The commons, social justice and systemic change
(Conferencia ‘Con todos y para el bien de todos’, La Havana, 25-28 de enero 2016)
We live in a paradoxical time. While, on the one hand, international organisations are promoting social protection in the South, on the other hand, existing welfare states are being dismantled in the North. However, there is in fact one single logic at work. What is being introduced in the North as well as in the South is a neoliberal social paradigm in which ‘social protection’ acquires a new meaning, different from what it was in the past. Hence, the North and the South are facing identical challenges and alternatives are urgently needed.
In this contribution, I want to first identify the major characteristics of neoliberal social policy. I then want to point to the difficult relationship the left has with social policies and welfare states. Third, while social policies certainly cannot be abandoned, the search for alternatives will have to take into account the needs of our times and of current generations. In the fourth section, I want to propose an alternative that uses the concept of the commons as an anti-systemic tool allowing to link up with the struggle for climate justice. Social commons, then, as I will explain, will be a transformative and emancipatory project promoting social and political agency, it will allow to defend the sustainability of life, of people, of society and of nature, while it can contribute to change the economic system.
- A neoliberal social paradigm
The major turn in global social policies happened in 1990, when the World Bank published its first report on poverty and the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) published its first report on ‘human development’. While these steps were seen, especially in Europe, as an important turn of financial organisations towards a more ‘people centred’ and social development, in fact they meant the end of the old development thinking. Till then, ‘poverty’ never had been an issue in development discourse and the solution for the known social problems, such as the lack of health care, education, decent housing, etc. was called ‘social development’, not ‘poverty reduction’. However different the practice of development may have been, at the discursive level economic development was seen as a transformational process for countries, economies and societies. And since countries of the South had specific needs, ‘development economics’ was promoted as a different branch from economics in general.
This major change had in fact been introduced beginning of the 1980s in Latin America, with the first ‘structural adjustment’ programmes in Mexico and Argentina. These programmes rapidly spread over the whole continent and later towards Africa and Asia. They now have also reached Europe. From the 1990s onward, ‘globalisation’ became the master concept that swept away economic and social development, as well as development economics. The ‘Washington Consensus’ is a one-size-fits-all policy with a focus on fiscal balance, privatizations, liberalisation of trade and capital movements, deregulation of labour markets, etc.
The World Bank poverty discourse emerged at the moment when the first catastrophic social consequences of these policies became clear. However, it did not propose any changes in the ‘Washington consensus’, on the contrary. Poverty had to be solved, according to all the documents published in the 1990s, precisely by better implementing the imposed policies. Poverty was not seen as a social problem, but as a problem of individuals that had been discriminated against by governments and hence had no access to markets. Poverty reduction was not meant to protect people against markets, but pushed them to participate in markets.
The UNDP developed a slightly different discourse, with a greater focus on health care and education, though here as well poverty was a problem of individuals and there were no proposals to change the neoliberal policies. UNDP provided civil society with an immensely interesting quantity of data and statistics, but rarely made concrete proposals for solving the growing inequality. When it published a ‘global social charter’ in 1994 – for the UN social summit in Copenhagen – this was politely rejected by other organisations.
In fact, the poverty focus was a very intelligent new discourse putting the focus on poor people while stressing the need for neoliberal policies. It naturalized the economy and It allowed for development to be turned away from its transformative goal for countries and societies. It gave legitimacy to neoliberal globalisation and offered governments an alternative to their national development projects. It gave globalisation a human face.
It is important to note that from the outset, poverty reduction policies were not seen by the World Bank and UNDP as an improvement of existing social protection, but rather as an alternative to it. Social security is not desirable in poor countries, so it was said repeatedly. The old recipes that claimed to fight poverty with more social expenditures were said to belong to past and erroneous thinking. The international organisations were not against social security as such, but these did not belong to the core missions of governments. People who want to insure themselves can turn to the market.
This is the background against which we have to understand the ‘theoretical framework’ for social protection published by the World Bank in 2000. Here, social protection becomes ‘risk management’: all possible risks are amalgamated – economic, social, natural, epidemics … – and all solutions people will find to survive qualify as ‘social protection’, that is old age pensions as well as migration and child labour…
European welfare states
Though different from country to country, welfare states in the European Union are well developed. The European Union however, has no competences to govern them, except for the ‘safety and health’ of workers. Throughout its first decades, the European Commission did try to get more social competences from the Member States, but as from the end of the 1980s it changed its priorities and started to focus on the financial sustainability of welfare states in the context of the emerging internal market.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights which was adopted in 2000 is extremely modest in its ambition on social rights and cannot be used to counter the current austerity policies. Since the Treaty of Lisbon hardly any new social legislation has been adopted. The new social thinking however is introduced via policy documents, coordination mechanisms and governance measures. Labour law was seriously threatened through a series of famous arrests from the European Court of Justice. In them, economic freedoms are considered more important than social rights.
