In today’s world of planetary destruction and debasing of humankind, we have to re-think the meaning of our fundamental values and concepts. In this contribution, I want to look at production and its links to re-production and what this means for social and political transformation geared towards social justice. First, I will develop the idea of value attached to re-productive activities. Secondly, related to gender, I will show that one can de-commodify reproductive work without de-monetising it. In order to do so, one has to get rid of the ‘immaterial values’ too often attributed to women. It is the context in which we can start to think of commons and social commons in a way that re-values women’s work and fully integrates them into the world of economic and social rights. Moreover, the commons of rights contribute to the shaping and building of society.

The first sentence of my abstract requires some explanation. Euphemistically speaking, I guess that most people here in this room have, throughout their lifetime, heard about Marxism, socialism, communism and their derivatives. And I guess all know that these concepts are in crisis. Anti-capitalism is not a monopoly of the left anymore, right-wing populists promote social policies and many people, especially youth, wonder what the difference between the right and the left might be.

This means that we have to be extremely clear on what we are saying and from what perspective we are saying what we are saying. My point of departure will be the Enlightenment and even Modernity, in spite of its flaws. It means I am not a post-modernist, I do not adhere to identity politics and I am allergic to right-wing and left-wing populism and nationalism.

The values I work with are cosmopolitanism, because we are one humankind, universalism, because we need equal rights in a world of differences and diversity, solidarity, because we are interdependent. The goal of my doing and thinking is individual and collective emancipation.

This being said, the values I think need some re-thinking are democracy, human rights and social justice. The representative democracy we have is insufficient, our universal human rights are being questioned and our social justice mechanisms are being dismantled. Yet, they are all answers to our basic needs for survival and participation, while social justice is the major goal of all progressive policies.

In order to do so, I want to use two concepts.

One is environmental justice, because it also responds to an urgent need and because it is closely linked to social justice.

The second concept is an old one, the ‘commons’, because it can become a strategic tool in the work we have to do.

Social Transformation

For achieving individual and collective emancipation, we necessarily will have to change our economies, our politics and our societies.[1] We are currently living in a systemic crisis that has no inherent solutions anymore. In what follows, I will focus on social transformation, but will necessarily have to talk also economics and politics.

Social justice is a very broad concept, it implies gender equality, migration and all public services, from health care to transport and communication. One of its central elements is social protection, an eminently re-productive system, which I see also as a broad concept with social security or social insurances, public services, labour rights and social assistance. It is based on the economic and social rights proclaimed in an International Covenant of 1966.[2]

This social protection has been more or less developed in different European countries and the rest of the world, and it has recently been deprived from its emancipatory meaning by neoliberal international organisations. Today, it is meant to be essentially for the poor, it includes the privatisation of public services, the deregulation of labour markets and it is basically at the service of markets, more than at the service of people. This is not what we want and need.[3]

We have, then, to renew this concept, without abandoning its basic values, such as rights, the horizontal and structural solidarity, its universalism and its inherent social citizenship.

Now, if we start reflecting on how to broaden and strengthen our social protection, we immediately meet up with the concept of environmental justice. People need drinking water to live and clean air to breathe. If we want to have preventive health policies, we cannot allow residues of toxic pesticides in our food. If we want to give people decent housing, we can insulate houses and save energy. In other words, with tangible social measures, you can do a lot to preserve the environment. It is right to say to environmental justice and social justice go hand in hand. If this articulation is met from the perspective of social justice, it is possible to avoid the moralising sermons on prohibitions of this and of that. Offering people immediate material advantages might be a more fruitful way for killing two birds – way of speaking – with one stone.

If I want to introduce the concept of environmental justice in our debates, it is then not only because there is an urgent need for it, but also because it can be a logical consequence of the social justice we want.

At the conceptual level, it is the ‘commons’ I want to strategically use. It is an old concept referring to common goods and grassroots cooperation. With an extended interpretation it can become extremely useful to talk about all the things that are ours, such as our economic and social rights, such as our social protection. It is society that has to come in to conceptualise, implement and monitor the exercising of our rights and basically, talking about social commons, is talking about the renewal and the democratisation of our welfare states.

Re-thinking social justice, then, is about building on the original and fundamental values of our welfare states, adapting them to the needs of the 21st century, enlarging our economic and social rights to environmental rights and at the same time preserving the environment and democratising and preserving our societies.

This is the meaning the concept of ‘social commons’ can take, giving back its collective dimension to our rights, our social protection and our citizenship.

Production and Re-production

This strategic use of the ‘commons’ does imply we take the concept out of its current limited and biased framework.

