Elinor Ostrom

24/04/2016 - 16:40 0
Elinor Ostrom in Rojava: Commons, Economy and Feminism

Elinor Ostrom was the first and so far only woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics. Sadly, she died in 2012 and to my knowledge she never visited Syria but she would have loved the bold revolution being created in Rojava. As a Green I am aware that the Kurds and their allies in Rojava, the three autonomous cantons in Northern Syria, are strongly aware of green politics.  Rojava has been found on green principles of self-government, feminism, equality, diversity and ecology. These were all principles that Elinor, Lin to her friends, strongly promoted. I would argue that the Rojava revolution is an Ostrom revolution.

Elinor Ostrom won her Nobel, strictly speaking the Swedish bank prize, for her work on collective property. She spent decades studying the commons, common resources such as woods and fisheries, along with common pool property rights.  She argued that economics should not deal with two types of property, individual and state, but a variety of legal forms of ownership including diverse ways of sharing through collective ownership.

In Rojava I know many resources are collectively owned as commons.  This in its self would have fascinated and delighted her. She looked at the practicalities of how to look after shared resources and produced 8 design features for a successful common: http://www.onthecommons.org/magazine/elinor-ostroms-8-principles-managing-commmons.

It would be interesting to know if any of these are used in Rojava.

Rojava has embraced the commons as an alternative to state socialism.

The commons encompasses land, infrastructure, and buildings not owned by individuals but held in stewardship by the councils. Councils can turn over these public goods to individuals to be used. Commons are conceived of as a way to provide both a safety net for those without resources and a way to maximize use of the material resources of the community. Commons also include the ecological aspects of the region including water, parks, wildlife and wilderness, and even most livestock. According to Dr. Ahmad Yousef, an economic co-minister, three-quarters of traditional private property is being used as commons and one quarter is still being owned by use of individuals

Drawing upon the work of the radical economist John R Commons, Elinor Ostrom stressed the principle of usufruct, ownership based on ecological use.  This too is practiced apparently in Rojava ‘Ownership by use means that when a building like a home or a business is being used by a person or persons, the users would in fact own the land and structures but would not be able to sell them on an open market.

Ostrom's work focused on environmental sustainability; her PhD examines how water users in California worked together to prevent the destruction of their shared water resource. Listening to Garret Hardin, who examined ‘the tragedy of the commons’, lecture at Indiana University, where she worked, she focused her research on the commons. The water resource she had studied in the 1960s was a commons, and she knew from her work studying it that commons did not always fail. She was disturbed by Hardin's metaphor of ‘the tragedy of the commons’ and the way he used it to promote what she saw as authoritarian solutions to environmental problems. He insisted that in the absence of external control, a ‘commons in breeding’ would destroy the environment, suggesting that ‘Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all’.

For her doctorate, Ostrom had studied how communities organized to sustain water in Los Angeles West Basin, by rationing water use to stop salt water from being sucked in from the sea. Listening to Hardin she realized that she had studied something he claimed was impossible, a successful commons. In a 2010 interview, she recalled:

That gave me insights into people, some of whom had spent 20, 30 years trying to solve this tough problem. There had not been one thing they did. They did a number of different things, including building a barrier against the ocean coming by putting water down through wells—very ingenious. I didn't know I was studying the commons. [Hardin argued that such cooperation was impossible but] he really was worried about population. He indicated that every man and every woman should be sterilized after they have one child. He was very serious about it…  I was somewhat taken aback. ‘My theory proves that we should do this,’ and people said, ‘Well, don't you think that that's a little severe?’ ‘No! That's what we should do, or we're sunk. Well, he, in my mind, became a totalitarian. I, thus, had seen a real instance where his theory didn't work. (Annual Reviews Conversations, 2010, p. 8)

I think there are deeper reasons why Elinor Ostrom would have fallen in love with the Rojava Revolution. She and her husband Vincent Ostrom strongly advocated self-government based on democratic control.  Formal liberal democracy was for them empty of real involvement. The second Russian Revolution of 1917 did not live up to the promise of power to the soviets i.e. councils of workers. Both Ostroms, while critical of the USA violence towards indigenous people, saw the American Revolution of 1776 as based on radical principles drawn from Tom Paine and the self-governed medieval city-states. In fact, when we remember that the American social ecologist/anarchist Murray Bookchin helped inspire the Rojava revolution, it’s worth noting that Elinor Ostrom’s ideals were very similar. 

Elinor Ostrom spent decades using a vast array of methods from historical case studies to experiments in game theory to learn how cooperation and sharing could be made practical. She rejected the politics of slogans and tried to create a practical political economy of collective ownership, diversity and ecology. I think many of her insights might be interesting to people in Rojava struggling to make this vision reality.

Elinor Ostrom was also a feminist economist. She spent a lifetime struggling in an academic environment that often dismissed the contribution of women. She would, thus, have been inspired by the feminist nature of the Rojava revolution. A system that aims to break patriarchy with women in leadership roles would have had her sympathy.

The Rojava revolution is so important. It is very clear that neo-liberal globalisation is breeding monsters. The economic crisis of austerity and financial collapse with an economy based on speculation is driving hatred and insecurity. Across the planet, whether we think of Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen, right wing leaders are using insecurity to build political movements based on racism. Daesh [Islamic State) and other Islamist organisations are using sectarian hatred to build their alternatives. Sectarian and aggressive political movements are harnessing the problems of neo-liberalism across the globe.

The Kurds and their allies are explicit in rejecting narrow forms of hate filled nationalism. The Rojava project of creating a sustainable democracy that values different communities including Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Chechens is an alternative that is vital not only in the Middle East but right across our planet.

Rojava is the most effective opposition to the hate filled politics of Daesh (Islamic State). It is also an ecological experiment but above all as an experiment in deep democracy it would, I believe, have been embraced by Elinor Ostrom.

I hope all of us who want a world that is based on popular democratic control rather than forms of elitist and paternalistic control, learn from Rojava. We also need to defend Rojava and the communities in Turkey currently being assaulted by the military. I am sure this is a task that Elinor Ostrom would have taken part in and I am also sure that Ostrom’s life time’s work on commons and self-government has much to contribute to the attempts in Rojava to create a truly diverse and democratic society.

Part of this article is based on Derek Wall's text 'Green Politics and the Republican Commons.'

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