The strongest influence however of European policies on national welfare states comes from the ‘economic governance’, its imposed need for fiscal balance and the power it gives to the European Commission to make ‘country specific recommendations’ to its member States. Many of these recommendations concern the financial sustainability of pension systems and health care, to adapt the wage setting arrangements, to promote flexicurity, to open up sheltered sectors of professional services, to adapt indexation mechanisms, etc.
In February 2013, the European Commission published a number of proposals for ‘social investment’, aimed at developing people’s ‘human capital’ so that they can engage strongly in the labour market. The basic idea is that remedial action of welfare states should be replaced by preventing social hazards.
At the same time, the European Commission promotes ‘social innovation’, based on the fact that there are many tasks that citizens can take care of themselves without having to call on the government. Obviously, this opens the door to further privatization of social services and to the multinationals of ‘care’.
To-day, once again voices are heard to promote a ‘social Europe’ with some symbolic measures such as a European unemployment benefit. This debate certainly is interesting though the main question is whether any social justice can be promoted within the framework of neoliberal austerity.
Global plans for social protection
At the global level, in the meantime, the Millennium Development Goals have been replaced by ‘Sustainable development goals’, a broader agenda for the North and for the South aimed at promoting growth, poverty eradication and protection of the environment. It does speak about inequality and social protection.
In the past years, several international organisations have proposed plans for introducing social protection, given the fact that poverty reduction policies obviously failed. UNDESA (United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs), UNRISD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development), Unicef (the UN Childrens Fund), the ILO (International Labour Organisation), and, for Latin America ECLAC (UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Carribean), have published interesting documents on how they see the future of social policies.
It would take us too far to analyze here the different approaches of ECLAC (social citizenship), ILO (social protection floors) or UNRISD. All three organisations try to escape, with varying success, from the neoliberal focus of targeting and poverty reduction. They focus on human rights and universalism.
However, the organizations that matter and that have the power and the money to impose their ideology do continue to promote their neoliberal approach. What has been made clear through their most recent documents, inspired by the World Bank, is that ‘social protection’ does not have the same meaning anymore as in the past. It has become an improved poverty reduction and has nothing to do with economic and social rights anymore. Neoliberal social protection is about the economy, promoting growth, productivity and stability. It favours markets and helps to create new markets for health, education or transport, services traditionally provided by public authorities. Universalism is abandoned. The non-poor can buy social insurance on the market place.
Poverty reduction policies however become conditional. Poor people wil be helped if they are deserving, those who are not will be punished. Today, the philosophy is that people have to be ‘empoyable’ and can be ‘activated’. The one thing that has changed from 1990 is that the World Bank now accepts income transfers to the poor. Whereas in the past it claimed that ‘poor people do not speak about income’, it started to promote micro-credit, especially for women. Now, having noticed that the cash transfers, first introduced by Brazil and then Mexico, were a fast way to help poor people, they have adopted the same mechanism and promote it all over the world. However, within a neoliberal framework, these have now become an indirect way to subsidize the companies that provide privatized social services. Whereas poor people were not able to pay the user fees imposed by the Washington Consensus, they now receive money from the State to pay for services delivered by private companies.
While social justice always has been high on the agenda of leftwing social movements and parties, one has to wonder why the rightful protests of people against the dismantlement of their social and economic rights, is not answered with real alternatives. It should be clear that however revolutionary the European welfare states in many respects have been, they are unable today to answer the real needs of people. Economies and societies have changed. De-industrialization and robotization make some academics think that waged labour will disappear in the future. Trade unions are on the defensive and do no more than defend a status quo. Civil society is often inward-looking and proposes small-scale reforms that are perfectly compatible with neoliberal policies. Women have massively entered the labour market, there are more single parent families, migrants are massively claiming their rights. It is clear that real progressive alternatives that break with the neoliberal logic are urgently needed, yet, they are not there …
- The difficult relationship of the left with social policies
It is difficult to find the right explanations for the lack of alternatives for the current social policies, whether they belong to the old tradition of welfare states or whether they follow the new neoliberal paradigm.
In fact, only two alternatives are being offered today: the ‘social protection floor’ of the ILO and the ‘basic income’ of some leftwing libertarian groups in Europe.
Both alternatives have been amply discussed in my e-book on the social commons. Suffice it to say here that the social protection floor, if fully implemented would certainly mean a tremendous progress for all people and all workers in the whole world. It is however a minimalist programme and it is rather ambiguous on universalism. It is not free from neoliberal influences and the fact that the ILO has now made a common declaration with the World Bank on its realization, does not bode well. As for the basic income, it is fundamentally a liberal proposal aimed at giving people more freedom while neglecting equality. It suffers from the same problems as the cash transfers that are now promoted by the World Bank: it leaves people free to buy privatized services and, as for the countries with welfare states funded by social contributions, would mean a gigantic gift to employers and shift the current wage costs to society as a whole.
