The Politics of the Water Commons – Özdeş Özbay

From the publication of Garret Hardin’s article The Tragedy of the Commons in 1968 until the 1990s, the concept of the commons was mostly regarded as simply an academic discussion. However, the fact that the extremely ‘tragic’ consequences of the global neoliberal policies that began in 1980 were to be felt in the 1990s, has led to the emergence of social movements around the world, in particular on the issue of water.

Relying on the motto ‘There is no other alternative’, neoliberal policies were implemented based on the understanding that the public sector offered rather cumbersome and poor quality services. Furthermore, private companies and market practices, which were considered to be more innovative and effective, were presented as the only way to improve service quality. We have experienced the clearest practices of these ideas especially in the issue of water. International organizations, such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the IMF, imposed certain policies that ensured water services were left in the hands of private enterprises or public-private cooperations throughout the world. Apart from these practices, rights to the use of lakes, rivers, and groundwater were also increasingly handed over to private companies. However, these attempts often failed after a while. Movements against such neoliberal water policies appeared just after the emergence of social and economic problems.

At the same time as the struggles of the right to water, the politics of the commons in opposition to neoliberal policies also arose, and often these two struggles evolved intertwined with one another. The right to water is considered a human right, which by definition stands in contradiction to the idea of commodification and commercialization of water. Likewise, the politics of the commons opposes the prevalent commodification of the ecological commons, such as water, land, seas, and forests. This movement initially emerged from struggles against enclosures and commodification of ecological resources (which are not the domain of private property) through private or public institutions. The movement claims that these ecological resources are commons that belong to everyone. However, over time, the realm of commons politics has expanded its range. Against neoliberal attacks on every field of social services, the idea that public services such as education, health, and transportation are the commons of society has begun to be widely accepted. In addition, urban commons movements have emerged opposing practices of gentrification and urban transformation in cities. The issue of water has also become an important field of the politics of commons, both as an ecological common and as a struggle for the right to water in cities.

Although already emphasized in various articles in this book, it deserves mentioning once more that the politics of commons rejects not only the private property relations of the market but also bureaucratic state ownership. Today, in particular, as the neoliberal state itself and local administrations are managed like corporations, the politics of commons rejects the state politics on commons and struggles against the revoking of previously acquired social rights. At this point, however, please note that the question of how public institutions should be included in the politics of commons still remains a topic for discussion. Therefore, as far as the water commons are concerned, the protection of water resources is of pivotal importance. What’s more, as a requirement of the right to water, the provision of water services through public resources provides important political goals in terms of the politics of commons.

Struggles for rights to water are conflicts that span a vast geography, from India to Brazil. I sought to explain the most important of these struggles in a previous article (Özbay, 2017). In this article, however, I will address two essential struggles of the right to water, both of which recognize water as a common and place the water commons on the agenda of social movements: Italian Water Movements Forum and Cochabamba Water Wars. Further I will discuss the municipal experiences that, as a consequence of social movements from below, recognize water as a common.

The recognition of water as a common: the Italian Water Movement

It was the Italian Water Movement that triggered the politics of water commons. A number of right to water struggles exist in various parts of the world, but it was the movement in Italy that prompted a social mobilization to fight in defence of water as a common for the first time.

The Italian Water Movement emerged in 1998 with the establishment of the Italian Committee for World Water Contract (CICMA) after the Water Manifesto by Riccardo Petrella, an Italian economist, found widespread support in Italy in 1995 (Carrozza & Fantini, 2016). A water movement emerged in Italy with the Alternative World Water Forum, which was organized as an alternative to the World Water Forum in Florence in 2003.

The debates launched around the water issue in the mid-1990s had turned into a social movement by the 2000s. The large-scale meetings held in this period gave way to the Italian Forum of Water Movements (hereafter the “Forum”) in 2006. This Forum, which was constituted of local resistance groups, NGOs, unions, academics, and activists, became the most influential organization that determined the demands of the water movement in the following period.

