Fighting for Water: An Interview with Andreas Bieler
This is part of our special feature, The Frontlines of Environmental Politics in Europe.
“Reclaiming the commons is the political, economic and ecological agenda for our times,” (Vandana Shiva in Olivera et al. 2004, xi). In his most recent book, Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatization in Europe (Zed Books, 2021), Andreas Bieler analyzes how struggles for reclaiming a fundamental common good—water—are carried out and unveils the thread that links these struggles across different parts of the world. Based on his expertise on labor movements and their acts of resistance, Bieler brings a unique perspective that provides a nuanced understanding of these movements and of the ways in which they not only organize locally but also interrelate internationally. In this interview, his far-reaching perspective reveals how the legacy of these struggles impacts struggles aimed at preserving our commons for present and future generations.
—Angela Cacciarru for EuropeNow
EuropeNow How did you come to research water struggles and what is the main message of your recent book, Fighting for Water, on the topic?
Andreas Bieler My research has focused on analyzing the possibilities of labor movements to represent the struggles of societies against capitalist exploitation. I have looked at trade unions, but also at other organizations. This general focus has been completely unrelated to water. One of my contacts in Brussels, who works for the European Federation of Public Service Unions, organizes trade unions in the public sector at the EU level. One year after the successful referendum against water privatization in Italy, he told me that if I was truly interested in labor movements and local success stories, I had to look at water. Therefore, I started investigating water as a way to investigate successful moments of resistance. In Italy, privatization started in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and opponents were successful at stopping water privatization after a national referendum. In 2014, I started analyzing the Italian water movements to understand how they won in that referendum. It was a tall order, because to win a national referendum in Italy, you not only need to obtain a majority of the votes, but there must be at least a 50 percent voter participation for the referendum to be validated. This was a challenge, especially because none had succeeded in a national referendum in several decades. Hence, the question was, “How do you ensure that 50 percent of the population participates in a referendum?” There was no support by the official media and little demonstrated support by political parties. Even those at the center-left were not forthcoming. How were they successful, then? I looked at the European citizens’ initiative on water and sanitation as a human right, which is a European initiative. From there, I looked at struggles in Greece, especially in Thessaloniki and Athens, against water privatization and the bail out agreement. In Greece, water was supposed to be privatized, and people successfully resisted. I also looked at the Irish campaign against the introduction of water charges. Many people perceived these charges as a first step towards water privatization. Greece and Ireland are two places that stood as successful cases of resistance and led me to interrogate the possibilities and reasons for these successes.
EuropeNow What made it possible for water privatization to be halted in Italy, Greece, and Ireland?
Andreas Bieler Although I was looking at these European cases, it is important to remember that those struggles have taken place across the world. That helped me isolate three key elements to explain why the European cases were so successful. The first was the uniqueness of water. The second was the presence of struggles at different levels. The third was that alliances around water issues have always been very broad.
First, water has a unique quality. Interestingly, in the Italian referendum, even people who would otherwise vote for parties at the center, or center-right, and who were not against privatization in general, for example for the postal service, thought that it was different with water and that making a profit from it was not acceptable. In Italy, the Catholic Church, which is not known as a necessarily progressive organization, also supported this position. Therefore, a whole range of groups and individuals linked to the Catholic Church were heavily involved in the resistance because they believed water to be such a unique source and gift of life. This unique quality set water apart from other resources targeted for potential privatization.
The second reason is that there has been a long history of water struggles at different levels. The so called “water war” in Cochabamba, Bolivia, became relevant for the Italian experience. In 2000, people in Cochabamba successfully resisted the imposition of water privatization and drove out the North American-led group that was seeking control over their water and planning to impose massive water price increases. The first Alternative World Water Forum (AWWF) took place in Florence, Italy, in 2003. In the aftermath of that meeting, Italian activists started to resist privatization at the municipal level. Water privatization had resulted in prices increasing by 100 percent and, at times, even by more. Italian activists met activists from the Cochabamba water war, and realized that although industrialized and developing countries were two different worlds, they faced the same challenge of opposing large transnational corporations. Activists from Italy and Latin America came to realize that the problem was much wider and they learned from their different contexts. This led to the establishing in 2006 of a broader organization: the Italian Forum of Water Movement. At the European level, when the Italian referendum was successful, the European Federation of Public Service Unions decided to create the European citizens’ initiative because they realized that water was an issue around which it was possible to mobilize a broad section of the population. In this way, the Italian national experience had an impact at the European level.