Why is it so difficult to discuss this obvious issue? After all, it is easy to see that all socialist regimes have started with the implementation of universal social services, such as health and education. Cuba is the best example of it. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has done the same, with Cuba’s help. Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula da Silva in Brazil, even if not making an end to capitalism, have tried to break the dominance of neoliberalism and have introduced successful and far-reaching social policies. So where is the problem? In most of the programmes for social forums or conferences on progressive alternatives, social justice is missing.
It is often said that welfare states were made possible because of colonial exploitation in the Third World. Companies accepted fewer profits in their home countries because they could easily compensate for them in their foreign branches. While there can be no doubt about the exploitation of colonised countries, this severely underestimates the struggles of the labour movements. Moreover, the companies that were active in the colonies were only a small minority compared to the overall group of employers who accepted the new labour rules and social security.
In an essay of some months ago, a famous Uruguyan political scientist, stated that social policies are ‘counter-insurgency policies, meant to tamp down on mass movement activity’. Many people think indeed that most social policies are ‘assistentialist’, or at least ‘reformist’, do not contribute to the constitution of social agents and only help to avoid revolutionary movements. This is far too generalizing. It explains why it is so difficult to put social justice on the agenda of leftwing social movements and parties. Social protection is too often seen as an instrument of redistribution of the results of exploitation, whereas it is the exploitation itself that has to be stopped. This argument is fully understandable, but one cannot blame trade unions for defending the economic and social rights of workers. Redistribution should not be seen as the sole result of exploitation, since it should not only be the result of growth, but can also be the redistribution of total wealth in society. This is particularly important in the context of globalisation and international taxes, more particularly capital gains and wealth taxes.
Of course it is right to put some serious questions about initiatives that can help people to escape extreme poverty, or that only create an illusion of global action against poverty and inequality. It is right to criticize initiatives, at whatever level they are taken, that will never promote social transformation and will never contribute to a better world. But it seems to me to be rather cruel to say that even the most charitable action has to be condemned, even if it helps people to survive. I am very much against all charity and philanthropy, but I cannot say it is always perverse, because sometimes people have no other resources. However much I dislike it, charity can be part of civilization, if it helps to give people what they need when no one else is giving it to them. What progressive movements have to promote however is solidarity, which is the opposite of charity. Social protection is not meant to help the poor, but it does stop the impoverishment process, it helps to prevent poverty.
Social protection is so much more than policies for ‘those in need’. It is a driver of systemic change and West-European welfare states have profoundly transformed the relationship between capital and labour. Labour is indeed not a commodity anymore and it is not a coincidence that neoliberal governments, including the European Commission, are insisting so hard on abolishing collective bargaining mechanisms.
Welfare states were not of course the exclusive result of labour struggles, nor were they proof of the altruism of employers or of governments. Many arguments were used, different from one country to the other and some can be compared to what is said today, such as that children need good health in order to become productive workers, literacy on the work floor is required, there is a need for stable labour force, for strong and healthy soldiers… And of course there was the fear of socialism, end of the 19th century in Germany and fear of communism after the Second World War. Without the Cold War, welfare states would not have developed as they did after 1945.
Welfare states were also linked to a conception of the state that was considered responsible for the welfare of its citizens. The state itself was a kind of public service. The discourse was about social integration, which was much more inclusive than the current idea of social cohesion. It was about democracy and the need for solidarity among everyone in order to preserve it. It also was about full employment and, typically, it was not in the first place about fighting poverty. It was a nation-building project, a political construction of collective solidarity.
Neoliberalism already totally transformed this vision on the state. States now have to be ‘enabling’ for the markets, they have to promote competitiveness, to defend ownership rights, defend consumer’s protection, promote trade and do everything to make markets work perfectly well. They need strength within a limited scope. The current social policies that are promoted by the World Bank have to be seen in this context and have to serve the same goals.
This also explains why parts of the left have difficulties in accepting the ‘social state’. Their analysis is influenced by Marxism that sees states as being necessarily in the hands of the dominant capitalist classes. This may be fully true to-day, and analysis of neoliberalism now explains how states have been ‘captured’ by multinational companies. But it was not true in the same way during Keynesianism, however capitalist that even was. States have no essence and they do play a role in the shaping of class relationships and the working classes are not necessarily excluded from them. It was precisely through democracy and the welfare state that the working classes – represented by trade unions – found ways and instruments to work for their emancipation and to shape states differently, away from capitalism and neoliberalism. If welfare states are in crisis today it is because of their success. They not only played an important economic and social role but also a major political role.
