Beg for more?

Beyond SDG’s and SPF’s: social commons as a strategy tool for social justice and systemic change

When The Economist puts universal health care on its cover we should welcome this ‘social turn’ but we should also reflect very seriously on what is happening and why.

For almost thirty years now, right-wing and neoliberal forces have been dominating and shaping the discourse – and consequently the practice – on social policies. They do not talk about social justice, obviously, since justice is far away from their objectives, but they have been dominating and shaping the new thinking on poverty, social protection, health care and education.

The tragedy in all this is that the left has grossly abandoned its social ambition. For the radical left, social protection is counter-revolutionary and something for dummies and sissies. After the revolution, social justice will fall out of the sky. The moderate left is happy with the existing international initiatives. It means that this once high priority topic for all progressive forces is being neglected. We are now paying the price for this. Social protection has been taken out of our hands.

What I want to explain in this presentation is, one, why we have to reclaim our economic and social rights and go beyond the currently existing international initiatives, such as the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) and SPFs (Social Protection Floors), and, secondly, how social commons can be a strategic tool for striving towards social justice.

  1. Beyond SDGs and SPFs

Of course we have to support the SDGs and SPFs, since, if they were achieved, they would mean  tremendous progress for all people in the world. So, saying we should go beyond, does not mean to criticize these important promises of the international community. But we also should know and never forget that poverty was put on the international agenda in 1990, not as a new social policy but as a new label for structural adjustment, that it implied giving up on social security, and that, ten years later, a new social paradigm on social protection – mark the terminological difference – was introduced, aiming ever more at economic growth. The World Bank’s approach, in  spite of its promises, sticks to a targeted approach for the poor, privatization and deregulation. The pictures I showed demonstrate that corporate forces are now shaping the agenda, creating markets for conquering our bodies and putting people at the service of profits and dividends.

Is it utopian then to think we have to go beyond these initiatives? We clearly cannot accept social protection and health care in particular to be put at the service of markets. It is a first reason to try and go beyond the existing international initiatives, since they do not contain anything to stop the neoliberal philosophy. In the best of cases, they will be a correction mechanism for a brutal economic system but cannot do anything  to stop or change it.

The objective of social protection

Many voices have been raised these past years in favour of ‘transformative social protection’ and even  different meanings are attributed to the concept, it might mean that social protection mechanisms contribute to system change, that it helps to fight climate change as well as transforming the social, political and economic setup of the world.

In whatever way one looks at it, the objective of social protection should be what it says: to protect people and society. Against what? Against the vagaries of markets, of the climate and of life. Saying this already indicates the programme should be very extensive. Social protection certainly should not be a ‘productive factor’, a mechanism in favour of growth and of markets. That is what too often one reads in documents of the World Bank. The ILO also states in several preparatory documents to the SPFs, that social protection can favour the economy. While this is certainly true, it can and should never be its major objective.

Essential goods

A second reason  for going beyond the existing programmes is that they are rather limited in their scope.

Social Protection Floors are based on the definition of social security as it is mentioned in ILO’s convention of 1952 on the minimum standards of social security. But for each element it adds the qualification of ‘essential’, ‘minimum’ or ‘basic’, in other words, it promises nothing more than what can be considered to be a minimum. How far does ‘essential health care’ go? Does it include basic surgery? Does it include cancer or diabetes therapy? And how to ethically put the limits to what is covered and what is not? Also, how far does a basic income security for older, unemployed, or disabled persons reach? Will it be enough for a decent living? Knowing that even wages are often not enough to get out of poverty, this will most probably not be the case in many countries.

The importance of income

Apart from the access to ‘essential health care’ all other elements of the SPFs refer to a ‘basic income security’ in different cases where persons are not or cannot participate in the labour market. Now this is fine, since income is indeed a basic condition for getting out of poverty and live a life in dignity. However, public services are not mentioned. Health care and education might as well come from private as from public sources. And, as is already the case in many countries today, the ‘basic income guarantee’ might come down to a cash transfer that is just enough to pay for privatised services which, in the past, were provided by public authorities and then were given to the market and only available for high user fees. In other words, though this was certainly not the objective of the ILO, the basic income/cash transfer can be an indirect way to subsidize the corporations offering these services. Giving a guaranteed income to poor people is absolutely necessary but it should allow to live a decent life and not replace the necessary universal public services.


Many dramatic data on global income inequality have been published these past years and the moral arguments for the redistribution of income cannot be laughed away anymore.

However, social protection is about so much more than the redistribution of income. First of all, it should be reminded that the traditional welfare states of Western Europe and some other countries were not about redistribution – that is where tax systems are made for – but about collective insurance and solidarity systems. This horizontal and structural solidarity is what constituted society, the link of all people to all other people within national borders. This was never about redistribution even if, in some cases, that might have been a consequence. Redistribution is basically a matter for income taxes. This focus on redistribution is part of the new paradigm, because insurances are for markets and those who want more than the minimum on offer, can buy what they want or need on the market. And income taxes have to be kept at a minimum.




This brings us to the delicate point of universalism. While the SPFs are ambiguous, the World Bank continues to promote targeted interventions in favour of the poor. Both organisations have published in 2015 a joint statement in favour of universal social protection, though it does not seem the World Bank has changed its practices yet, see the attempts to cancel a universal family allowance in Mongolia.

What is clear however is that policies in favour of the poor are not enough. If well implemented they might indeed help people to be lifted out of poverty, but they do not stop the creation of poverty. That, again, is the big advantage of welfare states with labour rights and public services: they stop the impoverishment processes and prevent poverty. This is the main argument in favour of universal policies, next to the generally admitted point that policies for the poor rapidly become poor policies.

  1. Social commons and systemic change

What happened these past decades is that at all political levels, from global to local, many reforms were introduced to take into account the changes in societies and the economy in the 21st century, but each time, in every country, the basic protection of people was hollowed out instead of strengthened. Social protection had to be made compatible with neoliberalism. It is time now to reclaim what has been taken away, full economic and social rights, universal public services and labour rights. We should not do this while looking at the past,  but looking to the future, not in order to reform the welfare states, but to re-create them and make them fit for the citizens and societies of the 21st century.

I would like to propose some elements for a two-way strategy to achieve this. First, considering our social protection as commons, and second, what I would like to call ‘obstinate coherence’.

Social commons

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 decides 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.

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. What happened in the past decades was a kind of  ‘enclosure’, depriving 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. That is why the States and public authorities will be themselves a kind of public service, helping their citizens.

In the same way, markets will be different.  If economic and social rights as well as public services are seen as commons, the consequence is not that there is nothing to be paid anymore. People who work in the health sector, for example, obviously will have to be paid. 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 is 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.

Obstinate coherence

Strategically, it is very important for social movements to go beyond their own weakening fragmentation. It is necessary to better coordinate and organize in order to be able to act collectively.

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. 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, such as macro-economics.

Each time focusing on these connections 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. I think that with an obstinate and coherent long term approach, we might contribute to change the system. Social policies, as such, will not be enough to counter neoliberalism, but they can be a crucial contribution to it. This is also how the potential for alternatives can be brought to light. What we will need is a serious effort in popular education.

  1. Conclusion

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. Not begging but claiming.


(Francine Mestrum – AEPF/Transform Conference on social commons, Barcelona, 8-10 June 2018)


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