From Commons to the referendum
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.
The referendum questions
Already in the past we have seen popular referendums on divorce, abortion and electoral laws mark the beginning of new phases in Italian history. The referendum vote of June 12 and 13, 2011 was an epic vote, too. A political and cultural revolution centred on the commons.
Referendums in Italy can only abrogate laws: that is, they do not allow the introduction of new laws, only the repeal of laws already passed by the parliament but which the sovereign people do not agree with. In this case, however, the pars construens hidden behind the pars destruens was very clear. The first and second of the four questions submitted to the voters regarded water – symbol par excellence of natural commons – to prevent its compulsory privatisation and the few from making profits out of a good which belongs to everyone. On the positive side, the movements are demanding public management including democratic participation by citizens and service workers. The third question concerned the future of energy and opposition to nuclear plants: the sun evoked by Ovid and renewable energy were positive elements implicitly contained in the antinuclear referendum vote. Finally, the fourth question related to one of the conditions of democracy itself – the equality of citizens before the law – and provided for the abrogation of a special de facto immunity that would have prevented instituting legal proceedings against the Prime Minister and other Ministers in office. The final act on the part of the government, in a long series of provisions aimed at introducing into Italy a legislation of inequality, based on distinguishing between “criminal law for our friends”, which translates into one discipline in favour of the privileged, and “criminal law for our enemies” which affects the most vulnerable social classes (starting with immigrants, against whom the crime of “irregular status” has been introduced, punishing as a crime a fact which is an existential condition rather than a criminal act).
The first and greatest difficulty in popular referendums has always been reaching the quorum, which is very high: for the consultation to be valid, at least 50% plus one of constituents having the right to vote must go to the polls. In June, 14 years since the previous occasion, the quorum was easily reached: over 57% of eligible Italians voted. Even more amazing was the overwhelming majority of “yes” votes on all 4 questions (those voting “yes” being in favour of repealing the law subject of the referendum): 95.35% yes (4.65% no) on the first question; 95.80% yes (4.20% no) on the second; 94.05% yes (5.95% no) on the third; 94.62% yes (5.38% no) on the fourth. Even considering that the terrible tragedy of Fukushima contributed to a strong popular aversion to nuclear projects, thus contributing to reaching the quorum, still, the two referendum questions against privatising water had in any case collected more than one million four hundred thousand signatures each, on the petitions calling for the referendum on water, that is, double the number of signatures collected for the other two referendums on nuclear plants and the “save the Premier” law. 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.
Like a sort of gigantic iceberg, invisible to all the instrumentation available to politics and traditional media, the water movement was noticed – with amazement, bewilderment, and fear – only when the transatlantic liner had already hit it, metaphorically speaking, on the 12th and 13th of June. Not the transatlantic liner of Berlusconi-ism but rather that of privateer globalisation and the neo-liberal doctrine, which explicitly theorises an anorexic public and, implicitly, a democracy with a minimum participation. 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. We will start from two: from two victories, that is.
The form of moving waters
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. In June, the use of a very traditional tool – the vote – marked a decisive stage in a process that has been very untraditional. Many commentators, closed in the self-referencing forts of the official media, but also many ship’s captains, were amazed that they had collided with the iceberg. But that iceberg was not created in a single night. Rather, it is the result of a long process of sedimentation. A molecular process, begun nearly ten years ago through the construction of local networks, which linked up with one another as to give life to the Italian Forum of Water Movements, which now comprises local committees and national organisations, formal and informal groups, in a space devoid of hierarchy and top positions. A space not free of conflict but founded on trust and the consensus method for making decisions.
