While different countries in Europe are living a period of social unrest and thousands of people reclaim the streets for social and climate justice, the IMF is proposing a new social contract and ‘re-imagining social protection’… The question then clearly has to be: do we allow international financial institutions to debate our social future or do we want to reclaim this very important topic?

We know the problems: the threats of climate change and loss of biodiversity, pressure on wages, persistent poverty and unacceptable inequalities.

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Activists of social movements for the climate and for social justice know that both go hand in hand: environmental justice is not possible without social justice and vice versa. Nevertheless, in both movements, many activists still have problems to combine the two.

In ecological movements, studies have been going on to examine how the ecological transition can be realized in socially fair terms, that is, how to fairly distribute the burden – if there is one – of change over different population groups.

One might of course reverse this reasoning: what social policies do we need to achieve ecological justice? All those who work for social justice necessarily have to be concerned about the need for potable water. Those who work for decent housing will inevitably also work for better isolation and lower electricity consumption. And those who want better public transport will want to reduce the use of private cars.

There are many more examples to find in the health sector, because all those who work for preventive health care will have to fight against toxic pesticides or in favour of clean air in our cities.

Even those who want to help poor people with better incomes, can contribute to more consumption of organic food and less cheap junk food from the very polluting meat sector.

In other words, social justice and social protection can directly contribute to a better environment. Sanctions and moralising messages often do not help to make people change their behaviour, while a concrete proposal for more welfare can bring about the necessary changes.

That is why I want to make a plea for a new social contract for an ecological transition.

Everyone knows that the welfare states many rich countries have developed after the second world war do not respond anymore to the needs of the 21st century, let alone to the emerging robotization and introduction of artificial intelligence. So we know we have to renew our thinking. Our social security systems were the answer to a fordist economic model, while today’s new technologies need new answers. However, this does not mean we have to abandon the values of our welfare states.

It seems obvious to me that we have to think of better anti-poverty policies, as we have to examine how to tackle the precarization of work in the platform economy where many people now work without social security and without rights. The discussion about the shortening of working time has started              already. Work will certainly not disappear, though wage labour may sharply be reduced. We need new solutions for all of these new circumstances.

To defend social protection does not mean we are clinging to the past but that we do want to maintain solidarity mechanisms and collective rights. The way we can do this will have to be looked at, and we certainly have to stay away from empty anti-capitalist slogans as well as from soft calls for empathy and ethics. It is no longer sufficient to make a call for more redistribution, we need to look at the relationship between labour and capital as well as at company law. We need to redefine ownership. Corporations and capital have to be at the service of society. The emerging commons movement already gives some interesting answers, though it has to get out of its localist straitjacket.

In sum, people and societies do still need security and protection, but we have to look at it in new terms.

The social protection we need will be more than just social security, it will be assistance, public services and labour right. It will have to fully take into account the environmental needs and rights. By giving participatory rights to people one can also promote democracy. And another important element at the eve of 2019: peace. It is exactly one hundred years ago that the ILO was founded, after the first world war. In its constitution it states that ‘sustainable peace is not possible without social justice’.

In this way, social protection can be emancipatory and transformative, that is contribute to the system change we so badly need.

Francine Mestrum