The role of welfare states in and for capitalism, then, is very ambiguous. ‘The embarrassing secret of the welfare state is that while its impact upon capitalist accumulation may wel become destructive… its abolition would be plainly disruptive’. This is what explains the turnaround of the World Bank, which was first against social security but has somewhat mitigated its hard anti-protection stance and has introduced a different kind of social protection, totally compatible with neoliberalism.
The welfare state has never been fully accepted, either by the left or by the right. But it is, clearly, a political project that most people want because it meets their needs. This also explains the resistance of trade unions as soon as rights are threatened or dismantled.
All people need protection, under all political and economic regimes, and markets have never been able to provide it. If it is not possible nor desirable to go back to the 1950s and 1960s to defend the idea of the welfare state, it is even less desirable to abandon the idea of social protection. What we need is a coherent and comprehensive system able to give genuine solutions to the needs of people today, everywhere. It should be a system based on solidarity, on insurance and on redistribution, on contributions and taxes. It ought to include the whole of society and not only workers, from local to global, including migrant workers and the growing precariat. Furthermore, it should include the people who, for one reason or another, cannot be active in the labour market and of course children and elderly people. It should include productive and reproductive work, individual and collective rights and access to services essential for preserving social life. It should include the rights that protect workers against exploitative working conditions, as well as protection against climate change.
- The new challenge of social justice
If the old welfare states cannot answer people’s needs anymore and if the current alternatives – from poverty reduction to social protection floors and basic income – cannot be satisfactory for the left and those who look for systemic change, than clearly, we have to look for other ways in order to protect people.
We now live in a globalised world with a mobile working force and even more mobile capital which has a growing influence on governments. Corporations are very reluctant to pay taxes and even if, for the sake of stability, they will give their workers minimal economic and social rights, their preference goes to charity and philanthropy, not only for alleviating poverty, but also for introducing health care and privatized education. Charity – based on a power relationship – is the opposite of solidarity – based on reciprocity. It is clear it can never lead to social justice. A first requirement for a new social protection aimed at social justice will have to be based on human rights in general and economic and social right in particular.
This social protection will have to take economic conditions into account since it will have consequences for the way in which the economy is organised and regulated. The threatening climate change will also have to be seriously considered and decisions made accordingly on the use of natural resources. Decision-making will be democratic and the principle of universalism respected, even if some targeting, aimed at achieving universalism, can be accepted. It will be based on contributory and non-contributory mechanisms, leading to the promotion of progressive tax systems, both nationally and internationally. This social protection will be a political project and not a management technique. It is closely linked to democracy and social participation in decision-making. Social protection should be the link between collective solidarity and individual freedom.
The tension between individualism and collective life is not a new one and it is today at the centre of many debates about modernity, buen vivir and the so-called civilisational crisis. It is an issue that has to be tackled if some kind of synthesis is to be achieved and if a focus on solidarity is to be maintained. One of the traditional but still valid ways to look at the relativism of individuality is the thesis about the ‘debt’ each individual has to society, not in terms of ‘guilt’ but in terms of heritage. Even a Nobel Prize winner is unable to claim being solely responsible for his or her invention and creativity: we are all building on the work and the knowledge of others, of former generations and of friends and colleagues. Thus we all have a debt to other people, as they made us and our work possible. We are interdependent.
Another way is to look at modernity and the individual human rights that came with it. In modern philosophy it is said that individuals pursue their ‘interests’, while non-Western people rightly stress the importance of collective rights and take into account a fuller range of human sentiments. Often human rights are considered to be the best and universal reference for all those claiming social justice. But human rights are mainly individual rights that ignore human relationships and social life. Surely, economic, social and cultural rights can be seen as collective rights, as argued by Robert Castel. Moreover, there is also a third generation of rights – the right to development and to a healthy environment – which are also called ‘solidarity rights’ because they take into account the behaviour and interrelationships of individuals. However, their recognition as human rights is still very controversial. Even the second generation of rights is contested by liberals who claim they inevitably destroy the ‘real’ – negative – rights of freedom.
Yet, this collective dimension will necessarily have to be focused on, since neoliberalism is destroying societies.
All this will lead to another kind of state in which class relationships will be present, in which there will be a permanent conflict between them, but in which all classes will have a stake and interests to defend. It will be a state with public interventions in favour of popular demands and in favour of the economy. What is intended, then, is not a class compromise. On the contrary, it will be a state in which different interests are present and fight to defend them. Power will have to be fought for, and this struggle will never end for it is ‘life politics’, as Chantal Mouffe has so beautifully described it. It is not a struggle in an antagonistic way – fighting with an enemy one wants to destroy – but in an agonistic way – against an opponent one wants to overrule. The struggle will be between competing hegemonic projects and the conflicting parties have to recognise the legitimacy of their adversaries. If protest movements all over the world are shouting today ‘they do not represent us’ there is a very serious problem. Current states have in many cases forgotten their core mission of caring for people, socially as well as ecologically.
