The road not traveled

Property and the Commons

Peter Kropotkin wrote a history of cooperative social organization that lasted into, and to a decreasing degree, a little beyond the Middle Ages. It included common lands, the Commons, that were used by the people and Kropotkin recorded that elites worked assiduously to end these arrangements and claim private property.[1]

Kropotkin was an anarchist; he of course was telling me what I wanted to hear, and in a source far older than I’m accustomed to citing, so I sought confirmation. I caught bits and snatches here and there, enough to assure me he wasn’t just talking out his ass, but little substantive, and in fact had forgotten about this story when I decided I was no longer an anarchist.[2] It’s a history that’s rarely told and seemed, to me at least, to have been lost. Until Eula Biss.[3]

Along the way, Biss writes[4] of Garrett Hardin, author of the infamous Tragedy of the Commons,[5] which Elinor Ostrom had refuted even before Hardin wrote it. Hardin’s thesis, that humans are intractably selfish, inevitably exhausting any shared resource, it turns out, relies on, at best, selective evidence. Counterexamples, it also seems, were abundant even before Hardin’s widely cited essay.[6]

Hardin, it turns out, was also a horrendous racist,[7] advancing a version of the paleoconservative white replacement theory.[8] No matter; the prevailing ideology embraces his thesis and ignores Ostrom’s.[9] To do otherwise would be to suggest that there is, after all, a viable alternative to capitalism and capitalist property relations. And you know we can’t have that.

Biss finds a town, Laxton, England, where land remains “unenclosed,” a Commons. It is far from the desolate, environmentally exhausted patch Hardin imagines. And it exists to this day.[10] It is indeed the case that we humans had a potential to be something else than than the self-destructively selfish assholes we generally are.

The trouble remains, however, what I wrote in that blog entry when I decided I was no longer an anarchist.[11] The experience of the climate crisis, which too many of us prefer to deny even at the likely expense of our own survival, and of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which too many of us often violently refused mitigation regulations and refused vaccinations, shows that a large proportion of us are incorrigible assholes. As I wrote following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, we have failed the test of survival as too many of us command that reality conform to our ideology rather than that our ideology should conform to reality.[12]

The particulars of climate and plague are of little import here; our end will surely be violent as Hardin’s self-fulfilling prophesy, following the logic of capitalism that he erroneously attributed to anarchism,[13] is realized.

Eula Biss, “The Theft of the Commons,” New Yorker, June 8, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/essay/the-theft-of-the-commons


  1. [1]Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (London: Heinemann, 1902; Mineola, NY: Dover, 2006).
  2. [2]David Benfell, “I am no longer an anarchist,” Not Housebroken, January 29, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/29/i-am-no-longer-an-anarchist/
  3. [3]Eula Biss, “The Theft of the Commons,” New Yorker, June 8, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/essay/the-theft-of-the-commons
  4. [4]Eula Biss, “The Theft of the Commons,” New Yorker, June 8, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/essay/the-theft-of-the-commons
  5. [5]Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no. 3859 (December 13, 1968): 1243-1248, doi: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243
  6. [6]Michelle Nijhuis, “The miracle of the commons,” Aeon, May 4, 2021, https://aeon.co/essays/the-tragedy-of-the-commons-is-a-false-and-dangerous-myth
  7. [7]Michelle Nijhuis, “The miracle of the commons,” Aeon, May 4, 2021, https://aeon.co/essays/the-tragedy-of-the-commons-is-a-false-and-dangerous-myth
  8. [8]Eula Biss, “The Theft of the Commons,” New Yorker, June 8, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/essay/the-theft-of-the-commons
  9. [9]Michelle Nijhuis, “The miracle of the commons,” Aeon, May 4, 2021, https://aeon.co/essays/the-tragedy-of-the-commons-is-a-false-and-dangerous-myth
  10. [10]Eula Biss, “The Theft of the Commons,” New Yorker, June 8, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/essay/the-theft-of-the-commons
  11. [11]David Benfell, “I am no longer an anarchist,” Not Housebroken, January 29, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/29/i-am-no-longer-an-anarchist/
  12. [12]David Benfell, “We have failed the test,” Not Housebroken, December 9, 2016, https://disunitedstates.org/2016/12/09/we-have-failed-the-test/
  13. [13]Michelle Nijhuis, “The miracle of the commons,” Aeon, May 4, 2021, https://aeon.co/essays/the-tragedy-of-the-commons-is-a-false-and-dangerous-myth

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