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Social justice for the sustainability of life: on the need for a global social pact

Guest content
24 March 2017

We now need transformative policies able to open a new horizon, without poverty, with less inequality, without destroying our natural environment. Our new situation requires an urgent reflection on power relations and concrete alternatives, central to which is the reconceptualisation of social protection in terms of commons.

The following talk was given by Francine Mestrum given at VI Congreso Red Española de Políticas sociales, Sevilla 16-17 February 2017.

In the current period of uncertainty and anxiety for the future, it gives confidence to look back at the not so far away past, in order to see what was possible then and what has been real only fifty years ago: national social pacts within developing welfare states in the North and global agreements on the need for social progress in the South. It is also good to remember that it is not the recent crisis of 2008 that has put an end to these pacts and agreements. Indeed, the real turn came with the crisis of the 1970s and the ‘structural adjustment’ programmes in the South from the 1980s onward. More recently and everywhere, social protection acquired a new meaning, aimed at ‘human capital’, protecting the most vulnerable while promoting markets and growth. What is new today, is that we are also faced with fundamental changes in modes of production and consequently changes on the labour markets. While several innovative proposals for social protection are being made, the need for a new and global social pact in order to promote the sustainability of life, for humans and for nature, is particularly urgent.

In this contribution, I first give an overview of the discursive changes in thinking on social protection and poverty reduction. Secondly, I look at the concrete consequences of current policies at the level of poverty, inequality and labour markets. Thirdly, I look at the political backlash and the future perspectives for jobs and inequality. Finally, I discuss two of the major proposals for future social policies. If I consider a reflection on the past as being fruitful, it is not in order to go back to a Fordist history that will never repeat itself, but in order to create hope and show that better policies are possible, creating hope instead of despair.

* * *

From poverty reduction to social protection

In the post-war period, and even more during the Cold War, welfare states were developed in most Western European countries. It was a period of economic growth and development with most governments – as well as the emerging European Economic Community (EEC) – adhering to Keynesian policies. Economic and social development were considered to go hand in hand in a dialectic and mutually strengthening reciprocity. Even if all models of social protection were different, according to national, social and political circumstances, there were also common characteristics. Welfare states gave rise to social citizenship, they were intended to be universal, based on taxes or social contributions, and including a series of public services such as health care, education, public transport, etc. After the accession to independence of most of the colonies in the South, welfare states were also emerging in Africa and Asia, though in many countries they remained limited to the military, civil servants and the small minority of workers in the formal sector. But at the level of the United Nations, where African, Asian and Latin American nations had a majority, amazing texts on ‘social progress’, a ‘unified approach’ and a ‘new international economic order’ were adopted.[i]

Starting at the end of the 1970s one sees the focus slowly shifting to concerns over the financial sustainability of social security systems in the EEC.[ii] Given the global concerns over the growing inequalities between Northern and Southern countries, the World Bank introduced poverty reduction proposals. However, due to the crisis which started after the abandonment of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971 and the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, these proposals were quickly forgotten and the first neoliberal measures came on the agenda. The 1980s were the decade of structural adjustment in the South and a growing awareness in the North of a need to ‘modernize’ the welfare states.

In 1990, when neoliberal globalization had become a reality, the World Bank introduced once again its poverty reduction proposals, while, at the same time, UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) published its first report on ‘human development’. What this meant, in both cases, was a new definition of States, markets, development and the role of civil society. It was a shift from a development conceptualized as a collective endeavour for nations, economies and societies, to an individual focus on poverty, health and education. It should be emphasized however, that this did not mean any change of the Washington Consensus policies of the World Bank. They remained untouched – till today – but are now imposed in the name of poverty reduction. The World Bank stressed that public authorities do not have to organize social protection for the non-poor – insurances can be bought on the market – but only to help extremely poor people get fit for participation in the labour market. The overall solution, in all cases, is the promotion of growth.

Ten years later, the World Bank published its first ‘theoretical framework’ for social protection, in which the concept is broadened to include all steps people, markets and States can take to ´protect’ livelihoods: from pensions and health insurance to child labour and migration. Social protection became ‘risk management’ and risks were economic shocks as well as natural catastrophes, epidemics and social setbacks. This new vision broadened as well as hollowed out the concept of social protection. At the level of the United Nations, as well as at ECLAC (UN Economic Commission of Latin America and the Carribean) the exclusive focus on extreme poverty had never been fully integrated and more and more studies were being published on the importance of social protection – in a more traditional meaning – and inequality. At the ILO (International Labour Organisation) interesting declarations and recommendations were being adopted: on decent work, on Core Labour Standards, on Social Justice and finally on national ‘social protection floors’.[iii]

In the European Union (EU), welfare states are slowly changing in a neoliberal sense, even if the European Union institutions have almost no social competences outside the health and safety of workers. But through internal market and competition policies first, the ‘economic governance’ measures secondly, and finally free trade agreements, the influence of the EU on social welfare has become real and important.[iv] It should be emphasized that most neoliberal governments do not wait for European recommendations to privatize public services, to ‘modernise’ labour laws and to cut public social expenditures. Most of the fundamental changes were mentioned – indirectly – in the Lisbon strategy[v], which talks of the liberalization of public services and the ‘employability’ of workers. The Commission proposals for the ‘modernisation of social protection’ progressively introduced other major changes. Social protection becomes a tool at the service of growth and employment, benefits should go in the first place to people excluded from the labour market, people should be ‘activated’ and encouraged to participate in the labour market, health care and pensions reformed. In its proposal of 1999 four new objectives of social protection are mentioned: to make work pay, to guarantee pensions, to promote social integration and to guarantee sustainable health care.

