David Harvey’s critique of Eleanor Ostrom’s Commons approach

An excerpt from David Harvey (from the Radical History Review Issue 109 Winter 2011)

1. Problem of scale

“Ostrom shows that individuals can and often do devise ingenious and eminently sensible ways to manage common property resources (CPR) for individual and collective benefit. These case studies “shatter the convictions of many policy analysts that the only way to solve CPR problems is for external authorities to impose full private property rights or centralized regulation” and, as Ostrom argues, demonstrate “rich mixtures of public and private instrumentalities.”

Most of her examples, however, involve as few as a hundred or so appropriators. Anything much larger (her largest case involved fifteen thousand users) required a “nested hierarchical” structure of decision making, rather than direct negotiations between individuals. There is, clearly, an unanalyzed “scale problem” at work here. The possibilities for sensible management of common-­property resources that exist on one scale, such as shared water rights between one hundred farmers in a small river basin, do not and cannot carry over to problems such as global warming or even to the regional diffusion of acid deposition from power stations. As we “jump scales” (as geographers like to put it), the whole nature of the common-­property problem and the prospects of finding a solution change dramatically. What looks like a good way to resolve problems at one scale does not hold at another scale. Even worse, good solutions at one scale (say, the local) do not necessarily aggregate up, or cascade down, to make for good solutions at another scale (say, the global).

This, incidentally, is also why the lessons gained from the collective organization of small-­scale solidarity economies along common-­property lines cannot translate into global solutions without resort to nested hierarchical forms of decision making. Unfortunately, hierarchy is anathema to many segments of the oppositional left these days.”

2. Leaving out politics

“In the grander scheme of things, and particularly at the global level, some sort of enclosure is often the best way to preserve valued commons. It will take a draconian act of enclosure in Amazonia, for example, to protect both biodiversity and the cultures of indigenous populations as part of our global natural and cultural commons. It will almost certainly require state authority to do so against the philistine democracy of short-­term moneyed interests ravaging the land with soybean plantings and cattle ranching. But in this instance there may be another problem: expelling indigenous populations from their forestlands may be deemed necessary to preserve biodiversity. One commons, in other words, may need to be protected at the expense of another.

Questions of the commons are contradictory and therefore always contested. Behind these contestations lie conflicting social interests. Indeed, “politics,” as Jacques Rancière has remarked, “is the sphere of activity of a common that can only ever be contentious.”At the end of it all, the analyst is often left with a simple decision: whose side are you on, and which and whose interests do you seek to protect?”

3. Limited choice of examples

“Not all forms of the commons are open access. Some, like the air we breathe, are open, while others, like the streets of our cities, are open in principle but regulated, policed, and even privately managed in the form of business-­improvement districts. And some, like a common water resource controlled by fifty farmers, are from the very start exclusive to a particular social group. Most of Ostrom’s examples are of the last variety. Furthermore, she limits her inquiry to so-­called natural resources such as land, forests, water, fisheries, and the like. (I say “so-­called natural” because all resources are technological, economic, and cultural appraisals and therefore socially defined.) Ostrom expresses no interest in other forms of common property, such as genetic materials, knowledge, and cultural assets, which are very much under assault these days through commodification and enclosure.”

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