sense what neighborhood they live in. This is decided, rather, in the board rooms and council chambers of corporations and municipal governments. The little influence gentrifiers do have is dampened by their status as newcomers, as well as their secure place in the socioeconomic hierarchy. But most of all, it’s dampened by the fact that real policies combating gentrification entail constraining the growth potential of real estate capital, something for which there is little desire to take up among the gentrifying classes.

Facing alienation from municipal politics and unwilling to engage in anticapitalist politics, gentrifiers retreat into the private sphere. Gentrification is then experienced as a series of consumer choices, first and foremost the choice of where to make one’s home. It’s experienced as an inexorable process that, like so many other things in contemporary American life, the individual has no control over. Even the choice of the purchase is substantially constrained – do you want to go to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts? Columbia Heights or Shaw?

But we experience relatively little angst over our coffee purchases. There are few topics, on the other hand, that inspire more liberal hand-wringing than that of gentrification. Unlike the coffee industry, where guilt can be assuaged with fair-trade marketing, the violence of gentrification is geographically and economically immediate. Even when the white middle class tries to be “good,” it can’t help but carry out the next step in a centuries-long program of racialized poverty and oppression. It can’t rest easy with the knowledge that overt programs of segregation in the Jim Crow South are waiting to be toppled. Racism is built into the very economic arrangements that structure our lives – economic arrangements that it has no effective control over.

Faced with an injustice that they cannot look away from but refuse to address, the middle and upper classes respond with “gentrification” – a fig leaf suspended over the cycle of appropriation and the class, race, and political dynamics that drive it. And just like all fig leaves, we intuitively know what lies beneath it. In lieu of confronting that which we believe to be out of our hands, we talk about “gentrification” as a process suited to urban “hacks” and technocratic “solutions.”

More importantly, the fig leaf of gentrification produces fig leaf policies – namely, inclusionary zoning. Samuel Stein’s summary of its outcomes echoes perfectly gentrification-as-fig-leaf: “Inclusionary zoning might displace more poor people than it houses, but when the system’s casualties aren’t counted, they aren’t seen.” It’s a policy that doesn’t stop gentrification, but only grafts a few low-income families onto otherwise renovated communities. But what matters more than the displaced poor, for all the beneficiaries of gentrification, is that there is a fig leaf to cover up a problem that otherwise demands concrete, anticapitalist action.

A Defense of Kitsch Criticism

Some kitsch criticism certainly deserves criticism itself. When a major leftist publication devotes a whole issue to the analysis of Lana del Rey, it’s hard not to start tut-tutting, as Ross Wolfe does, citing art critic Harold Rosenberg. Reading the collection of think pieces, that indispensable tool of pop-culture criticism, one can’t help but wonder what’s being accomplished. It’s hard to shake the feeling that such analysis isn’t the same sleight-of-hand that it tries to pin on the starlet herself.

Contemporary discourse is saturated with pop culture analysis. The explosion of new digital media has taken kitsch criticism as its bread and butter, so much so that it’s hard not to find oneself not reflexively passing over the latest Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones analysis. Most left-intellectuals at least dabble in it, the exemplar of whom is Slavoj Žižek, who regularly deploys it in his lectures and even makes whole movies devoted to it.

This isn’t without reason. For those wanting to mount criticisms of capitalism, kitsch is an obvious port of entry – kitsch is ubiquitous, doesn’t need special training to consume or discuss, and is a uniquely capitalist phenomenon. But the amount of ink devoted to it results in, as Wolfe puts it, “that odd situation where a piece of writing or commentary comes to resemble the [pop-culture] object it supposedly critiques: dull, ephemeral, and ultimately forgettable.”

That kitsch criticism strays into becoming kitsch itself isn’t being contested here. What I am offering, though, is a corrective for Wolfe’s post – a reminder that, though we might risk straying into counterproductive irrelevance, we can’t cede kitsch as an ideological battleground. Kitsch is there, and like Rosenberg’s malarial mosquito, we have to grapple with it until we have the means to reshape the landscape and do away with it entirely (between 1946 and 1950, a massive project was undertaken – successfully – to rid Sardinia of malaria and the mosquitos that carried it; it involved a substantial draining of swampland on the island).

