Berlin Commons Conference/Workshops/Welfare State

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How can the commons paradigm contribute to the transformation of welfare states?

Initiators: Beatriz Garcia, Brigitte Kratzwald, Hilary Wainworth

Other Participants: Phillippe Aigrain, Michel Bauwens, Brian Davey, Neal Gorenflo, Friederike Habermann, Elisabeth Voss

Reporting: Brigitte Kratzwald

Input by Brigitte Kratzwald

Shortcomings of the welfare state:

Partriarchal, normativ, experts tell people what they have to do, power and agency is taken from the people. marketisation and privatisation of public goods and services, financial cuts due to the crises. As welfare states are depending on waged labour over the whole lifespan there is a financial gap due to unempolyment and precarious work, not enough money comes out of the labourmarket. The welfare state model depends on growth and thus is not feasible in a growthless economy. Today we face an increasing social exclusion by long term unemployment, percarity, of migrants or other social groups, growing inequality.

Benefits of the welfare state

But at the same time we should not forget that the welfare state brought huge improvements for many people and – at least in many countries – still does. I do not share the opinion of James Quilligan that there are no welfare states anymore. For example in Austria we still have a very good healthcare system and even though there is much to be critizised, I'm not willing to abandon it unless we have something better to take its place. Or, rather, I would suggest to find a way to transform it into a more democratic and holistic institution where, for example, patients are seen es subjects that have knowledge of their body and their living conditions and patients as well as employees have the possibility to participate in decision making and are not only objects of some technical processes.

Two main concerns about applying the commons approach to public services:

We must not abandon the redestribution issue because without resources commoning is not possible and, because we have to deal with the most vulnerable groups of society, resources must be provided by the state, by administration, by society, by the public – how ever we want to call it – without any preconditions. So the accountability of the state is not to be abandoned but its role has to be redefined.

Commons are a concept from feudal times. civil right brought equality before the law, non-discrimantion, etc. How can we provide these goods and services as commons without loosing the achievements of civil law, without giving care work back to the private realm of the family and thus to the women? How can we strongly and emanzipatory define the realms of public – common – private?


Strong claim

We still should claim redistribution and adequate administration of public resources because city governments currently tend to get rid of their acountability by the catch word of „big society“, which actually is about handing responsibility over to the citizens without adequate resources, leaving them more vulnerable than before.

Core questions:

Is it about the change of relations within existing structures within the state system or about total autonomy and for which fields we should turn to which models?
Are commons an „additional“ project to strengthen the welfare state or should they replace it?
Can the commons be embedded in social services?


We have to discuss and define the concept of „public goods“ and „global public goods“.
We have to implement new structures of governance.
It should stay the responsibility of the state to provide e.g. healthcare systems, but people have to get the knowledge to participate in decision making.
The commons can be an opportunity to bring the public back to the people, not only as citizens with rights, but as an active community.

Example old age pensions:
We should claim pensions back from the pension funds!

One possibility already practised in telephone or energy provision: The government provides technical assistance and financial resources, local cooperatives run the services. Assemblies decide about the principles of production and distribrution.

There was one interesting intervention by Phillippe Aigrain:
The digital commons are highly indebted to the welfare state, because it was the precondition for their rise. Actually this is also true for all self-managed intiatives and movements for selfdetermination. The welfare state created the conditions for autonomy.
How to deal with this contradicting arguments: welfare state enables people and at the same time creates the conditions for autonomy?

Role of money

A sustainalbe economic system can only work if the state provides money for commons.

James Quilligan: one possibility for finacing commons is a tax on land rents. Taxes on labour income are not useful as currently there comes more profit from credits than from waged labour.
Answer: Are we looking for solutions for today or for the long run? In the long run all land should be common – no more rents – no more tax-income!

The most important conclusions in my opinion:
We should defend the essence of the welfare state but not the form. The commons idea is not only relevant and applicable for autonomous entities but it is also to be displayed within public institutions – which means a strong plead for a „partner state“