If we look at the commons literature to-day[4], we see that it is largely focused on production, whether it be material or immaterial, on the one hand, and on care on the other hand. In a commons approach, this production is looked at from the vantage point of capital control/ownership and self-determination or self-management and autonomy of workers.

In doing so, the reproductive dimension is all too often overlooked: what about the status of workers in the new economy (P2P, social and solidarity economy, cooperatives …), labour rights, sickness insurance, etc.? How to avoid exploitation and self-exploitation of workers in this new economy that certainly is not immune to it. How to protect the health and safety of workers? Simply put: how to preserve and promote the re-production of workers and protect the livelihoods of people in the context of commons production.

The same goes for the purely reproductive work in the non-profit care sector or even in the purely domestic sector: how to safeguard people’s (women’s) rights to decent work, the right to organization and collective bargaining, non-discrimination, etc.?

A commons approach usually implies not only to take control of activities, but also to take these activities out of the capitalist commodity sphere. Consequently, very often, people will refrain from being paid and their rights in terms of protection and welfare will not be respected.

However, commons are not necessarily based on voluntary or unpaid work, see the productive commons that will have to find buyers for the goods produced. One can argue they should be included in the non-profit sector. There are no relevant reasons to exclude men and women once again from payment and rights, whether they work in a commons context or not. Why not accept that workers, whether in production or re-production, should always be paid, even if it is, possibly, with alternative currencies?

Moreover, the dividing lines between production and reproduction are blurred. This is particularly clear when we look at women’s work.

The homework of women – piece work in the garment sector for instance – clearly shows that productive and reproductive activities can take place simultaneously. Women will feed their babies while working at their sewing machines or will keep control of the cooking pots while making phone calls or sending e-mails. While the production of food is seen as ‘production’, preparing the food and feeding people are considered to be ‘re-production’.

Many aspects of the traditional ‘care’ work of women has been commodified or taken over by the non-profit sector: Caring for children, for the sick and elderly as well as cultural activities. Welfare states typically have integrated health care and a whole range of public services. While much of the care work is still in the hands of women – though not exclusively – it is wage labour, difficult to separate from men’s and women’s productive labour. The re-productive work can be purely commodified in the private sector, or non- commodified but paid in the non-profit sector.

Both types of work do produce value, though not necessarily exchange value but use value: Contrary to liberal economic thinking stating that non-market activities have to be considered as ‘costs’ to be paid out of the results of productive work, one can also state that non-profit activities such as education and health care are the results of productive work. They create value in themselves, not validated by the market but by society itself. They are paid for by taxes and social contributions. This means that market as well as non-market activities create economic and monetary value. Non-market does not mean non-monetary.[5] De-commodifying care and public services, does not mean that people should not be paid anymore.

Nowadays, the difference between production and re-production is being questioned. They certainly are not separate compartments and re-production is not a by-product of human history. It is at the very heart of it. There are arguments for reflecting on them in one and the same theoretical framework since they are both part of value creation validated by markets or by society.

Care for nature and care for people

Feminists know how the whole re-productive sector has been excluded and taken out of economic theorizing and how its integration into economic thinking might help to make the changes we want. Productive work being seen as the only work creating value, dominant economic thinking has indeed totally excluded the care work mostly done by women. It can hardly be a coincidence that women’s work was not monetized nor valued.

Feminist thinkers have contested this exclusion and demand that care work be fully integrated into the thinking and the measurement of the value created by the economy. In the meantime, part of this care work has been commodified and is being considered now as also creating value.

Care work is not the only element that has been externalized, nature is not taken into account either when measuring economic value, until extraction is happening. This is a consequence of the major flaw in our Modernity thinking, separating humankind from the natural world it is part of. In this way, many resources have almost been depleted, because the regeneration – where possible – was not taken care of. Environmentalists demand that nature also be integrated in the economic sphere. Nature may be considered as wealth, but it has no ‘intrinsic’ value which can only be the result of its validation by society.

If we consider natural resources and care resources (economic and social rights, raising children, health care, care for disabled people or for the elderly …, but also cleaning and cooking) – essential for survival, for satisfying our needs and corresponding to economic and social rights – as commons, the whole picture can change. It can fundamentally change economic theories in terms of wealth and value creation. Natural resources, even not extracted and without intrinsic economic value, are our common goods, our wealth, whereas care also means wealth, and both are necessary for satisfying our needs and for the value creation through extraction and (re-)productive work.

