Social commons and social transformation

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In a remarkable essay on social movements in Latin America, published on ‘Upside Down World’ ( Raul Zibechi states that social policies are ‘counter-insurgency policies, meant to tamp down on mass movement activity’.


It is not the first time I hear this. Many people think that most social policies are ‘assistentialist’, do not contribute to the constitution of social agents and only help to avoid revolutionary movements. It explains why it is so difficult to put social justice on the agenda of leftwing social movements and parties.


I do not agree with this statement.


And I wonder why there are so many people all over the world, struggling to get decent wages, decent working conditions, pensions, family allowances, schools and health care. I wonder why trade unions in Western Europe and all over the world are organizing protests against privatizations and the dismantlement of our welfare states. Is it because they love capitalism and want to avoid major social upheavals? Of course not. They want social protection because this is part of every decent society, because social justice is based on a fair share for all of the world’s wealth. And because they know the current wealth creation is fundamentally unjust and unsustainable. They want, as Zibechi rightly explains, another economic system. They want another world. But contrary to what Zibechi thinks, social protection is part of it.


Of course it is right to put some serious questions about initiatives that can help people to escape extreme poverty, or that only create an illusion of global action against poverty and inequality. It is right to criticize initiatives, at whatever level they are taken, that will never promote social transformation and will never contribute to a better world. We can agree on that.


But it seems to me to be rather cruel to say that even the most charitable action has to be condemned, even if it helps people to survive. I am very much against all charity and philanthropy, but I cannot say it is always perverse, because sometimes people have no other resources. However much I dislike it, charity can be part of civilization, if it helps to give people what they need when no one else is giving it to them. What progressive movements have to promote however is solidarity.


What then do we have to look at?


I am speaking from a European perspective and what I see is that our welfare states have very diverse origins, they helped employers to have a stable workforce, they helped states to have healthy soldiers, they helped governments to weaken communist movements. But they were also the result of organized social struggle, they did not fall out of the sky, many workers lost their life while fighting for social and economic rights. They helped to create solidarity and social citizenship, they led to a social contract that indeed did not abolish capitalism, but it did lead to social transformation. The kind of capitalism on which our welfare states were built, does not exist anymore and the neoliberal reforms that are now taking place will lead to a neoliberal protection at the service of markets.


But people resist and react. Because all people, wherever they live, in whatever political or economic regime, need protection and want economic and social security. They want living wages, pensions, health care and a future for their children. If leftwing parties and movements are not working to prioritize these points, they fail. Therefore, I am shocked to hear light-hearted statements on social policies that ‘are part of the counter-insurgency practice’. Probably, some are, but others are not, and it is dangerous to generalize.


I see three different kinds of social protection.


The Keynesian or fordist welfare state, in different forms, based on a dynamic and reciprocal interaction with social and economic policies. Welfare states create consumers that lubricate the economy which pays for more consumption. This system is not sustainable anymore and is progressively disappearing.


The neoliberal welfare state, focused on ‘social investment’ and ‘citizen’s initiatives’, paying allowances with which people can buy all the services they need on the market-place. This ‘investment’ obviously needs a ‘return’ and will focus on the productive forces in society, certainly not on pensions.


The third type is based on citizen’s decision-making power, on the definition of their needs and of putting into place policies that offer protection against all the vagaries of life and of markets. It needs permanent mobilization for defining, managing and monitoring these policies, while the guaranteeing of rights will necessarily be a task for public authorities. These policies, if conceived consequentially, will necessarily lead to other economic policies, based on the care for the needs of people. This kind of social protection, which I call ‘social commons’ will also look at environmental rights and will, in the end, be able to care for the sustainability of life of people, of society and of nature.


The major question Raul Zibechi’s reasoning points to, is: ‘what do we want’? Do we want to abolish capitalism, hoping that all needed economic and social changes will then fall into place spontaneously, even if they never did in the past. Or do we want to take care of people and of nature, working on social and environmental policies that will inevitably lead to changing the economic system?


Being aware of the fact that social policies alone cannot lead to systemic change, I also think we do not have to wait for economic transformation before we can start with social policies. Citizens are ready, citizens and their movements are willing to participate in this collective exercise of defining and regulating our social commons. We should not condemn social protection, but use it as an emancipatory tool for mobilization and for systemic change.


- Francine Mestrum, Global Social Justice.

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