The Italian Water Movement had three key features. The first was that the movement was considered to be one of the most participatory and flexible social movements in the history of Italy. The movement acknowledged the right to water as a basic human right. Secondly, while the water struggles in Europe were either conceptualized as a means of remunicipalization or water right, the concept of “the commons” was also incorporated into the struggle for the first time in Italy. Thus, the definition of the commons appeared in the program of a social movement. Thirdly, the movement won a referendum on the issue of water privatisation in 2011, which encouraged the adoption of the concept of the commons by other social movements as well. Hence, the politics of the commons started to emerge in various other areas such as labor, information, and the internet (Carrozza & Fantini, 2016).

One of the important turning points of the water movement, which spread from Italy across the world, was that it spurred the remunicipalization movements. Recognising water as a common, the movement started a big campaign against the transfer of water services to private enterprises. As a result of the campaigns of the Forum in 2009, municipalities in the cities of Turin and Venice took control of water and sanitation services away from private companies. In addition to the remunicipalization processes in Naples, water resources were also referred to as commons and were handled in a way that transcended the binary approach of private vs. public (Carrozza & Fantini, 2016). According to the report Here to Stay: Water Remunicipalization as a Global Trend, prepared by the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), the Transnational Institute (TNI), and the Multinational Observatory in 2014, there were 180 cases of water remunicipalization around the world between 2000 and 2014 (Lobina, Kishimoto & Petitjean, 2015). 

However, it is not quite possible to include all of these cases of remunicipalization in the politics of the commons. Nevertheless, strong conceptual claims, such as water as a common and as a human right, have paved the way for potential gains against neoliberal practices on a global scale.

During the 2011 referendum in Italy, the water movement’s slogan was “You write it water, you read it democracy”, indicating that they were striving for the commoning of water. Whilst the politics of the commons acknowledges ecological resources, public spaces, or services as commons, commoning as politics includes the governance of factories, workplaces, and neighborhoods by prioritizing citizen participation. Commoning, meanwhile, means governance of a commonized thing outside of market relations. The Forum, with its extensive network of participants, has taken a step forward in the governance of water assets by water users through commoning practices.

The politics of the commons emerging from the water movement has also been widely embraced by numerous different struggles across Italy. They even formed a political movement called the Alliance for Labor, the Commons, and the Environment so as to participate in the 2013 elections, albeit without success. Even so, it was probably the first attempt at election politics under the name of the commons. Similarly, in Catalonia, Common Barcelona (Barcelona en Comú- BeC) took part in the Spanish local elections in 2015. It comprised many social movements and political parties as well as the Water is Life campaign. Unlike the movement in Italy, BeC achieved a historic victory in the municipal elections.

Cochabamba Water Wars as an experience of commoning water

The 2000 water uprising in Cochabamba, Bolivia, marked the beginning of a major water movement. A series of events called ‘Water Wars’ went down in history as an inevitable consequence of the privatization program initiated by President Sanchez in Bolivia in 1993. The first phase of the privatization program, supported by the World Bank, was comprised of the privatization of electricity, telecommunications, and oil and gas companies. The second phase went on to include the privatization of the water services in the cities of La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba. Cochabamba had one of the highest numbers of immigrants over the previous few decades. The 1950 population of 80,000 mushroomed to 412,000 in 1992. While only 53% of this population was connected to the water network, only 23% could get a regular, 24-hour water service (Marvin & Laurie, 1999). The rest of the population obtained water from wells, water tankers, or through the formation of numerous civil society organizations, such as water committees (Assies, 2003). In 1999, the Bolivian government signed an agreement with an international consortium known as Aguas del Tunari, which entitled it to control the work of Cochabamba’s Municipal Drinking Water and Sewerage Services (SEMAPA). The administration thought that the agreement could help them overcome Cochabamba’s water crisis. However, the introduction of a profit-oriented water governance scheme saw water prices rise by up to 150%. As might be expected, after years of deepening water crisis, the privatization process led the people of Cochabamba to react.

Their objections were initially raised by organizations such as the Committee for the Defence of Water and the Popular Economy, the Federation of Neighborhood Associations, and the Departmental Federation of Factory Workers of Cochabamba (FDTFC). These groups came together to form the Coordination for the Defence of Water and Life (Coordinadora). The Coordinadora was a concrete step in the commoning of the water governance in the city with its structure open to both labor organizations and neighborhood associations, as well as unorganized individual participation.