Because the European initiative was so successful, collecting 1.9 billion signatures in 2012-13, the European Parliament and the Commission had to take a position. There was a hearing in the European Parliament where politicians were held accountable, which inspired activists from Thessaloniki, Greece to hold their own local referendum. Again, like their Italian counterparts, over 90 percent of the population rejected water privatization. This referendum, paired with a 2014 constitutional court’s decision about access to water in the face of the threat of privatization, prevented private companies from taking over the management of water in Thessaloniki. This was another success story.
I then studied the Irish case, where the European Citizens’ initiative had not been very successful. It was only in 2014, when the government suddenly attempted to introduce new water charges, which was basically an additional austerity charge, that Irish citizens started to mobilize. They invited experienced activists from other parts of the world, who came from Germany, Italy, and Greece. They also invited people from the Detroit water brigade to come talk about the tactics used in some of their demonstrations, which shows how global the water issue is. In Detroit, there has indeed been a severe problem with households being cut off from access to running water. The Irish case is quite impressive in its combination of winning strategies. First, the Irish organized large demonstrations, in which more than one million people marched in the streets of Dublin. Second, there were also many local activists who physically prevented the installation of water meters by jumping into the holes that were dug by private companies in front of people’s houses, and they blocked the installation of the water meters. And third, the last part of the strategy was to foster a fairly wide observation of the “non-payment campaign.” Basically, when the water bills came, people simply did not pay. This kind of resistance strategy cannot be successful if only one or two people participate. In Ireland, at times, there were more than fifty percent of the population who refused to pay, and at that point it became quite difficult to enforce such payment obligation. These success stories supported my main argument.
Finally, the third reason was that those alliances had always been very broad. There were citizens’ committees who opposed the introduction of water charges; trade unions were also cooperating, because they were worried about what would happen to working conditions and salaries in case of privatization. Environmental groups also cooperated, because they realized that the moment profit making is introduced into water, the environment is first to suffer. Development groups cooperated, because they posited that water should be a human right on a global scale. The idea behind this rationale was that water is not a commodity from which companies should profit.
EuropeNow You published an article in Interface where you adopted a Gramscian approach to look at water. You wrote: “he [Gramsci] understood that class struggle was more than simply the strategy by trade unions and labor associations.” You managed to highlight the interrelations between workers, the social movements that focus on human rights, and environmental issues, and went beyond local struggles. You stress the role of local class struggles and put them in conversation with each other. In your mind, for you, what processes make it possible for workers and social movements to talk to each other across borders?”
Andreas Bieler In a way, these dynamics go back to the way in which we understand capitalism. We know that capitalism is based on the exploitation of waged labor in the workplace. So, if you look at the struggles around wages, contributions, or pensions, this analysis is important. We also need to go beyond this analysis, since, in the sphere of social reproduction, capitalist relations, as feminist social reproduction theories have reminded us, also depend on unpaid labor. Capitalist accumulation depends on access to what Jason Moore calls “cheap nature,” and water is one of these “cheap natures” for extractive industries. Capitalist accumulation also depends on the continuation of expropriation of, for example, indigenous land, in which racial—and racist—dynamics play a role. For example, in Detroit, communities that have been cut off from access to water are mainly poor and black; so, there is clearly a racial element there that tells us that capitalist accumulation depends on much more than struggles in the workplace. These processes allow us to understand why we need to look much more broadly, not only at trade unions, but also at how they cooperate with social movements. For instance, “Black Lives Matter” cooperating with environmental movements is evidence of a broader class struggle. Water is one of the cases where we can see how these broad alliances have been successful, precisely because they do not just focus on one factor but bring those different groups together around a common focus. This way of doing activism is sometimes, but not always difficult for trade unionists to accept.