Social policies are now subordinated to the economy. Notions such as ‘solidarity’, ‘redistribution’ and ‘inequality’ still have their place in some documents, but they are no longer at the heart of social policies and the protection of incomes. People are no longer protected against markets, but are now stimulated to participate in markets. The renewed social agenda of 2008 re-defines ‘solidarity’: it is no longer a mechanism of redistribution in order to have the whole society benefiting from progress, but only in favour of those who are ‘excluded’. Instead of a strengthened cooperation and integration, there is more competition between countries as well as between workers. The beginning of the 21st century thus introduced a new social paradigm which subordinates the social to the economy and tries to generalize competitiveness at all levels.

Welfare states now have three functions, according to the European Commission. To-day, they are defined as social investment, social protection and the stability of the economy. Which means that social protection is only one of the objectives and that the economy is directly integrated into ‘welfare states’.  The social protection dimension even gets a semi-economic colour: it should help to preserve human capital. This is a major change compared to the past, when, up till the 1990s ‘guaranteeing incomes’ was the first objective, after which it became ‘making work pay’. Even if the European Commission states that the three functions have to be combined, this is a serious weakening of the protection element of welfare states. The new social paradigm was confirmed in two major decisions at the global level. In 2013 the World Bank defined its new strategy, which have been integrated in the Sustainable Development Goals two years later: to end extreme poverty by 2030 and to promote shared prosperity by fostering the income growth of the bottom 40 % in all countries.[vi] In September 2015 were adopted the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, for North and South, containing ‘social protection (including floors)’ (Goal 1.3) and ‘fighting inequality’ (goal 10).[vii]

Neoliberal globalisation and its setbacks

According to the World Bank global extreme poverty has seriously diminished in the past decades. It was estimated at around 900 million in 2012 (12,8 % of global popoulation) with a projection of 700 million for 2015 living with less than 1,9 US$ per day. This extreme poverty is highly concentrated in Subsaharan Africa and South-Asia. Even if this is considered a serious progress compared to the 1958 million extremely poor in 1990 (37,1 %) it should be noticed that this progress is very uneven with Subsaharan Africa still at 42,6 % and South Asia at 18,8 %. Moreover, many of the people who managed to escape extreme poverty are still very vulnerable to falling back into poverty.[viii] Moreover, those who moved out of poverty continue to live with a very limited access to essential services and social protection. There is anxiety among middle class families about the ability to sustain their income position.[ix] Global real wages dropped sharply during the last crisis and are still decelerating, especially in emerging and developing countries. In several developed countries, the average real wages were lower in 2013 than they were in 2007. From 1999 to 2013 labour productivity growth in developed countries outstripped real wage growth and labour’s share of national income fell in the largest developed countries.[x]

Working poverty dropped drastically over a decade but progress stalled in 2013. There were then an estimated 375 million workers living on less than 1,25 US$ a day, compared to 600 million in the early 2000s. The number of people in vulnerable employment expanded.[xi] The rapid growth of non-standard forms of employment is a major problem. It takes many forms: temporary work, temporary agency work, part-time work, including zero-hour contracts or on-call work, multi-party employment arrangements, dependent self-employed work. The reasons are also multiple, from the growing share of women in labour markets to regulatory changes and the decline of collective bargaining. But the consequences for workers are serious: insecurity, wage penalties, lack of occupational safety and health, lack of social protection and of respect for fundamental rights at work.[xii]

The economic and social situation in the EU has not improved either. In March 2016, almost every fourth person in the EU was at risk of poverty or social exclusion, this is around 125 million people. More than 30 % of young people aged 18 to 24 and 27,8 % of children aged less than 18 were at risk of poverty in 2014. Of all groups examined, the unemployed faced the greatest risk of poverty of social exclusion, at 66,7 % in 2014. Almost 50 % of all single parents were also at risk.[xiii] The EU employment rate has returned to pre-crisis levels. Unemployment continues to gradually decrease but is still above its 2008 levels. Unemployment is a fact for 8,7 % of people in the EU, that is 21,2 million people or 5,01 million more than in March 2008. The situation is very different from country to country. Unemployment is only 4,1 % in the Czech Republic and 4,2 % in Germany, but 24,1 % in Greece and 20,1 % on Spain. Almost half of the unemployed have been so for more than one year. Youth unemployment is particularly high in Greece (around 50 %) and in Spain (44,8 %).[xiv] In terms of social protection, the latest report of the ILO indicates that only 27 per cent of the global population enjoy access to comprehensive social security systems, whereas 73 per cent are covered partially or not at all.[xv] Again the situation is very uneven: beginning of the 21st century, the EU realised 24 % of world GDP, but it had 40 % of public social expenditure. In the EU public social expenditure amounts to 25 % of GDP, while it amounts to only 19 % in OECD countries and 15 % worldwide.[xvi]