The FDTFC union played a fundamental role in starting the struggle. In January 2000, many people gathered outside the union building in the city square to protest the increase in water prices. The union called on citizens not to pay their bills. Aguas del Tunari, who had taken over management of the city’s water, announced in response that it would cut the water supplies of those who failed to pay their bills. The Coordinadora members along with angry members of the public congregated in the union building on January 11th and declared a general strike. The strike swiftly developed into a rebellion when the neighborhood associations set up road blocks. The Coordinadora called for a rally on January 13th to be held in the city square. During the rally, at which there were clashes between demonstrators and police, government officials commenced negotiations with representatives of the movement. As a result of the negotiations, the movement was granted substantial concessions and thus the first phase of the Cochabamba Water Wars was over (Assies, 2003).

Within a few weeks, the failure to solve the water crisis increased tensions. As the demands of the movement had not been accepted, the outraged crowds went back to the streets in February and April. And the government intervened more firmly each time. The Bolivian Peasant Workers Confederation also joined the general strike in April, demanding the complete abolition of the water privatization law. The army declared a state of emergency in the city. One person was killed and hundreds of protesters were injured and detained during a week of riots and conflicts. Eventually the government took a step back: the deal with Aguas del Tunari was terminated and control of water provision was handed back to the municipality. Law no. 2029, which privatized the water, was amended accordingly (Assies, 2003).

The Cochabamba Water Wars had three significant consequences. To start with, for the first time in history a social movement managed to reverse a neoliberal policy that had been in effect for 15 years. Second, it changed the forms of social struggles in Bolivia. Prior to the water wars, only the trade unions took a lead in social struggles. Now, however, neighborhood associations and water committees formed in Cochabamba that became platforms for the movement to organize around. Formed with the help of the trade unions, the Coordinadora emerged as a horizontal network organization model. The government had no choice but to recognize and negotiate with this platform from below (Assies, 2003). The struggle, in essence, was a matter of democratic participation in the management of water. 

In this regard, the Coordinadora’s massive open forums in the city square took their place in the history of social struggles as an example of direct democracy. This citizen participation around the Coordinadora went down as a landmark experience in the politics of commons. The Coordinadora went on to play a crucial role in the city’s water governance for several years. Thirdly, the spread of the general strike to other cities also led workers to put forward demands beyond the issue of water, which in turn paved the way for a new social movement. For example, peasants demanded that fuel and transportation costs be reduced, while teachers demanded a pay rise and coca producers, together with their leader Evo Morales, appealed for the removal of barriers to coca production (De Angelis, 2017: 309). In 2005, Morales was elected President as a result of this expanding radical left movement.

The water struggle in Cochabamba went down in history not only as an experience in the defence of water rights but also as a structure for managing water policies through Coordinadora, with the working class at its centre. However, the struggle for commoning water in Cochabamba continues in opposition to Morales’s policies. Despite calling himself a socialist, under a 2008 constitutional amendment, he implemented an uncompromising policy against autonomous structures as he believes such problems can actually be solved by the state. He therefore opposes the intervention of the water committees in Cochabamba and other formations such as the Coordinadora in decision-making and implementation processes. Representatives of the movement quite rightly perceive this move as a new policy of enclosures implemented by the state (Dwinell & Olivera, 2017). Nevertheless, this struggle has provoked more in-depth discussion on both the potentials and limitations of the politics of the commons.

