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Elinor Ostrom, The Commons and Anti-Capitalism



In 2009, the American political economist Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. Strictly speaking, she was neither an economist nor was the prize a Nobel but, in fact, the Swedish bank prize. Born “poor”, in her own words, in California in the summer of 1933, she published Governing the Commons in 1990 and died in 2012 of cancer. I was lucky enough to meet her myself and have been fortunate to spend the last two years researching her work in detail. I am an anti-capitalist, and while she would not have accepted this label, I will argue here that those who want to create a democratic and ecological economy that transcends the market and the state, will find enormous inspiration in her work.

Ostrom’s main focus was examining how common pool resources could be managed. She explained that common pool resources included lakes and fisheries because they could not be easily divided into private property, meaning they had to be managed by some of form of collective agreement. Her work, and that of her husband Vincent Ostrom, started by looking at water tables around Los Angeles. Immortalised in the Roman Polanski film China Town, different users were in danger of taking too much water from the system. If too much water was taken, the water table would fall and salt water would be sucked in, destroying the system. The Ostroms found that water users formed associations and, despite difficult challenges, found ways of co-operating to preserve the system.

Listening to Garret Hardin proclaim the Tragedy of the Commons and argue that if the commons were not enclosed they would become eroded, Elinor also became annoyed at his view that population had to be cut by aggressive measures, inspiring her to renew her early work on common pool resources:

Elinor Ostrom: Hardin gave a speech on the [Indiana University, Bloomington] campus, and I went to it, and he indicated the more general — but then it was that he really was worried about population. He indicated that every man and every woman should be sterilised after they have one child. He was very serious about it.

Margaret Levi: This was Garrett Hardin?

Elinor Ostrom: Yes—not Russell [Hardin]. Garrett Hardin. I was somewhat taken aback: “My theory proves that we should do this”, and people said, “Well, don’t you think that that’s a little severe?” “No! That’s what we should do, or we’re sunk.” Well, he, in my mind, became a totalitarian. I, thus, had seen a real instance where his theory didn’t work.

Both Elinor and her husband Vincent called themselves institutionalists because they were interested in how institutions worked, and studied them from the point of view of political economy. They were concerned with two essential problems of how resources could be managed in an ecologically sustainable way and how a self-governing system could be promoted. Vincent, who died just days after Elinor, also of cancer, was a fascinating thinker in his own right, publishing numerous books.

There are, I think, two common approaches to Elinor’s relationship to the left, radical thought and anti-capitalism. One is to suggest that she drew on liberal economics starting with Adam Smith, was hostile to the state and was essentially a Hayekian, and as such had nothing to do with socialism. The opposite approach is to proclaim the commons as the alternative to capitalism and to note that she won a Nobel Prize for theorising the commons and, in this regard, was on the left. I think both approaches tend to over-simplify her nuanced and unusual approach: While skeptical that the state could act as a white knight to deal with inequality and oppression, she was not a libertarian. While a theorist of the commons, she was not a commons fundamentalist as she did not see it as a panacea for all social and ecological ills.

Also, Ostrom never identified with the traditional left. When asked if she took issue with those who call her theories ‘implicitly socialistic’, she replied, “Yes. I don’t think they are supporting socialism as a top-down theory. A lot of socialist governments are very much top-down and I think my theory does challenge that any top-down government, whether on the right or the left, is unlikely to be able to solve many of the problems of resource sustainability in the world”. However, she was no conservative like her friend Amartya Sen, but was instead an advocate of greater social equality, bluntly telling one German newspaper that being “born rich is always bad”.

The Ostroms were certainly aware of Friedrich Hayek’s criticism of central planning, but, while in large agreement, rejected the idea that markets were spontaneously efficient. They believed that all levels of society benefitted from intelligent and experimental institutional design. Difficult to pigeonhole, with their own unique approach, the Ostroms can seem baffling. Neither anarchists, nor free marketeers, nor supporters of top-down control, they were at best very unusual and at worst utterly confusing.

I believe Elinor Ostrom provided a huge resource for all of us who wish to see an alternative to neo-liberalism can begin to learn from. Her own academic practice was radical: She sought an economics that moved beyond the market and the state, advocated a practical form of political ecology, looked at how commons could work for the community, and also showed the importance of careful institutional design in social change. She also challenged models of ‘rational economic man and woman’ and was an advocate for women, minorities, indigenous people and peasants.

