The movement of the commons: On the role of citizens in reclaiming public services

At the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, its founder, Klaus Schwab, make a remarkable statement. The overall focus of the WEF this year was on the ‘fractured world’ we are living in. Schwab declared we need a new social contract, our societies have to rebuild their foundations, our world needs ‘qualitative easing’ and so we have to look beyond GDP in order to work at inclusive development… While such a statement might have come from the left, Schwab added something very WEF-like. This timed, he said, I think that business should take the lead to make the recovery efforts through the social crisis, and of course business can work with governments and civil society…

You may think this is the kind of message you can expect in Davos, and it is true. But we should not ignore what is happening there, because, contrary to the left, what these neoliberal and conservative forces are able to do is talk and listen to each other. They certainly do not all agree on what the right thinks is necessary, but they do all work in the same direction, and they know it. What Klaus Schwab was saying is in fact a concrete step in the direction of a major report of WEF of some ten years ago. It was on a new global governance, where business indeed takes the lead in many innovations, where States get a minor role and where all confidence is put into cities.

Now, many things have been said about neoliberalism and many misunderstandings have survived. While States have indeed been encouraged by international financial organisations to get rid of their economic – state enterprises – and their social role – redistribution, social security, public services – this does not mean States have become ‘lean’. As Fukuyama excellently explained in one of his books, States had to limit their scope – do less in many areas – but have to extend their strength – do more in a limited number of areas. States have to keep open borders for goods and capital, to enhance competition, protect property and consumer rights, they have to counter discrimination, they have to fight poverty by activating all poor people to enter the labour market, they have to raise taxes, but should not exaggerate. And no, they should not organize social protection or provide public services.

What it means is that States are losing, willingly or unwillingly, their capacity to build cohesive societies. Neoliberalism has a focus on individuals and ignores societies.

A crisis of re-production    

The consequences of neoliberalism cannot be ignored anymore. All over the world, people have lost the protective mechanisms they have lived with. Whether it is through land grabbing or industrial fishing, through extractivism or huge infrastructure works:  people living from agriculture, fishing or forests, that is, from nature, are losing their livelihoods. People are also losing their economic and social rights, the public services that were put into place, their labour rights, their health care, their pensions … In fact, what is happening is precisely what David Harvey has described as ‘accumulation through dispossession’. Or we may go back to the middle ages and say that new enclosures are taking away from people the goods and mechanisms they need to survive, that is, the commons, their collective ownership. The result can be seen in the latest statistics on inequality Oxfam has published: 82 % of the growth produced in 2017 has gone to the 1 % richest people. A  CEO earns in just four days what a Bangladeshi textile worker has to work a whole life for. While fifty years ago, discussion was on the gap between countries of the North and the South and while it was then decided that redistribution should only concern growth, what is happening today is again redistribution of wealth, but from the poor to the rich.

This crisis, then, is mainly a crisis of reproduction. Employment increasingly fails to sustain livelihoods. Wages are too low, people cannot count anymore on affordable health care, schools, water and energy. They cannot regain strength for working another day or week. They cannot prepare for the future. Because we have learnt in the past decades that privatised public services are mostly not affordable. In some countries, governments give small cash grants to poor people, so that they can pay for some services, but this, obviously, cannot be the solution.

That is why people are now reclaiming what is and should be their collective ownership: the land, the oceans, the forests, the seeds, but also their collective economic and social rights, their public services, their labour rights, their pensions, their health services, their schools, their water, etc. etc.

This is what the commons movement is all about: commons are all the things that the ‘we’ of a political community decides that it is theirs. It is citizens who take a collective responsibility for the use, the regulation and the monitoring of a good or a thing.

The movement of the commons

What is specific for a commons approach is this:

First, obviously, commons have to be created within a general regulatory framework of public authorities, for instance concerning security or discrimination. We cannot accept some citizens decide to consider water as their ‘common’ and then decide it is only for their own neighbourhood, to give a simple example.

Secondly, it has no preference for a particular scale. You can have local, national, regional or global commons. All will depend on the things we are talking about and the needs there are to preserve resources. There is no level that, from and in itself, is better suited for democracy and participation than others.

Thirdly, commons can be no commodities, they surely can have a price, but the focus will always be on the use value and not on the exchange value.

Fourthly, this means that commons are beyond markets and States, though not necessarily without markets and States. In fact, markets will have no liberal exchange logic, while States will be very different from what they are now. They will themselves become a kind of public service, assisting their organised citizens. But they will always be needed for raising taxes and redistribution, for guaranteeing human rights, for implementing security or discrimination rules, etc.

Commons fully respect the individual rights of citizens, but they also focus on the collective dimension of societies and in this way, social commons protect individuals and societies, contrary to neoliberal thinking that tends to ignore societies.

Commons, then, can become a strategic tool to resist neoliberalism, privatisation and commodification. With public services as commons, we can fight inequality. If we apply these principles coherently and consistently, this will change the power relations, it will lead to changing the economic system, which is far more difficult to do from without.

In that way commons are truly transformative, because you cannot have a preventive health system if you allow corporations to use toxic substances, if car companies can continue to pollute the air we breathe, if people have no right to water. 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, reproduction, markets and states. And to overcome their divergences.

The left should not allow itself to retreat to the local level and leave global business take over political power in the meantime, as the people in Davos want it.

Destroying public services is destroying society, social relationships, solidarity and collective values. Preserving and promoting public services and common goods, at all levels, is promoting citizenship and the sovereignty of people. These commons are our collective responsibility. Organised citizens, with their trade unions and other social movements, can and will take care of them.

Francine Mestrum

Global Social Justice

Co-organizer AEPF Social Justice cluster