One of the leading figures of this debate is Massimo de Angelis, who discusses the inherent potentials that the politics of the commons are laden with in terms of the anticapitalist struggle. Others (Dwinell & Olivera, 2017) who look at the anticapitalist potential of the politics of the commons tend to obscure the weight of the general strike and the mobilization of the working class while emphasizing the importance of the movement. Showing the Cochabamba experience as one of the most well-suited cases with regard to his theory of politics of commons, De Angelis focuses on the self-established procurement methods people use in order to meet their water needs, which evolved 30 years prior to the emergence of the movement (de Angelis, 2017: 305). But while the main dynamic force in the formation of the Coordinadora in Cochabamba is the union and the general strike, Angelis tends to see this fundamental dynamic, which in fact has forced the state to back down and enabled Coordinadora to exist, as a side element instead. Interestingly, Dwinell and Olivera hardly ever mention the working class but rather highlight the water committees formed by the people. While the Morales government’s practices have been widely criticized, they argued that the state is the problem whereas the solution is in the autonomous governance mechanisms. In fact, the water committees together with the Coordinadora are actually a form of class organization that lacks control of the necessary means of production. For this reason, those authors miss out the fact that these organisations have not evolved into a kind of formation that is capable of responding to major social issues posed in committees and Coordinadora meetings. These structures are not organized around workplaces but rather through the participation of workers in their neighborhoods, and herein lies the root of their limitations. Water committees in the neighborhoods that are not connected to public water services are themselves responsible for the water network and repairs and for generating their own funds. Despite those authors’ stress on this situation, it is clear that this is quite unsustainable. The problem is not only that the state does not recognize these autonomous structures in question but also that the workers in municipal and water services cannot participate in these management processes. Failing to provide effective services, the state could, over time, reclaim responsibility as a result of this deficiency and weakness of the water committees.

Acknowledging water as a commons and its spread in local governments

The struggles rising out of the water movement have emerged almost everywhere as local mobilizations. And yet the magnitude of the problem has changed the scale of the struggle. The global anticapitalist movement that emerged after the 1999 Battle of Seattle and the World Social Forum has enabled local mobilizations to become an integral part of the global network of struggles. However, this global movement has experienced a rapid decline, especially after the 2008 economic crisis. Local water movements and, more recently, movements that attempt to create politics over the commons have failed to offer any national alternative to the austerity policies of national governments. As a result, they began to focus on municipalities as a political target. As a matter of fact, the municipalist movement was going well before this period; however, in terms of the politics of the commons, it came to the fore as a line of defence against ecological destruction and the neoliberal austerity policies of central governments, as well as the construction of a radical left alternative in the case of Barcelona.

With regard to the developments in water in this period, the Blue Communities have become one of the campaigns that aimed to make municipalities and various local governments adopt to the politics of the commons. After many years of struggle, the right to water was eventually recognized as a human right by the United Nations in 2010. Nevertheless, just like any other UN resolution, how this decision would be implemented was rather unclear. For about 20 years in Canada, water resources monitoring and water rights campaigns have been running widespread campaigns against austerity policies and the commercialization of water. Led by water rights activist and author Maude Barlow, the Blue Planet Project, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and the Council of Canadians convened to create the Blue Communities Project in 2010. The Blue Communities have emerged as an attempt to implement the UN’s decision of right to water at the local level.

The Blue Communities aim not only to keep water resources clean but also to protect them. They oppose privatization and commercialization of water, acknowledging water as a commons to all living things, and as a human right as well. The water commons framework of the Blue Communities is summarized below. The water commons framework defines water as a shared resource that is shared by everyone and the responsibility of all.

Blue Communities encourages municipalities and indigenous communities to adopt a water commons framework by:

  1. Recognizing the right to water and sanitation as a human right
  2. Banning or phasing out the sale of bottled water in municipal facilities and at municipal events
  3. Promoting publicly financed, owned, and operated water and wastewater services (Blue Community, 2016: 4)

So far, apart from over 20 cities in Canada, a number of municipalities around the world, such as St. Gallen and Bern in Switzerland, Paris in France, Northampton in the United States, Thessaloniki in Greece, and Berlin in Germany have joined the Blue Communities.

While the Blue Communities initially started off as a campaign consisting of municipalities, they have begun to incorporate various institutions that have adopted these principles over time. The most important of these institutions are universities and autonomous regions belonging to indigenous peoples. Various organizations, such as St. Gallen and Bern Universities in Switzerland and the World Council of Churches, have also become members of the Blue Communities.

However, no local government or university is so far a member of the Blue Community in Turkey. And yet various attempts have been initiated under the leadership of the Right to Campaign of Turkey. The most outstanding of these initiatives was the campaign initiated by Boğaziçi University students at the end of 2017 with the support of the Right to Water Campaign.

Having accepted the water commons framework, the students of Boğaziçi University demanded that the university become a member of the Blue Communities. Although the campaign was quite promising, it was not able to achieve the success it hoped due to the major political agenda in Turkey at the time.

