The world of work is changing very rapidly. In the European Union, 11 million people are out of work, including 4.6 million young people. World-wide, the ILO speaks of almost 200 million unemployed people and almost half of the total workforce, or 1.5 billion people are in vulnerable employment. Governments are all in austerity mode and claim to have no other possibility than try and believe better skills and flexible labour markets will bring solutions.
Chances are minimal they will ever succeed.
Because in the meantime technological changes and neoliberal working methods are further eroding the labour markets. Robotisation is destroying jobs rapidly. On-demand labour is developing in such a way that stable jobs may soon become a rarity. More and more people are self-employed with little guarantees for their future. In the European Union 16 % of all the employed are self-employed, with more than two thirds of them solo self-employed. It all means that, inevitably, social protection systems are being eroded, especially when trade unions are under attack and are weakening. Precarization seems to be all around.
What will the future bring? According to some authors, there is nothing to worry about, on the contrary. The end of capitalism is not a utopian dream anymore, according to Paul Mason. New technologies will lead to new modes of production that will reduce the marginal production cost and destroy the price forming mechanism. Collaborative and peer-to-peer production will in the end liberate us all from labour. According to Jeremy Rifkin, we are even heading for a kind of ‘communism’ with lots of free products and non paid volunteering work.
This over-optimistic perspective is not shared by more pragmatic thinkers. The collaborative and sharing economy can also become hyper-capitalistic and even if robotization may destroy millions of jobs, there will always remain work to be done. The important point however is that we should expect ‘a sea-change in work organisation’. Huwe expects that by 2020 half of the work force in the US will be contingent and on demand platforms will become the main providers of very precarious work.
Moreover, the climate crisis does not leave us too many options. The economy will have to change if we also want to survive. More particularly, extractive industries, energy and agriculture are pointed to as the main culprits of pollution and the depletion of resources. At this level, the transition thinking surely offers various alternatives, and they may even lead to more jobs and of course, a healthier environment.
In whatever way we look at it, the world is changing. The collaborative, sharing and P2P economy may bring positive changes, but their advocates have not explained yet how people will survive, who will pay for their health care, schools and pensions, whereas the robotization and platform labour surely demand better regulation and protection. A socially just transition policy requires better labour contracts and more alliances between movements for climate justice and social justice. The ‘easy’ solution of the universal basic income is hardly acceptable, since it ignores the inequality problem, abandons the solidarity mechanisms of social security and is very difficult to finance. It means there is work to be done for progressive political forces that work for another world, another economy with protection for people and nature. The alternatives are not ready yet.
This contribution hopes to be a supplementary step towards coherent political, economic and social alternatives, though this also demands better political alliances.
The emergence of a new common sense
At the political level, things are slowly changing, even if neoliberalism is still, unconsciously, in the hearts and minds of many progressive people. The success of Syriza in Greece and of Podemos in Spain, The new leftwing government on Portugal, the victory of Corbyn as new labour chairman in Great Britain, the successes of Bernie Sanders in the US, they all show that many people, especially the young generations, are ready for something different. The neoliberal consensus around Tina is fading away. There is real anger about the huge inequalities, the wars, the way refugees are being pushed back and the fact that the 1 % even refuse to pay a fair share of taxes. People are worried about their future and that of their children, their jobs and their wages, their pensions, their housing, etc.
Surely, it is not only progressive forces that start to give an answer to people’s worries. The extreme right has all the ‘easy’ answers to the complex problems and pretend that closing borders and protectionism will solve all economic and social problems. We know however that nationalism can only lead to more competition and more conflicts.
However, we should have no illusions about what young people are demanding. Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn and Sanders may be labelled ‘socialists’ but their message is very different from what ‘socialism’ has meant in the past. What young people are demanding is peace, less inequality, healthy food, a healthy climate, social justice, no borders and no discrimination, human rights, fair taxes, etc. They are not asking for a state-led economy, nor are they looking primarily at the world of work, many of them being quiet happy with a reasonable dose of flexibility. Only few of them are joining the anti-capitalist struggle, but they all know the world is not evolving in the right direction.
