Social Justice: the struggle for commons

It is so easy to talk about social justice, yet, so difficult to achieve it!

In fact, our world today is faced with two major challenges: ecological destruction and the social question. What I want to explain very briefly in this paper, is how the concept of commons and the practice of commoning, can help to find solutions. Both problems are closely linked to each other, and are closely linked to democracy, that is the way citizens can govern and shape their world and give direction to the policies that are needed to preserve our planet and sustain the livelihoods of people.

Now, what do we mean when we speak about commons?

It is becoming a buzzword, but it is very important to know exactly what we are speaking about, so that we can avoid misunderstandings.

  1. Let me start by saying what it is NOT. Because you will know that some other concepts, such as the common good, or common goods sound familiar, but they are not the same.

Let me briefly summarize it as follows:

  • The common good’ is a political and philosophical concept. It refers to a ‘community’ of people – at whatever level from the local to the global – and to what this community shares. It is a social construct which refers to the well-being of the community and its individuals. The ‘common good’ is related to the concept of the ‘general’ or ‘common’ interest but it is more than the sum of individual interests. It will be clear the ‘the common good’ cannot be a commodity, it refers to values and not to goods. Some researchers have problems with this concept, because obviously the question arises of WHO will define this common good?

François Houtart, a famous researcher and activist who left us in 2017, spoke of ‘The Common Good of Humanity’ and tried to propose an alternative for our capitalist world, based on use value, democracy, intercultural relationships and another relationship to nature.


  • To explain what ‘common goods’ are, we have to start with ‘public goods’. ‘Public goods’ are an economic concept and refer to goods which have benefits that cannot easily be confined to a single ‘buyer’ once they are provided. Think of traffic lights: you cannot exclude people from using them. And when you use them, they will still be available to others. That is why they are usually underprovided and require collective action. Some goods are commodities – e.g. traffic lights – some are not – e.g. peace.


Now, if I say that public goods require collective action, we usually think of the State to provide them. And because more and more people, all over the world, claim that States are not necessarily the only providers of public goods, they talk of ‘common goods’, by which they mean that ‘public’ does not refer necessarily to public authorities. Many services, e.g. energy or education, can also be organized by civil society, or by private actors, let us not forget it.




But ‘common goods’  are still ‘goods’, that is, possible commodities.


The commons’ allow to avoid this last ‘trap’. Let us look at this other concept.



  1. Once we know what the commons are NOT: not ‘the common good’ and not ‘public goods’ or ‘common goods’, we can take a look at what ‘the commons’ mean.


Commons refer to a totally different concept. Its most simple meaning is that which belongs to us all: our planet, our oceans, our forests, our land, our seeds …  These are natural commons. We also have cultural commons: our knowledge, which cannot be a private property, our cultural heritage, our internet … And we have social commons: our human rights, our public services, our social security … We will come to these specific forms of commons in a later stage.


Let us first look at what it means and what it needs to speak of land and knowledge and rights as commons.


Different perspectives exist, and we have no common definition, yet. I work with the perspective of the French researchers Dardot & Laval. They see commons as the result of a co-activity, of a common decision – again, at whatever level you think of, local,  national, global – and as the foundation of collective life. Concretely, this means the following. Think of water. We all need water, so one can say water is a common good. But, water will only become a common, once a local community or a national society or a global gathering decides that water should be a common, that this community or society or gathering will take up the responsibility for it, will decide on who has access and according to which rules, and will monitor its use. In other words, a common is always the result of a political decision and of a shared activity.


This perspective has important consequences.


The first one is that the common is not a consequence of some intrinsic characteristic of a good. Water is not per definition a common, but only following a political decision.


Secondly, it can not be private property, or if it is, this private property will not give absolute rights to the owners. They cannot decide exclusively on how to use and regulate the water. They will have to share these decisions with others.


It also means, thirdly, that we can overcome the divide between private and public, between market and state. The decisions on commons are taken by citizens, and they may work with the state, and they may organize markets, but these markets and this state will be very different from what we know today. Since the priority will go to the use value, and not to the exchange value, market principles will be different. Commons cannot be commodities, though they can have a price. Whereas the state cannot be bureaucratic or paternalistic, it will become more of a public service itself, it will have to be at the service of citizens.


Four, one of the crucial characteristics of commons is that they refer to a collective dimension – shared by all in a given community – and that they come about in a participatory way. They relate to our common life on this planet or in our societies and communities. They make an end to purely individualistic approaches, though they do not diminish in any way our individual human rights.


To summarize, commons are the result of a social and political process of participation and democratic decision-making concerning material and immaterial goods that will be looked at from the perspective of their use value, eliminating or severely restricting private ownership. They can concern production as well as re-production, they refer to individual and to collective rights.



  1. I hope these simple principles explain why the commons are becoming a serious strategic element in our fight against neoliberalism, against privatizations, against land grabbing, against the monopolisation of the trade in seeds, etc. And we can also use commons as an instrument for promoting and broadening our social protection, including our labour rights and our public services. In sum, it can help to achieve social justice.

Now, we should know that the practice of commoning, that is socially and politically constructing commons, is far from new. Commons existed in the Middle Ages, though they mainly referred to natural commons and they disappeared following the ‘enclosures’ by which rural people lost their livelihoods. We will see that this is very similar to what is happening today, with the privatization of our public services, e.g.

What should be emphasized however is that the commons, as a concept, is becoming so popular, that it often loses its political meaning.

Therefore, I think it can be useful to try and define the crucial elements that should be looked at in order to avoid that commons are hollowed out. What I mean by this can be explained with a couple of simple examples: the care work of women has been professionalized in many countries, think of care for elder people, care for the sick or disabled people. If women decide – or public authorities decide – that this work can be done on a voluntary, non-paid basis, and they call this ‘commons’, than we surely make no progress. Some call this ‘social innovation’ but very often it is just a way of making men and mostly women work for free. Many neoliberal governments are promoting voluntary work to-day, and this certainly cannot be emancipatory. Also, de-commodifying labour or goods, does not necessarily mean that no price has to be paid. In a commons approach, the price will not be decided by ‘the market’, but by citizens in function of needs.

Therefore, in each case, we will have to look at the emancipatory dimension of decisions, we have to politicize our decisions. Basically, that means we should know that we live in a world of conflicting interests, we may strive for harmony but that will never exist. Working for commons will always be a social struggle. Those who claim that local communities can live in peace with small-scale common initiatives and without conflicts, seriously run the risk of seeing commons as a mere empty slogan. And let us not forget that commons can also be promoted by right-wing forces, though these initiatives will never be emancipatory. That is why we have to be very careful and look for criteria that fit the purpose of progressive political forces.



  1. To conclude, just let me give you some more examples of what we can do with ‘commons’. Workers can re-conceptualize their work as ‘commons’, as happened e.g. in so-called ‘re-cuperated factories’. Work then becomes more than earning a living, but becomes a crucial element of social life. Our public services, from health care to education to public transport, can seriously be democratized, if citizens reclaim them and take back control so as to organize them in a better way, in the interest of the majority. Social protection seen as a common will make it into something much more consistent than a simple correction mechanism, it will become a transformative instrument for systemic change.


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. It means democratizing democracy and re-thinking solidarity. It will change power relations because commoners are building power together with others. It will promote the transition towards sustainable economies and societies. In fact, commons promote the sustainability of life, of people, of societies and of nature.


Francine Mestrum – Global Social Justice – –