Promoting the social commons

Sustaining the planet, preparing the future, building another world … this daunting task for current generations is also a promising manifestation of care for the future of humankind and of nature.

We are living in a multiple, civilizational crisis which forces us to reflect on our political, social and economic organisation. The current production and consumption models, particularly those of the rich world, are not sustainable.
We also know that the transition to another and better world cannot be achieved overnight. Unfortunately, while many proposals – and few achievements – are made for the preservation of nature, few forward-looking ideas are produced for the protection of men and women.
We are living in a paradoxical situation. While, on the one hand, economic development has in many cases been replaced by human development, this being translated in poverty reduction programmes that now are leading to social protection floors, on the other hand, welfare states have been dismantled by governments all over the world in the framework of Washington Consensus policies.
Also, while extreme poverty is declining – according to the World Bank – inequality is growing and poverty remains a serious problem for almost half of humankind. More and more, wealth is being accumulated and concentrated in the hands of a small privileged class.
It is time then to look at how this social situation can be reversed. This means looking at re-balancing societies, eradicating poverty and declaring it illegal, sharply reducing inequalities … In all societies and in all political regimes people need protection, preferably not in the form of police and military forces, but based on social, economic and solidarity rights.

This is why we want to promote the ‘social commons’. What do we use this concept and what do we mean by it?

The first reason for speaking of ‘social commons’ is the analogy with the protection of the ecological ‘commons’.  Defending ‘the commons’ means to focus on that which is shared by all human beings. It is the very foundation of collective life of humanity. It also means resisting the current commodification of everything and a breakaway from the dominant logic. The ‘social commons’ are human-made commons, meant to protect individuals and societies.
Secondly, the notion of ‘social protection’ is, paradoxically, being hollowed out by the new global initiatives of the ILO, the World Bank and other international organisations. Some of their proposals have an important potential for improving the situation of poor people, but others barely go beyond the already existing poverty reduction policies. We think that in the long term, more is needed.
Thirdly, we noticed that the concept of ‘social protection’ has a very low appeal to young people who were raised in a neoliberal world in which individual freedom and competitiveness are presented as being natural. But these same young people do understand the value of solidarity and sharing with others. Changing the concept may change the perception and the understanding of an idea that may positively shape their future. It may also open up new analytical insights and lead to a new praxis fit for the 21st century.
Fourthly, and most importantly, we think that not only individuals have to be protected, but also societies. With its focus on competitiveness, neoliberalism is destroying social relationships, societies and communities. This collective dimension is particularly important when one knows that poverty never is a problem of poor people alone, but is the problem of societies with a biased income distribution. It thus cannot be eradicated if the whole of society is not involved in solving it. This requires solidarity and active participation of all. Universalism will therefore be a major characteristic of ‘social commons’. This is based on the fact that social relationships are not purely contractual but are constitutive of each one’s individuality. Indeed, society is necessary for the survival of individuals.
But then, what exactly do we mean by ‘social commons’? The concept is based on an understanding of all – unequal – interests in society and of our common responsibility and possibility to care for them. The ‘social commons’ focuses on the collective dimension of the protection that is needed and on the collective endeavour to achieve it. The ‘social commons’ are thus not ‘public goods’ but refer to the ‘common good’ – that what humans share. Their emergence requires a participative approach without neglecting the necessary involvement of the State. It is collective action and the result of this action. It is based on a belief that people can master their present and shape their future within the framework of mutual respect and respect for nature.
The ‘social commons’ also aims to end the fragmentation of different social, economic and solidarity rights into different bits and pieces to be defended by different but often competing social movements. Close cooperation in order to protect the poor, men, women, children, aged or disabled people, formal, informal and precarious workers, with assistance, social security, public services, labour rights and environmental rights. Too many grey zones have been created in the recent past, blurring the lines between different categories of citizens. These old and new problems cannot be solved without a comprehensive approach, cooperation and solidarity.
It is also a transformative project by which we mean that its achievement will require changes in other sectors of society that cannot be delinked from it. In the first place, this is true for the economy, which will have to be re-arranged so as to satisfy all needs, focusing on the use value of goods an on non-exploitative labour. It is also true for democracy, which will have to make room for a broader participation of all members of society in many different sectors. The boundaries of the ‘social commons’ are open. They start with stopping the impoverishment processes and can lead to production, distribution and decision-making.
In the same vein as the concept of ‘buen vivir’, the ‘social commons’ wants to defend individual and collective live, as well as the life of nature. It is the right of societies to organize themselves and decide on the way they want to live. It is meant to give people and societies social and economic security, to satisfy their material and immaterial needs. It is a comprehensive approach aiming to offer bread and roses. It goes far beyond the rituals and symbolic actions of traditional societies, but is based on the same premises of protecting the collective life of citizens and societies.