Commons 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, and much less on re-production. 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 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 protect the livelihoods of people?

Much is happening today in the care sector, though changes do not necessarily go in the right direction. One development points to a growing marketization of all care, for disabled people, youth or the elderly. This often leads to a direct impoverishment and lack of care with people who just cannot afford the care they need. Many public services have indeed been privatized and have become very expensive.

A second development is the so-called ‘social innovation’ approach, where people get directly responsible to organize their own care with family members, neighbourhood friends or volunteers. It is a kind of ‘socializing’ of care, called the ‘participation society’ in Holland or ‘big society’ in the UK. It certainly can be positive to self-organize solidarity within small communities, though the model is far from adequate and sufficient for many people who need and want professional care.

Unfortunately, these development are not inspired by a commons approach but simply have to be seen in a neoliberal austerity context where public authorities want or have to cut social expenditures and, for the production sector, where trade unions have not yet fully embraced the new developments on labour markets.

Room for commons and commoning

Progressively, an awareness starts growing on the possibility to think of public services, and in fact, all social and economic rights, in terms of commons.

The reason not only has to be sought in the above mentioned developments, but also in the rising discontent with our current systems of social protection, care and labour organization.

One of the best examples to illustrate this, is the rising interest in basic income, opposed to social security. It would take us too far to analyse these proposals here (see: but they are very much linked to the worsening situation of people living from social assistance (poor and long term unemployed people) as well as what is perceived as the ‘bureaucratization’ of health care, pensions, family allowances, etc. Add to this the political and media campaigns organized by neoliberalism against trade unions, collective bargaining, strikes, etc. Public services are said to be ‘inefficient’ and far too expensive.

It seems clear then that change is indeed needed, on the one hand to counter the neoliberal dismantlement of social and economic rights, on the other hand to take into account the often justified concerns about the functioning of our social policies. In other words, there is room for a reflection in terms of commons.

What does it mean to commonize re-production?

If we accept the need for a political approach to all commons, in general, and social policies more particularly, commoning then basically means to democratize them. Citizens have to be involved in their design, to begin with, in order to have a clear assessment of what is really needed. The solidarity – and reciprocity – typical for social protection concerns the shared value produced by the commoning. One certainly can also reflect on what people can take care of themselves, but most of our rights will have to be guaranteed by public authorities, at different levels, from local to national and regional to global. It means the relationship between society and state, and the state itself, will have to be re-considered. Speaking of empowered citizens in ‘public-civic partnerships’ or of a ‘partner-state’ certainly goes in the right direction.

But there are more advantages to conceptualize our rights as commons:

First, social protection at any rate is ours, whether it is paid for by social contributions or directly by taxes. It belongs to the people and it is people who have to decide on it. Involving citizens 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 organizes 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 care in the center and make a direct link with the climate justice movement, caring for nature. Social justice and climate justice go hand in hand and can both be seen as the possibility for preserving the sustainability of life.

Fourthly, conceptualizing social protection in terms of commons and linking it to climate 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 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.

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.

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.

Francine Mestrum

Author of ‘The social commons. Re-thinking social justice in post-neoliberal times’,