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  • Nelson Guedes

The Tragedy of Neoliberal Capitalism


The concept of the "Tragedy of the Commons", popularized by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 article of the same name, is defined in Investopedia as "an economic problem in which every individual tries to reap the greatest benefit from a given resource". Criticisms of the concept can be found here, but essentially, this idea is often used as propaganda to promote the privatization and control of all resources by centralized corporations and states. Of course, ironically, this centralized control of resources leads to an economic problem where every corporation tries to reap the greatest benefit from a given resource. In other words, centralized corporatism, which was supposed to be the solution, creates the actual problem.

There are many forms of corporatism, but corporatism today is essentially a combination of free market capitalism dominated by corporations and a state designed to regulate the negative externalities of said free market. Corporatism may even reach a point of socialism, when a state is able to balance the needs of businesses and individuals more equally, but it usually ends up as neo-liberal capitalism, when the market influences the state too much through the capital which it provides to the state. As long as a centralized form of corporatism is the norm, there is a danger that markets will consolidate power through monopolies and gain a greater influence on government than individuals.

The greatest fault of the free market is that it commodifies everything, including people and ecosystems. When people are commodified through "employment", their economic agency is removed and they become servants of their economic masters, their employer. They become mere corporate possessions, with no rights lest they be prescribed and protected by the state. The struggles of the labour movement have generally revolved around gaining more rights for employees through the state and unions. The problem, however, is that in both states and unions, power is centralized and an hierarchy is formed to organize the distribution of responsibilities, which renders both models susceptible to corruption from capital due to the large amount of influence those at the top of the hierarchy have over those below it. Meanwhile, the root cause of the problem, the removal of agency, is not addressed. This is part of the reason why the plutocratic elite promote both the free market and unions, because they know that regardless of rather we choose their version of "right" or "left", they still retain their power, while providing people with a false choice that doesn't address the root cause of the problem.

There's no place for democracy in the free market, because the needs of human beings are considered externalities to the market. The fact that people spend a lot of time working is often cited as a reason for the removal of political agency. The political system is designed to remove agency from individuals and bestow that agency on politicians who are supposed to represent people, who are then considered "citizens". Therefore, representative "democracy" is claimed to be achieved through a state. Unfortunately, the state needs to be funded and all the capital is held by the market, which extracted the wealth created by employees when it removed their economic agency. Ultimately, the market arbitrates the state, which is supposed to regulate the market. Meanwhile, the distribution of power in the market is governed by how many shares one possess, rather they have any position of power in the corporations or state and how many resources they possess at birth. This creates a highly unequal system that gives preference to the few who are able to hoard the most amount of capital as possible, therefore forming a plutocracy composed of CEOs, investors and politicians.

Restoring Political and Economic Agency

The key to the proper stewardship of the commons is not the removal of political and economic agency and subsequent central administration, but the exact opposite, the restoration of agency and the collaborative administration of said agency. Restoring agency allows us to take responsibility for our decisions. When we are affected by the direct consequences of our decisions, we can learn from our mistakes and we are naturally accountable. Also, because each and every one of us are directly experiencing the consequences of our decisions, we have a much more clear understanding of the problems than someone sitting at a desk on the other side of the country, who has little information about the problem and is often making decisions that affect thousands or even millions of different people in a variety of situations. When we compare the absence of agency with the presence of agency, it becomes very clear that the removal of agency is extremely detrimental to everyone besides the few who hold on to our collective agency.

Of course, restoring political and economic agency is not enough, we need the means to manage the balance of agency in order to prevent the issue raised by the "tragedy of the commons", but those means have existed for decades and have only become more powerful and efficient over the years. The co-operative model provides us with a very good starting point. Co-operatives are organizations that are owned and controlled equally by all its members. In contrast to the typical modern corporation, all workers run the organization together in a very democratic manner. This collaborative approach empowers members of the co-operative to raise their concerns, and because everyone has an equal stake in the success of the organization, all members have a deep motivation to make sure that the organization functions smoothly. The collaborative approach to agency essentially solve the "tragedy of the commons" without creating a much bigger tragedy where all individuals become mere possessions of corporations and states.

When given the ability and opportunity, people take care of each other, their families and their environment. Unfortunately, the free market and the government, while claiming to give that opportunity, in fact destroys that opportunity by removing agency both through "employment" and "citizenship".

The tragedy of neoliberal capitalism is that we have the means to take care of every human being on the planet without harming the planet but, instead, we have wars, unending poverty, environmental destruction and suffering for all. This is the legacy of neo-liberal capitalism.

#commons #capitalism

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© 2015 by Nelson Guedes

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