Commons, Production and Re-production
Production is not possible without re-production, we all agree on this obvious truth. The emerging commons movement however has been focusing largely on production, whether it be material or immaterial, on the one hand, and on “care” on the other hand. In a commons approach, this production is looked at from the vantage point of capital control/ownership and self-determination/autonomy of workers. These two points automatically lead to the question that is linked to but goes far beyond “care”: the question of re-production. What about the status of workers and their labour rights in P2P, cooperatives or social and solidarity economy contexts? How to avoid exploitation and self-exploitation of workers? How to protect the health and safety of workers and their families? Or simply put, how to preserve and promote the re-production of workers and protect people’s livelihoods? And how to make a solid link between production and re-production?
It is always useful to start a discussion with clear definitions, in order to know what we are talking about.
Production refers to the work human beings have to do in order to live and survive, it is about the material basis of human life. According to Marx, life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.
Reproduction also belongs to the basis of human life, since production is not possible without reproduction: it is not only about biological reproduction, but also about feeding people, taking care of the sick, and about replanting trees afters others have been cut for making furniture. According to Marxism, Â´productionÂ´ only refers to paid work exchanged in the labour market for money and from which surplus value is extracted. In this reasoning, the “reproductive” work does not produce value.
As for commons, I work with a definition derived from Dardot & Laval’s seminal work: they refer to things/resources/concepts that a political community decides to be their 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 as commons, on the way to regulate them, make rules for access to them and monitor their use, all within a regulatory framework provided for by public authorities.
Blurred dividing lines
The dividing lines between production and reproduction are blurred. This is particularly clear when we look at women’s work.
The home work of women – piece work in the garment sector for instance – clearly shows that productive and reproductive activities can take place simultaneously. Women will feed their babies while working at their sewing machines, or will keep control of the cooking pots while making phone calls or sending e-mails. While the production of food is seen as ‘production’, preparing the food and feeding people are considered to be ‘re-production’.
Moreover, many aspects of the traditional “care” work of women has been commodified or taken over by the non-profit sector: Caring for children, for the sick and elderly as well as cultural activities. Welfare states typically have integrated health care and a whole range of public services. While much of the care work is still in the hands of women – though not exclusively – it is wage labour, difficult to separate from men’s and women’s productive labour. The re-productive work can be purely commodified in the private sector, or non- commodified but paid in the non-profit sector.
Both types of work do produce value, though not necessarily exchange value but use value: Contrary to liberal economic thinking stating that non-market activities have to be considered as ‘costs’ to be paid out of the results of productive work, one can also state that non-profit activities such as education and health care are the results of productive work. They create value in themselves, not validated by the market but by society itself. They are paid for by taxes and social contributions. This means that market as well as non-market activities create economic and monetary value. Non-market does not mean non-monetary.
This does not mean there is no difference anymore between production and reproduction, it only suggests that they are not separate compartments, that re-production is not a by-product of human history but is at the very heart of it. There are arguments for reflecting on them in one and the same theoretical framework since they are both part of value creation validated by markets or by society.
The emerging commons movement has been focusing largely on production, on the one hand, whether it be material or immaterial, and on ‘care’, on the other hand. In a commons approach, production is looked at from the vantage point of capital control/ownership and self-determination or self-management and autonomy of workers.
In doing so, the reproductive dimension is all too often overlooked: what about the status of workers in the new economy (P2P, social and solidarity economy, cooperatives …), labour rights, sickness insurance, etc.? How to avoid exploitation and self-exploitation of workers in this new economy that certainly is not immune to it. How to protect the health and safety of workers? Simply put: how to preserve and promote the re-production of workers and protect the livelihoods of people?
The same goes for the purely reproductive work in the non-profit care sector or even in the purely domestic sector: how to safeguard people’s rights to decent work, the right to organization and collective bargaining, non-discrimination, etc.?
A commons approach usually implies not only to take control of activities, but also to take these activities out of the capitalist commodity sphere. Consequently, very often, people will refrain from being paid and their rights in terms of protection and welfare will not be respected.
However, commons are not necessarily based on voluntary work, see the productive commons. One can argue they should be included in the non-profit sector. There are no relevant reasons to exclude – mostly women – once again from payment and rights. Why not accept that workers, whether in production or re-production, should always be paid, even if possibly it is with alternative currencies. As has been said above, decommodification does not necessarily mean demonetisation.
Once the reasoning on commons is accepted, meaning the political act of instituting a common and self-governed activity, one can more easily extend these commons to the whole re-productive dimension of human life and work and to the whole question of social justice and sustainability, including social security, public services and several environmental rights.
