- Public Work and the Politics of the Commons
Elinor Ostrom's share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics is cause for celebration among supporters of the commonwealth and democracy alike. While her work provides powerful conceptual resources for sustaining shared resources, it also points toward a democratizing politics that has large implications for overcoming the bitter divisions in today's political landscape and making significant changes in contemporary societies as well.
The theory-building of Ostrom and others associated with the "Bloomington School," based at Indiana University, has considerably helped to counter widespread pessimism about the fate of the commons. Specifically, they refuted Garrett Hardin's famous 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," which summed up conventional wisdom that common resources are doomed. Hardin, defining the commons as a "free resource" open to all, predicted its inevitable ruin as each individual pursues his or her own self-interests. 1
The Bloomington School, examining real-world cases of shared resources such as fisheries, forests, irrigation systems, and more recently the internet, discovered that several of Hardin's basic assumptions were simply mistaken: that the commons is by definition "open to all," rather than a managed collective resource; that little or no communication exists among users; that users act only in their immediate and narrow self-interests failing to take into account long term collective benefits; and that there are only two possible outcomes for the commons—privatization or government control. 2 [End Page 84]
They found that it is possible to avoid destruction of the commons through self-organized governance with high popular participation combined with formal governance at local or regional levels. Ostrom calls this "polycentric governance systems . . . where citizens are able to organize not just one but multiple governing authorities at different scales." 3 Their design principles for governing the commons include, among others, rules well-matched to local needs; capacities of people affected to participate in changing rules; respect by external powers for local community decision making, and sanctions developed and imposed by local actors. 4
In this reflection on the importance of Ostrom's work, I argue that the themes she and her colleagues have developed also point beyond the bitter conflict between the mass politics dominant among progressives, on the one hand, and the anti-government politics illustrated by the Tea Party and its intellectual sympathizers, on the other. Mass politics imagines government to be the central agent of change, with citizens in an ancillary consumer role. Elite politics on the right feeds upon such politics, using concepts such as voluntarism, work and "the average citizen" in sentimentalized fashion to promote the dismantling of government.
I propose that the Bloomington principles are political in the citizen-centered sense of politics descending from the Greeks. Such politics is distinguishable from the ideological wars which dominate today, scripted by elites to inflame opinions and to mobilize large numbers of people behind preset agendas. It is the "different kind of politics" I elaborated in an earlier essay in The Good Society : free action by distinctive agents who engage with each other to address common problems and shape a common world. 5
Though it is now a distant memory for some, the Obama campaign message intimated such politics on a large scale with "yes we can," accompanied by incorporation of community organizing elements into the field operation. Other developments also suggest new possibilities for participatory democracy. 6 The challenge is to move "yes we can" from a campaign theme to a philosophy of governance and a broader politics that can animate a citizen movement for the revitalization and deepening of democracy.
The Bloomington principles, positing horizontal interactions among diverse agents, valorize the self-directed action at the heart of participatory democracy. They also show concern for sustaining a shared public world, not simply redistributing its goods. A focus on the labors involved in commons creation as well as on their governance contributes other elements to a participatory democratic politics, adding a productive dimension that points toward democratization of large institutions such as higher [End Page 85] education, government, and business, long conceived as immutable features of the modern landscape.
The Deepening Divide