Write water, but read democracy
It is not by accident that one of the most widely used slogans of the movement – “write water, but read democracy” – connects the two terms so closely. This identification works in at least two senses. As we have seen, democracy and participation are the substance of the decision-making mechanisms and the organisational modes of the movement. The water movement embodies a heretical view of politics in this era of “light parties”, in which the participation of members becomes a burden and a limit to the workings of the political market entrepreneurs who move between television and opinion polls: politics is not prerogative of oligarchies but collective action. An action that organises relationships horizontally and gives life to a multi-centred public space, without ever concentrating power and decision-making but, on the contrary, spreading them out locally and throughout the entire body of the movement. This form of organisation is the opposite of the dynamics of post-democratic centralisation of power; it values the plurality of knowledges and encourages direct and personal participation in decision-making and favours rotation of responsabilities. The construction of a diffuse leadership is an essential characteristic of the water movement.
At the same time democracy is the heart of the new participative governance of water and the other commons that the movement proposes, the pivot of the new public model to be invented. In short, democracy and participation are the form of the movement and the content of its proposals, a means and an end. This double dimension has been clearly present since the beginning, since the collective writing – through participative mechanisms – of the two laws based on popular initiatives elaborated by the water movements (the first regional law in Tuscany in 2005; a second national law in 2007): “becoming legislators ourselves”, condensing the movement’s proposals into laws potentially applicable immediately, this was the common goal.
There is a trite rhetoric that would like to reduce social movements simply to the dimension of protest and to re-propose the idea that society disconnectedly raises issues to which the classical political and institutional framework must supply appropriate answers. The commons movements elaborate questions but also the answers to them. They recover pieces of a sovereignty that formally belongs to the people but has essentially been hijacked by Èlites which exercise it in their name, or has been directly incorporated by the markets and the international non-democratic structures, starting with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
If democracy and participation are both a means and an end for the water movement, on the contrary, privatisation is, above all, privatisation of the decision-making sphere. The choices for managing commons are made inside the shared capital corporations that manage them: companies operating under private law that are transformed into the new institutions of post-democratic local government. In Italy the current utility service-joint stock companies that have turned into places of local public policy-making are the final result of a double “de-publicising”process. Over the past ten years and more, the system has gradually been parasitized by private economic agents, and before that too often it was the political Èlite who dealt with commons and essential services as if they were private, excluding citizen participation more and more, raising walls and barriers (at best, entrenching itself in the forts of the apparent democracy of experts and technicians, at worst, setting up patronage networks and distributing seats and power). What is public about this way of interpreting and managing commons and services of general interest? The most recent step in this evolutionary process of double de-publicising is the public-private partnership, a sort of two-headed monster. The locked board rooms of the public-private “mixed” Joint-stock-companies are tables where opaque consultations take place, where cartels of private businessmen and figures of public power sit, whose choices are by now removed from any possible democratic accountability. Privatising of the decision-making sphere is the black heart of the Joint-stock-company model: more than a flight from public law – to embrace private law – this is a true flight from democracy. So it is not enough to exclude the profits of the few from the assets of all, nor are citizens willing to barter democratic participation for share holdings, as shown by the referendum vote: re-publicising the public sphere means making it truly common, democratically participated and transparent. Making water and other asset common, forces a rethink of the meaning of democracy and a joint creation of elements for a different type of politics.
It is clear that “privatistic forms” of water management and local public utility services, or those based on fully private enterprises, are only one of the many faces of the more generalized usurping of popular sovereignty by economic-financial agglomerates and international post-democratic organisations that are constitutionally characterised by intertwined economic and political powers which have now freed themselves from any type of democratic control. In fact, the entire global commons movement demands both that these assets not be considered merchandise, and that they be self-governed, and that the management of the commons be participative. The movement claims the need to self-govern these commons and the services of general interest connected with them, according to rules and tools chosen by the relative collectivity. From this point of view I think the example given by our popular-initiative laws is once again illuminating. It is a process that has organized the wish of citizens to be their own legislators, to give themselves their own laws and their own rules to share the management of those assets that we have in common.
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).