It follows from that that one comes easily to the conclusion that the whole economy should be about ‘care’: care for our common goods, our resources, our nature and care for people. Nature, nor people and especially women – the care workers – can be over-exploited. They are needed for production, which means one has to take care of them. Which also means production – the economy – should be about care in order to survive. This is particularly true in a commons approach where all bear responsibility for the whole and where rights cannot be ignored without hurting all. The economy should produce in function of the needs and possibilities of people and nature. It does not mean the whole productive economy is about re-production, but it does mean it cannot be dissociated from it. This is one more argument for saying they are but one single activity. No production is possible without re-production, that is the re-generation of nature and people.

In other words, contrary to a more postmodern perspective on de-commodification – and very often demonetization – this approach brings care indeed into the economic sphere and extends it to the environment. Re-production is the other half of production, both create value from wealth, care workers have to be paid and nature’s rights have to be respected.

This reasoning is also contrary to much of the current thinking on ‘commons’ supposing that work done for producing ‘commons’ creates shared value and should not be paid for. Hence the almost automatic appeal to basic income, whereas basic income and commons are founded on opposed values. Commons indeed stress the natural human aspiration for cooperation and creation, they have a fundamental collective dimension, whereas basic income stresses the individual freedom and liberation from work.

Combining the social protection approach with a commons approach strengthens this collective dimension, their focus on solidarity and cooperation and the common responsibility and individual freedom.

Preserving welfare states and turning them into commons means that the State will continue to play a major role. It has to be emphasized that, if commons go beyond State and market, they cannot go without them. The State as well will have to change, to be appropriated by citizens, to become a public service itself. Markets will not be neoliberal, capitalist and competitive. The State will be necessary to guarantee citizens’ rights, to collect taxes and organize, with citizens’ and their social movements’ involvement, the welfare states with their social services. Markets are necessary to exchange goods. It leads to a new definition of the ‘economy’, embedded in society[6] and closer to the original ‘oikos’ or non-capitalist economy.

Gender relations

This re-thinking of social protection, production and re-production has huge consequences for the place of women in society and for gender relations.

Traditionally, women’s care work has been excluded from dominant economic thinking. This was possible thanks to a discursive construction that remained valid till now. Analysing the UN discourse on women, development and poverty of the 1990s, one sees that women are still identified as mothers, wives and social mothers. Their equality is recognised not because they are human beings as all others, but because it is in the common interest. Poor women are doubly discriminated again, through their poverty and their lack of resources, on the one hand, and because they are expected to produce the common goods that capitalism does not provide for, on the other hand. That is why UNPD as well as the World Bank see families as the major source of social protection.[7]

Women’s work has to be ‘valorised’, though not paid … Women’s fundamental role is to preserve the social cohesion in their communities and to produce the social services that are needed. This thinking continues to attribute immaterial values to women and helps to explain why income is never taken into account in the definition of poverty. It also explains the totally biased discourse on the ‘human face of poverty’ that women are said to be, while this face remains silent and is expulsed to society’s periphery. According to the UNDP, social reproduction has an ‘intrinsic human value’, it is the ‘invisible heart’ related to love and yes, to social obligations.[8]

The whole UN discourse of the 1990s on poverty relates women to non-commodified work, to solidarity, volunteering and self-help. Their badly paid work in the factories is what makes ‘economic change possible’. Women are, in fact, the mothers of the world. Whatever their activities, paid or non-paid, they role is re-productive. Help to poor women does not require specific measures, except the abandonment of all discrimination. Once this is done, women will enter the labour market, ‘swallowing their pride’ and accept any job at any wage that is offered to them in order to feed their children. It is easy to understand, then, that international organisations want to stop the ‘under-utilisation’ of this labour force, even more when these women do not buy alcohol or drugs but spend their money on food and education for their children…

Women, then, are re-productive forces, even in their productive work and they hardly have to be paid. By definition, they are altruistic and full of love. Even in the market of biological re-production, current capitalistic morality refuses to pay surrogate mothers, not recognising them as workers and producers of babies for the wealthy, but only seeing them as bearers of love and care.[9]

Linking re-production closely to production or even abandoning the difference between both, can make an end to this flawed idealisation of women. Women, in the same way as men, produce value and this value should be paid for.

Production, re-production and commons

Considering social protection as an eminently reproductive system, its interpretation as ‘commons’ has many advantages. First, at any rate social protection is ours, whether it is paid for by taxes or social contributions. It belongs to the people and it is people who have to decide on it. Involving citizens and social movements in its design, its rules for access and its putting into practice and monitoring should be an obvious and urgent step to take.

Secondly, by organizing this participatory approach to social protection, one not only enhances the protection of people but also of society itself. Neoliberalism is destroying all societies by focusing solely on individuals and interpersonal competition. Shifting the focus to the collective dimension of our societies, beyond communities and families, is thus a highly political and transformative task.

