The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

“Sic Vos Non Vobis” (For You, But Not Yours): The Struggle for Public Water in Italy.

Resistance against water privatisation is one of the success stories in the struggle against neo-liberal globalisation. And where privatisation has already taken place, there is a tendency towards re-municipalisation (see Lobina, Kishimoto and Petitjean 2014). It has become clear that the private sector can simply not deliver on its promises of higher quality, lower consumer charges and universal access. In my recently published, openly accessible article “Sic Vos Non Vobis” (For You, But Not Yours): TheStruggle for Public Water in Italy in Monthly Review, I analyse the dynamics underlying the successful mobilisation for a referendum against water privatisation in Italy in 2011. It is based on a series of interviews with members of the Italian water movement between 25 March and 8 April 2014.

"Sic Vos Non Vobis" (For You, But Not Yours) were the words Vergil wrote on the wall when Bathyllus, another poet, had plagiarized his work. The use of the words as the title of the Monthly Review article was inspired by an exhibition in the Parco Arte Vivente on water as a commons in Torino, Italy in spring 2014. "Sic Vos Non Vobis" reflects well the dynamics behind the struggle for public water: water is there for everyone to enjoy, but nobody should own and make a profit from it.

Water as the rallying point on the road towards victory

The Forum Italiano dei Movimenti per l’Acqua, an alliance of trade unions, social movements and NGOs opposed to water privatisation, was established in 2006 as a broad network with a national secretariat in Rome. Members of the Forum reached across society including Funzione Pubblica-CGIL, the largest Italian trade union federation, as well as the rank-and-file unions Cobas and USB, environmental groups such as the Italian section of WWF and Legambiente, ATTAC Italia, the left-oriented network of social centres ARCI (Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana) as well as the catholic network of social centres ACLI (Associazioni cristiane dei lavoratori italiani). The NGO Comitato Italiano Contratto Mondiale sull'Acqua participated from the beginning and had been crucial in bringing the issue of water from the international level to Italy in the 2003 meeting of the Alternative World Water Forum in Firenze.

The theme of water, the symbolic power of water as a fundamental source of life was mentioned again and again by my interviewees as the single most important reason for why it had been possible to bring together such a variety of different organisations in this campaign. For example, CGIL federations are in disagreement with USB and Cobas on all trade union issues, but the water movement is the one place, where they have come together and work jointly. And it was not only different organisations, individual citizens too rallied around the theme of water and voted ‘yes’ to both questions in the referendum. While centre-right parties such as the Lega Nord had not endorsed the referendum, many people who normally vote for centre-right parties also supported the referendum.

Photo by Marco Menu

When the referendum took place on 12 and 13 June 2011, the victory of the water movement was overwhelming. For the first time in 16 years, it had again been possible to secure the quorum of at least 50 per cent plus one voter participating. In fact, just over 57 per cent of the electorate cast their vote. The majorities in relation to the two questions on water were even more impressive. ’95.35% yes (4.65% no) on the first question; 95.80% yes (4.20% no) on the second’ (Fattori 2011). The victory could not have been more decisive.

The Referendum and its Aftermath: La Lotta Continua.

Almost immediately after the referendum, the Italian government moved against the outcome. First, it disempowered municipalities in that an independent national agency was entrusted with the task of setting water tariffs. A complex mathematical equation is put forward, which municipalities have to translate into their particular situation. Second, the principle of the EU Stability Pact of balanced budgets was transferred to the level of Italian municipalities. With their financial possibilities constrained, those municipalities, in which water services had already been privatised, would find it difficult, if not impossible to buy back private shares, especially against the background of the Eurozone crisis.

Moreover, the second question of the referendum abrogating the right of private companies to a guaranteed profit of seven per cent has never been implemented. In the latest twist of turns the formula, calculated in exactly the same way, has been re-introduced at the slightly lower level of 6.4 per cent. As I outline in the article, the victory took place against the background of the structuring conditions of global capitalism around the global financial crisis and increasing pressure by capital in the search for profitable investment opportunities to open up public services for private investment. The water movement had been successful in halting further privatisation, but it did not succeed in pushing for re-municipalisation of already privatised water companies.

Lasting legacies of the Italian water movement

It would be incorrect to argue that the Italian water movement has ultimately failed due to the incomplete implementation of the referendum outcomes. The Forum’s success in the 2011 referendum is arguably the most important example of a successful anti-neoliberal campaign in Europe over the last decade. Despite the problems with full implementation of the referendum results, there are clearly lasting legacies of the Italian water movement.

Photo by Referendum Acqua 2011
First, the focus on water as a commons during the referendum campaign directly challenges the capitalist focus on commodifying ever more areas and submitting them to the profit logic of the market, implying a move towards a new economic model. This focus is combined with a new, participatory form of democracy in the running of water services. Precisely in a situation perceived by some within the Forum as post-democratic, the focus on a new form of democracy proved attractive. In other words, it is a new understanding of democracy and a new way of how to run the economy and, importantly, of how these two dimensions are closely and internally related, which brings with it a transformative dimension.

Second, the Forum’s referendum success in Italy encouraged the European Federation of Public Service Unions to launch the first European Citizens’ Initiative on water as a human right, collecting successfully 1.9 million signatures across the European Union (see Against the grain: The European Citizens’ Initiative on ‘Water is a Human Right’). In turn, this convinced water activists in the Greek city of Thessaloniki to hold their own, independent referendum on water privatisation. A large majority against water privatisation resulted, which contributed to the Greek state abandoning plans of privatisation (see also The Thessaloniki water referendum). The Italian referendum continues to have international implications for struggles elsewhere.

Prof. Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

27 October 2015

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