Slowly, slowly, a new common sense is in the making, and it is sad to see that very few political parties are getting the message. Social democracy has made itself incredible by supporting most of austerity policies and even push-back policies for refugees, the radical left is hopelessly divided and competes for ideological purity, and green parties still too often forget about social justice. Our representative democracies are being eroded, not only by neoliberalism, but also by people who denounce the vertical hierarchies and strive for more horizontalism and more direct participation. At the moment that the European Union is on the brink of collapse, it is sad to see that the radical left is not really participating in the debate, divided as it is over plans A, B1, B2 and C. Whether and/or how the EU survives, the left will have no influence on it.
But yes, another world is possible and it is in the making. What it will look like, what new political formulas will be found and chosen, is not clear yet. But we know that the current demands of many young people will be at the heart of the new alternatives, of new policies that necessarily will have to emerge.
We still have no major narrative, many alternatives are being tried out at the local level, in many cases out of powerlessness to tackle the national and supranational political levels. People do not want to wait anymore but tackle many problems themselves, ‘here and now’. On the one hand, this has to be welcomed, since citizens can indeed achieve a lot without constantly presenting their demands to governments. On the other hand, we should know that these ‘small revolutions’ cannot just be added on in order to lead to the big change. Action will be necessary at all political levels, from local to national to European to global. A ‘good’ example is given nowadays with the help to refugees in countries as France, where thousands of people are waiting to cross the Channel and find their relatives or friends in the United Kingdom. Volunteers can certainly help, with tents and clothes and blankets, but they do not even have the beginning of a solution that can only come from the political level in the UK. The ‘small revolutions’ of boycotting products, of starting ‘fablabs’ and repair shops, of urban agriculture, of self-organising child care facilities and playgrounds, will only help governments to maintain their austerity policies and will not really stop multinational corporations to poison our environment and provide markets with unhealthy products.
This is the task awaiting us. TINA has to make room for TAMARA (there are many alternatives readily available), but if we really want to change the world, if we want our actions and policies to be really transformative, our question should always be: ‘Will this change the way Monsanto is working?’ ‘What about Goldman Sachs is we do this’? Because that will be the ultimate goal: other production systems, other financial regulations, in order to save our environment and our lives and respect human rights. ‘Small revolutions’ certainly help, for raising awareness and for pressuring governments, but they cannot succeed without serious political action at different levels.
It means we will have to reflect on how to change, at the national, the European and the global level, the economy, politics, social protection and society. Waiting and doing ‘as if’, without clear objectives and without a strategy, will not work. Individuals can help individuals, but we should get rid of the neoliberal philosophy that claims to change the world by just helping people, claiming that ‘empathy’ is all we need. If we do not change the structures of our economy and of our social systems, we will fail. If we do not politicize our local daily actions, we only develop parallel systems to a life-destroying capitalism. To-day, wars are spreading, nature and people are threatened, societies are falling apart, but there are no or almost no organisations that take an overall look, that try to bring together different sectoral movements. The climate change movement probably is best organised, but still lacks the ability to talk to trade unions, to link up with women’s movements, to tackle the debt and tax problem. We do not need a unified movement, but better and supranational contacts between several civil society organisations that could be able to have a strong voice at the global level. Too many organisations are afraid of becoming ‘political’ and think they can fight poverty, to give but one example, without looking at inequality and without taking into account the serious ideological differences. Others, on the contrary, are too political, and think they have a ‘truth’ that others should adhere to, without compromising.
Our economies have been analyzed in many different ways. The crisis that began in 2008 has also been thoroughly dissected and commented. We know what went wrong and why it went wrong. But there is no agreement on how to make the system function differently.
I want to take this opportunity to point to the contributions of two important political movements: economic feminism and the climate justice movement.
For a long time already, feminist economists have analysed the economic system and noted its many flaws. Care, the work that is mainly done by women, has been externalized. It does not enter in the calculations of the dominant economic system, while production could never take place without this ‘re-productive’ work. Care work is central to the economy, but since women are expected to work for free, out of love, their work has not been taken into account. Feminists demand, then, that care work is duly integrated into economic thinking.
