Tragedy of the commons, Yugoslavian apartment building laundry room edition

The tragedy of the commons story is well known and examples abound, but I still enjoy finding new examples in unexpected places. Here is one such example, first published in 1992 but new to me.

The building referred to is an apartment building in Yugoslavia; the time described isn’t exactly identified in the article, but perhaps 1960s or early in the 1970s:

In the cellar of our building there was a washing room with a huge concrete washing basin and three new washing machines. At the beginning, everyone washed their clothes downstairs. There was a schedule hung on the door and each family took its turn once a week. The machines didn’t work for long. To put it mildly, people didn’t take very good care of them. After all, these machines didn’t belong to anyone in person, so no one felt responsible for repairing, or even cleaning them. The first machine broke after about a year, then the second one, then the third. In the washing room, people started to store broken chairs, children’s bicycles, beach umbrellas, charcoal for barbecues, skis, mattresses. … The basins were filled with supplies for winter: bags of potatoes, green and red peppers, and wooden barrels of sauerkraut.

We’d lost our common laundry room precisely because it was common. But by that time the standard of living in the country was high enough so, instead of forty people using three common machines, everyone could buy an imported washing machine for themselves, however unnecessary and irrational this really was. Even our own country started to produce them, except that they all were very expensive. This, strangely enough, became a reason to buy one, to prove that you were earning enough, that your social status was high enough, so you could afford household appliances. Social differentiation, starting with cars and TV sets, continued in bathrooms and kitchens. A washing machine became an item of prestige, and it was good for women, even if it really wasn’t meant to ease their lives in the first place.

From “On doing laundry,”
How we survived communism and even laughed, Slavenka Drakulić.

Drakulić’s description of her grandmother doing laundry (in 1950s Yugoslavia) reminded me of Hans Rosling’s TED Talk, “The magic washing machine.”

I have only read a few of the essays in Drakulić’s book, but so far it impresses me as a good collection of sharply-observed and reported essays on life in communist Eastern Europe.

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2 thoughts on “Tragedy of the commons, Yugoslavian apartment building laundry room edition

  1. Here’s one. The mayor of Madison and the county executive of Dane County have turned the city county building into a Tragedy of the Commons by allowing Madison’s homeless to stay overnight. The police department is located one floor down from the lobby but apparently they’re too busy to patrol the mayhem caused by the new residents. Here are a couple of links.
    http://host.madison.com/news/local/crime_and_courts/homeless-men-cited-for-trespassing-were-bunking-down-in-city/article_7f5cce37-ceb2-5de0-8dca-15cca70db38c.html
    The latest news being reported by local radio is that the private security guard hired to patrol after hours, one floor above the police headquarters, doesn’t know what he is to do. And, city and county employees are still finding people sleeping in open rooms, courtrooms, stairwells, hallways and leaving their things, including human waste, wherever they please. It’s quite a problem due to the refusal of the mayor and county executive to allow police to enforce ordinances.

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