Another network of municipalities advocating water as a commons was established in Spain after the local elections in 2015. The union of municipalities, called the Public Water Network, is a platform consolidated mostly by left wing municipalities in order to defend public water services against privatization and to spread public-public partnerships. This network organized a summit, Cities for Public Water Conference, and invited the mayors of cities which are won by left-wing candidates such as Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Zaragoza, A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela to hold talks around the water issue in Madrid in November 2015. At a time when neoliberal market solutions are heavily imposed around the world, the Declaration for the Public Management of Water announced at this conference has the potential of becoming a milestone. The activists, unions, NGOs, and municipalities that came together once again declared water as a ‘commons’ and the right to water as a ‘human right’. Additionally, they agreed on the notion that municipalities, local councils, and other public organizations should establish closer ties with each other with regard to the public administration of water.

From water to other issues: on the politics of urban commons

Emerging through the Forum in parallel with other social movements in Italy in the early 2000s, the politics of the commons significantly increased over the politics of social movements in Spain from 2011 onwards.

Arising from a movement called the Indignados (indignants) that occupied squares in 2011 and a subsequent general strike wave, the new left-wing party, Podemos, became the third largest party in the 2015 general election with a radical anti-austerity programme. Again in local elections in 2015, several platforms supported by Podemos were organized by wide ranging social movements in different cities. They won many municipalities around left-wing candidates. In these local alliances, there were many social movements as well as right to water campaigns. Amongst these local election platforms, Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common- BeC) has made the most substantial breakthrough with regard to the politics of the commons. Launched in Barcelona, the movement was, in fact, given the name Guanyem Barcelona (Let’s Win Barcelona). This name, in a similar way to Podemos, emphasized the movement itself rather than the party. However, when they were unable for various reasons to use the name in elections, they began to use the name Barcelona in Common. As for the debates on the name, although names like the Democratic Revolution had also come up, the word ‘commons’ received the greatest support for it incorporated the meaning of a new kind of publicity. The movement sees the commons as a non-institutionalized public sphere (Subirats, 2017).

Barselona’da kurulan hareket aslında kendine isim olarak Guanyem Barcelona’yı (Guanyem/Ganemos ‘Kazanalım’ anlamına geliyor) seçmişti. Bu isim Podemos’a (Yapabiliriz) benzer bir şekilde bir partiye değil bir harekete vurgu yapıyordu. Fakat çeşitli nedenlerle bu isimle seçimlere girememeleri üzerine Müşterek Barselona (Barcelona en Comu- BeC) ismini kullanmaya başladılar. İsim konusundaki tartışmalarda ‘demokratik devrim’ gibi isimler de gündeme gelmiş olmakla birlikte müşterek kelimesi yeni bir tür kamusallığı içermesi açısından en fazla desteği almış. Müşterekleri kurumsallaşmamış bir kamusal alan olarak görüyor hareket (Subirats, 2017).

Since Guanyem, the movement has had four key starting points:

  1. Taking back the city. For various reasons including tourism and industry, the movement argue that businesses have taken the city from citizens.
  2. Addressing urgent social issues. Immediate solutions to issues involving tens of thousands of victims, including housing and water.
  3. Ensuring citizen participation in municipality decisions.
  4. Commitment to political ethics. This is a reaction to corruption and to austerity measures (Subirats, 2017).

The candidate of Barcelona in Common for Barcelona’s mayor office, Ada Colau, won the municipal elections.[1] Barcelona in Common is trying to redefine a common good life and to formulate it into policies on water, housing, transportation, wages, and public spaces. The importance of this is that it seeks to create an autonomous space from the state (that is, from municipal administrators and the bureaucracy as well) to ensure citizen participation in all areas, from the process of decision-making to the implementation processes, as well as to break away from the dichotomy between the private and public in politics. It envisions this as a common space in which every citizen can participate.

The most distinguishing feature of the movement is its proposition of a new type of political participation and activism against the traditional methods of politics, i.e. political parties and unions. Starting from the neighborhoods of the city, it creates the necessary tools for citizens’ direct participation in both the determination of problems and the development of solutions. Therefore, Barcelona in Common is often referred to as the party of the movement (Zelinka, 2018).