EuropeNow Your analysis brings about many questions such as “where do we stand?” “what do we stand for in our struggles?” and “what elements should we take into account?” In your book, one chapter is entitled “Transforming capitalism towards the commons?” Based on your research, is it a feasible and reachable goal to consider water a common good at a global level? Some scholars and social movement activists consider that we have already arrived quite far in the water privatization process. In your opinion, have we gone too far, to a point of no return?
Andreas Bieler That is a good question. The commons is the notion that originated and was developed by the Italian water movement. When I spoke to activists, they described how they realized that, in Italy, people did not always want to make water a public good, because they had not always had a good experience with public management. So, in response, these activists tried to present an alternative for water: neither private under profit-making management, nor subject to public management by technocrats. They wanted water to be managed jointly as well as jointly owned by the people, and jointly preserved for future generations. This conception of water is far from the usual understanding of the ways in which economies are organized and of ownership of the means of production. This perspective goes beyond capitalism; it changes the way in which production is organized.
In Greece, “K136” was an activist group that put forward a concrete plan to transform the municipal water company so it would be owned by everyone. In this model, every household owned water as a shared wealth and would pay 136 Euros for their share of the company, hence the name of the group. In the end, they did not succeed, and the notion of the commons of water did not catch on. What did, however, catch on was their focus on democratizing the management of water services, which brings together trade unionists, users’ groups, and other actors. This model of direct democracy challenges capitalism in that it questions the right to own and administer the means of production. To me, this is quite powerful. Referenda over water are general democratic decisions about whether water should be private or public. Democratizing the running of water companies is a different democratic element. Successful referenda indicate that democracy plays a crucial role for water management, which should be extended to the running of companies themselves.
There are currently interesting experiments going on in Spain, especially in Catalunya, in the municipality of Terassa, where they have experimented with water councils. Residents have been granted the right to co-decide how the local re-municipalized water company is organized. This is an interesting democratic experiment. We can see seeds of resistance, leading to proposals of what a post-capitalist society can look like. We cannot predict the future, but class struggles are always open ended. Will it be enough? This is an important question. If we look at the global level, at water struggles in general, we see that there has been a trend toward re-municipalization. The Transnational Institute in Amsterdam monitors occurrences of re-municipalizations in the world. In fact, there have been many municipal water companies that have passed back into public hands. Paris, Berlin, Grenoble are just a few iconic examples. Naples, in Italy, is another key example. So, there have been real successes, and there is a true attempt to make the management of water more democratic. But, of course, capitalism also pushes back, with constant attempts to bring in privatization through the back door, keeping the struggles ongoing. Activists are well aware that there is never a final victory, where you can say “we won.” That is exhausting, and activists are no longer so numerous on the ground. But there is still a strong cohort at the European level. There is also the European Water Movement, which coordinates individual local struggles. Back to your question on whether there could be a global transformation in the way in which water has been managed: it is difficult to predict that, since there are many phases in the process. But there is also a range of success stories, victories, experiments, and stories of democratization in management within companies. These are, at least, causes for optimism.
EuropeNow In your book, as you reflect on water struggles, you highlight people’s resilience against water privatization and the global reach of the networks they created, and you speak of “seeds of resistance” to talk about the lessons that these struggles have taught us and their legacy. In relation to contemporary social struggles and social movements, you mention that there are fewer people who get involved today, compared to previous times. Based on your research in the field and what your contacts tell you, what could be done to reinforce these struggles, to bring them back, back into the social arena, into the public arena?