As for inequality, the numbers are staggering. From 1990 to 2008 the Gini coefficient or index trends[xvii] have witnessed the largest increases in eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Asia, according to Unicef.[xviii] Though in many Latin American countries inequality is slowly declining, the continent is still the most unequal. In the past two decades, 20 per cent of humankind enjoyed 83 per cent of global incomes, whereas the poorest 20 per cent had only 1 per cent of total incomes. The share of the poorest 40 per cent increased by less than 1 per cent![xix] The global Gini coefficient stood at 0.43 in 1820, rose to 0.56 in 1850, to 0.61 in 1913, to 0.64 in 1950, to 0.657 in 1980 and up to 0.707 in 2002.[xx]Asia is the continent with the highest growth figures, but it is not growth ‘with equity’. Income inequality widened in 11 of the 28 economies with comparable data, including China, India and Indonesia. In China, the Gini coefficient worsened from 0.32 in the early 1990s to 0.43 in the late 2000s. In the whole of Asia, the Gini coefficient went from 0.39 to 0.46 in the same period.[xxi] However shocking these figures may be, in terms of wealth, inequality is even worse. The Gini coefficient of wealth is estimated between 55 and 80 per cent in a sample of 26 countries in 2000, and global wealth has more or less doubled since then.[xxii] 1 % of the population owns half of the world’s wealth.[xxiii] Massive quantities of assets are held offshore and in opaque and anonymous structures. This is not factored properly into any calculations, which means that statistics underestimate the scale of the inequality problem.[xxiv] A conservative estimate of the missing wealth shows that between $21 trillion and $32 trillion remain unrecorded.[xxv]

Political backlash

The worsening economic and social situation led to many new movements of resistance, from the ‘neo-zapatistas’ in Chiapas, Mexico, against the free-trade agreement for North-America (NAFTA), the ´Battle of Seattle’ against the WTO in 1999, the World Social Fora which started in Porto Alegre in 2001 to the more recent Arab springs, the ‘Occupy’ movements, Nuits Debout and others.  While all these movements may have or have had some success at the ideological level, by enhancing awareness of the unjust distribution of incomes and wealth, politically, the current situation is all but rosy. The election of president Trump in the USA, promising to ‘make America Great Again’ by suggesting to impose protectionist policies, the result of the Brexit-referendum in the United Kingdom, predominantly influenced by anti-migration sentiments among white workers, the rise of right-wing populism in several European countries, the movements away from democracy in countries like Thailand and the Philippines, the electoral losses of left-wing parties in Latin America, the wars in the Middle East … but also the security policies in West-European democracies as a consequence of terrorist attacks are all very worrying.

In terms of social justice, two developments should be looked at.

The first one concerns jobs. Jobs continue to be the main source of incomes for people all over the world, but the lack of decent jobs for all, the growing informality and the worsening conditions on the labour market justify the doubts of many that more employment can be the solution to the problem. Jeremy Rifkin is one of the main authors to predict ‘The End of Work’,[xxvi] and has been followed in this reasoning by authors such as Paul Mason or Michel Bauwens.[xxvii] The idea is that the growing and successful information technology, from 3D printing to robotisation and the ‘internet of things’ will slowly replace human labour. Fighting for full employment thus becomes an illusion. Moreover, according to these authors, the zero-marginal cost of products and services provided through these technologies, will also erode capitalism and take us directly and almost unnoticed to a post-capitalist society.

Some people link these developments to the growing P2p-movement, predominantly in the digital economy, where people co-operate on a voluntary basis to produce goods and services. Bauwens predicts a new value regime, automatically considering the P2P production as a ‘common’, and since people will not get a wage for the work they are doing, he reckons on some kind of basic income and in the end ‘ethical enterprises’ to sell the products on the (capitalist) market.[xxviii] Much in these projects is still very unclear and confusing, and will need more realistic explanations. The fact is however, that yes indeed, many jobs are disappearing due to new technologies and that P2P does attract young people, in the same way as does the social and solidarity economy.

Not everyone is as pessimistic on the disappearance of jobs since new jobs can be created in the environmental sector and in order to answer the new needs that will arise in the technological societies, but it is a fact that labour markets will change fundamentally in the near future. Guy Standing also looks at the changes on labour markets and is particularly concerned about the precarisation of labour.[xxix] What he calls the ‘precariat’ consists of the millions and millions of workers without any legal status, such as the many migrants or asylum seekers in western societies, the huge informal sector in the South, the rural population from China going to work in the cities or Mexicans in the USA, but also the tens of thousands of agricultural workers from Africa in the whole of Europe. These people may not lack income and should not necessarily be seen as victims, according to Standing, but their main problem is a lack of work-based identity. They are urban nomads, without any trust in traditional trade unions and living with permanent job insecurity. This precariat should therefore become a class for itself, taking pride in their precarious subjectivity. Today, they are considered as ´the light infantry of globalization’, they are denizens, whereas the proper commodification of their labour should be seen as a progressive move. Having welfare for life is what everyone deserves and since there is an urgent need for a new politics of paradise, Standing is a firm advocate of basic income.

