Of Black Holes and Alternative Universes: A Requiem for the Commons?


By Jeff Tangel

In his 1968 Tragedy of the Commons, [1] biologist Garrett Hardin famously   conflated people with simple machines: self-interested rational economic actors.  Using the example of grazing rights for ranchers he showed that land held in common must eventually be destroyed since it made “economic sense” for each of the ranchers to use as much as possible.  Conservatives cleaved to this work to proffer private property with all the fervency of religious salvation.  We cannot survive the collectivity of the commons, it was said; people only take care of what is theirs, directly.  Sadly, Hardin (and many others besides) was blinded to both the complexity of people and the complexity of their relations.   Although Hardin later qualified his thesis criticizing “the unmanaged commons,” we have yet to recover our ability to see clearly.

Within mainstream economics there was a glimmer of hope in 2009 when Elinor Ostrom won the Noble prize in economics by showing that people do, in fact work together to preserve a common source of their welfare. [2]  Ostrom was the first woman to win a Noble Prize in economic and, interestingly, she is political scientist to boot—although she might better be described as simply broadly curious and able, and perhaps, humble.

Ostrom found numerous cases in which a public commons served the many and did so reliably, resiliently, and sustainably over the long term.  “Economic sense” was not the sine qua non that so many believed.  Importantly she found that self interest and property rights were in fact narrow and restrictive lenses through which to view people and their relations.  Turns out people are more complicated—naturally richer, if you will.  “My motto,” says Ostrom, “is to build enough diversity [into institutions] to cope with the diversity of the world and allow multi-tiered systems at multiple scale so you don’t try to have a uniform top-down panacea that’s predicted to cure everything, but instead of curing it, kills it.”[3] In fact, she found, some have forced others into a simple and restrictive frame with terrible results.  Part of the western colonization of Africa, she offers, was to replace local agricultural custom with a nationalized scheme which resulted in supplanting relative sustainability with ecological decline. [4]  This of course was done to maximize productivity in order to maximize the collection of resources globally and concentrate the derived wealth in the coffers of the rich and powerful.  Hardin and others (she mentions the work of the economist Scott Gordon on maximum sustainable yield[5]) had created “a powerful allegory”, but their mistake, she says, was to think that there is only one way to go about things—in other words, employing one specific system universally.  And perhaps worst of all, “The presumption underlying this theory was that humans couldn’t figure this out themselves” to manage a commons. [6]

Enter Walmart, one of the world’s largest corporations and this country’s largest employer, who didn’t get that way by thinking collectively about anything.  They’re the biggest rancher on the plains.  They got that way by colonizing and creating the market—an act of creation via penetration, all of which is a calculus that denudes people and their commons.  Walmart notoriously pays its employees very little—so little in fact that nearly half of them rely on aid from state and federal governments to make ends meet in the form of food stamps and Medicaid.  Perhaps you’ve seen news reports and opinion pieces about this issue, many of which rightly accuse Walmart (and other large corps/ranchers who do the same, e.g. McDonald’s) of being welfare recipients themselves.[7]  After all their profitability depends on their workers, and so if their workers depend on taxpayer funded programs just to live, then Walmart depends on taxpayer funded programs.  In other words, Walmart is taking from the rest of us.  Never mind the obvious hypocrisy of right-wing thinking—that has become so ubiquitous that something has to make it rare again for it to become interesting.   Let’s focus on understanding this in a broader context: a denuded and debased commons and the creation of an alternative universe.

Walmart’s existence is a takings from the commons—that is what they do—and not with just a snide nose-thumbing at all the other ranchers about.  They are the most highly evolved dominant invader rancher species on the planet, able to draw resources from around the world—human and natural—and pile it all up in their little corner of the world.   Walmart not only sets its employees wages—they force similar wage structures throughout the domestic economy and the world.[8]  How has Walmart become so evolved?  Because instead of matching the complexity of our institutions with the complexity of nature, we have placed unmitigated and undying faith in an “impartial manager” of the commons: Capital. [9]  Walmart is both a simple machine and an intentional being that creates its environment and thrives in it by following the simple and powerful telos of this manager: unlimited reproduction, and the faster the better.  Critically, the process requires the externalization of as many costs as possible.  Thus relying on government support of their workers is built into its structure.  Walmart is not slowed by this contradiction.  Instead it is empowered by it.

