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The Movement for Water in Italy has come a long way


This article was written by Marco Bersani of ATTAC, the movement for Tobin Tax, in December 2007. I have only recently translated it.

A first cycle of social mobilization for water in Italy may be said to have come to an end with the national demonstration of December 1 [2007] in Rome to "Municipalize Water, Defend the Common Good". In order to prepare ourselves for the next phase, which promises to be no less engaging and important than the one just concluded, it’s surely worth our while to look back at the road we’ve traveled so far, what steps had to be taken and which characteristics of the movement were brought to light. This, in order to understand ourselves better and to help us all treasure the accumulated experience, the best provision for future struggles. What follows are some considerations, certainly not exhaustive, in an attempt to highlight the more significant elements of this experience.

If five years seem to be too short

The road to constructing a true and proper national controversy over water comes from far and finds its breeding ground in the tens of territorial conflicts over the privatization of water raging in the country.

The first steps were taken in Tuscany, where the birth of the European Social Forum in November, 2002, and the Alternative World Water Forum in March, 2003, helped create a new understanding and gave a further impulse to the region’s battling realities to gain roots in the territory. Tuscany is the first region in Italy to apply the Galli Law and to opt for Private Sector Participation (PSP) as a model for the management of water services. The results of these PSP’s, analyzed by the various social forums in the region, called to serious question the widely accepted no-questions-asked merit of the so-called "Tuscany Model".

During two regional appointments arranged by the Tuscany Social Forums Co-ordination [Coordinamento dei Social Forum Toscani] held in the summer of 2004 in Stia and in Piombino, the movements decided to engage in a regional struggle against the privatization of water and agreed upon the orchestration of a people-initiated regional law as the instrument for this mobilization. The campaign for the collection of signatures was a success: even though the law requires only 3000 signatures, and even though the promoting committee had given itself the goal of 30 thousand signatures, in the six months, from February to August 2005, a hefty 43 thousand signatures were deposited. The proposed law was later rejected by the Regional Council in the fall of 2006.

But in the meantime a new movement had taken root and from Latium to Sicily, from Abruzzi to Tuscany, from Campania to Lombardy, territorial struggles were multiplying. So much so that when, in July 2005, the various representatives of national associations and territorial committees – among which ATTAC Italy, Italian Committee for a World Contract on Water, FP CGIL [Italian General Confederation of Workers in the Public Sector], Arci, S.In.Cobas Inter-category Labor Union, Confederation COBAS, Abruzzi Social Forum, Tuscany Water Network – furthered the first appeal to form the Italian Water Movements Forum, the number of adhesions multiplied in a very short time. Five on-the-road national assemblies (in Cecina, Florence, Rome, Pescara and Naples) beat the rhythm to the participatory construction of the Forum which was finally born in Rome in March 2006 with more than six hundred participants, a multiplicity of experiences and the perception of a possible spread to the whole national territory.

The concluding assembly of the Italian Water Movements Forum, having judged that the time was mature for a national controversy, opted for the proposition of a people-initiated national law as an instrument to strengthen the territorial controversies and to act as their unifying element, moving towards the explicit goal of breaking free of the current "cage" of law which permits only Joint Stock Companies [JSC’s] to run services. The writing of the text too was carried out with the maximum of participation by bringing to the table both technical experts and activists in order to share their different expertises and experiences. The text of the proposed law was approved in the National Assembly of Water Movements held in Florence on the 7th of October, 2006. In the same assembly, the political option of the popular initiative was restated to help activate a campaign for the collection of signatures, for initiatives and mobilization that would concern the entire nation. The promoting committee, composed of 70 national networks and organizations and almost a thousand territorial committees, launched the campaign for the collection of signatures in mid-January 2007. After six long months of intense campaigning, debates, assemblies and mobilizations in every corner of the country (10,000 persons in Palermo alone in the March 10 demonstration), the Promoting Committee deposited 406,626 signatures to the President of the Parliament asking for the immediate calendarization of the people-initiated law in the Parliament.

At the same time, the Italian Water Movements Forum decided to promote the first national demonstration for water due to the necessity of keeping the tone of the national controversy high and in order to avoid the risk of relegating the entire controversy to the political and institutional level after the depositing of the signatures. On Saturday, December 1, forty thousand persons participated in the national demonstration to "Municipalize Water, Defend the Common Good" in a sort of act of giving birth to a Movement for Water of national dimensions.

Something important has happened

What justifies the importance of the path tread by the Movement for Water in our country isn’t just the fact that it comes from far off. Within the different territorial controversies, within their weaving and exchange of expertise and experiences, a widespread comprehension and a path to true popular action-oriented self-education has grown in quantity and in quality, to the extent that it has made the Movement for Water something fertile and unheard of [in Italy]. And every step has ratified the achievement of an important goal.