The second development to be considered from a political point of view is inequality. Global inequality today is not driven by gaps among countries anymore, since it is slowly receding. We might go back to a situation such as it existed in the 19th century, says Branco Milanovic, with huge differences between poor and rich Britons, poor and wealthy Americans, poor and rich Germans.[xxx] It surely still matters where you are born, but globalization has seriously changed the overall situation. Winners of globalisation have been the people from Asia, predominantly from China, but also from India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The losers have been all the people from rich OECD countries who saw no rise in their real incomes, especially the lower middle classes. The graphic in which these developments have been designed, is called the ‘elephant curve´ since it clearly shows where the losers are and where the winning top global 1 % is (at the top of the elephant’s trump).[xxxi] These results are confirmed by several authors studying the decline of Europe’s middle classes. While there has been a rapid growth in the 1980s and 1990s, mainly due to the rise in female labour market participation and the expansion of public sector jobs, all more recent developments – unemployment, wage moderation, temporary contracts, decline of social dialogue – had serious consequences for these middle classes which fell below median income levels.[xxxii]The ILO sees a direct link between the erosion of middle income groups and the rise of inequality.

While technological developments may have serious consequences for the labour market, it seems that the decline of labour market institutions and the weakening of trade unions had more severe consequences. Add to this the financialization and the rapid growth of capital income, as described by Piketty in his seminal book on ‘Capital in the 21st century’[xxxiii], and the main reasons for the growing inequality and its political consequences have been identified. According to Standing, we are now in a period of rentier capitalism that will need a different strategy of resistance.[xxxiv] Capitalism has moved from being a system with complete separation between capital and labour income to a variant where the correlation between the two was negative (those with labour incomes had no capital incomes) to a correlation that is now positive.’[xxxv] This is a new capitalism where the rich capitalists and the rich workers are the same people. They are the ones who give huge donations to politicians, and they are the ones who have their hearing. The declining middle classes become politically irrelevant, while it is thanks to them that democracy, human rights and welfare states could thrive in the past. We are now going, according to Milanovic to either a plutocracy (United States) or to populism (Europe).[xxxvi]

This may be a realistic explanation for the fundamental political changes in today’s world. The solutions these authors see are various: more just taxes for Piketty, more equalizing endowments (capital, education…) for Milanovic. This researcher also suggests we should promote faster growth of poor countries and lower obstacles to migration. However, redistribution only through the fiscal system are not enough. Welfare states will be needed and at any rate it should be clear that within country inequality can only be reduced by deliberate policy choices.[xxxvii]

Growth, welfare states and social commons

Where then should we look for solutions? 

At the global level, the General Assembly of the United Nations has adopted the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ in September 2015.[xxxviii] These objectives should be reached by 2030 and aim to eradicate extreme poverty and to ‘share prosperity’, that is to rise the incomes of the poorest 40 % of world population faster than those of the rest of the population. Social protection and most of its elements are mentioned throughout the goals, and the fight against inequality has its own specific goal number 10. These objectives are universal, which means they have to be pursued by the North as well as by the South. How countries will organise to reach these goals is left to their own decision-making processes. The World Bank took note of these goals but has not changed its policy. Together with its sister organisation the International Monetary Fund, it continues to impose austerity policies, including cuts in public social expenditures.[xxxix] In 2013, its World Development Report focused on jobs, it agreed with the ‘decent work’ agenda and the ‘Core Labour Standards’ of the ILO, but also noted that ‘ít is not the role of governments to create jobs’. Governments should remove or mitigate the constraints that prevent the creation of jobs. Labour policies should avoid distortionary interventions. The priority is to remove market imperfections.[xl] ‘There is no consensus on what the content of labour policies should be’.[xli]

The most important recent contribution of the ILO is the ‘Recommendation on national floors for social protection’ adopted in 2012[xlii]. This is more limited than the social security convention of 1952[xliii], but has the big advantage of emphasizing the fact that social protection is a human right and is possible even in the poorest countries. It speaks of a horizontal dimension in order to spread the coverage of as many people, and a vertical dimension so as to enlarge the scope of social protection and come closer to what was agreed in 1952. It speaks about universalism but some ambiguity remains in the text. Basically, these social protection floors are about social services and income guarantees for all. Realising these floors would be a huge progress for all workers and non-workers all over the world.   