The climate justice movement has a similar demand. Environmentalists have noticed that nature has also been externalized, it was never taken into account in the dominant economic system, since it was considered to be inexhaustible, it could be exploited without ever being depleted and it did not enter into the calculations. Today, we know this is wrong, many resources are being depleted and human activities even threaten the survival of life on earth. Environmentalists thus demand to take nature into account and integrate it into economic thinking.
It goes without saying that these two demands already give a very different perspective to the economy. First, because the economy will have to take care of nature an second, because it will have to take care of all the people doing unpaid care work, mainly women.
It is easy to see how this can lead us directly to Monsanto and Goldman Sachs. If we want a healthy environment, we cannot allow corporations to destroy nature and poison the earth with extractive industries, be they oil exploration, gold mining or monocultures using dangerous fertilizers. If we want healthy food, we cannot accept that toxic pesticides are brought on the market. If we want household ‘care’ to be recognized as a fully fledged economic activity, we can see how it immediately fits in with other ‘care’ activities, such as health care, education, housing … or social protection. And if we take this reasoning one step further, we can see that the economy itself will have to ‘care’ for nature and for people. As ‘ecology’ is the science of the household of nature, ‘economy’ is about life and the preservation of life. It should only produce the products that we really need and that do not harm to nature or to people. If we want preventive health care, we surely cannot accept sugared drinks on the market?
In other words, by just integrating the concerns of feminists and environmentalists into economic thinking, a huge task awaits us to bend economic activities so that they do take care of nature and of people. This is a major task for environmental and social justice, especially women’s movements. It is not a coincidence that, for the World Bank, the first source of social protection is the family. Women give social protection, for free. This reasoning will also mean we can certainly go on with our small-scale activities, but at the same time, we will have to take action against Monsanto, Goldman Sachs and many other harmful corporations, with the very self-evident arguments of life and its preservation.
Environmental protection is about preserving the possibility of nature to regenerate, while social justice, more particularly social protection is about social re-production. We, and the economy, should care for nature as we should care for people.
In this way, a natural alliance can/ should emerge between left and green, between social justice movements and climate justice movements.
Methodology and strategy
What is required is an awareness of the political needs for transformative action, which means we have to know there are power relations that will seriously hinder any transition. These power relations will have to change. This requires structures, mechanisms and tools to convince large groups of people. Partisan actions that never reach an electoral floor of 5 % will not really help. This should be the first priority for progressive political forces.
An interesting political tool for systemic change can be an approach through ‘commons’. French authors Dardot and Laval present just that: a political approach to ‘commons’ which does not refer to things with intrinsic characteristics, but are the things that a political community decides to be our commons. ‘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 their common, 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 a common. 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 itself, whether we organize in cooperatives, in P2P networks, in the sharing economy: when workers organize and decide that the means of production are theirs and that they will take into their hands the production, distribution and sales, they are responsible for a common. They will have to market the goods they produce, obviously, and will have to be paid decently. What is meant as a common here is not the result of production, but the productive activity itself, including the means of production, it is the collaborative effort of producing and regulating this production. This leads to products that will have to be sold, while workers will have to be paid. It is not a ‘free for all’ economy, neither will profit-making be its major objective. The social and solidarity economy of today is a perfect example, though it is still too often limited to the local scale. Cooperatives are possible at a higher level as well, for banks, insurance companies or pension funds. If the rules are strictly respected, this can change the economy considerably.
Money: money clearly is a common good, we all need it and it belongs to all of us. We need it as a tool for buying the goods we need for our material survival, and we work and create value in order to obtain money. However, the creation of this money has been privatized and is now in the hands of commercial banks that are lending in an irrational way and collect interests that have to be paid by either lending more or by appropriating the money of others … This is a very irrational and –as the financial crises have shown – risky business. The creation of money has to be in the hands of central banks and be governed as being a common, a tool for exchange and belonging to all of us, for the common good. Next to that, local and alternative currencies can be created by local communities, though they have limits. They can they only be used for products and services produced at that local level, while they also confront us with the inevitable power relations within local communities, often far more rigid than at the level of a region or a country. Local currencies do create societies that are less dependent on global markets, though they also allow for parallel non-capitalist markets without changing the global economic and financial relations. But money definitely can be our common.
