Rethinking the Social Welfare State in Light of the Commons

Brigitte Kratzwald

When we talk about commons in Europe, the question usually arises whether public services are also to be considered commons. In order to answer this question, we must examine our understanding of the (social welfare) state on the one hand and the concept of the “public” on the other.

From the social welfare state to the neoliberal competition state1

The social welfare state typical of western Europe from the end of World War II to the 1980s had three functions: redistributing wealth by means of taxation; ensuring protection from individual risks through insurance or transfer payments; and providing goods and services that were to be available to all for free or at affordable prices.2 In this way, the state met a number of important economic and social needs while also gaining a high degree of control over people’s lives, which often gave rise to the criticism “nanny state.”

As the neoliberal economic model prevailed around the world, the role and functions of the state were redefined. Now the most important task of the state is to ensure competitiveness in the global economy. By default, the provision of goods and services occurs according to market criteria, or this responsibility is delegated entirely to private companies with the expectation that they will improve efficiency and customer responsiveness. This has been an unfulfilled promise, however. Indispensable goods and services have become more expensive, are often no longer available everywhere, and their quality has diminished. It has become clear that the state is not a neutral actor that truly represents the interests of the general public, but rather it reflects societal power relations.

Worse, social movements that support public services have been forced to defend the continued provision of such state services, as seen in such efforts as the Stop GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) campaign, the campaign against the EU Services Directive, and various initiatives against the privatization of water supply, public transportation, hospitals and nursing facilities. The only credible goal is to ensure sufficient funding, not any expansion of services. Because of public austerity programs, however, these campaigns have rarely been successful. If we now consider anew what the idea of the commons could contribute to the question of public service, we must arrive at a new definition of the concept of “public.”

Are the state and the market the only options?

In the economic definition of goods, public goods are generally characterized as non-rival and non-exclusive – that is, one person’s usage does not “use it up” or preclude another from using it. But since the terms of exclusivity are societally negotiable, the definition of what is “public” – i.e., what should be provided by “the state” – is decided at the political level, even more than in the case of commons.3 Even Adam Smith had stated that the state must provide certain things that the market does not provide yet which are in the public interest. He mentioned raising and educating young people, for example (Smith). In the social welfare state, political decisions have assigned many responsibilities to the state, from energy, water supplies, public transportation, housing and public media to health care and education. The state’s role was to make sure that these things were available to all. So if nowadays more and more of these areas are assigned to the market, then these, too, are political decisions. Because of this dualism of the market and the state, people have come to perceive that “public” means that something is owned or provided by the state, which is seen as a service institution to meet the needs of its citizens.

We are the public!

Historically speaking, however, the state and the public have been understood in different ways. To Aristotle, for example, man was a zoon politikon, a social being by nature who is destined to organize a society and to act within it. The ideal of the citizen was derived from this concept and citizens were defined by their “participation in judging (krísis) and governing (arché).” Both took place in the public assembly of all citizens who had to fulfill their rights and duties there (Schmidt 2007).4 This active involvement by the citizens constituted the state and did not take place outside of governmental structures (ibid.: 13).

In historical England, access to the commons, the communally used land, not only secured the livelihoods but also the independence of those who did not possess land of their own. It gave people the opportunity to take advantage of their political rights. Since the commons was the public place for those who did not own property, enclosures of the commons amounted to a disempowerment of the commoners. Enclosures eliminated the places where commoners convened to defend their rights, and where they planned uprisings and revolutions.5 As late as 1795, a knaves’ insurrection in Hüttenberg, Carinthia, began at an assembly on the Tratte, the commons.6 In some Swiss cantons, the Landsgemeinde exists to this day. “The citizens of a canton who have the right to vote meet on a certain day in the open air to settle legislative matters.”7

Issues of public interest were not handled by the institutional state in all these cases, but by all people who participated in shaping a community. Such a concept of the public points to people’s ability to appropriate what they need and self-authorize their actions, defining the public sphere as the locus of commoning. Current discussions about public space also point in this direction (Kruse/Steglich 2006). Thus, we can also pose the question about public services from the perspective of the commons, whereby state institutions can also carry out various functions.

