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Neoliberalism, Genre, and “The Tragedy of the Commons”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


In december 1968 the journal science published “the tragedy of the commons,” a slender tract by the ecologist and geneticist garrett Hardin that became one of the twentieth century's most influential essays. Hardin's thinking resonated in particular with policy makers at the International Monetary Fund, at the World Bank, and at conservative think tanks and kindred neoliberal institutions advocating so-called trickle-down economics, structural adjustment, austerity measures, government shrinkage, and the privatization of resources. Although Hardin's paramount, Malthusian concern was with “overbreeding,” his general critique of the commons has had a far more lasting impact. He memorably encapsulated that critique in a parable that represented the commons as unprofitable and unsustainable, inimical to both the collective and the individual good.1 According to this brief parable, a herdsman faced with the temptations of a common pasture will instinctively overload it with his livestock. As each greed-driven individual strives to maximize the resource for personal gain, the commons collapses to the detriment of all. Together, Hardin's pithy essay title and succinct parable have helped vindicate a neoliberal rescue narrative, whereby privatization through enclosure, dispossession, and resource capture is deemed necessary for averting tragedy.

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © 2012 by The Modern Language Association of America

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