A third element that has to be mentioned is our surrounding environment: the air we breathe, the seas, the forests, the land … Again these things are common goods and can become our commons, not because of their intrinsic characteristics, but because a – global – community decides they should be our common and we have to jointly manage them, regulate their use and their access, guaranteeing their preservation. This means farmers will need to have access to land, fisher folk will have access to the seas, though limits will be imposed to monoculture, factory ships and extractive industries. The planet clearly is ours, we need it for our survival, and we should urgently stop its wild exploitation.
What clearly should become a common is the food we need to survive and which is produced by farmers. Here, it becomes abundantly clear that if we want to have healthy food, its production should be severely regulated, farmers should be able to dispose of land, to produce the seeds they need, chemical or even toxic stuff in our food should be prohibited, unhealthy additives must be avoided. The movements for food sovereignty and rational land use already are doing excellent work in these fields.
Another important example is that of human rights, and by extent our social protection systems. Social protection is today high on the agenda of the international community, though very often in a neoliberal and/or minimalist sense. If we consider social protection to be our common – something we all need, in whatever circumstances or regime we live – we can not only protect individual human lives, but also – via the co-activity and collaboration – protect our societies as such, thus countering neoliberalism. We can enlarge our rights and focus on collective as well as on individual rights. These social commons seem to me to be central in our common efforts to make a better world. Conceptualizing our economic and social rights – and many more – as our commons, makes social protection into a transformative project that indirectly also tackles the economic system. To repeat the question of ‘What about Monsanto’: how to put into place a preventive health system, if we do not tackle the corporations that overwhelm us with sugar, salt, fats and cancerous additives.
And finally, are not our democracy, our institutions, our states good examples of what is ‘ours’? The abovementioned examples will have made clear that it is not society all alone that can regulate the use of the oceans, or take into its hands the redistribution that is needed for a decent social protection. We do need a state, or public authority, though it will be very different from the states we have today. The state can be a kind of public service, it is there to help the citizenry, it is a kind of partner-state that helps and regulates what citizens have decided, that helps to guarantee our rights, that looks at the compatibility of different regulations, that looks at rules for non-discrimination, etc. If we believe in equality, fairness and emancipation, there should, again, at different levels, be public authorities to keep an eye in what we are doing and help us achieve our objectives. This necessarily is a fundamental democratic activity that contributes to democratizing our social actions.
Advantages and further questions
A conceptualization of all the things we all need in terms of commons has many important advantages.
The major advantage can be that we overcome the past dichotomies. We do not have to see things in terms of state vs market, since we need both; neither is it public vs private since we need both and neither is it the public (or the State) nor the private sector that are enough to provide satisfactory solutions; we do not have to oppose private and public property, since it will not be the structure of ownership that decides on the efficiency of a service. Rather it will be access and regulation, it will be the voice of citizens and workers that determine how something has to function. This is how the commons worked in the past: forests and land very often were in private hands, though the people /the farmers had a right to exploit it, use it for farming or cattle breeding, thus freeing the owners from traditional maintenance tasks. In the end, thinking in terms of ‘commons’ also can stop the socialism vs capitalism opposition, since at any rate, both are products of modernity and socialism, if one wants it, will have to be redefined. Neither can capitalism survive as we know it, and we will have to decide whether our alternative will be called ‘socialism’ or not.
The most important point however is that we do not have to wait for capitalism to disappear, we can start now by re-defining our necessities, by defining our commons, by tackling the phenomena we have to tackle. A commons approach is a progressive way to progressive, transformative and emancipatory politics. Responsible and participative citizens necessarily become social and political actors instead of claim holders or beneficiaries of public policies.
Finally, it seems clear to me that that ‘green’ and ‘red’ are natural allies, though all too often they prefer to ignore it. A serious dialogue is needed in which both sides will have to forget some of their dogmatic thinking. The state of the world to-day shows there is no and there cannot be any linear progress, the belief in the necessity of ever more growth has to be abandoned, new policies must be forward-looking and not trying to go back to a romantic and non-existing past of national solutions. Finally, especially in the light of changing labour markets and growing precarity, social justice should be central, not only for eradicating poverty but for seriously tackling inequality. Science and technology do not have to be banned, but should, again through a democratic exercise, be put at the service of society and of nature. How can we ever accept to live in a world where hundreds of millions of people are dying from hunger, while others are preparing excursions into space for wealthy tourists? Poverty, inequality and hunger will not be solved by new technologies, they are political problems, in the same way as racism and war. Science and technology can advance and democratize our knowledge, certainly if its concept is broadened in order to integrate plurality.