The appeal with which the construction of the Italian Water Movements Forum was launched in July 2005 had as its primary goal that of networking the territorial controversies, tens of which had spread all over the country. The effective launch of the Forum in March 2006 ratified the first step of this goal, largely achieved today. The Italian Water Movements Forum is today an extraordinary network capable of strengthening the single controversies and of connecting them together towards goals of a national dimension. A pulsating network to which new territorial experiences adhere every day.

The decision of the closing assembly of the Italian Water Movements Forum in Rome to launch a proposal for a people-initiated law for the municipalization of water based on the territorial controversies, had as its primary goal that of constructing a national controversy by means of a campaign for the collection of signatures and of initiatives that would touch every corner of the country and become an instrument that would weigh on the political agenda. The extraordinary success of the collection of signatures has demonstrated that this goal too has been achieved; water has entered the political agenda of the country, forcing the institutions to face the proposals, and obtaining a few partial first results such as the grace period on all current and future fosterages to any JSC.

The carrying out of a huge national demonstration for water, discussions on which started in April 2007 with the campaign for the collection of signatures well under way, had as its primary goal that of ratifying, together with the construction of a national controversy, the act of giving birth to a Movement for Water of national dimensions. The forty thousand participants in the national demonstration of December 1 with the very strong presence of territorial controversies, of citizens’ committees, of important persons from the world of labor, of the numerous local bodies, have demonstrated that this goal too has been achieved. Today, the Movement for Water is a political realty of national dimensions and the wave of public water is becoming ever more unstoppable with each passing day.

But there is a political and cultural result that underlies the nonetheless extremely important steps outlined above. It is the breaking of a paradigm, whose results, potentially extraordinary, will have to be observed in the course of time. The paradigm that the Movement for Water has broken is the running of services by JSC’s. That is to say the radical questioning of a state of affairs that had found bipartisan consensus in the past 15 years and that had been internalized by every political and administrative culture. Today, the debate on the form of management is much more open and free, the elimination of the JSC’s from the administrations is constantly gathering fresh consensus. It’s enough to consider that even a hyper-liberalist measure such as the Lanzillotta Bill – that has the objective of putting all local public services, except water, on the market – is, in a certain way, "forced" to bring back to the playground the possibility of having the services run by bodies governed by public law (special companies, etc), naming, once again, something that hadn’t been seen in the Italian norms since 1990.

What made all this possible

All this was neither easy nor granted. All this hasn’t come about by chance. The experience of the Movement for Water has been able to come this far because it has been able to focus on some characteristics that have allowed it to grow in political and cultural maturity and that have strengthened its capacity of mobilization. Let’s have a look at them.

The first characteristic is relative to the entwining of the local and the global

This is a binomial name which, in theory, is taken for obvious and uttered abstractly at every step. In realty it is a very delicate dialectic whose construction is far from being simple and obvious. Since it is not granted that a territorial reality, no matter how strong or rooted in the local, thinks about a wider scheme and makes use of the tools to construct one. In the very same way, it is not granted that a national network or even structured national-level organizations will think and practice a different way of paving the road or making decisions starting with the respect for the growth of all the realities. One of the strengths of the Movement for Water has been that of never taking for granted that it had already achieved this entwinement, lighting up a discussion on every occasion and going through the steps once again at every collective decision. An example is the national demonstration for which an important consultation between all territorial realities on the choice of venue was launched and that has had, as a result, a demonstration in Rome but with an extraordinary participation of the territorial realities.

The second characteristic is relative to the subjects involved

Here too the national demonstration of December 1 becomes an example. There were citizens organized in territorial committees, people who had experienced the world of work in the water services sector, numerous local bodies with approved adhesions and with banners in the procession. Citizens, workers and local administrators are the three subjects most hit by the processes of privatization of water and of the common goods and are therefore the three subjects whose capacity to get together can really determine a turning point in the battle to re-municipalize. On this point too, the possible entwining between the citizens, workers and local bodies is not to be taken for granted, nor fully acquired. But the ability of the Movement for Water in weaving a thread between these diverse forms of resistance to privatizations and in having built a political space for their encounter – still embryonic, naturally – has been the determining force up till now and is surely fertile for the future track.

The third characteristic is relative to the binomial radicality-inclusion

The radicality of the Movement for Water lies in the mode of operation it decided upon right from the start: acknowledging that water is a common good and a universal human right, keeping all water services completely out of the market, social takeover of its management through the participation of workers and of local communities. It is the construction of a new paradigm that impacts and contrasts directly with the liberalist economy of putting people’s entire lives on the market; that impacts and contrasts with a formal democracy at the service of financial capital and counters it with the reconstruction of a grassroots and participative democracy. One of the strengths of the Movement for Water has been that of having known how to bring together the maximum of radicality possible with the maximum of inclusion of cultures, experiences and even individual stories, thus producing, at every new crossing, a new face of a collective kaleidoscope whose design becomes possible only through the collective presence of all the forms. It cannot be denied that amongst all the different living experiences in the movement during the past few years, the Movement for Water is the one that has produced the largest cohesion among the involved subjects, bringing together very diverse cultures and experiences, not the least of which the extraordinary participation of so many citizens, often at their first experience as social activists.