Thirdly, organizing re-production as ‘commons’ allows for putting our needs and care in the centre and make a direct link with the environmental justice movement caring for nature. Social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand and can both be seen as a possibility for preserving the sustainability of life.

Fourthly, conceptualizing social protection in terms of commons and linking it to environmental justice also allows for broadening the agenda still further: clearly, water is also essential for life and already considered to be a common good. But also land and food security/sovereignty, pertaining to both production and re-production, are candidates for commoning.

Fifthly, social commons can thus become a truly transformative project, integrated in a transition process that inevitably will lead to the transformation of our economic system. Protecting and fulfilling economic and social rights is incompatible with the accumulation system as it is now working with its growing inequalities. Seeing production itself as commons obviously helps and strengthens this movement towards transition.

Finally, reproduction seen in terms of social commons thus contributes to a renewal of our thinking on production, markets, nature and the State, the renewal progressive political forces have been working on for some time. In doing so, and by changing power relations, it can also help progressive movements to gain a stronger and broader audience.

Welfare states, including public services and all economic and social rights, should be considered as commons

Instead of taking production out of the market, with the need of bringing it back in at a later stage, instead of abandoning the solidarity of the welfare state by choosing for an individual basic income, instead of trying to liberate people from labour, we might do the opposite: emancipate people within the sphere of labour, liberate labour itself from its capitalist straitjacket, strengthening the democracy, solidarity, reciprocity and responsibility of the welfare state and try to change the economic system from within. Commons can be a tool to resist neoliberalism, privatization and commodification. Applying its principles coherently and consequently, it will lead to changing the economic system, which is far more difficult to do from without. Monsanto will not change its practices because some farmers or consumers are changing their attitude. It will have to change its practices if rules are made in order to preserve the environment and to enhance preventive health care, and if these rules are correctly implemented and monitored. All this needs other power relations, for sure. These can be promoted with an attractive and coherent discourse and practice on commons and solidarity.

It will allow movements to continue their struggle for just taxes, just wages, good labour conditions, drastic reduction of working time, full employment and environmental- and people-friendly production. Labour will have to be redefined, for sure, but that is not the most difficult task, if we are convinced gender relations have to be taken into account and care work can produce value as well. It is a perspective that can create the space for the full integration of women’s work into a renewed economic thinking.

Social commons confirm the need for a non-profit approach on paid re-productive work, for abandoning exclusive state provisioning of services and for re-connecting with the full meaning of ‘public’. The co-activity and co-responsibility it implies also combine collective and individual rights, the obvious statement that there can be no individual freedom without collective freedom. Social commons, by definition, are geared towards social justice.


Social commons as a new concept for thinking on the eminently re-productive function of social protection allow for seeking more social justice and for strengthening the link with environmental justice. They also allow for re-imagining all our institutions, politics, economics and social relationships. They imply re-inventing new social practices in a new context of individual freedom and collective responsibility. They should not imply to look for solutions outside of our current markets and States, but within them in order to fundamentally change them. They do mean to gain back control of our lives. Social commons imply to take a fresh look at production and re-production, the connexion between them and the value created by both, validated by the market or by society. De-commodification, then, does not mean demonetisation. This is especially important for women, whose so-called ‘re-productive work’ is rarely paid for.

The indissociable link between production and re-production will facilitate the development of new modes of production in the social and solidarity economy as well as in the cooperative sector where the dividing line is less compelling. It will allow to re-think democracy and solidarity and to preserve the collective dimension, that is a society with free individuals and commonly agreed collective responsibilities. It will allow for the full integration of women and all their activities into mainstream thinking. It will promote the transition towards sustainable economies and societies. It can contribute to make an end to unequal gender relations. Social commons, then, are about sustainability, of life, of nature and of people.

Dr Francine Mestrum






[1] See e.g. Raworth, K. Doughnut Economics, Random House, 2017.

[2] UN Internationaml Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966

[3] Mestrum, Global, European and national: on the neoliberalisation of social piolicies, 2014,

[4] See e.g. Bolier, D. and Helfrich, S., The Wealth of the Commons, Amherst, Levellers Press, 2012.

[5] Harribey, J:-M., ‘Repenser le travail, la valeur et les revenus’ in Alaluf, M.. et al., Contre l’Allocation universelle, Québec, Lux Editeurs, 2016.

[6] Polanyi, K., The Great Transformation, Beacon press, Boston, 1957.

[7] Mestrum, F., Mondialisation et Pauvreté. De l’utilité de la pauvreté dans le nouvel ordre mondial, Paris, L’harmattan, 2002.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Vertommen, S. & Barbagallo,C., ‘Baas over eigen buik?’ in Lava, 2017.