Human Rights and Social Commons

Human Rights and the Common Good: why social protection is a ‘social commons’
Francine Mestrum* (2013)

Social protection has been put high on the international political agenda by the international development organisations. The ILO (International Labour Organization) has adopted at its International Labour Conference of 2012 a recommendation on ‘social protection floors’. UNDESA (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs), UNRISD (UN Research Institute for Social Development), UNICEF (UN Childrens’ Fund) and the World Bank have made their proposals for social protection programmes. The European Commission plans to introduce social protection in its development cooperation programmes. Many speak of ‘transformative’ social protection, though the meaning of this concept is different from one document to another.

The reason why social protection is now suddenly on the agenda – after having been abandoned with the emergence of the ‘poverty reduction policies’ of the 1990s – probably is linked to the relative failure of these poverty policies and the ‘millennium development goals’. It may also be linked to a growing awareness that the current social situation in the world is becoming unsustainable. While more than one billion people still live in extreme poverty – a poverty that kills, according to former UN secretary general Kofi Annan – global inequality of incomes and wealth reaches levels that cannot morally be justified in any way.

The new proposals for social protection have to be welcomed. They do mean a significant progress compared to the poverty reduction policies. First of all, because – with the exception of the World Bank – all international organisations point to the fact that social protection is a human right (article 22 of the Universal Declaration). All proposals also pay a lot more attention to social policies in order to fulfil this right. It should indeed be remembered that the poverty agenda was mainly about institutional reform and macro-economic balance. Education and health care were said to be necessary, but these ideas were not really developed and no other social policies were required. Finally, and most importantly, the income dimension is now also taken into account. This certainly is linked to the success of basic allowance programmes such as the ‘bolsa familia’ in Brazil. On the negative side, however, it has also to be noted that the economic role of social protection is highlighted in all documents and that it is supposed to promote growth and productivity and in general, to stabilize the economy. This means that the social protection agenda might, in practice, also be limited to this economic role and be subjected to its direct advantages to it, instead of being at the service of human needs. There is indeed a risk that it will remain a slightly improved and better targeted poverty reduction.
In order to overcome these potential limitations and develop a forward-looking concept of social protection, this article proposes to translate social protection into ‘social commons’. As we will see, this will allow to avoid the possible hollowing out of the social protection concept and to take into account the collective and participatory dimensions of the protection that all human beings and societies need.

*Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences and coordinates the global network of Global Social Justice ( This article was written in 2013.

Terminological clarification

In progressive circles it has become ‘bon ton’ to speak about ‘commons’. Resisting the privatization of public services and the commodification of everything that is valuable for life, many activists promote ‘the commons’, ‘common goods’ or ‘the common good’ : three concepts that are certainly inter-linked but that do have different connotations and should be clearly defined. If not, the appeal to ‘the commons’ risks to become an empty slogan without any political consequence. Also, the reference to ‘commons’ presents some tensions with the reference to human rights, and this also has to be examined.

In the framework of this article, only a couple of short definitions can be discussed. They should allow for making a distinction between the different concepts and for showing the relevance of them when speaking of social protection.

The ‘common good’ is a political and even 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. It implies the definition of a ‘we’. In fact, it constitutes the condition for the existence of the community – ‘we are what we share’. The ‘common good’ is related to the concept of the ‘general’ or ‘common’ interest but is different from it in that 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.

‘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. That is why they are usually underprovided and require collective action. Pure public goods are non excludable – no one can be barred from consuming the good – and non rival – the good can be consumed by many without becoming depleted. Some public goods are commodities – e.g. traffic lights – some are not –e.g. peace.

Public goods are located at the intersection of ‘public’ (the state) and ‘private’ (the market), though one can reject this categorical dichotomy by pointing to the different forms of ownership and organization/regulation. Also, the ‘public’ can refer to the state as organizer, but also to the public the services are meant for.

