Derek Wall, visiting tutor in political economy at Goldsmith College and International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, wants to position Ostrom as a key thinker for the political left as her work challenges the forces of so-called free-market capital. Wall's book Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals: Cooperative Alternatives Beyond Markets and States (Pluto 2017) is an introduction to Ostrom's life and work and its relevance to political action in the Age of the Anthropocene. Wall takes his cue from Saul Alinsky's 1971 Rules for Radicals, but the rules in this case are of Wall's devising not Ostrom's, though they were gleaned from a close reading of her work.
Ostrom was born in Los Angeles during the Great Depression and studied political science at UCLA. She married a fellow student, moved to Boston, and supported him while he attended Harvard Law. They later divorced and she moved back to LA in order to pursue an economics PhD. She was prevented from entering the program at UCLA because she had not taken enough mathematics in high school, a course of study she had been prevented from doing because she was female. She received a doctorate in political science instead.
|Elinor Ostrom in 2009 (Photo credit below)|
Ostrom's interest in the commons was inspired by her second husband, Vincent Ostrom, whom she met while assisting him with his PhD work, which looked at cooperation among municipalities to manage water resources in Southern California. The galvanizing moment in her development occurred after she and Vincent moved to take up teaching positions at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Elinor attended a lecture Garret Hardin gave at IU based on his influential essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," published in 1968 in the journal Science. An advocate of population control who took his cue from Thomas Malthus and William Foster Lloyd, Hardin argued that shared resources are subject to overuse by unregulated individuals whose self-interest is to maximize those resources for their own personal gain without regard to all others, ultimately leading to the collapse of the resources and the detriment of all. Hardin supposed two solutions to the tragedy of the commons: privatizing them to individual owners who would protect their investment or strict state regulation, a dichotomy Ostrom rejected.
Ostrom had seen the effective use of shared resources as part of her PhD work and set about researching other examples of successful management of the commons. Among her case studies were the communal ownership of grazing meadows in the mountains of Switzerland, community irrigation systems in Spain and the Phillipines, and the management of village commons in Japan. She also looked at examples of failed commons in Nova Scotia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. These cases informed the work that became her 1990 book Governing the Commons, for which she is best known.
In conducting her research, Ostrom distinguished between common pool resources and common pool property. The former includes forests, fisheries, and other areas from which it is difficult to exclude others and are thus available for collective use. The latter is a legal category that enables collective ownership. Examples of these include: property held on behalf of the public by the state, producer cooperatives, and real estate condominiums.
Among the traits of a sustainable commons are clearly defined boundaries, participatory governance, and nesting within a wider system. These principles informed Ostrom's interest in institutional analysis, direct democracy, and co-production, all of which Wall cites as foundational for a progressive politics. Analyzing and understanding the rules upon which institutional structures are built is the first step in transforming them for the common good. The second two open up pathways for theorizing and implementing models that move beyond conventional economics based on self-interest to those based on sharing.
Wall obviously has enthusiasm for his subject and much of the book is honorific in tone. But he also presents positions Ostrom held that might not square with some of his intended readers on the left. In addition, he lays out arguments against her.
While Ostrom advocated for the commons, she did not embrace them universally. Neither did she rule out the efficacy of markets. Similarly, while she employed a range of methodologies in her work, including ethnography, secondary-literature review, and surveys, she did not reject conventional economic statistical models out of hand. Instead, Ostrom assembled a multi-dimensional toolkit as deemed appropriate for the question under consideration. She also did not propose to overthrow capitalism, but did reject the hegemonic Eurocentric ideologies under which it has evolved.
Wall acknowledges the validity of the Marxist critique of Ostrom's conception of the commons. As he writes:
[T]he commons didn't fail because of a breakdown in trust and cooperation by the commoners but instead the commons were enclosed, stolen and shut down by capitalists, imperialists and various species of the rich and powerful (113).From this perspective, he points out, the micro political economy of managing the commons at the heart of Ostrom's analysis distracts from the larger considerations of world-historical class struggle. (Wall doesn't say this, but the embrace of the tragedy of the commons itself is but one element, albeit a critical one, of the social imaginary of capital as it emerged from the Second World War, ensconcing rational-choice theory as increasingly hegemonic in all aspects of social, economic, and political life, a story well told in S.M. Amadae's Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism.) Ostrom's position is obviously pragmatist, an argument for action under conditions where it is deemed possible.
Pragmatism has fallen into disrepute in the eyes of many on the left these days, held to be the province of those, such as New Labor in the UK and the Democratic Leadership Council in the US, who espouse small-bore changes that have essentially left the mechanisms of capitalist power in place. And yet, there are examples of cooperation one may point to—the social and solidarity economy projects in Europe, South America, Africa, and the US (see the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on the Social and Solidarity Economy, as well as the US Solidarity Economy Network). These efforts may be perceived as merely incremental (I would argue that they are more than that). Be that as it may, they do offer avenues for material progress while the millenarians among us wait for the Angel of History to descend.
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Elinor Ostrom photo: © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0)