At the level of the European Union, the progressive cuts in public social expenditures are going on, and the Commission continues to make its ‘country specific recommendations’ in the framework of ‘economic governance’, including recommendations to reduce early retirement, to stop the indexation of wages, to reform wage-setting mechanisms, to promote labour market participation, to target social assistance and to shift away from taxes (social contributions) on labour. Furthermore, three major more or less positive elements have to be mentioned:

One, social innovation. This is a brilliant idea that comes from progressive social forces working at the local level and trying to enhance solidarity between community members. It wants citizens to take responsibility for the services they need or want, such as child care, caring for the elderly, for disabled persons, etc. There are indeed a lot of activities citizens can do without relying on the market or on public authorities. These actions will in most cases also help empowering people and they can change the social relationships in a community. There are some caveats however, such as the risk of a gender bias and of overburdening women, the inevitable hierarchical relationships in all communities, and most of all the respect of people’s rights. Once adopted by the European Commission, one sees that other elements pop in: a clear link is made to austerity policies and a hope that some citizens’ initiatives will substitute for welfare state rights and that public social services will make room for markets.[xliv] Secondly, the package for social investment: again, a brilliant idea, based on the development of human capital, in order to better adapt to the requirement of a knowledge-based economy. Fundamentally, so the story goes, it is more about ´preparing´ than ´repairing´, it is a shift away from passive welfare states where people get compensation for the losses they suffered, towards active welfare states where people get incentives to bounce back and return to the labour market.[xlv]

While some of the ideas of ‘social investment’ can certainly be interesting and valuable, they also imply the risk that social protection rights which are not directly useful for the market are being ignored.[xlvi] In March 2016, the European Commission published its communication on a ‘pillar of social rights’.[xlvii] This pillar is built on the social ‘acquis’ and contains the essential principles to support fair labour-markets. It can serve as a reference framework to screen employment and social performance of Member States. It employs twenty policy domains around three main chapters: equal opportunity and access to labour markets, fair working conditions with a reliable balance of rights and obligations between workers and employers, and adequate and sustainable social protection. This pillar will be decided on in 2017, but the first analyses already show its main shortcomings. This pillar is meant for the Eurozone, which clearly indicates it is more about economic governance than about strengthening the social dimension of the EU. It looks more like a technical approach to rights than as a description of basic values, and the general impression is that the Commission is looking for benchmarking social policies, instead of building a rights-based approach to labour markets and social protection.

In his statement for the European Parliament in October 2014, Commission president Juncker said: ‘There is much talk about triple-A ratings. Everyone loves a triple-A rating. In the euro zone, two countries still have a triple-A rating: Germany and Luxembourg. Germany has a good chance of retaining it, while for Luxembourg that still remains to be seen. But I want the European Union to regain and achieve another triple A. What I want is for Europe to have a social triple-A rating: that is just as important as an economic and financial triple-A rating’.[xlviii] However, with every new initiative, it looks as if the European Commission fully endorses and co-shapes the new social paradigm: social protection at the service of the economy and of markets, privatizing services and insurances, and strict targeting of assistance.

One more proposal still has to be mentioned, without being able to attribute it to any formal institution, except one Belgian political party (Christian Democrat), possibly inspired by the social protection floor of the ILO. It is interesting because it takes a new direction and is indirectly supported by a recent research project of the European Social Observatory.[xlix] The idea as spelled out at a recent congress of the political party in question is that a ‘basic social protection’ would be provided to everyone, including health care, family allowances and a basic pension. Next to this there could exist an ‘occupational welfare system’, negotiated and managed by social partners. This would give a basic security for a life in dignity to all people, but would definitely dualize the whole system, with a risk of privatizing the labour-related part. Workers would also be covered by different systems, depending on the strength of the companies they work for and of their trade unions.

Civil Society proposals

The unconditional basic income (UBI) has been discussed for several years now and remains a difficult and delicate topic.

The main difficulty of discussing basic income is the semantic confusion around what it is: basic income is an equal amount of money given to all members of society, possibly a region or a city. It is not a ´guaranteed minimum income´ given to citizens who lack sufficient income from the labour market, but goes to all, whether rich or poor. It comes without any strings attached, since existing social assistance programmes are considered to be stigmatising. Basic income has till now never been implemented, nowhere, except in a very limited way in some Indian villages, though in these villages most people are indeed poor. It cannot be compared to the conditional cash transfers which are now promoted in the South (conditional and for poor people only), nor can they be compared to the social assistance or the negative income tax which also go to people who lack sufficient income from other sources. In Switzerland, a referendum was held and lost in 2016 on the introduction of a UBI.

Most of the examples given in the literature on UBI, as well as the on the website of BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network)[l] concern experiments with a guaranteed minimum income. Finland has put up an experiment with a UBI for unemployed people and may generalize the system if its results are positive. It should be noted that the explicit aim of the right-wing Finnish government is to promote employment and that the amount given is particularly low.

According to its advocates, the UBI liberates people from ´forced labour´, that is commodified labour for the capitalist market. It allows them to accept or not accept work and guarantees everyone a life in dignity. It gives people the possibility to help each other in innovative practices, such as care, but also P2P activities which produce ´commons´, that is shared value. UBI is said to be the most direct road towards social justice, emancipating and empowering people to shape their lives and their communities as they want. Promoted on the left as well as on the right side of society, it has either a libertarian or an anti-welfare state background.

