The historical importance of the Italian referendum and victory for the water commons

The government, throught the law that has been repealed by Italian citizens, had intended to eliminate all wholly publicly-owned joint-stock water management companies. The water movements, in contrast, having won the referendum, intend to take now a further step and transform all the current joint-stock companies (even those totally publicly owned) into authentic public-law institutions, whose goal is no longer to turn a profit: truly “communal” management bodies involving democratic citizen participation.

Excerpted from Tommaso Fattori:

1. Historical context: the commons

“Earth, water, air and fire (what we would call, in contemporary terms, energy) have, for thousands of years, been considered primary elements and the common base materials of life, ever since the dawn of Western philosophical thought in ancient Greece. In the Metamorphosis by Ovid – a classic of Latin literature written more than two thousand years ago – the goddess Latona thus addresses a group of peasants who refuse to allow her to drink from a pool: “Why do you refuse me water? The common use of water is the sacred right of all mankind. Nature allows to no one to claim as property the sunshine, the air, or the water. When I drew near, it was a public good I came to share. Yet I ask it of you a favour (…). A draught of water would be nectar to me; it would revive me, and I would own myself indebted to you for life itself”. These words condense the elements that were to proper legal regulation more than five hundred years later, in the Justinian Code. Contrary to the res nullius – goods that belong to no one and that can therefore be appropriated by whoever takes them first – air, water and sunshine are natural commons, that belong to everyone and because of this cannot be appropriated privately and exclusively by any one person. These are not goods from which is legal to make profits. They are inalienable goods, which are not even at the Princeps -that is, the Roman Emperor’s- disposal. Goods that are essential for life, hence connected to the fundamental rights of every human being. Rather, to be precise, the natural commons are in fact common to every living being – plants and animals included – if we do not want to remain trapped in a strictly anthropocentric point of view.

Over the centuries the ranks of the goods socially recognised as commons in the various human communities have been increased significantly: they have expanded well beyond the natural commons. It would have been rather difficult, during the time of Justinian, to predict that one day the Web would be considered a common good.

At the same time, guaranteeing access to certain vital natural commons (such as water) everyone’s right to enjoy basic intangible common goods (such as education) has required society to create public services. And so it is public services of general interest, in most parts of the world, which guarantee access to many of these goods: an access which is not direct and immediate, as it is the case of “ecosystem-people”, that is, the poorer two-thirds of humanity living in a biodiversity-based economy in the Global South, but mediated access, because it implies and requires a social service.

Tangible or intangible, natural or social, the commons are those goods or assets that no one can claim to have produced individually: goods that the collectivity receives as a gift of Nature (no one produces water or the global water cycle, air or forests) or receives as an inheritance from previous generations, as condensation of collective thought and collective action (i.e. knowledges, codes, languages, insitutions). The commons are what is considered essential for life, understood not merely in the biological sense. They are the structures which connect individuals to one another, tangible or intangible elements that we all have in common and which make us members of a society, not isolated entities in competition with each other. Elements that we maintain or reproduce together, according to rules established by the community: an area to be rescued from the decision-making of the post-democratic Èlite and which needs to be self-governed through forms of participative democracy. Commons are places for encounters and dialogues between members of a collectivity who participate in first person. Democracy and commons are, therefore, closely inter-connected.

Nevertheless, over the centuries, the number of commons that have been annihilated and privatised has slowly grown: at the time of Justinian no one could have predicted that one day modern capitalism would be born of “enclosing” these goods nor that there would be a successive push towards privatisation, not only of the land but also of seeds and biodiversity, and then water, air and even knowledge itself (for example, through intellectual property rights). The vote in the Italian referendum was a vote against the new enclosures, in favour of a democratically participated management of water and commons.”

2. The Italian victory

“The two questions regarding water are the ones which obtained the highest percentage of voters and the highest number of “yes” votes ever in the entire history of Italian referendums.

Before analysing the underlying causes and roots of this vote “for water as a commons”, perhaps a bit more information regarding the two referendums on water service would be useful. The first question cancelled the legal obligation to privatise the management of water services by entrusting it to private companies (through public tender) or through the forced sale of at least 40% of the shares of those water management companies that are still publicly owned (half of the Italian companies already have private partners) to private individuals. The government, throught the law that has been repealed by Italian citizens, had intended to eliminate all wholly publicly-owned joint-stock water management companies. The water movements, in contrast, having won the referendum, intend to take now a further step and transform all the current joint-stock companies (even those totally publicly owned) into authentic public-law institutions, whose goal is no longer to turn a profit: truly “communal” management bodies involving democratic citizen participation.

