Friday, February 18, 2005

Common ownership

Speaking of common ownership (as Bill was) by coincidence on Wednesday we received a booklet Down with the Fences. Battles for the Commons in South London brought out by a local radical history group based at 56 Crampton St, SE 17.
In the sixties an American academic invented a new anti-socialist argument which he called the "Tragedy of the Commons" which has been doing the rounds ever since. It went like this: where you have common ownership of some natural resource, say grazing land, people with access to it, say to graze their cattle, will abuse it. Because it would be in the economic interest of each individual to use the common land to graze as big a herd of cattle as they could, they would all try to do this and eventually the land would be overgrazed. Conclusion: common ownership won't work and land and natural resources should be privately owned.
Socialists spotted the flaw in this straightaway. The academic assumed that only the land was owned in common whereas the cattle remained in the private ownership of individuals seeking to maximise their economic gains. Whereas, of course, socialism would mean the common ownership of both the cattle and the land and the aim of production would be to satisfy people's needs rather than to make profits.
Having said this, the argument is quite a good description of what happens under capitalism when there's no ownership of some resource such as still today the oceans -- they get overfished.
But the argument was also completely unhistorical, as the pamphlet we were sent confirms. The commons in England did not come to an end because they were over-exploited by the commoners taking too much firewood or trapping too many birds or rabbits or anything like that. They came to an end because some landlords wanted to extend their domains and used parliament and the law which they controlled to enclose the commons as their private property, either for agriculture or later for building houses on.
As a popular street ballad of the time put it:
"The law condemns the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose."
The grasping landlords (who in South London included the Spencer family who are still landed parasites to this day and of which the late Princess Airhead was a member) didn't always get their way -- fortunately, otherwise there'd be no public parks in South London.
Socialists stand for common ownership. Not just of land and other natural resources but also of human-made industrial resources. On this basis, we (society) could produce and distribute what was needed in accordance with the principle "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs". That, in fact, is what socialism is. And to help get people to realise that this is the only basis on which wealth production can be geared to serving human welfare rather than profits is why we're standing a candidate here in Vauxhall in the coming general election.

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