Book Review: Bending the Rules

Review of Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals: Cooperative Alternatives Beyond Markets and States.

Derek Wall has fashioned a short guide for radicals from the work of a non-radical economics heavyweight.

Review by John Barry

Derek Wall is a radical in his integration of scholarship and green political and movement activism in the UK. He has written a “rule book for radicals” based on the ideas of less-than-radical thinker, non-activist and Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom. Arguably there is a contradiction in drawing radical implications and strategies from someone who themselves is not so inclined. This is the conundrum Wall covers in this admirably short, well-written and sharply observed book.

Ostrom is best known as an academic who became the first and only female Nobel Laureate in economics whose work on the commons and common pool resources, empirically challenged the “tragedy of the commons” idea – where individuals users of a shared resource act solely in their own self-interest but against the common good by depleting or damaging the resource.  She disproved the idea through field studies on small, local communities manage shared natural resources, such as fishing waters and forests. Her work proved that when natural resources are collectively owned and managed, people develop rules (including sanctions and exclusion of non-owners) on how the resources are used and cared for in ways that are democratic, productive and ecologically sustainable.Wall describes his task as to “make her work accessible and to show how those on the left, especially the ecosocialist left, can make productive use of her diverse and provocative thinking”. Wall largely agrees with most of Ostrom’s work, and he is clearly inspired by her. This makes his “radical” reading of Ostrom’s ideas a little forced at times but he has not written a hagiography. He points out gently inter alia, the gap between her personal commitment to radical ideas and her professional silence on those; her lack of political activism; and her inattention to the importance of culture (a flaw Wall rightly claims she shares with Marx).

Ostrom herself was a pragmatist more than a political radical. She was perhaps a liberal democratic pragmatist – a problem-solver in the American pragmatist tradition. But she consistently abjured overtly political approaches in her research – viewing them perhaps as dogmatic and constraining and violating some sense of “objective” or “value free” social science. As Wall notes: “One rule that radicals can take from Ostrom is that we should reject slogans and broad principles but instead focus on interventions. We want an ecological society, so rather than simply proclaiming this we need to ask what this means in practice”. Here bread and roses come to mind. Can we not have both? Indeed, do we not need both – vision and critique alongside policy and practices?

However, I do completely take Wall’s point in terms of Ostrom’s pragmatism acting as a useful counterbalance to the abstract critique and prophylactic proselytising about “after the revolution” than still sadly infects progressive politics. Later in the book he notes:
“While she personally enjoyed debate, problem solving was what she emphasised. She was not looking for an essential and total solution to say, ecological problems or inequality but kept these concerns in the background and was interested in a specific intervention in a particular context [emphasis added].”

And here one wonders how Ostrom managed to background and bracket-out inequality, for example, when examining a problem of resource mismanagement. Or how inequality, power, class, race, or gender were eventually then brought back (if indeed they were) into her diagnosis, analysis and prescription.

Nonetheless, Wall makes a stout defence of the radical implications of her ideas. He interprets them imaginatively from Ostrom’s dry, formalistic presentation of her defence of the commons, cooperative management of resources and so on, and her use of the often deadly dull and politically insipid language of game theory, prisoner’s dilemma, common pool resources and open access regimes.

This book demonstrates that there is a horizon of organisational and creative possibility beyond the state and the market and that Ostrom’s “careful research is a powerful weapon of self-defence for those who wish to protect a commons under threat”. And more than that, Wall shows how in pre-dating modern states and markets, forms of commons regimes and systems offer robust, existing examples of localised, democratic and egalitarian politics and political economy.

While critical of the free market, neither Ostrom nor Wall is suggesting commons as necessarily supplanting the state. And neither of them is proposing commons as the main means for the transition beyond “actually existing unsustainability” and ecocidal capitalism. Wall views the commons as complementing the state, but with a preference for decentralising and empowering communities to manage commons as much where feasible. He sees a democratising state empowering and enabling localised, citizen-based productive resource ownership and control.

Wall shows that Ostrom herself was more a liberal than a radical.  And there are even tentative indications in Wall’s interpretation of Ostrom that her ideas are compatible with a distinctly “republican” account of democracy as collective self-management and echo some of the “libertarian municipal” ideas of Murray Bookchin and that her focus on “micro-level” radical institutional change complements the “macro-level” stressed by Marx.

But even within the liberal tradition – as portrayed, for example, in de Tocqueville’s magisterial analysis of 19th century America: Democracy in America (an inspiration for Ostrom) – we can find arguments for building a more democratic society and not simply a more democratic political system. And Wall is correct in pointing out that she was not a “capital G” Green yet she shared many of the values and principles of Greens such as Wall and indeed myself. Those ideas include her views on “satisficing” – taking a course that will satisfy the minimum requirements to achieve a particular goal; her critique of overconsumption; her concern for the democratic and sustainability benefits of commoning and commons systems; support for more participative democratic decision-making; and her personal (but regrettably not professional or political) support for worker cooperatives.

Her eight design rules (which should in my view be read in conjunction with permaculture design principles) are:

  • sustainable commons need defined boundaries;
  • rules for the commons having to fit local circumstances;
  • individuals who use the commons have to participate in making and changing rules;
  • effective monitoring;
  • the use of graduated sanctions for non-compliance with commons rules;
  • low-cost conflict resolution;
  • rights to organise; and
  • that commons need to be part of nested enterprises and systems.

She couples these with a stress on complexity, understanding complex adaptive nature-social systems, polycentric decision-making, and action at different levels and scales to help shape pragmatic and progressive, workable examples of alternative ways and institutions for managing the “means of common life”.

So perhaps Ostrom’s principles are less “rules for radicals” and more a “cook book for pragmatic radicals” where the ingredients used by the author of the cookbook, can be applied differently with different possible results, as Wall ably demonstrates. And Ostrom’s pragmatic, “evidence-based” cookbook offers some sound advice for radicals such as:

  • engage in “problem solving strategies where possible” – meaning, offer solutions now and not “after the revolution”, to complement addressing the root structural causes of those problems;
  • educate citizens in self-governance rather than teach leaders;
  • encourage and practice-not-preach collective forms of critical knowledge production; and
  • focus on changing rules, especially legal ones, as a way of changing institutions.

But rather than asking ourselves, as Wall suggests, “what would Elinor do,” we should ask “What can we radicals do with Elinor’s academic cookbook?”

John Barry

John is Professor of Green Political Economy at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queens University Belfast. He has a BA and MA from University College Dublin and …

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