The social protection I want to propose is thus not a status quo. It is not a dismantling of social protection but a new way of organising and expanding it.
Seen from the perspective of social development, welfare states can be understood as ‘a process of planned social change designed to promote the well-being of the population as a whole in conjunction with a dynamic process of economic development’. The social transformation dimension certainly remains valid, while economic development will have to be fundamentally rethought in order to adapt to the climate change requirements. Growth can certainly not be the overarching objective.
All these considerations explains why my proposal for a new kind of social protection is based on ‘the commons’ and why it should be able to protect and defend individual as well as collective rights.
- The social commons
The commons have nothing to do with the common good, a philosophical concept going back to Aristotle and referring to the standards for common and social behaviour. It was later taken over by Christians and it became an ethical concept and the basis for the social doctrine of the Church. François Houtart, however, speaks of ‘the common good of humanity’, a concept that implies a new paradigm with a radical critique of modernity such as developed by capitalism and never really questioned by socialism. He thus introduces a new vocabulary in order to demand a new relationship between humankind and nature, a fresh look at the production of the material necessities of life, based on use value, a general democratisation and interculturality. This is perfectly in line with the social commons as I want to conceptualize them.
Common goods are related to public goods and have a more economic connotation. They are goods and can thus be commoditised, whereas the notion of public goods remains trapped in the dichotomy of state versus market. The risk here, according to Dardot and Laval, is that this common or public good is reified, by which they mean that they refer to some intrinsic characteristics of some goods. It is not the ‘nature’ of goods that makes something ‘common’. If we see water as a common good, it cannot be because water has specific characteristics that make it a common good. It can only become a common good because people decide to make it their common good, to see it as something they share and have to care for. In other words, it is not the nature of the good that makes it a common good but the institution of the good as a common.
Commons are all those things that people in a political community or society – at whatever level – decide to see as a common, because they belong to the whole of the group. This process includes the rules for governing, regulating and monitoring the use of these commons. The common, then, is always the result of some act of ‘bringing together’ (‘mise en commun’), which always supposes reciprocity between those who do it and share an activity or a way of living. This bringing together of people instituting a ‘we’ is a coactivity, the basic condition for achieving a common. The common will always be the result of a conscious shared activity in order to institute it.
The common, then, is more than just a thing; it is also the process leading to the creation of things as commons and it is the conceptual framework in which we can conceive of the things that we want to share and want the whole community to use.
Thanks to the intrinsic democracy and the sharing they imply, commons have recently become the rallying cry against neoliberalism, capitalism and modernity. The commoning process is the opposite of privatisation and appropriation. But it very often is a kind of grab bag where everyone puts something in or takes something out, without a clear notion of how it should happen. The concept is often used by people who want to act against the state, against the market, against development. It often implies a certain return to the past, to small communities with small-scale production. However, one can also see commons as politicised and socialised resources, at the material and at the immaterial level, but always as the regulated result of participative coactivity. The common is the result of a regime of practices, of struggles, of institutions that can lead to a non-capitalist future. In a similar vein, David Bollier emphasises the emancipatory dimension of commons. He sees them as a social relationship, since you can have no commons without commoners and without a commoning process. The concept is closely linked to the interdependence of people and of people and nature.
If the concept is on its way to becoming a buzzword it is also because people do not just want to emancipate themselves from poverty but are also looking for a different governance system. Social movements today do not only fight to defend their self-interest but are concerned about the survival of humankind and the planet and also want to make their voices heard. They want to take part in decision-making. Commons can be seen as the foundation of our collective life in our community, in our country and on this planet. Every community will have to define its commons, the framework in which it wants to organise its existence, the rules it wants to follow, the geographical scale at which it wants to exist.
Democracy and participation are central to this exercise, which leads to the question of what the role of governments, states or international organisations should be. Formally, they remain the guarantors of people’s rights and this task should again become central. They can become ‘partner-states’ in order to help people to organise the commons and to safeguard their decisions and rules. The state in a regime of commons will be different from the old paternalistic state and from the neoliberal market state.
This all shows how the concept of commons allows for a departure from some of the old dichotomies. It will no longer be an opposition between private and public, or market versus State, but a regime with a market and with a state and with commons governed by citizen-commoners. This also allows us to look differently at property. It is not the status of private or public property that will decide the fate of things but the rules for their use. Dardot and Laval define commons primarily as ‘non-appropriable’, which means that a private owner, if she exists, has no absolute rights and cannot be the single decision-maker. Commons are, in a certain way, outside property. Commoning then is not a mechanism to give all goods or economic activities to the state or to the citizens, but about regulating their use, whoever their owner is. Coactivity does not mean co-ownership. What matters is not so much the property regime but the possibility of communal use. If this can be regulated, the capitalist accumulation process will be significantly hindered if not stopped.
