Social commons: because social protection is ours

Social protection is high on the international agenda to-day. In 2012 the ILO (International Labour Organisation) adopted a recommendation on ‘social protection floors’. In 2015 the international community in the General Assembly of the UN (United Nations) adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a separate chapter on inequality, and explicit mention of social protection and several components of social protection in different points of the text.

Nevertheless, we should not be too optimistic about all people everywhere getting living wages, good health care, quality education, maternity protection, pensions, etc.Problems with social protection

Three major difficulties arise on the road towards universal social protection.

First, neoliberalism is far from dead. The IMF still refuses to recognize a rights-based approach and universalism in social protection. According to the neoliberal paradigm, States should only care for the poor, whereas non-poor can buy their insurances on the market. At the same time, the IMF is active in a great number of low-income countries and continues to impose its austerity policies with indicative targets for social spending. Its recommendations to governments concern mainly better targeting and rationalizing expenditures. Neoliberalism is not compatible with universal social protection.

A second reason concerns the ILO social protection floors. If these could be realized, they would be a tremendous progress for all people, no doubt about that. But there is little chance that the ILO ever can impose its views as long as neoliberal policies are in place. Furthermore, the necessary compromise that was made at the tripartite international organization implies a rather minimal protection. Again, social protection floors could be a tremendous progress for people, but they will not allow to bring about real social transformation. Their claim to universalism is somewhat ambiguous. They will not change the system.

A third reason concerns a new debate that is now emerging in rich as well as poor countries: basic income. A basic income is an allowance given by public authorities to all citizens, whether working or not working, whether rich or poor. It is easy to see that if such an allowance is high enough to make a life in dignity possible, it becomes very expensive and would certainly lead to the abandonment of social protection measures and public services. If it is not high enough, it opens the door to more precarious and temporary work. The basic income is defended by people from the right as well as from the left, with different expectations. In the given relations of power, there is little doubt that right-wing approaches prevail and the basic income might become a way of putting an end to all government responsibility for the welfare of people. A better solution might be to work for a guaranteed minimum income for all people who need it and maintain the structural and horizontal solidarity of social protection: from all according to means, to all according to needs.

What does social protection mean?

This being said, social protection cannot be defended today without a serious reflection on what it should mean and how it should be organized.

Today, systems are very different, with a high degree of development in most countries of Western Europe and very limited systems, paid for by worker’s contributions or by public authorities – taxes – in many countries of the South.

There are two major problems with the existing systems.

The first is that in many cases they are highly complicated with a large amount of different programmes for specific groups in society. In the South, these different programmes are not always integrated into one single system, what makes it even more difficult to know what your rights are and how you can claim them. In the North, especially in Western Europe, social protection has often become highly bureaucratic and however effective it still is, people do not know anymore where it comes from and how it works. This leads to an important alienation which allows neoliberal governments to change it and cut back on expenditures. In fact, it is a problem of democratic deficit.

The second problem is that labour markets are now changing very rapidly. The so-called ‘sharing economy’ already contributed to the emergence of a large group of precarious workers that have to be added to an already important informal sector, especially in the South. The robotization of large parts of the economy might make more and more workers redundant and that could mean that the existing social protection systems cannot answer all needs anymore. Moreover, many young people do not mind to have flexible and temporary jobs, if only they get decent wages and the necessary insurances. At any rate, economies and societies have changed a lot in the past decades and social protection systems built after the second world war need a serious update.

Social commons

Social commons might offer a solution to all these different problems.

The concept of commons is now well understood and used for a variety of activities and practices that are far from new. It is now used by progressive forces wanting to take the life of people and of societies into their own hands, beyond markets and States but not necessarily without markets and States. Commons can concern self-organised kindergartens or urban agriculture as well as self-managed enterprises or housing projects.

In a political approach to commons, the concept does not refer to things with intrinsic characteristics, but are the things that a political community decides to be our commons. ‘Commons’ are not ‘common goods’. The best example to show the difference is water. Water clearly is a common good, we all need it and have a right to it. But water will only become a ‘common’ when a political community, at whatever level, decides to consider water is a common, regulates the access to it, monitors its use, etc. It is a fundamentally democratic and participatory co-activity, always the consequence of collaboration between people. Commoners then, will be social and political actors that decide on what in their community – at whatever level, local, national, regional or global – has to be considered as commons. It is a profoundly emancipatory exercise with responsibilities for all.