In order to avoid this state vs market dichotomy and all possible misunderstandings, the concept of ‘common goods’ is used more and more. Some also make a difference between ‘public goods’ as being instrumental for each individual’s life and ‘common goods’ generated by participation and meant for a specific community. In this sense, ‘common goods’ are directly related to ‘the common good’.
But even with ‘common goods’ we are still speaking of ‘goods’, that is, possible commodities. ‘The commons’ allows to avoid this last ‘trap’. ‘Commons’ are cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of society. Cultural commons will also be a social construct and they can include common goods. But the essential idea 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.

Human rights and the ‘commons’

What do we mean then when we say that ‘health’ or ‘social protection’ or ‘welfare stares’ are ‘commons’? What we want to say is that these ‘goods’ contribute to our collective and our individual welfare, that they emerge from collective and participatory action and that they are evidence of our existence as a ‘community’, again, at whatever level we want to work. The ‘commons’ sustain our common being, our being together, our co-existence. They go beyond our individual interests.

At this point it is clear a tension may arise with the human rights approach. Social protection as a human right gives people a moral and legal claim to social and economic rights. Even in the most positive hypothesis of a real social protection agenda – not to reduce poverty but to prevent poverty and inequality – human rights are individual rights. Even if we may claim that the second generation of rights –economic and social rights – are collective rights, this is far from being accepted. Human rights are also being contested in many non-western cultures. Moreover and more importantly, protecting the collective rights of people is not the same as protecting society itself. The commons, as being constitutive of society, has this possibility, as well as it allows to focus on the collective and participatory dimension of the emergence of collective rights.
However, the western concept of human rights can also be re-examined. This is the proposal of the French philosopher and anthropologist François Flahault . He describes how the Universal Declaration of 1948 came about and states it is in fact seriously flawed.

On the one hand, human rights are founded in morality, which can be explained by the Second World War and its atrocities. These moral principles which involve extending feelings of belonging – of an ‘us’ – to others, beyond one’s own group, can be said to be universal. They are present in most cultures and religions. On the other hand, they are founded on legal principles, and these are indeed Western. The natural law they refer to is based on the belief that humans exist by nature, for and by themselves – formerly they were said to be created by God – and that they have created society. They decided to make a ‘social contract’ in order to satisfy their material needs. In this vision, individuals precede society and in modernity, individuals can even live without society (i.e. Robinson Crusoe).

In this perspective, even human rights are prior to the entry of human beings into society, which means they are conceived of as being exterior to society. They do however justify the political power – the State – which is meant to guarantee the rights born with nature once the social contract is made.

Modernity also cleared the way for liberal economics. According to this discourse, individuals do not participate in the construction of the common good but are said to pursue their own interests. These interests are supposed to coexist harmoniously with the interests of others, the ‘private vices and public virtues’ of Mandeville. The pursuit of individual interests will automatically lead to a common good. In fact, the common good becomes the free market.

These are untenable myths, says Flahault. First of all, because society precedes the individual and secondly, because our social life is so much more than a practical arrangement for satisfying material needs. It is an end in itself. He supports his thinking with the results of research in primatology, paleo-anthropology and the psychology of development. This enables him to turn the reasoning around and to state that the individual cannot exist without society. The individual emerges from society, which means she emerges from the bonds which link people to each other and which link each of us to the whole of society. Social relationships are not purely contractual but are constitutive of each one’s individuality.

Flahault takes this reasoning a step further than Marx, then, who never accepted the idea that individuals could exist apart from social arrangements. Sociologically speaking, the individual does not exist. For Marx, the essence of the person is also social, it is the product of social and institutional arrangements. Marx objected to the attempt to divorce the individual from the productive relations which determine one’s social nature . Consequently, he rejected individual human rights and saw the social contract as being fundamentally needed for satisfying material needs.