The reasoning leads to many questions: in the very first place about the amount that should be guaranteed. It is a very expensive measure and if, next to the basic income, people want to maintain social protection, such as health care and family allowances, one wonders how the system can be funded. More philosophical questions can also be raised. Our social protection systems are all based on horizontal structural solidarity: all show solidarity to all, from all according to means, to all according to needs. This system can be replaced by the vertical solidarity of the UBI, from the State to the individual, and these individuals can, if they want to, build relationships amongst each other. But there is no guarantee all will be included, and there is no guarantee that people with more needs will be able to get more. This is a serious risk.

However universal a UBI is, it also means that that it does not promote equality. If one wants to have more equal outcomes, one has to treat people differently, according to their needs, whereas the UBI only guarantees an input equality. Many other problems may arise with a basic income, and it is no surprise that some libertarians and liberals are very enthusiastic about it.[li] UBI is fundamentally a liberal idea as it only looks at individuals. It kills structural solidarity and depoliticizes social justice. In the current power relationships, it might easily lead to a total dismantlement of welfare states and an open door to mini-jobs, with little or no protection, in order to increase the meagre amount of the UBI, leaving people very vulnerable and even more dependent than now on capitalism. 

A more affordable and protective measure would be to guarantee all poor people a guaranteed minimum income, as suggested by two recommendations of the European Council in 1992.[lii] This is perfectly affordable and can be introduced immediately, almost everywhere.[liii] The current humiliating and stigmatizing conditions of social assistance can easily be abandoned if governments agree that only the insufficient income of people should be looked at. Another possibility would be the basic social protection that was briefly discussed in previous section.

Social Commons

Commons are very popular nowadays, especially in Europe, and the concept is close to becoming a buzzword. But just as with basic income, it often happens that the meaning remains ambiguous and that instead of leading to emancipatory and transformative practices, the commons keep people imprisoned in local initiatives without any structural relevance.

Commons are not common goods and are not ´the´ common good. The common good is a philosophical concept referring to the general interest and often has a religious connotation. Common goods are all the goods we all need, such as water, the forests, clean air, the oceans, but also our natural resources such as oil and copper and food. Commons’ are not necessarily goods orresources, they can be material and immaterial, they can be services and they can be rights. Commons are always the result of some act of ‘bringing together’ (une mise en commun’) which always supposes reciprocity between those who do it and share an activity or a way of living. This bringing together of people and activities institutes a ‘we’, it is a co-activity, the basic condition for achieving a common. The common will always be the result of a conscious shared activity in order to institute it.

Referring to Dardot & Laval[liv] who have, as far as I know, the most political approach to commons, a difference should also be made between ‘the common’ and ‘the commons’ in plural. ‘The common’ in singular is the political principle that allows us to construct ‘commons’, in plural. It is the principle that defines a new regime for struggles at the global level.

This political approach to ‘commons’ then does not refer to things with intrinsic characteristics, but are the things that a political community decides to be our commons. So again, ‘commons’ are not ‘common goods’. The best example to show the difference is water. Water clearly is a common good, we all need it and have a right to it. But water will only become a ‘common’ when a political community, at whatever level, decides to consider water is commons, regulates the access to it, monitors its use, etc. It is a fundamentally democratic and participative co-activity, always the consequence of collaboration between people. Commoners then, will be social and political actors that decide on what in their community – at whatever level, local, national, regional or global – has to be considered as commons. It is a profoundly emancipatory exercise with responsibility for all.

It is clear to see that many things can become commons, in the first place in the economic sphere: production, our environment, our food, money, human rights, our democracy … and of course re-production. Commons then are a collective process and a decision to define something as a common, to define the rules and institutions to make this common available to all. It always is strictly regulated, it is more than ‘a good’ or ‘a thing’ within the conceptual framework of a ‘common’ (singular). What is new about it is not so much the process itself, since it has always happened, but the language we can now use to resist neoliberalism, privatization and appropriation. Working with commons necessarily leads us to changing the economic system. The commoning process is the opposite of privatisation and appropriation. It does not abolish ownership, but it abolishes the absolute rights that are linked to this ownership. It is about the access to and the use of something. 

The commons offer a language that allows us to leave the straitjacket of the old dichotomies of labour vs capital, or private vs public, or market vs State – it does not mean that these oppositions do not exist anymore, they clearly do, but the commons offer us a way to get around them and to seek for solutions that include all. If the language of ‘commons’ is so popular today, it is because people do not only want to emancipate themselves from poverty, but are also looking for a different governance system. Social movements today do not only fight to defend their self-interest but are concerned about the survival of humankind and the planet and also want to make their voices heard. They want to take part in decision-making. Commons can be seen as the foundation of our collective life in our community, in our country and on this planet. Every political community will have to define its commons, the framework in which it wants to organise its existence, the rules it wants to follow, the geographical scale at which it wants to exist.

But what is meant by social commons? Social commons could be seen as a tautology, since commons necessarily are social, as the result of co-activity. But social commons also point to the dual sense of ‘social’, referring to society as well as to the social needs and rights of individuals. Social commons are for society by society. A proposal for conceiving of social protection as social commons, is based on the knowledge that current social protection already is a collective property of workers that promoted and enhanced their citizenship.