Commons then are a collective process and a decision to define something as a common, to define the rules and institutions to make this common available to all. It always is strictly regulated, it is more than a ‘good’ or a ‘thing’.

It is clear to see that many things can become commons, in the first place in the economic sphere: production, our environment, our food, money, human rights, our democracy … and of course re-production.

What is new about it is not so much the process itself, since it has always happened, but the language we can now use to resist neoliberalism, privatization and appropriation. The commoning process is the opposite, it does not abolish ownership, but it abolishes the absolute rights that are linked to this ownership. It is about the access to and the use of something.

Social commons could be seen as a tautology, 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 collective social needs and rights of individuals. Social commons are for society by society, they concern social resources such as health, education, labour, etc. and focus on their collective dimension.

A 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. So there are obvious reasons to consider social protection a common. It will allow three elements of progress.

A transformative project

Social commons will allow to democratize the debate on social protection. Organizing people, from the local to the regional, the national and the global level, in order to discuss the really existing needs and the best way to fulfil these needs will help to re-appropriate policies. Health care needs are not the same in a village in the South as in cities in the North and till now health care systems have not always been built on the basis of what is needed for public health. Too many corporate interests are involved. The same goes for education. In some places more will be needed for elderly people or for children than in others. Special measures may be necessary for migrants and refugees. Informal sector work and unemployment will have to be examined in order to find the best answers within a local context. All this needs a democratic and participatory approach.

Seeing social protection as a social common basically means to democratize it, to allow people to co-decide on its organisation, access and funding. It is obvious that trade unions will have to play a major role in this but other organisations will have to be closely involved as well, such as those representing elderly people, or disabled people, migrants or refugees. Social protection should not only be for workers but for the whole of society, including self-employed people and young mothers.

Secondly, considering social protection as a common will allow to broaden and strengthen social and economic rights. The whole debate with the advocates of basic income has put into the open many problems that are currently not taken into account. First of all, social and economic rights should be individualised, all people who have no labour market income should have a guaranteed minimum income, pensioners as well as ill, disabled or unemployed people. Social protection systems should be de-bureaucratized and simplified, giving protection to all and abandoning the too fragmented organisation of current social programmes. New rights should also be examined: a right to water and a right to land, e.g. The land community trusts that are now emerging in Europe are a good example of how building can be dissociated from the land so as to make housing cheaper. But land is also important for farmers who cannot support their livelihoods without access to it. Some environmental rights, then, have to be added to the traditional social and economic rights..

Finally, social commons can contribute to systemic change if we make social protection transformative. It belongs to the reproductive sector of the economy and this re-production includes the unpaid care work of women. In the past decades, part of this care work has been commodified and monetized, while the unpaid care work still remains outside economic theorizing. However, it is easy to see that re-production cannot be separated from production, it produces (use) value in the same way as production. 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.

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. Both are necessary for satisfying our needs and for the value creation through extraction and production.

From that it follows that one easily comes to the conclusion that the whole economy should be about ‘care’: care for nature and care for people. Nature nor 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 is obvious that public health cannot be preserved if multinational corporations can use toxic products in agriculture or put ggo’s on our plate. Local commons for healthy and eco-friendly communities are useless if they work in the shadow of major polluting factories. This is the main challenge: to re-conceptualize social protection so as to make it an instrument not only for protecting people and societies – threatened by neoliberalism – but also for contributing to systemic change. Obviously, social policies alone will not be sufficient for changing economic policies, but they can change the power relations in society and, if pursued in a coherent way, point to the inconsistencies that characterise current policies. If they can be promoted in parallel with economic and ecological proposals, they will be able to contribute to a better world.

All this implies other power relations. Right-wing governments will not be willing to introduce emancipatory, empowering and transformative systems, especially in the emerging authoritarian context.

Therefore, social and economic rights should be the major focus of all progressive forces, in the same way as they have been in the past. This is the only possibility for broadening the audience and change politics. People, everywhere in the world and in whatever regime they live, need protection, either by police and the military, or by social, ecological and economic policies and rights that preserve and enhance their livelihoods. In this way, the sustainability of life, of people and of nature, can be preserved, which should be the overarching objective of all policies.

Social commons are not a ‘social dimension’ of globalisation or of regional integration, they should be an objective for enhancing the welfare of people in an ecological sustainable way. What it is about, in fact, is ‘caring’, for people, for nature, for society.

Francine Mestrum, Brussels

www.globalsocialjustice.eu; www.socialcommons.eu