Lessons from the Italian Votes that Resoundingly Support Water as a Commons

How does commons activism differ from conventional political action, and how might it transform the very practice of democracy and governance?  In a must-read essay, Tommaso Fattori explains how several voter referenda in Italy on June 12 and 13, 2011 validated the commons.  He describes how the votes – two to prevent privatization of water management – represent a stunning repudiation of the market/state duopoly and its anti-democratic “public/private partnerships” to carve up the commons.

Fattori's essay is called “A CounterStrike Strategy: Fluid Democracy – Story of the Italian Water Revolution”; it originally appeared in the Rome-based review Transform! in September 2011. (I located the article on the website for Social Network Unionism, a group dedicated to “a peer to peer, transnational commons, and hyperempowered labour class movement.” Thanks for the alert, Michel Bauwens!)

The June referenda were a shock to the Italian political and corporate establishment because voters resoundingly rejected laws that privatized water, supported nuclear power and granted special legal immunity to the Prime Minister and other government officials. It bears noting that Italian referenda can only repeal existing laws that are disliked; they cannot write new ones. That makes the results even more remarkable. With more then 57% of the eligible Italians voting, each of the four referenda received 94% or more of the vote!

In the case of the two water initiatives, this meant that the government could not privatize the management of water services, as previously planned. The government had intended to eliminate all wholly publicly owned water management companies.  This essentially eliminated any reason for private corporate management of water. Fattori writes: “Italians chose to thus exclude the profits of the few from the asset of everyone, that is, to prevent parasitic income for those who manage (necessarily as a monopoly) a vital service with an inflexible demand, a service that brings water into homes, a good that no one can do without.”

This was a dramatic and unexpected outcome – one that Fattori likens to “a sort of gigantic iceberg” that the ocean liner of “privateer globalization and neoliberal doctrine” suddenly hit. After all, he said, these elite political forces “explicitly theorize an anorexic public and, implicitly, a democracy with a minimum of participation.”

But corporate elite were not the only ones shocked; the political left was shaken, too. As Fattori argued, the referenda was “a defeat for the cult of 'absolute privatism' that had long fascinated even the Italian left, making it incapable of distinguishing between merchandise and commons, between the areas of profits and the sphere of rights, between market and services of general interest. To the point of believing it natural that one of the purposes of a public service should be distributing dividends to shareholders, remunerating capital and generating profits.”

Fattori cites findings released in July 2011 by Demos-Coop, an institute that conducts social and political research, showing that Italian political culture is experiencing a profound shift in its political/cultural vocabulary. A mapping of public and private language shows “a new hierarchy of words in which the use of words like 'individualism' or 'strong leader' had collapsed and in their place new terms like 'commons' have spread. A linguistic and conceptual revolution, the appearance, at least in embryo, of an unexpected world view.”

This shift of vocabulary is indicative of a deeper shift in cultural outlook, Fattori writes:

The first lesson of the referendum concerns the actual possibility of chanbge, and is therefore a sort of meta-result: confidence in grassroots collective political action has been restored. For years they have told us stories about our impotence in the face of major global processes, guided by an incontestable Zeitgeist: that it was impossible with the forces we have to stop privatization, the polarization of riches, the absolute control of the market. When, a decade ago, a few scattered groups of activists started taking the first steps to defend water – symbol of commons – they laughed at us as dreamers and utopians, unable to undersatnd and adapt to the inevitable reality of the 'course of the world.' The water movement showed that the patn is not yet written, that we can change its direction, and that it is possible to construct a new political agenda.

But what may be most insightful about Fattori's essay is his analysis of the inner metabolism of the water movement in Italy and why it succeeded. He attributes it to “a molecular, multi-centered campaign” that brought together diverse social actors in a new way: “For the first time in Italy's history, the organizing committee was made up exclusively of social organizations, both local and national, coordinated horizontally; political left parties, on the other hand, gave rise to a parallele supporting committee. The many identities and the different cultural roots of the subjects – both individuals and collectives – coming together along the way, generated a new common identity.”

The commons is a way of reinventing democratic participation in a more horizontal, participatory and consensus-driven way. Fattori: “Commons represent a new horizon of sense, capable of connecting different areas and conflicts – from the very material water to the immaterial Web- and to speak potentially to everyone, including a large part of the right-wing electorate. Commons can disarrange, materially and symbolically, the frayed borders of politics and rebuild a different collective culture from the roots.”

One lesson of commons-based activism, then, is that “content and method are inseparable.” “It is no coincidence that the water movement grew over the years choosing rigorously horizontal and participatory forms, and that it was born locally at grassroots level, developing coherent and efficient proposals, inventing spaces for real and virtual meetings that first overtook and then overwhelmed the mainstream media. In June, the use of a very traditional tool – the vote – marked a decisive stage in a process that has been very untraditional.”

An “iceberg” had been created to stop the ocean liner of neoliberal privatization! But it was not created overnight, but rather through “a long process of sedimentation, a molecular process, begun nearly ten years ago with the construction of local networks, which linked up with one another as to give life to the Italian Forum of Water Movements.... A space not free of conflict but founded on trust and the consensus method for making decisions.”

In short, the water movement created a new model for democratic action, one that “organizes relationships horizontally and gives life to a multi-centered public space, without every concentraing power and decisionmaking but, on the contrary, spreading them out locally and throughout the entire body of the movement. This form of organization is the opposite of the dynamics of post-democratic centralization of power; it values the plurality of knowledge and encourages direct and personal participation in decisionmaking and favors rotation of responsibilities. The construction of a diffuse leadership is an essential characteristic of the water movement.”

Read the entire essay! It's an important meditation on the significance of commons activism in its far-reaching implications for the structures of political action, participatory systems and democratic governance.