Universal public services: the power of decommodifying survival

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Jason Hickel, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology – UAB Barcelona [1]

One of the central insights emerging from research on degrowth and climate mitigation is that universal public services are crucial to a just and effective transition.

Capitalism relies on maintaining an artificial scarcity of essential goods and services (like housing, healthcare, transport, etc), through processes of enclosure and commodification. We know that enclosure enables monopolists to raise prices and maximize their profits (consider the rental market, the US healthcare system, or the British rail system). But it also has another effect. When essential goods are privatized and expensive, people need more income than they would otherwise require to access them. To get it they are compelled to increase their labour in capitalist markets, working to produce new things that may not be needed (with increased energy use, resource use, and ecological pressure) simply to access things that clearly are needed, and which are quite often already there.

Take housing, for example. If your rent goes up, you suddenly have to work more just to keep the same roof over your head.  At an economy-wide level, this dynamic means we need more aggregate production — more growth — in order to meet basic needs.  From the perspective of capital, this ensures a steady flow of labour for private firms, and maintains downward pressure on wages to facilitate capital accumulation. For the rest of us it means needless exploitation, insecurity, and ecological damage.  Artificial scarcity also creates growth dependencies: because survival is mediated by prices and wages, when productivity improvements and recessions lead to unemployment people suffer loss of access to essential goods — even when the output of those goods is not affected — and growth is needed to create new jobs and resolve the social crisis.

There is a way out of this trap: by decommodifying essential goods and services, we can eliminate artificial scarcity and ensure public abundance, de-link human well-being from growth, and reduce growthist pressures.

This approach also has several other direct social and ecological benefits. For one, it can have a strong positive impact on human welfare. We know from empirical studies that public services are a powerful driver of improvements in life expectancy, well-being, and other key social indicators (here, here and here). Universal services would also end the current cost-of-living crisis, by directly reducing the cost of living.

We also know that countries with decommodified or otherwise universal public services can deliver better social outcomes at any given level of GDP and resource use (here, here, here, here and here). Universal services ensure an efficient conversion of resources and energy into social outcomes. Furthermore, as we will see, public control over provisioning systems makes it easier to achieve rapid decarbonization in those sectors.

Finally, together with a second key policy — the public job guarantee — this approach would permanently end economic insecurity and resolve the current contradiction between social and ecological objectives. Right now it is impossible to take even obvious steps toward climate mitigation (such as scaling down fossil fuel production or other destructive sectors), because people in affected industries would lose access to wages, housing, healthcare, etc. No one should accept such an outcome. With universal services and an emancipatory job guarantee, we can protect against any economic insecurity and guarantee a just transition. There is no necessary contradiction between ecological and social objectives. The two can and must be pursued together.

By universal services here I mean not only healthcare and education, but also housing, transit, nutritious food, energy, water, and communications.  In other words, a decommodification of the core social sector — the means of everyday survival.  And I mean attractive, high-quality, democratically managed, properly universal services, not the purposefully shitty last-resort systems we see in the US and other neoliberal countries.

The power of universal public services is that we can improve people’s access to goods necessary for decent living, with provisioning systems that require less aggregate energy and material use and which allow us to accelerate decarbonization.  These outcomes can be further enhanced by ensuring strong democratic governance of public systems. Together with the job guarantee, economic insecurity is permanently abolished — accomplishing a goal that growth alone has never been able to achieve — and human well-being is de-linked from the requirement of ever-increasing aggregate production.  This would change the political landscape, freeing us to pursue necessary climate action without any risk to employment and livelihoods, while improving social outcomes, reducing inequality and facilitating a shift toward a more just and ecological economy. 

These policies should be core demands of a united climate and labour movement. Universal services, a job guarantee, living wages, a shorter working week — these are popular interventions that could provide the basis for mass political support.  For the labour movement, we need to stop pretending that capitalist growth will magically end unemployment, ensure living wages and bring workplace democracy — which it never does — and instead fight to achieve these objectives directly. And for the climate movement, which is often accused of ignoring the material conditions of working-class communities, this approach addresses real bread-and-butter needs and creates cause for alliances with working-class formations. This is the political movement we need.

[1] This tribune is a condensed version, authorized by the author for this report, of the article published on 11 April 2023 in the author’s blog.

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