Among the more relevant examples of this are two of the articles that Wolfe cites, “Death to the Gamer” and “In Defense of Gamers”, both of which address Gamergate. Gamergate is a recent scandal in the video game community, ostensibly about journalistic ethics, but in reality an excuse to carry out a campaign of terroristic misogyny against certain women and their supporters. The scandal has also resulted in a large volume of writing, both about it and about gender and video games more broadly.

I’ve read and written a great deal about Gamergate. And, sure, I too have to make an editorial disclosure that I play video games. But what struck me most about the discussion surrounding Gamergate were the narratives being offered up by different parties of different analytical stripes. For feminists, Gamergate was fundamentally about misogyny, specifically the misogyny native to and cultivated by video game culture. This is true, but after the initial shockwaves passed, anticapitalist voices came forward offering an additional interpretation – Gamergate was also a political-economic phenomenon, one inextricably linked to video games as a capitalistic enterprise, and one that was indicative of broader trends in the cultural commodification of late capitalism.

This discussion about what Gamergate is, exactly, is one that has both theoretical and pragmatic implications. If we accept the mainstream analyses, we risk succumbing to the same problems that afflict neoliberal feminism – a bias for identitarian concerns and a blindness to how those intersect with class dimensions. This blindness limits us to merely demanding more from a capital that retains all the same proclivities that produced Gamergate in the first place. If we acknowledge that there is a class component, on the other hand, it opens up the possibility of not just demanding more, but of reshaping the industry root and branch into something that precludes terroristic misogyny from the outset.

It was just so with the malarial mosquito. Aggressive applications of DDT were not what eradicated it. It was, as Rosenberg himself pointed out, the reshaping of the Sardinian landscape itself, which required an understanding of the insect and how it reproduced.

All this to say: video games may be kitsch through and through, but moments like Gamergate reveal them also as a point of contradiction, which brings us to that core technique of anticapitalist, and particularly Marxist, critique. Crises like Gamergate are analogous to capitalist crises of accumulation – they are cracks in the armor of capitalist social reproduction. To engage kitsch on this point isn’t to suss out “the wisdom secreted in bad movies” or to “test the pollution in the water.” It’s to grapple with the terms of capitalism itself, and understand how they bear on our humanist and socialist praxis within it. And that is criticism worth undertaking.


It’s hard to imagine how the gateways to thinking and writing publicly felt once upon a time. I know the gist of them – broadsheet, a comparatively rare university education, the funds for self-publishing.

One by one, late modernity has knocked down or replaced these early modern forms. Self-publishing became impracticable as an intelligentsia was divested of its aristocratic funding and publishers became gatekeepers. Education was democratized and disciplined – in a literal sense, with intellectual projects being parcelled-out to various career destinations with ever-increasing specificity. Finally, print itself came under sudden and vicious attack by a chaotic stew of web publishing technologies.

However these old forms felt for those who wanted to have a public voice, todays forms surely feel different. Now we are “creatives” producing “content,” stuck in perpetual internships, blogging and tweeting and posting without an end in sight. And always for a pervasive, anonymous Other we can only call the Internet.

The problem isn’t, and never has been, I suspect, that too many clamoring for too few spots on the panel. There has always been less bandwidth than those who’d like to take part. Nor is the problem that the hyperdemocratic accessibility of web publishing produces too much chaff to wheat – again, it’s easy to forget that eras past had plenty of chaff, too.

The problem unique to digital capitalism is, rather, that there are fewer gatekeepers and more gates.

It’s a familiar enough problem for members of the audience. Most any web-literate person today will remember the controversies over Wikipedia citations. They’ll also probably know the pains of managing one’s Facebook feed, of checking the veracity of anonymous users’ claims, of being confronted with yet another social network vying for their attention (most recently, Ello).

But it’s also a problem for those who want to voice themselves in public way. What outlet or outlets does one choose? Where is your intended audience, and how do you get them to come to you? What’s the best way to establish web presence and increase your cachet? What’s the best way to comport yourself? What voice do you use?

It’s with these questions in mind that I start this blog. Here, I’ll mainly be writing about technology, late capitalism, and not a little about Marx and his Marxists. I’ll be writing about both old kings in the Old World, and new petty-kings in their private consumerist gardens. I’ll touch on gender and race and class and ideology – really anything to emulate, to some small extent, the all-encompassing breadth of vision that Marx and others have brought to bear on understanding capitalist modernity. And to meet the challenges and pass through the gateways that it confronts us with.