What does it mean to see social protection in terms of commons? First and foremost, from a methodological perspective: to have a collective, democratic and participatory approach. Social protection systems already are our collective property. We do not need a uniform system for the whole world, not even for the whole of North America or the whole of Europe. But we do need the same rights and it is the way these rights have to be implemented and guaranteed that will have to be discussed and decided on. 

What makes social commons different from social protection is most of all the participatory and democratic construction of it. A second major difference is the collective dimension social commons emphasize, in constructing them and in governing and monitoring them. Beyond the human rights on which social protection is founded, they also care for society itself and promote social integration. The ‘we’ that will have to be decided on, the political community for social commons, implies a principle of reciprocity and solidarity, that is organic solidarity also with people we do not even know.

From a political perspective, social commons allow for broadening and strengthening social protection. The participatory approach allows for expanding the rights. Social commons should do more than protect the rights of workers. Their main objective is to enhance the welfare of people and, in doing so, to contribute to the sustainability of life. 

Social commons are much more than insurance and redistribution. They are also about the necessary change in power relations. These are at the heart of social commons and will have a major impact on the way services are provided. Social commons will pay more attention to the care tasks, now mainly done by women, but also to the services provided by nature. From a perspective of social commons, looking beyond the traditional tasks of social protection, this care work and these services can be seen as a matter of social re-production. That is why environmental rights should also be integrated into a social commons framework. It concerns all commons necessary to the preservation of life.

Social commons then, include our major economic and social rights, from labour rights to health care, education, child and family allowances, pensions etc., our public services and also environmental rights like the right to water and clean air, 

From the perspective of sustainability, talking in terms of social commons gives a direct opportunity to link up with the commons of nature and the problems of climate change. Broadening the concept of social protection to encompass the whole of society – and not only workers – gives an opportunity to take into account the care work and to emphasize the sustainability of life. Social commons protect life, nature and humans.

Finally, from the perspective of strategy, social commons allow to leave behind the old dichotomies and develop a language of resistance to neoliberalism and privatisation. Social commons are transformative in that social justice cannot be achieved within the current economic and political system. What is most important in practical terms, is that we do not have to wait till the economic system has changed in order to start to introduce a new social protection system. On the contrary, by starting right away, we can contribute to the transformation of our economic system. Social commons are foremost about systemic change.


Our social protection systems are very different, from country to country, from continent to continent. Yet, they also show common characteristics and the policies of the past decades have been very similar in weakening, if not dismantling them. What ‘social protection’ means today is very different from what it meant in the past. Today, its main objective is not the protection of people, but the promotion of markets. As Offe rightly stated: Capitalism does not want any social protection, while at the same time it cannot survive without it.[lv] However, knowing what was possible in the past, we know that more is possible again, though we should not try and go back to this past. What we need today is not a reformist correction mechanism, strengthening more than transforming the capitalist system. We now need transformative policies able to open a new horizon, without poverty, with less inequality, without destroying our natural environment. 

What it requires is basically four things. The most important and urgent task is changing the power relations. And here again, social protection and social commons are very welcome tools to broaden the audience of progressive movements and parties, too often lacking any serious alternative. Secondly, we need other tax policies so as to make all people and corporations, particularly the very wealthy ones, contribute to the well-being of all. All technical problems can be solved, what is lacking till now is the political will. And thirdly, we need redistributive policies to give all people freedom of want and security. In order to be complete, the end of all extractivist practices should be added. These elements are crucial if we want to maintain the sustainability of life.

We are now at the crossroads. On the one hand, hegemonic institutions such as the IMF have started to recognize that neoliberalism can have negative consequences. Nevertheless, on nthe other hand, this does not lead to more social policies but to the emergence of anti-globalist, anti-migration (neo)conservative policies, with more authoritarianism. This new situation requires an urgent reflection on power relations and concrete alternatives. From this perspective, commons and social commons can offer substantial contributions, by focusing on other modes of production and reproduction. Based on democratic and participatory policies and practices, they can be building blocks for a new social pact, at the local as well as the national, regional and global level. Commons can give voice to people and offer a horizon of hope, instead of the ever-convincing despair, faced with the situation we are currently in. 

[i] United Nations, Declaration on Social Progress and Development, GA 2542 (XXIV), December 1969; Report on a Unified Approach on Development, Doc. E/CN. 5/490, 17 Jan 1973; Declaration on a new international economic order, GA 3201 (S-VI), ! May 1974.

[ii] Mestrum, F., Unsocializing the European Union. A History with some ups and many downs.

[iii] ILO, Social Protection Floors Recommendation, R202, 2012http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO....

[iv] Theodoropoulou, S., Has the EU become more intrusive in shaping national welfare state reforms? Evidence from Greece and Portugal, ETUI, WP 2014.04, 2014.

[v] European Council, Conclusions of the Presidency, Lisbon, 23-24 March 2000.

[vi] World Bank, Development Committee, World Bank Group Strategy, DC2013-0009, 18 September 2013.

[vii] United Nations, Changing our World, res. GA A/69/L.85, 18 August 2015.