Participatory neighborhood forums or assemblies are called Asamblearismo (Assembly-ism), which is the lowest sub-unit of Barcelona in Common. In these assembly meetings in which almost any issue can be on the agenda, equal rights of speech and consensus decision-making is given particular importance. Following the victory in the municipal election, active contributions of the assemblies concerning the preparation of neighborhood and city plans are received. There are currently about 300 neighborhood assemblies in the city (Zelinka, 2018).

With Ada Colau coming to power as the mayor of Barcelona, a serious remunicipalization process was initiated. The BeC management remunicipalized water services in several neighborhoods of Barcelona, since water services had been largely transferred to private companies in the city (Badia & Subirana, 2015). In 2018, she even held a referendum on this issue. From funeral procedures to women’s shelters, remunicipalization takes place in many areas (Sobart, 2018). This municipalization not only aims to simply bring the services back into public hands, but also further aims to ensure their commoning practices, which means citizen participation to decision-making processes.

The movement in Barcelona is aware of the fact that it cannot achieve long-term gains against global neoliberalism as a single city. However, the failures of the left on a national scale (the failures of leftist governments across Latin America, the frustration with Syriza, and the electoral defeat of Podemos) have led to the understanding that it is quite viable to conduct a global struggle through the medium of cities. Barcelona in Common, therefore, also strives to unite left municipalities on a global scale.

On the day she was elected mayor, Ada Colau said that they would try to establish an urban movement across the Mediterranean. Then, in 2016, she was elected as co-president of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). In June 2017, the Fearless Cities Summit was held in Barcelona. The declaration of the international municipalist summit was as follows: “In a world in which fear and insecurity are being twisted into hate, and inequalities, xenophobia, and authoritarianism are on the rise, towns and cities are standing up to defend human rights, democracy, and the common good” (Su Hakkı, 2017). Mayors, employees, NGOs working on the right to shelter and the right to the city, as well as representatives of various platforms in 180 cities from 68 countries and five continents participated in the meeting. Fearless Cities have organized international regional meetings in many cities such as New York and Warsaw in 2018.

Prof. Dr. Juan Subirats, a theorist of politics of the right to water and commons, is one of the most influential names in Barcelona in Common. Subirats, recognizing that national and global problems cannot be solved through a single city, asserts that they are committed to an international municipalist movement, and what’s more, they are striving to establish ‘Catalonia in Common’ (Catalunya en Com”) through the initiative of ‘A Country in Common’ (Un País en Comú) (Subirats, 2017). It suggests spreading the politics of the commons at the country level by taking it one step further than the city scale; however, a formation and mobilisation such as in the case of Barcelona in Common is still yet to come for them.

