Alienation and the Commons

Posted: 29 Mar 2010

See all articles by Steven E. Vogel

Steven E. Vogel

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)


The paper will reinterpret a certain kind of social choice problem characteristic of environmental dilemmas in accordance with Marx's notion of alienation, and use that reinterpretation to offer an alternative account of how such dilemmas are to be understood. Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' seems a plausible model for environmental problems; in it, a contradiction arises between individual preferences and social outcome, where the latter appears as an independent force over and against the wishes of those whose actions make it up. This contradiction has exactly the structure the young Marx described as 'alienation.' Hardin and others have argued that a solution would lie in privatizing the commons, thereby avoiding the problem of 'externalities.' But externalities are the rule, not the exception, in social life. Correctly understood, the tragedy reveals a problem with the very idea of the 'private' itself. The tragedy is overcome only in an unalienated society whose acts are the product of democratic discourse in which social preferences are explicitly and self-consciously formed.

Suggested Citation

Vogel, Steven E., Alienation and the Commons. Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper , Available at SSRN:

Steven E. Vogel (Contact Author)

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ( email )

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