The fourth characteristic is relative to the ability of bringing together resistance and proposals

In front of the aggressivity of liberalist politics with the goal of placing the entire life of persons on the market, inside the horizon of competitive solitude – everyone, by himself, thrown in the market in direct competition with everyone else and with no social relationship whatsoever -, the Movement for Water has built, first and foremost with the opening of tens of territorial controversies, a strong movement of resistance against privatizations. An ability to resist that has made use of all known instruments: from active spreading of awareness to political mobilization, from social activation to civil disobedience. A mass of experiences that have built a cultural and political barrier to the advancement of liberalist politics of privatization, concretely obstructing the processes of putting water and other common goods on the market. But the Movement for Water has been able to bring together this formidable capacity of capillary resistance with the building of a political proposal and a platform of goals that have permitted the expansion of its capacity of aggregation and have increased the possibility of political impact. For in front of the binomial resistance-proposal, no one has been able to liquidate the struggles for water neither as localistic – they were, in fact, accompanied by proposals of a more general change – nor as purely testimonial practices – they were, in fact, accompanied by a proposal that was as much radical as it was practicable here and now, and thus not so easy to liquidate without sparking a strong political and social confrontation.

The fifth characteristic is relative to the political autonomy of the Movement for Water

During these past years, the political autonomy of movement’s experiences has been far more publicized than practiced. It is a dialectic – between the movements and the political institutions – whose understanding and management is really complicated. To the extent that many of the movement’s experiences have ended up on dry land when faced with the challenges it posed. Even though the context within which it operated didn’t give it either for granted or for something that could be acquired once and for all, the Movement for Water has, in any case, has been able to demonstrate a way of practicing autonomy that has become one of its strengths and has allowed it to obtain some first, albeit partial results. The reason being that the Movement has been able to decline autonomy, first and foremost, as the autonomy of its politics and not as a separation between the social and the political. That is, it has been able to untie the knot not by declaring the autonomy of the social – good by definition – from the political – evil by definition – but by practicing autonomous politics being based on its own content, objectives and practices and with which it has tried to cross both the social and the institutional political spheres.

By avoiding the internalization and assumption of the institutional political frame’s necessities and constraints, the Movement for Water has been able to practice its own objectives in a leading role and not as a subalternate. It has thus been able to set its own pace and mode of operation without having to have it dictated by the institutional agenda. It has thus been able to practice the radicality of its contents, facing conflicts as resources for democracy. It has thus been able to expand the area of its consensus, handling the diversity of experiences as opportunities for new syntheses and not as reasons for getting in the way of its own mobilization.

It is thus no surprise that notwithstanding all the controversies of the movement, and notwithstanding being faced with a political frame which is substantially "autistic" in nature, it’s the Movement for Water that has had more impact on the institutional politics agenda and that has won some first, albeit partial results.

The sixth characteristic, the one that implies all the others, is the participative method

There is an explanation that contains in itself all the elements of positivity that have been expressed up to now as strengths of the Movement for Water: it is the choosing of the participative method as the determining axis for the construction of any movement and for the definition of any choice or passage this movement has to affront. The participative method is another of the bets, not at all given for granted, that the movements have chosen to engage in. But it is as easy to accept as an abstract assertion as it is complicated to manage in practice.

It entails some not-so-secondary elements: from the dosing of time, which has to correspond to that of the natural growth of every participating reality without taking any shortcuts for an artificially induced growth; to the adoption of the method of consensus which repudiates strength-based relations in favor of assuming the other’s point of view as part of the truth, and assuming that truth is never definitive and total but a process of construction through successive approximations; to the practical experimenting of a permanent consultation of results that are never taken to be predefined and with the possibility of a continuous revision of the choices that have been made. The Movement for Water certainly hasn’t resolved all the complexity of participative democracy, but today, after some years of practical experimenting, it can surely be defined as a true laboratory of such an experience, always on the road and absolutely something to be bettered.

The seventh characteristic is the assumption of water as paradigm and the opening up of new horizons

Water is an essential good for the very survival of life on the planet. It is therefore a common good and a universal human right. This is the essential element that has bound together the diverse experiences that, in time, have given birth to the Movement for Water in this country. But a further element of strength of this movement has been that of considering yes, the assertion of water as the primary common good, but at the same time to consider it a paradigm for all common goods, the foundation of social ties between persons and consequently that of democracy itself.

The Movement for Water has thus been able to be a competent movement, one that knows the conflict at hand concerning water and how to create alternative proposals in depth and at the same time is able to avoid becoming a specialist movement that declines the theme of water as a universe on its own, isolated from the much wider social dynamics. The choice of water as the paradigm of a different social horizon has opened the path of the Movement for Water to possible synergies with all the other controversies raging in the country regarding common natural and social goods, public services and democracy.

It is at the moment just an embryonic path, made more of contacts at the moment than of new political and cultural intertwining, but just the same a forbearer of possible future developments that will widen the horizon of the struggles and the proposals.

Dedicated to all those who believed

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