The Comedy of the Commons
Hippies, Dionysus, and the end of enclosure.
The Hippies were right all along. Or rather, their progenitors were right, because the hippie subculture has been tarnished by marketing, which ruins everything.
Stepping back, let me warn you I have been steeped in research the past few weeks about San Francisco, reading about several of its pivotal events and epochs. I am now, of course, reading about a dozen books, journals, and dissertations about the Summer of Love and the Haight-Ashbury. Previously, I have been immersed in 1840s Chinatown, The 1915 Panama-Pacific Expo, and 1940s Fillmore Jazz age San Francisco. This week it’s the Summer of Love. Of course, a luxury of blogging is being utterly free to write about whatever it is that interests one at the moment. The synthesis of interests and experiences is the birth of inspiration, and the Haight-Ashbury experience is a beacon for us even now.
The evolution of the Hippie can be traced directly to the Beats in San Francisco, but the achievement of anything like a philosophy coalesced in the Diggers community, closely attached to the Hippies and with some significant overlap in both time and place, but with deeper roots and a coherent current of beliefs and action. The original historical Diggers can be traced to Cromwell era England. After the defeat of the King, Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard led a movement to liberate the “commons” for use in growing food and housing for those without land. Where the commons had previously been set aside by the monarch for use by “commoners” who had nothing but a few sheep to graze, or some seeds to plant, the argument that the grant of the King was necessary was no longer valid. Without a monarch, the commons was simply unenclosed land, and the use and enjoyment of that land by anyone should be supported.
In fact, Winstanley’s philosophy was a broad attack on the notion of enclosed property itself. He wrote that “owning property was brought into creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures … and plunder or steal way their land, and left this land successively to you … though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword.” He concluded, somewhat biblically, that the “earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood to all mankind, without respect of persons.”
Nietzsche argued that tragedy must properly balance the Dionysian and Apollonian, or disorder, chaos, intoxication, and pleasure against order, reason, logic, and contemplation. Tragedy, as an art form, is cathartic, overcoming our Apollonian stasis, evincing a powerful emotional response that allows our suppressed Dionysian impulses to emerge. The rebalancing of the Dionysian and the Apollonian is necessary, for Nietzsche, for our culture to become vibrant again, to be saved from its stasis, its Apollonian corruption.
The Diggers and then the Hippies represent a swing back toward the Dionysian. Each rejected greed, embraced the notion of sharing things in common and providing for ourselves and each other. Each rejected materialism and embraced joy, pleasure, immediate needs, and spiritual growth. Western history, only perhaps until this place in time and moment in history had been dominated by the Apollonian, that which Nietzsche railed against as corruptive.
In economics, the notion of the tragedy of the commons depends on a combination of scarcity of some resource available for use by all and a lack of responsibility on the part of those using it, leading to a spoiling of the resource. I would argue that the tragedy of the commons is mostly a convenient myth. Sure, some parties spoil the commons, but rarely are they the commoners. Rather, Nestle extracts in excess cheap water from the commons to sell it back to us bottled. Apple and Microsoft bottle up code and charge us to use it, or make it impossible for us to modify it. The commons isn’t by and large, spoiled by commoners. It is spoiled by monopolists often aided by the monopoly of states.
In comedy, ordinary people are portrayed as worse than they really are, and aristocrats or those who are privileged are portrayed as the very worst. Whereas in tragedy we achieve catharsis from suffering by witnessing the suffering of a hero, in comedy we achieve it through laughing at the fate of an anti-hero, and everything works out in the end. The tragedy of the commons is that some spoil the commons to the detriment of all. The comedy of the commons is that the spoiling of the commons is due, mostly, to a very few, worst people who seek to monopolize it or capitalize on their power.
We need a rebalancing, a moderation between the Dionysian and Apollonian. Not long after the symbolic Death of Hippie, in 1967, too much that was good about the ethos of the age was cast aside. San Francisco then became a center for the dawning of a new age, not quite the age of Aquarius. The emergence of modern tech centers upon that city, once known to immigrant Chinese as the Golden Mountain. The early 90s saw the 25th anniversary of the Summer of Love and Woodstock, bookends of the hippie era. It also saw the emergence, centered in San Francisco, of a new era as computers began to become accessible to the masses.
Early computer culture shared DNA with hippie culture, with people like Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalogue fame starting the largest “online” community pre-internet, the BBS called the Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link (The Well). Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were long-haired hippies too, whose Apple computer was cooked up in a garage, meant for the masses. Before Apple, they made and sold “blue boxes” which could be used to hijack phone lines and make phone calls “for free” from monopolistic Ma Bell.
Mondo 2000 and Wired started in San Francisco at about the same time too, with Mondo carrying the Dionysian flame of the coming computer revolution, and Wired the Apollonian. Guess who won?
As Silicon Valley company valuations have gone through the stratosphere, and “Unicorns” valued at a Billion dollars and above became cultural icons, the promise and vision of the hippies has faded into obscurity. The idea of the commons is now derided, mocked. If your company doesn’t have a 10x value-prop, what’s the point, really? Who cares if it fills a need, it won’t sastify the greed of capital, its desire to exceed all reason, and outpace all rational bounds.
The Diggers in San Francisco set up free stores where people could donate whatever they didn’t want and others could take it, for free. They helped expose the myth of scarcity. Free medical clinics, free food, free entertainment were shared and distributed in the Haight-Ashbury district during its heyday. Greed, centralization, commodification, and capitalization would help end it. By 1969, the Hippie movement was dead. Artificial scarcity, often assisted by the state, continues to ensure that movements like the Diggers are kept at bay. Cromwell used his New Model Army to take back the land claimed as a commons by the Diggers, and modern capital and state monopoly do the same, helping stoke competition among commoners for resources that would otherwise be plentiful.
We need more Mondo and less Wired, more Dionysus and less Apollo, we need them in balance, and a rebirth of tragedy, we need to release our creativity and to enjoy the catharsis of music, art, pleasure, leisure, joy, and play. We need a radical expansion of the commons, and less state-sponsored monopoly, less greedy accumulation, more openness and sharing, unbound creativity and use of plentiful resources, and less toleration of their enclosure. We need a hell of a lot more of a hell of a lot less.