Social Commons

Defining the Concepts

The Commons

. . . are the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. (Wikipedia)

. . . are land or resources belonging to or affecting the whole of a community. (Oxford English Dictionary).

. . . are a robust class of self-organized social practices for meeting needs in fair, inclusive ways. . . . It is a framing that describes a different way of being in the world and different ways of knowing and acting. (David Bollier and Silke Helfrich)

The Social Commons

. . . are human-made commons, meant to protect individuals and societies. . . . The ‘social commons’ focuses on the collective dimension of the protection that is needed and on the collective endeavour to achieve it. (Francine Mestrum)

. . . includes the facilities and amenities essential to normal living that are provided outside the private market, built over the generations and paid for through taxes, donations, and, often, voluntary commoning in their construction and maintenance. (Guy Standing)

Why Explore the Social Commons Framework?

Originating as a discussion on social justice in the World Social Forum in 2013, the social commons has emerged in Europe, Asia and South America as a framework for re-thinking social policies in a transformative and participative way to achieve social and environmental justice.

A key thinker and leading proponent of the social commons is Francine Mestrum, PhD. Dr. Mestrum is a Belgian academic dividing her research and writing between Europe and Mexico. Her research focuses on the social dimension of globalization, poverty, inequality, social protection, public services and gender.

Dr. Mestrum is a leading critic of the existing international order:

  • -that is driven by market forces pursuing economic growth and corporate profit at the expense of social solidarity and environmental health;
  • -that has narrowed social protection and security to targeted and individualistic approaches for the poor, thus undermining commitment to universal policies for the benefit of all;
  • -that has suppressed collective action and solidarity systems (e.g. social insurance programs, labour rights), which previously joined people at all income levels to a shared standard of decency in everyday life;
  • -that has emphasized the importance of income with minimal cash transfer “guarantees” in the commodification of human needs while abandoning any commitment to the provision of universal, high quality public services in health, education, and other essential human services; and
  • -that has enlisted progressive elements of society in a more limited agenda focusing on minimalist protections for the poorest and most marginalized rather than on the social and economic rights of all citizens.

Dr. Mestrum establishes social protection as a human right articulated even in the mid-20th century in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976). But, its traditional construction under the terms of the post-War social contract started to erode seriously by the 1980s and she argues that today our social protection systems reflect neither social solidarity nor social justice.

Therefore, Dr. Mestrum advocates for a “shift from social protection to social commons” holding that “certain basic principles of our current social protection will have to be preserved, such as respect for universal rights, the non-commoditization of social service, the horizontal solidarity of all with all.”

This is the starting point for a “democratic and participative approach” not just for “correcting” the existing social and economic systems but rather entirely reframing our thinking from a profit-making, market-driven economic system to an economy that is “at the service of societies” in terms of both human and environmental needs and wants.

“The economy has to care for people, in the same way as environmental policies have to care for nature and as social policies have to care for people and for all of us. Care can become the central concept, care for people, for societies and for nature. Social commons, then, care for the sustainability of life.”

The Marvyn Novick Legacy Group has studied the extensive literature on the Commons and Social Commons and we offer our own understanding of the concepts and their meaning in policy and practice in the Working Monograph: Reawakening Our Social Commons [link to page with monograph]

Also see our compiled Selected Readings and Video/Audio Resources [link to that page]