Social Justice: social protection for all, decent work, essential services, tax justice and other egalitarian alternatives to debt and austerity measures

Background note to the Asia Europe People’s Forum 11, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 4-6 July

At the level of people, the system does not work’ (J. Stiglitz)

Common challenges

When I started my research on poverty some twenty years ago, more particularly on the international poverty discourse of international organisations, I soon found out that this new focus in development had nothing to do with poverty, poor people or, for that matter, development. Ten years after the introduction of neoliberal structural adjustment programmes, it was mainly meant as a legitimation of these policies. Indeed, not only were there no worldwide poverty statistics, but the World Bank, who was the main proponent of this poverty approach, did not propose any change in its policies. From that moment onwards, 1990, neoliberalism was ‘sold’ in the name of poverty reduction.Moreover, throughout its theoretical work in the 1990s, the World Bank, and indirectly the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) introduced a new social paradigm with a different role for the State and for poor people themselves. Social insurances were said to be impossible and undesirable in poor countries, whereas the State only had responsibilities towards extremely poor people. This was a major break with formal UN-thinking which had always promoted an idea of ‘social development’. According to the World Bank, governments had to promote enabling policies for markets (while ‘market-inhibiting’ policies such as minimum wages or housing subsidies were said to be bad for poor people) and offer opportunities for all people. All it allowed in terms of social policies were temporary ‘safety nets’. Health care and education were highly desirable but could be offered through the market.

In the European Union, welfare states are very different but in all cases better developed than in third world countries. A last attempt to introduce a ‘social Europe’ was made during the discussions on the Maastricht Treaty (entered into force in 1993), and later once again during the Convention preparing the rejected Constitutional Treaty (later changed into the Treaty of Lisbon, entered into force 2009). The neoliberal turn has been strengthened since then, with ‘economic governance’, different attempts to ‘modernize’ social protection and labour law and the liberalisation of services in the internal market. The economic and financial crisis of 2008, followed by austerity policies have imposed severe cuts in all social policies and have seriously eroded the welfare states.

The result of both developments are very clear today: both the North and the South share a common challenge: the erosion of their social policies and the imposition of a new social paradigm. Both the World Bank and the European Union are promoting today something they call ‘social protection’ but which is an improved poverty reduction policy, targeted to the poor and at the service of markets, productivity and growth (social investments). Universalism is abandoned, social services are privatised, labour markets are deregulated. The growing inequality is ignored.


Major changes in the labour market

There are even more common challenges. The future of work is changing rapidly, with the development or automation and robotization processes, the rise of an on-demand and platform economy. Contrary to what some authors pretend, this will not lead to the disappearance of labour, but it certainly will have a further erosion of wage labour as a consequence. Non-routine occupations will grow and this is expected to happen more rapidly in Asia and South-East Asia than in Europe. The consequence will be a further weakening of trade unions and labour market institutions, such as collective bargaining mechanisms. As productivity will grow and wages lag behind, inequality will be rising even more. Add to this the growing number of informal workers and migrants and you get a further fragmentation of the world of work.

Reactions from civil society so far have been limited. Whereas many sectoral actions against the dismantlement of social and economic rights are organised, there is no convergence of struggles, no common awareness of common challenges in North and South, let alone a common strategy. The need for better and stronger social policies in the South is overwhelmingly clear, but debates within the left in the European Union are rather difficult. Since trade unions are on the defensive, they mostly limit themselves to promoting a status quo. However, with the changes in societies and in the economy of the past fifty years, the current growth of precariousness of people in general and workers in particular, the growth of self-employment and informal work,  it is clear that the existing welfare states cannot be a sufficient answer anymore.

Alternatives are very slowly emerging: the ILO proposes a ‘social protection floor’, NGO’s (Belgium) propose a better, universal and non-commercialized social protection. Much hope is offered by the movement of the commons with changes at both the productive and the reproductive level. It is obvious that social policies have no autonomy and are necessarily linked to economic and environmental policies. What we need is a new social contract which can only come about with the full participation in decision-making of all people.

Much still has to be clarified but the debates are starting and have already led to interesting insights and perspectives. At the productive level, the thinking goes in the direction of more self-organisation, as cooperatives or as P2P networks, all seen today in the context of ‘social and solidarity economy’. At the reproductive level, many debates concern the introduction of a ‘basic income’ or of reshaping the existing social protection in terms of ‘social commons’, in a democratic and participatory way. One of the delicate points to be discussed in this context is the role of the state and the kind of society we want. How to promote the emergence of social and political actors, necessary for shaping society, the economy and the state? The main objective should be to promote systemic change and to achieve social justice, with cohesive societies and a life of dignity for all. This is our common challenge and I hope we can find some answers at this people’s forum.

This topic is particularly important for progressive forces which are faced with a rejection of traditional politics and the growth of right-wing populist forces. By putting social justice in the center of their concerns, progressive forces can broaden their audience and offer real, fair and just  solutions to people’s demands.