[viii] World Bank, Ending Extreme Poverty and Sharing Prosperity: Progress and Policies, October 2015, PRN/15/03

[ix] ILO, World Employment Social Outlook, Geneva, ILO, 2016, p. xiii.

[x] ILO, Global Wage Report 2014/15. Wages and Income Inequality, Generva, ILO, 2015, p. xv-xvi.

[xii] ILO, Non-standard Employment around the World, Geneva, ILO, 2016.

[xiii] Eurostat, Europe 2020 indicators – poverty and social inclusion, 2016.

[xiv] European Commission, Employment and Social Development in Europe, Quarterly Review, Summer 2016, 2016.

[xv] ILO, World Social Protection Report 2014/15, Geneva, ILO, 2014, p. xix.

[xvi] European Commission, Social protection budgets in the crisis in the EU, Working Paper 1/2013, 2013.

[xvii] The Gini coefficient or index is one of the most common indicators for measuring income inequality. It ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality).

[xviii] Isabel Ortiz and Matthew Cummins, ‘Global inequality: beyond the bottom billion – a rapid review of income distribution in 141 countries’, Social and Economic Policy Working Paper, New York: United Nations Children’s Fund, April 2011.

[xix]  Ibid.

[xx]   Ibid.

[xxi] Asian Development Bank, Asian Development Outlook 2012: Confronting Rising Inequality, Mandaluyong City: Asian Development Bank, 2012, p. xix.

[xxii] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Inequality Matters: Report on World Social Situation 2013, New York: United Nations, 2013, p. 33.

[xxiii] Oxfam, Working for the fewhttps://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/bp-working-for-few-political-capture-economic-inequality-200114-summ-en_1.pdf

[xxiv] Nicholas Shaxson, John Christensen and Nick Mathiason, ‘Inequality: you don’t know the half of it’, Tax Justice Network19 July 2012, p. 1, available at: http://www.taxjustice.net/cms/upload/pdf/Inequality_120722_You_dont_know_the_half_of_it.pdf.

[xxv]  Ibid., p. 5.

[xxvi] Rifkin, J., The End of Work, New York, A Tarcher/Putnam Book, 1995. 

[xxvii] Mason, P., Postcapitalism: a Guide to our Future, New York, Penguin Random House, 2015; Bauwens, M., http://commonstransition.org/

[xxix] Standing, G:, The Precariat. The new Dangerous Class, London, Bloomsbury Academy, 2011.

[xxx] Milanovic, B. Global Inequality, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2016.

[xxxi] Id. 

[xxxii] ILO, Europe’s disappearing middle class, Geneva, 2016, http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_535607/lang--en/index.htm .

[xxxiii] Piketty, T., Le capital au XXIeme siècle, Paris, Seuil, 2013.

[xxxiv] Standing, G., The Corruption of CapitalWhy rentiers thrive and work does not pay, London, Biteback Publishing, 2016.

[xxxv] Milanovic, B., op.cit., kindle 2896. 

[xxxvi] Id., kindle 3095.

[xxxvii] Lakner, C., The Implications of Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st century, World Bank, PRWP 7776, June 2016.

[xxxviii] United Nations, 2015, op.cit.

[xxxix] Ortiz, I. & Cummins, M., The Age of Austerity, Geneva, The South Center, 2013.

[xl] World Bank, World Development Report 2013. Jobs., Washington, The World Bank, pp. 21-23.

[xli] Id. p. 26.

[xlii] ILO, 2012, op. cit.

[xliii] ILO, Convention C102 Social Security (Minimum Standards), 1952.

[xliv] European programme for Employment and Social Innovation, http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1081&langId=en ; European Commission, Empowering People, driving change. Social innovation in the European Union, Bureau of European Policy Advisers, Brussels, 2011, European Commission, Guide to Social Innovation, Brussels, 2013.

[xlv] Morel, N., Palier, B., Palme, J., “Beyond the Welfare State as we knew it?”in Morel, N., Palier, B., Palme, J.(eds.), Towards a social investment welfare state? Ideas, policies and challenges, Bristol, The Policy Press, 2012.

[xlvii] European Commission, Launching a consultation on a European Pillar of Social Rights, COM (2016) 127 final, 8 March 2016.

[xlviii] Juncker, J.-Cl., Setting Europe in motion, Speech before the European Parliament, 22 October 2014. 


[li] For more arguments and a full analysis of the UBI, see book and articles on www.socialcommons.eu

[lii] Two European Council recommendations: 92/441/EEC and 92/442/EEC.

[liii] Pena Casas, R. & Ghailani, D., Vers un revenu minimal européen, OSE, Novembre 2013; European Commission, Toward adequate and accessible Minimum Income Schemes in Europe, January 2015; European Commission, Minimum Income Schemes in Europe. A study of national policies, January 2016.

[liv] Dardot, P. & Laval, C., Commun, Paris, La Decouverte, 2014.

[lv] Claus Offe, Contradictions of the Welfare State, ed. John Keane, London: Hutchinson, 1984.

Original source: Global Social Justice

Photo credit: ILO in Asia and the Pacific, flickr creative commons