Competition or cooperation

Elinor Ostrom has received a Nobel prize in 2009 for her work showing that a basic implicit assumption of economists (that we work as individuals, never as a collective) is false. She has found successful, mutual and reciprocal schemes such as forests in Nepal, irrigation systems in Spain, villages in Switzerland and Japan, and fisheries in Maine and Indonesia where people had developed ways of regulating their use of common resources without resorting to either private property rights or government intervention (Gittins, 2012). Not that many economists would have known her work. That idea is just too crazy to raise in otherwise “intelligent” discussions.

As it turns out, this thought has already been stumbled upon, researched and proven as it also applies to another struggle for resources, that between species, and the same conclusion has been reached. For example:

“The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress.” (Peter Kropotkin, 1902).

So, cooperation has been researched in hundreds of studies since the 19th century and it is clear that it increases creativity, quality of work and well-being of the participants (the latter is an economic utility not talked about in economics much!). For a gentle scholarly summary of the accumulated wisdom on this topic read up here

But there is a clash of ideas in which voices like Ostrom’s and Kropotkin’s are always ignored and the neoclassical, individualistic ideas march on. For example academics of economics proclaim with straight face that we all act only with our own narrow interest at heart, that any resource that is “common” (i.e. not private property) is necessarily bound to be overused and degraded (because every rational individual will try to devour the free resources first, often employing them at less-than-optimal productiveness) and no-one has an economic incentive to look after such a resource. This is a soft-couched version of  ”things have no value if they don’t have a price”.

Mental positions like that are saying volumes about those that proclaim such ideas and the ideal-less, valueless universe they inhabit. They say nothing about what is necessarily happening in the real world the more well rounded humans live in, with all their in-built urge to cooperate and the ability to understand the benefits of doing so. Unfortunately the simple ideas of the academics of economy are very powerful at convincing the masses and in dumbed-down democracies that lack imagination we end up celebrating people who say things like this:

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” (Margaret Thatcher, 1987).

Listen to blinkered ideologues, special-interest propaganda and valueless thinkers long enough and it might seem that the neoclassical ideas are necessarily true. Looking at the “reality” of television, it would seem that competition and elimination is a central component in human endeavours like travel, cooking and singing. It isn’t. Australian education system is the neoclassical wet dream: at the end of secondary education students are given a single score between 0 and 100 which is not a mark, but a rank – a singular, reductive measure that has nothing to do with actual accomplishment and all to do with competition. In our economies, led by the ruling classes of the last 40 years or so, it would be easily to believe that the only way to manage our resources is to privatise them and extract profit from them as the market allows it, that all the alternatives have failed. It isn’t so. The need for control, authority, aggression, ruthlessness, fear and distrust are easy outcomes of the neoclassical worldview, but as the movie Monsters Inc. tries to gently point out, there is a lot more energy in cooperation than in fear.


Gittins, R. (2012). Economic models can be too neat for reality. Retrieved from



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