Behind the communities that establish the rules for governing commons by consensus and behind the practices of participative democracy lie the choice of debating and jointly determining each step, as opposed to that of calculating pre-established majorities or minorities on options already given. Participatory politics, as shown by the practices of these movements over the years, is a generative act, not a power technique or the way to bring together predetermined interests. It is a collective creation of common values and shared projects, not the search for a point of contact between individual egoisms, nor a negotiation between pre-packaged options.
Of course, no one can reasonably believe that Italians are now all looking for participatory democracy and ready to take loving care of commons, nor that Italy has leapt out of the mire of Berlusconi-ism. There is still a large part of society that is not looking for participation at all and that in view of the growing sense of social insecurity continues to demand order and decisions, that is an authoritarian democracy: further accentuation of the democracy of mandate and request, to the professional politicians, to decide quickly. Nor have dominant groups lost the ability to produce consensus and popular mass ideologies. However, the referendums in June have also unveiled a laceration crossing that world. They have shown that this hegemony has cracked and new possibilities have been opened: the long and molecular work of the water movement – and movements for commons – has begun to transform something deep down, that, as we have seen, now emerges even in the lexicon of Italians. The Left must rush to relocate their social action at grassroots level, where people live each day. There is need for innovative and inclusive practices, for different languages able to bring together wants and material needs, to free and enhance entrapped and misunderstood knowledge. This must happen before, in the current era of transition, many people are led by the impact of the economic crisis to choose to go down the road of the “penal state” rather than that of the construction of a society of commons.
Water in the hot autumn
In the next few months there will be three main fields of venture for the water movement: 1) implementing the two questions passed by more than 95% of Italians and consolidating the referendum victory (that the government intends, in any case, to abuse and disregard), finally forcing the Parliament to discuss the popular initiative law written by the movements, frozen for years in the drawers of the Chamber of Deputies.
2) Connecting with what is “moving” in the country, merging into the more general autumnal flow that is mounting against the economic manoeuvre and against the Italian government’s austerity policies, including its plan for a change to the constitution that would make a balanced budget a constitutional requirement.
3) Strengthening the international commitment to build an European water network that will broaden the movements’ initiative to continental dimensions.
We are, therefore, organising an International meeting in Italy during the autumn, in which movements, trade unions and social organisations from all over Europe will take part. Together we will define the bases and goals for common action and we will identify the most efficient tools to use, such as the brand new European Citizens’ Initiative (CEI), the first and only instrument of direct democratic participation provided by the Union. Such a network can act as a first nucleus of condensation for a European social alliance for commons, and in the present, bring vital lifeblood to the Alternative World Water Forum. In fact, the second goal will be to sound the death knell to the World Water Forum which will be held in Marseilles in March 2012, a corporate driven Forum, which is going through a severe legitimacy crisis, thanks to the action of the social movements.
The water movement is largely the child of the “alter-mondialist season”. A choice, that of focusing for years on one theme and on one specific campaign, was sometimes looked on with suspicion and smugness if not openly criticised for its partial nature. Many of us, on the contrary, have been convinced that water – as a material substance but also symbolically – was the cornerstone on which to rebuild the broadest possible horizon of democracy and commons. A battering ram against the overall system of the global privatisation, a snowball that can grow into an avalanche (or rather, an iceberg). There was also a need, after that terrible defeat of the mobilisation for peace and against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to regain trust in collective action. The theme of effectiveness is by no means secondary: it is not unessential to be aware that victory is possible and that little bits of alternative solutions can emerge from the realm of imagination and become part of the world. The triumph of the referenda sent an unequivocal message in this direction. Nor is the “symbolic” field secondary. If on one hand, the symbolic devoid of the material is empty and deceptive, so on the other hand, the material separated from the symbolic is deaf and dumb, politically lifeless and silent. A choral tale is being woven around water and commons, which is awakening deep-seated wants and needs, starting from the need to rediscover structures which connect us to others without making us lose our selves, which rescue us from competitive aloneness without blotting out our free individuality.
* published in the review “Transform!” 09/2011