The Tragedy of the Commons: An Emerging Risk to the Entrepreneurial Society

Economist Willian Foster Lloyd described the notion of “commons” in 1833 in reference to the open pastures being damaged by self-interested herdsmen. Biologist Garreth Hardin used the term in 1968 to describe how population growth spoils our shared atmosphere, oceans and rivers. It is the over-utilization of the commons that inevitably leads to the tragedy, causing unhappiness, conflicts and ultimately extinction.

Western society in the 21st century is clearly built on the notion of the commons – the very human right to be part of a prosperous culture that values intelligence, tolerance, peaceful lives, and progress. This commons makes up the foundation of our nations, as much as the air and the oceans, and it did not come easily. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek reminds us that all features we identify today with liberal democracies – like the freedom of speech, voting rights, gender equality, mass education and the right to a decent livelihood –  were gained through often violent popular struggles during the 19th century. In the 20th century, it took two World Wars and myriad local conflicts to arrive at a modicum of global peace and prosperity.

I suggest that the commons is at risk of cracking from the stresses of an increasingly aggressive battle to control power and wealth. The rise of the 1% and the relative fall of the 99% add anger to hopelessness. Numerous voices, including economist Thomas Pikkety, have warned us that capitalism has a very dark side that is upsetting the world order. Huge income differences make fertile ground for revolts, and the risk of massive social unrest, if not revolution, can no longer be swept under the table.

A major concern we should have is the shattering of the middle class, a necessary component of any modern economy. In 2011, British economist Guy Standing published The Precariat – The New Dangerous Class, in which he recognized a vast new substratum of society – “a multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth who do not like what they see before them, millions of women abused in oppressive labour, growing numbers of criminalised tagged for life, millions being categorised as ‘disabled’ and migrants in their hundreds of millions around the world.”

I perceive an even newer split happening, further dividing his precariat into two sub-strata — frustrated educated youth with limited job opportunities vs. an increasingly large segment who are neither educated nor enlightened. The former, with their education, at least have a chance to create employment or participate in the part-time economy, but the latter have almost no outlet for their humanity to develop or shine. They are high school dropouts (7% of American males, 6% of females, 7.5% of Blacks, and 10.5% of Hispanics leave high school), or they are graduates who cannot afford or are not motivated to go to university (35% of American high school graduates do not go to college).  Uneducated, unqualified and unhappy, these millions of youth are afraid of life, unprepared and unable to take constructive steps forward in an increasingly complex, skill-based world.  Add to them the millions of war-torn migrants fleeing into Western countries, many of whom are illiterates and/or unassimilated, and thus a long way from even very simple jobs that welfare states make available to them.

This lower “tribe” of the precariat is easily prone to fear-baiting and hate-mongering. They denigrate hard-working immigrants for “stealing their jobs” (even though these are jobs they would never accept doing). They seek scapegoats everywhere and blame diversity and globalization as the cause of job loss and the decline of their neighborhoods and communities. Worse, they find conspiracy theories in everything and are drawn to autocratic political leaders whose charisma and jingoist language matter more than ideas and who project the notion that strength trumps principles.

The anger, sense of hopelessness and growing social unrest that defines this tragic segment of the precariat will not promote the emergence of the coming Entrepreneurial Society, such as what Peter Drucker predicted. We see many instances already of how some will even sabotage it, becoming lifelong haters, Luddites, fascists, racists, violent extremists, thieves, disruptors, or even terrorists.

Those of us who believe in the value of the commons must recognize this growing shadow on society. We need to begin discussing what new policies and pragmatic solutions can effectively, creatively and quickly deal with this rising tragedy. It is irresponsible to leave tens of millions behind in a rapidly changing world. If we do not become aware of and debate sensitive matters like this, we should not be surprised when extremists of any kind protest, occupy, throw stones, sabotage and threaten lives. To paraphrase Plato’s famous metaphor, we cannot stay sitting in our caves, anxiously watching as the shadows from the dystopian campfires outside dance on our walls.

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