Ian Parker reviews Derek Wall’s new book Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals, just published by Pluto Press
Of the main complaints made against ‘ecosocialist’ politics, attempts to combine Red and Green in a radical alliance to combat capitalism’s deadly environmental and existential threat to our planet, one of the most common is that revolutionary Marxists thereby get drawn into an unholy alliance with bourgeois environmental liberals. The complaint hinges around the very real fear that left politics will be ‘recuperated’, neutralised and absorbed by mainstream ecological discourse, and we will be tempted to abandon changing the world because we are too busy building broader alliances to save it.
This new book by Derek Wall, who is former Principal Speaker of the Green Party, turns this question around, to reclaim for the left the ideas of a liberal economist, Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom, who died in 2012, was the only woman so far to win a Nobel Prize for economics. She was best known for her 1990 book Governing the Commons, and put the ideas in that book to work in a series of community activist projects in the US, drawing on experiences around the world. Her key argument flowed from a liberal-humanist refusal of one of the most powerful ideological motifs in the social sciences, the assumption that there is something necessarily destructive about human beings that will lead them to competitively destroy what they hold in common.
Students in the social sciences will at some point in their classes learn about the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’, described by Garrett Hardin back in 1968. The ‘tragedy’ is that people will tend to exploit the good nature of everyone else who holds resources in common, and that this selfish approach will eventually disintegrate any well-meaning attempts to build human solidarity. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument overlooks the brutal process by which land was enclosed during the early development of capitalism, and the way that the ‘commons’ – common land and herding and agricultural resources – was threatened by those who wanted to shift from community to individual ownership. Ostrom showed that Hardin’s claim was, in practice, quite untrue.
For the left, seizing back our land and what we ourselves create, ‘common ownership’, is, of course, the basis of a real movement towards communism. Our starting point is that the expulsion of peasants from the land, and the forcing of people into factories so that they must earn the wherewithal to buy back on a temporary basis what had been taken from them, is one of the foundational crimes of capitalist political economy. But that view is a tough one to win, with all kinds of very drastic consequences for private ownership of the means of production. It is not actually a view that will be won in a simple ‘battle of ideas’, it will be won in practice as people come to realise that exploitation is grounded in the dispossession of us all from the commons.
Alongside that political practice that makes communist ideas into a reality, there is a necessary painstaking process through which the left works away at the contradictions in bourgeois ideology, showing that underlying assumptions about fairness and justice are antithetical to private ownership. This is what Wall does so well in this book, acknowledging that Ostrom was ‘not a leftist in a traditional sense’, but was a profound ecological thinker and someone who was drawn by the political logic of her argument about community action into some radical positions. Her take on political action could, Wall, argues, even be interpreted today as a kind of intersectional feminist approach. This is one of the many points in the book where Wall moves back and forth from the small-scale level of theory and practice to global contexts and larger political ideas.
A brief biographical sketch grounds Ostrom’s ideas in US-American communitarian context, a context in which radicals did eventually gather around her, and try to find ways of opening up the contradictions to engage in genuinely radical ecological projects. Wall traces through some links between Ostrom’s concern with democratic governance and recent attempts in Rojava in the north of Syria to develop ‘democratic confederalism’ as, in Abdullah Ocalan’s words ‘the cultural organisational blueprint of a democratic nation’. Wall is concerned with what in socialist feminist politics was once framed as the link between the personal and the political, and here his argument is that Ostrom can be viewed as a feminist precisely because she emphasised ‘the co-production of knowledge … rather than simply developing formal models to then tell people what to do.’
Wall also shifts back and forth between some of the pernicious ideas in sociology and economics – that the human being is a ‘rational maximiser’, for example, and will always calculate what is best for the individual as they engage in some kind of game to seize resources and thereby destroy the commons – to debates about the relationship between social structure and free will; for Wall, and this is one of the implications of Ostrom’s work which does connect with revolutionary Marxism, ‘we don’t have complete free will but if we learn more about the structures that shape our behaviour we can gain more freedom’. This is what ecosocialist struggle is about, enlarging the sphere of human freedom as we learn together to take back and manage the earth’s resources.
And the rules? These include some quite radical arguments in a neoliberal world, reframing and making accessible the ideas Marxists take as their touchstone for changing the world: the rules include things like ‘everything changes’, ‘self-government is possible’, ‘all institutions are constructed and so can be constructed differently’, ‘collective ownership can work’ and ‘human beings are part of nature too’. This looks simple, but this is deceptively simple book about an economist who had a canny ability to connect what could be accomplished in a capitalist economy with a vision of a quite different world. There are complex ideas buried in this book which are made accessible by an engagement with Elinor Ostrom so that we learn from her and can find a way of radicalising her work, making it ecosocialist. Derek Wall lays out one path through which this can be accomplished.