If production can be considered as commons, then surely its ‘other half’ also can be seen as commons, since at any rate, the welfare and economic and social rights are ours. We pay for them with taxes and social contributions, but far too often they are considered as being of and coming from the State. Considering welfare states or more precisely social protection as commons, basically means then democratizing them by taking control over conceptualization, regulation and access.
There are several reasons to do this. The first one obviously is linked to the aspirations to take control of one’s life and to break with traditional, often bureaucratic ways of organizing social protection and welfare states. The reason for considering welfare states as commons are in fact the same as for re-organizing production as commons.
The second reason is that all our welfare states are in crisis and are being threatened. They are in crisis because they have insufficiently been adapted to the new world of the 21st century: ageing of populations, more unemployment, more precarity, more women on the labour market, more migration, more demands for flexibility and autonomy, more robotization… They are threatened by neoliberal austerity policies that are oriented towards privatization, cuts in social public expenditures and a paradigmatic shift focusing more on growth and markets than on the protection of people. It is necessary and urgent to de-privatize and de-commodify all care services.
This point also has to be looked at in the context of growing demands for ‘social innovation’, promoted also by the European Commission. It is a brilliant idea referring to the potential of citizens to take their life and that of their families and communities into their own hands. However, with neoliberal public authorities withdrawing from tasks they were formerly in charge of, this ‘social innovation’, often in the form of ‘commons’ replace the state and can possibly lead to problems in terms of regulation, rights and protection. In other words, these ‘commons’ often are nothing else than a cover for neoliberal austerity policies.
This debate will also have to be linked to another one, often accompanying the advocacy for commons in the productive and re-productive sectors. I am referring here to proposals of basic income, based on the growing unemployment and precarity, and fears of further erosion of labour markets. They also try to give an answer to growing demand for more autonomy and even claim to ‘liberate people from labour’.
Social protection instead of a basic income
Why social protection should be preferred instead of a basic income requires some more explanation.
Basic income systems hardly exist in reality but have been discussed and promoted strongly in recent times. Proposals exist in multiple versions but their basic characteristic is that they are universal and unconditional. This means they go to all members of society, whether rich or poor, working or not working. They are different then from minimum income schemes or negative income taxes.
In their right-wing and left-wing versions the main argument for their introduction is the fact they promote freedom. Right-wing advocates will explicitly or implicitly defend the replacement of welfare states, public services being privatised and more salaried people being able to work as autonomous entrepreneurs with the possibility to buy insurances on the market, if they want them. Left-wing advocates will defend the possibility to liberate people from labour, making an end to ‘forced labour’ (commodified wage labour) and thus to capitalism.
There are many arguments to reject this idea of basic income, one of the most pragmatic ones being the fact it is a very expensive measure, almost impossible to fund without at least partially dismantling welfare states. Even if progressives claim to preserve the welfare state, it would mean the basic income amount would be very low and not admit a decent life in dignity without adding labour income to it.
Apart from the financial arguments, three more philosophical arguments can be waged against basic income.
The first one has to do with the horizontal structural solidarity of our welfare states. They are based on insurances and reciprocity amongst the whole of society. It focuses then on the collective and societal dimension and implies that our solidarity is also impersonal and anonymous. It thus preserves individual freedom and collective insurances. We do not have to know to whom our solidarity efforts go. We are all in the same system and this means we have indeed a society, contrary to the neoliberal claims that societies hardly exist. This horizontal structural solidarity is particularly important in a commons approach and makes the welfare state an ideal candidate for it. All citizens are involved, though today they do not take part in design, decision-making or monitoring. Turning welfare states into our commons would basically mean to democratize them and take control of them.
With a basic income system, this solidarity and this reciprocity disappear. In its place comes a direct link from government to the individual, in such a way that the horizontality also disappears. There is no society anymore, citizens can of course organize but there is no guarantee this will happen in an inclusive way, as most probably it will not. Small-scale solidarity groups may emerge, though they most probably will be community-based or corporatist, as were the first mutual solidarity mechanisms of the workers movement. The rich do not contribute to these systems and states were not involved. Rights were not guaranteed for all.
A second argument has to do with the liberation from labour. Advocates of basic income see labour exclusively as an alienating activity, they talk of ‘forced labour’ and wage labour as ‘slavery’. However, as Marx perfectly knew, labour is ambivalent, it can be alienating, but it can also be emancipating leading to social integration in a system of division of labour. What has happened with our welfare states, collective insurances and labour law is precisely that all along the period of its emergence and development, labour has been de-commodified. We now have a right to organization (trade unions) and collective bargaining, workers are insured against accidents and sickness, they receive pensions, family allowances and paid holidays. This has not only been very emancipatory so that it is no longer the weak individual worker who is faced with a super-powerful employer, but relations of power have been changed. We rightly may fear this situation is now again reversing with â€˜third worldâ€™ situations becoming very current in Europe, especially in the agricultural, transport and ITC sectors. Nevertheless, the ILO can rightly claim that ‘labour is not a commodity’.