Several questions remain however.
First of all, concerning the state. It will have to change and it can change – political institutions have no DNA but reflect the power relations in society. States can become partner states, though this is easier said than done. More research is needed in order to define what these states have to do and how to build a fruitful relationship with society. We probably will need new methodologies, new institutions. It is not sure that the old party-system will be able to survive. Democracy will have to be revitalized, with parliamentary representative systems combined to direct participatory democracy. And most of all: how to avoid that states become autonomous entities and bureaucracies?
The second and even more difficult point is the necessity of multi-level policies. Talking about the environment, it is easy to see that the national level can never be sufficient, policies necessarily have to be global. The same goes for social policies, at least if we want to avoid social dumping and social tourism. Social policies oriented towards upwards social convergence, including, obviously, labour law, will be necessary. The world cannot do without global tax policies, in order to fund environmental policies as well as solidarity policies. Finally, the economy already is globalized, though better regulations and some forms of relocation should be possible, especially concerning agriculture. There is nothing wrong with free trade, as long as we know what this trade is about. We do not need regulatory harmonization or private arbitration (TTIP). Regional arrangements seem to be the preferred option, monitoring compatibility. People have to be able to guarantee, as far as possible, their food sovereignty. What should be avoided is that these regulations are put into place in a top-down manner. The world is indeed a global village and we should try to make this into a positive achievement, with respect for diversity and interculturality.
What, in the end, it is all about, is democratic participation in decision-making, a fundamental democratization and politicization of all decisions concerning our needs. If we can reach agreement about a couple of basic principles, such as solidarity – which also means reciprocity – we can work for emancipatory policies, a task for all progressive political forces. What we should try to do is building new majorities, with positions that can convince the majority of our populations.
The starting point can be our innumerable ‘small revolutions’ at the local level, though at each initiative, we should wonder in what way we can politicizet hem, pressure governments and integrate them in activities at the higher level. ‘What about Monsanto’ can be the leading question for all initiatives? ‘Small revolutions’ can become very meaningful if they contribute to solving the global problems, if they avoid communautarianism and contribute to a better world for all.
Green and left are natural allies, but it often looks as if they still ignore it. Looking at the economic system and the dual externalizations of care and nature can give both political forces a concrete objective to organize a common fight: protecting people and protecting nature.
With an approach through the commons, some of the old dichotomies can be abandoned, which should further facilitate the common work of green and left: stop the false opposition between state and market, between private and public. In that light, socialism can be easily redefined in order to respond to the demands of the young generations: global justice, peace, equality, solidarity, the preservation of nature…
What it needs is a new way of thinking, a new willingness to look for commonalities instead of differences, and thus lots of good will an trust between natural partners. What other choice do we have?
We are living in a time of much uncertainty. No one knows what tomorrow will be made of. But there is no need to wait, we can start working today, at the local level with ‘small revolutions’, at the national level with trying to change the power relations, and thus also at the supranational and global levels in order to save some global institutions and put into place reasonable regulations. But without convincing people that our current system cannot take care of the sustainability of life, we cannot achieve anything.
Francine Mestrum, Plitvice, 5 March 2016
 European Comission, Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2015, Brussels, 2016.
 ILO, World Employment Social Outlook, Geneva, 2016.
 European Commission, op. cit., 2016.
 Mason, P., Post-Capitalism : A Guide to our Future, London, Penguin Books, 2015.
 Lorphelin, V. et al. , Economie du partage ou hypercapitalisme, Le Monde, 4 févier 2016, P.; Meyer, H., Inequality and Work in the Second Machine Age, Social Europe, December 2014.
 Huwe, U., ‘Platform Labour: Sharing Economy or Virtual Wild West?’ in The Technological Revolution, Journal for Progressive Economics, January 2016.
 Dardot, P. et Laval, C., Commun : essai sur la révolution au XXIème siècle, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.
 Poulantzas, N., The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, ed. James Martin, London, Verso, 2008.