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Characterization of the ideas of Elinor Ostrom and scholars that study the Commons by George Caffentzis


The Rise of the Neo-Hardinians

"Ostrom's and her co-workers' historical self-description of their tendency begins with Garrett Hardin's 1968 "Tragedy of the Commons" article. For Hardin concluded that a commons is inevitably tragic since those who restrain their use of a common-pool resource will lose out to the unrestrained users. Indeed, the "greedy" will be naturally selected to survive, the "fair" will die out, and the common resource will be exhausted, unless, Hardin argued, the users apply "mutually agreed upon coercion" to enforce rules that would result in the sustainable use of the common resource. This coercion could only be guaranteed by state sanctions on violators. As a corollary to Hardin's conclusion, neoliberal economists argued that the only efficient rules that limit access to the common pool resource are private property rights that are alienable through a market (Aguilera-Klink 1994). Thus Hardin's conclusions joined with neoliberalism to not only reject both common property and state property as reasonable ways to organize the use of the great elemental commons of land, water, air, fire and nous.

But in the 1970s and 1980s, this account continues, challenges to Hardin's and the neoliberal's abolition of common property began to accumulate both empirically and theoretically:

A key challenge to the Hardin model came from researchers familiar with diverse common property institutions in the field. They argued that Hardin had seriously confused the concept of common property with open access conditions where no rules existed to limit entry and use. As Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop express it, "common property is not everyone's property." They and other researchers stress that where common property existed, users had developed rich webs of use rights that identified who had a long-term interest in the resource and thus an incentive to try to avoid overuse (Dietz et al. 2002: 12).

The theoretical justification of Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" reasoning was also challenged in this period. That justification modeled the tragedy as a Prisoner's Dilemma game, where the rational strategy is to be "greedy" even though the long-term benefits of being "fair," though "irrational," are much greater. This model was challenged because in a prisoners' dilemma game, the players are limited to a one-shot trial and are not allowed to communicate with each other. But if the players of the commons game can communicate and can have many trials it is easily shown that Hardin's conclusions do not hold. Indeed, the comparison between the prisoners' dilemma game and the typical common situation is far-fetched.

C. Ford Runge pointed out this absurdity in a series of papers in the 1980s according to this account:

…most users of a common-pool resource-at least in developing countries-live in the same village where their families had lived for generations and intend to live in the same villages for generations to come. Given the level of poverty facing many villagers, their dependence on natural resources, and the randomness they all face in the availability of natural resources, Runge argued that it is implausible to assume that individuals have a dominant strategy of free riding. He suggested that users of common-pool resources in developing countries faced a repeated coordination game rather than a one-shot prisoners' dilemma game. In such situations, all users would prefer to find ways of limiting their own use so long as others also committed themselves to stinting (Dietz et al. 2002: 12).

Thus by 1989, at the time of the formation of the IASCP, a new tendency was formulated that I call "neo-Hardinianism." Just as the neo-Malthusians pointed out, on the basis of demographic trends in Western Europe in the 20th century, an increase in wages does not necessarily imply an increase in working class population, so too neo-Hardinians like Ostrom and her co-workers argued that commons situations do not necessarily lead to "tragedy," they can also lead to "'comedy'-a drama for certain, but one with a happy ending" (Dietz et al. 2002: 4). In fact, they called one of their books The Drama of the Commons - "because the commons entails history, comedy, and tragedy" (Dietz 2002: 4).

Scholars in the neo-Hardinian tendency have carried on many important empirical studies of common property systems across the planet as well as have made a number of important distinctions in the study of common property. This is not the place to assess their empirical studies (cf. the extensive bibliography on Private and Common Property Rights in (Ostrom 2000: 352-379) and the Digital Library on the Commons mentioned above), but their most important theoretical distinctions are worth reviewing, since some can be useful to the anti-capitalist commonist movement.

Of course, the primary one is between common property and open access regimes, since the confusion between them is the basis of Hardin's deduction of the tragedy of the common. Common property regimes are "where the members of a clearly demarcated group have a legal right to exclude nonmembers of that group from using a resource. Open access regimes (res nullius)-including the classic cases of the open seas and the atmosphere-have long been considered in legal doctrine as involving no limits on who is authorized to use a resource" (Ostrom 2000: 335-336). On the basis of this distinction, common property and open access regimes are mutually exclusive and anyone who had as their political ideal the creation of an open access regime would not be a supporter of the commons.

The second important distinction is between a common-pool resource (which is a thing or stuff) and a common property regime (which is a set of social relations). A common-pool resource is such that (a) "it is costly to exclude individuals from using the good either through physical barriers or legal instruments and (b) the benefits consumed by one individual subtract from the benefits available to others" (Ostrom 2000: 337). Because of its two defining characteristics, a common-pool resource is subject to problems of congestion, overuse and potential destruction. Access to, withdrawal from, management and ownership of such a resource can be in the form of a common property regime, but it need not be. "Examples exist of both successful and unsuccessful efforts to govern and manage common-pool resources by governments, communal groups, cooperatives, voluntary associations, and private individuals or firms" (Ostrom 2000: 338). Much of the work of the neo-Hardinians has been to study what attributes of common-pool resources that "are conducive to the use of communal proprietorship or ownership" and what attributes of common-pool resources that "are conducive to individual rights to withdrawal, management, exclusion and alienation" (Ostrom 2000: 332).

The neo-Hardinians, however, seem to be less interested in the fact that not all common property regimes involve common-pool resources. On the contrary, when we examine the history of common property regimes, we must conclude that many have been based on non-common-pool resources. For example, money income, personal belongings, literary texts, and even children have been communalized. Thus the 15th century Taborites' first act of forming their community was to dump all their personal belongings in large open chests and begin their communal relations on an even footing (Federici 2004: 54). On the basis of the history of common property regimes it is difficult to decide what types of goods are "conducive" to private property and what kinds of goods are "conducive" to common property.

The third important distinction is between common-pool resources (e.g., a fishery, a river) and public goods (e.g., knowledge of a physical law, living in a just and peaceful society). They share one characteristic, i.e., it is difficult to exclude people living within the scope of these resources or goods from their enjoyment. But they also differ in another characteristic, for a common-pool resource like a fishery is reduced when something of value like a particular fish is withdrawn from it while a public good like knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not diminished when still another person uses it to construct a new engine.

Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues developed still other distinctions of interest, e.g., between renewable and non-renewable common pool resources as well as between local and global common-pool resources. But there is a distinction between common property regimes that they do not deal with: those regimes antagonistic to and subversive of capitalist accumulation and those regimes that are compatible with and potentiating of capitalist accumulation. In fact, the discourse they employ seems to assume that the discussion of common property regimes is conducted in the context of a capitalist system. Neo-Hardinians like Ostrom recognize that certain common property regimes are perfectly compatible with capitalism or, since they seem to shy away from such a term, with "markets." Indeed, much of their discussion of particular "successful" commons center on these commodity-producing commons. From Maine lobster fisheries to Alpine pastures, commodities have been profitably produced over long periods of time through the self-regulating behavior of fishers and pastoralists operating in common property regimes (Acheson 2003) (Netting 1981).

But shouldn't these commodity-producing commons be contrasted with subsistence-producing commons (cf. for more on this concept see (Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999: 141-164)? Aren't some of these subsistence-producing commons also capable of undermining capitalist development by hindering the emergence of an exploitable proletariat? What of those common-property regimes that provide subsistence goods to the commoners which make wage work unnecessary? What of a common property regime that is providing the food and energy for an anti-imperialist revolutionary army?" (