Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

The transformation of basic goods and services from a (virtual) right to a stratified provision - Problematising community-based services in a commodified context

15th of September, 2022

Flavia Martinelli

Though I am not an expert on Polanyi, the Polanyian approach developed by the DOC-Team JKU-WU to analyze ‘The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing’ is of great interest. Given my background in urban and regional studies and based on recent research on the Neoliberal restructuring of social services in Europe (Martinelli et al., 2017), my contribution to the very stimulating discussion fostered by the Workshop in Vienna addresses the spatial dimension of the topic, focusing on two themes: 1) the role of the State; 2) the (fuzzy) notion of Community.


  1. The State

In the analytical framework presented at the Workshop there is a notable absent, the State, the role of which is somewhat left implicit or in the background. As Polanyi stressed from the very beginning, the State represents an enormous power behind (or against) the market and the transformations of Capitalism. Especially in the domain of basic services (services of general economic interest, such as transportation and communication, and social services, such as education, health, care), but also in what concerns housing, the State plays a key role in regulating and financially supporting their provision. The State can ‘substitute’ for, or significantly ‘complement’ the market by directly providing (‘decommodifying’) certain services or it can support their marketisation (‘commodification’).


During the Fordist-Keynesian regime, universal access to these services was pursued through direct public provision, for free or at affordable rates, i.e. by providing access to more or less the same quality of services to all, independently of income, origin, or place. Direct public provision also ensured regulated jobs and professional training. After thirty years of Neoliberal restructuring, despite attempts to curb expenditures, overall welfare outlays[1] have not decreased: the State still finances a large portion of such services, but has pulled out of direct provision, either ‘outsourcing’ their production and delivery to the private sector – both for profit and non profit – or via ‘cash for care’ transfers and other income subsidies, which reinforce the marketisation of services, as such transfer are spent to ‘purchase’ services in the market.


The State, thus, plays a key role in framing ‘movements’ and ‘countermovements’[2]. The movement towards the decommodification of certain services through universalistic public provision that characterized the greatest part of the 20th century was the result of pressures from the workers movements and organizations at the national level, but it then generated criticism and countermovements from both the left and the right. The left stressed the paternalistic and undifferentiated nature of publicly-provided services, generating a wealth of community-based initiatives aimed at greater users involvement and choice; criticism from the right underscored the inefficiency of the public system and the fact it fostered dependency on state assistance, sponsoring New Public Management reforms and more conditional access to services.


This said, what strikes me as the most fundamental change is the conceptual and practical shift from considering basic services a right to viewing them as a commodity to be purchased; and from considering users as citizens to viewing them as customers. Public services still exist, but with a somewhat residual function, for the poorest and most excluded, often with conditional access (including ‘deservingness’).


  1. Community, governance, and place

The other movement observed, in both the State and civil society, over the last forty years is the shift away from centralized – national – government and nationally organized movements, towards local governance and community organizing. In what concerns administrative decentralization, the established narrative portrays the local governance of public matters – including basic services – as intrinsically more democratic and efficient than centralized government, especially since it is more open to involving the local civil society. In progressive circles, grass roots movements and community organizing are considered a key component of this shift and a powerful vector of social innovation, empowerment, and inclusion.


Community, however, is a loose concept that applies to a very diversified galaxy of social groups and organizations[3]. It needs, thus, specifications and contextualization. A community can have an exclusive character, when it is based on homogeneous social characteristics (ethnic background, class, income, profession, age, religion, physical conditions) and it addresses the needs of only its members; or it can be inclusive, when it embraces different groups and tries to address their diverse needs. Communities very often have a strong spatial dimension, i.e. are territorially defined. In the TPSN model (Territory-Place-Scale-Networking), as illustrated by Novy, place plays indeed a very relevant role in defining a community, as it provides a strong identitarian and operational context for action. And it is in localized communities – whether neighborhoods, small municipalities, or rural areas – that the most interesting and innovative (counter)movements and practices have developed in the last decades, to overcome bureaucracy and exclusionary practices in the delivery of social services, as well as their commodification, in the direction of reciprocity.


This said, the capacity of communities to organize and generate durable processes of social innovation, empowerment, and inclusion is very diverse across space, as it depends on local endowments (social capital, economic resources), as well as the broader institutional context (including the State at its different scales). A Roma community in a Northern European country has very different empowerment opportunities than a Roma community in a Mediterranean country; a community-based organization providing social care for older people in a big city faces different challenges than one operating in a rural area. Moreover, the organizational form of community-based initiatives further contributes to their differentiation. Key differences exist between e.g. a co-operative, a non-profit organization and/or a voluntary association in what concerns the inclusiveness and reciprocity dimensions. And yet, all these organizations are lumped together in the generic category of ‘Third sector’ and are presumed to have a community dimension.