The question of who came first – the individual or social life – may seem irrelevant – and certainly cannot be analyzed here – as long as we accept that the individual and society are in fact inseparable, that society satisfies material and immaterial needs and also that it is an end in itself. Each individuality refers to the culture in which it emerged and social arrangements cannot exist without the individuals that make them work. The social contract cannot be exterior to what constitutes the individual. But the argument of the pre-existence of social life and the multiple purposes it serves, adds a very strong argument that should be kept in mind and allows for reconciling human rights with the commons.
Social relationships are constitutive of the individual and this implies that rights and duties are inseparable, rights are not prior to duties. Solidarity is so much more than practical and useful. It becomes justified by the fact that existence can only be the result of our relationships to others. Originally, human rights only conceived of individuals, not of human relations and in that sense they even endanger politics by putting individuals and morality above politics. They do not define social relationships and inter-subjectivity. They make it impossible to think of how each being is questioned in relation to something in social life.

So that which we have in common, that which is a common good and that which is what makes us individuals and social beings and society, is precisely social life. Even if individuals can become responsible subjects, they only exist as members of society which is an end in itself.
Neoliberalism threatens this ‘society’ – Thatcher: ‘there is no such thing as society’ – which is indeed killing people because atomized individuals cannot survive. The problem with capitalism is its anthropology. The individual is not self-sufficient and contrary to what Hayek said, the common good is a concrete objective value. The threats against society caused by destroying relationships, communities and bonds, by promoting competitiveness, flexibility and the struggle for life are extremely dangerous. This is precisely what is happening today to the ‘precariat’ which could indeed become a dangerous class of ‘denizens’, non-citizens ‘freed’ from all commitments and all bonds . The welfare of the collectivity does not coincide with the welfare of individuals, and neoliberalism finally kills both. Without solidarity, we do not exist.

Social Protection as ‘commons’

This means that not only individuals have to be protected, but also society as such. And this gives a further justification for seeing ‘social protection’ as ‘a commons’. It will have to protect the material and the immaterial needs, by recognizing the primordial role of social life as a condition for individual life. Re-conceptualized human rights are perfectly compatible with ‘the commons’. They are complementary.

What we do need, then, is a broader concept of social protection, one that goes beyond individual and collective rights but also protects social life itself. Social protection has the dual role of preserving cohesion, as well as of giving people economic and social security and an adequate standard of living.

What we share as a community of human beings is our human needs: our need for social relationships and our need for health, food, housing, education, etc. The definition of shared needs may seem negative, but the answers are positive and collective. Social protection is a collective arrangement – not individual solutions of insurance bought in the market place – to protect individuals and society.

Social protection as a ‘commons’ still requires state intervention in order to guarantee the rights system and to provide resources for distribution, but it is a primary responsibility of citizens. Social protection will have to be defined by societies, according to their commonly defined needs. This will, in most cases, not be without conflict and social protection for all will be the result of hard fought for compromises. The most important issue is that all contribute and all benefit. This follows the definition of a ‘we’ at different territorial levels, with different levels of solidarity and redistribution. It is based on the belief that people can master their present and can shape their future. Commons cannot be turned into commodities.

Social protection as a ‘commons’ also has the advantage of being able to include environmental rights and link up with the climate agenda. Social justice and environmental justice should indeed go hand in hand whereas each individual’s survival depends on its relationship with others and with the environment. In this way, this new concept of social protection contributes to the production and re-production of life, it does not have to abandon its links with human rights, but it is incompatible with total individual autonomy. It will have to combine material and immaterial needs. Social protection goes beyond the rituals and the symbolic action of traditional societies, but it is based on the same premises of social cohesion. It offers bread and roses.

Talking about social protection as a common good or a commons requires some theoretical foundation in order to be more than a slogan. It also requires to look beyond the adding-up of individual rights. The commons allows for a politicization of social protection, it is a social construct based on collective participation. I hope this contribution can be a starting point for further debates.

*Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences and coordinates the global network of Global Social Justice ( This article was written in 2013.