But what then can be our commons? One of the very first possibilities that comes to mind is of course the planet itself, the nature we share and of which we are part. It is water, the mountains and the seas, the forests and so many other important things. Converting these into commons would imply a breakaway from modernity which places humans above nature. It is an urgent but difficult task to redefine the relationship between humans and nature. This question is at the heart of our civilisational crisis.
A second possibility that comes to mind is the basic things that we share as human beings: our human needs, at the material level – food, clothing, housing – and at the immaterial level – society and our human relationships – threatened as they are by neoliberalism. These needs we all have, though they will never be met in the same way for all people. So again, it is people who will have to decide what precisely they want to see and treat as commons.
Third, what we also share are our human rights. They are not natural, they did not fall out of the sky nor were they God-given, but they are already the result of a political decision that was taken, to consider all people as being equal, with equal rights in order to emphasise our equal value. Equality does not mean sameness. It is precisely because we are all different that we need equal rights. And once again, the choice of which rights and the ways they will be fulfilled differ from society to society, but we can definitely consider them as commons.
Social commons could be seen as a pleonasm, since commons necessarily are social, as the result of co-activity. But social commons also point to the dual sense of ‘social’, referring to society as well as to the social needs and rights. My proposal for conceiving of social protection as social commons, is based on the knowledge that current social protection already is a collective property of workers that promoted and enhanced their citizenship.
Characteristics and advantages of social commons
Since social commons will be the result of collective decision-making, it is clear there can be no blueprint, though we can see what the main characteristics of a social protection system conceived as social commons can be. First of all, in the same way as human rights, social commons will be universal. They can be seen as a specific implementation of human rights, within a limited community or globally. But within the community they are decided on, no one should be excluded, all have to benefit and all have to contribute.
A second characteristic will be the need for multilevel policies. Even if social commons can be decided at different geographical levels – local, national, global – it is clear that no one level can solve all problems on its own. We live in an interdependent world. Globalisation thrives on inequalities and workers have to compete with workers from other areas. If we are serious about building another world, we cannot but promote social convergence at the global level. And that means social commons will have to be looked at from a multilevel perspective.
Third, social commons face the particular challenge of combining the protection of collectivities with individual rights. The participatory definition of the commons is a first and very important exercise in defining the political community as a collective entity and an initial step in its protection. Other rules for governing the commons may confirm this. However, this cannot mean that individual rights become subordinate. But neither can there be individual freedom without collective freedom.
Speaking of universality and social commons at different levels, we should also mention solidarity. It is already implied in the ‘we’ that is constructed through the definition of the commons. Solidarity does not only mean people we know and who are members of at least one political community we share. It also signifies organic solidarity with people who we do not know but with whom we share a world. Solidarity is always based on reciprocity, and in this way it contributes to the constitution of communities, again from the local to the global levels. It never can be one-way.
The advantages of such an approach are obvious.
First of all, people can re-appropriate the mechanisms and the policies that are theirs anyhow. It is people who pay for social protection, through taxes or through contributions. Social protection is not a gift from the State or from employers. A process of self-determination will make people responsible, it will allow to reconcile individual and collective rights and people will become the co-producers of these rights and of the conditions in which to make them concrete. By re-introducing this process of social agency, people will become the social and political actors that shape their social and political order. It is a truly emancipatory process.
Second, the process of the commoning – at whatever level it happens – means that society is constituting itself as a political community and this co-activity is already a protection of society as such. This collective process is contrary to the neoliberal destructive elements of society since citizens will be obliged to sit together and examine and define their needs as well as the mechanisms to give everyone access to the rights they decide on.
Third, it will obviously be possible to enlarge and broaden the scope of rights, also integrating some elements of environmental rights into social protection, such as the right to water or the right to land.
What makes social commons different from social protection is in the very first place the participatory and democratic construction of it. Social protection should answer the needs of people, but as the existing systems are not really in their hands it is difficult to change and adapt according to these needs. A second major difference is the collective dimension social commons emphasise, in constructing them and in governing and monitoring them. Beyond the human rights on which social protection is founded, they also care for society itself and promote social integration.
- Social commons are transformative
Social protection is traditionally considered to be an element of social reproduction. Healthcare, education and childcare are elements that directly contribute to the development of ‘human capital’ or, better, the preservation of human life. Pensions are increasingly seen as a ‘luxury’ and employers are not willing to pay for them any more. As for domestic work in general, however important it is for the regeneration of the labour force, it is left in the hands of women who are supposed to do this work ‘out of love’ and unpaid. No wonder the World Bank sees social protection in the first place as having to take place within families. Feminist economic theory has long contested these views but is still not taken seriously. Feminist economic theory expands the notion of economy in order to integrate the non-paid care work of women and to consider gender relations as economically significant. It also breaks with the rationality and self-interest of homo economicus.