The question is whether we should therefore abandon the world of waged work and promote its disappearance, or whether we should pursue our struggles for full employment in order to make labour indeed fully emancipatory and integrative. Till now, regulated waged labour is the best protection workers can have against all the risks of life and of the economy and it seriously contributes to a life in dignity.
Instead of ‘liberating ourselves from labour’ – though labour will of course never disappear – should we not better strive to liberate ourselves in/with labour“ making it fully emancipatory, strengthening the welfare dimensions and, most of all, its democratic content. Should we not continue to fight for decent wages, good working conditions, full economic and social rights for all? For all the currently existing precarious and intermittent work, formulas already exist and can/should be improved to give people security and a decent income. As for those who cannot participate in labour at all, there obviously needs to exist a mechanism for guaranteed and as unconditional as possible income. It should be stressed that no one in society is useless, almost all do already contribute one way or another, each at the level of his/her potential, to economic, political and social life.
The third argument has to do with ‘freedom’. Clearly, individual freedom is one of our highest achievements and aspirations though it can hardly exist without collective freedom, in the same way as it can hardly exist without individual and collective responsibility. This unique combination, I think, has been achieved within our welfare states before the neoliberal attacks on them. Since basic income is exclusively focused on individuals it might indeed enhance individual freedom, give people the possibility to refrain from work, to develop artistic talents, or to just enjoy life. However, we should know this entails the risk of breaking societal links and as absolute freedom comes nearer, to make these links all but impossible. Absolute freedom can only enhance loneliness and isolation. Meaningful individual freedom cannot exist outside collective responsibilities.
There are many more argument against basic income but these three clearly indicate that it might indeed promote freedom but hinder emancipation and integration. Basic income might mean exclusion. This is all the more so if we consider gender relations. Women take more of their fair part of labour, though their presence on the ‘labour market’ is more limited. Most unpaid labour is done by women. Their growing part in labour markets, even with all the discriminations they suffer from, has been highly emancipatory, giving them access to the public sphere. Turning the world of production and of re-production into de-commodified but monetised commons will help women to fully take part in the emancipatory achievements, with income and full rights.
It seems to me, then, that a serious defence of welfare states, not in their current form, but in a more democratic, participatory and integrative way, is the right way to go. Seeing them as commons might be the right tool to achieve this.
What does it mean to see social protection as commons?
Feminist economists can help us to see in what way the whole reproductive sector has been excluded, taken out of economic theorizing and how its integration into economic thinking might help to make the changes we want. Productive work being seen as the only work creating value, dominant economic thinking has indeed totally excluded the care work mostly done by women. It can hardly be a coincidence that women’s work was not monetized nor valued.
Feminist thinkers have contested this exclusion and demand that care work be fully integrated into the thinking and the measurement of the value created by the economy. In the meantime, part of this care work has been commodified and is being considered now as also creating value.
Care work is not the only element that has been externalized, nature is not taken into account either when measuring economic value, until extraction is happening. In this way, many resources have almost been depleted, because the regeneration – where possible – was not taken care of. Environmentalists demand that nature also be integrated in the economic sphere.
If we consider natural resources and care resources – essential for satisfying our needs and corresponding to economic and social rights – as commons, the whole picture can change. It can fundamentally change economic theories in terms of wealth and value creation. Natural resources, even not extracted and without intrinsic economic value, are our common goods, our wealth, whereas care also means wealth and both are necessary for satisfying our needs and for the value creation through extraction and production.
It follows from that that one comes easily to the conclusion that the whole economy should be about ‘care’: care for nature and care for people. Nature, nor women – the care workers – can be over-exploited. They are needed for production, which means one has to take care of them. Which also means production – the economy – should be about care in order to survive. This is particularly true in a commons approach where all bear responsibility for the whole and where rights cannot be ignored without hurting all. The economy should produce in function of the needs and possibilities of people and nature. It does not mean the whole productive economy is about re-production but it does mean it cannot be dissociated from it.
In other words, contrary to a more postmodern perspective on decommodification – and very often demonetization – this approach brings care indeed into the economic sphere and extends it to the environment. Re-production is the other half of production, care workers have to be paid and nature’s rights have to be respected.
