By the eighteenth century, the charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and moral culture. As Linebaugh puts it, “The Forest Charter was forgotten or consigned to the gothic past.” With the commons no longer protected for cooperative nurturing and use, the rights of the common people were restricted to what could not be privatized—a category that continues to shrink, to virtual invisibility.
Capitalist development brought with it a radical revision not only of how the commons are treated, but also of how they are conceived. The prevailing view today is captured by Garrett Hardin’s influential argument that “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” This is the famous “tragedy of the commons”: that what is not owned will be destroyed by individual avarice. A more technical formulation is given in economist Mancur Olson’s conclusion that “unless the number of individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.” Accordingly, unless the commons are handed over to private ownership, brutal state power must be invoked to save them from destruction. This conclusion is plausible—if we understand “rationality” to entail a fanatic dedication to the individual maximization of short-term material gain.