Reflecting on this care work, which has been externalized by the dominant economic thinking, one immediately sees the relationship with ecology an the need for environmental policies. Nature and care have indeed been the two essential elements for the survival of humankind that are totally ignored by economic thinking. Moreover, reflecting on care and social protection, as well as on environmental policies, one also sees another similarity.
If one wants a fully socially protective policy, one immediately conflicts with current economic practices: how could one introduce a preventive health care, if companies are allowed to put unhealthy products on the market? How to decently award workers if international competitiveness defines the rules of the game? Environmental protection has the same problems: how to develop a fully protective policy for the environment, if companies are allowed to poison the Amazon region with extractive industries? If corporations can put on the market dangerous pesticides?
These are but two examples that clearly show not only the need for economic changes if one wants to have decent social protection and environmental policies, but also the close relationship between social justice and climate justice. Macro-economic policies will need to become crucial elements for social justice as well as for climate justice, since it will be imperative to re-organise the economy.
Feminist economic theory then is of crucial importance to bring these links to the fore. Both women and nature have but limited resources to carry the whole burden of regeneration, and unless this regeneration becomes central to our concerns, human life on this planet may be endangered. The exploitation and devaluation of care work and the exploitation and degradation of nature are closely interlinked.
Moreover, this thinking also leads to the question if the economic system itself should not be geared towards care: caring for people, by producing and providing the products that people need, not profits-driven but needs-driven. The economy, then, will have to put ‘care’ at its centre by providing what people need and without exploiting women and nature.
These reflections help us to emphasize the role of commons and social commons: better than social protection, what they are supposed to do is to protect life, nature, society and humans. The main objective is to preserve the sustainability of life. This goes indeed beyond human rights and redistribution. It is a political and collective project aimed at building another kind of world.
It is clear that social policies alone will not be able to change the economic system. But by linking up to the struggles for climate justice, they can contribute to its progressive adaptation. By protecting people and their societies, they can take care of material and immaterial needs of people. They offer bread and roses.
What this also means is that we do not have to wait for systemic change in order to start with social or environmental policies. On the contrary, both can become important tools for realizing the changes we want.
Seen from this vantage point, they can also become an important tool in the hands of progressive parties that have to broaden their audience in order to gain power and put their emancipatory projects into practice.
Redefining social protection in terms of social commons offers a whole series of important political and social advantages. Social commons will protect people against the hazards of life, they will protect societies, they will combine individual and collective rights, they will allow to link up with the movements for climate justice and they will allow progressive political forces to broaden their audience. They constitute a political and emancipatory project that can indeed turn people into conscious social and political agents.
Social commons are an important tool for the self-determination of people, for strengthening progressive political forces and for transforming economies and societies. Based on solidarity and reciprocity, they will contribute to a change in power relations. It is a long term project, but it can be a condition for peace and justice.
Many other questions linked to this proposal will have to be further researched, such as the development of a right of the commons, the definition of work and labour, the precise links between human rights and commons. But it should be clear this is an emancipatory project worth of debate for all those caring about social justice and emancipation.
Arndt, H.W., Economic Development. The History of an Idea, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Bauwens, M., ‘Blueprint for a partner state’, Commons Transition, available at: http://commonstransition.org/blueprint-for-a-partner-state/.
Bec, C., La sécurité sociale: une institution de la démocratie, Paris, Gallimard, 2014.
Bollier, D. and Helfrich, S., eds, The Wealth of the Commons: A World beyond State and Market, Amherst, MA, Levellers Press, 2012.
Castel, R., Les metamorphoses de la question sociale, Paris, Fayard, 1995.
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, 18 December 2000, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:12012P/TXT&from=EN
Cornia, G.A., et al. (ed.), Adjustment with a Human Face. Protecting the Vulnerable and Promoting Growth. A study by Unicef, New York, Oxford University Press, 1987.
Dardot, P. & Laval, C., Commun: essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.
ECLAC, Inclusive Social Protection in Latin America. A Comprehensive Rights-Based Approach, Santiago, United Nations, 2012.
European Commission, Economic governance: http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/economic_governance/index_en.htm?utm_source=jumpto
European Commission, Towards social investments for growth and cohesion, COM (2013)83 final, 20 February 2013.
Fukuyama, F., State-Building. Governance and world order in the 21st century, Cornell University Press, 2004.
Holzmann, R. & Jørgensen, S., Gestion du risque social: cadre théorique de la protection sociale. Document de travail 006 sur la protection sociale. Washington, The World Bank, 2000.
Houtart, F., From ‘Common Goods’ to the ‘Common Good of Humanity’, Brussels: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2011, available at: http://rosalux-europa.info/userfiles/file/common_good_of_humanity.pdf.
ILO, Social Protection Floors Recommendation, R202, 2012, http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:3065524
Joint Statement by World Bank Group President Jim Young Kim and ILO Director Guy Ryder, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/statement/wcms_378989.pdf
Mason, P., Postcapitalism. A guide to our future, London, Allen Lane, 2015.