This reasoning is also contrary to much of the current thinking on commons supposing that work done for producing commons creates shared value and should not be paid for. Hence the almost automatic appeal to basic income, whereas basic income and commons are founded on opposed values. Commons indeed stress the natural human aspiration for cooperation and creation, whereas basic income stresses the individual freedom and liberation from work.
Combining the social protection approach with a commons approach strengthens their collective dimension, their focus on solidarity and cooperation and the common responsibility and individual freedom.
Preserving welfare states and turning them into commons means that the State will continue to play a major role. However, the State as well will have to change, to be appropriated by citizens, to become a public service itself. The State will be necessary to guarantee citizens’ rights, to collect taxes and organize, with citizens – and their social movements – involvement, the welfare states with their social services.
Advantages of seeing social protection and welfare states as commons
First, at any rate social protection is ours, whether it is paid for by taxes or social contributions. It belongs to the people and it is people who have to decide on it. Involving citizens and social movements in its design, its rules for access and its putting into practice and monitoring should be an obvious and urgent step to take.
Secondly, by organizing this participatory approach to social protection, one not only enhances the protection of people but also of society itself. Neoliberalism is destroying all societies by focusing solely on individuals and interpersonal competition. Shifting the focus to the collective dimension of our societies, beyond communities and families, is thus a highly political task.
Thirdly, organizing reproduction as ‘commons’ allows for putting our needs and care in the centre and make a direct link with the environmental justice movement caring for nature. Social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand and can both be seen as a possibility for preserving the sustainability of life.
Fourthly, conceptualizing social protection in terms of commons and linking it to environmental justice also allows for broadening the agenda still further: clearly, water is also essential for life and already considered to be a common good. But also land and food security/sovereignty, pertaining to both production and re-production, are candidates for commoning.
Fifthly, social commons can thus become a truly transformative project, integrated in a transition process that inevitably will lead to the transformation of our economic system. Protecting and fulfilling economic and social rights is incompatible with the accumulation system as it is now working with its growing inequalities. Seeing production itself as commons obviously helps and strengthens this movement towards transition.
Finally, reproduction seen in terms of social commons thus contributes to a renewal of our thinking on production, markets, nature and the State, the renewal progressive political forces have been working on for some time. In doing so, and by changing power relations, it can also help progressive movements to gain a stronger and broader audience.
Welfare states, including public services and all economic and social rights, should be considered as commons
Instead of taking production out of the markets, with the need of bringing it back in at a later stage, instead of abandoning the solidarity of the welfare state by choosing for an individual basic income, instead of trying to liberate people from labour, we might do the opposite: emancipate people within the sphere of labour, strengthening the democracy, solidarity, reciprocity and responsibility of the welfare state, try to change the economic system from within. Commons can be a tool to resist neoliberalism, privatization and commodification. Applying its principles coherently and consequently, it will lead to changing the economic system, which is far more difficult to do from without. Monsanto will not change its practices because some farmers or consumers are changing their attitude. It will have to change its practices if rules are made in order to preserve the environment and to enhance preventive health care, and if these rules are correctly implemented and monitored. All this needs other power relations, for sure. These can be promoted with an attractive and coherent discourse and practice on commons and solidarity.
It will allow movements to continue their struggle for just taxes, just wages, good labour conditions, drastic reduction of working time, full employment and environmental- and people-friendly production. Labour will have to be redefined, for sure, but that is not the most difficult task, if we are convinced gender relations have to be taken into account and care work can produce value as well.
Social commons confirm the need for a non-profit approach on re-production, for abandoning exclusive state provisioning of services and for re-connecting with the full meaning of ‘public’. The co-activity and co-responsibility it implies also combine collective and individual rights, the obvious statement that there can be no individual freedom without collective freedom.
Commoning implies re-imagining all our institutions, politics, economics and social relationships. It implies re-inventing new social practices in a new context of individual freedom and collective responsibility. It should not imply to look for solutions outside of our current markets and States, but within them in order to fundamentally change them. It means to gain control of our lives, meaning production and re-production. This combination will facilitate the development of new modes of production in the social and solidarity economy as well as in the cooperative sector where the dividing line between production and reproduction is less compelling. It will allow to re-think democracy and solidarity and to preserve the collective dimension, that is a society with free individuals and commonly agreed collective responsibilities. It will promote the transition towards sustainable economies and societies.
Francine Mestrum, PhD
 Dardot, P. & Laval, C., Commun. Essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle, Paris, La Déccouverte, 2014.
 Harribey, J:-M., ‘Repenser le travail, la valeur et les revenus’ in Alaluf, M.. et al., Contre l’Allocation universelle, Québec, Lux Editeurs, 2016.
 Harribey, J.-M., op. cit.