Social Justice and System Change (3)

Strategies for social justice and beyond

If social protection is now back on the international agenda and more or less actively promoted by most international organisations, it is not necessarily also on the agenda of social movements. There is, or has been, more particularly within the radical left, quite some resistance to the promotion of this ‘reformist’ policy. Initiatives like those of Global Social Justice and the Asia Europe People’s Forum to broaden the agenda in order to include public services and labour right and to directly link it to a social justice agenda geared towards systemic change, might hopefully change this state of affairs.

However, it is not enough to demonstrate the need to broaden the agenda and to show how very connected different policy areas are. It is most useful if there can also be some indications on how to make this social justice into reality, even if we know it necessarily will be a long term agenda.

In this article, I want to emphasize two possible ways of shaping a strategy: a commons approach and what I would call an obstinate coherence approach. There is no need to choose between one or the other. Moreover, these strategies concern the improvements of social policies within the system and within the existing institutional frame as well as those that are ‘out of the box’ and look into the future in order to build a better world.The social commons

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 and the rights derived from it. They can concern production as well as re-production, they refer to individual and to collective rights.

Following this definition, social protection systems, broadly speaking, can be considered to be commons as soon as a local community, or a national organisation or a global movement decide to consider them as such, within a local, national or global regulatory framework. If they organize direct citizens’ participation in order to find out what these social protection systems should consist of and how they can be implemented, they can shape them in such a way that they fully respond to people’s needs and are emancipatory.

Considering economic and social rights as commons basically means to democratize them, to state they belong to the people and to decide on their implementation and on their monitoring. This clearly will involve a social struggle, because in the past neoliberal decades these rights have been hollowed out, public services have been privatised and labour rights have weakened if not disappeared. One can compare it to an ‘enclosure’ which deprives people from their livelihoods. That is why to-day, more and more people reclaim their rights and the services they need. Citizens then do not wait for initiatives to be taken by public authorities, but take matters into their own hands and organize themselves.

This does not mean States or other public authorities play no role anymore, on the contrary. We will always need States for redistribution, for guaranteeing human rights, for making security rules, etc. It means States are co-responsible for our interdependence. But the States we are talking of  in relation to our economic and social rights or our public services will be different from what States are today. Because we know public authorities are not necessarily democratic, very often they use public services and social benefits as power instruments or for clientelist objectives. That is why the States and public authorities that are referred to in this article will be themselves a kind of public service, helping their citizens.

In the same way, markets will be different.  If social protection mechanisms, labour rights and public services seen as commons, the consequence is not that there is nothing to be paid anymore. People who work obviously have to be paid, even if they work in a non-profit sector. However, prices will not respond to a liberal market logic but to human needs and the use value of what is produced.

So, if we say social commons go beyond States and markets, we do not say they go without States and markets. It will be a different logic that applies.

The economic and social crisis we are currently living in, is in the first place a crisis of social re-production, in a world where employment increasingly fails to support subsistence. The livelihoods of people are taken out of their hands and are turned into profit-making mechanisms. That is why people are now trying to take back control.

Ownership is at the center of all thinking on commons. It should be re-defined and be shared as much as possible. In no case should it give absolute rights to the owner(s). This means, amongst others, that we will have to look for new definitions of companies in order to decide on investments and profits as well as on wages and the organisation of work. People should not be freed from work, but work should become a major element of emancipation.

A democratic, participatory and emancipatory way of implementing rights and organizing public services 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 and will require a hard social struggle.

By focusing on the collective dimension and by directly involving people in shaping public policies, the commons approach can become a strategic tool to resist neoliberalism, privatization and commodification. It will allow to build a new narrative to better and broader organize people’s movements. Shaping commons means building power together with others.

Obstinate coherence

To-day, social movements and their struggles are very fragmented. Trade unions fight for labour rights and next to them non-governmental organisations and movements fight for better pensions, for children’s rights, for universal health care, for better care for disabled people, for water, for public transport, for land, etc. etc. This focused approach is necessary and useful in order to build expertise. Social struggles today not only have to be fought against governments, but more and more against powerful corporations with hegemonic power over knowledge and communication. Standing up against them requires mental strength and solid data.

However, it is also clear to see that a fragmented approach weakens the movements. Coordinating actions and cooperating with likeminded movements obviously strengthens them all. Unfortunately, while there are some good attempts of cooperation and some first positive experiences, this does not happen all too often. Progressive forces are still too divided and lack time and resources to look beyond their own activities. A useful space exists for promoting coordination of struggles and cooperation between movements. But the World Social Forum does not seem to have this ambition and prefers to limit itself to the two-yearly mobilisation of movements.