The second question of the referendum, on the other hand, crumbled the foundations of the private enterprise system, preventing profits from being earned from managing the water services and thus removing the only reason and only interest that private parties would have in remaining in the management companies. The citizens wanted to eliminate the guarantee – in the rates paid by citizens – of a “sufficient return on invested capital”. Of all the questions, the one that received the largest number of “yes” votes and saw the most impressive victory was the one most fiercely opposed by the economic and political powers. 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.”

3. A cultural shockwave has taken place

“The disappearance of the very concept of common wealth, where the accumulation of private assets is made to coincide with outright wealth, as well as the elimination of any real political intervention on the market (i.e. on the unfettered dynamics of economic powers and the choices made by the holders of capital), coincide with the hyper-oligarchic view of democracy which is reduced to mere participation in elections, occasional, only to be exercised on predetermined agendas.

The referendum defeat was not, therefore, a defeat of the political right, but a defeat of the cult of “absolute privatism” that had long fascinated even the Italian left, making it incapable of distinguishing between merchandise and commons, between the area 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.

Also defeated in the June elections were private individuals and companies hunting for parasitic income from vital and fundamental services such as water services, but also the political oligarchies in Italy who all too often consider commons as their own property: clientelism and a sophisticated spoils system were the first stage of privatisation, fruit of a logic that sacrifices the assets belonging to everyone to the interests of the few. This leads us back, as always, to the crux of democracy.

The water movements are moving ahead on the back of a colossal political victory, but above all from an even more profound cultural victory. Thanks to the movement, the transformation of common sense has begun, highlighted by the significant Demos-Coop research in July 2011. This research mapping the public and private language of Italians shows a new hierarchy of words, in which the use of words like “individualism” or “strong leader” has 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.

Below the new symbolic horizon under construction there are concrete and material experiences (there has already been personal experience regarding how the entrance of private individuals and companies into fundamental goods and services is the problem, not the solution) but also desires (for relations, ties, sharing) and anger (towards a degenerated “public” area, which has been hostage to the private logic of the political Èlite and their personal interests).

The Italians have shown that the majority does not wish to just “die as consumers” and that the complete metamorphosis of citizens into sad and fearful monads, held together only by the reins of television, which are showing more and more signs of wear, has not yet taken place. Still glowing beneath the ashes of social atomisation and isolation is a strong desire for ties and democratic participation.

The first lesson of the referendum, however, concerns the actual possibility of change, and is therefore a sort of meta-result: confidence in grass-roots 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 privatisation, the polarisation 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 understand and adapt to the inevitable reality of “the course of the world”. The water movement showed that that path is not yet written, that we can change its direction, and that it is possible to construct a new political agenda. Working patiently throughout the country, using the new tools of the internet (which get around and weaken the traditional media), but above all, coming together in vast alliances of aims- which combine concrete objectives and universal principles – it is possible to build pieces of “another world” and create a new collective culture. In this sense, the post-referendum is a new beginning.”

4. The emergence of new social and political forms

“Those who observe the characteristics of the water referendum campaign will be faced with a political and cultural process that is hard to define: a campaign waged almost without funds by a myriad of social forces which took it forward autonomously, in many different ways. A molecular, multicentred campaign -and not only in the geographical sense. For the first time in Italy’s history, the organising committee was made up exclusively of social organisations, both local and national, coordinated horizontally; political left parties, on the other hand, gave rise to a parallel supporting committees. 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.

Another crucial element of the referendum initiative was not so much (or not only) the return to “politics with content” – already significant at a time when much of Italian politics seems preoccupied with party squabbling and complex coalition alchemy – as rather to the very essence of politics and living together: commons and democratic participation. 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. Starting with what we have-in-common (from its recognition and its participated management) it is possible to reconstruct political sense and project. If Elinor Ostrom has shown in her studies how the presence of a community with strong internal ties is one of the main conditions for an efficient collective management of the commons, the opposite is also true: being able to recover the sense of common and constructing forms of participative management of the commons in turn creates social ties and citizenship.

What happened with the water referendum suggests the potential of this universe under construction, where 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.”

5. In conclusion:

In recent years, the “motion” in society seems basically to revolve around a deep gravitational axis, that of the need to reinvent democracy. We are experimenting renewed models of participation (participatory democracy, deliberative democracy) and we are recovering traditional tools of direct democracy to break the post-democratic shell of new oligarchic powers. It is no coincidence that the water movement first resorted to the tool for proposing a law by popular initiative and then to the institution of the referendum. Nor is it a coincidence that the referendum question in itself – namely the right of each and every person to be able to decide directly on essential matters – has become crucial in Europe, from the Spanish indignados who shout their demands in the squares to the factories and world of work in Italy, where the major trade union FIOM (Federation of Italian Metal Workers) is waging a battle over the workers’ right to decide directly on the agreements for their new contracts (confirmation by referendum).

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