Mestrum, F. Social Commons. Rethinking social justice in post-neoliberal societies, www.socialcommons.eu (with a synthesis in Dutch, French and Spanish).
Mestrum, F., Mondialisation et Pauvreté. De l’utilité de la pauvreté dans le nouvel ordre mondial, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002.
Midgley, J., Social Development: The Developmental Perspective in Social Welfare, London, Sage, 1995.
Mouffe, C., On the Political, New York, Routledge, 2005.
Offe, C., Contradictions of the Welfare State, ed. John Keane, London, Hutchinson, 1984.
PNUD, Vaincre la pauvreté humaine, New York, Nations Unies, 2000.
Poulantzas, N., The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, ed. James Martin, London, Verso, 2008.
Seymour, R., Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, London, Pluto Press, 2014.
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Treaty of Lisbon, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:C:2007:306:FULL&from=EN
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 This contribution is based on my e-book: Social Commons. Rethinking social justice in post-neoliberal societies, www.socialcommons.eu (with a synthesis in Dutch, French and Spanish).
 Arndt, H.W., Economic Development. The History of an Idea, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
 Cornia, G.A., et al. (ed.), Adjustment with a Human Face. Protecting the Vulnerable and Promoting Growth. A study by Unicef, New York, Oxford University Press, 1987.
 UNDP, Human Development Report 1994, New York, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 6.
 For a full and detailed analysis of this discourse, see Mestrum, F., Mondialisation et Pauvreté. De l’utilité de la pauvreté dans le nouvel ordre mondial, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002.
 Vaincre la pauvreté humaine, New York, Nations Unies, 2000, p. 8, 40, 42 and World Bank, World Development Report. The State in a Changing World, Washington, The World Bank, 1997.
 Holzmann, R. & Jørgensen, S., Gestion du risque social: cadre théorique de la protection sociale. Document de travail 006 sur la protection sociale. Washington, The World Bank, 2000.
 Treaty of Rome, from article 117 onwards, http://www.hri.org/docs/Rome57/Part3Title08.html; Single European Act, from article 117 onwards, http://europa.eu/eu-law/decision-making/treaties/pdf/treaties_establishing_the_european_communities_single_european_act/treaties_establishing_the_european_communities_single_european_act_en.pdf (p. 319)
 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, 18 December 2000, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:12012P/TXT&from=EN
 Treaty of Lisbon, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:C:2007:306:FULL&from=EN
 European Commission, Towards social investments for growth and cohesion, COM (2013)83 final, 20 February 2013.
 United Nations, Transforming our World. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Resolution GA A/RES/70/1.
 ECLAC, Inclusive Social Protection in Latin America. A Comprehensive Rights-Based Approach, Santiago, United Nations, 2012.
 ILO, Social Protection Floors Recommendation, R202, 2012, http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:3065524
 UNRISD, Combating Poverty and Inequality, Geneva, United Nations, 2010.
 World Bank, Resilience, Equity and Opportunity, Washington, The World Bank, 2012.
 World Bank, Voices of the poor Reports, http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/0,,contentMDK:20613045~menuPK:336998~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:336992~isCURL:Y,00.html
 Mason, P., Postcapitalism. A guide to our future, London, Allen Lane, 2015.
 Mestrum, F. Social Commons, 2015, www.socialcommons.eu
 Joint Statement by World Bank Group President Jim Young Kim and ILO Director Guy Ryder, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/statement/wcms_378989.pdf
 Fukuyama, F., State-Building. Governance and world order in the 21st century, Cornell University Press, 2004.
 Seymour, R., Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, London, Pluto Press, 2014.
 Poulantzas, N., The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, ed. James Martin, London, Verso, 2008.
 Offe, C., Contradictions of the Welfare State, ed. John Keane, London, Hutchinson, 1984, p. 153.
 Colette Bec, La sécurité sociale: une institution de la démocratie, Paris, Gallimard, 2014.
 Castel, R., Les metamorphoses de la question sociale, Paris, Fayard, 1995.
 Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, New York, Routledge, 2005, p. 43.
 James Midgley, Social Development: The Developmental Perspective in Social Welfare, London, Sage, 1995, p. 25.
 François Houtart, From ‘Common Goods’ to the ‘Common Good of Humanity’, Brussels: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2011, available at: http://rosalux-europa.info/userfiles/file/common_good_of_humanity.pdf.
 Dardot, P. & Laval, C., Commun: essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.
 David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, eds, The Wealth of the Commons: A World beyond State and Market, Amherst, MA, Levellers Press, 2012.
 Michel Bauwens, ‘Blueprint for a partner state’, Commons Transition, available at: http://commonstransition.org/blueprint-for-a-partner-state/.