Andreas Bieler The ongoing struggles are completely exhausting for every activist. You think that all can be won, and it drags on and on. Then, capitalism comes back again, and you mobilize again. I have met people who, at some point became burned out and couldn’t continue. These struggles had taken over their lives. They had come to these campaigns as trade unionists or environmental activists, but were all transformed into “water activists.” This shows the transformative dimensions of these struggles for the activists themselves, but also indicates the enormous pressure the struggles put on their lives. However, how long can someone sustain that level of commitment without burning out? That is a challenge. What we can say is that these seeds of resistance, these experiences of struggles, have become the ground for new emergent issues. Many activists that have been involved in water moved to other battles. It is not that they suddenly disappeared. Water, itself, is still a live issue, and there are activists at the European level. The Italian Water Forum still exists; it is a functioning organization with international delegates, local activists, and local water committees—in Torino, for example. In summary, there have been many successes and there are still ongoing struggles. People are partially burned out, but all the experience is still there. So, I would be optimistic about the capacity of resisting privatization and exploitation. People will come again, either in the area of water or in related areas. There is a long legacy at play. I would not say that the high point has gone away and that there is not much happening anymore. There is much resistance that has been generated.
EuropeNow Your analysis can be approached from two perspectives: one focused on power relations and the other on the acts of resistance. Abu-Lughod (1990), examines the lessons that the acts of resistance give us about power, She invites a focus on resistance as a “diagnostic of power” (42). For her, new forms of resistance—or new objects of resistance— reveal historical shifts in the power structure and in the ways in which “resistors” perceive this power. Heatherington, in her analysis of resistance in a Sardinian town against the dispossession of local commons, argues that “resistance” in Sardinia is not a descriptive category but an object of ideology and cultural imagination that shapes social practice and political life. Borrowing on Ortner (1995), she observes that the ethnographic study of events of resistance actually, “complicates notions of resistance” by recognizing how social agency “from the bottom up” is inflected with ironies, inconsistencies, and double-binds that are implicated in reinscribing relations of power” (2006, 539).
If we take both Abu-Lughod’s reference to the “diagnostic of power” and Heatherington’s reference to cultural imagination in light of your assertion about the legacy of water struggles and the fact that much resistance capacity has been generated,” I wonder if that capacity to resist in fact reveals the power structures, which acquire different forms in different geographical locations and historical periods and require, therefore, different struggles, rooted in the legacy that the previous acts of resistance left.
You mention that water struggles are ongoing. We do not know the future. But we see that multinational corporations, for example, and some governments as well, are coming up with new ways of enforcing rules that go towards privatization. Does it mean that local movements have to come up with new kinds of resistance, perhaps similar to the resistance Native population in the United States put up when their land got occupied? I am hopeful about the future, are you?
Andreas Bieler I think that we have to be optimistic. Every struggle brings forward new activists. People suddenly realize something about their own capacity, which they have not perhaps been aware of before. This unveils new activists, new sites of resistance, which can become active in future struggles.
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy in the School of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham University, UK. His main research focus is labor movements, understood broadly, and their possibilities to resist neo-liberal globalization. He is author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (with Adam D. Morton) (CUP, 2018) and Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatization in Europe (Zed Books, 2021).
Angela Cacciarru is a political ecologist trained in the fields of human geography, urban and regional planning, and development studies, with research interests in the role of land enure on development patterns. She is also interested in access to resources and resource exploitation, with a particular focus on food security, sustainable food production, and water management.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1990. “The romance of resistance: tracing transformations of power through Bedouin women.” American Ethnologist 1, no.17 (1990): 41-55.
Bieler, Andreas. 2017. “Fighting for public water: the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative, ‘Water and Sanitation are a Human Right.’” Interface 1, no. 9: 300 – 326.
Heatherington, Tracey. 2006. “Sin, saints, and sheep in Sardinia.” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, no. 13:533-556.
Moore, Jason W. 2016 “The Rise of Cheap Nature.” Sociology Faculty Scholarship. 2. https://orb.binghamton.edu/sociology_fac/2
Ortner, Sherry B. 1995. “Resistance and the problem of ethnographic refusal. Comparative Studies.” Society and History1, no. 37: 173-193.
Published on May 18, 2022.