Social protection is high on the international political agenda to-day.
In 2012 the International Labour Organisation adopted a recommendation on ‘social protection floors’. One could think this is a minimalist agenda, but if all people all over the world had their rights respected, this would be a tremendous social progress. Social protection is indeed a human right, mentioned in the Universal Declaration on human rights and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Nevertheless, more ambition is called for. I would like to go beyond ‘the floors’ and propose a programme for a ‘social common’, for the North as well as for the South. Why?
It is clear that when you start talking about social protection to young people, many do not pay attention. Social protection! Something of the past! Give me a job first, and do not bother me with things I do not need. And indeed, many young, healthy people do not need social protection right away, they do not need the solidarity of the rest of society, unless…, yes, unless they have a car or a labour accident, unless they are suddenly ill, unless they think about their future… Just imagine you have to pay out of your own pocket your stay in the hospital, or the books and the uniform for your kid that goes to school, or just imagine you barely earn enough to live and survive without being able to save anything for your old age.
But it remains a challenge to present this protection system to young people in an attractive way, to explain what solidarity means, while most of the time they do want indeed to show solidarity but do not think of social protection in this way. It can help, then, to speak about ‘commons’, since this is something they know and support. Because yes, they do want to be responsible for their lives and the lives of other, they do want concrete solidarity instead of an abstract system they do not really understand.
And of course, it would not be fair to present a system of ‘social commons’ without really changing the existing systems of social protection. In Western Europe, social protection systems are fifty or one hundred years old and they do not answer all today’s needs anymore. Society has changed and the economy has changed. This means that our social protection also has to change. It is no coincidence that some refer to it as being a ‘cathedral’ or ‘the biggest revolution of the 20th century’. It was an enormous achievement, but it is not fit for our times anymore, some barriers to economic and social rights have to be lifted. We should make a more coherent system. Citizens’ participation and contributions to these changes are crucial. That is why a concept of ‘social commons’ could be useful, a new name for a new and better system that offers more protection to more people.
It is a fact that most people do not consider social protection to be theirs. They see it as a government programme, or something of the trade unions or some abstract and absent administration far away in the capital. While most of us pay into the system, through our wages and through our taxes. Social protection is ours and no one else’s. That is why a new concept of ‘social commons’ is more than welcome.
These are three important reasons to shift from social protection to social commons. Add to this the fact that the existing social protection systems are currently threatened and are changing at any rate. It is changing because even in Western Europe there are austerity policies with cuts in social benefits and even social rights. These are neoliberal reforms that make people more vulnerable. But social protection is also threatened by the negotiations on free trade agreements that may liberalise the trade in services and expose them to international competition. Moreover, social protection is threatened by the advocates of the basic income grants, an individualistic and liberal solution that cannot co-exist with social protection. It would profoundly change the labour market and would seriously threaten our desire for more equality.
What do ‘social commons’ mean?
It is difficult to say what the social commons of the future will look like, since societies will have to shape them. It seems obvious to me that certain basic principles of our current social protection will have to be preserved, such as the respect for universal human rights, the non commoditization of social services, the horizontal solidarity of all with all. How and to what extent these principles have to be safeguarded will have to be decided on by societies.
It would at any rate allow for people to be directly involved in the design and the monitoring of our social systems. People have to be aware that it is about their rights and that a democratic and participative approach is necessary. It has now become unacceptable that governments and parliaments decide, without even consulting the people. Societies have to examine what they want and what they do not want.
Secondly, this democratic and participative co-decision making can help to preserve society itself. Neoliberalism leads to the atomisation of society, which, in the long term, threatens society and threatens solidarity.
Thirdly, a discussion on social rights can possibly help to extend and broaden the rights. We all need protection, throughout our lives, and a serious re-examination of our social protection systems can help to make them more complete and more coherent. It is now not acceptable anymore to have everything depend on your labour market status. And is it not urgent to also include a couple of environmental rights, such as the right to water?
Once one starts to reflect on these questions, it is easy to see that our economic system as well will have to change in order to protect the whole of society. Much has already been written on the new knowledge-economy that will create another type of labour market. And it is clear that an economic system that is driven only by profit-making, externalizing care and nature, can have no future. In other words, a social protection system alone certainly will not be able to change the economic system, but it can contribute to more serious reflections and to some first changes.
Rethinking our economic system in a democratic way will most probably lead to the obvious truth that the economy has to be at the service of societies, has to produce goods and services societies need and want. In other words, the economy has to care for people.
Which makes a full circle. The economy has to care for people, in the same way as environmental policies have to care for nature and as social policies have to care for people and for all of us. Care can become the central concept, care for people, for societies and for nature. Social commons, then, care for the sustainability of life.
What these social commons will look like is unpredictable. It will depend on the power relations within society and on the democratic content of all rethinking. But it seems clear to me one will have to talk of the (un)conditionality of social benefits, of the individualisation of rights, of the length of working hours, of contributions and of taxes…
What I want to make clear with this book is that social protection in no way is an instrument of capitalism, it is not a correction mechanism. Social protection can be a tool for systemic change, in a positive sense, caring for life.
The social commons are a project for the long term, but to start at a moment when our welfare states are threatened and where social protection is at any rate on the international agenda, could be a clever strategic choice. It is something leftwing parties should think about, since what better strategy can one think of to convince people than a promise of more rights and more protection?
‘The social Commons. Rethinking Social Justice in Post-Neoliberal Societies’ can be found for free on the website www.socialcommons.eu , with a synthesis in Dutch, French and Spanish. Since this project is not subsidised and is funded with private means, all donations are very welcome.