  1. A brief note on the difference between care and housing

From a methodological point of view, I would also like to stress the profound difference between the two ‘sectors’ addressed by the Doc Team, i.e. care and housing. In contrast to care, which involves mostly labour and is a quite relevant component of most welfare systems, housing involves fixed assets (land, buildings, infrastructure) – which sets it apart from other social provisions – and its public supply is very differentiated across welfare systems. In this domain the role of the state in framing the size and role of the market, i.e. how much housing is decommodified or (re)commodified, is of paramount importance. To this regard I find very useful the ‘triangle’ welfare-finance-planning identified by the DOC-Team to characterize housing regimes. What could be expanded in this approach is the rent dimension. This economic category has held different positions in the evolution of economic thought: in classical economics it was considered antagonistic to capital; but rent has become organic to contemporary capitalism, merging with financial capital and generating repeated waves of gentrification and real estate revalorization in all major urban areas.


  1. Concluding remarks (and provocations)

Since the 1990s there has been a widespread recommodification of care and housing, even in the strongholds of the Socialdemocratic/Nordic welfare regime, marking the abandonment of the principles of universal access to fundamental goods and services and of spatial justice (never fully achieved, but at least pursued). This shift has translated in a resurgence of social and spatial inequalities, especially noticeable in social services, where – despite important variations among countries – the result is a supply system stratified along income (class?) lines and spatially very uneven: while rich people and places turn to the market, poor groups and places are left with a residual – and rather impoverished – public supply.


In this context, community-based initiatives represent a powerful countermovement. As stressed by scholars working on social innovation (Moulaert et al., 2010) they can generate processes (of learning, participation, empowerment), as well as output (services and goods), based on reciprocity rather than market transactions. However, relying solely on this form of countermovement involves risks. First and foremost, as stressed earlier, the capacity to rally financial, human, and technical resources at the local/community level depends on the social and territorial context. The poorest and most excluded communities – those most in need of public goods and services – are often the least able to mobilize and organize. Networking can be helpful, but is not sufficient. A second risk is linked to the sustainability of the initiative over time. Participation and empowerment are not sufficient if needs are not satisfied. A third risk is ‘blaming the victim’: if communities are not capable of organizing, it is their fault and not a failure of the State.


In conclusion, community-based initiatives, especially place-defined ones – are diverse and sparse. Moreover, their efficacy and their sustainability over time depends very much on social, economic and institutional context. Despite some potential for upscaling through networking, the ‘transformative’ potential of such practices at the societal, rather than just community, level remains limited, since only broad-scale countermovements can effectively counteract the current marketisation movement. My argument is that in a context of widespread re-commodification (marketisation) of care and housing, community-based initiatives are very good, but not sufficient to structurally contrast social and spatial inequalities and sometimes they even contribute to reproduce them.


What is missing in the community-based approach is a centralized authority (national or supra-national) that can ensure an equitable distribution of resources and opportunities across social groups and places, hence perform a redistributive action that can only be carried out at a central level. In many countries the national State has ‘abdicated’ this role, while the EU level has very limited regulating and financing power. Paradoxically, claims for such a higher coordination authority – albeit with a rather exclusive notion of citizenship – have been appropriated by the populist-nationalist movements, as stressed by Roland earlier.


Therefore, the principle of social and spatial redistribution by a central public authority (State), through strong regulation, equitable distribution of financial resources and public goods and services should be retrieved and relaunched. This idea of the Welfare State might be updated and romantic (although no less romantic than that of community), but we should not give it up and should work to integrate the two. From this point of view, the Foundational Economy debate is very useful. Retrieving the redistributive role of the State, however, should not only occur in terms of financial resources but also in terms of direct public provision, which involves regulated and trained employment (‘jobs not dole’), since public employment has also a fundamental role of territorial ‘presidium’, especially in ‘left-behind’ places.


Esping-Andersen, G. (1990), The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press,


Martinelli, F., Anttonen, A. and Mätzke, M. (eds) (2017), Social Services Disrupted. Changes, Challenges and Policy Implications for Europe in Times of Austerity, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Available OPEN ACCESS at


Moulaert, F., Martinelli, F., Swyngedouw, E. and Gonzalez S. (eds) (2010), Can Neighbourhoods Save the City? Community Development and Social Innovation, Oxford: Routledge.

[1] As Novy correctly remarked, the current narrative about the withdrawal of the State is a misrepresentation of reality, since the State remains very much behind the regulation and financing of many services. And Ewald stressed how the recent ‘deficit spending’ course, adopted by many European countries following the pandemic, is interpreted as a sign that ‘the State is back’. However, what is of relevance when talking about the role of the State is not just the volume of public expenditures, but how these resources are spent and whether they support the ‘decommodification’ and ‘defamilisation’ of certain activities (Esping-Andersen, 1990) or their ‘(re)commodification’ – as is currently happening.

[2] In my undestanding, ‘movements’ and ‘countermovements’ are a fluid and contingent notion. Moreover, as stressed by Brigitte Aulenbacher, countermovement are not progressive per se.


Flavia Martinelli

University of Reggio Calabria

Read the other essays on the Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing here: