Where, then, do the commons come in?
According to Dardot and Laval’s seminal book on the common (Dardot and Laval 2014), commons are the result of a social and political process of participation and democratic decision-making concerning material and immaterial goods that will be looked at from the perspective of their use value, eliminating or severely restricting private ownership and the rights derived from it. They can concern production as well as re-production, they refer to individual and to collective rights.
Following this definition, social protection systems may broadly speaking be considered to be commons as soon as a local community, or a national organization or a global movement decide 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 and are emancipatory.
Considering economic and social rights as commons, then, 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, because in the past neoliberal decades these rights have been hollowed out, public services have been privatized and labour rights have weakened if not disappeared. Moreover, democratic systems have been seriously weakened and reduced to a bare minimum the real participation of people. While markets have grown, the public sphere has shrunk.
In other words, this approach allows for doing what was mentioned before: people’s involvement in shaping and putting in place social protection processes and systems, which look beyond the fragmented narratives of rights, go beyond disease control and develop instead a truly intersectional approach in order to guarantee human dignity and real sustainability.
One of the positive elements in the current COVID crisis has been the flourishing of numerous initiatives of local solidarities and mutual aid, people helping the homeless and their elderly neighbours, caring for the sick, organising open spaces and playing grounds for kids. This help was crucial for overcoming a very difficult period and it might be a good start for further collective undertakings that could indeed lead to more commons.
Taking into account what was said above on the many interlinkages, this might mean, in the health sector, the putting in place of interdisciplinary health centres, where doctors, care workers, social assistants and citizens cooperate in coordinated community campaigns, planning most of all primary care as a specialty.
However, these local actions cannot be a substitute for a more structural approach. Commons are not necessarily in the exclusive hands of citizens and are not only local. States or other public authorities also have to play their role. We will always need public authorities for redistribution, for guaranteeing human rights, for making security rules, etc. It means they are co-responsible for our interdependence. But the authorities we have in mind in relation to enhancing our economic and social rights or our public services will have to be different from what they are today. We know that public authorities are not necessarily democratic, very often they use public services and social benefits as power instruments or for clientelist objectives. That is why the State institutions and public authorities will themselves have to act as a kind of public service, in real support of their citizens.
In the same way, markets will be different. If social protection mechanisms, labour rights and public services are commons, the consequence is not that there is nothing to be paid anymore. People who work obviously have to be paid, even if they work in a non-profit sector. 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 will be a different logic that applies.