Concluding remarks

Beginning as a defence of the commons against neoliberal aggression from the 1990s onwards, the politics of the commons have evolved into a defence of the urban commons as well, and the commoning of public spaces has been a step forward in the politics of the commons. The fact that the city as such has been regarded as a common in recent years, allows many collective rights claims to come to the fore within this framework. The right to water is one of the most vital rights, which include the right to a public education, fresh air, and access to the sea. It should be noted here that there are also tendencies against rights-based struggles within the politics of the commons (Mattei, 2012; Dwinell & Olivera, 2017). This approach for some reason tends to reduce the concept of a ‘right’ to the realm of liberal individual rights and freedoms. However, ‘rights’ have always been the most fundamental terrain of class conflict throughout the history of capitalism: the right to a weekend break, the right to a 48-hour week, the right to free education, and the right to free health, to name but a few. The notion of a right is a demand aimed at the use of public resources and yet it does not have to be limited by this. The movements for a solid demand for rights can in effect pave the way for political and organizational mobilization. Similarly, the politics of the commons may arise from collective rights via collective demands. In this regard, the right to water is a pivotal area of struggle. Nevertheless, transcending the limitations in question and determining the priorities of use of water by watershed management policies are some of the issues pertaining to the commoning of water. Demands such as the right to water are of crucial importance in terms of legal and constitutional guarantees of various gains; however, every right is vulnerable to obliteration as a result of social power relations. Rights can also be taken back as in the case of Bolivia today. The only way to make these rights permanent is for social movements to pursue a multi-faceted strategy to overcome capitalism. From commoning practices to rights-based struggles, from defending the commons to the commoning of production, multiple methods are required to be implemented in a concerted manner. With this in mind, we also need to discuss issues such as the central role of the working class, revolution, and political organization, all of which are issues that often tend to be neglected within politics of the commons. Accentuating collective rights is important for two aspects. First, it frees the movement from the politics of the commons constituted by the coexistence of different and contradictory classes. Secondly, it helps to reinterpret the public as a struggle for using public resources rather than the mere bureaucracy. Inasmuch as capitalism exists, social services like water, health, and education cannot be sustained with good quality and free for the benefit of society without public resources. For example, anarchist groups active in the neighborhood assembly tried to establish a school in Sants, Barcelona, to be run by citizens’ own means and rejecting public resources. And yet, for the workers and the poor who continued to endure tax cuts from their salaries, this was less an anticapitalist practice than an economic burden. As a result, serious discussions occurred within the movement (Subirats, 2017). In the Cochabamba example, the poor were obliged to provide water services on their own because the state did not deliver the necessary services. As Can Irmak Özinanır emphasizes in his article in this book, the ongoing struggle outside the production area is bound to isolate itself unless it manages to unite with the workers inside. The inclusion of hundreds of thousands of education workers as well as thousands of water services workers cannot simply be accomplished by a movement merely based its own autonomous practices. At this point, the use of public resources is an area of class struggle. In addition, autonomy from state administration can only be possible through a politics of the commons that ensures the inclusion of laborers of the area of struggle. Otherwise, it is not possible to go beyond a local-scale resistance.

What makes the water issue distinctive is that water has more local boundaries than other ecological resources. For this reason, local struggles can achieve success as they manage to organize themselves. On the other hand, because the most prominent interlocutor of the demand for the right to water is the municipalities, this situation facilitates the dissemination of the idea of municipalism within the politics of the commons. However, as autonoms or municipalities claiming to create an alternative against global capitalism, they can morph into somewhat sheltered islets in time, isolated from social movements. 

The limitations of a United Cities global network of radical left municipalities parallel to capitalist states proposed by Subirats are demonstrated by the case of Barcelona, particularly while states with highly centralized military and legal apparatuses continue to exist. It is important to remember, however, that Barcelona was able to organize the strongest resistance against the harsh intervention of the Spanish State during the independence referendum held in Catalonia. The assemblies of the Barcelona in Common movement made it possible to mobilize tens of thousands of people and organize a referendum from below. However, the central administration dismissed the prime minister of the autonomous region of Catalonia, limiting the region’s autonomy as well as sending in Barcelona police and gendarmes from other provinces. Although the Barcelona in Common movement sought to build its own policies by ignoring the state, they had no choice but to face the harsh reality during the referendum.

Breaking loose from the political space between statism and private property, the politics of the commons enables an anticapitalist alternative and a struggle from below. Unlike all other goods and services, water is the source of life; hence, it is always at the top of the agenda of social movements. The right to water has an unobjectionable legitimacy. Thus, it is now recognized as a human right even by water companies and by capitalist states as a result of struggles that have been waged so far. However, how to manage water and therefore how to ensure the right to water is an issue that is at the heart of the politics of water commons. Determining the priorities in water use inevitably appears as a struggle arising from class politics.


[1]  The Spanish model of the neoliberal housing system collapsed a few years before the 2008 crisis. Approximately 160 people were thrown out of their homes almost every day. In a period of two years, hundreds of thousands of young people, women, and immigrants were made homeless. In 2006, the victims of this housing crisis formed “V de Vivienda” (V for Housing) in Barcelona (named after “V for Vendetta”, a film about a rebellion under a dictatorship). In 2009, the “Platform of People Affected by Mortgages” (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca- PAH) was established in Barcelona. Country-wide networks of struggles established by PAH played a major role in calling for demonstrations in May 15. PAH’s spokesperson Ada Colau was dragged and detained in a police raid to evacuate the Square of Catalonia in Barcelona during the occupations. Colau was later elected mayor of Barcelona in 2015. For more information see


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