Fighting neoliberalism and the privatisation of public services: The struggle for social commons

  1. Our public services, education, health care, public transport … all belong to our systems of social protection, systems that we need and have to promote because they are essential for our individual and collective survival. Individuals are not self-sufficient, they are interdependent.

This is an easy statement,  but the question is how we try to achieve the existence of universal quality public services for all. We know that the current neoliberal philosophy wants governments to cut public spending, and, in general, social expenditures are severely limited.

However, markets, and the production system they require, cannot function properly without a decent reproduction, or simply put, if people have no clean water, no education system, no health care, no public transport, etc., the economic system will fail. Moreover, and this is for us an even more important argument: social protection is a human right, confirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and repeated and explicited in the International Covenant for Economic, social and cultural rights as well as other regional treaties.

The experience of the past decades, all over the world, has shown that privatised public services cannot do the job: they are too expensive, so that poor people cannot afford them, they are rarely universal because they are then not profitable, they cut back on employment and do not allow for any democratic and participatory approach.

That is why there is now a broad movement to reclaim these services, at the national, the regional or the municipal level. This is the movement we want to support and promote. Social protection and public services are ours: people pay for them with taxes and social contributions, and that is why we call them social commons. They should be universal and be at the service of all, and not only of those who are rich enough to pay for them. Public services belong to the public, they can and should be organised in a democratic and participatory way.


  1. This is all very reasonable and logical. Yet, it is sometimes difficult to explain. And the reason is words may mean different things to different people.

We speak here of ‘public services’, but we might also speak of ‘utilities’ or of ‘social services’ or of ‘services in the general interest’.

One of the main problems lies with the word ‘public’: for most people, especially on the left, this refers to public authorities or to the State. We do not want privatised services, we want public authorities to organize them.

An that is why neoliberals, who do not want this, started to talk, in Europe, of ‘services of general interest’, or why the World Bank speaks of ‘social services’, and why in countries like the UK or in Holland, they speak of ‘utilities’. All these other words mean one thing: we should not ask public authorities to take care of these services.

The French, particularly, have very serious problems with this terminological change.

However, many critics forget one thing: ‘public’ not only refers to the organizer, the public authorities, but also to those these services are meant for: the public!

What this means is that even if you do not want public authorities to organize these different services, there is no need to change the word: we are talking about public services, at the service of the public, at the service of people.


  1. This is a long introduction for a very simple idea. But it is very important. Because today, while most of us will reject the privatisation of services, many of us will also have serious doubts about the capacity of States to really be at the service of people. In the past, we have seen how many services really functioned badly or not at all. States and public authorities are not necessarily democratic. Very often, public services are used as power instruments or for clientelist objectives. Today, we see how local authorities like municipalities are trying to take over.

The idea that I want to present here is the idea of social commons, that is a system that makes the opposition between private and public and between state and market irrelevant. Social commons give a role to citizens and their organisations.

I am not going to dwell on the concept of commons itself. Let me just briefly repeat that commons, basically, are the material and immaterial things that belong 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. Commons are the result of a co-activity which supposes reciprocity between people. This co-activity is a basic condition and it constitutes a ‘we’. Commons then are the things that a political community decides to be their commons, which means there can be no commons without commoners. They are the political and social actors that decide on what in their society – at whatever level, local, national, regional or global – has to be considered a common, on the way to regulate it, on the rules for access to it and on monitoring its use.

Commons never are an intrinsic characteristic of things, but are the result of a common and democratic political decision concerning the access, the use and the monitoring of things. It means citizens are taking control in their communities, societies or at the global level. Commoning public services basically means to democratize them and to emphasize collective ownership.

This is very concretely what we mean when we say that decisions have to be taken bottom-up instead of top-down.


  1. However, this does not mean that States play no role anymore, on the contrary. We will always need States for redistribution, for guaranteeing our human rights, for making security rules, etc. It means States are co-responsible for governing our interdependence. But the States we are talking of in relation to public services, will be of another kind, the State will be itself a kind of public service, it will be at the service of its citizens.

In the same way, markets will be different. Public services as commons does not mean there is nothing to be paid anymore, people who work in the health sector obviously have to be paid, but prices will not respond to a liberal market logic, they will respond to human needs. Never forget that workers in the public sector do produce value. In a system of commons, we focus on the use value instead of the exchange value.

So if we say social commons go beyond state and markets, we do not say they go without states and markets. It is a different logic that applies.

All this, because we should never forget that social protection is ours! We pay for it, with taxes and/or social contributions. We have to decide on it. And we have to trust the public. People know best what their needs are, and these needs will be different from one place to another. People’s organisations, such as trade unions, will have a crucial role to play.


  1. 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 privatisation of public services is a new enclosure, where the livelihoods of people are taken out of their hands and are turned into profit-making mechanisms. We want to defend our rights, make them concrete and contribute to new rights and policies in which people take back control. Without re-production there cannot even be production.

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 and collective responsibility.

This democratic, participatory and emancipatory way of organizing the public services we all need 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. Individual and collective rights have to go hand in hand if we want to protect our common goods.

Therefore, commons can be a strategic tool to resist neoliberalism, privatisation and commodification. With public services as commons, we can fight inequality. Applying the principles coherently and consequently, this will change the power relations, it will lead to changing the economic system, which is far more difficult to do from without. Social commons are indeed transformative, because you cannot have a preventive health care system if people have no right to water, if corporations are allowed to use toxic substances, if car companies are allowed to pollute the air we breathe. Pursuing on these points, it is easy to see there is a direct link between social justice and environmental justice. Both make it possible to preserve the sustainability of life, of humans, of society and of nature.

The language of commons offers an opportunity to the left to re-define its strategies, to renew its thinking on production, markets, nature and the State to create a new narrative to better organize our resistance to neoliberal and conservative forces.

Destroying public services is destroying society, social relationships, solidarity and collective values. Preserving and promoting public services is promoting citizenship and the sovereignty of people.


Francine Mestrum   – Global Social Justice  –  –