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.

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