The public sphere – beyond the state and the family

The concept “private” requires closer inspection too. It has a dual meaning that becomes clearer when we look at privatization in the fields of social services, health and education. On the one hand, privatization refers to the provision of marketable services by profit-oriented “private” enterprises, in other words, by the market. On the other hand, privatization also refers to relegating services that are not marketable to the private sphere, i.e., families and especially women. So there are in fact two dualisms of public and private – the state and the market, and the state/market apparatus and the private sphere, in the sense of family or volunteering. In this sense, the public sphere can be construed as an area “beyond the state and the family,” a place of great importance for a society’s social reproduction. The public sphere can be seen as the place where the community provides services for its members, or users themselves provide the services, as seen, for example, in many civic associations, volunteer fire departments, and in schools and kindergartens run by dedicated parents. Because so much attention is lavished on the patriarchal social welfare state, this realm of life, analogous to the commons, is often overlooked. Its significance has hardly been perceived at all because we have directed our demands and desires to the state, and looked to it to secure our prosperity. As the safety net provided by the social welfare state deteriorates, however, this area is becoming even more important. Yet at the same time, it is under threat because people have less and less time for it.8

In other words, rethinking the social welfare state from the perspective of the commons means stepping out of the private sphere and reclaiming the state and the public sphere. In this context, “state” includes all levels of government, including the federal states and the municipalities. This means that commoners need to consider themselves part of the public sphere again, the sphere of politics.9

Reclaiming the State

In many cases, governments have proven to be poor trustees of the things entrusted to them. Discontent about how they are doing their job is on the rise. People are standing up and taking responsibility with the words, “This is ours, and we want to make the decisions about it.” Only through this process are these things becoming truly public goods and services. In this way, people are reclaiming control over the direct circumstances of their lives. We have been witnessing such processes of reclaiming in great numbers in recent years, going far beyond the demand for sufficient funding of public institutions and services. Some examples include the Berliner Wassertisch, a network of individuals trying to reclaim water management in Berlin,10 the Energiewende Hamburg, a coalition engaged in energy policy,11 and the Austrian railroad passengers’ initiative, Pro Bahn.12

Since self-determination is easiest to implement at the local level, it is municipalities above all that can benefit from the idea of the commons.13 One way of doing this is through municipal cooperatives as an alternative to public-private partnerships. Numerous cooperatives of this kind are currently emerging in the field of renewable energy. The funds for financing public institutions come from the citizens themselves, who in return have opportunities to participate and make decisions. While this makes sense in some contexts, it is not a universal solution; after all, the point is also to provide sufficient funding for public services, not simply to replace them with voluntary contributions on the part of the public.

In her book Reclaim the State (Wainwright 2009), Hilary Wainwright describes how people can succeed in taking responsibility for public funds. For example, the people in an affected neighborhood can rally to win authority and direct benefits from state funding rather than delegating such authority and money to, say, real-estate developers commissioned with developing a neighborhood. Wainwright demonstrates that citizens and local politicians can join forces and successfully bring pressure to bear on businesses as well as on politics at the state and federal level.

What such initiatives share with commons is that the users themselves actively take control; rules are devised in a bottom-up procedure, and people demand control over their lives and are prepared to take responsibility for them. In addition, the citizens active in such arrangements can delegate various tasks to the state or the municipality. But in turn, the state and the municipality are held accountable to them, and there must be decision-making procedures that include the users and the people employed. For example, governmental institutions can be assigned to serve as trustees by managing various things according to decisions made by the citizens, but those institutions are denied the right to dispose of resources or sell them at will. In case of conflict, the state can offer mediation and must provide space and funding to carry out such decision-making procedures. The city government of Porto Alegre did so in exemplary fashion for the participatory budget process (Wainwright 2009). Another example is the process for public procurement in Mexico City, one of the world’s megametropolises. Government institutions should also be used to support those societal groups for whom it is difficult, for various reasons, to participate in decision-making processes.

How services are provided – by the state, controlled by those affected; by citizens, through various forms of government support and financing; or in self-organized social networks – must be decided anew in every individual case. The prerequisite is that this space for political empowerment is not enclosed by means of privatization.

As in the case of commons, creating and maintaining such public services takes substantial time and cannot be had for free. We must speak out when the idea of the commons is used to justify cutting public expenditures, especially for social services and health, as is the case in England, where Prime Minister David Cameron talks about “Big Society.”14 After all, the legal right to certain basic human services must remain untouched. Such an understanding of the role of the public opposes both kinds of privatization, that is, it is also against pushing tasks such as education and care back into the realm of the family and thus into that of women. After all, neither the state nor the family alone can ensure that the needs of children, youths, the elderly and disabled people are met and that they can develop their potential and contribute their skills. Such integration is a task for all of society, as reflected in the famous African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.”15


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