This is really a pity, because progressive forces lose much in organisational capacity and insight if we compare them to how right-wing forces work. A simple look at the World Economic Forum in Davos allows us to see how the participants there do not all agree with each other but they are very well aware of the fact they are all working in the same direction. They invite major global thinkers in order to learn from them and to see where the world is heading. This openness is often lacking at the left which is still searching for the one and only strategy for achieving the one and only anti-capitalist solution. More openness to others and more trust in reciprocal learning could help a lot in moving forward together, on the same path but at different speeds and with different final objectives.

Many alternatives are readily available right now, there is no need to find a big agreement on one of them, they all can help to get out of the current system destroying nature and humankind.

Social justice can be an ideal entry point to do just that. As was explained in former articles, many connections can be made, among basic elements of social security, among social protection and other social policies, among social policies, climate justice and more systemic issues.

Each time focusing on the interlinkages can help to strengthen demands and bring more compelling arguments. Pointing at the income dimension of poverty is crucial for raising wages and social allowances, at the right to water for health, at the toxicity of pesticides for preventive health, at child care for women’s work, at land rights for food production, at …

What is meant by obstinate coherence is precisely this: to push for changes in sectors that at first sight are not related to the issue one fights for, but in the end are crucial for it. It might be rather easy to organise commons at the local level, but it is far more difficult to achieve something at the national, let alone the global level. How to tackle global corporations? The only thing we can do is pointing to the different negative effects of their products and practices and link them to a generally accepted goal. If we want healthy food and if we want to prevent certain types of cancer, we have to ban certain toxic products. It is not easy, the fight will be long and the social struggles may be disrupted at many moments. But is there any other strategy? If we want people to be in good health, in the sense of Alma Ata, that is ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing’ as a fundamental human right, we not only have to point to the lack of social protection, but also to some practices of global corporations, from Facebook to Monsanto. If we want economic and social rights to be respected, we will have to look at building standards and link them to the cheap clothes made available to western consumers. We will have to go beyond the necessary moral arguments and point to very concrete consequences some practices have for people all over the world.

The is why the links between different sectors and elements of social protection are so important to reveal, and that is why social protection can indeed be an entry point to policies of systemic change. Social policies, as such, will not be enough to counter neoliberalism and capitalism, but they can be a crucial contribution to it. It is also how the potential for alternatives can be brought to light. One cannot fight for social welfare if toxic products like tobacco are brought to the market, if plastic bags are polluting waters. This has long ago ceased to be a problem of indigenous people fighting against oil spills but is now important for all citizens and consumers in all countries. If we cannot breath the air in our cities any more, as now happens from Beijing to Bangalore and Mexico City, social justice is directly connected to environmental justice and the economic system will have to change to solve this problem.

What will be needed is a broad effort in popular education. In developed countries of Western Europe too many people do not know anymore where social protection systems come from, how social struggles have made them possible, what kind of solidarity is behind them and why collective solidarity is better than an individual insurance. In many countries of the South people do not even know their rights or do not believe they can be really fulfilled. Some experience already exists with political laboratories where public authorities meet with citizens, health and social professionals as well as citizens and their organisations in order to see how to organize and improve social protection systems.


Social justice as an entry point for policies of systemic change is in line with the practices and policies that led, one century ago, to the emergence of socialism. Offering soup was a reason for many hungry workers to join the new movements. Offering systems of solidarity was a mechanism to keep them into the new movements. Today, too many faith-based movements and charities apply the same politics, while governments are privatising or plainly abandoning social policies. It is time for progressive movements to take up this agenda in an emancipatory way.

Social justice is the adequate way for progressive movements to win a larger audience. New narratives on commons and on how people can take their future into their own hands might be the right way to convince them to abandon right-wing populism. Emphasizing our interdependence and the necessary collective dimension of all solutions can be the right approach to strengthen social movements and build citizens’ power.

To-day, repression against resistance movements is growing. Many environmental and human rights defenders are killed in the South. Coordination and cooperation are crucial to survive, fight and win. Social justice can be a strategic and transformative instrument for social struggle, whether you work for just taxes, the elimination of debt, decent pensions or adequate wages. The draft Global Charter for Social Protection Rights can contribute to this goal, not as a text with fixed principles that have to be achieved, but as an aspirational tool indicating the direction one should take.

Social justice is central to systemic change, because it allows to broaden the audience and to point to the connection with climate change, taxes, debt, agriculture, land rights, austerity and in the end democracy and human rights. We do not have to do away with capitalism first, we can start the other way round. Social commons and obstinate coherence and consistency means you do not stop in the middle of the road, but you continue till the system is changed in such a way it cannot identify itself anymore. We should start by reclaiming our social protection, stating it is ours and bring it back to its major objective: to protect people and societies and to promote sustainability.








Francine Mestrum – Global Social Justice –