Her academic practice was radically egalitarian and gives a practical lesson in this regard to all on the left. Research incorporated respect for others, asking people how they conserved the commons and building on grassroots knowledge. Virtually all of her work was collaborative, when she phoned her husband and told him she had won the Nobel Prize, she typically said, “Honey, we have won a Prize”. So much of their work was ‘we’ not I, and they set up an innovative workshop which, still to this day, practices their community approach to academic work. She asked workshoppers to criticise her draft of her Nobel speech, set-up a free use open-access library of papers on the commons, and was peer-to-peer before the phrase was even invented.

The title of her Nobel lecture was Beyond Markets and States. While she rejected neither the market nor the state, she saw beyond them by recognising there were other ways of governing human economic activity. Even on the left, economics beyond the market and the state sounds impossible. The left finds it difficult to imagine alternatives to the market, and neo-liberal consensus holds that the market is the answer to all our ills. From the dismantling of the NHS to new trade treaties that sweep away barriers so as to benefit corporations, market values are seen as a panacea. Ostrom’s cautious and detailed research into non-market economics is essential in suggesting that there is life beyond the supposed panacea of the market.

In particular, she studied the commons to show that collective communal ownership was possible in many circumstances. Using a huge array of techniques to study common pool resource management, above all, she studied successful and failed commons with a historically based case study technique, building up a list of eight design features of sustainable commons. Her list of eight features was not meant to be prescriptive, but there is a lesson here again for the anti-capitalist left. Creating alternatives that work well demands careful study of successful and failed alternatives to craft institutions that potentially can work. Hoping that we can create alternatives is a vain hope without rigorous research.

As an institutionalist she saw democratic and economic structures as based on sets of rules. Human freedom for her involved making people more conscious of the rules that exist and allowing them to understand that new rules were possible. This seems a good basis for a pragmatic politics of liberation. It is also clear that neo-liberalism works by redesigning institutional rules to marketise society more and more. Alternatives to neo-liberalism, rather than being purely defensive, can seek to change social rules to create a democratic and diverse economy.

Her research also looked at human motivation and subjectivity. The idea put forward by economists proposing that we are all rational egotists was challenged by her careful research. It showed that while people could be self-interested and short-termist, it was possible to promote more co-operative human behaviour. Above all, she was critical of an economics that simplified and distorted human social life. Both she and Vincent argued that language, culture and ecology, had to be taken into account when developing institutions that would work. Indeed he noted, in rejecting a fundamentalist faith in mainstream economics, “Absurd doctrines can meet standards of logical rigor and mathematical proof but yield disastrous consequences when used to inform actions. Human actions need to draw on general principles that can be applied to particular time and place exigencies that vary with ecological and cultural circumstances”.

Elinor Ostrom was a very practical political ecologist who argued that we should respect the next seven generations and challenged consumerism, noting, “We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house… Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth”. At the same time she was interested in the details that might make a greener society work, rather simply issuing broad slogans. Both of the Ostroms and their co-workers showed that alternatives to a society dominated by a few individuals were possible. For those of us who want to create a democratic society that moves beyond short-term profit, I would argue their ideas are essential.

I have drunk deeply from her ideas, simply stating she was an advocate of commons and applying or misapplying her design features to different situations is inadequate, it is valuable to read her work and reflect on it. Governing the Commons is essential, of course, but she left literally hundreds of papers, most of them freely available on cyber space ( As a serious thinker focusing on the most important questions, her work is necessary if we are to develop economic systems that respect humanity, sustain ecology and work democratically.I would like to give her the last word. In 1997 she summarised her approach in contrast to business-as-usual and short-term greed and I think it is rather clear:

“Our problem is how to craft rules at multiple levels that enable humans to adapt, learn, and change over time so that we are sustaining the very valuable natural resources that we inherited so that we may be able to pass them on. I am deeply indebted to the indigenous peoples in the US who had an image of seven generations being the appropriate time to think about the future. I think we should all reinstate in our mind the seven-generation rule. When we make really major decisions, we should ask not only what will it do for me today, but what will it do for my children, my children’s children, and their children’s children into the future”.

This was originally published in STIR’s Winter issue. You can buy a copy here.


Derek Wall is International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, his latest book is The Commons in History (MIT 2014) and he has also just published The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom: Commons, Contestation and Craft. He teaches political economy in Goldsmiths College, University of London. A committed ecosocialist he also writes for the Morning Star. @Anothergreen

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