How to promote universal social protection and put ‘social commons’ into practice: the idea of political laboratories

It is easy to criticize poverty reduction policies, as it is obvious we have to put serious questions about targeting and minimalist ‘social protection’ systems. We defend and promote universal social protection and cannot be happy with liberal basic income proposals. Our alternative is a system of ‘social commons’, democratic and participatory, based on human rights and able to also protect societies.

The main question is: how to put this into practice? It is clear that all fundamental change, whether it is at the political, the economic, the social or the environmental level, will need other power relations. All over the world, the current elites still preach the neoliberal ideology, even if most of them know perfectly well this will never succeed in fulfilling its promises of growth, prosperity, let alone the sharing of wealth. Yet, this still is the formal discourse or ‘truth’ and many continue to say ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA).However, slowly slowly, TINA makes room for TAMARA: ‘there are many alternatives readily available’. People do not want to wait anymore, they take action to solve their daily problems themselves: they create kindergartens, urban agriculture, repair shops, local libraries, care for the elderly, etc. On the one hand, this has to be welcomed, since citizens can indeed achieve a lot without constantly presenting their demands to governments, on the other hand, we should know that these ‘small revolutions’ cannot just be added on in order to lead to big changes. Action will be needed at all political levels, from local to national to European and global. We will need to reflect on real change. Doing ‘as if’, without clear objectives and without strategy will not work. We should urgently get rid of the neoliberal fantasy that we can change the world by just helping people, claiming that ‘empathy’ and ‘bonding’ is all we need. Our task is not to develop parallel and marginal  systems to a life-destroying capitalism. In other words, we need to better organize, better collaborate and become more political.

Political laboratories

What the ‘small revolutions’ mean however, is that the neoliberal consensus is fading away, people do not believe in it anymore and are actively looking for alternatives.

Changing power relations requires first of all an ideological shift, and this is now starting. We do need new discourses, new narratives that people can believe in and act upon. It is the old Gramscian ideas that we should use to develop new beliefs that can trigger political action to change the system.

In the field of social policies, the idea of ‘political laboratories’ has been launched by Dr. Armando de Negri from Brasil.  The idea was promoted and developed at the several ‘World Social Forums for Health and Social Security’, the last of which took place in Tunis in March 2015 (at the World Social Forum). It is promoted and defended by other organisations, such as Global Social Justice, but also the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).The ‘political laboratories’ are spaces for knowledge production, since the war we have to fight against neoliberalism is in the very first place an ideological war. We need new knowledge and this requires political education and emancipation in the sense of Paolo Freire.

The basic idea is that we have to defend a human rights based universal social protection, in the knowledge that a sectoral and fragmented approach never can be sufficient. Health policies alone are indeed not very useful is there is no good education system, no good housing policy, no healthy water available. It means that health has intrinsically to be coupled to the whole range of social protection policies and public services.

The functions of the laboratories are to build new knowledge on the need for universal social protection, to critically analyse the current reality with all its shortcomings, to build a counter-hegemonic think tank and finally to organize political action. It is important to have a clear focus and clear objectives and to reflect on possible strategies.

Several political laboratories have already been organised in Latin America, in Paraguay, Ecuador and Colombia. They were tripartite conferences with government representatives, trade unions and civil society. They looked at the possibility for making new social pacts at the national level and at the windows of opportunity to use for political action. It should be clear that this all depends very much on the political situation in different countries. No single strategy can ever be developed for all countries. But knowledge networks can certainly be built in order to exchange experiences.

Their main task is to build an educational platform in which the daily needs of people can get a political translation.

Social commons in practice

This idea is certainly very relevant for putting social commons into practice and make it into a very concrete alternative proposal.

The question of the level at which to start, national or local, and the partners to be involved, can differ from country to country. Even at the subnational level social movements and/or trade unions, possibly with representatives of public authorities, can sit together. Health practitioners and social workers can also be involved.

This could be an opportunity to discuss precisely the points already mentioned in the laboratories approach: to look at the shortcomings of the current system, to make a critical analysis of the context, stock-taking of the urgent needs of people, to reflect on practical and concrete alternatives, to involve some researchers for looking at implementation matters. Obviously, the tax system will also have to be looked at since the financial burden of the whole system is not the least important.

As has been explained in the context of social commons already, reflecting on all these points will inevitably lead to questioning the current economic system, since no preventive health system can be efficient if multinational corporations can put unhealthy products, such as sugared drinks, on the market. As it will also be hindered if there is no good environmental policy and if residues of toxic pesticides are present in food production.

In other words, social commons can open the door to the discussion of a whole range of important issues for a sustainable future, it will require to cooperate with movements outside the social sector, with environmentalists, tax experts and economists. Here lies, I think, the major advantage and the political potential of this approach.

No new social protection system can be introduced without a new and strong belief in the necessity of structural and horizontal solidarity of all with all, in universal policies in the interest of all, oriented towards integral approaches and more equality. This is what is meant by social change. It needs political education, it needs discussions and debates, it needs some serious research as well as political action. But we could start right now.

Francine Mestrum