Capital obliterates history—congenially referred to as “creative destruction”—and devalues the present in favor of an increasingly profitable future.  As all capitalist firms must.  No “then”, no “now”; only “what’s next.” In such a world there is nothing to be maintained, least of all a commons.  And people need not be consulted for their natural richness of ideas.  This singular system is working just fine.  Sorry Elinor.

Walmart, et al, are Black Holes, the progeny of Capital-as-manager thinking.  Aligning and adapting themselves to that universal, these entities have become vortexes of power that draw in the world’s common resources to create an alternative universe of unimaginable and massively concentrated wealth [10] and, importantly, freedom from responsibility.  The process kills other competitors leaving a moonscape for the struggling survivors, while it recreates itself by legitimizing and proffering a low-wage world in which people can only afford to shop at Walmart, et al.  Yes, it is symbiotic.  And yes, anyone who thinks this through understands that it must end badly: the commons will be history, if it is not already.

This is, of course, exactly what a dominant invader species would do to any ecosystem (though many manifold greater): take and reproduce freely, without limit until it replaces the diversity it had found.  Any species not killed in the process must adapt to this predator and in so doing live an impoverished life.  Live an impoverished life or die—just like Walmart workers.

Until, of course, the whole shebang loses its resiliency and collapses.

And I didn’t even mention the moral abomination that is Walmart.  I’m thinking now that’s where I should have started.  Maybe that’s where we all should start.


Here’s a link to Ostrom’s paper, Governing a Commons from a Citizen’s Perspective


And here’s a bullet outline of her thinking…


 [3] Ostrom, Elinor Sustainable development and the tragedy of commons, Stockholm Resilience Centre TV, in which she outlines the problem and rethinks the commons in 8 minutes. A somewhat cumbersome motto, but a good one! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByXM47Ri1Kc

[4] Ibid.  See also, William Cronon’s Changes in the Land (1983) for an account of the colonization of Native Americans and ecological change.

[6] Ostrom, Sustainable development and the tragedy of the commons.   Stockholm Resilience CentreTV. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByXM47Ri1Kc

[7] Meyerson, Harold.  D.C. Council stands for fair wages and against Wal-Mart, Washington Post. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-07-16/opinions/40610714_1_wal-mart-s-food-stamps-wages  ;  Bucheit, Paul. Apple, Walmart, McDonald’s: Who’s the Biggest Wage Stiffer?, AlterNet.  http://www.alternet.org/labor/apple-walmart-mcdonalds-whos-biggest-wage-stiffer

[8] Ibid.  And see news reports about suppliers’ factory fires, industrial accidents and working conditions, in ultra low-wage and low-regulation countries like Bangladesh, India, and China and so on.  For a solid explication of negative economic impact of “big-box” development, also a product of privileging Capital, see Economic and Fiscal Impact Analysis of the Proposed Lowe’s Home Center in South Dennis,   http://notolowes.com/PDF_Files/Economic_Impacts_of_Lowes.pdf  cited in a terrific Grist story, Here’s one smart way to fight big-box stores, http://grist.org/cities/heres-one-smart-way-to-fight-big-box-stores/

[9] Importantly, this is a perversion of any reasonable—read “human”—notion of property rights.  By making property near solely fungible via the common denominator of money, we have effectively handed the right to property over to those with the wherewithal to buy it, exclusively.  This is a far cry from John Locke’s more sensible view of owning what one can use and leaving well enough for another.

[10] Hsu, Tiffany.  Wal-Mart heirs worth as much as bottom 41.5% of American families.  LA Times, July 18, 2012

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/18/business/la-fi-mo-walmart-heirs-20120718  accessed August 7, 2013

Image Source:  Rose Timperley — Group Two http://rosetimperleygrouptwo.blogspot.com/

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Filed under economicss, Environmental Ethics, Urban Ecology

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