Public Services, Social Innovation and Commons : AlterSummit on Social Rights

Introduction to the workshop on Commons and Public Services at the AlterSummit on Social Rights (26-27 November 2016, Brussels)


Our world to-day is faced with two major challenges: ecological destruction and the social question. Both problems are closely linked to democracy, that is the way citizens can govern and shape their world and can give direction to the policies that are needed to preserve our planet and sustain the livelihoods of people.

But as we know, democracy is threatened and we run the risk that both our natural environment and the necessary social protection people need are irremediably destroyed. Urgent action is needed.

Let me say some words on the social question. We know that the post-war social pacts are on the brink of being abandoned, faced as they are with fundamental changes in our economies and our societies, but also with ideological offensive policies that slowly but surely destroy our collective solidarity mechanisms. Public services are being privatised, marketised or commodified, whatever word we may use: in almost all cases it means that people lose their universal right to these services and have to buy on the market what they badly need.This is the task that we, progressive social forces, will have to take upon us. We are not here to defend a status quo, nor are we here to give up our firm beliefs in the necessity of collective answers and in the possibility of working responsibly together while preserving solidarity.

Several solutions have been proposed. I would like to briefly mention some of them to finally open the window to the framework in which our discussions on public services can take place.

Public services are part and parcel of societal reproduction that allows production to take place. Several new concepts have been proposed to better translate the fundamental tasks and responsibilities that are theirs, though what we are concerned with here is not the words but their role in the shaping and preserving of a society with solidarity among its members. It concerns health care, water, education, housing, public transport, etc. The European Union, through its policies of the internal market, competitiveness and its so-called ‘free trade agreements’ has severely reduced the possibility of these services to take care of society and to be part of a social pact that builds and preserves social relationships. There is now a lot of research to show that most of the privatizations that have taken place in the past decades had negative consequences on the efficiency and the effectiveness of services, on prices and working conditions and finally and most importantly, on their societal role.

Social Innovation is the concept now ‘en vogue’. It has a very progressive potential, since it means that citizens take their future into their own hands and find innovative and new ways of organizing the care they need with family members, neighbourhood friends or volunteers. It is a kind of socializing of care, called the ‘participation society’ in Holland or ‘big society’ in the UK. However, used in a context of austerity policies, it mostly is a consequence of cuts in public social expenditures and it risks to put an extra burden on the already heavy work load of women. Furthermore, this answer cannot be adequate in the many situations where people want and need professional care.

A third concept I want to mention and that may offer more opportunities is ‘commons’. If, as progressive social forces, we know that the abovementioned developments cannot offer acceptable solutions, we also know that we have to look for ways to better answer the needs of people, that avoid bureaucratisation and that involve citizens in a democratic way in order to preserve our common goods.

Let me very briefly explain what ‘commons’ means. The common is the result of some act of ‘bringing together’ (une mise en commun) which supposes reciprocity between people. This bringing together of people institutes a ‘we’, it is a co-activity as a basic condition. Commons are the things that a political community decides to be our commons, which means there can be no commons without commoners. They are the political and social actors that decide on what in their society – at whatever level, local, national, regional or global – has to be considered a common, on the way to regulate it, make rules for access to it and monitor its use.

If we look at public services in this way, we see they can indeed be considered as being a common, they are ours and we, citizens, have to take responsibility in their organisation. We will not do this all alone, but in close cooperation with public authorities which are and have to be the guarantors of our human rights. Commoning public services basically means to democratize them.

This very broad definition leaves many questions unanswered, but this is precisely what we will have to discuss in our workshop. The questions concern the role of the state, ownership, funding, the role of tax justice, etc.

This democratic, participatory and emancipatory way of organizing the social services we all need allows to protect individuals as well as society itself. Neoliberalism is destroying societies by solely focusing on individuals and interpersonal competition. Shifting the focus to the collective dimension of our societies, beyond communities and families, is a highly political task. Individual and collective rights have to go hand in hand if we want to protect our common goods.

This approach can also be transformative in that organizing our economic and social rights as a ‘common’ allows for putting care in the center and make a direct link with the climate justice movement, caring for nature. Social justice and climate justice can both be seen as a possibility for preserving the sustainability of life in society.

The language of commons offers an opportunity to the left to re-define its strategies, to renew its thinking on production, markets, nature and the State to create a new narrative to better organize our resistance to neoliberal and conservative forces.

Destroying public services is destroying society, social relationships, solidarity and collective values. This is what we have to fight, together. It is an urgent, and highly political and social task.

Francine Mestrum

Global Social Justice